Friday, September 14, 2007

Of the Proper Balance of Things

Terry Pratchett, in my opinion, reached a pitch of greatness with Reaper Man that has seldom been achieved in literature. The book builds up to its climax, about a page of dialogue- well, more of a monologue, really- between Death and Azrael, the Death of Deaths. Death pleads with Azrael for a little time; time to restore, as he says, the proper balance of things. Into that page or so of dialogue is distilled the essence of modern philosophical thought, and it is summarized superbly in Death’s final plea to Azrael: Lord, what can the harvest hope for, if not for the care of the Reaper Man?

The above line is one of my favourite quotes/lines-of-dialogue/bit-of-text-on-a-white-page/whatever. Death is an anthropomorphic personification, which in English means that he is the flesh-and-blood embodiment of humankind’s imagination: The Grim Reaper. In the book, he is sacked by the people who essentially form the Quality Assurance department of the universe; the same people who give the most boring presentations during induction briefings - an ordeal for unsuspecting freshers - and are consequently responsible for the phenomenon that, in corporate circles, is called Death by Powerpoint. Pratchett chooses to call them Auditors. Need I really say anymore?

And why do they sack him? Because Death, being an anthropomorphic personification (typing which is a pain), is developing Personality. There is nothing wrong with his work, in that everybody who dies is collected and disposed of properly, but they can’t have him doing silly human things like pondering the existential, now, can they? The Auditors hate irregularities, and it is of course well known and, more importantly from the Auditors’ point of view, well documented that Personality leads to irregularities. Ergo, he’s given the pink slip and an hourglass with his own allotted quota of time. This, for those unfamiliar with the Discworld, means that he is now human, give or take a little reality*. So, for the first time in- for want of a better word**- his life, Death can die.

He doesn’t like it. He’s always been fascinated by humans, and by What Makes Them Tick, but this lesson is hands-on. He learns, through bitter experience, (although he’d possibly known it forever) that there is no such thing as justice or mercy, and that hope is often a delusion, except in one case. And that case is him. This forms the crux of his appeal to Azrael:

Lord, there is no good order except that which we create…’
Azrael’s expression did not change.
‘There is no hope but us. There is no mercy but us. There is no justice. There is just us.’
The dark, sad face filled the sky.
‘All things that are, are ours. But we must care. For if we do not care, we do not exist. If we do not exist, then there is nothing but blind oblivion.
‘And even oblivion must end some day. Lord, will you grant me just a little time? For the proper balance of things. To return what was given. For the sake of prisoners and the flight of birds.’
Death took a step backwards.
It was impossible to read expression in Azrael’s features.
Death glanced sideways at the Auditors.
‘Lord, what can the harvest hope for, if not for the care of the Reaper Man?’
* * *
I made a statement in the first paragraph, one that a Professor of literature would possibly hesitate to make, that I shall now try to justify. In reading classic works like those of Shakespeare, Milton and the like, I have always found myself looking for meaning, in that I read the hallowed passages and try hard to understand, or basically just feel something, y’know? It is most likely a failing on my part that I have to look; but that is beside the point, for look I certainly do. Pratchett's writing, to me, seems much more accessible and, critically, the easiest to relate to. The characters he has created are, much like those of Shakespeare, many things: they are brave, cowardly, smart, funny and sometimes all at the same time. Most of all, however, they are intensely human.

However, one aspect of Pratchett’s writing irritates me: he tends to oversimplify certain issues. It is not so much oversimplification, however, as it is a sacrifice of accuracy and/or logical coherence for the sake of clever wordplay and a couple of catchy lines. It is a temptation that most of us who (attempt to) write fall prey to at some point or the other; yet, it is sad to see it happen with Pratchett.

Getting back to the bouquets, the most important aspect of his writing, in my opinion, is that he entertains, and does so like no other. In fact, I find him to be the literary equivalent of Quentin Tarantino as far as style (the humour and the general tongue-in-cheek-ness) and pop culture influence is concerned, except that his work is more profound, morally stronger and, I think this is important, makes for excellent reading for teenagers/adolescents. It is around this age that they- not so long ago, it was we- are introduced to the books of Ayn Rand, and Objectivism, in my opinion, does not deliver the right message. Rand glorifies unrestrained individualism, capitalism and the self above pretty much everything else; and along with being ridden with inconsistencies from a rigorous philosophical perspective, it does not quite cut it in the Real World. Going into further detail as to why I think her philosophy doesn’t cut it would require a separate post (and extensive re-reading for which, because of corporate stress, interminable coffee breaks and suchlike, I simply do not have the time) in its own right. For now, suffice to say that she doesn't quite achieve the proper balance of things. And the less said about authors like Paulo Coelho and Robin Sharma, the better.

The essays of Bertrand Russell should, ideally, be part of the curriculum in, say, 12th standard, but his ideas are not easily understood and assimilated, and I suspect even schoolteachers would have a tough time understanding (or even accepting, particularly in India) them. Pratchett, therefore, forms an ideal foil to Russell. The gentle morality that underlies much of his work, his condemnation of war and racism, his views on religion - all expressed through characters that are completely, wonderfully human- make for ideal reading for teenagers/adolescents; an age when, to paraphrase Russell, the ideal world begins to make its claim. The question of which ideal, or which world is worth putting your faith in is a momentous one, and a world like Pratchett’s, where Death is concerned about the proper balance of things, seems to be better than most.

* More or less. He still has the same effect on human minds; in that they don’t grasp the rather extreme boniness of his, well, bone structure. In other words, they don’t, or rather their brains don’t let them notice that he is a skeleton because, well, people are generally not all (and only) bone, now, are they?
** There is a better word, and it is existence. But I simply couldn’t resist, so I put it in.


At 3:35 AM, Blogger tangled said...

Oh, excellent post. Of course I agree with you completely (except for the part about the over-simplification, and I might possibly agree with you if you clarified yourself there a little more).
I do love all the Death books so...
and I love them in spite of Susan, who is possibly the least-identifiable character that series has...
(Yes, yes, I know. You think that description applies to Carrot. Perhaps there's one for each sex.)

What I think appeals the most in the Death books is the fact that here, we have a character looking in at the oddity of human life from a vantage point that is entirely outside our own frame of reference, and things seen from the outside always have better perspective...

Ugh, now you have me wanting to write posts about Pratchett, and I don't know that I can.

At 4:09 AM, Blogger Camphor said...

As per instructions:
"Yay! you posted!" :D

You know I disagree with your opinion of Ayn Rand. I think it is something that one should read, although nothing is necessary. It's like condemning socialism because you've seen commie China or Stalin's Russia.

I think we'll gently squabble over that for a few months.

At 12:00 PM, Blogger Adorable Pancreas said...

I don't read Pratchett, and my only encounter with Death was over here

Great post. You can stop twisting my arm now.

At 11:55 AM, Anonymous suraksha said...

Ah, Rand. *shakes head* :) The Fountainhead and Howard Roark = Total wow-ness. :)

Anyway, haven't read Pratchett yet. Now that you've glorified him THIS much, will go and hunt Reaper Man down. :)

and yeah, ditto camphor on 'You Posted!!' :D

At 5:51 AM, Blogger Spunky Monkey said...

Aww, I read neither Pratchett nor Rand (she wrote really BIG books, and these "idea"-driven have never quite enthused me).
I just wrote in to say Hey, you are back, I am so glad.

At 9:58 PM, Blogger Keshi said...

havent read Pratchett yet..


At 5:06 AM, Blogger @s said...


Great to see youre back...

Havent read Pratchett yet.. But, you make me wanna read his work :)..


At 5:08 AM, Blogger @s said...

Oh, and thanks for dropping by :)

At 2:19 AM, Blogger Tys on Ice said...

I havent read these books u spoke abt, but u got me defintely interested...death having a personality already exist in Hindu scriptures...Death is called Yama and is also the Lord of Justice...which is pure perfect reasoning, since in death all are equal..anyways, liked ur post

At 10:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Welcome back! I signify my joy using one of these exclamation thingies.

Loved the little bit about Death by PowerPoint.

I agree with you about putting Russell in the c. His essays are fabulous.

You have word verification. Bleh.


At 7:14 AM, Blogger Ketaki said...

I haven't read Pratchett yet either. But with Rand, I disagree with your views.
Put up a post on that, I'm sure you'll trigger an awesome discussion :)

Incidentally, I've started a new blog, see if you find the time ;)

At 8:35 AM, Blogger Adorable Pancreas said...

Hey, it's time you did a new post. If you're looking for inspiration, try this . Don't disappoint me. :)

At 9:20 PM, Blogger One in a Billion said...

One visits after a long time, friend Monk. You haven't lost your touch.

Agree with most of this post, despite not actually having read Reaper Man. The Rand part does deserve further discussion, though.

At 10:47 AM, Blogger suburbangrump said...

Pratchett I love. He is my all time favourite. I bow down to him. Rand I just don't get what the big deal is about.

At 9:40 PM, Blogger Canary said...

Hey... Long time... Where are you?? :)

At 12:14 AM, Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

You paid me a compliment on my blog. I must return it here, about this post and the one after this.

All the more because I agree with you on both posts.



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