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:

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.