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Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams and the Wisdom of Madness
By John Shirley

(Originally published in The Anthology at the End of the Universe: Leading Science Fiction Authors on Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy edited by Glenn Yeffeth)

Misfits may have an edge. I've had that advantageous disadvantage. Born baseline spacey and intellectually restless, traumatized by a neighbor at seven, my father dying when I was ten, moving six times before I was twelve, and confirming, when I moved to a new place, that people everywhere are oriented to pecking orders; that many of them are hostile to those who are different; that children who should be friendly and playful are often violent and cruel—look for my picture in the dictionary under "misfit".

Being a misfit, I saw that what we're taught about the world—that schools are "fair", that the law is "fair", that people are usually friendly to strangers—was contradicted by reality at its most basic. I recognized the contradictions in life and absorbed the dire facts about human nature sooner than most people do. The absurdities and inequities come home to the misfit sooner—it's that pecking order thing. It makes sure you get it. Hence the misfit may have a bit of an edge in terms of appreciating the quandary of the human condition. The misfit will be a little less likely to be shattered, perhaps, when the center doesn't hold, and things fall apart, because it's always been off center and breaking down, for him. For her.

In the 1980s I became a punk-rock singer as a way to adapt to the apparent hostility of life; later, when I wrote and published outlandish science-fiction and horror novels, it was really a kind of protest poetry about life's intimidating vastness and bizarrity, its offhanded dismissal of human priorities...

The tendency to adapt to life's contradictions this way, while giving me a misfit's edge, might also cultivate a certain permeability between me and the world of my own imagination.

As for example...

Just the other day, I had a conversation with an imaginary alien from another world. I said imaginary—I didn't say he didn't exist. He's been "a part of me" since I missed an important catch in a softball game, at the age of eight. I'd been staring up at the sky, thinking about planets, when I saw a white sphere coming toward me, ever so slowly and gracefully. Here, in person, was one of the spheres of heaven! I watched in fascination as it came closer and closer—dimly aware of people somewhere yelling at me to do something. It fell right in front of me and rolled, coming to a stop against my toe. Only then did I realize it was a softball.

Having added to the losing team's miseries, I was cornered by certain players, afterwards, and smacked about, as the coach smilingly looked the other way. At that point the imaginary alien in me was born. (Perhaps my contemplation of celestial spheres had summoned him from one of them.)

The alien, however, now claims to be leaving our world (I doubt he can, so long as I'm here, but never mind), out of sheer disgust with our lunacy.

Sounds "kind of Douglas Adams", doesn't it? The human condition is absurd, is insane, laughable even when it's tragic—that's the feeling you get from the novels of the late Douglas Adams.

But if you really think about it, this alien being's point of view on us is somewhat distinct from Adams'. The brilliant author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, so far as I can tell, sees all existence as quite mad—not just our world. But this alien is in denial about the extent of the madness. He may be right that it is in many ways worse here, on Earth—and of course Adams, who was (ostensibly) a native of the planet Earth, may have had his view of the universe skewed by his planetary origins.

I have transcribed most of my recent conversation with the alien from another world (I am leaving out the parts where he complains about Paris Hilton, giant parking lots and casinos, and reality television.) Although he may be an imaginary alien engaged in an imaginary conversation, the events he refers to are all quite real, I'm sorry to say. Here's the transcription:

So, alien from another world, I understand you're leaving our planet. Should we be relieved?

Yeah man, I was going to lead a takeover of the planet—but we're, like, totally not interested anymore. Enslave you people? We don't want to be anywhere near you. It's trash, dude. You people are profoundly messed up. I mean, yeah, we're ruthless invaders from another world, but we don't pay tens of thousands of dollars on eBay for a cheese sandwich with a lady's face on it, which truly recently happened on your benighted world—

One aside here, alien, your use of dialect, here, is like a human from our world, sort of colloquial Californian—what's up with that?

I'm an observer, I'm a linguist, I picked up the dialect, what do you want, I'm supposed to do a bad job? I'm a hella good linguist, dude. And where you are you from? California. If I was talking to certain Africans I'd be making clicking noises. Anyway, back to the Cheese Sandwich of God—for real, you people bid big financial resources on a toasted cheese sandwich on eBay because someone thought they saw a picture of the "Virgin Mary" on it. I remember when there was that tortilla with "Jesus" on it, in Mexico—that was ludicrous enough...but this! I mean—we were shocked that you people strap bombs on yourselves and blow yourselves up in the name of being Helpful; we were shocked by the rape camps in the Sudan—whoa, I thought we were ruthless—and we were shocked that you people in America insist, despite all the evidence, that you actually elected your newest President. But the toasted cheese sandwich, boys, for thousands of dollars on eBay? That's over the line...the whole Virgin Mary concept in the first place is, frankly, scientifically untenable. But the Virgin Mary sandwich?

You sure you even comprehend sandwiches, alien?

What? You think we don't have sandwiches on our planet? We put radioactive plankton between a couple of sheets of flying-dog-skin, not exactly your kind of sandwich, but it's still a sandwich—delicious, too, especially with a little sprinkle of hopping-squid neurons...Anyway this sandwich of yours, it's going on tour, did you know that? Pilgrims are going to line up to see it.

Still, we're better off being what we are than being enslaved by you, aren't we?

You'd be better off than running things yourselves. Let me give you some examples, all taken from a couple of ordinary newspapers. According to a newspaper survey, almost half of the people in your country believe the universe was created less than 70,000 years ago. This is in an era when you people are sending probes to other planets and learning to line up atoms with nanotechnology (that's something I learned one day in third grade, right before recess, on my world, but never mind.) Yet they believe that two naked people in a garden, after being snookered by a snake, started the human race. These believers are opposed to incest but they don't mind that they themselves are said to be the product of interbreeding between the children of these two proto humans. One of these Faithful, a pharmacist in Texas, recently refused to sell birth control because it "destroys lives." The male body creates more than 200 million sperm for every single ejaculation. Presumably when he ejaculates the pharmacist catches all the extra run-off in a cup and saves the little fellas in jars, feeding them with microscopic tweezers.

That's not the only religion on this planet, alien, be fair—

Right you are, there are lots of others, mostly quite loony. Millions of Muslims quote the Hadith which says that "The least reward for the each of the people of Heaven is 80,000 servants and 72 virginal wives, over which stands a dome of pearls, aquamarine and ruby." A good many of these Muslims believe that you can get these rewards by stoning women to death, and killing thousands of innocent people with hijacked flying vehicles. Certain Muslims recently aired a French television special earnestly stating that the Jewish people created and disseminated the HIV virus. Meanwhile, in Libya, five nurses and a doctor from Palestine in actual fact used syringes to deliberately infect more than 400 children with HIV. But hey, not to be outdone, the Israeli Army recently shot down a ten-year-old Palestinian girl as she approached an Army post. At first this terrified kid was just wounded in the leg, but a conscientious Israeli officer walked up to her and emptied his gun into her, ten rounds at close range. He said he was "confirming the kill". Shall we talk about Rwanda? 800,000 Tutsi people, butchered by the Hutu, over ten days—and why? Because these Tutsis were problematic, being "a different tribe"—even though they shared the same language with the Hutus, had the same history, the same cultural traditions, often worked in the same places! But, you know, hey, they're Tutsis! Hack them to death with machetes!

Well, there are sick people on this planet but—

Sick people? On this planet? Oh noooooo! An orange, an eggplant, a flashlight bulb, a screw, a crayon, a pencil, a candle, part of a wooden shoe tree, a drinking glass—

What's this list?

A Coca-Cola bottle, a brandy bottle, carrots, a jade bracelet, avian pulmonary tissue, an oxidized iron rod, a dead parakeet—all things found by doctors stuck in women's vaginas. Now as to the objects found in the rectal cavities of—

That's okay, alien, thanks for sharing. Listen—the average person isn't so twisted...Joe American isn't insane...

No? Here, this is from the news around Thanksgiving: In West Virginia, Jackie Lee Shrader, 49, and his son, Harley Lee, 24, had a brief shootout with .22-caliber handguns when the pair confronted each other over how to cook skinless chicken for dinner. In Alaska, Niccolo Rossodivita, 62, shot Billy Cordova, 40, twice in the chest in an argument about Jesus Christ's correct name. In Eugene Oregon, Angela Morris, 19, was charged with assaulting her boyfriend by pouring boiling oil on him during an argument over a Bible verse the two had been reading...Also over Thanksgiving this year a guy in Massachusetts stabbed two members of his family for criticizing him for eating his turkey with his fingers.

I know it looks bad—

Come on, you really expect us to invade this psychotic planet? You people are sick! We want nothing more to do with you—not even invasion! See a damn doctor, or something. Six billion doctors. I'm leaving, I'm going to a planet where they juggle jellyfish to express their angst. Those people make sense compared to you Earth types.

You won't reconsider?

No—suppose you people somehow infect our world with those Starbucks things? No, dude, I'm out.

...And that's all he'd say.

My disgruntled alien has a point: this planet could be viewed as one enormous, badly maintained, poorly funded lunatic asylum. But is it our fault? The psychiatrist R.D. Laing argued that those of us who seem mentally ill are simply adapting to an insane world; to unbearable, maddening tensions set up by the world's contradictions, its inherent cognitive dissonances. Madness should be valued, Laing said, as a kind of longterm epiphanic experience, cathartic and strangely healthy.

It seems to me that's the theme we find in Douglas Adams, again and again.

In life, as in the Adams canon, madness leads to madness which leads to more madness—and you adapt however you can. Usually with...a kind of madness.

However, let's be clear: there's unhealthy madness—and then there's a kind of wise insanity. Adams satirizes the first and by implication advocates the second.

A Catholic theologian recently pointed out that, according to the calculations of certain historians, in the entire history of the human race there have been only 350 years without war. That's a day here, a few weeks there, adding up. War is the human condition. Despite the apparent calm in much of America and Europe, you know, in your heart, that you could be swept up in war any time—post 9/11 you know it not only in your heart, but in your head.

You are expected to adapt to that knowledge, willy-nilly. But how? Usually with denial, as far as that'll take us—and the kind of madness that's made to sound rational: with the insane reasonable-sounding systems that Adams mocks so often in his work.

Your president tells you that he's going to end terrorism by invading another country, while at the same time he is frequently advised by pretty much everyone that invading that country will foment terrorism; when it does produce more terrorism, he beams and points to the "progress" made in ending terrorism. In effect he's saying, "Cultivating terrorism ends terrorism!" Adapt to that.

(I adapted by seriously considering emigrating to Canada: surely a symptom of impending madness.)

You're minding your business, selling socks and Egyptian cigarettes in Baghdad, and some CIA bureaucrat's confused Intel leads to your being chucked in the back of a humvee, taken to Abu Ghraib where, in the name of defending freedom, American soldiers make you play with yourself in front of your fellow Muslims, and then pile your body into a heap with other naked prisoners for a photo op. Adapt to that.

(Some adapt by strapping bombs on themselves: Insane violence as an adaptation. That's the bad adaptive-insanity I mentioned.)

The human mind is designed to find patterns, to consolidate chaos into order, to seek to harmonize contradictions. It works okay when you're figuring out how to build a boat to cross a river. But you mustn't look for big, overall patterns that really make sense of things as a whole—if you do, you get scared by how meaningless life can seem. That way lies madness.

Just try complaining about the situation. In the novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, we're told that the Complaints Division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation covers the major land masses of three medium-sized planets. The company has this motto: Share and Enjoy. When the three-mile-high sign displaying the motto collapses, the damaged remains of the sign then appears to read, "Go stick your head in a pig."

[The sign's collapse killed great numbers of Complaints executives—consistently, in Adams, thousands, even millions of people are seen to be casually exterminated by ruthless, random circumstance.]

This seems to suggest that the real motto of this gigantic, ubiquitous corporation is in fact "Go stick your head in a pig." Giant corporations, like bureaucracies and governments, are always revealed, in Adams, to be the Hell that is more than the sum of the parts. They are insistently irrational, and strangely powerful in their irrationality. Their obstinate irrationality seems almost an asset to them, though it is a liability to you.

Even the Hitchhiker's Guide of the story, itself, issuing from the megasized Megadodo Publications (decode the name: Megadodo = Giant Stupidity), can be relied on to be unreliable, and arrogantly so. Adams says that it "does at least make the reassuring claim, that where it is inaccurate it is at least definitively inaccurate. In cases of major discrepancy it's always reality that got it wrong."

That's the fundamental social disconnect—something we find satirized in Jonathan Swift (whom Adams resembles, quite often), in Mark Twain (as for example his A Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and Adams has been compared to Sam Clemens too), in Monty Python (Adams had some connections to them), and very sharply in Adams' The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: The hapless Ford Prefect and the even more hapless Arthur Dent find themselves crash-landing on a mystery planet, where they're bunged in with the idiotic Golgafrinchans. Hundreds of thousands of Golgafrinchans, people from an advanced civilization, are stranded in a wilderness, without fire or the wheel, where they spend their time "giving grants", making committees for virtually everything, including working out how to start a fire. After five hundred and seventy three committee meetings, a former hairdresser given two pieces of wood for fire starting research returns with his handiwork: the wood has been made into curling irons. The former hairdresser, stranded on an alien world, obstinately insists on continuing as a hairdresser exactly where hairdressers are least needed. When Ford criticizes their fire-making efforts, a Golgafrinchan girl responds:

"Well, you're obviously being totally naive of course...When you've been in marketing as long as I have you'll know that before any new product can be developed it has to be properly researched. We've got to find out what people want from fire, how they relate to it, what sort of image it has for them."

How about building the wheel, at least, Ford begs them.

"Ah," said the marketing girl, "well, we're having a little difficulty there."

"Difficulty?" exclaimed Ford. "Difficulty? What do you mean, difficulty? It's the single simplest machine in the entire universe!"

The marketing girl soured him with a look.

"All right, Mr Wiseguy," she said, "you're so clever, you tell us what color it should be."

This ordinary madness, superimposing meaningless conceptual frameworks on irrelevant situations, realities that won't fit into the frames, is a fundamental human characteristic that Adams instinctively sends up whenever he can. (Vonnegut and Joseph Heller did it too, but not as farcically.) We demand the irrelevant. We're always stuck in some half remembered model of the past, never really looking around at the now, never just taking it in for what it is.

We get scant direct philosophical input from Adams—nothing he doesn't contradict a moment later, usually. He seems to be implying, however, that uncertainty is the only certainty, and a kind of enlightened uncertainty can be an intelligent way to approach reality. Trillian and Zaphod Beeblebrox, and by extension Adams, approve when the whiskey-tippling old man thought to be the secret master of the cosmos replies, when asked if he believes in anything:

"I don't know. I've never met all these people you speak of. And neither, I suspect, have you. They only exist in words we hear. It is folly to say you know what is happening to other people, Only they know, if they exist. They have their own Universes of their eyes and ears."

The old gent, living contentedly in a tin-roofed shack on a rainy planet with his scruffy cat, seems to embody a kind of infinite compassion as he refuses to judge anyone, or anything, understanding the subjectivity of the existential condition; he seems detached from identification, unwilling to engage in any set assumption about reality based merely on past experiences. "How can I tell," he asks, "that the past isn't a fiction designed to account for the discrepancy between my immediate physical sensations and the state of my mind."

Well, there it is, he's laying it out for us: The disconnect. The acknowledgement of the tendency to impose presumptions, prejudices, narrowings on a reality— ever-dynamic, evolving— that won't be imposed upon. The old man seems crazy—and yet he's the sanest one in the scene. Zaphod approves:

"I think the Universe is in pretty good hands, yeah?"

"Very good," said Trillian. They walked off into the rain.

Now writers, I can attest, do sometimes "put themselves" into their own fiction but typically they are only inserting sub-selves, portions of their personalities, as if they're trying to see these temporary manifestations of themselves objectively; trying to see the various facets of themselves as they really are. A protagonist may represent one side of me, when I write a novel; an antagonist may represent another side of me.

Zaphod, mercurial and whimsical, may represent some part of Adams himself, as Arthur Dent, very British and ready to lie down in front of a bulldozer (Adams was a committed environmentalist) is another. Zaphod approves of the old man's philosophy: adapt to reality, remain skeptical, don't get caught up any one aspect of it so that you lose touch with the whole flow.

This also dovetails with Adams remark, in Restaurant, to wit that people who most want to be rulers are "least suited to it." That could have been a remark by the Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the novel) more or less starts with Arthur Dent learning that some confused bureaucracy has permitted that his house be razed, pets and all. Adams then takes it to a much higher level, when the diabolically dull and brutish Vogons demolish the entire Earth, in moments, to make room for an interstellar throughway ramp. In the second book of the series, we're told in a casual aside that a planet with millions of souls on it was used as a kind of giant pool ball, knocked into a black hole and destroyed for points in a game. In Life, the Universe and Everything the inhabitants of the planet Krikkit are planning the destruction of the cosmos merely because they're sick of looking at it.

The universe is violent, and unfair. Our human ideas of fairness, normalcy and sanity are based on tiny perceptions, and are quite futile. Look, about the time I figured out how to live life, I was well past 40—past the part where I could have used the knowledge to shape my life. This same profoundly annoying realization has come to hundreds of millions, probably billions of people: youth is wasted on the young. Life is inherently unfair, unjust—the only "justice", apart from the laws of physics, is what we create ourselves.

So far as anyone scientific can make out, the purpose of our brutish and short existence is to be carriers for DNA. We carry DNA, and the possibility for its mutation, into the future. It's as if we're time travel machines for chromosomes. That seems to be all we're for. (Some mystics have other answers, but Adams doesn't much go there, in any serious way, and neither will we.) And that itself seems inherently absurd. We're caught up in some agenda, if that's the word, that we can never understand...

The universe is fraught with paradox; contradiction is built into the very structure of being. We are equipped, even before birth, with powerful survival instincts. We're designed to fight for survival, to want to live—but like those resentful androids in Bladerunner, we are also designed to age and die. "Live!" says the universe. "Except...don't!"

We're asked to survive in a universe that in many respects is hostile to survival: the world is handily equipped with radiation, destructive micro-organisms, predators and sudden scarcities of resources. We're given egos that make us feel important, the center of reality, and then we learn—as Adams reminds us again and again and yet once more—that the universe is unspeakably vast, and we're minute, excruciatingly infinitesimal relative to its vastness. We have universe-sized egos and speck-sized actual importance. That disconnect is hard to take; all those disconnects are hard to take. We tend to adapt to the disconnect with a kind of madness: our obstinate beliefs held in the face of all the evidence to the contrary.

But we can transcend the contradictions, too, Adams seems to suggest. We can become like that old man in the shack. We learn, like that old man, not to take anything seriously. Oh he takes care of himself and his cat—but he knows better than to impose his human ideas of "sanity" on the universe. He never fixes in any one conceptual framework—and thus he seems insane to people whose idea of sanity is fixed conceptual frameworks. Effectively, in the context of the consensus reality most people share, he is insane, in a relative way. But paradoxically, it's a healthy madness. It's what I would call philosophical insanity.

Sometimes though, the contradictions in life become too difficult to bear. If so we can adapt by simply shedding them with a kind of tension relief system—that is, we crazily contort our bodies and make a rather odd, repetitious animal-hooting sort of sound: it's called "laughter."

Douglas Adams' sense of humor is itself a kind of suggestion; humor is guidance. Laughter eases tensions, gives you a moment to look around, say to yourself that, after all, here's a helluva mystery. "Slow down, check it out," says laughter. Laugh hysterically so you don't get hysterical.

But our tendency is to get caught up in things—to "identify" with them, as the Buddhists say—so that we lose all perspective, before we have a chance to apply these methods. How do we remember to adapt to the absurdity of life with philosophical insanity? To step back, take a breath, not get too caught up? Adams has two words of advice. He mentioned many times that this advice is the main "selling point" of the Hitchhiker's guidebook. It's just two words, found on the bottom part of the book cover:

Don't panic.