“No regrets!” A motto of sorts that I remember from my teens and 20s. In one sense it was the YOLO of its time; an invitation to live a life of wildness and hedonism. In another sense it might have been a call to avoid doing things that you would regret later. In a third sense, it suggests one should have a future-looking view of life, a decoupling of one’s present from unhappy influences of past events: nostalgia, or guilt, or sorrow.
Lately I have wondered if all of those senses of the phrase are wrong. and that it may be good to have a few regrets. I don’t mean the decisions one makes in the absence of information which, had one known, one might have chosen differently. I mean, instead, the things one does which, intended or not, caused some pain to others, and the knowledge of being responsible for that pain.
A personal confession, before I explain an argument for the above proposition. My spiritual life involves posing to myself various Socratic questions designed to induce better self-awareness. Questions like the one in the title of this blog; questions to which “Nothing” is not an acceptable answer. I have discovered about myself in the last month or so, that I live with rather a lot of regret. For roads not taken, for changes turned down. For people and communities who were once kind and loving to me, and who I also loved, but nonetheless from whom I took more than I gave, or who I pushed away, or who I harmed. Some have been friends. Some have been former girlfriends and lovers. Some have been colleagues and neighbours. Some of these regrets go all the way back to my high school days. They are among the reasons I have lived most of my adult life as a bachelor — if I am alone, I do not harm anyone, and no one accuses me of doing anything wrong.
I think it may sometimes be good to have regrets. It can be a sign of having lived a complete life – complete, in the sense of including the lows that come with the highs, including the pain, including the scars, including the euphemistic ‘lessons learned’ — which really means knowledge of the consequences of bad choices, and, one would hope, the wisdom to make no such similar mistake again.
In reply, you might say, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect’. And on face value, that’s obviously true. But what is the perfection to which we are comparing ourselves? What teacher, what prophet, has preached it? What holy book describes it? And whatever it might be, does the motto itself tacitly suppose that it does not exist? What, then, is the point of comparing ourselves to perfections that do not exist? Is it only to further punish ourselves? Is it to accept ourselves as flawed and sinful? Or do we need an entirely new language by which to talk about human nature and the human condition? One in which the spectre of ‘perfection’ does not arise?
I think I can answer the latter question with Yes. A well lived life, a life of full human eudaemonia, cannot be a life of lotus-eating ignorance. It has to include some real engagement in the world, including the kind that can result in people being hurt. Because in the course of living that life, people can, and do, make bad choices. But the word for a person who causes deliberate and avoidable harm to others and who thinks it fully justified, is evil. I wonder if regret is the psychological tether-line which, while forcing us to acknowledge the things we’ve done that were wrong, also holds us back from doing worse – or becoming worse.
The next time you meet someone new and you want to get to know them, here’s a probing question to ask: “What do you regret?”
It’s like a way of asking, “In what way are you a better person now, because of what you regret?”
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For the past several years I have (very slowly) worked on a manuscript on ecology, its major scientific principles and discoveries, and their implications for philosophy, politics, economics, religion, and culture. It’s been such slow going that I wrote, and completed two entire novels at the same time. Part of the reason it’s been slow going is because: every time I come up with what I think is a really good idea, I do me due diligence research and discover someone else thought it up already. (Which, sub specie aeternitatis, is a good thing: it means the idea is already out there, inspiring people hopefully for the better.) Also, the state of the science is moving very quickly: I started the work before the discovery of mother trees and mycorrizal networks in forests, and before the discovery of a giant and ancient ecosystem dwelling five kilometers below the surface of the earth and as large as the oceans. So I end up starting all over again.
Here are a few of the notes I’ve made in the last few weeks. I post them here in the hope that some of you might see something in them that I haven’t seen, and that you might point me in new directions.
Ecology against fascism.
Ecology is the science of living relationships.
As a science of living relationships, its principles and aims are fundamentally contrary to the principles and aims of fascism — as fascism is the assertion, in the political arena, of fictitious essences (ie. of human nature, of human races, of genders, of cultural purity, of national destiny, etc), and the assertion of the necessity of separation, subordination, and conquest of the bearers of one essence by the bearers of another.
Ecology and the Design Argument.
A conclusive finding made by the science of ecology: there is no such thing as (long term consistent) stability, balance, or harmony in the world of nature. Everything in nature is in transition.
Or, it could follow that most of us have profoundly wrong ideas about the divine. For example, God might not be the omniscient, omnipotent, monotheistic God presupposed (sought? affirmed?) in the Design argument. God might be many (polytheism), or immanent (panentheism), or a changing thing (process theology), or something else. What, if anything, does ecology teach about the divine?
Six propositions from a purely utilitarian and anthropocentric view.
The field of environmental philosophy provides some obvious answers to one of the root questions of philosophy: ‘what is good?’. To make things simple, let’s set aside, for the moment, any discussion about how landscapes may have intrinsic value, or how animals and plants might have rights, or how an expanded concept of the self could include our surrounding landscapes and ecologies. Let’s look at only the answers that come from a purely utilitarian, purely anthropocentric view, of environmental ethics.
With that in mind, it should be clear that things like:
1. clean air to breathe,
2. clean water for drinking, cleaning, and cooking,
are objectively good. I’m following philosopher John McMurtry’s conception of ‘objective good’ here, in which something is good insofar as deprivation of that thing leads to loss of life-capacities for thinking, feeling, and acting, up to and including loss of life itself. There might be more things to go on that list, but I’m keeping it simple for now.
Given the objective goodness of air and water, we can draw the conclusion that:
3. An ecology and biome surrounding one’s community, of sufficient stability and biodiversity to provide a reliable supply of clean air and water,
4. A system of economics and politics which regulates the community’s extractions from and impacts upon those ecologies and biomes, to keep them within local and global carrying capacities,
are, at the very least, instrumentally good. They are necessary for our continued possession of the objective goods of air and water, without which we are all dead.
But most people don’t draw that conclusion. Or, it might be more accurate to say that our politics and economics, and indeed our culture, on the whole, behaves as if:
5. Those goods described in 3 and 4 are merely nice things to have, and that no serious consequences follow from harming them.
The evidence for 5 can be seen in, for example, the way that international climate protection agreements, such as the Paris Agreement (2016), are unenforceable: there are no legally prescribed penalties for parties who violate its aims. And in the time since international agreements like it have been drafted and signed to much media fanfare, the global climate instability-disaster has continued, leading to the destabilization and destruction of human-life-supporting ecosystems and landscapes all over the earth.
Now, as far as I’m concerned, the logic in all that discussion is impeccable. There could be more to say to strengthen it, but I think the point is clear enough. It leads me to the following questions: Why does that happen? Why does culture, economics, and politics, on the whole, behave as if 5 is a truth so obvious it does not require serious examination?
It might be that people believe:
6. There will always be enough air and water. Ecologies and biomes are always robust and complex enough to survive whatever extractions and impacts we impose on them.
And that therefore, principle 4 is not necessary.
But as anyone who has studied ecology will know, principle 6 is false. We can run out of clean air and clean water. And we can, in fact, die, if we do not acknowledge that fact.
But what should we do about the widespread non-acknowledgement of that fact? That’s the question that has been nagging me for pretty much all my adult life.
Green Selves, Green Social Contracts
As a matter of practical and observable reality: the ‘greening of the self’, promoted and promised by the environmentalist movement, has not in fact occurred. For the reason that: despite widespread and popular environmental initiatives such as civic recycling programs, renewable energy developments, environmental education in schools, etc., the climate of the earth is more unstable now than it was 30 years ago, and the climate is shifting toward instability with increasing momentum, to the point that large regions of Earth will very likely be uninhabitable for human and animal life by the year 2100.
That proposition gives me no pleasure. I can clearly see how the idea of the green self inspires artistic creativity, ethical changes in economic and interpersonal behavior, ethical virtues like cooperation, compassion, empathy, frugality, temperance (sophrosyne), global vision, and political action, in those who have accepted it. It is a beautiful idea. Were I to reject this idea, I might hamper the environmental movement, and I might unnecessarily distress people who are committed to it. A revision or replacement of the green self has to be just as beautiful.
Instead of a green self: a green social contract? Along the lines proposed by Naomi Klein’s Leap Manifesto, or by Polly Higgins’ Mission Life Force, or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. I wish I had thought of ideas like these. Sometimes I feel like I’m being left behind.
And another thing!
What does ‘stability’ mean? In the second argument above, I said it doesn’t exist in nature, yet in the fourth argument I framed it as an instrumental good, and in the fifth argument I implied that its opposite, instability, is bad. This might be inconsistent. Lots to think about here.
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This fact is not acknowledged by those who expect a civil war to look like previous wars: having large and well-organised armies, having territories with definite (even if moving) borders, and having wide battle zones along or near those borders.
The second American Civil War, already in progress, has battle-fronts in any place where a politically radicalized person murders those whom he regards as no longer American like him. The perpetrators might not belong to any organizations, and might not be taking direct orders from anyone; it’s enough that they have adopted a value program which certifies mass-murder as ethically right and required. (In that sense, the factions in this war have franchises rather than regiments and divisions.) In that respect, the war looks more like an insurgency. It is being fought in cities where it is possible to get a coffee and have a normal conversation with a friend less than two city-blocks from the scene of the fighting. The battlefields of the second American Civil War include synagogues (the most recent being yesterday, in Pittsburgh PA), schools, churches, mosques, movie theatres, political rallies– any place where there has been a politically motivated mass shooting. Taking those locations as not merely the scene of a crime, but also the scene of organized political violence, the second American Civil War already meets one of the standard academic definitions of a war: one thousand battle deaths, per year, or more. (*See the addendum, below.)
When did it begin?
Historians might some day pin one date or one event as the beginning of this second civil war: for my part I would pin it on 16th June 2015, the day that Mr. Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States. For although there had been this kind of political violence in America for at least the previous thirty years, Trump’s candidacy and presidency gave to the perpetrators of nationalist right-wing violence the feeling that they had someone from the economic and political establishment on their side. If no one is taking direct orders from him, still they are taking “hints”, in the form of the various remarks and code words that he uses to reassure people he would approve of certain modes of violence. In terms of principle, rather than in terms of a calendar date, the second American Civil War began when America’s dominant class, finding their dominance in decline, rose up against the oppressed in order to preserve their dominance and their ability to oppress.
Who will win?
The date of its beginning is tangential to the real point I wish to make, which is: The winner of the second American Civil War will not be any faction in that war. It will not even be any “true America”, whatever that might mean. It will be whatever country, or several countries, other than the United States and other than any American political faction, that can transform their economy and their culture such that they no longer rely upon the United States. Or to put it another way: the winners will be the countries that can leave the United States behind, especially in these four fields: economics, political influence, culture, and knowledge.
At this time, the economy of the United States is still the largest in the world; the US dollar is still the world’s reserve currency; American banks and other financial institutions still shore up the global economy. As a consequence of America’s second civil war, America will lose that position of economic dominance. Whatever other country, or block of countries, can take over that position, as a net exporter of money and of strategic commodities (cash crops, energy, manufactured goods especially cars and aircraft, etc), will win the economic front of the war.
2. Politics and diplomacy.
America’s economic dominance of the world helped it to dominate the world politically, too. Through most of the second half of the 20th century Americans have been expected to lead, and in fact did lead, in things like international peacekeeping, foreign aid and disaster relief, nuclear non-proliferation, and the creation of trans-national trade partnerships and military alliances. In the next five to ten years, that influence will end. In the future, fewer and fewer countries will treat America as a reliable and honest participant in global affairs. This trust will erode slowly, but it will erode in step with the speed that the American people lose trust in their own institutions– a loss that will accelerate as the democratic institutions of the United States which should be above politics become instead politicized battle-fronts in their own right: the Supreme Court, the armed services, the police, the means of drawing electoral districts and of counting ballots in elections, and so on. The political front of the second American civil war will be won by whatever country can present itself as the reliable, stable, and trustworthy, alternative. That winning country is likely to be the same country that wins the economic front. This may or may not be a free country– consider how many countries today are leaning toward populist and patriarchal authoritarianism. Just today, for example, Brazil elected an authoritarian populist president. So I worry that the country who wins the American civil war on the political and economic front will also be the next country to lose it. But I do hope that the winning countries will be those who can keep their democratic institutions above politics, and so preserve their trustworthiness in the eyes of all citizens whatever their political beliefs.
Most of the world watches American-made film and television shows, listens to American music, reads American books, reads American print media on the internet. That, too, will slowly end. Fewer and fewer people will want to watch, hear, or read stories that glorify the foundational mythologies, or even the day-to-day realities, of a society in violent decline. The culture front will be won by whatever countries have an arts and culture sector — a sector of musicians, filmmakers, writers, playwrights, and so on — that can out-compete American arts and culture in box offices, bookstores, internet downloads, and so on. These arts and culture creators will have to create a new philosophy about humanity and its future, which can capture the imagination in a way that American stories like The American Dream used to do. (My philosophy to take that place is called The Deliberate Civilization – read about it here.) Again, the winner of the culture front may or may not be a free country– ideas like patriarchy, racism, religious chosen-ness, and the like, are seductive to people who imagine themselves both oppressed and at the same time justified to oppress others.
Finally, in matters of knowledge: remember it was Americans who led the world in technology for most of the last century. Americans invented the internet, the internal combustion engine, the aeroplane, the film projector, the nuclear reactor, the Saturn V rocket which put twelve men on the moon. Yet the second American civil war has treated information, and all instruments of mass communication, as a battle front, by treating intellectuals and scientists with contempt, by ignoring important scientific discoveries such as climate change and global warming, by treating their news media as an entertainment media with no need for truth or journalistic integrity. This may seem the most abstract front of the war– but it is a war front like every other, in the sense that people kill and people die because they are captured by the lies created around them by their leaders and by their propaganda-saturated culture. From “Pizzagate” to the anti-vaccination movement to the storms and droughts of climate change: wherever propaganda and subjectivity replaces knowledge and truth, people suffer and die.
The knowledge front will be won by whatever countries have a knowledge sector– professors, scientists, school teachers, journalists, clergy, entrepreneurs, politicians, administrators, and so on– that protects an honest and objective relationship with reality.
Here, however, I think the knowledge front will be won – can only be won – by countries that remain liberal, multicultural, and free. I claim this for the reason that as the American civil war drags on, scientists and intellectuals who might have thought of moving to America will instead stay in their home countries, or else move to countries they regard as safe. They’ll go to cities that welcome immigrants rather than scare them away. They’ll go to places where there is still money from government, from academia, and from private foundations, to pay for pure research – pure, in the sense of being directed only by the curiosity of the researcher and by the evidence of observable reality, and not by the economic or political interests of the paymasters. Over time, as they and their children settle into in their new homes, their different life experiences and different languages will help people around them think and see things in new ways. In so doing, they’ll help create a culture of experimentation, imagination, and (to use the language of our zeitgeist) disruptive innovation — not only in economics, but in culture and politics too. Those countries, and only those countries, will bring the next wave of world-changing scientific discoveries and technological developments on to the stage of history: interstellar space flight, for example, or cold fusion, or quantum computing. And in bringing those new scientific and technical transformations to the world, they will leave America behind.
Lots of people in these winning societies won’t like the new social contract that will emerge in their countries. There might be some who will romanticize the losing side of America’s civil war. There might be some who will want to re-start the war in their home countries the moment they think they can win it. That is because the winning countries will not be the countries that dominate or conquer America. Rather, the winners will be the countries where la lotta continua — where the struggle for a better culture, a better humanity, goes on. The losing countries will be the countries where that struggle has ceased, because America’s second civil war has reduced them to a struggle for the minimum necessities for life – food and shelter – or else where everyone is dead.
Good luck, everyone.
—– * Addendum, 29 October 2018.
I was asked to provide a citation for the statement I made above, that the number of deaths in politically-motivated violence in the USA meets the threshold definition of a war: 1,000 battle-deaths per year.
According to https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/, there have been 12,072 deaths by gunfire in the United States in 2018 – that’s as of 29 October 2018, the day I checked the page to get the data. The same database reports that 15 of those deaths were classed by American law enforcement agencies as “hate crimes”, zero as “political violence” and 2 as “terrorism involvement”, since October 2017. That’s a total of 17 deaths: so if those are the only ones you count, they’re not enough to meet the above-mentioned criteria of a “minor conflict”.
But much might depend on which 12-month frame you look at. A mass shooting in Orlando Florida, which killed 50 people, was classified as terrorism, and so it meets the requirements of my argument. But it took place in June of 2016 so it wouldn’t count “in the last calendar year”.
Or , we could count the deaths where the killer has no particular feelings about the people he killed; he’s merely taking pleasure in the ability to kill, treating violence as an end in itself— a behaviour that fits the 3rd and 12th items on Umberto Eco’s fourteen features of fascism.
I think that we have enough information to assert a disjunction proposition, as follows: “either the 2nd American civil war is in progress now, or else it is brewing.” It’s perhaps not as definitive as I would like. But I think the situation in America, in which the rhetoric of racism, sexism, religious hate, and the like, has moved from the margins of society to its mainstream, and which moves people to kill their neighbours, calls for a new category of conflict. The Dept of Peace and Conflict Research, cited above, defines several types of wars: for example, between states, between a state and a non-state organization, between a named organization (a state or a non-state org) and an unarmed population (ie, a genocide). We might have to invent a new category of political violence, in which the number of battle-deaths is not the only relevant criteria. We might include the number of incidents which result in injuries but not deaths: 12 in the last 12 months, according to gunviolencearchive.org again, bringing the total to 29, which is within the definition of “minor conflict”. Or we might include some measure of the fear felt by members of minority communities.
In any case, whether the 2nd American civil war is in progress now or is only “brewing”, I remain convinced that when that second civil war breaks out, the winner will still be: not America. And I’m sorry for it; I assure you that this conclusion brings me no pleasure. But I hope this conclusion will be thought about by people around the world, including within America, to help everyone prepare for the unhappy but very likely prospect of a world without America.
By now, I hope that you have heard of the warning from UN scientists concerning the likely future of planet Earth if we continue emitting CO2 and other global warming drivers in our farms, factories, power plants, and vehicles.
The report says that we have to reduce our global carbon output to zero in only twelve years, or else face a future of more droughts, more violent storms, more floods, more refugees and mass migrations, more giant wildfires, more desertification, more ocean acidification, more death, more of everything that is associated with climate change. Here’s the link where you can read the report for yourself.
I have a bold prophesy for you: we will miss that target. We will miss it because the people who are in a position to do anything about it are also in a position to insulate themselves from the worst consequences.
Image source: Wikimedia commons
Think of it by the following analogy. In the first decade of this century, there were plenty of warning signs that the global financial system was on the verge of breaking. This mostly had to do with sub-prime mortgage lending in the United States, though there were other factors, too. Some of the people who raised the warning were ignored; others were fired or otherwise censured. But the uppermost people knew the warnings were logically sound. They also knew they need not worry, because the government would bail them out. And that is exactly what happened. In the months following the banking crash of 15 September 2008, hundreds of banks and industrial corporations deemed “too big to fail” received bail-out money from the government, sometimes as direct cash injections, sometimes as purchase of shares, so they could continue producing their products and paying their workers and employees. (Many of the executive-level management also pocketed that money for themselves. That’s another scandal, but only tangentially relevant to my current argument.)
I think the same thing is going to happen regarding the warnings that the world’s climate scientists have sounded since the 1970’s. The super-rich will get a climate change bail-out. Never mind that as a class they are powerful enough to transition the world to a zero-carbon, green energy economy in less than ten years. Never mind that such a transition would be profitable for some of them. Never mind that some of them, taken individually, do have humanitarian and compassionate values. As a class, they will save themselves first.
They will squeeze as much money as they can from the fossil-fuel economy, mostly from the sale of their products but also, significantly, from governments, directly as subsidies or indirectly as tax breaks. They will use this money to build life-boats for themselves, in parts of the world where the effects of the coming climate catastrophe are likely to be less intense.New Zealand, for example.
In fact I strongly suspect that when certain celebrity industrialists say we should colonize Mars to make it harder for a war or an an asteroid impact or some natural disaster to destroy the human race, the phrase “the human race” does not mean all of us. It means, instead, a select class of uber-wealthy individuals who can pay to jump ship before it catches fire. It would amaze me, but not surprise me, if one or more Mars colonies are already in the early stages of pre-fabrication.
As for the rest of us: we shall have to continue doing all the things we are already doing to help prevent climate change: planting gardens, planting trees, consuming less stuff, rewilding landscapes, recycling waste, experimenting with regenerative agriculture, lobbying businesses and governments, voting for scientifically-literate politicians and parties, joining public education campaigns, and so on. But I believe we have to do these things in full knowledge that the work shall be of very little effect in the short term.
There is, however, another reason to continue doing those things: we should give to our descendents the knowledge of how to create and preserve a life-affirming and ecologically conscious human culture. If we preserve that knowledge, perhaps our decendants of six or seven generations from now could have such a culture, when fossil fuels have finally run out and the global climate settles down. If we lose that knowledge, it might take far longer to re-discover and re-invent it.
I am more optimistic about the next thousand years, than I am for the next hundred.
Okay, Canada. We’re going to legalize cannabis in a little over a month. I’m generally in favour of that, but I also worry that people might not understand cannabis, and as a result of not understanding it, people might hurt themselves or others.
As a college prof, I’ve been hearing stories from students of mine for years about people who bought one type of pot, only to find that it had far more THC than they were led to believe. Among other problems, mostly stemming from ignorance.
Mislabelled product, product mixed with harder stuff like cocaine, and dealers and suppliers who lie about their sources, etc. are everywhere.
As a result, they had all kinds of reactions, up to and including the kind of reckless behaviour while high that gets people permanently injured or dead.
Insert obligatory stock-photo of something to do with cannabis.
So: in much the same way that responsible alcohol drinkers know to check the label of what they’re drinking (for alcohol %, etc.), and know not to drive, and know when to stop for the day, etc., responsible cannabis consumers will be those who learn to read the label of what they’re smoking (or eating, or vaping, or, whatever), and not drive, and stop when they’ve had enough.
So, I propose the following simple rules of etiquette, similar to what we already do around alcohol, to help those of us who want to toke up to do so responsibly.
– If you don’t know where it came from, don’t take it.
– If you don’t know what it is, don’t take it.
– If it isn’t labelled clearly, or not labelled at all, don’t take it.
– If the person offering it to you won’t tell you what it is or where it came from, don’t take it.
– If you don’t know how much THC or CBD it contains, don’t take it.
– If you don’t know what THC or CBD means, don’t take it. (Find out here.)
– If it didn’t come from a licensed producer, don’t take it.
– If you have to go to work, to school, a wedding or a funeral, or to visit the Queen, don’t take it.
– If you have to drive somewhere, don’t take it.
– If you have already taken it, don’t drive until you’re not high anymore.
– More to the point, don’t make any major life decisions while high.
– For the love of the gods, don’t get a tattoo while high. Speaking from experience. (No, not my own.)
– If you’re trying it for the first time and don’t know what to expect, don’t do it alone, or don’t do it among other first-time tokers.
And, some of the cigarette etiquette we have already learned can apply to cannabis, too. Such as:
– If you offer it to someone who doesn’t want it, don’t offer it again.
– If you are among people who don’t want to smell it second-hand, save it for later or go somewhere else for a while.
– Clean up the butts.
I know that most of these rules look simplistic, common-sense, even childish. It should be obvious that cannabis tokers should do these things. But speaking as one with ten years experience working with college- and university- aged students, I promise you it isn’t common sense.
But if we all get on board with simple straightforward principles of courtesy like these, then everyone who wants to toke up can enjoy themselves without endangering their own or anyone else’s health.
Final rule, which again should be obvious but here it is:
Blog posts about a writer’s holidays are normally dreary affairs of narcissism and fantasy. So, here’s one about why my holiday was wonderful, curious, and, well, heartbreaking.
First, something wonderful.
As this was my third visit to Krenicna, Central Bohemia, Czech Republic, perhaps the neighbours felt more familiar with me, because I was invited to join them at their social gatherings far more often than ever before. I got a chance to have substantial conversations with people who, on previous visits, I only met in passing. Anyone can go to a faraway country and gawk at the monuments that they could see in photographs at home; a real adventure involves talking to new people, for new people are always surprising, and often wonderful too. I shall be glad to see them again next year.
It was, as always, wonderful to babysit the family dog, Helli– who, this year, was in heat– but maybe I’ll save those stories for the next time you meet me in person.
Next, something curious.
You know, over the last six or seven years or so, my thinking has grown less mystical and more humanist. Most of my friends know this, or figured it out even if I didn’t say much about it. Readers of my books will have noticed I’m not writing (much) about paganism anymore. During this expedition in Bohemia, somewhere during the month, I was reminded of how animism, the foundational principle of all religion, is surprisingly difficult to put down.
I rejected the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin when I was sixteen. In my late twenties and early thirties I rejected the so-called ‘Laws of Magic’ (well, such as they were widely understood in the neo-pagan community at the time; see my book ‘A Pagan Testament’ for a list of them).
Yet this year, events reminded me of why animism is such a persistent, elemental experience. It could start with the simple and perhaps uncomfortable feeling that you are being watched, when you know you are alone. It could come from the more numinous and ecstatic feeling that arises when looking at the dome of the stars from the top of a hill, where the field in which I sat suddenly seemed like the centre of the universe.
I remain convinced I was logically and ethically right to reject those religious doctrines I mentioned above. Yet animism, as the simple proposition that the things of the natural world are in some hard-to-express manner alive and spiritually present, seems to offer itself despite all objections. I might scientifically understand everything there is to understand about a flower– its biology, its niche in the ecosystem, the structure of its cells, the chemistry of its life-processes, its role in humanity’s arts and culture– and yet the question seems never to disappear: what if there’s something more to this flower? What if there’s a spirit? And what might that spirit be?
Glory of the sun, touching the horizon.
Depth of the hollow hedgerow, passage to the mysteries of Earth.
Well, there’s a topic for a future book, maybe. But if I write that book, mind that it will not be an exercise in validating anyone’s feelings. Not even my own. I’m a philosopher, and it is the philosopher’s duty to seek the truth, whatever it might be.
One of the things I love about visiting central Bohemia is the explorability of the land. The village is nestled in a shallow valley of meadows and forested hills, and near to a steeper valley which beds the Vltava River. I have come to love walking the trails and hill crests and cave-like hedgerows, with Helli keeping me company and watching out for whatever may lie ahead.
I adore these meadows, these forests, these hills. And this wolfdog.
This year I did something I hadn’t done (much) in the previous visits: explore the hill trails by night. Since I am writing a novel about Urania, and since the village is far enough from the nearest big cities that the Milky Way is visible on a clear night, I thought it important to go out and see the stars. And so I did– and the planet Mars, too, which was in a leg of its orbit that brings it close to Earth, so on most nights I saw it very bright, perhaps outshining Venus.
The moon, and the night-glowing clouds.
Finally, something heartbreaking.
But (you knew there was a ‘but’ coming) Europe was under a protracted heat wave, and had been since Easter. Daytime temperatures never went below 33 degrees C, the whole time I was there; and it rained only once. The grass in the meadows browned, and crackled underfoot. The trees withered too, as if autumn was upon us. The land was suffering. And I veritably mourned to see it suffer.
Parched soil and starving trees.
A side point. A local new friend told me the price of recently harvested hay for animal-feed was 20% higher this year because of drought-induced scarcity. (So if you think global warming won’t affect you– I promise you that it will. If nowhere else, it will hit you in your grocery store: in the price you pay for your food, and in the kinds of foods that will become entirely unavailable.)
I have agreed for years that climate change and global warming really is happening. I wrote my doctoral dissertation about it. I’ve seen the evidence with my own eyes, decades ago. Nevertheless, to see it come to this land that over the last four years I have grown to love– heartbreaking.
Though not directly connected to the narrative I’ve unfolded for you above, I also visited Prague again, and Cesky Krumlov, beautiful cities which I heartily recommend to all urban explorers (and my thanks to the Reidingers for taking me there even while they were jet-lagged.)
Castle courtyard, Cesky Krumlov. Notice the allegories of the Platonic virtues painted on the building.
Hall of Curiosities, Strahov Monastery, Prague.
Mediaeval book displayed in the library of the Strahov monastery library, Prague.
Postscript. I used to say I wanted to build a temple. Not anymore– now I want to build a museum (a ‘home of the Muses’) and a library, like this one. And I will fill it with the best philosophy, literature, poetry, music, art, foodways, handicrafts, history, science– everything you’d need to rebuild after a collapse of civilization. My library at home is now almost a thousand books, so I’m getting there.
Posted inGeneral|Comments Off on My Bohemian Adventure: Wonderful, Curious, and Heartbreaking
This past weekend, I acquired a copy of Seneca’s Morals By Way Of Abstract, published in 1702. My attention was drawn not only by the book’s age– it’s more than three hundred years old– but also by this note in the translator’s preface:
We are faln into an Age of vain Philosophy; (as the Holy Apostle calls it) and so desperately over-run with Drolls and Scepticks, that there is hardly any thing so Certain, or so Sacred, that is not exposed to Question, or Contempt. Insomuch, that betwixt the Hypocrite, and the Atheist, the very Foundations of Religion, and good Manners are shaken, and the Two Tables of the Decalogue dash’d to pieces, the one against the other: The Laws of Government are Subjected to the Phansies of the Vulgar; Publick Authority to the Private Passions and Opinions of the People; and the Supernatural Motions of Grace confounded with the Common Dictates of Nature. In this State of Corruption, who so fit as a good honest Christian-Pagan, for a Moderator betwixt Pagan-Christians?
The translator, Sir Roger L’Estrange, published this when he was 86 years old. So you could perhaps read this translator’s preface as a 16th century example of a Baby Boomer complaining about how the Millennials are ruining everything.
Frontspiece of Seneca’s Morals, with engraving of Seneca committing suicide at the command of emperor Nero.
L’Estrange did not intend this an ordinary summary-translation of Seneca for a general interest. He published it because he was angry. He was 26 years old when the English civil war began; he was decidedly of the King’s party, and published pamphlets against the Parliamentarians; he spent nearly the whole of his life thereafter advocating for Protestant and royalist causes. I think L’Estrange was one of those “father knows best” conservatives, and was utterly incapable of imagining that there might be anything wrong with his worldview. You can see in the passage above how he refers to Catholics as ‘pagans’. Here’s another passage from that preface which shows this attitude:
Have we not seen, even in our dayes, a most Pious (and almost a Faultless) Prince, brought to the Scaffold by his own Subjects? The most Glorious Constitution upon the Face of the Earth, both Ecclesiastical and Civil, torn to Pieces, and dissolv’d? The Happyest People under the Sun Enslav’d; Our Temples Sacrilegiously profan’d; and a Licence given to all sorts of Heresie, and Outrage? And by whom, but by a Race of Hypocrites, who had nothing in their Mouths all this while, but The Purity of the Gospel; The Honour of the King; and, The Liberty of the People: assisted underhand with Defamatory Papers, which were levell’d at the King Himself, thorough the sides of His most faithful Ministers? This PROJECT succeeded so well against One Government, that it is now again set a foot against Another; and by some of the very Actors too in that TRAGEDY, and after a most Gracious Pardon also, when Providence had laid their Necks, and their Fortunes at His Majesties Feet. It is a wonderful thing, that Libells, and Libellers, the most infamous of Practises, and of Men; the most Unmanly, Sneaking Methods, and Instruments of Mischief: the very Bane of Humane Society, and the Plague of all Governments: It is a wonderful thing (I say) that these Engines, and Engineers, should ever find Credit enough in the World to engage a Party: But it would still be more wonderful, if the same Trick, should pass twice upon the same People, in the same Age, and from the very same IMPOSTORS. This Contemplation has carry’d me a little out of my way, but it has at length brought me to my Text again…
I think that in that passage, he is reflecting on his life. He lived through the English Civil War, and the Restoration; he spent a year in exile due to political opposition (did he flee for his life, or did he walk off in disgust?). Although he was knighted by King James II, he was indited in plots against the successor, King William of Orange, and even spent time in jail for it. He was frustrated for all his life by people whose way of thinking was different than his. And he did everything he could to fight them.
So I think that in publishing this little book, L’Estrange was hoping to induce in his contemporaries a kind of philosophical and moral enlightenment. He wanted it to be a corrective force against the “fancies of the vulgar” noted above, and perhaps produce a reconciliation between the different philosophical factions in his society. That’s what I think is implied in this comment, to the effect that he thought Seneca’s text is the greatest gift anyone ever gave to the human race:
I am sorry it is no better, both for your sakes and my own: for, if it were written up to the Spirit of the Original, it would be one of the most valuable Presents that ever any private Man bestow’d upon the Publick: And this too, even in the Judgment of both Parties, as well Christian as Heathen: of which in its due place…
Next to the Gospel it self, I do look upon it [Seneca’s work] as the most Sovereign Remedy against the Miseries of Humane Nature; and I have ever found it so in all the Injuries and Diâˆ£stresses, of an Unfortunate Life.
So there you have it. Even in 1702, old men were still telling the kids to “shut up and respekt mah authoritay!”
I share none of L’Estrange’s political views, of course, except perhaps an appreciation of Stoicism and a mild curiosity about the monarchy. Nonetheless, I’m finding it interesting and even somewhat spiritual to hold this small piece of intellectual history in my hands, and to see how it is not much different from the kind of angry public argumentation that still take place today.
If you know anything about Greek mythology, you probably know some part of the story of Prometheus, the hero who stole fire from the sun and gave it to the fledgling human race. You probably also know how Zeus punished him for it, by chaining him to a mountain and sending a vulture every day to eat his perpetually-regenerating liver. The story still informs much of Western civilization’s sense of itself: his theft of fire is the symbol of Western civilization’s sense of its industriousness and enlightenment. Prometheus himself is a model of the ideal civilized man, a hero of daring and of endurance under adversity, combining the features of biblical Adam, the primordial thief, and Christ, the victor over death and the benefactor of humankind, and (though it may seem odd) Milton’s Lucifer, the rebel angel. We put the image of his torch in the logos of our corporations and our universities. We re-enact part of his story in the opening ceremonies of the modern Olympic Games, when we light the Olympic flame.
Ya, that was awesome, wasn’t it?
Nonetheless, I think Western civilization needs a better symbol.
For one reason: in the full story, Prometheus has no particular feelings for humanity. He delivered fire to us in order to undermine the authority of Zeus; he had no other reason. Indeed, humanity already had the technology of fire-building. Prometheus meddled with the sacrifices at a religious festival in Zeus’ honour. Zeus punished him by taking fire away from us. Only then, did Prometheus steal it back. And he didn’t carry it in a torch. He hid it in a stalk of the fennel plant. Various primary sources, notably the Library of Apollodorus, attest to this.
For a second reason: Greek mythology also provides to us an entire family of other, better benefactors: the nine Muses, who embody the functions of civilization rather more directly, if somewhat less ostentatiously, than Prometheus. The muses, and not Prometheus, are invoked at the beginning of the most important epic poems, the Illiad, the Odyssey, the Theogony, and the Works And Days. They’re invoked at the beginning of many of the old Greek plays, too. And while Prometheus and his torch are undeniably powerful symbols for industrial civilization, it is the gifts of the muses which activate the imagination, the artistic genius, and the scientific curiosity, which drives civilization forward. Indeed the very notion of ‘going forward’, or progress, is a gift of the mother of the muses, Mnemosyne, ‘memory’. For it is our ability to remember the past that enables us to possess a notion of progress at all; it is memory which allows us to compare our present state of life to the past, and so assess whether our lives are any better, or any worse, or at least different. And if we find that our life has become worse, we can call the muses to help us make art and so ease the misery, if not also improve life again.
For a third reason: when you look at who the nine muses are as individuals, you find they embody the foundational and essential fields of primary education: three poets, two playwrights, an historian, a singer, a dancer, and a scientist. That is to say, they teach intellectual knowledge, emotional maturity, artistic excellence; they are the bringers of the instruments by which we invent and discover our cultural identity.
Consider as an example, how culture might be different if, inspired by Terpsichore, primary schools had dance classes instead of or alongside gym classes. Students could learn a form of physical education and health maintenance which, unlike track-and-field events or field sports, is not a thinly disguised preparation for war fighting. They might learn how to move and use their bodies as instruments of fun and self-expression. They might learn how to touch and hold each other with respect. They would certainly build up muscle mass. (Ballerinas are really athletes, you know.) With that in mind, the symbol of the torch-wielding Prometheus seems to me unnecessarily aggressive, possibly vainglorious, and even rather joyless.
For a fourth reason: One can imagine any of the muses, even unhappy Melponene, singing or laughing with childlike delight to see some thing of beauty in the world, however small. One cannot imagine Prometheus laughing, unless it comes from a Nietzschean sense of pleasure in the exercise of power. And one cannot imagine him singing.
(Okay, fine, you can imagine him singing, and wearing a clown suit and juggling seven live cats, because imagination is weird like that. But it wouldn’t be consistent with his character.)
By contrast, the laughter of the Muses comes from pure life-affirmation, nothing more and and nothing less. Between the two, I think the laughter of the muses is preferable. It can come from that thrill you feel when life surprises you with something beautiful. That’s what inspiration is like, sometimes.
For a fifth reason: images of the muses already posses an important place in the history of western art. They were a special interest of the Italian Renaissance masters, for instance. Raphael included them in his Parnassus, his allegory of the arts, which occupies an equal place beside his Disputatio (theology) and School of Athens (philosophy).
It might be argued that the renaissance depictions are fraught with what contemporary feminists call the male gaze: that is, the muses do not appear as persons with agency and independent identity, instead they appear as objects of possession and pleasure for a male viewer. This is a theme in western art in general (see episode 2 of Berger’s Ways of Seeing for a close study of this). If that is so, it seems to me the correct counter argument is not that we must cover or reject those images. Instead we should create new representations of our own, in which sexual identity, sexual pleasure, and sexual desire, can be affirmed in a manner that disempowers or dehumanizes no one, and in which the phenomenological relation between inspiration and sexual power can be affirmed, explored, experimented with, and enjoyed. I can imagine the muse-goddess Erato teaching a primary school class about consent culture, or the pros and cons of various contraceptives.
For a sixth reason: The dudebros reading this, who even now are hammering out angry skreeds against this argument, really have no reason to feel excluded. At least two men feature in the story of the Muses: Zeus was their father, and Apollo was their teacher, for instance. Feel free to use my comments section below to discuss whether the Muses could have grown beyond their teachers, as all good students do.
For all such reasons, then, I think a better symbol for the life and identity of western civilization should be a circle of the nine muses dancing together. It is a more joyful image, to encourage a more caring, more intellectually vigorous, and more artistically flourishing culture.
Dance of Apollo and the Muses, by Baldassarre Peruzzi (1481-1536)
A counter argument. The identities of the muses, that is to say the selection of arts which they embody, is a kind of statement, to the effect that the selected arts constitute the goodnesses of life. This prompts the question: why those arts and not others? Why not painting, sculpture, architecture? Why not any ‘homely arts’ like knitting, cooking, weaving? Without them, the muses as a new symbol of civilization might be incomplete. Prometheus, by contrast, gave us a gift that everyone can use.
One reason for the selection of arts comes from the animism at the heart of religion. In ancient Greek paganism, material artists like sculptors and architects would have prayed to the spirits dwelling in the stone they worked. Artists would have prayed to the plants and minerals that provided their paint pigments. The nine muses represent arts that have no material foundation but the movement of human bodies and the thoughts within human minds (notwithstanding that they do carry props with them: books, musical instruments, etc., but these are icons of their bearers, and not materials that the worshippers work upon.)
But that is perhaps a religious-archeological explanation. A philosophical explanation might be that the muses represent activities instead of things; they inspire the pleasures that come from doing something instead of from making and owning something. (obviously, ‘making’ is a kind of ‘doing’; but let’s not quibble). The work of the muses can be accomplished and completed in its moment of creation, and the work vanishes as the moment passes; the work of a sculpture or an architect reaches completion only when the artist ceases the activity of creation. Then the work of that activity remains, as an object that can be priced, bought, and sold. All that is to say, the muses inspire activities that have a different relationship to time, and that different relationship to time allows them to escape capture by the market. Poetry is meant to be read out loud; music is meant to be sung; history is for telling; the stars are for observing. It could be further objected that a dancer could be paid for her performance; a historian or a poet could sell copies of the books she wrote; an astrologer could collect a fee for her professional consultation. But no one can own a moment of beauty. No one can own the stories of the past, no one can own the stars. We can only see, hear, and remember such phenomena; it is therefore all the more fitting that remembering is the mother of the muses.
Well, that reply to the counter argument is not fully persuasive. For in much the same way, you could own a statue but not its sensuousness; you could own a painting but not its light, you could own a building but not the frozen music it embodies.
Perhaps the simpler answer is to suppose that since thousands of years have gone since the mythic age, the nine canonical muses might have diversified their portfolios. Maybe Thalia, muse-goddess of comic drama, now inspires the authors of newspaper comic strips. Perhaps Euterpe, the muse-goddess of lyric poetry, also inspires the people who design light shows at rock concerts. Perhaps Polyhymnia conducts gospel choirs.
Calliope, by JHW Tischbein. Muse-goddess of long-form episodic television dramas.
It’s easy to imagine those new possibilities because the Muses, as symbols, are adaptable to new circumstances. And in that way, they can meet the counterargument noted above: that their symbol might be incomplete. I rather think that the muses can always fit themselves into new arts, new forms of expression. They can be by your side at any time.
Prometheus, as a symbol, seems to me somewhat less flexible. He’s a straight-up hero, a trickster-god, a rebel angel; and while those are good things to be, he’s not much else. I think it’s Prometheus, as a symbol, who is incomplete; its hero-energy might be remain reactionary and aimless, without the vision and guidance of the muses.
I have it on good authority, by the way, that Urania, muse of astronomers, is now a flatmate with Saint Sophia, the goddess of philosophers. She was in the JPL control room when NASA launched the Voyager probes. She once had a beer with Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.
In fact, I’m writing a novel about that beer.
In fact, I’m having a beer with her right now.
So, if you don’t mind, I have to get back to work.
Urania, from a series by Jose Luis Munoz Luque, 2012.
Postscript 1: For the sake of reference, here’s who they are, and how to translate their names.
Calliope, “Beautiful Voice”, epic poetry.
Clio, “Make-Famous”, history.
Euterpe, “Giving Delight”, music, song, and lyric poetry
Erato, “Beloved”, love poetry
Melpomene, “Celebrates With Song”, tragic drama.
Polyhymnia, “Many Hymns”, religious song
Terpsichore, “Delighting In Dance”, dance
Thalia, “Rich Festivity”, comic drama.
Urania, “Heavenly One”, astronomers.
Postscript 2: The (draft) cover copy for the novel that I mentioned above.
On a cold night in 1514, Urania, the Greek goddess of astronomy, inspires Nicolaus Copernicus to re-imagine the cosmos with the sun at the centre: a crime for which Zeus banishes her from Olympus. Then Julian Augusta, former emperor of Rome and an agent of Zeus, offers her a bargain: find one mortal who can grasp the immensity of the universe without going mad, or else live in exile forever. With help from Prometheus the Titan, and Kynisca of Sparta, the first woman to win at the Olympic Games, Urania works with Tycho, Kepler, Galileo, and other great names of the Renaissance, hoping that one of them can win the gamble. But Julian arranges for accidents, turns of fate, even the Inquisition, to interfere with their work, and Prometheus has his own agenda. As her search continues, she finds the consequences of winning might be worse than the price of losing.
There is a political faction in the United States whose members believe that their most important religious duty is to create (a very narrow and conservative version of) the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. I probably don’t need to name them; they’re well known enough, and some of the readers of this blog probably know more about them than I do.
These people believe that in order to save the world, they must manipulate the state: passing laws and enforcing practices designed to enshrine christian values, and to stress and disrupt the lives of people with non-Christian identities, so that non-Christians (this includes Catholics, in their view) will convert to their brand of christianity or else dwindle in influence to political insignificance. Their plan also includes inserting themselves into other areas of culture: the family, the entertainment industry, the military-industrial complex, and so on. The aim is to create a Christian theocracy, and install themselves as its ruling class.
The idea of a City Of God is, after all, very old.
Another way to save the world, in their view: to increase the pain and suffering in the world to such a pitch that God would “have” to return.
A war would do that. Moreover, a war in the middle east would have symbolic value for them: it is the area where, according to biblical prophesy, the final battle between good and evil will take place. Further: it is a war that these people think they can win.
If they get their war and win it, they can try to create their Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, not only in America, but also around the world. And if they lose it, they increase the pain in the world and so accelerate Christ’s return. Thus, in their worldview, they cannot lose.
But I am always confident in the basic goodness of the overwhelming majority of people on earth, of every religion and every culture. The best parts of religion grew from our inherent basic goodness, along with the best of our music, art, drama, government, technological progress, and civilization itself. And then those things turned around and reinforced our basic goodness, in virtuous circle that’s been going on now ever since we learned to walk on two feet.
I see that confidence not only based on observable facts, but also as a kind of moral postulate: it is ethically better to believe that people are basically decent, than to believe they’re not. Even so, goodness is fragile (remember your Iris Murdoch) and it needs good people to take care of each other, to work together, and to speak out and to act against evil.
So, what are you doing, to help preserve some human goodness in the world?
And before you ask: no, I’m not implying you’re doing nothing. But I think it might be helpful for my friends to share with each other some notes about what they’re doing. Otherwise, we might not know what others around us are doing. We might not know that this world really is better than it often appears. It might be harder to imagine that it can be better still, if only we want it to be, and if we do something about it. So, what are you doing? Organizing voters, lobbyists, or campaigns? Attending rallies? Volunteering somewhere? Doing research into the true state of the world, and sharing its results? Helping other activists preserve their confidence, their initiative, their physical and psychological health? Helping to preserve your own?
As for me, I’m working to reclaim civilization (from the fascists, neo-Nazis, religious fundamentalists, violent misogynists, antifeminists, the sellers of hate and fear and ignorance, all those gangs who want to kick people like you out of it).
Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. You’re going to save the world.
Shortly after the destruction of his house his planet to make way for an interstellar bypass (the planet happened to be Earth, by the way), Arthur Dent, Earthling, accidentally joins a mission to find a mythical planet called Magrathea, a planet whose inhabitants are in the business of manufacturing custom made-to-order planets. And there, on Magrathea, he meets God.
Magrathea’s factory floor.
Well, he meets a man who was part of the team that designed and built the Earth. Which is about the same thing. (His name, by the way, isn’t important.)
This God turns out to be an eccentric jobsworth, friendly enough, but with no more of an idea what’s going on than anyone else. That’s Clue #1 for a theory I’m about to lay before you here.
On Magrathea, Dent learns that the Earth was one of Magrathea’s custom-made planets. Not only that, but it was in fact a planet-sized computer whose sole program was to compute the Question. The Ultimate Question, to Life, The Universe, and Everything. We learn that it was the second computer in a series; the first was called Deep Thought, and it computed the Answer, and as you know the Answer turned out to be 42.
That’s Clue #2, by the way. Deep Thought computed the Answer before anyone really knew what the Question was. The Answer, being a number, for a question no one knew how to put into words, is an absurdity, a stroke of cognitive dissonance, a non sequitur, a non-answer to an unasked question. I think Adams chose “42” as a way of saying life is ultimately absurd, pointless, ridiculous, without sense, and without meaning.
A popular theory states that Adams chose “42” as the Ultimate Answer because, as an enthusiast for computers and cryptography, he likely knew that 42 is the ASCII code number for an asterisk. The implication is that the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything, can be anything you like it to be.
Alas, this isn’t true. Adams himself actually answer the Question of “Why 42?” Replying to fan queries in 1993 on the old usenet group alt.fan.douglas-adams (remember back when the internet was text-only?)
“The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base thirteen, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought ’42 will do’. I typed it out. End of story.”
The debunking of that theory about ASCII code made me wonder about a theory of my own. It’s not about why the Answer to the Ultimate Question should be 42. It’s about why he chose a number at all, instead of a word or a proposition. Hence, my theory. Here it comes.
The most memorable events in the series are variations on the theme of absurdity. Arthur Dent has very little real agency in the story; he makes very few decisions and is given few opportunities to do so; he mostly marvels at and/or complains about what’s going on around him. What few choices he does make have to do with staying close to, and trying to care for, the various people who might be caught up in the weirdness along with him. He is a kind of everyman, thrust quite against his will into a series of absurd and impossible situations, who struggles to make sense of it all and never entirely succeeds. Now, most of the fun of reading / listening to / watching Hitch Hiker’s is the loopy weirdness of the world that Adams crafted for us. After all, this world includes AI-sentient and precognitive elevators who sometimes wonder if there is anything more to life besides going up and down in their elevator shafts, and if they ever conclude that the answer is ‘no’ then they go sulk in the basement and refuse to do anything, and enterprising galactic hitch hikers can sometimes pick up jobs as counsellors to depressed elevators.
Consider also the Total Perspective Vortex, a torture device which drives people to insanity by showing them exactly how insignificant they are compared to the infinity of the universe as a whole – a machine which led its own creator, Trin Tragula, to conclude that “if life is going to exist in a universe this size, the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”
Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” photo. Yeah, I went there.
Those were Clues #3 and #4, by the way.
Next clue: #5. Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Galaxy. The quest for the planet Earth, for the Question (to make sense of the Answer), and for the Creator of the Universe, was his quest, not Dent’s, even though the story is told from Dent’s point of view. Beeblebrox is the thief who stole the starship Heart Of Gold in order to find Magrathea. He’s the only man to survive exposure to the Total Perspective Vortex — because he unknowingly stepped into an alternate dimension version of it. That alternate dimension had been designed especially for him, and so he was the most important thing in that universe – a fact which, as a consummate narcissist, he already believed. As President his job was not to wield power, but to draw attention away from it. (Does this sound like any real-world Presidents you can think of?)
Now, Beeblebrox is undoubtedly one of the most fun and memorable characters in the series. But he’s also a sign that the absurdity of things, which in most of the story is a feature of the universe, is a feature of human society too.
In Restaurant, chapter 28, Adams very nearly says as much. Here’s the text:
It is a well known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are the problem.
And so this is the situation we find: a succession of Galactic Presidents who so much enjoy the fun and palaver of being in power that they very rarely notice they’re not.
And somewhere in the shadows behind them – who?
Beeblebrox is abducted by a man named Zarniwoop (using the fake Total Perspective Vortex as bait), and taken in the Heart of Gold to find the Ruler of the Universe, the man who presumably stands behind Zaphod’s presidency and who actually runs things. It’s another version of the quest for the Answer. And another occasion when the readers get to meet God.
This Ruler of the Universe turned out to be a completely confused and silly man who doubted he had that job at all, who had no idea why all these people kept coming to his house to ask his advice for things, and who also doubted that anyone had come to see him. After meeting Dent, he talked to his table for a week just to see what would happen.
Sensing the trend now?
Clue #6 is the clue that led me to the thesis that I haven’t stated yet, so I may as well reveal it now. In the story, Dent and Prefect narrowly escape the Mice who commissioned the construction of Earth in the first place, and who figured that since Dent survived the destruction of Earth it was possible that the Ultimate Question was likely encoded in his brain. Dent narrowly escapes having his brain removed, and he ends up marooned on Earth – two million years in the past – where he and Ford Prefect figure that maybe they can get the Question by randomly throwing Scrabble tokens. They do so, and find that the Question is: “What do you get when you multiply six by nine?”
The clue is in the dialogue that comes next. Here it is from the 1980 novel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:
“Six by nine. Forty two.”
“That’s it. That’s all there is.”
“I always thought something was fundamentally wrong with the universe.”
Now, the in-story reason that the Question and the Answer are absurdities is because the ark ship of the Golgafringams crash-landed on Earth (two million years ago) and corrupted the Earth-computer’s program. But I think the deeper reason is this. The Answer is 42, i.e. an absurdity, because something is fundamentally wrong with the universe.
A moment later, Dent laments the coming demolition of Earth, saying: “It’s very sad, you know. Just at the moment, it’s a very beautiful planet.” It’s like Adams is also lamenting and raging against the brokenness of the world.
Well, I think that’s a better explanation of “42” than a theory about ASCII code.
(Curiously, my paperback edition of Restaurant (Pan, 1980) does not include that line. I spotted that when I was researching this blog essay. It’s in other print editions of the novel, the original radio show, and in the TV series.)
Now let’s put all these clues together. I hypothesize that from these premises we can draw a conclusion rather like this one: Douglas Adams believed that something was wrong with the universe, and he was furiously angry about that fact.
I think that Adams genuinely wanted to know what the Ultimate Answer to Life, The Universe and Everything is. Some of his friends, Richard Dawkins among them, attested as much about him. But I think he was also beyond livid that no straightforward answer was readily available. And I think his comedy was his way of expressing his combined joy in the search, and heart-breaking frustration with the lack of an apparent conclusion for that search.
(No, the journey is not the destination. Please don’t quote pop-culture flappery at me as if it is a serious counterargument.)
As another extra-textual attachment to this hypothesis, I give you one of Adams’ other projects: Last Chance To See, a nature documentary series which sought out rare and endangered species. Watch it (on the Flix Of Net) and you’ll see him as a man who genuinely loved the Earth, its life and diversity, and who was deeply upset that wonderful animals like the aye-aye, the manatee, the Yangtze river dolphin, might soon entirely disappear from the face of the Earth.
There is some evidence for a counter-argument. The 2005 film (which I consider canonical; Adams worked on the script, appeared in it as a character, and anyway this is the sort of story that doesn’t lend itself to the demand that there should be only one canonical version) offers a kind of solution to all the absurdity. Slartibartfast (I told you his name doesn’t matter) tells Dent “I’d much rather be happy than right, any day.”
It’s an absurd solution, since Dent asks Slartibartfast if he is happy, and Slartibartfast says “Ah, no.”
Dent reiterates the same point a few scenes later, when he tells the mice (just as they are about to steal his brain) that he has a head full of frustratingly unanswerable questions and that the only thing he is sure about is that when he first met Trillian he was finally happy.
More evidence for a counterargument: Adams said in 1980:
“The larger the issue, the better the jokes that become available to you… I don’t know what I think about anything until I find the right joke for it.”
Clearly, that quote doesn’t support my hypothesis that he was angry about things. But it does, at any rate, support the view that Adams was, in some way, a serious man, and he believed his comedy had a serious dimension.. Dent’s now famous statement, upon learning that he as an Earthling was part of a giant computer program, that:
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.
…also confirms the seriousness behind the silliness. This line is immediately trivialized by saying it’s “only paranoia, everyone in the universe gets that”. But this is another way to preserve the seriousness: it actually confirms that it is normal for people to wonder about the universe and their place in it.
At the end of the film, Dent stands at the front gate of his new home on Earth 2.0, and Slartibartfast asks if there’s anything he would like changed or removed, anything the world could do without. Dent says “Me”. Then he says to Trillian, “Let’s go somewhere”.
That’s Adams telling us that he loves the adventure, and wants to keep exploring the universe, even with all its weirdness and nonsense. Perhaps Adams cooled down his anger and his despair in his later years. Perhaps he and the other movie-people decided that the conclusion “There is something fundamentally wrong with the universe” was too bleak for a film version of the story. At any rate, by ending on a note that resembles a Nietzschean amor fati (without all the jackboot marching and trumpets), Hitch Hiker’s becomes a kind of love story, not of eros, but of agape; a global expression of love for the world, in all of its imperfection.
If Dent’s adventure was a journey, then that sense of agape was the destination. “42” is the stand-in for the proposition that something is fundamentally wrong with the universe, and yet it’s okay. It’s really, beautifully, okay.
And that, too, is a better explanation for “42” than a theory about ASCII code.
But let me conclude with a final, this time really final, clue in favour of my thesis: the story starts with a protest. We first meet Dent lying down in front of a bulldozer to protest the demolition of his house. That would be symbol enough. But the demolition was apparently random, because the public notice for the demolition was posted in an impossible-to-find location: in a basement room with a collapsed stair, behind a lavatory door marked with a sign saying “Beware of the Leopard”. It was the first absurdity of the story.
Could the entire series be an act of protest against the absurdities of the world?
But I also suspect of him, for all the reasons given above, that his comedy was a kind of cover for some deep-seated and serious feelings about the way of things. His comedy is a safe and nonthreatening way of exploring ideas that are not safe at all, and very threatening.
Step into the Total Perspective Vortex, and you’ll see.