Where There Were No Doors

Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before - Joseph Campbell

Friday, January 28, 2005

A lesson from Wonko

One of my favourite characters in all of literature is a little celebrated minor character in the fourth of Douglas Adams "Hitch-hiker's Guide" books, So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish. His name is Wonko The Sane.

One day Wonko (who had yet to realise that he was "The Sane") had occasion to buy a packet of toothpicks. As he was opening them, he noticed that printed on the side of the package were instructions on how to use a toothpick. He had an epiphany.
It seemed to me that any civilisation that had so far lost its head as to need to include a set of detailed instructions for use in a package of toothpicks, was no longer a civilisation in which I could live and stay sane.
- Wonko The Sane
(So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish)
So Wonko did what exactly what you'd expect the last sane man in the world to do... he built an asylum to house civilisation and went and lived outside of it. He pitched tent on a beach in California and built four walls around himself. He then decorated his side of the walls to look like the outside of a house, complete with front door leading back in to the outside world. This house he named "The Asylum" and Wonko The Sane continued to live blissfully on the one patch of the world outside of it.

And in case his resolve should ever weaken, Wonko had a plaque placed above the door of The Asylum engraved with the words which had driven him out...
Hold stick near center of its length.
Moisten pointed end in mouth.
Insert in tooth space, blunt end next to gum.
Use gentle in-and-out motion.
There are few people I identify with more than Wonko The Sane, notwithstanding the fact that the totality of his existence is about two pages of text in a funny British science-fiction novel. My hazy fantasy of renovating a farmhouse in the West of Ireland is really no more than a version of Wonko's perfectly valid and justifiable reaction to a world that has quite clearly gone stark raving bonkers.

Whether it be instructions on toothpicks, the fact that a stage musical of David Blunkett's life story is in the works, or the state of world politics, there is no scale or arena in which humanity isn't outdoing itself in its absurdity. Wonko's realisation was a simple one... he wanted to remain sane. It doesn't really get much simpler than that. He understood that your sanity is measured against how well you can function within your society. But he also knew that his particular society was quite insane, and to truly function in it, he would have to allow it to drive him mad too.

So Wonko remained sane by stepping outside his civilisation and closing the door behind him. No longer part of an insane society, his sanity is no longer judged by how well he functions within it. And he himself is free of the exhausting struggle to remain sane in a world that needs instructions on a pack of toothpicks. He is a Yossarian-like character; aware of the absurdity of his position, but equally aware of his lack of choice in the matter.

Wonko is a taoist monk as written by Douglas Adams. His philosophy of disengagement, for all its apparent absurdity, is a well-trodden route towards peace and enlightenment. It isn't - of course - the only route. And any taoist who tries to say otherwise on this blog will get a knee in the serenity from me. The only thing I can't stand is a dogmatist. Dogmatists and fanatics. Death to them all! That's my unbreakable rule: "death to all dogmatists and fanatics!!"

But even though on some fundamental level I am Wonko. Even though I honestly believe that disengagement from our insane, suicidal consumer culture is a valid - perhaps even the most rational - response to our times. Still... my concern is that at this moment in history it's probably a terrible mistake. That our times do not allow for it. Wonko's response ceases to make any sense if he starts to build the walls of The Asylum straight in the path of an approaching tidal wave. He can't live outside The Asylum if he's dead. And all he's achieved is a particularly pointless and inefficient suicide.

There's a phrase I'm fond of (mostly because of the comedy value to be got out of saying it in a silly voice). That phrase is: "We are living in the End Times". It's got a great biblical ring to it. But I believe it to have a major element of truth to it. All civilisations rise and fall, and it appears to be common to all civilisations that those living inside them believe theirs to be eternal. They are the exception to the rule.

Western capitalism, spearheaded by the American corporate ethos, has got to be the real exception though, right? Haven't you heard of "sustainable growth" after all? Well, in the The Death of Capitalism - Part 2 (coming soon) I shall explain why sustainable growth is an illusion, and why that illusion is going to be shattered far sooner than most people imagine.

The implications of this are enormous. The widespread collapse of global markets, currencies and financial institutions is just around the corner. Modern humanity when put under such strain, and faced with such cataclysmic circumstances are apt to make stupid decisions.

Decisions from whose consequences there can be no disengagement.

Leaving civilisation to collapse is like pitching a tent next to an oncoming tidal wave. I've arrived at the conclusion that the only course which transcends despair and futility is for the smart, forward-thinking, switched-on people to try and influence the decisions made over the coming years.

For self-preservation if for no other reason.

3 Comments:

Blogger The Lioness said...

Very good post. I also believe we're in for something terrible, and with no one to blame for it but ourselves. So sad, such a waste.

29/1/05 00:53  
Blogger L said...

Very good post. I'm now addicted to your blog.

29/1/05 01:06  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed. Mr Adam's creations are timeless and amazingly simple to understand, although there is an entire world of wisdom inside of them.

And your post here is as relevant today as it was over a decade ago. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

And for the fish, of course.

12/3/17 22:58  

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