Saturday, 29 October 2011

Total perspective vortex: the nihilist universe


Among the ways in which Douglas Adams Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy expresses his nihilistic view of the universe

(a nihilism which is in fact mainstream in modern public discourse - thought very seldom expressed with such economy and wit)

is the concept of the Total Perspective Vortex.


The TPV is a punishment (indeed a capital punishment, in all but one instance) which shows the victim the (nihilist) Truth that they - and indeed everything they might value - are in 'reality' utterly insignificant, and that reality is (therefore) meaningless.


[The modern nihilist perspective should be contrasted with the description of the human situation of pre-modern man - for example the Medieval cosmology:

[A difference was that although the Medieval cosmology shared the sense of insignificance of size between humans (and earth) and the universe, and indeed regarded the earth as the lowest and most corrupt part of the universe - there was a spiritual sense which transcended physical differential by the centrality of the salvation of each individual soul.

[Adams believed and argued that this Medieval perspective, and indeed all genuine religious perspectives, were 'evil' (that is, evil in the sense of leading to sub-optimal human happiness) - and that adoption of the actuality  exemplified by the imagined operations of the Total Perspective Vortex would lead to a better world with less suffering.


[How Adams believed this, I understand - because I believed it too - but I don't know of any coherent rational argument which truly, actually gets you from accepting the validity of insight deriving from the TPV to Left-Liberalism, Relativism and Lifestyle Hedonism. Let's just say that this link is accepted.]


The nihilist cosmology which the Total Perspective Vortex forces upon its victim has no real answer - the only answer (as Adams makes clear) is to avoid thinking about reality - perhaps by distracting the mind with serial pleasures such as going to parties, perhaps by obliterating consciousness with a Pan Galactic Gargleblaster; or perhaps by the conviction of total egotism as possessed by Zaphod Beeblebrox: the grandiose delusion of one's own importance.


For Adams, as a representative modern elite intellectual, the most important thing about reality is to avoid it as completely as possible and for as long as possible.

To do this is assisted by Lifestyle Freedom and Serial Distraction - indeed, these are imperative.

The body's 'natural' appetites are exploited to (ideally) overwhelm consciousness with absorption in pleasure (preferably pleasure, but if this doesn't work then just absorption in something like status-seeking, plans of seduction, consumption; and if this doesn't work then daydreams about these things.


Nihilism is the attempted avoidance of reality by denial of the reality of reality; because if reality really was what it seems to be, and one is really an insignificant speck, then one's own knowledge of reality could not be valid (since insignificant specks lack valid knowledge).

The choice, then, is to accept a self-refuting and paralyzing reality, which kills you; or to avoid the whole question until you are taken by death.

(Modern society does both, mostly the latter - so far - but increasingly more of the former...)


(From Episode 8 of the BBC Radio series transcript. I still recall listening to this broadcast live and for the first time - one of the great comedy moments of my life.)

The Universe, as has been observed before, is an unsettling big place. The fact which, for the sake of a quiet life, most people tend to ignore. 

Many would happily move to somewhere rather smaller of their own devising, and this is what most beings, in fact, do.

For instance, in one corner of the Eastern Galactic Arm lies the great forest planet Oglaroon. The entire ‘intelligent’ population of which lives permanently in one fairly small and crowded nut tree. In which tree they’re born, live, fall in love, carve tiny, speculative articles in the bark on the meaning of life, the futility of death, and the importance of birth control, fight a few - very minor - wars, and eventually die strapped to the underside of some of the less accessible outer branches. In fact, the only Oglaroonians who ever leave their tree at all are those who are hurled out for the heinous crime of wondering whether any of the other trees might be capable of supporting life at all, or indeed be anything other than illusions brought on by eating too many Oglanuts. 

Exotic though this behaviour may seem, there is no life-form in the galaxy not in some way guilty of the same thing. Which is why the Total Perspective Vortex is as horrific as it undoubtedly is. 

For when you are put in the Vortex, you are given just one, momentary glimpse of the size of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation along with a tiny little marker saying, “You are here”.

Scene 7. Int. Frogstar


MAN: [Blood-curdling scream]

ZAPHOD: Hey man, what was that?

GARGRAVARR: A man being put in the Vortex I’m afraid. We’re very close to it now.

ZAPHOD: Hey, it sounds really bad. Couldn’t we maybe go to a party or something, for a while… think it over?

GARGRAVARR: For all I know I’m probably at one. My body that is. He goes to a lot of parties without me… says I only get in the way. Hey ho

ZAPHOD: I can see why it wouldn’t want to come here. This place is the dismalest. Looks like a bomb’s hit it you know.

GARGRAVARR: Several have - it’s a very unpopular place. The Vortex is in the heaviest steel bunker ahead of you.

MAN: [Blood-curdling scream]

ZAPHOD: The universe does that to a guy?

GARGRAVARR: The whole infinite Universe. The Infinite sums. The Infinite distances between them, and yourself. An invisible dot on an invisible dot. Infinitely small.
The Vortex derives its picture of the whole universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses.

To explain - since every piece of matter in the universe is in someway affected by every other piece of matter in the universe, it is, in theory, possible to extrapolate the whole of creation - every galaxy, every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition, and their economic and social history, from, say - one small piece of fairy cake. 

The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so, basically, in order to annoy his wife. 

Trin Tragula, for that was his name, was a dreamer, a speculative thinker, or, as his wife would have it, an idiot. And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he would spend staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake. “Have some sense of proportion,” she would say, thirty-eight times a day.

And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex - just to show her. And in one end he plugged the whole of reality, as extrapolated from a fairy cake, and in the other end he plugged his wife - so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock annihilated her brain.

But to his satisfaction, he realised he had conclusively proved 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.

And it is into this Vortex that Zaphod Beeblebrox has been put, and from which, a few seconds later, he emerges.

Scene 8. Int. Frogstar

[The Vortex door opens]


GARGRAVARR: Beeblebrox! You’re…!

ZAPHOD: Fine, fine. Could I have a drink please?

GARGRAVARR: You’ve been in the Vortex?!

ZAPHOD: You saw me kid.

GARGRAVARR: And you saw the whole infinity of creation?!

ZAPHOD: The lot baby - it’s a real neat place you know, heh-heh.

GARGRAVARR: And you saw yourself in relation to it all?!

ZAPHOD: Yah, yeah, yeah.

GARGRAVARR: And what did you experience?!

ZAPHOD: It just told me what I knew all the time: I’m a really great guy! Didn’t I tell ya baby, I am Zaphod Beeblebrox!!


Note: In my college year book for 1982 the class elected each other for various spoof 'awards': mine was 'The Zaphod Beeblebrox Ego Award'...