Meaninglessness and meaninglessness and meaninglessness mixed with a good bath towel and conveniently placed feelings of right and wrong. Such is the world portrayed by Douglas Adams, best-selling author of the 1979 classic, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Hilarity in the face of irreverence in the face of randomness in the face of general upsidedownedness. It’s an intoxicating cocktail if you’re looking for a laugh or some quick nihilism, but downright disheartening if you’re hoping for some sort of purpose in life, the universe, and everything.
I’m not a Douglas Adams scholar. Are there Douglas Adams scholars?* Do they present at the same conferences as Tolkein and Lewis scholars or do they prefer to share space with Trekkies and Star Wars experts? Whoever and wherever they are, I’m not one of them. Nevertheless, I imagine the following assertion put forward by characters such as Frankie the Mouse and Slartibartfast is indicative of Adams’s irreverent materialism: the now-destroyed earth was a manufactured planet created to find the Ultimate Question, the answer to which must be 42.
A factory-built earth is not a philosophically edifying prospect, to say the least. And yet. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m listening to the audiobook of Hitchhiker’s Guide, and that audiobook is read by Stephen Fry, Jeeves himself. Perhaps it’s because the name Slartibartfast makes me laugh every time I hear it. Perhaps it’s because Adams’s whimsy reminds me of Victor Hugo’s early chapters of The Hunchback of Notre Dame: “Who is that pale-faced man at the foot of the [scaffold]? Why, courteous readers, that is poor Pierre Gringoire and his prologue. We had all quite and clean forgotten about him; and this was precisely what he was afraid of.”
Whatever the reason, The Hitchhiker’s Guide has a refreshing snap to it. There’s something delightful in how it portrays the world, even if the world is meaningless. Even Christians find Adams’s commentary, his characters, his cleverness amusing. Why? We certainly don’t want to live in a world where the Earth is a blip in the cosmic scheme, and the only record of its existence is the entry “harmless.” We must have meaning and purpose, right and wrong, celebrated life and well-mourned death. In fact, we humans are so highly skilled in finding meaning that we can understand noble purpose in a traffic jam, a sickness, or even a death. After all, if we must have suffering, one of our few comforts is that there’s a higher reason for it.
Hitchhiker’s Guide is so bereft of meaning, on the other hand, that it’s ridiculous. We laugh at the ridiculous, much as a historian would laugh at the phrase “Abraham Lincoln was a Nazi sympathizer.” It’s so ludicrous, so far-fetched, so obviously wrong that it strikes a chord and makes us—fallen, glorious creatures bearing the image of God—laugh. There’s no harm in it. The only harm comes in taking it seriously, just as a group of Neo-Nazis based in Springfield would take the humor out of Lincoln’s Aryan sympathies.
We must have laughter. But laughter requires a level of ridiculousness that can’t be true. In fact, it often stems from a situation so untrue that we who are “grounded and steadfast in the truth of the gospel” can enjoy the contrast, just as we enjoy a toddler wearing adult sunglasses, a cat barking like a dog, and a venerable 5-million-year-old-man named Slartibartfast.
If Adams truly is suggesting that the world has no meaning, he’s standing on the shoulders of giants he doesn’t believe in. And he’s giving them a good laugh.
*If you’re curious about this, check out Nicholas Jolls’ Philosophy and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).