“He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”
“Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.”
“All through my life I’ve had this strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister, and no one would tell me what it was.”
“No,” said the old man, “that’s just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the Universe has that.”
“Would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?”
-Various, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”
by Douglas Adams, 1979
Somehow, despite my adolescent devotion to his books, I never found out Douglas Adams was an outspoken atheist until much later. Not that it changed much; I still think The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels are some of the most brilliant books ever written. More: I can’t get away from the notion that his novels are a great guide for relating to G-d.
If you never read those books, shame on you. If you only saw the movie, our entire planet deserves to be destroyed. Which is basically what THHGTTG is about. Earth is destroyed for traffic reasons, but all-around-normal guy Arthur Dent is rescued at the last moment by a friend who happened to be an alien all along, and who happens to be a researcher for the titular galactic encyclopedia. Arthur then ends up bending all the rules of space, time, and propriety on his rollicking adventures.
If all of that sounds like high-concept science fiction, it’s not. It is side-splittingly funny. It is Wodehouse in space, or Monty Python on spaceships. Hitchhiker’s is actually a satire. Not of society per se (though there is plenty of that as well), but, like the best satires, of the universe itself. If the book has one message, it is that the universe is insane, that the apparent sensibility of the world is an inch-thick veneer and all is just papered-over anarchy.
Even the source of much of the magical mischief in Adams’s universe works on this principle. The Heart of Gold (which drives much of the plot) is the most coveted spaceship in the galaxy because it runs on the infinite improbability drive, which can accomplish anything as long as you know precisely how improbable it is that it should ever happen. Arthur Dent’s adventures are basically a series of impossibly improbable events, a story emergent from chaos, and the actual galactic Hitchhiker’s Guide (from the selections of the encyclopedia sprinkled throughout the books) is a smirking chaperon that might let its charges get devoured by aliens on a lark.
All of this seems to have very little to do with G-d. Indeed, some might say it’s a claim in the opposite direction. But I think that springs from our confusion.
We are, indeed, so confused. The Internet, for all its boons, has allowed for a lot of communication without much nuance. It is very hard to convey precise tone in written form, as even professional writers will tell you. So we throw a lot of words at people every day hoping that something sticks in the way we imagined, and we try to divine the meaning clutched in the cold fingers of the words our friends, acquaintances, enemies, and perfect strangers put in front of us.
Somehow, in the confusion, a lot of our jokes get taken seriously.
Somewhere in this mess, a lot of humor passes us by.
And we begin to lose grasp on what precedes what.
It is, after all, only a firm grasp on reality that makes things funny. It is the surprise of contradiction, the subversion of expectation, that the soul so enjoys. Humor is a flying buttress of the mind; it hangs off the orderly construct of the intellect and supports it from the outside. It is absurdity commenting on order. But in chaos there is no expectation, no surprise, and no humor.
If the absurd and the chaotic become our default headspace, become the ground for all thought, then there is no humor. When Mitch Hedberg says, “Who would make their plants hard to reach? That seems so very mean,” it’s funny because it’s a riff on some aspects of reality (infomercials and their language) that are so dull they no longer parse at all. When comedians note how ridiculous politics is, the implication of every single bit is, “The world could make so much sense, but it doesn’t!” Many Americans don’t “get” British humor because they have no grasp of formal conversation and boring sentences in the first place. They do not know the rules, and feel no joy from their breaking.
I learned the wrong lesson from Hitchhiker’s. What I was supposed to learn (as an unconscious corollary, no doubt — obviously the main goal of the book is entertainment) was that the world is mad because there is no ordering force to the universe. What I learned is that the world is mad even though there is an ordering force to the universe.
“After all,” I tell Mr. Adams, “that’s why it’s funny.”
“It’s funny because it’s a book, you dolt,” he’d probably say. “In reality it’s not funny at all. Haven’t you ever heard that all comedians are depressed?”
Yes. If you were Arthur Dent, you would probably be an emotional wreck. But when we read Hitchhiker’s, we have access to someone Arthur Dent doesn’t know.
We have access to Douglas Adams, the winking narrator, the one who tells the story and grins from above at the beautiful workings of his mad universe. We know the author, who has constructed the tale to make us laugh, and in doing so, has acknowledged the reality of the order and sense we all know, deep inside, to be right.
We read the book not from within, but from without, and even meaninglessness becomes magical.
So ride happy into that starry sky, Mr. Adams. In my eyes, you pulled off the greatest absurdity of all. You gave me something you swore you didn’t have: Faith.
So long, and thank you for the tisch.
Originally posted on Hevria.