The Rum Diary is a rollicking farce based on Hunter S. Thompson’s novel of the same name written in the early 1960s. It focuses on a young American journalist named Paul Kemp who ventures into sweaty, inebriated San Juan, Puerto Rico to write for an ill-fated newspaper, and stumbles into the middle of a major land acquisition deal.
Thompson said that his “long lost” novel (which wasn’t published until 1998) had “a romantic notion,” and that it was simply “a good story.” I haven’t read the book, but the same can be said about film adaptation with Johnny Depp. The sluggish car chases, drunken misadventures, drug-induced hallucinations, silky temptresses, and bloody-eyed hangovers are more than enough to make you guffaw and forget your cares and worries – there is even an absurd diamond-encrusted turtle who makes a few guest appearances, and struck me as a perfectly insane image for this film. This is straight entertainment at its finest, no chaser.
But the diamond-crusted turtle also calls to mind a running theme of the film, a philosophical notion with its roots in 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal.
At more than a few turns in the road, when the rum has run dry and the harsh clarity of sobriety is beginning to rush in, Kemp transcends the organized chaos of San Juan and begins to understand his true calling as a journalist: “I put the bastards of this world on notice that I do not have their best interests at heart. I will try and speak for my reader.”
His mission to take down “the bastards” of the world is definitely fueled in part by his encounters with Sanderson, a sandy-haired real estate mogul played with deft obnoxiousness by Aaron Eckhart. Sanderson is ambitious, wealthy, self-centered. He encrusts a turtle with jewels because he got the idea “from a book,” while locals starve everywhere around him – and, despite Kemp’s reservations, he is drawn into Sanderson’s shady plan to fill a local island with a mega-resort.
This narrative could be read in any number of ways – socially, economically, politically – but the most complete reading comes from a lobster. Or rather, Kemp on psychedelics looking at a lobster.
The trippy scene – which fans of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas will instantly recognize – ends with a wobbly, wild-eyed Kemp staring down a lobster in a tank. Kemp feels like this lobster is watching him and Sanderson and the rest of crazy San Juan, and can almost hear its thoughts: “Human beings are the only creatures on earth that claim a God and the only living thing that behaves like it hasn’t got one.“
This is an incredibly insightful and important statement – and deserves some exploration.
What Kemp (and really, Thompson) is getting at is a central paradox in Sanderson, Kemp, and all of humanity: that we tend to sing about, aspire to, and worship the divine, but practice, fall into, and embody the monstrous. Pick up any newspaper and you’ll see two facts: as a species, we crave moral perfection, but we tend to be morally hideous.
This craving for moral perfection gives us an almost angelic posture, one that sets us apart from other animals. No other creature in this world prattles on about justice, wisdom, beauty, mercy, and love. Our moral hideousness also sets us apart – but in the opposite direction. Exploitation, torture, hatred, deceit, and war are all cruelties the animal kingdom could never conjure. As Dostoevsky put it in The Brothers Karamazov: “People talk sometimes of a bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that’s all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it.”
This notion of man as both a monstrous and magnificent creature, standing somewhere between angel and animal, takes its cue from philosopher Blaise Pascal. Although he contributed greatly to mathematics (“Pascal’s triangle”) and physics (“Pascal’s law”), he also did significant writing on matters of philosophy and theology – notably in his collection Pensees.
In Pensees, Pascal writes of the paradox of man as both “wretched” and “great” – or, evil and noble, low-down and high-minded.
We are wretched because we are “full of pride, ambition, lust, weakness, misery, and injustice.” Unlike other animals, we fall from moral ideals – not to moral neutrality, but to moral baseness – and the net result is unhappiness. As philosopher Peter Kreeft notes in his lengthy commentary on Pensees: “Unhappiness is perhaps the most obvious and pervasive feature of experience. It was for Buddha…his very ‘first noble truth’ was that ‘to live is to suffer; life is suffering [dukkha, out-of-joint-ness].’ “
But as Pascal writes, “we are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness.” Kreeft explains: “Truth (our head’s food) and happiness (our heart’s food) are the two things everyone wants, and not in crumbs but in great loaves; not in raindrops but in waves. Yet these are the two things no one gets except in little crumbs and droplets.”
From our sink-hole of unhappiness, we cry out for and search for something – not a little relief here and there, but perfect truth and goodness. None of us have it, and we all want it. More often than not, this has manifested – a truth that is anthropological before being religious – in a cry for God.
Kemp in The Rum Diary seems to carry on Pascal’s tradition – he notes that man is distinct in both his “greatness” and “wretchedness,” in his godly talk and his ungodly actions. This is a powerful insight – one that all of the data and experience in the world supports. But what does it mean?
First, it might mean that, as Kreeft notes, “man is a living oxymoron: wretched greatness, great wretchedness, rational animal, mortal spirit, thinking reed.” Or, in Pascal’s words: “What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, the glory and refuse of the universe!”
It might mean that our temptations toward seeing man as fundamentally a divine spirit or “angelic” (certain Christian denominations, Eastern religions, and philosophies) or as fundamentally an animal like any other (materialism, behaviorism) miss the mark on what sort of creature man is. As Pascal writes, “man is neither angel nor beast,” yet both.
And most importantly, it might mean that our doubleness, our paradoxical nature, suggests that humanity, like Humpty Dumpty, has suffered some kind of great fall, some catastrophe. We’re broken, screwed up, deracinated, unstable – but we know or “remember” something higher to climb to, to long for, something perfect that’s nowhere to be seen in the world, but that lingers in our collective memory.
The million dollar question: what theory of man can put us back together again?