There seems a pervasive search for meaning, for significance, for the making of a mark, for the creation of a legacy. Social media might grant the fifteen minutes of fame envisaged by Andy Warhol, but it is ephemeral, passing mostly unnoticed. Headlines are now filled with superlatives, as if the writers believe that if a story receives enough stress, it will attain a significance it does not merit; that mediocre singers and musicians and actors will find talent; that those famous for being famous will have said or done something of consequence; that stories invented by the writers themselves will somehow transpire to be the truth. Yet it is all transient, forgotten as quickly as it is told.
Had Douglas Adams not died before the advent of the phenomena that have become so dominant, he might have so much satirised our contemporary world that we might have laughed and turned off our phones and gone outside to live real lives. The answer to Life, the Universe and Everything in the writing of Douglas Adams is 42. Humanity has spent centuries in a quest for meaning, a quest for an answer and the answer is 42.
42 what? No-one knows. Of course, 42 is not the answer sought. 42 only prompts another series of questions, and questions about questions. Perhaps the quest for meaning, the quest for an answer is not new, perhaps it is at the heart of our existence, but perhaps what is new is the level of discontent at the absence of an answer. The mood of populism that has beset contemporary international politics is rooted in a sense of individual dissatisfaction with one’s lot, leaders offering easy answers are applauded, scapegoats are identified as being responsible for the mood of unease. Our problems are due to immigrants, or politicians, or the European Union, or welfare claimants, or bankers, or rich people who dodge taxes, or whatever other scapegoat is fashionable. Yet none of it provides a satisfactory answer.
Perhaps there is no answer, William Shakepeare’s Macbeth suggests there is no meaning or significance:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Three thousand years ago, the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes pondered the lack of meaning, asserted that all was vanity, and suggested the answer was to make the most of the moment. There is no good in anything he says, “but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.” Perhaps, like 42, the writer of Ecclesiastes asks more questions than he answers, but that the fact that happy people are happier does not make it untrue.