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Colonialismo by Brian Kevin
 

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  • This morning I wandered around Quito's Museo de la Ciudad and the neighboring Jesuit church, La Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus. Both are showpieces of Quito's colonial past, three-hundred or so years of Spanish rule that followed the city's establishment in 1534 by conquistador and Pizarro-pal Sebastian de Belacazar. A spiritual progenitor to Thompson's golfing Brit in Cali, Belacazar shortly went on to slaughter of a village of indigenous women and children, twenty miles up the road from the city he'd just founded.

    Needless to say, the trappings of the colonial era still characterize the cities of the Andes, most conspicuously in the architecture, the street names, and the political systems. I've been thinking lately about Thompson's relationship to colonialism, especially after reading William Stephenson's new and resoundingly excellent academic treatment, Gonzo Republic: Hunter S. Thompson's America, published by Continuum. Stephenson devotes a long and fascinating chapter to "Thompson and American Empire," calling on a number of different books and articles, including "Why Anti-Gringo Winds Often Blow South of the Border" — the Observer piece with the Cali high-rise about which I blogged earlier this month.

    Stephenson seems only to rely on only the few South America articles that are reprinted in The Great Shark Hunt. Still, it's great to see he's not overlooking Thompson's South American reportage. The chapter is pretty heavy, situating Thompson's writing alongside that of (among others) mid-century post-colonialist thinker Frantz Fanon, particularly his opus The Wretched of the Earth, a book that Thompson admired. Fanon, a French-educated psychiatrist, emphasizes the vast psychological gulf between colonizers and colonized. One of Stephenson's more prominent theses is that Thompson, by contrast, "...spent his working life resisting the idea that colonized and colonizers were different; instead he believed in their common humanity."

    Stephenson makes a great case for this via a close reading of "Anti-Gringo Winds" and much of Thompson's later work. I'm not certain, however, that he hasn't overlooked some contradictory material from Thompson's early writing, passages that suggest this strand of brotherhood-of-man-humanism hadn't yet solidified during Thompson's time on the continent.

    Take this passage from an August 1962 letter, which suggests a pretty strong belief in some fundamental differences between the Latin masses and the gringo elite:

    "...[P]eople down here have not the faintest idea what I'm talking about. If they have a sense of humor, it focuses not on the ridiculous or even the improbable, but on the sadistic. Frankly, I have seen no evidence of a sense of humor at all; I have heard them laugh like hell all the while. I am beginning to think that my coming here is like an Abolitionist going to the Old South and trying to communicate with the people there."

    Later in the same letter, Thompson writes, "It seems to be possible to live with the natives over there [in Africa], but here it can't be done. They are unbelievably primitive." And elsewhere, in another letter: "These latins [sic] are all whores in their various ways." In an Observer piece from October 1963 (one that Stephenson seems not to have had access to), Thompson describes the "...violence and twisted idealism and that somber sense of doom that pervades the Spanish soul...," again suggesting that differences of cultural identity tend to trump common humanity.

    One of the coolest moves that Stephenson makes in his book is to tease out the associations in Thompson's work between the phrase "human being" and universal, bedrock notions of decency and fairness. "The word 'human' always carries a positive connotation in his writing...," Stephenson rightly notes. "To Thompson, being or becoming human meant realizing an authentic self." Whereas Fanon saw the doctrine of humanism as a smokescreen for oppressive colonialist values, Stephenson believes that Thompson's reverence for this phrase helps proves that he is, at core, a humanist himself.

    But Stephenson doesn't address several instances where Thompson uses the phrase, again, to imply an unbridgeable gap between colonizer and colonized. "I have not had human contact since William Kennedy in San Juan," he writes from Lima — an unambiguous dismissal of the basic humanity of los pueblos. Settling into a comfortable beachside apartment in gringo-friendly Rio, Thompson declares, "It is about time I lived like a human being for a change." Again, the implication is that the people of the Andes are living like something else, something Other.

    There's no question in my mind that the young Thompson was firmly anti-colonial. His Observer pieces show a disdain for the callousness of the South and North American elites, opposition to rigid social hierarchies, and an ahead-of-his-time sensitivity to the suffering of impoverished indigenous peoples. But there's also plenty in his writing to suggest that he had yet to fully formulate this inclusive humanist outlook described by Stephenson. It's another example of how the living history of this continent helped shape the writer Thompson would later become.

    To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter.
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