My new year’s resolution is to seek wisdom in new places. So I wondered: could Hunter S. Thompson help make me a better feminist? I think yes.
Before a twenty-year-old Thompson penned some truly insightful ideas about finding meaning in life to his friend Hume Logan in 1958, he cautioned “all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it.” Acknowledging the limits of his own subjective experience, Thompson goes on to explain how this same reorientation from absolute certainty produces the only path to fulfillment he can imagine.
Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.
So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?
The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway.
In fact, the answer, according to Hunter S. Thompson is to choose a way of life that allows you to function toward a goal without placing undue value on the goal itself.
As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal) he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).
In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life — the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.
There’s a certain enchantment in the idea that what we become counts much less than our ability to choose becoming it, and also a certain presumption of individual freedom. When I first read this letter of advice, I thought only of how much I appreciated Thompson’s focus on process rather than outcome — a feminist approach to any question requires exactly this orientation. But more than that, I realized that this young man was prescribing a way of valuing our lives that requires an ongoing commitment to upholding the rights of others to do the same. We can’t define ourselves as subjects on the basis of our having individual wills without recognizing the rights of all individuals to constitute themselves in exactly this way — and yet many of us do, refusing to acknowledge that the circumstances of how we are born into the world either narrow or multiply the range of goals and experiences available to us.
I think the question of whether or not someone is a feminist might be giving way to the ever more important question of whether or not someone’s ideas can help further feminist principles. At least I hope it does, and entirely. A feminism made through successive experiences is much more likely to last than a feminism reduced to matrilineage. And if Hunter S. Thompson is right, then it’s also the only kind of feminism that’s compatible with living a meaningful and fulfilling life.
Thompson’s letter was published in 2013 by Shaun Usher in his book Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience.