“The Death of the Disc was a traditionalist who prided himself on his personal service and spent most of the time being depressed because this was not appreciated. … He still used a scythe, he’d point out, while the Deaths of other worlds had long ago invested in combined harvesters.”
—Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic
LIKE REAPER MAN, this post begins and ends in a mountain valley, at night, in the downward half of the year, when the dancers in dark garb dance with the other bells on. I don’t think I can write about this book—simultaneously one of Pratchett’s most poignant, insane, and unbelievably messy—and not begin and end with the dance.
The Dark Morris is one of my favorite Pratchett inventions. The idea feels narratively and culturally resonant. If there’s a Morris to enact the rebirth of the sun, surely there’s a Morris to enact its death? How logically Pratchett. (It is without shame that I admit to whooping aloud when I realized that Wintersmith, one of Pratchett’s best books, begins and ends with and just generally has a lot to do with the Dark Morris.)
When Pratchett writes about the dance, he sets it up immediately as a counterpoint to what he describes as the typical human relationship to nature—running over a sheep with your Volvo. On one hand, you have a mass-produced machine that disconnects those who make from those who consume. On the other hand, you have a dance that begins in folk wisdom and ends with feet moving over soil, in the dark, as the cold sets in, reifying tradition. This dichotomy informs Reaper Man, which can be read as a blunt indictment of mass thinking, consumerism, and rampant capitalist consumption.
However, the book takes place in Ankh-Morpork—a pit of feints and fobs and woolly commercial schemes, a colonizer of the world through production and communication, and yet the city from which all civilizations in all the universes are made. How does a writer who created Ankh-Morpork, who celebrates street quackery, the printing press, and the steam engine, nonetheless condemn the shopping mall and the combine harvester? This question has been playing in my mind for a while, and Reaper Man offers some ideas.
Effort and Load
Reaper Man reminded me that Pratchett’s writing is often an exercise in reconciling possible contradiction. Consider: Discworld’s ideology is politically and socially progressive, liberatory toward knowledge, and interested in commonality, but the world in which that ideology unfolds is distinctly Victorian. It’s a world restrictive toward women, rife with backhanded racial injustice, and not favorable toward honest living.
Possibly, this baseline is what permits Pratchett his social commentary. When a woman joins the Watch, we care in part because she’s surrounded by generally decent people who nonetheless habituate all kinds of subtle infractions toward women; possibly, we find her interesting partly because she in turn perpetuates her own small injustices on others. A world with problems is a world in people have something to prove and work toward, and I as a reader can invest in that.
However, there’s the other side of that story. For all of its detritus, corruption, and discrimination, Ankh-Morpork is a place that we want to visit, a love letter to Victorian London. Mr. C.M.O.T. Dibbler may be bastard scum with no regard for general health and safety practices, but damn it, he’s lovable bastard scum with no regard for general health and safety practices. As a writer, you don’t write a character like Dibbler book after book without feeling some affection for him and his world, scummy though they be.
So if Ankh-Morpork is the fulcrum of Pratchett’s world, then the load and effort on either end of the lever are his romantic world-building and social politics, respectively. The latter pushes back against the former.
And therein lies the conundrum. Reaper Man argues strongly against mass thinking, mass production, and material consumption. Only our rag-tag group of undead, each one a unique person, can stand against a consumer culture smitten with legions of identical snow globes. And certainly the combine harvester, a mass-killing machine, is deeply inferior to Death’s personalized touch. Given time, however, the printing press will fill the streets of Ankh-Morpork with mass-produced news, and a bevy of alluring steam engines will usher in efficient, but less personal, mass-travel. Eventually, Ankh-Morpork’s indulgent capitalism will own to one degree or another the pocket books, clothes, communication, over-sized swords, and livelihoods of most citizens on the Disc. And of course Pratchett loves technology…
And so, rereading Reaper Man, I began thinking about how to reconcile Pratchett’s loving embrace of this consumer city with the his critique of consumer culture. How can Pratchett condemn a love of snow-globes and crass marketing while loving the shining steam engine and the sausage-inna-bun vendor?
Episteme, Techne, Phronesis
The answer, I think, is that pretty much anything goes in Pratchett’s world as long as it goes with empathy. Characters like the Auditors (and Trymon and Astfgl) have the knowledge to make order but not the compassion. Even the highwayman is better than the soulless thing that brings the artless shopping cart into being—note how the criminals of Pratchett’s world are often hard-working people who care deeply about their craft and serving their
victims customers well. Personal is necessary.
We’ve talked before about how Pratchett loves craftspeople and those who generate science and knowledge not from books alone but from doing. If you make horseshoes in your forge, or wear the soles of your boots thin on patrol, or go around the houses caring for the ailing, you’re probably all right by Pratchett. To mangle Aristotle: in Pratchett’s universe, phronesis (prudence about action) is only possible by those who practice techne (craft) while being open to the episteme (true knowledge) of the materials they work.
And when you think about it, how many of the inventions and revolutions in Discworld have some kind of soul? And how often are those who encounter the soulful thing also those who make, and care deeply about what they make? Almost always.
And so we return again to that dark valley where men dance with the other bells on as the winter closes in. You can run over as many sheep as you can find with your Volvo, but you haven’t earned knowledge and you sure as hell are not attuned to either your vehicle or the ruminants you just massacred (you awful bastard). For Pratchett, good progress—from season to season, from technology to technology, the kind that separates the shopping mall from the great twin city—requires not only knowledge but also a profound awareness of, and physical intimacy with, the animate heart of matter.
And so engines breathe steam. The printing press hungers. The semaphore gives voice to the dead. The post remembers. Sport shoves. And death must be danced.
For the balance of things.