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.