So I had to analyze a piece today. Yes, I’m old, and yes, I’ve gone back to school. So the nonsense of some school stuff may occasionally come up here (and is part of why I don’t post as much as my original plan was to). Arthur C. Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God. It’s an old piece by a great Sci-Fi master, and it fits a sort of pulp-feel. I’ve read it, of course–I’ve probably read it dozens of times. Today, though, we had to analyze it. We had to look at what he was saying about “Religion and Science”.
Now, Arthur C. Clarke was an atheist. He played around a little (at one point in his youth getting “Pantheist” on his dogtags), but he’s generally considered, and said he was, an atheist. This story is a joke. A lot of pulpy stories of the time were largely a joke, a “what a twist!” sort of ending. Think of The Twilight Zone (and really, you should always think of The Twilight Zone, because it was bloody brilliant). Almost all those stories were twist endings. For short stories, it’s how you punch them up, and make them have a point. I’ll confess, that’s the pulp mindset I generally prefer, and it’s the one that I like to think my writing is in keeping with. If you’ve read my collection of short stories, you know that I have a story that’s kinda sorta along the same lines, at least in the broad strokes of the idea of the plot (that is, a theological question with world-ending consequences). It’s a not-uncommon theme, though obviously Clarke does it better than I could hope to.
But looking at the story itself isn’t the point of this post. Looking at literary analysis is. This story is clearly a joke. It’s a joke as much as the one at the end of The Killing Joke is, the one about the two guys who escaped from an insane asylum. Incidentally, that was cribbed from an old Red Skelton bit, but that’s neither here nor there. The joke is:
“See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum…and one night, one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight…stretching away to freedom.
Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend daren’t make the leap. Y’see…y’see, he’s afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea…
He says ‘Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!’ B-but the second guy just shakes his head.
He suh-says… he says ‘What do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!'”
Can that be analyzed? Yes, of course it can. And in the context of the story, there’s some particular analysis that’s important. The Joker is talking to Batman, who’s just offered to help him in hopes of escaping the constant spiral that they’re in, the back and forth that the Dark Knight feels will end with one or both their deaths. The Joker is clearly saying he thinks that it won’t work, that it can’t work. But if you really wanted to, you could read a lot more into it. You could choose to read an indictment of blind faith in religion into that joke. You could choose to see commentary on the mental health system. But that would, well, be nonsense, don’t you think?
But, man, some people (and I’m not just talking my classmates, I’m actually talking broadly about literary analysis) really want to read more than that in there. If you try hard enough,
I’ve known people who read deep allegorical meanings into this story, but I find it hard to believe they were intentional. One of my favorites was when someone (I don’t remember where I read this, or there’d be a link) argued that since Buddhism is often considered “atheist”, their attempts to find the 9 billion names were really attempts to exhaust all the the reasons for having a god. The prayer wheels were attempts to use technology to invalidate ritual, since without a hand to turn them it was largely aesthetic rather than ritualistic. Once the possible names were all codified in a list, there was no longer any reason to believe at all. The stars going out, then, was poetically indicating the loss of a worldview for the religious, the death not of the universe, but rather of religion itself.
But honestly, I don’t buy it. if you try hard enough, you can do that about any work, no matter how mundane.
As an example, I look literally the first thing with words that I see (well, besides my computer screen): a Diet Dr Pepper on the table in arm’s reach.
The period is gone from the Dr, removing its status as an abbreviation, and showing the meaninglessness and empty futility of communication with words that forever imperfectly represent the ideas they’re trying to convey. The ingredients of Diet Dr Pepper list carbonated water first to indicate the ascendancy of modifying nature, of adding carbonation to water, which gives the frame of reference for the rest of the ingredients. The Caramel color is intended to get us to see that nothing in life is clear, but rather a shade limiting the “light” of knowledge from passing through it. Of course, the aspartame is there to call to mind the Greek gods and goddesses of wisdom, bringing the next ingredient, phosphoric acid, to punish those who don’t recognize the ascendancy of the soda beverage. The flavors are listed as natural and artificial to emphasize that, though soda itself negates the natural, it can still respect it as long as it subsumes it, and it can list it as first in importance even as the artificial encroaches on it. The sodium benzoate is a “(preservative)”, the only ingredient that gets an explanation of its purpose, with the use of parenthesis as an indicator of emphasis, and making the argument for the eternal nature of both soda and the soul. Obviously, caffeine is a scathing indictment of the Drug war in the United States.
I mean, that I can make the case above doesn’t make it not nonsense. Sometimes a joke is just a joke.