The Faust Theory of the Meaning of Life and How We Get It

“They don’t even know what it is to be a fan. Y’know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.”
Sapphire, Almost Famous
Cameron Crowe, screenwriter

More than a few times I have mentioned in these posts about how The Meaning of Life falls on people’s heads while they’re doing something. Since it’s such a recurring theme with me, I thought I’d take a moment to explain where this expression came from.

Like most ideas, it came to me in a couple of different pieces. The first was when I was in college and I started meeting people who listened to the same kind of music I did (for a kid who grew up in a remote corner of Wyoming, I sure developed an odd taste in music), or read the same books I did, or watched the same movies or TV programs I did. And I was shocked at their level of devotion to one or another of these things.

For example, Dr. Who. When I was a tiny sprout, my father, who worked in the oil industry, got transferred to Edmonton, Alberta. My first memory is of the trip up there while we were moving. In my early years I watched Canadian television, which naturally included a lot of British imports, and one of these was Dr. Who. Keep in mind this was in the early 60’s, so I was seeing the first episodes right as they came off the boat.

(Recently I almost fell out of my chair laughing at an episode of a contemporary British import, Coupling, when during a rant, the main character explained what a couch was only good for two things, one of which, he said as he jumped behind a couch, was “hiding from Daleks.” This is because I saw the first episode ever to involve Daleks when I was in second grade, and did just exactly that.)

So I got to college and discovered that some bloke named Tom Baker was playing the Doctor, and that the series had been running uninterrupted since I first saw it in Canada. I thought that was cool. I got a group of friends together and we’d watch it on Saturday nights between rounds of playing Cosmic Encounters, but it wasn’t the end of the world if I missed an episode. Not so some of the people I was meeting, who dressed like Doctors and wrote their whole life schedules around air times.

And while I liked The Who, or Yes, there was always someone to whom these groups meant more – to a point that was beyond my comprehension. I began to remind myself of Rick Blaine in Casablanca – “I never cared that much about anybody” – realizing that I didn’t like any movie or band or much of anything to the extent that my life revolved around it. For a time, I thought maybe something was wrong with me. I enjoyed stuff a lot, but I didn’t get attached to it like some people did.

(Admittedly, for a time I was the biggest Mike Oldfield fan of anyone I knew, and was into the mid-eighties… but that still didn’t see me making the 22 hour drive from Wyoming to Chicago in 1982 or so, just to see one of only three concerts he ever played in the U.S. Although, um, I did think about it…)

I let go of those thoughts for a time. Until I started going to Science Fiction conventions – something that coincided with my becoming a published author. The Whovians I had met were the tip of the iceberg. Now I was meeting people for whom SF was a way of life. More than a way of life. A religion. The meaning of life.

Now some years ago I came to the realization that I didn’t give myself over to Who (Doctor or The) or Yes or Mike Oldfield or any of that other stuff because I had God in my life. True, he wasn’t at the forefront of things like he is now, but to me God was the meaning of life. Not a book about a Martian-raised Earthman who came home to start a new religion, not an eternally touring jam band, not a long cancelled TV series. I understand now, and have for some time, that we all have a God-shaped hole in our hearts, but unfortunately we try to fill it with things that are not God.

But back then I was trying to make sense of the indiscriminate way in which people let their lives revolve around Heinlein or Tolkien or The Grateful Dead or, well, take your pick. To me it all seemed rather indiscriminate. And I began to express that during conventions when I was on panels, saying things that sounded like this:

FAN: So do you put hidden meaning into your books?

ME: No. When I write a book, it’s pretty much out there in the open. I’m just trying to tell a great story that makes someone sit up all night turning pages.*

FAN: What if someone comes up and tells you that they found something really deep in one of your books?

ME: I’d be polite and thank them. But all it really means is that they were looking at one of my books instead of the back of a Corn Flakes box when the meaning of life fell on their head.

And that was the begatting of the Faust Theory of the Meaning of Life and How We Get It. As time went on and there was more contact with readers and more speaking engagements, I began to refine my explanation and tell it this way:

“I’ve developed this theory that The Meaning of Life follows us around, hovering above us hanging by a thread from a helium balloon. Eventually the thread breaks and The Meaning of Life drops on our head, and whatever we’re reading or doing at that moment becomes instantly associated it. Whether it’s a rock group or a book or a movie or sex or drugs, that thing becomes our Meaning of Life.”

That became one of my stock things to say at conventions and during interviews and yes, when writing blog entries. It became a cool kind of shorthand. When I said, “The Meaning of Life just dropped on their head,” people knew what I was talking about. I’ll never forget the time I was on a panel, and, having already given the theory, and I was explaining someone’s reaction to something I’d written when a member of the audience piped up and said, “And The Meaning of Life fell on his head!”

So that’s where the expression came from. In spite of the fact that I no longer ponder the question of devotion, it’s become a constant phrase in my speaking vocabulary, kind of like the way I say “We’ll drive off that bridge when we come to it” in honor of Ted Kennedy’s sojourn on Chappaquiddick Island, and the way I refer to my driving gloves – Isotoners – as “O.J.’s.”** Only less mean-spirited.

I suppose I should drop it, but I like having it around, like the proverbial old pair of shoes. And it’s kind of cool when other people are in on the joke. Now that you are, would you mind checking above my head to see if there’s a shadow from a balloon?

Her words flew in empty circles
Reasons unexplained
I saw that her thoughts were somewhere else
We made love anyway

(via iPod Shuffle)

* This doesn’t prevent meaning from leaking into my work on its own… but I’ve already dealt with that issue.

** Which reminds me… I wonder if my friend David still says “Toyota” when he fulfills a request – the shorthand there coming from the old Toyota commerical slogan, “You asked for it, you got it.”


2 responses to “The Faust Theory of the Meaning of Life and How We Get It

  1. Ok – I just can’t let this one by…Liar, liar – memory on fire! Who permed his hair to spite his mother because she told him to make sure he cut it short and hid it under a Dr. Who hat and walked around in the hat and a London Fog trench coat? hmmmmm….. I only remember one person walking around campus like that.

  2. I’ll cop to the hat but my mom set up the perm at my insistence because she kept telling the stylist how to cut my hair.I didn’t get a London Fog trench coat until I was out of college. I had a leather coat, but I had that coming in.I also have a long scarf, but it’s gray, and that came after college, too.What I didn’t have was the ankle length wool coat, the frilly shirt, the extra-long multicolored scarf, the shoes, the Tardis Operator’s permit, a sonic screwdriver mockup and a mock K-9 that they were working on putting the guts from an RC car into. Of course, this person wasn’t on campus, but if you hit enough bookstores, you ran into him.My mom hated that hat and still talks about it to this day. Once I got rid of it she didn’t say much about the hair.

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