Thursday, February 11, 2010

Spoiling His Dark Materials

As is becoming my custom, I am now going to write something silly about something I just read/viewed that I don't get to use for school. This time the object is the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (thank you Mike; I'll bring them back to Spokane now that I'm done so they can be passed on to the next reader). As always, I will spoil some plot details.

Now I will always have trouble reading fiction that is both highly recommended and not yet "literature," because I am a pretentious ass. However, I am not so far gone that I cannot recognize a good thing when I see it, even while I may become frustrated with nagging flaws of either style or detail. His Dark Materials is a successful text in a genre that is entirely too small: atheist youth literature. Even in the more secular corners of our large nation, there are great numbers of people who believe that deliberately raising your children to be atheists is dangerous or wrong, even if these same people are often willing to admit that being both atheist and moral as an adult isn't terribly difficult. Because the false link between religion and morality is so forcefully forged, there is a certain unease at the prospect of not teaching children to believe in god from the get-go. (And incidentally, we ought perhaps to be skeptical of any truth that requires years of youthful repetition--not exploration--adequately to take hold. What I mean by this in part is that the strength and beauty of religion is in its absurdity and novelty; habituation robs it of even this.)

So since, from one point of view, the grounding moment of Pullman's trilogy is the disruption of Christianity's claim to moral priority, the books are valuable, even if only for this. However, Pullman's motive is not only negative; there is an affirmative element as well. I think St. Paul is whom he sites when he bases his model for the constitution of the human on a three-part structure. Rather than the normal body/soul dichotomy, it is useful (for the plot particularly) to extend this to a third element: body/soul/spirit. We might distinguish the second from the third through consciousness; by spirit Pullman seems to mean something that includes mind. Regardless, though, of how soul and spirit partition the immaterial aspects of humanity, Pullman makes clear, especially in the third book, where his model for the universe is fully revealed, that the body--the material existence of humans--is the best and most enviable element. (Indeed it is what drives God and his angels to subjugate humanity...though it's not quite clear why they stop there, and leave other material beings to their business.)

This is, to my mind, the most successful aspect of Pullman's books. It is particularly in the treatment of the body that Christianity is problematic, and easily accessible books that challenge this dogma both directly and positively--that is, by offering alternative ethics--are most welcome. (It is worth noting, though, that a great deal of the Christian/Catholic dogma against the body stems as much from Plato and Aristotle as it does from the Bible. There is some very good, if confusing, work done by a number of feminists--and non feminists--on how Plato's philosophy, and later that of Aristotle and Plotinus, has hamstrung our ability to think maternity and womanhood, and by extension humanity generally, in a non-violent way. But I've commented on much of that already, and will avoid the side track for now.)

I do have some problems with these books though, as I hinted at above. Some are trivial (there are abundant flies at the north pole), some are narrative (would you really not spend all your time checking the alethiometer? and why did neither side manage to score some A-10 Warthogs or something?), some are somewhat metaphysical (if Metatron--really? his name is Metatron?--used to be Enoch, which Enoch? did all Christian worlds split off from one another after Enoch dies? Then why are there daemons in the Adam and Eve story? etc.), but there is a looming one that is ethical.

When I got to the end of The Golden Compass, I was excited at the prospect that lay ahead. It seemed clear that Pullman was driving toward a world view where the priority of the church--who was locally stifling research into multi-world science much as it had heliocentricity--would give way to free thinkers, and that the authority from which it derived its dominion would be revealed as false. Pullman did go this direction more or less, but he swerved into the sort of humanism that I find suspect. Instead of the sort of purposeless, beautiful universe we ourselves inhabit, Lyra et al. gradually discover themselves to be traveling through a universe with as much divinity and purpose as supposed by the church; the only difference is what the purpose is.

So it turns out that God is really just an angel, he didn't create the universe, and he is so dreadfully jealous of humanity's flesh that he has waged a thousands years war of oppression and suppression to make us all as miserable as he is. Behind this, forces have been at work to overthrow this Authority--these are the dark materials?--and allow us to love each other in peace. The problem, then, is not that we worshiped a false god, but that we worshiped the wrong god.

Now I don't have a problem with this from certain narrative perspectives. If we accept the proposition that there will always be someone who has some authority over our lives (and there likely will be) it is better for us to expect that person to respect our loves and lusts; then we can fight for having repressor and oppressors replaced. But, from a religious perspective (let's call it that for now), I am uncomfortable with the argument that this authority is metaphysical--that is, above physically observable experience--and universal. So long as we are teaching our children to face the universe bravely, we ought to help them toward imagining a world of purposeless purposiveness. Instead Pullman replaces an autocracy of repression with an autocracy of love. An improvement, surely, but not perfect.

And this is how I feel about the books in general. An improvement. I'm still not perfectly happy with the gender roles (though I LOVE Mary Malone, and I particularly love that at no point does Pullman make her single status seem at all a failure or inadequacy), though again, it is an improvement. The principal protagonist--and for quite a while the principal antagonist as well--is female, and for the most part she avoids stereotypes, though perhaps by unhappy coincidence she is the artful liar, while Will is stalwartly honest. It is also maybe coincidental that she had the enigmatic and endlessly complicated compass while he had the knife. It would be terribly difficult to write a convincing adventure story with a boy and a girl where the girl is the physically dominant one throughout. Like I said, it's an improvement.

Finally, I will say I wish someone else had written these books. In spite of the well-crafted plot and generally agreeable characters, I found that more often then usual, I would grow sleepy and, in the middle of a suspenseful moment, indifferently put the book down and get ready for bed. His prose does not move with much grace, and much like myself he is prone to repeating himself in what he surely thinks is a clarifying gesture, but what is in fact boring and distracting.

But do read these books, if you haven't...I think I've not spoilt them too much here. No more than if you read the back cover (those things should be illegal).