Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Zeitgeist, Harry Potter, and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I tend to do little pop culture analysis and criticism here. I wish I could cite some high-minded principle for it, but the truth is, I'm simply out of touch. I'm a late adopter, generally coming to the party long after the pop buffet is closed and the cultural keg is kicked.

Case in point, we've just now started reading the first Harry Potter book to the elder shorty, the first I've read of the series at all (haven't seen the movies either). We're enjoying it.

It's well-written and entertaining enough, but the whole time I found myself distracted, unable to shake that weird nagging feeling, "I know it's not possible, but I'm sure I know you from somewhere." Then it hit me, Harry Potter is Arthur Dent. A smart, but kind-hearted and understated nebish who gets yanked from English normality (a normality that was always stacked against him because of his sensitive nature) and is forced to find his bumbling way through a new world full of what we would consider supernatural occurrences, but which are seen as the norm in the parallel world. The Harry Potter series is this generation's Hitchhikers' Guide trilogy.

While it may not have received the marketing circus hoopla surrounding Harry Potter, it is a great mistake to underestimate the influence of Douglas Adams on popular culture. The term "Trekkie" is applied now to any group obsessed with a cultural phenomenon and the media loves to trot out Star Wars folks whenever they want to have one of those "look at the weirdos, aren't we superior" moments. But Hitchhikers' has gone largely unnoticed because the influence was much more subtle, although I would argue, much more pervasive.

Those books were read by virtually everyone in two generations who become the bulk of the intellectual community. They established the internal coolness of geek society providing the nerdier amongst us with a sense of self-confidence that arose from having a common model of snark that could differentiate us in being hip enough to get the joke without emulating the nastiness of the Heathers who sneered at us and whom we had no desire to be like. Because our hero in no way fit the mold of American strong silent types who speak in bumper sticker catchphrases, but rather came in a package filled with witty, but spot on indictments of the norm, we could be proud to be who we were and have no fear about having fun being it.

There has long been a strain of comedy for the intellectual (I hesitate to call it "hip" because that in someway denotes being fashionable, but is accurate in describing the sense that you need to be hip to get it). Stan Freberg, whom I mentioned a few posts ago, was part of a similar movement in the 40s through early 60s with others like Fred Allen, Ernie Kovacs, and the horribly neglected Henry Morgan (many, many thanks Helmut for sending along that fantastic link), and Monty Python in the 60s and 70s were also there, of course, so Douglas Adams in no way invented this slot. But the Hitchhikers' books did seem to be influential in making it a stable genre in the popular arts that would be later occupied by folks like They Might Be Giants, The Kids in the Hall, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and others across the spectrum of pop media.

I can say without reservation that Douglas Adams is one of the most significant influences on my personal writing (and teaching) style and I would argue further that he is one of the primary stylistic influences of the entire blogosphere. Think about how many blog entries out there have the same tone, the same cadence, and attempt the same relative proportions of insight and snark that you find in the "entries" in the Guide. Indeed, it's not hard to see the Internet itself as an actualization of The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, which Adams described this way:

"The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy" is a wholly remarkable book. Perhaps the most remarkable, certainly the most successful book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor. More popular than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus, better selling than Fifty-Three More Things to do in Zero Gravity, and more controversial than Oolon Colluphid's trilogy of philosophical blockbusters Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway? It's already supplanted the Encyclopedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for two important reasons. First, it's slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words DON'T PANIC printed in large friendly letters on its cover.
Slap "DON'T PANIC" on the back of every blackberry or the top of every Wikipedia entry and tell me that isn't almost exactly what Douglas Adams had in snugly embedded in Ford Prefect's satchel.

I have no doubt that what The Hitchhikers' Guide is for my generation and the one that followed, Harry Potter will be for the next. J. K. Rowling's style will help shape the next generation of thinkers and popular writers. I don't know if the Harry Potter books, because they reach beyond geek culture to the mainstream, will have the same galvanizing effect upon the subset of youngsters taken to reading and thinking more deeply than is expected (or rewarded) by their peers. So I wonder what the ultimate effects will be.

One of the differences between the two is tone. Potter is much darker and heavier than Hitchhikers'. Is this just a temperamental difference between the authors or an indication of something deeper? Is the spirit of the times now heavier? Hitchhikers' was charming in its jolly cynicism. It was fantastic social criticism, but always effervescent, even in unmasking the horrible. Potter, on the other hand, is much more realist in its sensibilities. Nerds get picked on and they are filled with rage and ressentiment. This anger which takes forms from out-bursts to self-loathing are depicted with unsettling clarity in Harry Potter. A BBC report today discussed the waning British influence in the world of comedy (more on that tomorrow), I wonder if this is an effect of the same sociological shift that guided the move from Hitchhikers' to Potter, a sense that the times are more serious. It is a poor scientist who draws conclusions from two data points, but then I never claimed to be scientist. Does the move indicate something interesting in a shift in the larger Zeitgeist?