Saturday, 22 October 2011

Douglas Adams' attempt at nihilism

*

Douglas Adams (1952-2001) was the writer of one of the most perfectly satisfying comedy works; which is the 12 episode BBC Radio production of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

(Not the abridged Vinyl version of HHGG, nor the BBC TV version, nor the novelization, nor the movie - but the original BBC Radio production which ran in two six part series the first from 1978 and the second in 1980).

In this, Adams underlying metaphysic is just about the most complete nihilism that has been achieved in any popular work of art.

It is interesting to see what response Adams made to his own world view - in HHGG and also in his own life.

*

For a start - hear the revelation of near-complete nihilism in the character who is the 'ruler of the universe' which they finally encounter at the end of the final episode:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WRVd7EQq2-4

Starting at 46 minutes and going on to 53:40.

*

In such a universe, how are the characters motivated?

Essentially they seek distraction (touring the universe in search of pleasing amusement and interest - parties, sex, etc; or failing that then adventure); they seek the gratification of status (most successfully pursued by the total egotist Zaphod Beeblebrox); and failing all this they seek mental oblivion (especially by the super-intoxicating drink called a Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster).

Douglas Adams, consistent with this, became one of the most public and outspoken of British 'militant atheists' (his own terminology) - he wrote some more books, scripts etc (all on significantly lower level than the original radio series), got rich and famous, traveled, bought cars, became a keen technophile (an early advocate for Apple/ Macintosh computers), had a chaotic relationship eventually leading to marriage and a daughter, became known for his interest in conservation issues - and died young of a heart attack induced by hard exercising in a gym.

In other words, Adams' own life was fairly typical of the most successful members of the modern liberal elite and of the successful characters in HHGG and his other novels: a mixture of status seeking, fashionable activism, and serial distraction (of a high status type).

*

Aside from being cut short, Adams life was a complete success within the terms of his own world view - he was likable, popular with famous friends, did the kind of exciting things people want to do, and as a bonus produced a work of genius.

And he was a near-complete nihilist.

Of course, Douglas Adams was not a wholly consistent nihilist - such a thing is a logical impossibility. Obviously, no true nihilist could be 'militant' about anything, nor would they engage in strenuous activism.

But we can look at the nature of life as conceived in Adams novels and in his own existence to see the best that modernity has to offer - and to decide whether it is good enough: whether or not it is worth living (and dying) for that kind of life.

*

9 comments:

  1. I think it's a bit extreme to call him an attempted nihilist; I suppose he was an ineffectual humanist.

    I don't think his characters indicate nihilism so much as intellectual powers that don't match up to cosmic mysteries. Adams had no trust in mysticism, so he drank alcohol and had sex. I think his anti-intellectual characters could be construed as pointing the way to mysticism rather than to nihilism - although a committed positivist rationalist might equate mysticism with nihilism.

    Adams started out in a position where he felt that he had little common ground on which to discuss ethics. His success eventually gave him some amount of common ground with similar humanists, and then he tried to make the most of it while it lasted.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "died young of a heart attack induced by hard exercising in a gym": an always-enjoyable irony; nearly as good as killing yourself by marathon.

    ReplyDelete
  3. @postgygaxian - don't you agree that the ruler of the universe (who is regarded by The Book as the best possible type of ruler) is an extreme nihilist?

    I would regard all Adams characters as intellectuals - they are not short of brain power. if anything they have too much - simple people (here on Earth) seem to have no problem in engaging with cosmic mysteries.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "But we can look at the nature of life as conceived in Adams novels and in his own existence to see the best that modernity has to offer - and to decide whether it is good enough: whether or not it is worth living (and dying) for that kind of life."

    I can easily imagine a nihilist saying, in response to this, that he picks this lifestyle not because it's good or worth living for but simply because it's true and there are no alternatives to truth (the title character of House has articulated such a belief on many occasions).

    But of course, in saying that, he's given the game away...

    ReplyDelete
  5. don't you agree that the ruler of the universe (who is regarded by The Book as the best possible type of ruler) is an extreme nihilist?

    The ruler seems to be a Pyrrhonistic skeptic, not a nihilist.

    "Are you wet? That's how it looks to ME, but how you feel about it might be a different matter. If you find warmth makes you feel dry, you'd better come in." Notice that the character has a much calmer and kinder voice than the other characters. This is Adams' idea of a truly good and trustworthy man.

    This character is not a nihilist. This character is Adams' idea of a saintly innocent.
    In television terms, he would be called a "mad oracle" or "hermit guru."

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HermitGuru
    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MadOracle

    I think Adams presented this Mad Oracle as Adams' own philosophical ideal. But Adams didn't consider this way of life to be within the limits of his own real-life strength.

    If you say the "Ruler of the Universe" character is a nihilist, I'll take your word for it, but please link me to a good encyclopedia website that can explain what nihilism is. If Pyrrhonistic skepticism is enough to qualify someone as a nihilist, then, yes, the "Ruler of the Universe" is a nihilist - and I guess that's what some people mean by "nihilist."

    http://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/

    "It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy."

    The "Ruler of the Universe" has no loyalties, and no beliefs, but he also has no desire to destroy.

    I suppose I might be biased - personally, I like Pyrrhonistic skepticism, at least in theory. (I suppose anyone who observed me could point out that I don't live up to Pyrrhonistic skepticism in my day-to-day life.)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Notice that while the aliens (Ford, Zaphod) want to jet around the universe, Arthur Dent (the human) just wants to go home.

    Anyway, Douglas Adams was not a nihilist. The fact that he was a conservationist shows that he believed in morality. You may claim atheists who are not nihilists are inconsistent, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

    ReplyDelete
  7. @Hugo

    Well, I said he wasn't a consistent nihilist: "Of course, Douglas Adams was not a wholly consistent nihilist - such a thing is a logical impossibility. Obviously, no true nihilist could be 'militant' about anything, nor would they engage in strenuous activism."

    But, in the ruler of the universe, he pushed as hard at nihilism as almost anyone this side of Samuel Beckett.

    See the Eugene Rose book for the meaning of nihilism.

    ReplyDelete
  8. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/nihilism.html

    If he is pressed, or if his mind spontaneously turns to such questions, the most obvious explanation is usually sufficient to satisfy his curiosity: all truth is empirical, all truth is relative.

    Either statement, of course, is a self-contradiction. The first statement is itself not empirical at all, but metaphysical; the second is itself an absolute statement.


    ...
    Meh. Rose seems to be making a pretty loose case. He's shooting down a hypothetical straw man, rather than citing a bigwig like Bertrand Russell or A.J.Ayer.

    Also, Rose is just plain wrong about the fount of nihilism. Rose just traces it to Nietzsche, whereas he should go back as far as the ancient Greeks!

    ReplyDelete
  9. @Anonymous - I don't understand your point.

    BTW please don't comment as Anonymous - use a pseudonym.

    ReplyDelete