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Pullman postscript and more

I was away from the Internets for a while there, but now I’m back!  We decided to go to Connecticut for a three-day weekend, because we just can’t get enough of five-and-a-half hour car trips in holiday traffic.  But thanks to everyone who contributed to a most edifying discussion of Pullman et al.!  I just want to post a couple of quick postscripts to some comments.  One, in response to late arrival Barbara Feinberg @ 84:

How could there be 80-some comments here without a mention of the astounding invention Pullman brings:  that of daemons.

D’oh!  We were so invested in our little theory about narrative scale that we forgot to say how very kewl those daemons are.  There’s no question that they’re a large part of Jamie’s emotional investment in The Golden Compass—and Jamie’s not alone.  Also, they’re the only things worth the price of admission in the movie.

Splitter Mrs. Tilton @ 69:

(No schism, no Reformation!) To argue that (a) the salient characteristic of the Reformation is that it was schismatic, or indeed that (b) it was the Reformation that introduced schism to Christianity, is, ah, pretty Romanocentric.

Well, yes!  This may be a both/and kind of blog, but it has always been and always will be Romanocentric, for Rome is indeed the very Center.  No, I really do see your point—the Reformation happened, but there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between churches reformed and unreformed.  Let’s split that non-difference by saying if John Calvin had become Pope, then your “Reformation” wouldn’t, you know, break with the idea of having a Pope.  That’s not just a schism thing; it’s a question of how to realize God’s church on earth, etc., so I’m going to amend my claim from “the Reformation didn’t happen in Lyra’s world” to “the Reformation as we know it didn’t happen.”

And apologist for imperialism roac @ 42:

[quoting me] “it’s not a question of whether Tolkien had any use for Britain’s imperial project.  It’s that LOTR allows us to imagine England as this tiny little Shire far away from, and blissfully-but-dangerously ignorant of, the great war that is about to erupt on the continent.” [/me]

Well, OK, I guess. . . but I don’t see the point of the observation.  The Shire is not England, it’s an idealized childhood memory of a tiny rural slice of England in 1897.  Whom are you accusing Tolkien of trying to fool?  He certainly wasn’t fooled himself.  He saw the War coming as clearly as everybody else, and the remembered sense of numbingdread permeates the first part of RotK.

It is not sufficiently appreciated that the juxtaposition of the bourgeois late-Victorian Shire and the great big mythic Late Bronze Age started off, in The Hobbit, as a joke.  Which Tolkien, in setting out to write a sequel, was stuck with.

Uh, well, actually I wasn’t accusing Tolkien of trying to fool anyone.  I was pointing to a narrative strategy—one which, in historical context, has a curious effect.  Good point about the joke Tolkien stuck himself with, though.  One of the problems LOTR had to solve, on that front, was how to move from the world of trolls and dwarves and treasure-hoarding dragons to the world of Frightful World War.  Also involving some dwarves, but the trolls and dragons, eh, not so much.

And one more thing about narrative, while I’ve got you here.  There’s a critical moment in The Golden Compass, just after Mrs. Coulter has discovered Lyra at Bolvangar (and saved her from intercision) and has asked Lyra how she managed to get to an experimental station in the frozen North far from any human habitation.  She can’t tell the truth, of course, without jeopardizing her friends and revealing to Mrs. Coulter that she’s onto the dastardly schemes of the General Oblation Board.  Here’s how Pullman describes Lyra’s sticky situation:

And now that she was doing something difficult and familiar and never quite predictable, namely lying, she felt a sort of mastery again, the same sense of complexity and control that the alethiometer gave her.  She had to be careful not to say anything obviously impossible; she had to be vague in some places and invent plausible details in others; she had to be an artist, in short.

The passage is implicitly about the book itself, of course, because Lyra has to be careful “not to say anything obviously impossible” and to “invent plausible details” in a book populated by flying witches and talking armored bears, and the artist here is pretty clearly your humble narrator himself.  Lyra here takes her place among literature’s accomplished liar-artists, who drive their narratives partly by making up even more narratives, hatching plots, thinking up schemes, and generally being devious little devils.  Odysseus was good at this sort of thing, though of course his narrative was populated by completely unrealistic creatures.  But what really interests me these days is what happens to narrative when the central character doesn’t understand something important about narrative—like Benjy Compson not understanding time, or Christopher John Francis Boone not understanding motive, or Don Quixote not understanding the difference between fiction and fact.  Such characters not only explore the parameters of narrative; they seem to warp their narratives onto themselves, as when Christopher’s father finds the book he’s writing (that is, the one we’re reading) or when everyone in Book II of Don Quixote agrees, in effect, to inhabit Quixote’s fictional world in Book I, having already read that book and being well apprised of the poor man’s singular affliction.

Just a thought.  It’ll eventually wind up in my next book, but I thought I’d just toss it out half-formed like this.  I may even open the book with that passage from The Golden Compass, in fact.  Let me know if this sounds like a good idea, and let me know now, because I’m going to try to start writing this thing in five or six weeks.

And yes, yes, I know there are important things going on in the world and I’m not writing anything about them these days.  Don’t worry!  I’ll get back to them—they’ll still be there.  Why, over on Crooked Timber I have a brand new post about the most important thing of them all: NHL playoffs! 

Posted by on 04/14 at 03:01 PM
  1. Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes.

    Captcha: road, like the one the moocow came down.

    Posted by  on  04/14  at  04:15 PM
  2. I despise this modern jargon!  It is all about artifice, artifice, artifice.

    Posted by  on  04/14  at  05:02 PM
  3. Is it worth noting a possible antecedent of the daemons in the daimon of Robertson Davies’ What’s Bred in the Bone?  Probably not.

    Posted by  on  04/14  at  05:12 PM
  4. I’m trying to name what it is Tristram Shandy doesn’t get about narrative. Arbitrariness? Linearity? Maybe it’s more than one thing.

    Of course it took me three days to get the “Pullman Pret-a-Porter” joke, so clearly I’m not the quickest off the mark.

    capcha “ahead,” as in “where TS can’t seem to go.”

    Posted by  on  04/14  at  05:22 PM
  5. "How could there be 80-some comments here without a mention of the astounding invention Pullman brings:  that of daemons.”

    Well, but there was.  They were the astounding invention of sexuality in potential that becomes frozen at puberty, remember?

    You can appreciate them as animals, but it’s like liking the Narnia books because they have a big lion in them.

    Posted by Rich Puchalsky  on  04/14  at  05:34 PM
  6. With respect to the daemons, I sort of formed a mental image of a bunch of kids running around with pokemons.  I’m sure that’s deeply inappropriate, but there you go.

    Posted by  on  04/14  at  06:03 PM
  7. The ultimate ancestor of the daemons, I think, is the daemon of Socrates, whom he consulted when in doubt about what choice to make.

    So Michael, what do you make of the fact that — in a work of wildly imaginative fantasy — Lyra can only calm the Harpies and compel the attention of the dead by telling true and even naturalistic stories about the brickmakers and other residents of Jericho? And that the Harpies in their new role as the Eumenides will demand from everyone truthful narration only, no fanciful elaborations allowed? As though in the Underworld everyone has to be Zola. . . .

    Posted by  on  04/14  at  06:17 PM
  8. Well, Hogan, not every inhabitant of an experimental narrative has to be “disabled” in some way.  But hey, since you asked, and since I just happen to be rereading Tristram Shandy in the course of deciding that I can’t assign it in a senior seminar after all, I’d say that Mr. Shandy doesn’t understand the distinction between significant and insignificant detail.  Which is, of course, one of Sterne’s running jokes, along with the myriad jokes about forms of address to readers, black pages for Yorick’s death, that missing chapter, etc.

    And yes, Rich did bring up the daemons.  I think Barbara meant “how cool to imagine them as an externalization and corporealization of the soul,” though, whereas Rich meant “how creepy to imagine them as being forever fixed at puberty, as if your soul is coextensive with your sexuality.”

    Alan, I so didn’t like that part, which is why I dismissively referred to the Harpies as thwarted oral historians.  I can see why they’d turn with fury (so to speak) on Lyra’s lies, and of course it was about time that somebody in the series noticed that her name was “Liar.” But why they would proceed to demand that people be straight-up reporters as a condition for the opening of the Land of the Dead—hell, even Zola would be a bit too fanciful for their strictures, since he did make stuff up—I can’t say.  It seems to me a betrayal of one of the premises of the series.

    Posted by Michael  on  04/14  at  06:45 PM
  9. Entire Sermon by the Red Monk
    by Lew Welch

    1.
    We invent ourselves.

    2.
    We invent ourselves out of ingredients we didn’t
    choose, by a process we can’t control.

    3.
    The Female Impersonator, and the Sadistic Marine can
    each trace himself _back_ to the same stern, or weak, father

    4.
    Usually it’s less dramatic.  He was only indifferently
    a basketball player.  Now he is selling cars.

    5.
    The baby on the floor cannot be traced, _forward_,
    to anything.

    6. 
    It’s all your own fault then.

    7.
    On all kinds of baby purpose, you invented whoever
    you think you are.  Out of ingredients you couldn’t
    choose, by a process you can’t control.

    All you really say is, “Love me for myself alone.”

    8.
    It is also possible to _uninvent_ yourself.  By a process
    you can’t control.

    9.
    But you invented Leo.  Forget it.

    Posted by gmoke  on  04/14  at  08:06 PM
  10. Some how this whole discourse reminds me of today’s Pearls Before Swine comic.

    Posted by  on  04/14  at  08:08 PM
  11. Michael:  this has been a wonderful discussion about a very engaging work.  Can we do “The Brothers Karamozov” next?

    Posted by mark  on  04/15  at  08:49 AM
  12. Be my guest, Mark!  For the foreseeable future all my available brain space is going to be taken up with hockey playoffs.

    Posted by  on  04/15  at  08:57 AM
  13. "Rich meant “how creepy to imagine them as being forever fixed at puberty, as if your soul is coextensive with your sexuality.””

    Partly that, and partly that it just seems a bit creepy to imagine that one’s expression of sexuality is frozen at puberty, where “frozen” has all the overtones of “trapped”.

    Maybe it’s a relic of arguing that people are essentially gay or straight as a defense against the church’s “those people are choosing to sin” bit, as well as a reassurance against gay panic.  But look at, I don’t know, the tension around “LGB”.  The politics around the expansion to “LGBT” played out largely around essentialist lines.  But the Q probably expresses that tension most clearly.  (Well, there are two Q’s.) Take Questioning, though—that takes something that is a process, or a mental state, or an activity, and tries to turn it into an identity.  And it’s a post-puberty process (hopefully).  And, at least in my opinion, in a society less oppressed by churchly and other distaste for sex, it would be seen as a pretty much universal post-age-of-consent process that all young adults went through and some older adults periodically returned to.

    Posted by Rich Puchalsky  on  04/15  at  11:02 AM
  14. Nation, by Pratchett, should maybe be the next children’s book on the review list. grin

    Posted by  on  04/15  at  03:58 PM
  15. "The Bros. K: A seminal work in the fantasy genre, set in an improbably colorful yet convincingly detailed world, where the forces of Good ("Christians")and Evil ("Atheists"), and those in between (Dmitry), contend for the hand of a beautiful woman...”

    Posted by  on  04/15  at  06:10 PM
  16. I second the Nation nomination!  Jamie will love it!

    Posted by  on  04/16  at  07:00 AM
  17. I confess I wondered, while reading HDM, if in Lyra’s world there was peer pressure during puberty for your daemon to finally choose a shape, as that seems to be an incredibly public way to announce you have matured.

    Posted by  on  04/16  at  01:12 PM
  18. Also, Hogan @ 4:  Of course it took me three days to get the “Pullman Pret-a-Porter” joke, so clearly I’m not the quickest off the mark.

    It was a really bad joke, though.  In the sense of “it is not funny and doesn’t make any sense either.” I’m already ashamed of it.

    Posted by Michael  on  04/16  at  02:18 PM
  19. I know I’m late to this discussion, but I think we can see the assumption of a single form by the daemons as a positive. The daemons are associated with Dust = consciousness. The fixing of the form then = a greater ability to concentrate, to take up and hold a line through your life, to pursue a goal (= building your own Republic of Heaven). Becoming an adult means you attract Dust, that is, you increase your consciousness. This is a great thing, and it doesn’t have to mean a limitation on sexuality.  Matter loves Dust, after all. Neither Pan nor Lyra are upset that Pan has become a beautiful marten. (And it’s not just virgin sex that Lyra and Will enjoy: they get it on for a few weeks after teh First Time.) Consider also that Magdalen Malone is thrilled to be able to see her daemon; the fact that he has been fixed for a good long time has not been a detriment to her life, or to her sexual expression with a number of partners.

    Captcha: “court” as in “and spark.”

    Posted by John Protevi  on  04/20  at  09:20 AM

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