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Saturday, May 29, 2004

The Anti-Narnia

Recently Mark Shea wrote a post about Philip Pullman that generated a big comment-box fight. I have been waiting so long for Catholic commentators to take on Philip Pullman, but they insist on writing about Harry Potter. (To be fair, here are two Catholic articles on Pullman: An Almost Christian Fantasy and Paradise Denied.) It puzzles me to no end that Michael O'Brien, usually quite sensitive to implicitness and symbolism (in other people's work, anyway), has been leading such a Crusade against poor Harry. For Harry Potter is about as sinister as The Wizard of Oz. I read the first Harry Potter book on my thirteenth birthday, and kept reading them until the fifth book came out, when I sort of lost my mania for them; and never throughout did I see Harry cross swords with Catholicism. In fact... Well, look at these quotes from the first book:

A wretched servant of Lord Voldemort ("Will-to-Death") tells Harry that "There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it..." This Nietzchian beyond-good-and-evil crap is consistently condemned. For all the harnessing of magical forces in the book, the climax involves a renunciation of power that is quite close to Tolkien, actually. Voldemort's pawn is trying to get the titular Philosopher's Stone out of the Mirror of Erised ("desire" backwards) - but Harry is the only one who can get it out, because he doesn't want to use the Stone, only to keep it out of the hands of Voldemort. Of the Stone itself, Dumbledore (who reminds me a little of Gandalf in his Hobbit phase) says, "You know, the Stone was not really such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all - the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them." He tells Harry, "Nevertheless, Harry, while you may only have delayed [Voldemort's] return to power, it will merely take someone else who is prepared to fight what seems like a losing battle next time - and if he is delayed again, and again, why, he may never return to power." Remind me what Tolkien said about the Shadow again?

And then there is the theme of his mother's sacrificial love, which has marked Harry forever and given him protection from evil. And in the third book Harry is saved from the soul-destroying Dementors by his Patronus - a mysterious guardian that takes the shape of a beautiful silver stag, the symbol of his father. Michael O'Brien might want to remember that he wrote a nearly identical scene in Plague Journal. In the same book, Harry shows mercy to the man who betrayed his parents to their death. Pettigrew escapes, and it is clear that Harry's pity will "rule the fate of many." In Book #2, Harry must descend into an underground chamber and fight a huge serpent, a scene so fraught with (perhaps merely instinctual) Christian symbolism, from the snake to the sword to the phoenix, that it's practically a morality play.

Another thing to consider: Harry's best friend, Ron, is one of seven children. The family is poor, but they love each other, are satisfied with what they have, and are gloriously hospitable to Harry. Harry's WASP-y nemesis however, Draco Malfoy, is a pampered only child who sneers at the Weasleys for having "red hair and more children than they can afford." Go figure.

Okay, now that I've exorcised that rant... on to Philip Pullman.

I started reading Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy at the same time I started reading about our friend Harry. Pullman's writing is better and more sophisticated than Rowling's (although his message turns out to be far more puerile), and his plots are endlessly inventive and surprising - until the third book, anyway, but more on that later.

His most captivating device is the idea of alternate worlds. The protagonist, Lyra, lives in a world that is almost like ours, but riddled with little differences that continually throw the reader off guard. Lyra lives in a college of Oxford called Jordan College, which Pullman evokes in loving, thouroughly British detail - but which doesn't actually exist. There are gypsies in this world, but they are called gyptians; and they eschew caravans for brightly-painted boats which they sail through all the waterways of Europe. The people of this world have zeppelins instead of airplanes. China is still Cathay and chocolate is still chocolatl. But the most important differences are religious and metaphysical.

Unlike Rowling, Pullman infuses his story with religion from the beginning. Lyra, like everyone else in her world, has a daemon - a shape-shifting creature named Pantalaimon who can take any animal form. A daemon is actually your soul - if you are seperated from it, you die. Interestingly, your daemon takes on a fixed shape in adolescence. (This detail becomes the touchstone of Pullman's twisted theology.) So in this world, a metaphysical reality like the soul is visible. But there are other differences. The Church exists too, and it is a looming presence from the beginning of the story. It's holy city is not Rome, but Geneva, and the present Pope's name is John Calvin. These details are not exactly subtle, but I didn't give them much thought when I first read The Golden Compass. Not until The Amber Spyglass did he come right out and say, "The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all." I didn't suspect an agenda, and the writing kept me spellbound:

At once she saw that something strange was happening in the sky. She thought it was clouds, moving and trembling under a nervous agitation, but Pantalaimon whispered:

"The Aurora!"

Her wonder was so strong that she had to clutch the rail to keep from falling.

The sight filled the northern sky; the immensity of it was scarcely conceivable. As if from Heaven itself, great curtains of light hung and trembled. Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skillful dancer. Lyra thought she could hear them: a vast distant whispering swish. In the evanescent delicacy she felt something as profound as she'd felt close to the bear. She was moved by it; it was so beautiful it was almost holy; she felt tears prick her eyes, and the tears splintered the light even further into prismatic rainbows. It wasn't long before she found herself entering the same kind of trance as when she consulted the alethiometer. Perhaps, she thought calmly, whatever moves the alethiometer's needle is making the Aurora glow too. It might even be Dust itself...

And as she gazed, the image of a city seemed to form itself behind the veils and streams of translucent color: towers and domes, honey-colored temples and colonnades, broad boulevards and sunlit parkland. Looking at it gave her a sense of vertigo, as if she were looking not up but down, and across a gulf so wide that nothing could ever pass over it. It was a whole universe away.

Beautiful writing can cover a multitude of sins, but not for long. Pullman attempts a massive transvaluation of values: God is evil, Satan is good, Original Sin is Heavenly Grace. I'm not sure that any writer could pull off such an audacious sleight-of-hand, and Pullman certainly doesn't. The inversions remain too disturbing. The whole thing crumbles under the weight of the centuries-old archetypes he attempts to subvert: Pullman's life-giving Dust can never really supress the memory of TS Eliot's handful of dust, or the ashes and dust of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. His good, wise serpent can't drive out the serpent that is a primal symbol of evil. Again, I think of something O'Brien wrote. He told the story of a woman who submitted a picture to an art exhibit he was judging:

Titled, Icon, it depicted a pile of snakes writhing in the womb of the central figure. Somewhat horrified I asked her why she had done this. Judaeo-Christianity, she explained, had unjustly maligned the serpent. And in order to rehabilitate this symbol it was necessary to take the serpent into her womb, to gestate it, and eventually to bear it into the world as a sacred feminine icon. I pointed out that the meaning of symbols are not merely the capricious choices of a limited culture. We cannot rearrange them like so much furniture in the living room of the psyche. To tamper with these fundamental types is spiritually and psychologically dangerous because they are keystones in the very structure of the mind, and reinforce our understanding of the shape of reality. They are a language about good and evil: furthermore they can be points of contact with these two realities. To face evil without the equipment Christianity has given us is dangerously naïve.

No kidding.

The third book fails as literature because Pullman is deeply conflicted in his worldview. Specifically:

1. Before he switches around all of the Christian archetypes he changes their original meaning. For instance, in an interview he says, "The Fall is something that happens to all of us when we move from childhood through adolescence to adulthood and I wanted to find a way of presenting it as something natural and good, and to be welcomed, and, you know - celebrated, rather than deplored." In his books he says that the Fall of Adam and Eve was a good thing - but he means something entirely different by the Fall. I think Pullman himself was befuddled by these contortions, because the more metaphysical the plot becomes, the weaker and more confused it gets. For instance, all three books are building up to the death of God. But when this moment comes, it is one of the most utterly underwhelming moments in literature. It's such a letdown that it's almost funny, like lighting a huge firecracker, waiting for it to go off, and watching in disbelief as it lets off a couple of sparks and fizzles out. Why? Because Pullman is an atheist, so the being that Will and Lyra kill (by accident, no less) isn't God at all. WHOA, exciting plot twist!

2. Pullman wants to have his cake and eat it too: He wants to be a materialist, free and unhaunted by gods or demons, while remaining a humanist. This, in post-Christian times, is impossible. A passage from this provocative essay gives a good explanation:

The command to have no other god but Him whom Christ revealed was never for Christians simply an invitation to forsake an old cult for a new, but was an announcement that the shape of the world had changed, from the depths of hell to the heaven of heavens, and all nations were called to submit to Jesus as Lord. In the great “transvaluation” that followed, there was no sphere of social, religious, or intellectual life that the Church did not claim for itself; much was abolished, and much of the grandeur and beauty of antiquity was preserved in a radically altered form, and Christian civilization—with its new synthesis and new creativity—was born.

But what is the consequence, then, when Christianity, as a living historical force, recedes? We have no need to speculate, as it happens; modernity speaks for itself: with the withdrawal of Christian culture, all the glories of the ancient world that it baptized and redeemed have perished with it in the general cataclysm. Christianity is the midwife of nihilism, not because it is itself nihilistic, but because it is too powerful in its embrace of the world and all of the world’s mystery and beauty; and so to reject Christianity now is, of necessity, to reject everything except the barren anonymity of spontaneous subjectivity. As Ivan Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor tells Christ, the freedom that the gospel brings is too terrible to be borne indefinitely. Our sin makes us feeble and craven, and we long to flee from the liberty of the sons of God; but where now can we go? Everything is Christ’s.

With that in mind, this exchange takes on a grotesque irony:

Robert Bulter: Question from a fellow atheist who is appalled by the materialism of this society - how would PP recommend children develop spiritual life?

Philip Pullman: I don't use the word spiritual myself, because I don't have a clear sense of what it means. But I think it depends on your view of education: whether you think that the true end and purpose of education is to help children grow up, compete and face the economic challenges of a global environment that we're going to face in the 21st century, or whether you think it's to do with helping them see that they are the true heirs and inheritors of the riches - the philosophical, the artistic, the scientific, the literary riches - of the whole world.

Pullman and Bulter are both materialists by definition. Theirs is a gourmet materialism, but it is materialism none the less. It's a tragedy; Pullman is such a good writer, and he has fabulous ideas about literature and the necessity of art, the necessity of meaning and the education of children. But for all his longing to tell children "true stories," he has only lies and half-truths to give. I, along with millions of other children (Pullman's books are nearly as popular as Rowling's, though less talked about), awaited the final book with rapt anticipation, wondering what the stunning, transcendant conclusion of the book would be - and was rewarded with abject emptiness. Scores of teenage girls begged Pullman to write a sequel that would remedy the ending: Lyra and Will forced to give up their love for each other, and go back to their seperate worlds - forever. Pullman is explicit about his hatred of Tolkien and Lewis, but he made good use of their philosophies in his first two books. There are many places where he seems to be applying the lessons in Tolkien's lecture, "On Fairy-Stories." But he finally cuts himself free of them, renouncing all possibility of eucatastrophe in his last book. Although he writes about souls, spirits, God and angels, he relentlessly flattens out everything spiritual: God is just an imposter angel, and the angels are not "spirits" at all, but clouds of rare subabtomic particles. That's what the human soul is as well - a cloud of dark matter that dissolves into oblivion on death. And the dissolving ghosts rejoice in this final dissolution, as Pullman expects his readers to do. He abandons his clever implicitness and sermonizes through his characters, who spout platitudes of an apalling and brutal stupidity. In the limbo where the Authority has confined all the ghosts of the dead,

"...a young woman stepped forward. She had died as a martyr centuries before. She looked around and said to the other ghosts:

"When we were alive, they told us that when we died we'd go to Heaven. And they said that Heaven was a place of joy and glory and we would spend eternity in the company of saints and angels praising the Almighty, in a state of bliss. That's what they said. And that's what led some of us to give our lives, and others to spend years in solitary prayer, while all the joy of life was going to waste around us and we never knew.

"Because the land of the dead isn't a place of reward or a place of punishment. It's a place of nothing. The good come here as well as the wicked, and all of us languish in this gloom forever, with no hope of freedom, or joy, or sleep, or rest, or peace.

"But now this child has come offering us a way out and I'm going to follow her. Even if it means oblivion, friends, I'll welcome it, because it won't be nothing. We'll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves; we'll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze; we'll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical word, which is our true home and always was."

That makes me feel so much better.

If "the real world" is all there is, why do we long for a better one? Why do words like this resonate so strongly:

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.

Whence comes that ache when we sing, nobis donet in patria?

And what to do when "the physical world" isn't all moon and stars? This world is beautiful, but also cruel. For Pullman, Heaven is a "full" and happy life on Earth. I suppose that predestines many of us to Hell. You can't control the circumstances of your birth.

Mary, the ex-nun physicist, is supposed to fullfill her role as "the serpent" by telling Will and Lyra true stories. She tells them about how she lost her faith by falling in love with an Italian while at a conference in Portugal. "But he was nice and clever and funny and it was the easiest thing in the world to sit there in the lantern light under the lemon tree with the scent of the flowers and the grilled food and the wine, and talk and laugh and feel myself hoping that he thought I was pretty. Sister Mary Malone, flirting!" All that sultry latinismo loosens her right up, and lo and behold, she doesn't want to be a nun any more! She conveniently discovers that God is dead, and throws her crucifx into the sea. Hurrah! The two children are enthralled, of course. Ironically, Mary doesn't marry the man who gave her this Joycean epiphany; she lives with another man for four years, gleefully scandalizing everyone, and finally she leaves him, too, to continue her work. "So I'm solitary but happy, if you see what I mean." And Pullman still tries to make us believe that Will and Lyra's puppy love saves the universe. It's a sentimentality so shameless it's willing to coexist with nihilism, pretending to find supernatural meaning in a flatly naturalistic universe. He leaves his young readers with this exhortation from Lyra:

"He meant the Kingdom was over, the Kingdom of Heaven, it was all finished. We shouldn't live as if it mattered more than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place.... We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we've got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we'll build..." ....

"And then what?" said her daemon sleepily. "Build what?"

"The Republic of Heaven," said Lyra.

The. End.

Hasn't modernity taught us anything about the futility of Building A Godless Heaven On Earth? Is it too cynical and impolitic to say that when I hear "Republic of Heaven," I think "Thousand Year Reich?" "The heart is deceitful above all all things." But we mean so well...

It is only natural that Pullman knows no more about "the Church" than Dan Brown does. How else could he have written all that garbage? He gets his imagery from Milton and Blake, but his perception of Catholicism is straight out of Ian Paisley and Jack Chick. Sweaty-palmed assassin-priests with names like Fr. Gomez and Fr. MacPhail (Them bloody micks an' spics) engage in "preemptive absolution" to build up a store of merit that will let them commit mortal sins with immpunity. Gloomy cloisters, secret torture chambers and heresy hunts abound. It's fascinatingly awful.

Pullman might want to remember that Portugal is, after all, Catholic Country. Will we really stop chasing the phantom of instant gratification and actually enjoy life if Catholic culture doesn't compell us? Hell will freeze over before we get a fiesta from the Crêche Patrol.

The gaiety of the best Paganism, as in the playfulness of Catullus or Theocritus, is, indeed, an eternal gaiety never to be forgotten by a grateful humanity. But it is all a gaiety about the facts of life, not about its origin. To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter as the sea....
The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones.... Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. - G.K.C.

I wondered for a long time why these books enraged me so, and I finally decided it was the "Anti-Narnia" scheme of them. Pullman exploits the techniques of Lewis and Tolkien to tell children atheist fairytales - and the thought of all that violated innocence made me sick. This reveiwer summarizes it best:

While many bewail the heartbreaking separation of the lovers, I found myself more angry than sad: angry that God is portrayed as an insane tyrant, angry that the Church is portrayed as unrelentingly evil and with no folk of good heart to balance the power-mad zealots, angry that so much beautiful imagery and loving description could in the end offer the reader only despair and emptiness. When Lyra says "...the Kingdom was over, the Kingdom of Heaven, it was all finished. We shouldn't live as if it mattered more than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place..." I believe that she is wrong. There is more, or this mythic world we love is nothing but a bunch of empty tales, and God is truly dead. The Amber Spyglass makes this claim, but not, in my opinion, successfully. Ultimately, this series fails to truly support it's central idea...and I'm glad.

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