Study Guide

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Art and Culture

By Douglas Adams

Art and Culture

Not only is it a wholly remarkable book, it is also a highly successful one—more popular than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus, better selling than Fifty 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? (Introduction.13)

In a book prominently featuring a book, one of our biggest examples of culture is going to be… a book. But books are complicated: big books eat up little books, and some books cause the extinction of other books. Here, we're introduced to the other major books of the galaxy, and what do we see?: a book about house upkeep, a sort of guidebook or coffee table book, and three books of philosophy. That makes it seem like readers in the galaxy really want some guidance or answers in their lives. No 50 Shades of Grey here.

Here's what the Encyclopedia Galactica has to say about alcohol. It says that alcohol is a colorless volatile liquid formed by the fermentation of sugars and also notes its intoxicating effect on certain carbon-based life forms.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy also mentions alcohol. It says that the best drink in existence is the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. (2.1-2)

Galactic culture isn't the same everywhere, as we can see in the way these two books deal with the question of alcohol: some people probably prefer the simple, scientific tone of the Encyclopedia Galactica, whereas others probably prefer hearing a drink suggestion from Hitchhiker's. This isn't a case of Earth culture vs. alien culture. Both of these books are thoroughly alien, proving that culture isn't the same all over.

Together and between them they had gone to and beyond the furthest limits of physical laws, restructured the fundamental fabric of matter, strained, twisted, and broken the laws of possibility and impossibility, but still the greatest excitement of all seemed to be to meet a man with an orange sash round his neck. (4.23)

These are the engineers and scientists who created the Heart of Gold spaceship, so they have something to be excited about: they've "strained, twisted, and broken" the laws of physics and probability (and made a spaceship that looks like a sneaker). But still, what really excites them is meeting a powerless man in a sash—the President. In their culture, people drop everything to meet the president. They can break the laws of physics, but they can't break the unwritten laws of their culture.

New York has gone. No reaction. He'd never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he thought, had sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonald's, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald's hamburger. (6.30)

This is the realization that finally brings home to Arthur the fact that Earth has been destroyed: there's no more McDonald's. It's curious that what finally seems to break through to Arthur isn't his dead parents or his vaporized country, but these elements of culture, like Bogart movies and McDonald's. Those elements of culture might seem small, but they are things that he experiences daily.

Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe. The second worst is that of the Azagoths of Kria. During a recitation by their Poet Master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem "Ode To A Small Lump of Green Putty I Found In My Armpit One Midsummer Morning" four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging, and the President of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been "disappointed" by the poem's reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve-book epic entitled My Favorite Bathtime Gurgles when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leapt straight up through his neck and throttled his brain. (7.1)

That "of course" in the first sentence gets us laughing: the narrator is saying something that is totally new to us, but he just passes it off as something we all agree on. Now, what's curious about Azagoth poetry is that even the Azagoths seem to find it dreadful. It's also funny to imagine something that people usually think of as subjective (we like this poetry; you like that poetry; different people like different poetry) as really objective: this poetry is absolutely the second worst, and even the poet's intestines agree.

The prisoners sat in Poetry Appreciation Chairs—strapped in. Vogons suffered no illusions as to the regard their works were generally held in. Their early attempts at composition had been part of bludgeoning insistence that they be accepted as a properly evolved and cultured race, but now the only thing that kept them going was sheer bloodymindedness. (7.4)

The Vogons used to compose poetry as to prove that they were a civilized culture, though even they recognize that other people don't like what they do. So how do they react? They build torture chairs to make people listen. What kind of culture is that?

"Oh yes," said Arthur, "I thought that some of the metaphysical imagery was really particularly effective."
[…]
"Oh ... and er ... interesting rhythmic devices too," continued Arthur, "which seemed to counterpoint the ... er ... er ..." He floundered.
Ford leaped to his rescue, hazarding "counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor of the ... er ..." He floundered too, but Arthur was ready again.
"... humanity of the ..."
"Vogonity," Ford hissed at him.
"Ah yes, Vogonity (sorry) of the poet's compassionate soul," Arthur felt he was on a home stretch now, "which contrives through the medium of the verse structure to sublimate this, transcend that, and come to terms with the fundamental dichotomies of the other," (he was reaching a triumphant crescendo ...) "and one is left with a profound and vivid insight into ... into ... er ..." (... which suddenly gave out on him.) Ford leaped in with the coup de grace:
"Into whatever it was the poem was about!" he yelled. (7.22-30)

Arthur and Ford's analysis of Jeltz's poem is really a masterpiece of empty phooey. It sounds good—"metaphysical imagery, counterpoint, fundamental dichotomies"—but notice that all of this leaves great big holes that Adams wants us to notice: the two of them are clearly just making stuff up, what with all of those "er…" pauses, and they tend to use "this, that, the other" without ever saying what those refer to. This section isn't making fun of the poem so much as it's making fun of people who try to fake their way through poetry appreciation. If only they had Shmoop to help them!

"But listen," he shouted to the guard, "there's a whole world you don't know anything about ... here how about this?" Desperately he grabbed for the only bit of culture he knew offhand—he hummed the first bar of Beethoven's Fifth.
"Da da da dum! Doesn't that stir anything in you?" (7.97-8)

Culture can hurt people, we know (thanks, Vogon poetry and scrapbooking mania), but can it help at all? Here's Ford trying to convince a young Vogon guard that there's more to life than throwing people out of airlocks. But even Ford can't remember that much culture, so this line of reasoning doesn't work.

"Where's the sense in that?" he said. "None that I've been able to make out. I've been doing fjords in all my life. For a fleeting moment they become fashionable and I get a major award."
He turned it over in his hands with a shrug and tossed it aside carelessly, but not so carelessly that it didn't land on something soft. (30.9-10)

While we might think that Norway is the result of eons of geologic activity—plate tectonics, glaciers, ice ages, melting ice ages—now we learn that it's really just some art project for Slartibartfast. Not only is Norway a work of art, but it's a little bit of art wrapped up in a whole culture: awards and committees (probably) and Billy Crystal hosting awards shows (definitely). Notice that Slarty seems to think the whole award thing is kind of ludicrous, but he still makes sure that the award doesn't get dented.

It said: 'The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases.
"For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?" (35.3-4)

We don't want to give anything away from the sequel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, but we will note how these three questions move from the scientific and philosophical to the purely cultural and sociological—in other words, from questions of survival to questions of cultural sophistication. Seriously, folks: rich idiots eating Antarean parakeet glands on sticks? Culture doesn't seem so great sometimes.