Monday, September 06, 2010

5: Crossing the Threshold

Shortly before Star Wars (and shortly after the Eternals) there was rather a good comedy series on Radio 4. You may remember it. You've certainly read the (much less good) book that was based on it. One of the main jokes was about the search for the "the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything".

Douglas Adams seems to have constructed his scripts in reverse. He seems to have dreamt up absurd comic reversals and then worked out some even more absurd comic back story which allowed those reversals to make a kind of sense. At any rate, I can't believe that he worked out how matter transportation beams worked, and then worked out what kind of effect they would have on the human body, and then deduced that the best source of salt and protein would be a bag of peanuts. I think that he decided that "I've got some peanuts" would be a comically incongruous thing for Ford Prefect to say after the destruction of the Earth, and then worked out a quasi-logical reason for him to say it.

The phrase "the Question to the Ultimate Answer" is dropped in, almost in passing, at the end of episode 3. It's a delightfully meaningless reversal. The explanation – that a race of people spent millions of years discovering an Answer which is useless to them because they didn't know the Question – is essentially a shaggy dog story. The revelation that the great Question to which the Answer is 42 is "What do you get if you multiply six by nine?" – is as good a punch line as a shaggy dog story ever has.

But I don't think that we took it like that at the time. I think that those of us who wore out our copies of the Pan paperback; wore "XLII" badges on our blazers; and treated towels as significant objects (if only for a single summer) thought that the idea that the Secret of Life, he Universe and Everything was contained in two digits was Very Profound Indeed.

The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy says that no-one on Earth ever realised that the whole planet was a big computer intended to calculate the Ultimate Question: "which was odd, because without that fairly simple and obvious piece of knowledge, nothing that ever happened on the earth could possibly make the slightest bit of sense." When Arthur Dent discovers the truth, he immediately says that it explains a lot things: he's always thought that something big, even sinister, was going on in the world "and that no-one would tell me what it was."

But the "fairly simple and obvious piece of knowledge" which makes sense out of history also has the effect of rendering history pointless and senseless. Once you know that human civilisation is actually a big question-seeking computer programme, it's quite hard to work up much enthusiasm for studying, say, the life of Cardinal Wolsey. Once some helpful person has identified all the drawings of UFOs in the Pyramids, there's no real need to visit them. Once Eric has informed you that the Bible is really, really important because it contains incontrovertible proof that the human race has been visited by extraterrestrials the last thing you want to do is re-read the story of Balaam's Ass. Whether we are talking about Freud or Frazer or Forty Two, Great Big Structuralist Secrets represent the incredibly appealing idea that there is an answer -- a simple answer -- that you can know, and wear on your lapel, without all that tedious mucking about with scholarship.

Some Christians believe that the Bible, and in particular, the book of Revelation, contains a fairly simple and obvious piece of knowledge without which nothing that happens on earth makes the slightest bit of sense. Human history is a great big battle between Christ and Darkseid Satan, and it's all going to culminate (real soon now) in the Rapture, the Tribulation, the Millennium, and the Second Coming, though not necessarily in that order [VERY GOOD THEOLOGICAL JOKE]. As the Ship of Fools website points out: this has the unintended consequence that between 70 AD and 1948, nothing whatsoever happened.



There was Star Wars, the big meta-story.

And there was the Eternals, the story that was the grain of truth hidden in all the other stories.

And there was Van Danikin and the other conspiracy theorists, explaining that there was one very simple and obvious fact without which nothing much which happened on earth made the slightest bit of sense.

And, of course, there was the Eternal Champion, and never mind that Elric is as dull as pigshit, no book in the world is ever quite as exciting as the First Book of Corum is the first time you read it; and there was John Carter of Mars, which I was just finishing with; and there was E.E "Doc" Smith which I was just starting with; and all the superheroes who'd been around for ever and ever; and then the BBC transmitted the Ring Cycle live from Bayreuth and more or less ruined the rest of my life.

So obviously when I finally obtained a copy of Hero With a Thousand Faces it was was going to become a talismanic book.

I mean. There I was I spending summer holidays going to Glastonbury (the town, that is, not the festival) in order to commune with the Holy Grail at Chalice Well. Seriously. There was I voluntarily reading Malory in the original, including the Tristran sections, which god knows I wouldn't do now. People talk about "spirituality" as if they know what it means. I don't. I never have. (They won't tell me. I've asked them.) But pretty clearly, I had a something shaped hole, and discussions about unemployment and nuclear weapons with vaguely earnest lady vicars were not making any serious attempt to fill it. Hero With a Thousand Faces exclusively revealed that Jack Kirby was right about all mythologies having a kernel of truth, but wrong in thinking that that truth was about space aliens. And George Lucas was right about there being only one Story, but Star Wars wasn't that story. And all that stuff about civil war slavers on Mars and Venture Scout kids bringing western democracy to green aliens whether they wanted it or not – all that pulp fiction wasn't, as everyone was always telling me, a waste of time that a clever lad like me ought to have grown out of: it was the only worthwhile thing you could possibly be reading. And it was no longer necessary to pretend that "42" or "I know where my towel is" were the icons which represented the Simple And Obvious piece of knowledge without which Nothing Much made Any Sense. There was a simple, easily photocopyable and pinable upable diagram on page 212 which represented the big secret. Which was the big secret.

Owning a copy of Hero With a Thousand Faces represented the fact that all stories were one story; that all stories were true; and that Star Wars and the Eternals and comic books and Dungeons & Dragons were not merely important, but actually the only important thing there was.

I can't remember if I actually read it or not.



AndrewSshi said...

I didn't actually read Hero With a Thousand Faces until I took a class on Sigurd the Volsung and the hero archetype back in undergrad. I remember going to it with the kind of bated anticipation you describe, but then coming away with, "Man, there's sure a lot of psychoanalysis in it, isn't there?" And of course that circular diagram, which actually makes Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath more fun to read.

Sam Dodsworth said...

...between 70 AD and 1948, nothing whatsoever happened

"The Empire never ended."

But I think you knew about that already?

Andrew Rilstone said...