Saturday, October 12, 2013

Wonko the Sane

In the fourth book of the inaccurately-named Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy we meet a character named Wonko the Sane. He's a man who lives, with his wife, 'outside the asylum.' That is, he built his house so that the outside is designed like an inside, and the inside like an outside. The whole world, minus the small space 'outside' (a few lawns and paths) is thus inside the asylum, while Wonko has declared himself (and, presumably, his wife), to be outside; thus, the one sane man on Earth.

He settled on this plan after reading detailed instructions on how to use a toothpick.

Wonko strikes me as rather similar to Douglas Adams himself. Or Scott Adams (no relation, I presume), creator of Dilbert. Or Matt Groening of The Simpsons fame. Or Mark Twain, or any other satirist you care to name. Someone who has declared himself to be one of the few sane ones and thus qualified to diagnose the insanity of the rest of the world.

There's a dark side to satire, it must be said. It seems as though it often has to be born of a kind of arrogance and self-satisfaction; of the sense that the author is really just one of the few smart people, while everyone else is just an idiot. We, the viewer/reader, are of course "one of the few" as well, since we're in on the joke.

Considering how popular the above listed works are, apparently there are a lot of us 'smart' people in the world.

The web-comic Xkcd expresses the problem well:

See, the fact is that we all think of ourselves as 'special' or 'other' than the rest of the world. That's because we have information about ourselves (our thought processes, feelings, consciences, etc) which we don't have about others. It's easy to look out at the world as an indeterminate blob of humanity, drifting thoughtlessly with the tide while we watch from the shore, anchored by our unique sensitivity to it all. But from the other person's perspective, we're part of the tide and they're on the shore.

We like to think of ourselves as one of "the smart ones," the chosen few who are awake and aware of how mad the world is. But we're not. Everyone on Earth knows that the world is mad, or at least that it's got a lot of madness in it. The fact that we see it and laugh at it doesn't make us any more 'special.' All too often, it makes us less special. 

Wonko the Sane is just Wonko the Arrogant; he's no more sane or aware than anyone else. If you showed a hundred random people on the street that toothpick box, they would all probably come to the same conclusion as Wonko; that it was stupid. Wonko, rather than realizing this, simply decided that, since such a thing exists, it shows something wrong with all humanity except him (because, apparently, he's the only human being in the world who had nothing to do with putting instructions on toothpick box).

Wonko's right that there's something wrong with humanity, but it's called Original Sin and he's just as caught in it as anyone else. Part of the penalty of the Fall is stupidity and blindness, and even the most brilliant and witty among us are not free from those ills, even if they can make good jokes about it.

This isn't an indictment of satire in general; satire is a perfectly good and useful thing. I enjoy pretty much all the authors I listed (well, except Twain). It does, however, have a dark side and a danger to it. Ideally it ought to cause us to look at ourselves and ask whether we're the ones being mocked. All too often, though, we just assume it's meant for 'everyone else.'

Of course, since I pointed all this out, that means I'm the superior one here. In your face, Adams!

Vivat Christus Rex!

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