Saturday, March 17, 2018
The Dark Tower and the Meanings of Life: The Waste Lands by Stephen King
I originally read the first two Dark Tower books back in high school ... and I didn't really get into them. But given my resurgence of interest in Stephen King in recent years and the movie that came out last summer, I figured I'd give them another shot. I was probably one of about three people who enjoyed the movie at all, but it was the books that really clicked with me (see this post on what I had to say about the books and the movie).
After several months, I decided to continue my quest to read the series.
The Waste Lands, the third book in the series, is not quite as weird as the first one, but it's weirder than the second one. I feel like I'm getting more into the core of the universe and getting a sense of what people love (or don't love) about this series.
One of the weirdest things about these books is that they don't fit cleanly into any genre. There are elements of horror, sure (it's Stephen King, after all), but is it fantasy? Science fiction? A degenerate Western? A dreamy epic poem in prose form? A treatise on the nature of time and reality? A meditation on love, relationships, and the meaning of life? None of these things? Or all of them? Part of the fun is that it keeps you guessing. Once you think you've got it figured out, King throws more weirdness at you.
And an awful lot of really weird, inexplicable stuff happens: they're attacked by a cyborg zombie-bear, there's more cross-world travel, there's a sexual/violent encounter with a demon, we meet the bizarre inhabitants of a few more towns after the world has moved on, there's a ZZ Top song playing for some reason, etc. But for all this weirdness, the main plot points are surprisingly simple. The "ka tet" of Roland, Susannah, and Eddie continues their quest, they try to get Jake back into Mid-World (I won't spoil whether they succeed), they meet a sort of dog-like creature, Oy, who becomes part of the group, and eventually they aim for the city of Lud, where there is apparently a train that will take them closer to the Dark Tower.
But, as many other readers have noticed, the quest plot is really not the main point of the story (indeed, one might wonder if it's the point at all). What I like about the books so far is just reveling in their weirdness. Cliched as it sounds, it's about the journey not the destination. I doubt King would've written eight of these books if getting to the Dark Tower was really the point. Having read three of the books now, I can say I'm enjoying the journey.
The Philosophy Report: Quests and Meanings
It's often thought that meaning in life is about having one large goal that supplies the framework for organizing one's life. For artists or authors, this might be about producing a magnum opus (much like King thinks of the Dark Tower series) or even just making enough money to quit your day job. Or it might be projects like raising children, finishing one's education, running a marathon, making a million dollars, fulfilling one's career goals, working toward a political goal, collecting particular kinds of stamps, or brewing a perfect beer. A lot of people are seeking their own version of the Dark Tower.
But as Buddhists have been saying for thousands of years, the problem with desires is that they cause suffering. Desires reinforce the idea that you are a self separate from other things (you might be willing to do bad things to get what you want, as Roland does to Jake in the first book and suffers for in this one). Not getting what you want causes suffering. But so does getting it. Maybe because it's never quite what you hoped it would be, or because your desires, like the world, have by then moved on. Or maybe, as the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued much later, once you get what you want you have nothing left to do. A sort of malaise overtakes you. So the problem with revolving your whole life around a single desire is that you suffer if you don't get it, but you also suffer if you do.
Maybe this is the lesson to be learned from Roland. I'm not sure King intends any lessons in the series, or indeed whether Stephen King should be seen as some sage from whom one seeks council on the meaning of life. But if there are lessons to be learned, maybe one of them is this: life is meaningful, but don't think of it as having any one, single meaning that trumps all others. There are many beautiful, meaningful, interesting, and bizarre things in life. Learn to enjoy them and learn from as many of them as you can. But don't, like Roland, put all your eggs of meaning in one basket. That way madness lies, although it makes for a fun literary ride.
So having experienced 3/8ths of the books, I'm coming to see that getting to the Dark Tower isn't the point. These books are best enjoyed by finding little meanings and bits of delightful/horrific weirdness along the way. Kind of like life itself.
See also my Goodreads review.