One from the vaults,as it were. This, in essence, is how I put the same basic point a few Christmases ago....
The Real Meaning of Hogswatch
by Simon Smith
At this time of year, people naturally to turn to progenitive myths, originative stories and the like. In the dead, dark days of winter, we need their bright reflections; we yearn for gifts of light and life. The old cold world shrivels to a frozen stub, black and lifeless; we must remind ourselves that we, at least, are still alive.
That’s what the trees and tinsel, mulled wine and minced pies, parties and presents are all about.
The stories we tell at this time of year have, of course, changed considerably over the last few thousand years; and there are a great many stories to be told, apart from the obvious one.
No, not Santa. I meant Jesus, the birth of Jesus.
But wait a minute. ‘Of course’? Have they, I wonder, really changed that much? And are there, for that matter, really that many stories? Or is it just a few: the same stories told in different ways; old stories, like old gods, doing new jobs?
The “Santa” story is a good example: the spirit of good will and giving, born and reborn year after year; Dickens’ ebullient and jovial Spirit of Christmas Present, decked out in living green, rather than Coca Cola’s red and white.
Another much loved variation on this theme, to which I return every Christmas, is Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather (Corgi, 1997). If you’ve never read Pratchett, then you have my deepest sympathies. Your life is sadly incomplete; ever shall it be so until you rectify this shameful lacuna in your reading. Why anyone should deny themselves one of the greatest pleasures attendant on being human is frankly beyond me. Unless they have been diagnosed as clinically humourless.
Pratchett was one our funniest writers; and I don’t mean in the sense that some people mistakenly think Douglas Adams was funny. Adams was witty, certainly, and amusing; but rarely outright funny and never actually hilarious.
No he wasn’t; and if you’re shaking your head, I can only suggest that you have a doctor look at your sense of humour. It needs re-calibrating.
I’m not kidding. The failure to find Terry Pratchett funny is indicative of a serious personality defect.
Pratchett is in the same league as Wodehouse or Spike Milligan. (And if you don’t think they’re funny, there’s no hope for you; you aren’t humourless, you’re dead; check yourself in to a morgue immediately.) Like Wodehouse, he has, on occasion, been accused of literature. I think he could be accused of philosophy too. You see, Pratchett is not only funny – in the embarrassing snort-out-loud-in-public sense – he’s also quite thoughtful at times. True, he can also be a bit sententious; nevertheless, there is, in his writing, a sensibility, a truth, that is both profoundly human and deeply metaphysical.
It comes down to an intuitive understanding of myth and metaphor; not merely as literary devices, but as proper narrative or personal ones. To put this another way, Terry Pratchett knew what myths and metaphors really are; and he knows what they’re for. He explored the complex and subtle ways that human beings use myths and metaphors to construct their identities, shaping human nature in the process.
Myths and metaphors, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, are the building blocks from which we construct ourselves. They are psychological and metaphysical extensions by which all too limited selves interlock with others, so reach out across the infinite expanse of consciousness. They are mirrors, reflections of who we are and who we might be; images without which, we reduced ourselves to the zero-point of a supposedly rational mind which conceives itself entirely in terms of its own finitude. (Therein lies the key to the classical rationalist’s desperate need for necessitarian projections.) As myths and metaphors supply the building blocks, they also supply the tools with which we can make sense of the most important of philosophical questions: the nature and meaning of human existence; more simply, what it means to be human at all.
Hogfather is my favourite expression of this idea. In case you’re wondering, the Hogfather himself is the perfect mid-winter demiurge for a pork-based economy. I’m surprised he hasn’t caught on in here in Ireland. He doesn’t, in fact, play a very large role in the story, only turning up at the end, when all the hard work is done. That’s because the story isn’t really about the Hogfather as such; it is about persons and what that means.
It is also where Death really gets to grips with the meaning of life. Not death. Death. Cowl, scythe, quite thin, especially around the face, always smiling, sort of. That is, Death the character, as opposed to death the final banjo-twang in the great symphony of life. This character is, he himself is the first to admit, the anthropomorphic personification of that natural process. And he always turns up, sooner or later, whether you’ve been naughty or nice.
Being a projection of the end of life, Death is simultaneously an insider and an outsider. On one level, he doesn’t seem to understand human beings, their obtuseness, their mythopoeic tendencies, their need for projection and reflection. Consequently, he tends to see the world in literal terms. For instance, his response to poverty and hunger is, oddly enough, to give people a decent meal. (I cannot tell you how upset he gets when he comes across the Little Match Girl about to seasonally snuff it in snowdrift.)
At the same time, however, Death understands the dynamics of human nature very well indeed; deep in the bone, as it were. Hardly surprising since he is, after all, a projection of that nature. So he’s perfectly placed to remind us just very how important are the stories we tell about ourselves and, by extension, the world we live in. Stories about birth and rebirth; about justice and fairness, goodwill and kindness; stories which remind us that other people are, as Dickens said, our business; stories about being naughty and nice. Stories, in short, about light and life.
These are the stories, the myths and metaphors which, as Death himself says, make us “THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE”.
Although, the Librarian may be taking this idea a bit literally. (Look it up.)
Speaking philosophically, we are narrative creatures, living the life-stories we write for ourselves and for others. These stories are a vital insight into the human condition. They tell us what we’re really like (even if we don’t want to admit it). That’s why we need the big myths: to fill in the plot holes and fill out the under-developed characterisation of ordinary author-actors. Big myths are a mirror: they tell us to our faces who and what we really are. But as they reflect, they also refract, providing the means to overcome the shortcomings of our story-lines. Greek myths taught us about justice (of a sort), honour, and heroism. More recently, as Wendy Hamblett’s book, Punishment and Shame (Lexington Books, 2011), suggests, the lessons were humanised. They became about sharing and sacrifice: the primal connections that make us who and what we are. And that, my dears, is the true meaning of Hogswatch.
This isn’t just “trickery with words”, as Death’s granddaughter, Susan, supposes. She can be such a typical rationalist; but then what would you expect, she has had an Education. (And we all know how much damage that can do; especially to students.) Psychological reduction is an easy game to play; it haunts the porches of any act of faith, churns myth and metaphor into fluffy pink clouds of self-deception. Of all “people”, Death knows that, for most people, life is rarely pink and almost never fluffy. He knows, too, that some things – like justice, love, even humanity itself – only exist because we believe in them; we have faith in our stories and live them accordingly.
P. F. Strawson, called it ‘descriptive metaphysics’; others, like Farrer and William James, found a pragmatic theology in it. Like Death, they knew that faith sometimes creates its objects. It does so using metaphors, images of ourselves idealised. Well, it would do. Justice and sacrifice, naughty and nice, light and life: that, Death reminds us, is where humans live.