Friday, March 13, 2015

The Music of the Spheres - Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett was a master of the art of British comedy. What's more: he was one of the great fantasy novelists and satirists of the 20th Century. In being all these things, he is - at least in America - often unfairly overshadowed by specialists in each. He created a famous black-haired, bespectacled young wizard who goes to a school in a castle, and then a young upstart came along and stole his thunder. A successor to Monty Python and P.G. Wodehouse, a contemporary of Douglas Adams, he was a bit more serious than any of them. The breadth of his invention rivaled Dickens, but then, he wasn't Dickens. And of course, Pratchett was far too funny to be taken seriously as a satirist.

But all these things he was, and more. The Discworld - a magical land floating through space on the back of four giant elephants on the back of a giant turtle - teems with life. From Ankh-Morpork - that wretched hive of scum and villainy - to the mysterious, exotic Agatean Empire - adventure waits around every corner, and the world is always expanding.

Life tends to revolve around Ankh-Morpork - a dirty city which houses beautiful people. And by beautiful people, I mean cynical cops, dishonest businessmen, bibulous wizards, and "seamstresses" - all presided over by a supreme leader whose motto is "One Man, One Vote." He is the Man - and it is his Vote that counts. Splendidly, Pratchett balances a cynicism about the fragility and corruption of humanity with a love for mankind's infinite variety.

Chesterton - of whom Pratchett was a big fan - said it thus:

There are two things in which all men are manifestly and unmistakably equal. They are not equally clever or equally muscular or equally fat, as the sages of the modern reaction (with piercing insight) perceive. But this is a spiritual certainty, that all men are tragic. And this, again, is an equally sublime spiritual certainty, that all men are comic. No special and private sorrow can be so dreadful as the fact of having to die. And no freak or deformity can be so funny as the mere fact of having two legs. Every man is important if he loses his life; and every man is funny if he loses his hat, and has to run after it. And the universal test everywhere of whether a thing is popular, of the people, is whether it employs vigorously these extremes of the tragic and the comic...all over the world, the folk literature, the popular literature, is the same. It consists of very dignified sorrow and very undignified fun. Its sad tales are of broken hearts; its happy tales are of broken heads. 
These, I say, are two roots of democratic reality. But they have in more civilised literature, a more civilised embodiment of form. In literature such as that of the nineteenth century the two elements appear somewhat thus. Tragedy becomes a profound sense of human dignity. The other and jollier element becomes a delighted sense of human variety. The first supports equality by saying that all men are equally sublime. The second supports equality by observing that all men are equally interesting.
Terry Pratchett understood this, and that caused his books to truly become "popular literature" (he was right behind J.K. Rowling for the U.K.'s best-selling author). All his beings were broken and fallible creatures, often literally walking alongside Death - but all his creatures (even the trolls) were also marvelous, lovable creations.

Now that's not to say he wasn't occasionally overcome by his own beliefs, sliding into Utopian humanism or pessimistic nihilism. With regard to the former, he has, in his most recent novels, had a tendency to pontificate to a boring extent on the evils of religious cant. On the other hand, he was quick to call crap on the silliness of the new Doctor Who. To modify an Einstein quote, he sometimes indulged in a good, intellectually vigorous rant about the injustice caused by the wrong sort of idealism (i.e. not his own), but in the end he was far too busy listening to the music of the spheres to bother very much about that.

His wonder at creation is contagious. And despite his own belief that justice, mercy, and love were merely big lies humans tell themselves "to make life bearable" - well, he certainly seemed to believe them himself. His intrepid copper, Sam Vimes, quickly earned his place in my list of favorite detectives. Hard-bitten and battered, Vimes is a romantic at heart, continually hoping to right wrongs and achieve Justice.

And here's Moist von Lipwig, a conman rebuking a clay man:

“Do you understand what I'm saying?" shouted Moist. "You can't just go around killing people!" 
"Why Not? You Do." The golem lowered his arm. 
"What?" snapped Moist. "I do not! Who told you that?" 
"I Worked It Out. You Have Killed Two Point Three Three Eight People," said the golem calmly. 
"I have never laid a finger on anyone in my life, Mr Pump. I may be–– all the things you know I am, but I am not a killer! I have never so much as drawn a sword!" 
"No, You Have Not. But You Have Stolen, Embezzled, Defrauded And Swindled Without Discrimination, Mr Lipvig. You Have Ruined Businesses And Destroyed Jobs. When Banks Fail, It Is Seldom Bankers Who Starve. Your Actions Have Taken Money From Those Who Had Little Enough To Begin With. In A Myriad Small Ways You Have Hastened The Deaths Of Many. You Do Not Know Them. You Did Not See Them Bleed. But You Snatched Bread From Their Mouths And Tore Clothes From Their Backs. For Sport, Mr Lipvig. For Sport. For The Joy Of The Game.” 
That's some pretty heavy moral authority there. And "Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things." And "Imagination, not intelligence, made us human." And at his most lovely: "Just because someone's a member of an ethnic minority doesn't mean they're not a nasty small-minded little jerk."

Now Terry Pratchett is dead. I am oddly unmoved by this - though don't take that the wrong way. I am still saddened to see him go - but like Chesterton or Dickens, he created an immortal world which was the medium through which I knew him. His world is so immortal that the idea that it could cease to exist is impossible, ridiculous even.

Alas, he was mortal, but he created something eternal, and in the process stole a bit of eternity for himself. Perhaps, in this, he felt an echo of the ultimate eternity to which all our stories point. I hope so, and with that in mind, I commend his soul to the God who can find it.


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