At the beginning of Mort, when our titular character meets Death, he and his father have quite different experiences with our favorite anthropomorphic personification. Death appears to Mort as he does to the reader–a talking skeleton wearing long black robes and an unmovable grin. Mort’s father, in contrast, seems to think that he is speaking to a pale, thin undertaker; Death’s candid answers about the nature of his work are taken in stride because, as Mort realizes, his father is incapable of hearing the content of what Death says.
It’s a fun scene, and it sets up the rules of how Death operates on the Disc. Normal people do not see Death (until they die, that is) because they cannot see what their minds are convinced is not real. Wizards and witches can see Death because their experience with magic has enabled them to see past what they think they are supposed to see to what is real.
Here the idea has a fantasy flavor, but the average human’s inability to see the “real” world goes back as far as Plato and his cave. Fast-forward a few thousand years, and neuroscience demonstrates all of the ways our brains take creative liberties with the sensory data they process. Seriously, if you think you can trust your brain, go read an Oliver Sacks book. I’ll wait.
Still, there is a persistent epistemological concept that we hold onto: There is the self, which perceives, and the world, which is perceived. This implies that there is some sort of objective reality that must exist in order to be perceived; perception, therefore, is the internal self’s way of experiencing an external world.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case in Mort. Death tells Mort says that once he (Mort) can walk through walls, there will be nothing left to teach him. If we assume that there is an objective external world, then the secret to walking through walls is to change the wall–perhaps by installing a door.
Importantly, Mort can walk through walls, quite early in the narrative, but only when he isn’t paying attention. As Mort progresses through his apprenticeship, he begins to take on more of Death’s qualities. Specifically he becomes more real, more real than doors and crossbow bolts and, yes, walls.
Remember what I said a few lines up, about the valid and invalid realities in the book? We’re no longer dealing with a binary; we’re dealing with a gradient.
So things can be more or less real. How does that work?
There is a lot more to the universe than what we experience. Our senses are limited to seeing visible light and hearing pitches in a certain range and feeling sensation at a certain threshold. The distance between atoms and the distance between galaxies is equally huge, but we evolved to exist at a level where we use microscopes for atoms and telescopes for galaxies.
What I think is happening is that Death, Ysabel, Albert, and eventually Mort are not experiencing a different reality–they are experiencing more of the same reality, as though we could suddenly also see infrared light or hear ultra-high frequencies. Thus, “less real” refers to a limited experience of the universe (in this case, average human perception) and “more real” refers to a relatively expanded experience of the universe.
Because this is fantasy, increased perception is not the result of physiological changes to the sense organs; these changes take place in the mind.
Death is not contained by walls because he does not perceive himself to be.
Wait. Wait wait wait. Does this mean we’re dealing with a subjective reality after all?