Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Culture Corner: The Politics of Prachett, Part 1 (Guards, Guards!)

In my earlier post about the politics of fantasy, I talked about how I've found it difficult to enjoy works of fantasy that aren't critical of, subversive of, or consciously playing with the dominant tropes of the genre, and how I've found some accommodation in fantasy books that play with and deconstruct the politics of fantasy.

One of the best of these is the Discworld series of Terry Pratchett, both in terms of the thematic and aesthetic riches that Pratchett is able to pull out from his playing with the tropes of fantasy, but also the extent and depth of political thinking that's being done in these novels.

So, as a regular part of the Culture Corner, I'm going to be examining the politics of Discworld and there's no better place to start than with the eighth book in the series, Guards Guards, which I will argue contains a strong element of humanist polemic against the elitist themes embedded in sword-and-sorcery fiction.

Guards Guards makes a good starting point in part because Terry Pratchett very deliberately sets the book up as an attempt to make people think about the "mooks" of heroic fiction as real people, as a lens into making them think about the morality, ethics, and politics of heroism. You get this straight from the start with the dedication:
They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No-one ever asks them if they wanted to. This book is dedicated to those fine men.

This quote should immediately set off a troubling thought to the fantasy fan: what, exactly, is the difference between the hero who slaughters his way through a room of helpless mooks and a villain who slaughters his way through a room of helpless Redshirts? When we're talking about a clash between the Strong and the Weak, when the outcome is absolutely certain, heroic combat beings to look a bit like wanton murder.

On to Guards, Guards. To quickly summarize the plot for those who haven't read it: Anhk-Morpork, the greatest and grubbiest of cities on the Disc, is going about its business when a book is stolen, a dragon appears and begins to burn down parts of the city, the city advertizes for a hero, a hero emerges claiming to be the rightful king and slays the dragon, and is carried off by the adoring crowds to the palace where the tyrant is overthrown and thrown into his own dungeons, and the coronation for the new king is planned. That's when it goes all wrong - the dragon comes back, torches the king, is given the crown, becomes the Dragon King of Anhk-Morpork, the terrified people welcome their new ruler and offer up a human sacrifice, the day is saved when a "whittle" of a lizard and the grubby members of the city police force arrest the dragon, and the tyrant resumes his rightful position as ruler of the city.

Because what the book is really about is Heroism, Monarchy, Chivalry, Romance, and why these things are in fact really, really dangerous ideas that most people would, in reality, find totally abhorrent.

We first run headlong into these themes when we encounter the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night. This secret society is a multi-layered parody: it's both a parody of the Secret Society as it appears in fiction, the thinking of people who join secret society, and I'm going to argue, the thinking of fantasy fans. On the first point, there's the fact that while the "Unique and Supreme" Lodge sees itself as the ancient heirs to mystic secrets, they are in fact so unimaginative a secret society that their passwords and rituals overlap with other secret societies whose identical premises three doors down are constantly getting confused with. On the second point, while the members of the Ebon Night would like to believe that they are selfless seekers after ancient truths (learning "mystic prunes," how to walk on rice paper, etc.), they are in fact a bunch of credulous, mean-spirited people who joined the society in order to feel a false sense of superiority and paper over their massive insecurity complexes and resentment. In a harsh light, there's a resemblance between Brethren and fantasy fans who use escapist fiction as a source of revenge fantasies (there's a reason why the more violent fantasy works tend to draw large readership, and the similarity between the "Bad Guys" and real world figures of authority and social status) and escapism (there's also a reason why fantasy protagonists are social outcasts who are secretly possessed of Special Qualities, and/or physically and mentally perfect Superheroes to identify with).

What makes this kind of thinking dangerous, Pratchett is arguing, is that it blinds us to the difference between Myth and Reality, causes an unthinking valorization of the Past as better than the Present, and makes you vulnerable to people like the Supreme Grand Master. The Supreme Grand Master of the Ebon Night is the one who makes these losers dangerous, because he links their humdrum grudges to the reality of exercising unlimited power,and because his basic cynicism allows him to manipulate their belief in Destiny, True Heroes, and the Greatness of Kings (notice the way in which the Supreme Grand Master ties the discourse on myths, prophecy, the romantic Middle Ages with Chivalry and virtuous kings with his internal monologue on secret knowledge as willing ignorance and lies). The Supreme Grand Master doesn't believe that Magic has Morality, who is both willing and able to stage scenes of false heroism that's indistinguishable from the real thing, who knows that the Rightful King is the one left holding the crown, and his own vision of a Utopian Golden Age is a world in which he rules absolutely in the King's name, where People Know Their Place and where only the Right People Are In Charge. In this sense, the Grand Master represents all that's worst about both Idealism and Elitism - he's willing to murder on a grand scale to reshape the world to fit his personal vision, and his personal vision is a world of privilege and inequality.

Enter Carrot. While on one level, Carrot's supposed to represent the real thing - he's the secret heir to the throne, he's the one with the real sword and the bookmark and the prophecy, and he's actually good and noble and true, and he's the one who charges into danger to "serve and protect" - he's also deeply problematic. There's a reason why Pratchett compares him to an "iceberg drifting into a major shipping lane." Carrot is physically perfect - muscles on top of muscles - and charismatic, and therefore he can impose his will on others. But he's also "simple;" he doesn't understand the difference between what should be an what is, the difference between the law and reality, and the need to adapt institutions to human nature, instead of vice versa. In fact, his origins as an adopted dwarf can be seen as subtext - the hero isn't really a human, doesn't understand the basic frailty and shortcomings that make people human, and he doesn't fit into society. When Carrot first arrives in the city, he brainwashes an entire tavern of dwarfs because they're not living up to his ideal of what Dwarfs Should Act Like, beats the living crap out of everyone inside the Mended Drum because they are breaking laws that haven't been enforced in hundreds of years (which is rather unfair when you think about it), arrests the head of the Thieves' Guild in contravention of the guild's Charter, and so forth.

It's not until Carrot joins the Watch, and is brought face to face with three real and frail human beings, that he begins to change. The conversation between Carrot, Colon, and Nobby about "Leggy" Gaskin's death is an important turning point - where the young man begins to learn the difference between "what is" and "what ought to be," and what it means to ask a middle-aged obese man and a tiny weakling to go up against a dragon for thirty dollars a month. "All for one and one for all" only really works when you're dealing with two-dimensional Three Musketeers, yet the true nobility of Colon and Nobby comes through when they stand in the face of the dragon, not once, but three times (the first time when the Watch House is destroyed, the second up on the top of Small Gods, and the third on top of Bearhugger's Distillery). After this conversation, Carrot begins to shift to a different kind of character, a good man who learns how to be good in an imperfect world - he acts simple when he's not, he learns to change the world through persuasion and gradual reform rather than acts of sudden violence, and he renounces the idea that a King should make things better by appealing to the emotions, to Romance is wrong. More on this in a later post, as we'll see how an anti-monarchist royal becomes the true essence of the Good King in Men At Arms.

Pratchett is redefining heroism as ordinary people acting in spite of their ordinariness, and implicitly notes that the heroism of Conan-esque musclemen without a speck of fear (the same kind of heroic thugs who refuse to fight the dragon because the pay's too low, the same kind of good-looking protagonists like the King who put an attractive gloss on oppressive governments) is wrong, that it's rooted in a belief that some kind of people are better than other, and that physical force is legitimated by the moral character of superior individuals. After all Beowulf is good because the narrator tells us he is, but what does the situation looks like when Grendel's mother comes to complain? When it turns out that monsters are sentient beings? The dodge employed ever since Tolkien that certain races of humanoids are Always Chaotic Evil begins to look problematic in the face of its historical racism. All of the sudden, our simple enjoyment of fictional violence gets all complicated.

Sam Vimes, however, becomes Guards, Guards' protagonist in a way that Carrot couldn't be. In a certain way, because Sam Vimes' point of view is the foundation for the film noir elements that Pratchett uses to undercut and complicate heroic fantasy, he's absolutely essential, the Raymond Chandleresque noir hero. But what makes Vimes really interesting is that his heroism is essentially about ideology and belief. Captain Sam Vimes of the Night Watch, in a book about the allure of Monarchy, is the city's lone republican, a man who believes that people should be independent and equal, that the law should protect even the criminals of the Shades, and that power should be constrained by truth. Thus, Sam Vimes refuses to cover up murders, continues to hunt the Dragon despite the lethal danger, refuses to give up when he's fired by Wonse and later imprisoned. But unlike other idealists, Vimes is a pragmatist, a realist - he knows that people can be cowards, idiots, and so on; his beliefs are filtered through experience, so that they emerge from the world instead of being imposed on the world. He's also the foil to Vetinari, a man, who in his own way, like Carrot insists that people can be good. We'll find out more about his republicanism in later segments of the Politics of Pratchett.

Havelock Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork could be described as what a tyrant would look like in real life, if you removed the constraints of the genre that tend to make the Bad Guy stupid as well as evil. After all, he more or less admits that the reason why he's so good as a ruler of Ankh-Morpork is that "
We're the only ones who know how to make things work...Because the bad people know how to plan. It's part of the specification, you might say. Every evil tyrant has a plan to rule the world. The good people don't seem to have the knack.'" (Guards Guards) However, I'm going to argue something completely different. Vetinari is, in fact, not a sympathetic villain - he's a Machiavellian Republican.

Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli is among the most misunderstood political philosophers in the Western tradition, and unfortunately remembered as an amoral advocate of real-politik on on the basis of Il Principe (The Prince). What people sometimes forget is that Machiavelli was in life a staunch republican, who served as a diplomat to the courts of France, Spain and the Papecy from the Florentine Republic, and who, as commander of the Florentine militia, led Florence to victory against Pisa and in defeat against the Spanish/Papal/Medici alliance at Prato. Because he was a leading republican, the vengeful Medici had him put to the strappado (a form of torture where the subjects hands are tied behind their back and then lifted into the air on ropes attached to the wrists, causing intense pain and dislocation of the arms) to get him to name himself as a conspirator against the Medici and to name names of his fellow conspirators. Machiavelli refused. They strappado'd him nine times. He never said a word. This was not a man to be trifled with.

In his philosophy, Machiavelli was a republican who nonetheless did not idealize the common man (as did many later republican philosophers, especially those of the French Revolution). I would argue that he simultaneously believed that "For of men it may generally be affirmed, that they are thankless, fickle, false studious to avoid danger, greedy of gain," and that "a people is more prudent, more stable, and of better judgment than a Prince: And not without reason is the voice of the people like that of God." Human beings, in Machiavelli's view, were as good or bad as their environments and their social institutions allowed them to be - a well-ordered republic would make men behave better by restraining their negative impulses and encouraging their positive impulses, but in a monarchy, there is no constraint to the negative impulses of the king.

Compare this to Vetinari's discourse on human nature:
'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.'

He waved his thin hand towards the city and walked over to the window.

'A great rolling sea of evil,' he said, almost proprietorially. 'Shallower in some places, of course, but deeper, oh, so much deeper in others. But people like you put together little rafts of rules and vaguely good intentions and say, this is the opposite, this will triumph in the end. Amazing!' He slapped Vimes good-naturedly on the back.

'Down there,' he said, 'are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any iniquity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don't say no. I'm sorry if this offends you,' he added, patting the captain's shoulder, 'but you fellows really need us.' (Guards Guards)
This is Machiavellian Republicanism, aware of humanity's capacity for evil, but working always to build institutions that can reform it. And when we look aat how Vetinari operates, we see this philosophy in action. For while Ankh-Morpork may be on the surface a tyranny, ruled by an absolute ruler (the Man with the Vote), it's actually a syndicalist republic.

In Ankh-Morpork, most industries and professions are organized into guilds - not just the traditional guilded occupations of the Middle Ages like the Butchers, the Bakers, the Smiths, the Merchants, and so forth, but also the Beggars, the Seamstresses (prostitutes), the Assassins and the Thieves. All guilds operate under a civic charter, and guild charters have the force of law - such that, for much of the city, there is no free market as we would understand it, but the regulations and bylaws of unionized workers who own their skills, and in the case of Journeymen and Masters, the means of production as well. These guilds form the Guild Council, which serves as the city's legislative body, and which elects the Patrician - who is the executive branch of what is in the end a republic, even if one with a very powerful executive branch. For while the Patrician theoretically has the power to issue laws by decree, to operate beyond the boundaries of the normal criminal justice system, it's also the case that the Patrician can be removed by vote of the guilds, and prosecuted for violation of the law. More on this in later segments.

And Vetinari approves of this constitutional arrangement. Indeed, what we learn of Vetinari's public policy regarding the guilds is that he believes in extending the system of syndicalist guilds throughout the socio-economic order, as a Machiavellian-Republican means of creating institutions that guide human behavior. One of his first acts as Patrician was to legalize the previously extra-legal Thieves Guild, to make crime legal and organized, subjecting it to the bureaucratic process of yearly budgets and forward-planning, and rigorous maintenance of the closed shop. He then informs the somewhat incredulous masters of the Thieves Guild (who at this point think they've just made it for life) that he, Vetinari the graduate with full honors of the Assassins' Guild School, now knows where they and their families live, and that he will enforce the budgets that they've agreed to with any means necessary. We also learn later that another one of Vetinari's intial acts as Patrician was to legalize the Seamstresses' Guild - so that some of the most vulnerable workers in the city have the protection of self-organization.

And why does Vetinari do all this? Why struggle all the way to the top, having to fight off assassination attempts and engage in some of his own? Because Vetinari, like Machiavelli is a patriotic republican: "While he, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, ruled the city, preserved the city, loved the city, hated the city and had spent a lifetime in the service of the city." And as we'll see in future installments, Vetinari is one of the heroes of the story.

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