Sometimes the contents of the daily news seem almost to take on the shape of parables. Consider the conjunction, in the past week, of two stories: the suicide of “gonzo” journalist and 1960s avatar Hunter S. Thompson, and the continued struggle for life of Pope John Paul II. The contrast could not be more stark, or more instructive.
For those of you who want to know more about Thompson, I refer you to the website Arts and Letters Daily, which has a cluster of links to myriad reflections upon and celebrations of the life and work of this man. But the most revealing article I read, which appeared in the Rocky Mountain News, does not appear in that cluster. The article is entitled “‘Loving’ Farewell to Writer.” It is perhaps all too fitting that Thompson chose to commit suicide in the same manner as Ernest Hemingway, with a gunshot into the mouth. As with Hemingway, so with Thompson: the life became indistinguishable from the layers of publicity-mongering that surrounded it, to the point where, so to speak, the mask fused to the face.
There are countless telling details in this revealing, if astonishingly clumsy, article. (Did the writer really have to inform us that Thompson’s wife “blew it off” when asked about her husband’s health?) But the most important point is made in the opening paragraphs. “He was in control,” she said, and “it was a triumph….He lived a beautiful life and he lived it on his own terms.” Though one wonders why he did not see fit to tell her why he had decided to kill himself, and even lied to her in his last moments, there’s little doubt that she was, in some sense, expressing one of the settled perspectives of our secular age: our lives are our own property.
Contrast this with the unfolding drama of Pope John Paul’s struggle to sustain his own life. It would be hard to credit that a man of such deep faith, who has been afflicted for many years with sufferings that would grind most of us into the ground, would cling to life merely for life’s sake, or because he has an unquenchable will to power. No, what we are seeing enacted before our eyes is the spectacle of a man who has lived his life as a poured-out offering, and who believes that God is not finished with him. His very existence stands as a rebuke to the example of Hunter Thompson, and a reminder of what a life of genuine beauty looks like.
Most of our journalists don’t comprehend any of this, and we can tell that they don’t. The most ridiculous example of their incomprehension that I have seen—though I’m sure there are worse—is this snide little Newsweek article, which criticizes the Pope because he does not have a “living will.” There is a great deal to be said on the subject of “living wills,” which are touted as a way that the dying can “control” the terms of their decline, but often do so at the expense of loving families, and ultimately of the subject himself, while making the decisionmaking process easier and “cleaner” for medical professionals. But the principal thing to be said about living wills in this context is that they are, for better or worse, expressions of the same radical individualism—“I am my own property”—that seems to have been the philosophy behind Hunter Thompson’s grisly act. That the Pope’s persistence, and his unwillingness to “be in control,” might reflect a different philosophy, and a different reason for persisting in life, seems never to have crossed this reporter’s mind.