The Humor of Despair

Rincewind, whenever he was running, never bothered about the TO.  He had always considered the FROM to be more important.”

That is a line from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, describing the eternally afraid Rincewind the Wizzard (spelling intentional).  It’s a phrase very descriptive of Rincewind’s character, and indeed of the character of most of the novels dealing with him, which mostly revolve around running away from various hazards.  (Interestingly, Rincewind always seems to run from the frying pan into the fire, so arguably he SHOULD be more worried about the ‘to.’)  But it is also, surprisingly, a decent summary of the series itself, or at least of its central theme.  

Discworld is, as I think I’ve mentioned before, a fantasy series about the events atop the Discworld, a circular world carried on the backs of four elephants atop a turtle traveling through space.  Pratchett comments in one of the books that the myth about the world being on the back of a turtle is one of the oldest and most prevalent myths, he just added the elephants.  Personally I’m not so sure, most mythologies I’VE read involve the world being made out of the bones of dead giants, but I suppose the turtle one is pretty popular too.  And the setup is pretty amusing.  “A thousand years ago we thought the world was a bowl. Five hundred years ago we knew it was a globe. Today we know it is flat and round carried through space on the back of a turtle. Don’t you wonder what shape it will turn out to be tomorrow?” 

There are currently thirty-eight books in the Discworld series, of which I’ve read thirty-six (Carpe Jugulum couldn’t be found at any library nearby, and about ten pages into Small Gods I put the book down out of sheer disgust.)  This isn’t so much an accomplishment of culture as one of thoroughness, as the books are fairly light reading and scarcely more than 300 pages.  Some especially good or short ones I could read in a day.

Someone at work asked how long I’d been reading the series.  I gave him a rough estimate of six months (Now that I’ve checked the records, I think it was probably more like four months).  He was astonished.  “I don’t think I’ve been able to finish a single book in under six months!” 

I was astonished.  “Seriously?

“Well, I mean, I’ve read tons of books half-way through.  You know how it is, you start the thing and it just gets dull and you put it down and you never pick it up again.  Like for reading assignments?  I just read the first bit and the last bit and then look Sparks Notes online for the synopsis.  It’s great.”

Please tell me this young man is not typical of America’s youth.  Apparently the last complete book he read was in High School and gets most of kicks through movies.  To be fair, though, he seems to be a fairly decent musician, so different things for different people. Seriously though.  Six months?  One book?  That’s just sad.  I mean, I spent six Months once STUDYING one book, by reading about four or five others and looking through internet articles and writing a fifty-page paper about it, but I can’t recall any book that took me more than a month to read (Anna Karenina came pretty close, though).

Anyway.  Ranting/Bragging aside, I don’t think anyone would get bored with these books.  They are incredibly amusing.  It’s not just the countless geek-references or the endless parodies of fantasy tropes, Terry Pratchett has an ingenious way of twisting phrases to produce unexpected and hilarious results, and has a ready arsenal of zany characters, situations, and worlds to play with.  Here are just a few amusing excerpts from his work:

“Too much magic could wrap time and space around itself, and that wasn’t good news for the kind of person who had grown used to things like effects following things like causes.”  Sourcery

“It’s not for nothing that advanced mathematics tends to be invented in hot countries. It’s because of the morphic resonance of all the camels, who have that disdainful expression and famous curled lip as a natural result of an ability to do quadratic equations.”  –Pyramids

“All dwarfs are by nature dutiful, serious, literate, obedient and thoughtful people whose only minor failing is a tendency, after one drink, to rush at enemies screaming “Arrrrrrgh!” and axing their legs off at the knee.”  –-Guards, Guards!

“Baths is unhygienic,” Granny declared. “You know I’ve never agreed with baths. Sittin’ around in your own dirt like that.”‘  —Witches Abroad

“The Monks of Cool, whose tiny and exclusive monastery is hidden in a really cool and laid-back valley in the lower Ramtops, have a passing-out test for a novice. He is taken into a room full of all types of clothing and asked: Yo, my son, which of these is the most stylish thing to wear? And the correct answer is: Hey, whatever I select.”  —Lords and Ladies

“His progress through life was hampered by his tremendous sense of his own ignorance, a disability which affects all too few people.”  —Maskerade

Vimes had never got on with any game much more complex than darts. Chess in particular had always annoyed him. It was the dumb way the pawns went off and slaughtered their fellow pawns while the kings lounged about doing nothing that always got to him; if only the pawns united, maybe talked the rooks round, the whole board could’ve been a republic in a dozen moves.”  –Thud!

I could go on for ages, but I’ll save you and me time and just stop there.  Read them here if you want, or better yet, buy the books, because a lot of the REALLY great stuff only makes sense when you read it in context.  Just the selections we have here, though, should give you a pretty good sense of Mr. Pratchett’s writing style.  It’s light, easy, and addictive.  It really is hard to put these books down, I’ve caught myself trying to catch a paragraph or two at red lights.  It doesn’t help that the guy doesn’t understand chapters, so the whole book is essentially a continuous narrative.  Oh, there are scenes, but no chapters.  Just a bunch of page breaks, so you never get to a place where you can easily mark where you are.

Pratchett betrays a surprisingly nuanced view of things at times.  In the book Jingo! for instance, Vimes, the story’s main character, gets called out by an Arab (or the Discworld equivalent) for being unwilling to suspect the Arabic government of corruption.  Vimes, says the Arab, is too concerned with not being one of “Them”–the biased, war-hungry populace who suspect the Arabs of everything–that he refuses to allow Arabs the same corruption as his own people.  Then, too, there is the speech given by the golem Mr. Pump in Going Postal to reformed con-man Lipwig Van Moist, who protests he has never done anything seriously bad.

“You Have Killed 22.8 People,” said Mr. Pump.

“I’ve never so much as drawn a sword!” protested Moist.

“But You Have Robbed, Stolen, Embezzled, and Swindled.  You Have Ruined Businesses and Destroyed Lives.  When Banks Fail, It Is Seldom Bankers Who Starve.  In a Thousand Small Ways, You Have Hastened the Deaths of Many.  You Did Not Know Them, You Did Not See Them Bleed, But You Snatched Bread From Their Mouths.  Their Will Be No Running.”

The movie adaptation of that part is here, if you’re interested.  This is probably a good point to note Pratchett’s innovative use of the printed page.  Golems always speak in Capital letters; Death, himself a major player, speaks in all capitals without quotation marks (I AM DEATH, NOT TAXES.  I ONLY SHOW UP ONCE), and several scenes depend on cleverly arranged paragraphs and sentences that show the action being played out. 

Anyway, I like the scene because it doesn’t laugh off Moist’s con artistry.  All too often, criminals are let off easy in stories because, after all, they haven’t actually hurt anyone.  Danny Ocean from Ocean’s 11 and Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Carribean are instances of lovable criminals who the audience forgives for their crimes because they haven’t actually hurt anyone, and also because they’re funny.  Moist, in this scene here, is not so lucky.  Even supposedly innocuous criminals can have deadly affects that they never intended.  

Pratchett is incredibly original also.  To some extent, he accomplishes this by bouncing off different cliches and tropes from the fantasy genre–one character’s sword is noted to be unusual in that it ISN’T magical–and also by parodying different famous works throughout the years–“How cinematic!  A giant woman climbing up a tower, carrying an ape!“–but he also does it through some wonderfully human projections.  The romances in his stories, for instance, are always believable despite often being incredibly atypical.  (At one point he comments how “90% of romance is standing around in awkward silence.”)  The character Rincewind, mentioned above, has an incredibly practical view toward danger, and the side plot in Thud! about Vimes and his son Sam is wonderfully heartwarming.

Despite all its virtues, though, there is a core of bitterness to Discworld, which lies just beneath the veneer of humor. 

“What would humans be without love?”

RARE. said Death.

“I meant,” said Ipslore bitterly, “what is there in this world that makes living worthwhile?”

Death thought about this for a while.  CATS. He said finally.  CATS ARE NICE.

Death is a recurring character of the series, and a rather good-natured one.  But he is also the primary reality in Discworld, the one thing all characters have to contend with (he is in every book save one).  The gods exist, but they are in general manipulative, self-centered creatures who are largely hinted to be created out of people’s belief.  They seldom appear in the story, and the only one who actually helps the characters is The Lady, goddess of Luck.  And as is pointed out by Cohen the Barbarian, if Luck is the one-in-a-million chance that succeeds, then she is also the 999,999 that fail.  In The Last Hero, when Cohen and his barbarian friends set out to blow up the gods (and, by extension, all of Discworld), the only real reason that convinces them to stop is that, if everyone dies, there will be no more stories.  To Pratchett, religion can be trivial, harmful, optional, but Death is inescapable.  Tellingly, when we meet the Creator of the Discworld in Faust Eric, we find him to be a small, whiskery creature, one of many, but when we meet the god of Oblivion, Azazeal, in Reaper Man, he is enormous, bigger than infinity and older than time. 

The depression is more than cosmic, too.  It exists on a civic level as well, as the truly Machiavellian Lord Vetinari puts to Captain Vimes.

“I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are the good people and the bad people,” said the man.  “You’re wrong, of course.  There are, always and only, the bad people but some of them are on opposite sides.”

Vimes shrugged.  “They’re just people,” he said. “They’re just doing what people do.  Sir.”

Lord Vetinari gave him a friendly smile.  “Of course, of course,” he said.  “You have to believe that, I appreciate.  Otherwise you’d go quite mad.  Otherwise you’d think you’re standing on a feather-thin bridge over the vaults of Hell.  Otherwise existence would be sheer agony and the only hope would be that there would be no life after death.  I quite understand.  Good day.”

Vimes paused at the door.  “Do you believe that, sir?  About the endless evil and the sheer blackness?”

“Indeed, Indeed,” said the Patrician, turning over the page.  “It is the only logical conclusion.”

“But then why do you get out of bed every morning, sir?”

“Oh, do go away, Vimes, there’s a good fellow.”

A more accurate summation of the Discworldview would be hard to find.  Life stinks, the world is hard and cruel, Death is (conveniently) the kindest thing likely to happen to anyone.  Why do we live?  Don’t ask.  Just live.  Live for the sake of living.  There’s a deleted scene from the movie Serenity that goes nearly exactly like this.

The character Rincewind who I quoted at the beginning, embodies this idea.  He’s an eternal coward, running away from every danger, often into even greater danger, and surviving by sheer luck and running ability.  He clings to life desperately, without ever questioning if he should try doing something with the thing.  In the book Interesting Times, Rincewind actually abandons a rebel army of orphan children who want him to lead them.  His reasoning is cruelly practical yet hopelessly empty.

“But there are causes worth dying for,” said Butterfly.

“No there aren’t!  Because you’ve only got one life but you can pick up any five causes off the next street corner!”

“Good grief, how can you LIVE with a philosophy like that?”

Rincewind took a deep breath.

“Continuously!”

Again, Discworld theory in a nutshell.  The purpose of life is to stay alive.  And also, Discworld humor in a nutshell.  A very depressing view of life wrapped up in a clever turn of phrase and an easily laughable situation.  Often, in the Discworld stories, things are said in such a ridiculous manner that you laugh them off without considering how gloomy they are if taken seriously.  Half of Pratchett’s jokes are actually cripplingly sad if you look at them the right way.  In a way, it comes as no surprise that Mr. Pratchett, now approaching his 63rd birthday, is beginning to suffer from dementia.  If I held his view of the world I might also.

Existentialism, in some way, is correct in its recognition of mankind being depraved and the world being corrupt.  It misses God and the message of redemption, though, and that is what makes the theory of existentialism, or rather its base philosophy, nihilism, so hopeless.  Most of modern philosophy is an attempt to avoid the logical conclusion of nihilism, and existentialism is the theory that just says, “Oh, forget it all.  Just stay alive, alright?  Don’t ask us where you’re running or why, just do it.”  Which, to my mind, makes it less of a philosophy and more of a lack of one.  Call it living on autopilot.  A very empty, a very hopeless, a very despairing way of looking at life.

I would recommend Discworld for light readers who want a good laugh or just want to read a good adventure.  I’d even recommend it as a study in how to invert phrases and use language cleverly.  But I wouldn’t recommend it for serious readers, because as soon as you take it seriously, it stops being funny and becomes immensely depressing.


2 thoughts on “The Humor of Despair

  1. Good grief, 36 books in four months?  That’s a lot of light reading.  I read Unseen Academicals (the one book where Death doesn’t appear?) just before Christmas and though it was, like you said, addictive and funny, I can’t imagine reading even half that many in such quick succession.  Read something by Forster or Dostoevsky.I think it is pretty typical for people to say that the last book they read was in high school (or college).  I’m impressed that he has even tried to read books–that seems atypical.  As for how long it takes… I took three months to read War and Peace, but I think because I was forcing myself to read nothing else, I ended up barely reading at all.  The third time I tried to read Ulysses it took me around two months to get halfway through.  I think the moral of this story is, don’t pick up sprawling epic literature that isn’t very addictive unless you have a lot of time on your hands (or perhaps a deadline).

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  2. @Rhadryn – 36 books is a lot, I’ll admit.  It helps that I was reading mostly on lunch breaks at work, it meant I was nearly constantly working on the things.Never read War and Peace.  I should try that, along with Dostoevsky.  I guess I never really finished Brothers Karamazov, that was a hard one to read and could easily take a long time.  Anna Karenina I read for a school contest.Death DOES appear in Unseen Academicals, but only for a bit scene.  It happens when Mr. Nutt almost dies, Death comes to his hospital room with his hourglass and suddenly the sand starts flowing backwards.

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