Friday, October 23, 2009

Don't Panic!

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose apedescended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea’”

- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Who didn’t love Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books when they were young teens?

We bring up the Guide today because there is a new book in the series, written by Eoin Colfer called “And Another Thing.” This got us thinking about those well-loved books of Adam’s all over again.

The absurd comes to us all in different ways and through different experiences. Bomstein and I have often mused over cold beers and brats at Absurd HQ about how we liked certain writers or books or movies and couldn’t put our finger on exactly what linked many of these things together at the time.

In retrospect, we now can see the absurd DNA that links many of these things. There is the cool detachment from self and ego… the recognition and acceptance of an ultimate (and inescapable) end in death… a willingness to poke fun of and ridicule some of man’s most cherished beliefs about himself and the his place in the universe… and a desire to live life all the more fully and intensely because of the meaninglessness of it all.

We would say that the Hitchhiker’s series has a fair dose of absurdity. In fact, we would go so far as to say that absurdity is an underlying theme throughout the whole series. Things are constantly happening that have no meaning and that appear entirely random. Humans are portrayed as totally insignificant and the great cosmos completely apathetic to whatever befalls humans or any other creatures.

I mean we’re talking about a book that begins with the casual destruction of the Earth to make way for an intergalactic freeway. No one really seems to miss it or morn over its loss.

In the stories, the Hitchhiker’s Guide becomes a character all its own. Adams writes “entries” from the guide at the head of each chapter, at least in the early going. These entries are usually funny but also have some point to make about the ridiculousness of the human condition and or the universe itself. (“In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.”)

The words inscribed on the guide’s cover are “Don’t Panic,” which is, in a way, a sort of absurd summing up as far as what to do in a crisis. After all, if nothing matters, why panic?

We did a little internet search just to see what was out there as far as drawing the connection between the Guide series and the absurd. Turns out, there is quite a bit of stuff, including a dissertation by one Margaretha Alletta van der Colff.

She writes of the main character, Arthur Dent:

“In Arthur Dent, we see reflected the character of Meursault, a character created by Albert Camus in The Outsider, who embodies the absurdity of the human condition and the ambiguity inherent in every individual life, as well as the solitary struggle to construct meaning. Arthur Dent lives in a bubble, a bubble filled with everyday, inconsequential phenomena such as kettles, plugs, refrigerators and, of course, tea.”

There is also a whole bit in the book about discovering the answer to life, the universe and everything. The answer, it turns out, is 42. In other words, there is no meaning – at least not one we can understand. Colff writes:

“Therefore, at the end of this novel, Ford and Arthur realise the futility of trying to discover life’s ultimate meaning, since this is utterly elusive. When approached by two girls on prehistoric Earth, Ford explains the absurdity thus, ‘My friend and I were just contemplating the meaning of life. Frivolous exercise’ (Adams, 1995: 306).”

And then comes the great absurd epiphany, which separates the absurd man from all other non-believing skeptics and existentialists:

“As a grand finale, Ford also echoes Camus’s suggestion that we should celebrate and love life instead of imposing an enigmatic, ultimate meaning on it, by referring to the vestal beauty of prehistoric Earth: ‘…Forget all of it. Nothing matters. Look, it’s a beautiful day, enjoy it. The sun, the green of the hills, the river down in the valley, the burning trees’ (Adams, 1995: 307).”

If you want to explore her dissertation yourself, you can find it here:

It is, of course, academic, but we found it worth perusing...and the liberally sprinkled quotes from the books made it entertaining.

And remember... Don't panic!

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