What is the last question? It appears, at first blush, to be a trick question. Last question means a long line of previous questions leading to the end of the line. Is the last question another way of asking the meaning of life, existence, the origin of the universe? That’s not one last question, that’s multiple last questions. Looking beyond the last question is the last answer.
Douglas Adams’s answer to the last question was directed at the meaning of the universe. He provided a brief and simple answer: 42. Terry Eagleton wrote a 200-page book titled The Meaning of Life. Did he have the answer to the last question? The Guardian reviewer Simon Jenkins summarized Eagleton’s answer as: Happiness. This verdict is shared by Thailand’s coup makers.
On the other hand, Schopenhauer counseled us not to bother as “the whole human project [was] a ghastly mistake that should have been called off long ago.”
What is the last answer to the last question from which the meaning of life and existence emerges?
One preoccupation that unites all of humanity is the quest to discover an answer to this final question. Philosophers, scientists, writers, poets, intellectuals, religious leaders, old people, young people, the poor and the rich, a rich ore of curiosity that runs through every culture through time. Conflicts, confrontations and wars emerge over the belief that some culture or political system has discovered the correct answer. Hatred and suspicion arises over the process best designed to extract that answer. Who is given the task to find such an answer? And how can we judge whether that answer is true? It gets complicated.
Most of the time we don’t aspire to the lofty heights of worrying ourselves about the Last Question. We are practical people who avoid abstractions. We are more interested in the just-so answer to the latest news cycle of daily questions. Will the police catch the actual killers who killed two British tourists on Koh Tao in the South of Thailand? What will stop the latest cycle of terror and violence in the Middle East? When will Thailand return to democracy? When will the United States return to democracy? Not to mention the mundane questions of daily life: Where to have dinner this evening? When to start writing an essay? Should I invite a friend to lunch? Should I skip a workout on Tuesday? We live our lives by seeking answers to small, immediate questions. We don’t just skip the workout; we skip the hard workout that the Last Question demands.
Our lives represent a series of examinations. We are deemed a success not by our pursuit of answers to insoluble questions, but to the effortless way we fit in to our culture, the workplace, the club, the family and co-operate among friends. When midlife crisis arrives, the dam bursts and the questions come from all directions. No sooner have we answered one and another pops into view. We panic. We’ve been asleep. When we wake up, it is with an understanding that there never was a moment without the Last Question hovering nearby; only we chose not to ask it.
Writing books is a way of putting down on paper the answer to questions. Think about the last novel you read, one that stayed with you, made you think in a way you’d not done before. The characters inevitably struggled with a whole set of questions, anticipated and unexpected, and the reason you kept on reading was to find out how that character processed information to come up with an answer. We judge fictional characters, as we judge those who occupy our ‘real’ lives, by the quality of their answers to the universal questions that we all face.
I’ve been thinking about the question and answer process specifically in the context of a fictional series. The Wire, Dexter, House of Cards are examples of hardboiled dramas which attract millions of viewers. The fans of these series return time and time again in order to learn how the characters will resolve a conflict or problem, what resources they will draw on, what code of conduct they will follow (or violate) along the way, and what impact their answers will have on the lives around them.
I am aware when I write a Calvino novel, that Vincent Calvino and the other recurring characters (and the new ones) succeed in connecting with readers on the basis of how they persist, collapse, cheat, run, lie, improvise in their quest to find answers to questions that fall over their lives like a long shadow. The reality is that the shadow never leaves. The wisdom that life bestows is not to try to outrun the shadow, but to find an umbrella, and when a question rages with wind and rain, to keep on walking. As the old saying goes, you never walk alone. Writing a novel is tracking behind such characters, demonstrating their doubts, fears, and sorrow while celebrating those moments of joy and success.
Finding how that balance between the two emotional states is never stable. Like a moth, we flutter close to the flame, and in the best of writing, we discover that moment when a wing touches the fire or when it breaks away and flies free. That’s why I take walks on writing days. The questions aren’t in my office or in a Google search on my computer. They come to me when I walk and look around at the world I am walking through.
You don’t need to be a writer to devote time to asking yourself questions, and then taking a quiet walk and allow your mind to sort through some answers. Remember: Everyone around you is in precisely the same situation. Don’t be fooled by the appearance of wealth, reputation, status or privilege. The same walk catches all of us and demands attention about what can and can’t be known or controlled. We are on a long march, a collective walk, with no clear sense of up or down, left or right that helps, bumping against the edges of our life, blindly heading toward an oasis where the truth exists. We drink from that oasis to quench our thirst for the answer of the question of today, or this month of October, or biggest question of all: what is on the other side of nothingness?
Isaac Asimov’s The Last Question is a brilliant example of how the best of our story tellers can show us the long view of what that Final Answer looks like. Do yourself a favor this weekend, read The Last Question and then take a long walk and ask yourself whether the questions that caused you so much anxiety and grief this week are the questions that really matter.
What is your answer to the Last Question?
With many thanks to my friend John Murphy and his daughter Melissa, who sent me Isaac Asimov’s The Last Question.