Why I Don’t Plan to Read King’s “Dark Tower” Series

I’m just a little behind, I know. But sitting next to me right now is a great book called “Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction”. In there a writer named Deserina Boskovich says this about the ending of the Dark Tower series (so, SPOILERS! from here on out):

It took courage to write that ending, I think. It took nerve to carry the story through to its inevitable conclusion. The top of the tower was always meant to be empty [this is in reference to the moment when the protagonist reaches the titular Dark Tower, and finds none of the answers he is looking for, but only his own destiny staring back at him – a paraphrase of Boskovich’s words]. There is no god, there are no final answers; there is only us, and our endless quest. But our search for answers – it’s how we save ourselves. It’s how we save the world.

Look: In theory, I have no issue with nihilistic novels, and I say this because there really are good ones! I’m thinking in particular of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, of which the clear message is, “There is no meaning to anything, and nothingness is all you have to look forward to. The only way to cope with this is to laugh about the absurdity of it all.” And laugh we do. “Hitchhiker’s” is a riot.

(Bear with me – I’m coming full circle.)

Even so, people seem to have a problem with the ending of “Mostly Harmless”, where Adams kills off all of the main characters but Zaphod by destroying every incarnation of Earth in all possible parallel universes. They shouldn’t, because it’s a perfectly logical extrapolation of the series. How else could it possibly end?

But I get it. When you read a book, you want what happens to the main characters to mean something; you feel cheated when they don’t. That’s why nihilist literature is very, very hard to pull off well. It’s also why the the third book, “Life, the Universe, and Everything”, is probably my favorite – it’s the closest to having a traditional, if zany, plot.

And King’s brand of zen koan nihilism, if we are to trust Boskovich’s characterization of it, is actually dumber than Adams’. Adams, at least, was honest enough to realize that there’s no “saving” in nihilism. The quest doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. And King, by having the meaning of the book be “the search” is opening up a very simple question: If the whole meaning of the book is “the search”, but the answer to “the search” is that “the search” is the meaning…what are you searching for?

C.S. Lewis, as always, put it far more succinctly than I can:

For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? Trove all things’ . . . to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.”

“If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for.”

The search simply can’t be the answer. It’s like asking wet to be dry (another “Great Divorce” reference). If you don’t think there’s an answer, there’s nothing to search for; and if you’ve found the answer, there’s no reason to search it. It’s simply, almost tautologically, self-contradictory.

As for whether or not her characterization is accurate, this is coming from a fan of the novel. If this is how people who LIKE it describe it, well…consider me officially not interested.

  • Hi Anthony, there’s a lot of philosophical depth to your argument, so I don’t aspire to give a definitive response to your conclusions. However, I think that what you call ‘nihilistic’ would be better described as ‘absurdist’. That’s because the universe can lack meaning or purpose without implying it must be devoid of substance. For example, an absurdist can recognize that another being is in pain, and want to alleviate that suffering. A nihilist wouldn’t care. Writers like Douglas Adams clearly belong to the former school, not the latter.

    To use a grand analogy, the Hindu cosmology asserts the universe is created and destroyed in a cyclical pattern where each cycle takes 8 billion years. (So you could argue that the Hindus – via Nietzsche – influenced the plot of Battlestar Galactica!) Your complaint about there being no meaning to the journey could just as well be applied to this cosmology – why struggle to accomplish anything, when it’ll be destroyed and then we’ll be reborn and have the same struggle again? Absurdist writer Albert Camus was making a similar point when he wrote about the Greek mythological character Sisyphus, who was compelled to repeatedly push a boulder to the top of a hill, only to watch it roll back down, where Sisyphus would start over. But suppose we substitute a definitive final destination for the Hindu idea of a recurring cycle. That means we eventually arrive at where we were meant to be. Sisyphus would get the boulder to the top and it would stay there. What then? We would then be confronted with the same problem of determining what gives meaning to life from that moment forward.

    An absurdist could agree we adopt contingent destinations – places we head towards for lack of having a better goal. And when we reach them, we can adopt a new contingent destination. Perhaps none of these destinations have any ‘real’ meaning. If you want to believe in a universe where there is a definitive ultimate destination – one that isn’t just contingent – then that’s fine too, but then you’ve got to admit to a really tricky question of where ‘real’ meaning would come from once that destination is reached.

    • Anthony M

      Hi Ray,

      Thank you very much for the response. I’ll give a more substantial response later, but my first thought is that absurdism collapses directly into nihilism no matter how you slice it. You say this:

      An absurdist could agree we adopt contingent destinations – places we head towards for lack of having a better goal. And when we reach them, we can adopt a new contingent destination. Perhaps none of these destinations have any ‘real’ meaning.

      What you’re describing is basically the only way that people who believe life has no meaning can function: Lie to yourself. Give yourself a destination, knowing that reaching it won’t change anything, and instead of confronting the fact that there is no meaning, push back the moment of revelation by pretending another goal matters. Joss Whedon has Mal do the same thing in “Serenity”: “I don’t care what you believe, Mal. Just believe in something,” says Book, very well cognizant of the fact that it’s far better for Mal to lie to himself than confront the implications of his nihilism.

      If you want to believe in a universe where there is a definitive ultimate destination – one that isn’t just contingent – then that’s fine too, but then you’ve got to admit to a really tricky question of where ‘real’ meaning would come from once that destination is reached.

      There is a body of eastern Christian teaching called Palamism. The Palamist conception of Heaven differs from the Western tradition. The western concept of Heaven has Heaven consisting mainly of the Beatific Vision, seeing God as He truly is. This is the meaning of life, fulfilled. You’re right in that this leads to a problem; it tends to be answered simply by saying we don’t really know what it’ll be like.

      Eastern Christians answer differently. They say it’s impossible to fully understand God, but we can always learn more. Heaven will consist of us learning more and more about God.

      Just a couple of possible solutions. The general idea is that the answer being the search is circular.

    • Anthony M

      Here is a little bit more:

      Your complaint about there being no meaning to the journey could just as well be applied to this cosmology – why struggle to accomplish anything, when it’ll be destroyed and then we’ll be reborn and have the same struggle again?

      But the problem isn’t that eventually none of it will matter anyway. The problem is simply that the meaning of the quest can’t be “the quest”. That’s circular. If you quest you are by definition trying to accomplish some sort of goal. It’s not like taking a walk.

      If the author I quoted is characterizing King’s series correctly, then King is saying that the whole purpose of the character’s quest was to discover that his quest had no purpose. This is nonsensical. Why not just say that the point of the journey WAS to save the world? Why does it need to be a byproduct of “the quest”?