Thursday, 10 May 2012

Secrets and milestones

The Great Orion Nebula, M42

Among the books which have made a lasting impression on me are the Hitch Hiker’s Guide novels by Douglas Adams. While certainly not the first to combine science fiction and humour, these stories were so memorable and popular that Adams was compelled to make a lot of what he wrote subsequently either an extension or a reinterpretation of them. I’m not sure whether I would be happy being the victim of such success or whether I’d find it creatively confining.

Anyway, if you know that I’m a fan of this material, and have some familiarity with it yourself, it should not be surprising that the prospect of turning 42 years old tomorrow has me slightly bemused.

I can't shake the sense that it's filled with hidden meaning, that it's somehow special.  Indeed, will I wake up tomorrow somehow magically knowing the great question of life, the universe and everything, thus rendering the answer "42" meaningful?

I’m sane enough to know that the answer to my own question is “almost certainly not”.  Given the number of living people aged 42 or more, it would take a very special kind of conspiracy to hide the fact that everyone, on turning 42, is admitted to some kind of cognoscenti. Brain-washing would need to be involved, no doubt, to prevent this from ever becoming known to ages 41 and below. (That this entire premise is based in a work of fiction also makes it extremely unlikely to occur!)  And yet, despite how unlikely such a notion is, the general idea that select people have access to secret, supernatural knowledge is a persistent one in societies of virtually all civilisations and times.

The rulers of ancient civilisations were inducted into cults which purported to hold secret knowledge, and their rule was based on their membership of elite groups, including the inner sanctum of the cult. All manner of religious sects have been established to protect supposed supernatural secrets. Groups such as the Rosicrucians, the Illuminati and the Freemasons flourished, somewhat paradoxically, in the Enlightenment. I have a small library of entertaining books on these subjects, but for a quick tour through the canon, Dan Brown has made a respectable fortune out of sucking the marrow out of the bones of these themes and spitting it out again in chapters just long enough to consume between airport terminal announcements.  You could do worse than consume some of that delicious, half-digested marrow.

At their most basic, secret societies are an exercise in power: I and my friends know something that you do not, I’m not going to tell you what it is, and your ignorance gives me power over you. This phenomenon can be observed even in the playground, where admission to the elite group can be had by knowing what was on TV last night, or the rules of a game or, just as easily, by simply having a particular characteristic (i.e. the knowledge required is "nothing in particular").  And even though the non-elect know that “nothing in particular” is one of the possible answers, the chance that there might be something special to know can keep entire communities in thrall to those who would wield power.

In fact, I think that humankind is naturally inclined to accept that there are hidden truths in the universe. Whether you approach it from a scientific point of view (striving to discover and document some new part of the natural world) or from a religious point of view (accepting mysteries which won’t be revealed until you’re initiated/raptured/whatever), there is a common recognition that something exists which you won’t understand without a revelatory journey or ordeal of some kind. Giving credence to secret societies is an extension of the same phenomenon.

I vividly remember suspecting, at the age of about 14, that there was something much more interesting, more glorious, certainly less mundane in the world, than my life as a high school student in Wodonga. Okay, I didn’t have that hard a time at school, but I’m fairly certain that most kids go through a stage where they look back at ten years of full-time education, realise it’s not over yet, and wonder what the payoff could be for all this drudgery. Is it so strange that I wondered whether the payoff might be an introduction to a much more magical world, free of responsibility and toil? I didn’t have any idea of what such a world might really be like (after all, it was a secret world!), but I certainly yearned for there to be much more to existence than had so far been made apparent.  It's yearnings like these that make Harry Potter's story so engaging for its audience.

Anyway, my suspicion didn't last long, because it was clearly irrational.  What did take longer to develop was my capacity to be impressed with the world as it is. Without embellishment, and including all those bits that remain to be discovered, it’s a pretty neat place to live.  Having great people to share it with makes it even better. That’s not to say it’s no fun to manufacture some magic every now and then, but those moments of delight, contentment, surprise, or pleasure that occur just because you’ve experienced something the way it’s always been, for the first time – those moments are themselves magical, and they prove to me that secret knowledge is unnecessary for a wholehearted appreciation of life.

Perhaps that’s as good a question to ponder as any, on turning 42 – do you really need to know the question if you already have the answer?


  1. Have a heart for those of us who turned 42 without the benefit of knowing the number was significant. Lewis Carroll was 42 when he wrote The Hunting of the Snark, and it's riddled with references to that magic number. For me, well it was just one of those years I wasn't in my prime. But last year... and next year...

  2. I sense prime numbers approaching ...


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