To Live Is Christ





note -- for my Modern/Postmodern class we had to review a novel or CD or other form of entertainment.  The prof gave us a list.  Tom Wolfe, and the like mostly.  I am personally offended by modernity so I wanted a postmodern example.  I got a collection called "Postmodern literature".  All the stories were depressing, negative, and really not that interesting.  As I was well along in my seminary career I thought a little boldness was in order.  So I asked if I could review Sting, then decided I never really liked Sting all that much (I tried to, I really did).  I changed my mind and asked if I could review the following book.  My reasoning was I enjoyed it, it made me laugh, and it was different.  I also seriously began to see it as a prime example of positive postmodernity.  The Continent has shown the negative sides of the philosophy.  However, as modernity is now dying in most forms, anything new in thought is technically postmodern.  There are positives about it, and some make me laugh.  You know a BS job is successful when you yourself begin to believe its earnest claims.  I actually like the second Dirk Gently book more than this one.  You see, it has Odin as a major character.  He has a love for good clean linen.  

Review of a Postmodern Novel

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams.  New York:  Wing Books, 1994. 

            It seems as if in literature which is “officially” considered postmodern by whatever literary authorities are able to apply such titles, the themes tend to be rather dark, the explorations rather on the seedy side of human nature, with the general feel of wallowing in life’s defeats.  Indeed, one can say that a side of the postmodern reaction is negative, the deconstruction, the emerging relativism, and the general rejection of modernity’s attempted answers.  However, for society to move forward postmodern thought cannot simply reject, it must also learn to replace, to answer questions which may in fact be different at their very core than what modernity answered.  In this novel we find a reflection, albeit a rather whimsical one, of some of these more positive aspects of the post modern world.  In this brief review I would like to cover some of these reflections, hoping to discover how these themes point to continuing trends within postmodernism to seek to “rebuild” areas which it critiqued the modern response.

            Douglas Adam is better known for his very popular Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, which indeed is a science fiction series very difficult to nail down as to a plot or general theme due to its seemingly wandering foray into what at first appears to be an entire book of tangents.  In some ways Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is similar, though it is more explicit in saying that all of this is intentional and crucial in fact to the story as a whole.  Boiled down to its basics this is a story of a detective, not however a detective in any preconceived notion of the word, but rather one who seeks to find the “whole” solution to whatever problem is presented.  The actual plot is certainly not one that could be found in Sherlock Holmes, and indeed sounds a bit silly even to write down.  Basically, Richard MacDuff is a software engineer in Britain whose wealthy, if somewhat eccentric, boss is mysteriously murdered.  It is mysterious to Richard, but not to the reader in that the character of the boss, Gordon Way, was also a character in the story who continues to be so after his brutal murder.  The convolutions this story takes would be difficult to completely describe, but the quick version is that in seeking to discover the murderer of Gordon Way, Dirk Gently discovers a larger “plot” which involves an alien “ghost” who has been wandering earth’s plains since before life began, a victim of a ship’s explosion for which he was to blame and which killed over one hundred of his fellow travelers.  This ghost watches the “slimy, crawling things” develop into intelligent life, and somewhere along the line one of these people is secretly able to build a time machine, a machine that is located in a small room of a Cambridge Don’s flat.  His hope is to “possess” a person who will bring him way back in time so that he could correct his earlier error and save his own people.  The trick is that the person has to be willing to do this, so the ghost seeks to first see if his influence could make whatever person is available do something that they would like to do, but something that is not necessarily something they would do.  For example change the past in a way which hides guilt, or indeed kill someone who is in the way of their moving forward.  The ghost also tells the person his story as to gain a willing ally, a story that the ghost at one time attempted to tell Samuel Taylor Coleridge during a time of “impressionable” influence (while he was high on laudanum), but which got mildly twisted into the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.  We find, at the end, the various twists and turns all coming together at the end, figuring out not only the specific murder which began the story, but indeed also solving other larger, and seemingly unrelated, problems through working through the “whole” problem.

            An interesting part of this story is its approach to religion and the supernatural.  One of the characters we follow throughout the story, one of the characters through whom the ghost attempted to work, is an “electric monk”.  This was a “labor saving device” from the planet of the ghost’s origin which simply believed things for people.  Like a dishwasher which washes dishes, the monk’s duty was to believe, “thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.”  Faith for this society was an acknowledged part of life, but a part which itself could be compartmentalized, managed, and engineered as to be done without necessarily requiring anything.  It too was subjected to the same attempt to manage with technology as other aspects of life’s needs.  Reflective indeed of modernity’s attempt to control all aspects of life under “scientific” pursuits.  While in this story the concept of an “electric monk” is absurd, the attempt to manage and understand faith and religion through so called rational means in modernity shows a similar goal.  Churches were “working” if they provided a healthy balance to life which allowed for good “religious” activities, but were seen as labor saving devices whose pastors could be expected to manage questions which were no longer seen as approachable to the bulk of rational society.  However, we find at the end of this story that the original explosion of the ship was caused by trusting in the belief of an electric monk, who gave the answers one wanted and provided confidence in an already chosen pattern of thought, rather than actually checking to see if the ship was in good working order to perform certain tasks and accomplish it’s purpose.

            The main understanding of Dirk Gently involves the “interconnectivity of all things”.  Basically this means that the full picture of a problem may involve what at first seems like completely irrelevant aspects which are in fact crucially, though imperceptibly, related.  Thus, we see this in his method of driving where when lost he follows anyone who “seems to know where they’re going” with the thought that one will not get to where one wants to be, but will get to where one needs to be in order to find a solution to the problem.  Life is not compartmentalized, but rather is composed of vitally interrelated aspects which influence, even if slightly, everything else.  Thus, his attempt to be holistic in his approach, acknowledging everything as being possibly crucial to his quest, including what we could consider the supernatural.

            One of the interesting ways of comparing this story as a symbol of postmodernity is to keep in mind throughout the various tales of Sherlock Holmes, a paragon of modern thought.  Whereas Sherlock Holmes’ famous dictum is “once you have discounted the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”, Dirk Gently responds that he “rejects that entirely.  For “the impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks.  How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something that works in all respects other than one, which is just that it is hopelessly improbable?  Your instinct is to say, ‘Yes, but he or she simply wouldn’t do that.’”  The idea of the impossible assumes a certain perspective, a limiting of what can or cannot be, with the trust being in one’s own rational understanding on life, rather than being willing to question even one’s own perspectives in the face of diverging data. 

            Unfortunately, the space of this paper is insufficient to develop other interesting themes which arise through the course of this book, themes which subtly point out the new willingness to go beyond the “rational” and attempt to see life as being fundamentally interconnected, with all areas bearing on everything else, so that the answers to one problem may be found in figuring out what appears to be at first something completely unrelated.  There is portrayed a new trust in human “instinct”, a trust which points in some ways to pre-modern cultures, but which is fuller n its journey through modernity.  The rational is not rejected, but it is not seen now as being the totality of human life and thought.  Other areas are equal in attempting to work through life’s total issues, so that rather than seeking to provide a small band-aid a true solution is found.  The church indeed has for too long sought simply “rational”, structural solutions to be a “labor saving” device for society, but which does not in fact seek to be holistic, and thus effective, in dealing with life as it actually presents itself.  The church is taught not to trust itself, ignoring basic yearnings in its quest to provide the right programs.  The new culture in which we live, however, like shown in this book is willing to trust human “instinct”, to take seriously the broader scope of human life in its quest to find fullness.  That society as a whole has begun this is seen in renewed explorations of spirituality, explorations which are not for the sake of solving a “need, but is an almost resigned admittance of a broader human existence.  Thus truth is sought.  The church’s dependence and role as a labor saving device, however, has left it out of this quest for holistic understanding, and has in fact been used as a tool to deny core issues and difficulties which have led to many of our current problems in modern society.  Though certainly whimsical in nature, and a good fun read, this book highlights aspects of life and culture which are even still not fully accepted in academic circles but are increasingly becoming an assumed understanding and approach by the broader scope of society. 

To Die Is Gain
Back to whither you came
Patrick Oden,  yeoman raven master