Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Pullman's God

A few months ago the New Yorker published an article by Laura Miller about Philip Pullman which makes very interesting reading. His most wellknown work is the "His Dark Materials" trilogy which starts, rather like another fantasy series, with a young girl hiding in a wardrobe. What she finds is not some cosy religious tract however, but a world in which religion is a repressive, fascist force (it really is fantasy, honest!).
Pullman once told an interviewer that "every single religion that has a monotheistic god ends up by persecuting other people and killing them because they don’t accept him." Peter Hitchens, a conservative British columnist, published an article about Pullman entitled "This Is the Most Dangerous Author in Britain," in which he called him the writer "the atheists would have been praying for, if atheists prayed."

Pullman sees fiction as a moral force, a far stronger one than religion, and one that does not need religion:
"I don’t think it’s possible that there is a God; I have the greatest difficulty in understanding what is meant by the words ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’; but I think I can say something about moral education, and I think it has something to do with the way we understand stories." [...] Opposed to this ideal is "theocracy," which he defined as encompassing everything from Khomeini’s Iran to explicitly atheistic states such as Stalin’s Soviet Union. He listed some characteristics of such states - among them, "a scripture whose word is inerrant," a priesthood whose authority "tends to concentrate in the hands of elderly men," and "a secret police force with the powers of an Inquisition." Theocracies, he said, demonstrate "the tendency of human beings to gather power to themselves in the name of something that may not be questioned."

Partly inspired by Milton's "Paradise Lost", as well as William Blake, and partly as a counter argument to C S Lewis' Narnia books, he wrote "His Dark Materials".
Near the end of "The Golden Compass," Lord Asriel asks Lyra to bring him a copy of the Bible, and he reads her a passage from Genesis. In Lyra’s world, the Bible isn’t quite the same as ours: when Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, the first thing they see is the adult form of their daemons. "But it en’t true, is it?" Lyra asks of the story. "Not true like chemistry or engineering, not that kind of true? There wasn’t really an Adam and Eve?" Lord Asriel tells her to think of the story as an "imaginary number, like the square root of minus one." Its truth might not be tangible, but you can use it to calculate "all manner of things that couldn’t be imagined without it." The metaphor is not just cunning; it helps explain why Pullman, a champion of science, writes in the fantastic mode.

The first from his school to go to Oxford University, Pullman joined the ranks there of other authors inspired by that society: writers such as Alan Garner and C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien. Obviously, there's something in the water. Or, as the article posits:
But perhaps the main reason that Oxford’s dons have excelled at writing for children is that, for so long, the university dictated that they live like children: sheltered, celibate, in single-sex institutions, waited upon by indulgent servants.

Though Pullman has little time for Lewis and Tolkien:
" ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is fundamentally an infantile work," he said. "Tolkien is not interested in the way grownup, adult human beings interact with each other. He’s interested in maps and plans and languages and codes." When it comes to "The Chronicles of Narnia," by C. S. Lewis, Pullman’s antipathy is even more pronounced. Although he likes Lewis’s criticism and quotes it surprisingly often, he considers the fantasy series "morally loathsome." In a 1998 essay for the Guardian, entitled "The Dark Side of Narnia," he condemned "the misogyny, the racism, the sado-masochistic relish for violence that permeates the whole cycle." He reviled Lewis for depicting the character Susan Pevensie’s sexual coming of age -s uggested by her interest in "nylons and lipstick and invitations" - as grounds for exclusion from paradise. In Pullman’s view, the "Chronicles," which end with the rest of the family’s ascension to a neo-Platonic version of Narnia after they die in a railway accident, teach that "death is better than life; boys are better than girls . . . and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it."

Pullman sees children's literature as a way of dealing with themes that would no be possible in adult fiction.
What angers Pullman most about theocracy, in the end, is that it blinds people to the true purpose of narrative. Fundamentalists don’t know how to read stories - including those in the Bible - metaphorically, as if they were Lord Asriel’s imaginary numbers.

1 comment:

  1. He recognizes the metaphorically challenged. A good fellow, indeed.


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