I guess that I should admit that I am aware of the fact that I am (and probably have always been) a bit of a “nerd.” That’s probably no surprise to most who know me. I don’t think that’s the only way to describe me, but I will admit to a degree of “Nerd-dom.” By that statement, I mean, in part, that I have read at least some of the works of Douglas Adams (although I am far from being an expert on them, if such a thing exists). And, as most of my students know, I am also guilty of being quite fond of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot; have seen it several times (probably the best time was the performance Maggi and I saw in London in 2009 with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen); I’ve directed a production of it at Western; built another production there; and assigned it in dramatic lit. classes on numerous occasions, after having studied in several times while in school, myself. That, also, probably speaks to my “nerdiness.” Thus, I establish my claim to both “nerdiness” and oddball literary references.
Anyway, I caught a reference in a comic strip in the newspaper a while ago to the idea that 42 is the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, as calculated by an enormous alien-built supercomputer named Deep Thought over a period of 7.5 million years. I immediately recognized this as referring to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (as, I am sure, many others did) but then I ran across a reference to an online article by Ryan Kinsgrove which purported to explain why 42 was the answer. So, I did the obvious thing, looked it up, and read it.
As I understand it, the basic argument goes something like this: the only way a computer can respond to any question has to be based on that computer’s “understanding” of the question and the nature of the universe which that computer “inhabits.” Computers, obviously, understand “computerdom,” not humanity, or some other such construct, so Deep Thought would have to respond in a way which is appropriate for a computer.
Adams’ book was first published in 1979. Now, being an Apple user, I tend to think of the history of computers in terms of the development of Apple products, a not very accurate system, I know, but my own. At that time the Apple II+ (which would be the first computer I would own) was just being introduced and the first Macintosh (which is what most people seem to think about when they think about Apple computers) was still five years away.
However, the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) was already (had been for a while) established as a standard way to express language. That is, English letters, upper and lower case; numbers [digits]; standard punctuation; and some common control codes are expressed in ASCII in a form which could be “understood” by computers. Hence ASCII was the basis for at least some of the programming languages in use at the time. (NOTE: It’s entirely possible that it still is, but I’m getting well over my head here.)
Now I am basing this on information which I do NOT understand, but which seems to make sense. The story goes that the glyph we call an asterisk (*) is/was commonly used as a “wildcard,” a variable input. Hence, the asterisk can have whatever meaning is assigned to it.
Note: While I make no pretense of being a programmer in ANY sense of the word, I DID do a search for “examples of wildcard characters” in my browser of choice (DuckDuckGo) and was led to support.Microsoft.com which says that an * “Matches any number of characters. You can use the asterisk (*) anywhere in a character string.” I believe that this means that my belief that an asterisk (*) can act as a “wildcard” for any number of characters, (hence almost any expression) is true.
So, how does this relate to the “Ultimate Question?” The decimal number “42” is the ASCII code for an asterisk. Hence, I believe that Kinsgrove’s argument is suggesting, that, by responding with “42,” Deep Thought is saying that the meaning of life, etc., is a variable, a wildcard, it can mean whatever you want it to mean. Thus, 42 suggests that life is what you make of it.
This conjecture, which I rather like, draws on the belief that Adams spent some time while he was in school and early in his professional life as a computer programmer, which doesn’t appear unreasonable, but I have not been able to verify that idea. However, I DID determine that his father apparently DID work as a computer salesman for a time, so the notion probably shouldn’t just be written off as a not particularly credible idea.
After pondering these thoughts a while, my weird brain said to me “That’s rather like Godot, isn’t it?” and my mind skipped a groove because it all made sense. You see, one of the rather classic questions of dramatic literature is “Who or what is Godot?” in Beckett’s play. Adams may have provided us with an answer to the question he posed in The Hitchhiker’s Guide, even if he didn’t make it too easy to understand. (Yes, I’m far from sure that the explanation I have discussed above is true, or complete, but I do think that it seems to make a fair amount of sense.)
Beckett, on the other hand, avoided explaining Godot (the character) for a long time and, only after years of being pressured by critics, scholars, etc., did he respond. At least, my understanding is that he was eventually worn down to the point where he said something like: “Godot is that which we wait for which does not come.” I’m not sure when or where I first heard this story, but I find that it makes perfect sense to me and that I think it ties directly into the ideas being discussed above in relation to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But I probably ought to explain that a bit.
I think many people (certainly I) would suggest that Beckett’s play has something to do with Didi and Gogo spending their lives waiting for something to happen. That event is expressed as the notion of Godot coming. Somehow, at least as I see it, Godot, when he shows up is going to, like Sister Mary Ignatius, explain it all. To, perhaps, put it in a form which makes slightly more sense, it’s an Existential statement relating to Being and Becoming. After all, the play WAS written in the late 1940s (in French) and first produced (in France) in 1953, the period which seems most closely associated with Modern Existentialism.
So, who, or what, is the Godot that they are waiting for? The implication seems to be that he is a human (assuming that they are), but there is no assertion that that is a fact. It IS stated, however, late in the second act, that they believe that if Godot comes, they “will be saved.” That would seem to more than imply that Godot will solve all of their problems, answer all their questions, somehow provide a meaning for their existence and an explanation as to why all their “waiting” was worthwhile. I think that this could be taken to suggest that Godot is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, or, at least, he can provide it when he shows up.
Of course, Beckett has written a play about waiting for this character in which he repeatedly does NOT come! I believe that Beckett is implying that he is never going to do so! In other words, Godot can, perhaps, be seen as a sort of “wildcard” which has no fixed value, Godot is like an ASCII “asterisk,” he/she/it is the answer to a question which can only have meaning to the end user because only the end user can define the variable “life, the universe, and everything.”
I believe that this is simply another way of expressing what I have always thought was what Beckett wanted us to take away from his play, that the meaning/value of life is NOT its end result (Being), but the meaning we create by living (Becoming). Hence, Didi and Gogo are, ultimately wasting their time playing games and waiting for Godot to “drop in” with the answer, because the TRUE answer is what we make of that life. The answer is whatever we choose to define it as through what we do with our lives. Please note that this is, as I understand it, a very Existential idea, based on my own (limited and probably flawed) understanding of Sartre, etc.
I hope that this if this is only clear as mud, at least it covers the ground. I would be happy (I think) to try to explain these ideas more clearly (if I can), but I’ve gone as far as I can here.
I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, when I hope to have returned to my more normal sense of insanity, probably with something a bit more usual, like some stuff from the funny papers.
Until then, LLAP,
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic; capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” ―Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows