Friday, November 15, 2013

Parallels with Hunter Thompson, Part 3: What the hell is wrong with Wagner’s fans?

I have devoted the last two posts to the similarities between the writer Hunter S. Thompson and Richard Wagner. I promised to explore their contrasts in this post, which is in a section below. But first, there is one more similarity I saved for this post.  I believe that the key to both of them—and the thing explains their massive contradictions—is their crushed, if never quite extinguished, idealism. I will then conclude with why I think all this is relevant in general, and specifically, to Wagner’s fans.

Idealism and Disillusionment

Optimism and hope are different. Optimist tends to be based on the notion that there is enough evidence out there that allows us to think things are going to be better.  Whereas hope looks at the evidence and says it doesn’t look good at all.  Doesn’t look good AT ALL.  We are going to go beyond the evidence and attempt to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow us to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantees whatsoever.  That’s hope.  I’m a prisoner of hope.  I’m dying a prisoner of hope.  Though never believe that misery and despair have the last word.”1  Cornel West

This quote perfectly captures the essence of Hunter S. Thompson and Richard Wagner’s quixotic quests to make a difference in the world in their respective centuries, despite massive odds against them and their own pessimism. 

They both lived in times of tremendous cultural and political change, and joined the tide of those who tried to create a better society. At the core of both men’s personality was sensitivity, stubbornness, and an unshakeable belief in what they considered to be right and wrong. So they both fought what they thought was the good fight.  While others disagreed with their viewpoints, their hearts were pure. Their guiding light was their ideals, which they clung to—fanatically—to the day of their deaths.

Thompson’s son Juan said of his father:

His perspective was an absolute one, lacking the shades of gray favored by so-called realists.  He believed in the darkest as well as the highest potential of the human heart… I learned both idealism and deep cynicism from him.2 

To me, Wagner’s son could have just as easily said the same thing as it readily captures the truth about Wagner.

Of all their similarities, I believe the most significant one was the pain of their disillusionment with politics and, indeed, with most people. They both begin their early adulthood with optimism that the world could change, and they could play—because of their talent and drive—a significant role in such change. Every time their hopes were dashed, bitterness ensued.  However, new hopes would emerge, only to be crushed again.  They both felt particularly intense—world-changing—pain because they were both enormously sensitive and earnest.

The beginning of Thompson’s profound disillusionment was the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  He wrote on that day to his friend, the writer William Kennedy:

There is no human being within 500 miles to whom I can communicate anything—much less the fear and loathing that is on me after today’s murder….

The killing has put me in a state of shock.  The rage is trebled.  I was not prepared at this time for the death of hope, but here it is.  Ignore it at your peril…. No matter what, today is the end of an era.  No more fair play.  From now on it is dirty pool and judo in the clinches.  The savage nuts have shattered the great myth of American decency.  They can count me in —I feel ready for a dirty game.3 

With the rise of the youth counter-culture, Thompson did have renewed optimism, but that was shattered by the 1968 Democratic convention. He said of that event, “I went to the Democratic convention as a journalist, and returned a cold-blooded revolutionary.”4 

Sandy said of this seminal event in his life:

I saw Hunter cry exactly twice in my life.  One had to do with our dog, and the other was the night he got  back from Chicago.  He broke down telling me what happened.  The police had fired tear gas into the crowd of people demonstrating at the convention, and he was right in there.  He talked about being hit, and brutally hurt, and the violence, the horror of it all.5

Hunter wrote in Rolling Stone about his transformation:

For me that week in Chicago was far worse than the worst bad acid trip I’d even heard rumors about.  It permanently altered my brain chemistry, and my first new idea—when I calmed down—was an absolute conviction that there was no possibility for any personal truce, for me, in a nation that could hatch and be proud of a malignant monster like Chicago.  Suddenly, it seemed imperative to get a grip on those who had somehow slipped into power and caused the thing to happen.6 

George McGovern’s Democratic primary win brought another wave of profound optimism to Thompson, but his complete rejection by the nation was wrenching for Thompson. McGovern relates Thompson’s reaction:

The week after my campaign ended, Hunter flew into Washington for a final interview in my office.  He teared up more than once.  He took it very hard.  It was almost as though he was brokenhearted.  He alternated between fury and grief.  He could hardly look at me, he felt so miserable about what happened.7

George McGovern and Hunter Thompson on the campaign trail.
 Rolling Stone writer Mikal Gilmore8 sums it up about as well as possible:

Thompson’s fear and loathing was about disillusion—the feelings that gnawed at you after a dream that proved only a hallucination. It was also about the terror of losing that illusion, and having no refuge.... Behind it all, Thompson was a man of morals and ideals. He had believed that American could be led to reaffirm its best principles and truths.  Following 1972, he was disabused of that notion, and almost everything he did and wrote – or just as important, didn’t write – afterward was his way of coping with that awful verity.9

Thompsons friend William Geider explained why people forgave him his many excesses:

[I]nnocence and sweetness was the core of who he was. He knew the world was big and bad and ugly, and he would take it on the way a little boy takes on a demon. After you saw that up close, you felt protective and forgiving toward him. Whatever outrageous and repugnant thing he did, you were willing to write them off after seeing that. People are easily defeated by the irreconcilable pains they have in their lives, their disappointments and injures. It required a real act of heroism for Hunter to stand up and swing his sword and pound on the table his whole life, just rebelling against that pain.10

In Wagner’s life, the events that turned him from idealist to pessimist were the collapse of the revolutionary movement of 1848, and the coup d’etat orchestrated by Louis Napoléon in 1851. He went through a serious depression because of these events, only coming out of it after several years. His hope would re-emerge throughout his life, only to have it extinguished time after time, causing a new cycle of pain. Contrary to his reputation now, most of Wagner’s friends considered him at his core to be a kind and loving man. Of course that kindness could disappear quickly, as his moods always ebbed and flowed violently. They understood his outbursts were from pain; they knew his heart was in the right place so, just as with Thompson, they forgave him his excesses.

For Thompson and Wagner, both trapped by their intense idealism and moral beliefs, they were indeed prisoners of hope.

The Contrasts

For every moment of triumph, for every instant of beauty, many souls must be trampled — Hunter Thompson (who claimed it was “a crude Mongolian adage.”)11

I like to think of Wagner and Thompson as conjoined, like the yin and yang; Wagner was the yin to Thompson’s yang. Or, putting it in The Ring terms, Thompson was dark-Wagner to, relatively speaking, light-Wagner.12

Thompson was a man’s man—very macho.  He generally didn’t reveal his sensitivities—though they were extreme—except indirectly, via his anger mostly.  Wagner, on the other hand, wore his heart on his sleeve; and his heart was very feminine.  He showed his soft side to everybody, which was part of his charm.

The young Thompson

The young Wagner

While Wagner got easily angry about a whole lot of things, and as passionate as Thompson, he wasn’t a violent man. Like Thompson, Wagner could be cruel, but he didn’t revel in it, and abhorred—at least anywhere near him—the violence that Thompson celebrated. He was always a man who recoiled from seeing any suffering, and was known for being very kind to those less fortunate than him. He could be a yeller, but was not a hitter.  He got no joy from violence, nor was he physically violent except on rare occasions.  Here is one exception in which he describes participating in an assault when he was a young man on a guy, Andre, who his friend, Frolich, disliked.  He wrote in Mein Leben:

He tried to chase him from our table by striking him with a stick: the result was a fight in which Frolichs friends felt they must take part, though they all seemed to do so with some reluctance. A mad longing to join the fray also took possession of me. With the others I helped in knocking our poor victim about, and I even heard the sound of one terrible blow which I struck Andre on the head, whilst he fixed his eyes on me in bewilderment.

I relate this incident to atone for a sin which has weighed very heavily on my conscience ever since. I have never quite forgotten some of my thoughtless and reckless actions.13

If Thompson had any fits of conscience about his various assaults over the years, he kept them quiet. His first wife Sandy, who was one victim of his violence, asked him in a moment of tenderness if he knew where his violence came from, which they called his “monster.” Sandy quotes Thompson as saying, “It’s like this. I sense it first, and before I have completely turned around he is there. He is me.”14 That is about as close as Thompson comes to an apology.

Hunter and Sandy (and friend Paul Semonin) in their early years.
Like Thompson, Wagner was often verbally abuse to his wives; this is particular true in his early years of marriage to Minna.  However, it never got anywhere near the level that Sandy describes about Thompson. Here is her summary of their relationship from Sandy's point of view:

With Hunter, there was never a hint of a mature relationship. It was two people who couldn’t really be honest with each other, who couldn’t really communicate with each other, we weren’t working out differences, working out problems, making compromises—nothing like that. Hunter was the king, and I was the slave. I was the happy slave—until I was neither happy nor a slave.... I didn’t have friends because I couldn’t just bring them into the house, with the chaos and violence and bad tempers—you couldn’t subject your friends to that. 15

Thompson with second wife Anita, 35 years younger.
 Their marriage lasted only two years, ended by his suicide.

While Wagner and Thompson did expect their wives to help them in a similar ways,16 for Wagner there was always a give and take in a way that just didn’t exist with Thompson. Wagner had real marriages, with real compromises, real—if often strained—communication (particularly with Minna). Beyond all that, Thompson was a big-time philanderer, having frequent casual sex (and some not so casual) while married.  Wagner was nothing like this as I described here.

Wagner with Cosima (25 years younger) and son Siegfried

While Wagner was not a fan of homosexual behavior, he didn’t beat any gays up and, in fact, had several gay male friends. Thompson was just a much more violent and abusive guy in all areas.

Their childhood domestic traumas were very similar, but Wagner wasn’t saddled with an alcoholic mom. And while Wagner was a wild and uncontrollable youth, he was not a vandal like Thompson.

Wagner did use drugs to help his creative process, as I described here, but much more effectively.  He never lost his artistic ability; his addictions remained within working bounds, unlike Thompson’s.

While Wagner did have focused prejudice on some groups more than others, I am quite sure he would generally agree with Thompson’s sentiment about most people, i.e that most people are bastards, thieves, and yes—even pigfuckers. That said, this is the one area that Thompson comes out better than Wagner, if you can ignore his violence.

Wagner’s central life passion was creating a society in which love and art were central to existence. He did overlap with Thompson’s core passion in some respects—particularly the evil of money and power— but he was not anything like the libertarian that Thompson was.

The differences between them clearly showed up in their art. Thompson chose the dark; Wagner the light. While both were deeply disillusioned, Thompson’s primary answer was comic vitriol. Partly it was to channel his pain, partly he hoped it inspired others to rebel. His works played to some of our worst emotions, particularly rage and resentment (and in this, unfortunately, he is not much different than what Limbaugh has done on the right, though Limbaugh’s fans don’t seem to notice he is primarily a comedian.)

Wagner, in contrast, though deeply alienated from the society, focused his works to illuminate the values he craved for the new society. He wanted to replace money, power and militarism as the driving forces of society, with one in which love, compassion, community and art were at the center. While the dark side of humanity is certainly integral to his work, his point was to reject it, and embrace a more ennobled future.

If they met in the flesh, I think they would have big problems with each other. Thompson would not have liked Wagner’s feminine attributes such as his frequent tears, and certainly would have mocked his taste for women’s clothes, perfume, satin, and silk. Wagner would have been scared of Thompson, and found him to be a brute. However, if they just read each other’s letters, they certainly would have recognized a kindred spirit. Thompson, in fact, was a fan of Wagner’s. He wrote here, in a piece entitled “The War Drums Roll,” that even if there was war and other insanity in the world, for him, “that’s why I live out here in the mountains with a flag on my porch and loud Wagner music blaring out of my speakers. I feel lucky, and I have plenty of ammunition.”

To be an original

 believe their similarities show what it takes to become a true original in art, someone not chained, in Socrates words, to the yoke of custom and convention. To me this is a person who cannot be successfully imitated because they sear their personal brand so deeply into their work. And, yet, through their unique voice, they are still able to illuminate truths about humankind. The example of Wagner and Thompson shows the traits necessary to becoming both a successful and original artist:

  • be meticulous—perfectionist—in you craft; first learn the rules so you can break them beautifully
  • possess a creative drive that is so strong that you are willing to forego making a secure living to follow your intuitions and not the crowd.
  • have a focused and consuming passion.
  • have enough charisma, talent and organization to get people to do your bidding, and pay for your existence so you can concentrate of your craft.
  • have brutal honesty and the willingness to be completely audacious.
  • have utmost faith in your talent and ability (and have that talent and ability, of course).
  • be endowed with tremendous energy.
  • have the ability to live with constant stress.
  • be able to tolerate massive amount of pain.
It’s not fun being an original artist. By definition it means you are doing something that no one else has done. Opposition is inevitable. What one gets from being original, according to Thompson in a 1967 letter, is “the dead-end loneliness of a man who makes his own rules.” If Thompson and Wagner are guides, this both originates from pain and creates more pain. It’s not a life anyone would choose; it comes from an inner drive that only a few extraordinary people have.  And those that become celebrated for their originality, they suffer from it.

The point of this comparison

There is no way Thompson can be separated from his works. “Gonzo journalism” is his alone, utterly unique and completely integral to this exasperating man. His work—and life—does create ambivalence in me but the fact is, I love his writing, particularly the Campaign Trail book (originally serialized in Rolling Stone magazine over the course of the campaign.) I had the same feelings as he did about Kennedy’s assassination, which still haunts me almost 50 years to the day after the event. I had the same feeling of despair at the election of Nixon, and a tremendous horror at the actions of the police against the demonstrators in Chicago, Kent State and elsewhere. This woman reacting to the killing of a student at the Kent State demonstration captures the angst of my generation:

Student gunned down by Ohio National Guard at Kent State.

I was, like Thompson, an idealist. The first $500 I made at my first job, I sent to George McGovern’s campaign. I wanted that America, the George McGovern one, and so did Thompson, desperately. And for that, I can only love him, despite his many flaws as a human being. Thompson gave voice to my frustration, my rage, my feelings of powerlessness. Sure, he was outrageous, saying things that I would have never voiced in public or even thought. (I’m not that dark.) But, his scathingly funny attacks hit their marks time and again; he made me think, he made me laugh. He was issuing a clarion call of warning in the most provocative terms. He was also absolutely correct in the warning that the forces of the right, both in the Republican Party and the Democratic party, were gaining strength and were going to do a host of horrible things when they were in charge.

He wasn’t always a disconsolate Cassandra; hope flickers through his writings on a regular basis. If you want to see that side, read his writings on McGovern within Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972 or his reflections on Jimmy Carter’s Law Day speech in The Great Shark Hunt to see the other side of the man. This is the guy that all his friends saw underneath his bluster. When he believed in the goodness of someone, the idealist in him was on full, heart-warming display. 

Yes, as a human being, he was often as dark as his works. To live with that level of rage and frustration, it is inevitable that he would be so. A “nicer” man couldn’t have written the works. I embrace him, as all his fans do, as a complicated, contradictory, extraordinarily flawed man who working tirelessly for what he believed was right, and shone a harsh light on all that he believed was wrong.

He said of himself, and I think he pegged it, “About nine-tenths of the time I feel like an obvious fool – but the rest of the time I know I’m a saint and a hero.  I seem to be in a state of conflict at all times – most of it wasted energy.”17 I celebrate him for that 10%, and understand that without his severe discontent, his heroic side would not have existed.

Wagner was the nicer, kinder man in almost all respects and wrote ennobling works, yet he has a much worse reputation than Thompson. This is utterly insane! Most of this is because while Thompson is treated well—maybe a little too well, even—by contemporary writers and biographers, Wagner has been been reduced to a caricature, and most biographical writing is utter trash, as I wrote about here. This state of affairs—obviously—exists because of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Before the rise of Nazi Germany, he had no shortage of fans who would defend him against unfair attacks. That is no longer the case, which is a pitiful thing. He is quite deserving of understanding and celebration.

Wagner is just as entwined in his works as Thompson is in his. He had to be exactly like he was to write his works. Anyone who knows his works, and his intentions about his works, cannot reasonably separate him from them. As his friend Hans Von Wolzogen put it: “all his works and all that moves us so deeply in his works springing, as [they do], from the depths of his own human nature is an expression of his true personality and could not have been created by any other ‘self’.”18 His works are a direct manifestation of his highest ideals as well as his deepest agony. They are beautiful, wondrous works and give compelling evidence that there was much beauty in his soul (and, yes, ugliness, too.) 

So, wake up, Wagner fans, and stop running away from him.  In sum, my point is: If Thompson’s fans can understand and forgive him, what the hell is the matter with Wagner’s fans?

End Notes

1 The quote is from Anna Deavere Smith’s extraordinary documentary theater piece in which she "acts" Cornel Wests quote, Twilight: Los Angles.
2 Rolling Stone magazine, September 19, 2007, Hunter Thompson tribute issue, 72
3 Brinkley, ed., Hunter S. Thompson: Proud HighwayThe Gonzo Letters, Vol , Nov 22, 63. This is the first instance of Thompson using the phrase “fear and loathing” in his writing. A copy of that letter is here.
5 Wenner and Seymour ed., Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson 100
6 as quoted by Mikal Gilmore in Rolling Stone tribute, 46
7 Rolling Stone tribute, 57
8 I am not sure if this is at all relevant, but the fact that Gilmore is the brother of the mass murderer Gary Gilmore strikes me as at least interesting.
9 Rolling Stone tribute, 47
10 Rolling Stone tribute, 62
11 Proud Highway, xxxi
12 In Der Ring des Neibilungen, the god Woton acknowledges his power-hungry, if more noble, side, by calling himself Licht-Alberich to his nemisis, the completely evil Alberich, who he terms Schwarz-Alberich.
13 Wagner, Mein Leben, 75
14 Rolling Stone tribute, 52
15 Gonzo, 220
16 I would love to do a quote-by-quote parallel of all their similarities, but it would be book length. Here is just one example, illustrating my assertion. This is how Wagner explained the role of his wife: “She has relieved the pressure of daily life, and keeps watch over my tranquility. Her only care is when she becomes aware that not all life’s disturbances can be kept at bay.” How Thompson put it: “I’ve grown accustomed to letting her deal with my day-to-day reality and keeping the fucking weasels off my back.”
17 Proud Highway429
18 Spencer ed., Wagner Remembered, 259


  1. Nothing is wrong with Wagner fans. It's just that Wagner bashing has become cottage industry that cynically panders to modern sensibilities the way Hunter Thompson bashing never did and to counter it one needs an organization, or at least capable lawyers covering your back. I myself have no bones about taking a sympathetic stance towards him but I am yet to reach the broader public. When I do (I say "when" because they just made me the chairman of the Wagner society of Serbia) I suppose I'll see what exactly I'll be up against.

  2. I get why the general public thinks what they do about Wagner, but I do think that Wagner fans should know better. I know too many of them who just jump in and gleefully continue with the bashing when I believe just to know the music would give pause to that. I am in an organization—Wagner Society of Northern California—and we do nothing to try to counter the ubiquitous anti-Wagner bashing, and many members of the organization seem to think he truly was a horrible guy. When I was at the Ring in Seattle, I found the sentiment over and over. So, I do think that many Wagner fans have bought the press and are not willing to defend Wagner or do not think he is worthy of defense, even as they are enjoying the fruits of his life. There are, of course, many fans who do defend him. I already knew you were one of them! But it should be everybody who loves his works. At least, that is my argument.