Having announced several years ago that he is dealing with early-onset dementia, Terry Pratchett, the celebrated author of scores of fantasy titles, most notably the marvelously wise and entertaining Disc World series, has—despite rumors to the contrary—staunchly maintained his atheist’s stance. Last year he declared that, having compared Genesis to Darwin, he found the latter to be by far the more interesting story and, taken all-in-all, he would “rather be a rising ape than a fallen angel.”
That betrays what is probably a willful misunderstanding on Pratchett’s part; Genesis tells us we are the broken consequences of Original Sin, not supernatural beings of prideful darkness (although in our brokenness we can easily trip into those shadows and seem their equal).
For all of Patchett’s puckish posturing, though, his characters have a knack for plumbing surprising depths. His book, Carpe Jugulum, gives us an excellent definition of sin in this exchange between the Omnian priest, Mightily Oats, and the rather contemplative witch, Granny Weatherwax:
There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example,” said Oats. “And what do they think? Against it, are they?” said Granny Weatherwax.
“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”
“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.
“It’s a lot more complicated than that . . .”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes . . .”
“But they starts with thinking about people as things . . . ”
Pratchett has long maintained his admiration for G. K. Chesterton, and his inventive worlds often owe a clear tip of the hat to The Man Who Was Thursday, particularly when such solid little gems of wisdom as that are plopped in the midst of his broad fantasy.
Weatherwax is certainly right—the impetus of our sins so often begins with converting humanness into thing-ness, and this is true in the macro and the micro: I once received an email from a woman of progressive instincts that contained the subject header, “you are not human to me”; that’s the big picture, the macro—the wholesale dehumanization of entire swaths of people who hold opinions different from one’s own, and who are therefore “dangerous” and ultimately either imprisonable or expendable. We saw the macro played out on a grand scale in the twentieth century, as both Communists and National Socialists first imprisoned and then slaughtered humans who had been thing-nified because of their race, their mental capacities, their lack of vigor, their faiths and, eventually, their simple refusals to conform.
For that correspondent, my extendability was rooted in my belief that life is better than death—that allowed to flourish, new life brings new love into the world, which (since God is love) instructs and enlarges us, particularly if the life, and the love, is embraced in its fullness, despite our fears.
In a sense, that is the micro: thing-nifying the very bud of new life within oneself, or its culmination in those who nurtured your own budded-ness, so you can more easily kill it, while maintaining an illusion of compassion and control.
Thing-nification plays out in other ways, of course. In the objectification of porn, the dismissal or exploitation of youth, the every day swindles and politicizations, large and small, perpetrated against trusting others.
Anticipating his own end, Pratchett has said, “I intend, before the endgame looms, to die sitting in a chair in my own garden with a glass of brandy in my hand and Thomas Tallis on the iPod.” Accepting that there are people who possess a “passion for caring,” he hopes they could accept a notion that some people “have a burning passion not to need to be cared for.”
I wonder if Granny Weatherwax would agree with Pratchett, or if she would tell him he was making a thing of himself—placing his life within the context of a simple stop-start mechanism without regarding the inborn transcendence that, regardless of origin, is demonstrated so ripely in his own inventiveness. She might wonder what that ripeness might yet become—for others, if not himself—if allowed to remain on the vine rather then be plucked early. Perhaps she would warn Pratchett that he risks thing-nifying the people surrounding him and loving him, by turning them into mere markers and bystanders.
Asked if his advocacy for so-called “assisted suicide” might encourage codifying involuntary euthanasia, Pratchett pooh-pooh’ed the notion: “We are a democracy and no democratic government is going to get anywhere with a policy [of] . . . recommended euthanasia.”
Chesterton might himself pooh-pooh Pratchett’s determined complacency. Addressing this very issue, he wrote:
If we want to know how this allowance for exception ruins or replaces the rule, the best example is divorce. Those who first urged it, urged it quite honestly as an extreme exception. . . . How jolly it will be when the sanctity of human life has reached the same stage as the sanctity of marriage! When men do not even remember whom they have murdered, as this gentleman could not remember whom he had married. Is it not time we reasserted the principle, known to primitive men, that the things we desire to do are the things we may be restrained in doing; and it is because we are all criminals that we had better be discouraged from crime?
Chesterton was remembering the thing Pratchett skirts—that our brokenness leads us all-too-easily into the shadows of the fallen angels, and that even the risen apes do fall.
Terry Pratchett is a deep-thinking and brilliant fellow who, no doubt, anticipates a fearsome trial. I do hope he will, at some point, consult with his practical Granny Weatherwax, and the exquisitely sensible Chesterton, a man who loved the gift of days so completely that he was moved to ask, “why am I allowed two?” and would never have surrendered one of them without a fight.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
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