Four years ago today, Terry Pratchett died from complications from Alzheimer’s Disease. His death was not a surprise, as he had been quite candid about his affliction—which in typical Sir Terry mode, he referred to as his “embuggerance”—but it still hit me like a truck.
It still does, even four years on. Last June, memorializing Anthony Bourdain on this blog, I observed that “There is comfort to be had in knowing there are rational, humane, deeply intelligent thinkers at large in the world to whom we can reliably turn to for wisdom,” and that losing any such person makes the world poorer. Since Sir Terry’s death we’ve had the Brexit referendum, the election of Donald Trump, the resurgence of white supremacism and white nationalism, a worrying uptick in authoritarianism around the world, and the coarsening of a political discourse reliant on fear and division rather than comity or a figuration of the common good. It’s not as though Sir Terry, were he still alive, would be talking at length of any of these things; but there would be a comfort to be had in having him still in the world and of the world, as an exemplar of kind, rational humanity … and knowing that there would be more of his fiction to look forward to.
Those of us who are devoted readers of Sir Terry’s—and there are an awful lot of us—know that his fiction, especially the forty-one Discworld novels, articulate a deeply humane, humanist, pragmatic philosophy that is both personal and political. And I use the word “pragmatic” there deliberately, as it is generally consonant with the philosophy of pragmatism as developed by thinkers like William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty. That is to say, it is a philosophy that is preoccupied with contingency and irony and a general rejection of transcendent or absolute Truths; not a radical relativism, but rather an acknowledgement that we exist within an overlapping series of shared vocabularies, and, as Judith Shklar asserts in her book Ordinary Vices, that “cruelty is the worst thing we do.”
Perhaps the best example from the Discworld novels is the relationship between gods and mortals. In the Discworld cosmology, gods do not pre-exist mortals; rather, gods are themselves created by people believing in them, giving them their relative power and status through the volume and depth of people’s faith. This trope is most specifically explored in the novel Small Gods, but is more or less consistent throughout the entire series. It’s important to recognize how profound this inversion is: among other things, it’s a symbolic rejection of the principle of extrinsic power or transcendent verities, reimagining power much as the philosopher Michel Foucault does, as something not unitary and external to us, but contingent on circumstance and context. It becomes a function of people themselves, and the gods’ existence, far from being sparks of the divine, are reliant upon unreliable, capricious, and often silly and irrational mortals.
This theme—and the concomitant mingling of affection and exasperation for human foibles—is ever-present in Sir Terry’s writing. “We’re monkeys,” he said in discussion with The Guardian. “Our heritage is, in difficulty, to climb trees and throw shit at other trees.” Even in Good Omens (which he co-authored with Neil Gaiman), a comic cosmic tale about an angel and demon’s efforts to avert the biblical apocalypse, the thematic preoccupation is with human nature.
Superficially, the novel is a creationist’s dream: the first scene takes place in the Garden of Eden as the angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley watch Adam and Eve flee, and just one page later 4004 BC is established as the year of Creation and the fossil record characterized as a hoax. And yet the pivot of the narrative lies in the fact that Aziraphale and Crowley, having been the respective representatives of Heaven and Hell on Earth since the beginning, have (1) become something resembling friends, and, more importantly, (2) have both developed a deep affection for the world and the mortals who inhabit it. They have, in effect, let humanity rub off on them, in all of its messy glory. As Crowley reflects at one point, “It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.”
There were people who called themselves Satanists who made Crowley squirm. It wasn’t just the things they did, it was the way they blamed it all on Hell. They’d come up with some stomach-churning idea that no demon could have thought of in a thousand years, some dark and mindless unpleasantness that only a fully-functioning human brain could conceive, then shout “The Devil Made Me Do It” and get the sympathy of the court when the whole point was that the Devil hardly ever made anyone do anything. He didn’t have to. That was what some humans found hard to understand. Hell wasn’t a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley’s opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.
“People being fundamentally people” could well be the tagline for the entirety of the Discworld series, provided you add the caveat that the designation “people” in this instance includes trolls, dwarfs, gnomes, vampires, werewolves, goblins, orcs, and the wee free blue men in tartan called the Nac Mac Feegle. Discworld is a diverse place, nowhere more so than in its principal city Ankh-Morpork. It is hardly accidental that Ankh-Morpork is frequently and pungently described as messy—both in terms of the squalor of its streets and the messiness of its denizens, who come from all over the disc and coexist in something that can never exactly be described as peace, but which mostly stops short of open warfare if for no other reason that people’s competing self-interests tend to balance things out.
It is significant, and reflective of Sir Terry’s pragmatic humanism, that his worst villains aren’t brutal, violent sociopaths but individuals and entities who cannot abide the messiness of the world and seek to perfect it: the fairy godmother of Witches Abroad who forces an entire city to behave as if they lived inside a fairy-tale; the evil ideologue in Night Watch who seeks to perfect people according to his narrow definitions; the fundamentalist dwarfs in The Fifth Elephant, Thud! and Raising Steam, who are thinly veiled allegories of the Taliban; the shadowy cabal of aristocrats in The Truth who scheme to restore the ascendancy of the nobility; and perhaps most chilling of all, the entities known as the Auditors who periodically (Reaper Man, Thief of Time, Hogfather) appear and attempt to eliminate caprice and unpredictability from the universe. As Samuel Vimes reflects in Night Watch, “As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn’t measure up.” And that, in Sir Terry’s world, is the greatest evil of all.
Those of us who are devoted readers of Sir Terry have long argued for the value of his work, but that has been an uphill argument for four big reasons. First, he wrote fantasy, which the gatekeepers of capital-L Literature tend to dismiss (consider the fact that when The Lord of the Rings received the number-one place as best novel in a Guardian public poll, many pearl-clutchers bemoaned the apparent decline of the British reading public). Second, he wrote side-splittingly hilarious novels, which many people tend to see as a mark of unseriousness. Third, he was mind-numbingly prolific: forty-one Discworld novels in thirty-seven years, and that doesn’t count his many other collaborative projects. That level of productiveness suggests to some a certain shallowness to the works. And finally, he was, and is, hugely popular. Before a certain young wizard received his first owl-post, Sir Terry was the best-selling novelist in the U.K. And if that many people like something, it can’t possibly be worthwhile, right?
Fortunately, we do seem to be inhabiting a moment in which those four qualities no longer hold quite the same power over what we consider worthwhile. I say this as an English professor who is currently teaching a senior seminar on H.P. Lovecraft and weird fiction, and last semester taught a course on The Lord of the Rings and a graduate seminar on “Magic Wor(l)ds.” (In this last course we studied Witches Abroad, which was a class favourite).
And for the past few months I’ve been finally working through some thoughts on Sir Terry, which is turning into a much bigger project than originally intended. It started as something of a lark when I was out for a long walk last May, during which I was working through in my mind the structure and schedule of the aforementioned graduate seminar. I was also simmering with annoyance over the most recent public utterances of a certain psychology professor who shall remain Jordan Peterson, someone who, whatever you think of his writings and teachings, has been embraced and celebrated (and turned into a celebrity) by all manner of alt-right, “western chauvinist,” men’s-rights types; his work (which, it should surprise no one, I hold in general contempt) provides for many such people an intellectual scaffolding for their hatred, resentment, and sense of victimhood.
As I walked, I started thinking of Sir Terry’s philosophy, and it occurred to me that it could function as useful counter-narrative. And I wondered: what would Sir Terry’s “12 Rules” be?
When I got home I started sketching out possibilities, and by the end of the day had a draft. I tweaked it now and then, but was never sure what to do with it. At first I thought I would post it here, with little blurbs explicating each of the rules. But as time went on, I was reluctant to give it short shrift—I wanted to do it justice. I ran it up the flagpole with my grad students when we did Witches Abroad, and it seemed to get a good reception. But still I wasn’t sure what form this thing would take, and there was also a certain reluctance to really dive in, as that would require me to do a deep dive on Peterson’s writings and prolific YouTube presence.
And, well … Reader, I did. Am still doing. And have somewhere in the neighbourhood of fifteen thousand words written, with no end in sight. Once it is done, I will post it here in installments. In the meantime, here are my 12 Rules of Pratchett:
- Well, maybe “rules” is the wrong word to use here.
- Cruelty is the worst thing we do.
- As soon as you see people as things to be measured, they don’t measure up.
- The opposite of “funny” is not “serious”; the opposite of funny is not funny.
- Always read the footnotes.
- Mythology is just folklore with a budget.
- Buggere Alle This For A Larke.
- Better a rising ape than a falling angel.
- We make our own stories—our stories do not make us (unless we let them).
- Diversity is strength.
- Democracy is the worst form of government there is, except for all the others.
- CATS. CATS ARE NICE.