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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

His Dark Materials, or Pullman Prêt-à-Porter

Hello again, everyone!  It’s finally time for my Considered Thoughts on Pullman’s His Dark Materials series.  Remember, I know nothing of Narnia except that the lion is named after an antidepressant of some kind, so my Pullman v. C. S. Lewis observations are based on my sense of how Pullman responds to Lewis’s Space Trilogy.  And to start things off on the right foot and establish myself as your infallible guide to pop-culture criticism, let me just say at the outset that George Lazenby was far and away the best James Bond in the franchise.

I say this not only because it’s self-evidently true but because, to gauge by the responses to my brief note about Pullman’s series, the critical consensus is that (as more-antifoundationalist-than-moi philosopher Dave Maier put it @ 26, after I’d suggested that the Lord Asriel - Mrs. Coulter - Metatron scene in The Amber Spyglass was Teh suXX0r), “‘Teh suXX0r’ was my reaction not simply to Metatron et al but the whole third book, for which a better title might have been The Unsubtle Screed or something.” Indeed, I have since learned that Maier’s judgment concurs with that of less-antifoundationalist-than-moi literary critic Alan Jacobs, who wrote in the Weekly Standard,

Whichever party readers support in the ancient contest between God and Satan, they will be disappointed to see how often, in The Amber Spyglass, the tale’s momentum is interrupted by polemic. Pullman’s anti-theistic scolding consorts poorly with his prodigious skills as a storyteller. In imagination and narrative drive, he has few peers among current novelists. For such gifts to be thrust into the service of a reductive and contemptuous ideology is very nearly a tragedy.

I think this consensus, if consensus it be, is wrong.

But I’m not going to get all “relativist” on my sometime-Internets-correspondent Professor Jacobs (with whom, I have learned, I went to graduate school) by asking whose ideology is more reductive and contemptuous than whose.  I’ll simply suggest that if you all didn’t pick up on Pullman’s profound contempt for the Church in books one and two, you all weren’t reading very hard.  And it’s true, Pullman’s treatment of the Church is pretty reductive and contemptuous, since we all know that the Church didn’t really torture and burn witches, or torture and kill ordinary humans whose philosophical and scientific speculations were at odds with the teachings of the Vatican.  On the contrary, the Church has always been pretty cool about alternative readings of Scripture, on the grounds that the Bible is an ambiguous and contradictory text that can plausibly be read in any number of ways by honest people working in good faith.  About the varieties of human sexual expression, as well, the Church has always been admirably catholic.

Now, it’s true, as Jacobs points out at the end of his review, that Pullman fails to acknowledge the past two centuries of European history, which prove that some rebels against Authority turn out to be authoritarian.  For Pullman’s failure to acknowledge that rebellion against the Church can lead to Stalin and Mao, Jacobs has a harsh verdict: “a story so thoroughly sentimental and manipulative doesn’t deserve that loyalty. Pullman’s readers should not overlook the deception, conscious or unconscious, that lurks at the heart of his beautiful, misbegotten endeavor.” What’s misbegotten about it?  Just this: “this sentimental refusal of historical understanding leads directly to the Manicheanism of Pullman’s moral vision: closed versus open minds, tyrants versus liberators, the vicious Church versus its righteous opponents.” Yes, well, sometimes narratives of good versus evil can wind up, you know, casting Good versus Evil.  Sort of like the way C. S. Lewis’s trilogy did—and I’ll say more about that in a few moments.

But it can’t be denied that The Amber Spyglass is full of characters stopping the narrative to pontificate in this reductive way.  Take for example the witch Ruta Skadi, who tells the other witches about her encounter with Lord Asriel:

“And he invited us to join him, sisters.  To join his army against the Authority.  I wished with all my heart I could pledge us there and then.  He showed me that to rebel was right and just, when you considered what the agents of the Authority did in His name. . . .  And I thought of the Bolvangar children, and the other terrible mutilations I have seen in our own southlands; and he told me of many more hideous cruelties dealt out in the Authority’s name—of how they capture witches, in some worlds, and burn them alive, sisters. Yes, witches like ourselves . . .

“He opened my eyes.  He showed me things I had never seen, cruelties and horrors all committed in the name of the Authority, all designed to destroy the joys and the truthfulness of life.” [Ellipses in original.]

That’s pretty reductive and Manichean, all right.  Bad, bad Authority (and agents thereof) against joy and truth—you can’t get much more unsubtly-screedy than that.  But guess what?  That passage doesn’t actually appear in The Amber Spyglass.  It’s from book two, The Subtle Knife.  So I have to conclude that anyone who picked up The Amber Spyglass and said, “whoa, this anti-ecclesiastical routine is really getting out of control” was having something like a delayed response to aspects of Pullman’s project that were clear from way back in the opening pages of the series, back when we first learned about the status of women in the Church.

Instead, I’m going to suggest that the problem with The Amber Spyglass is a problem of scale—and that it shares this problem with The Lord of the Rings in one respect, but not, interestingly, with Lewis’s space trilogy.  Here’s what I mean.  Each of these narratives (unlike, say, Paradise Lost) opens on a very small scale, with little hobbits in their Shire, a medievalist on a hiking trip, little Lyra of Jordan College, Oxford.  The boundaries are tiny, almost cloistered, and our protagonists have no idea how vast a task lies before them or how vast is the world in which they must accomplish it.  The narratives then gradually expand in scope until they cover all of Middle-Earth (in one case) or the entire cosmos (in the other two).  The result, in LOTR, is that we move from the faerie-world of Tom Bombadil to the stage of World-Historical Events in which evil empires are overthrown, ancient lines of kings are restored to their thrones, and entire races of beings (I’m looking at you, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler) abandon Middle-Earth altogether and pass, along with our now world-historical hobbit heroes, into the West.  Along the way, though, the prose gets more and more portentous, as Anthony Lane observed a few years ago:

To read it again now, after a gap of decades, is both a rousing and a withering experience; nobody can deny the tweeness trap into which it repeatedly tumbles, or the way in which it tends, at moments of great import, to back off and scurry into the creaking comforts of outdated syntax. The hobbits, on their journey home from Mordor, arrive in the region of Eregion and stay for a week: or, rather, as Tolkien puts it, “Here now for seven days they tarried, for the time was at hand for another parting which they were loth to make.” This is the high style, but it is height without self-consciousness; Joyce climbed up there, too, but his was a parodic quest, and he stripped bare the language of nobility as if removing a suit of armor. Hardly anyone had used it unironically since Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,” and to revert to it with a straight face in the nineteen-fifties was to mount a head-on challenge to modernity.

Since Lane brings up the historical record, I have to add that I’m not convinced that Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” didn’t also mount a head-on challenge to modernity.  I mean, come on, it’s the late 19th century already.  And while George Eliot was chronicling provincial life on the eve of the Reform Bill or tackling the Jewish Question, here’s Tennyson building a discursive bridge to the sixth century—and the mythical sixth century, at that.  It’s not like he’s writing a series of long narrative poems on what the railroad will mean for English industry.  “Idylls of the King” is neo-retro from the get-go, and its high style works only in that context.  But that’s a side argument, as is my sense that in LOTR, the British Empire gets to imagine itself, even at the late date of the mid-twentieth century, as a tiny, quiet nation of shopkeepers from the Shire who don’t quite understand those nasty world-warrish broils taking place in strands afar remote.  (I have a theory about the last time the high style could be used without self-consciousness or self-parody or neo-retroism, but I’ll save it for the end of this post, because it has something to do with the larger plot of His Dark Materials.) The important thing is that Lane is right about the increasingly inflated and eventually rather silly language of LOTR: as its scope and scale get larger and larger, you can almost spot Tolkien in the margins straining to crank up the Inflationary Diction Device.

Which brings me back to The Amber Spyglass.  The journey of The Golden Compass is an intermediate one: Lyra meddles in the affairs of adults, and soon finds herself swept up into a narrative much larger than herself—but one in which she learns, like that Harry Potter fellow or those Halflings from the Shire, that she is the subject of a prophecy uttered by creatures not entirely of the world we thought we knew.  But even as we establish the parameters of Lyra’s parallel-Earth world, in which there are witches and armored bears but no airplanes and no Reformation, we never leave that world; rather, we follow Lyra on her improbable trek to the frozen north via the world of the gyptians.  Only in The Subtle Knife do we begin to explore the many-worlds hypothesis (aka the Barnard-Stokes heresy, whose proponents have been imprisoned by the Church), and I have to say that Will Parry’s initial explorations in that deserted coastal town on the planet Cittàgazze are an appropriately eerie and unsettling way to open book two.  OK, so the first couple of expansions of scale are successful: with Lyra, we can make it to Bolvangar and we can intervene in the obscure politics of witches and armored bears, and then with Will we can enter new worlds with Specters in them by means of windows left open on busy English streets.  So far, so good.

But in book two, we’re alerted to the possibility that all these narrative possibilities are dwarfed by the Largest Imaginable Narrative of All, in which Lord Asriel is challenging not merely the calcified Church and its resistance to scientific exploration, but the Authority himself, He Am Who Am.  To this end Asriel is holing up in a mountain fortress and assembling the most awesome array of corporeal and angelic dissidents since . . . since . . . well, since the wrong side won the previous mother of all celestial battles eons ago and then got propagandists like Milton to chronicle their victory.  I hope I won’t be considered irreverent when I say that this is pretty big stuff.  The narrative better live up to it.  And in book two, as it builds momentum, that narrative sweeps up more and more innocents who have no idea what they’ve gotten into, most notably the nun-turned-cosmologist Mary Malone.

I think I’m in broad agreement with a lot of people when I say that the narrative of book three doesn’t live up to the task.  But the devil is in the details.  Speaking of the devil: Lyra’s trip to the world of the dead is harrowing.  Really!  And when’s the last time you read about someone harrowing the world of the dead?  It’s not like it happens every day, now.  That sequence, involving Lyra, Will, and a pair of Gallivespians, gets stranger and stranger as it goes, and deeper and deeper into Western literary history, and by my count these are both Good Things.  But then, in the very depths of the land of the dead, the wheels begin to come off:  the harpies will be mollified if people tell them true stories?  And meanwhile the evil Church Fathers back on Lyra’s planet are planning to fire the world’s biggest cosmic slingshot, which, with a lock of Lyra’s hair, will pulverize her wherever she may be?  And this slingshot opens an abyss under the Abyss?  Wait just a second.  The narrative’s sense of scale has gone screwy on us.  The harpies are supposed to be hideous and terrifying, not the underworld’s version of thwarted oral historians who want people to tell their life stories.  And the cosmic slingshot—and the entire cosmic slingshot sequence—is just silly. 

And then Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel have their epic battle with Metatron, whose name sounds less like something out of the epic tradition than like something out of Power Rangers.  Hey, remember those legions of armies Asriel was gathering unto himself, comprised of the most awesome array of corporeal and angelic dissidents assembled since oh yeah, I just mentioned this two paragraphs ago?  Well, forget about ‘em, folks, because the climactic battle between good and evil is going to turn out to be something more like a WWE championship match, with flying scissor kicks and pile drivers, and Asriel gets bonked on the head with a rock, but whoa!  Mrs. Coulter totally betrays Metatron and fights against him!  It’s the most amazing turn of events since Miss Elizabeth turned on Randy “Macho Man” Savage!  And she gouges Metatron’s eyes and then Asriel hits him over the back with a metal folding chair!  Win!

Oh yeah, the Authority himself gets dumped out of his vacuum-sealed crystal container and decomposes within seconds.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I know it’s hard to depict a battle for the fate of the universe.  But that’s my point about the problem of scale here: the scope of the event is out of all proportion to what the narrative can plausibly do.  Perhaps Pullman could have conducted the war against the Kingdom of Heaven offstage, so to speak, and have it narrated after the fact by an angel or a witch who can say stuff like “terrible was the tumult my eyes witnessed that day.” All I know is that this profoundly anticlimactic scene doesn’t work at all.

Interestingly (well, I hope it’s interestingly), Lewis’s That Hideous Strength avoids this problem altogether.  That’s because the really grandiose celestial stuff—complete with lots of angelic speeches and Blessed-be-He songs of praise, talk of the Great Dance and capital-D Dust (!)—takes place at the end of book two, Perelandra. That Hideous Strength, by contrast, opens in the determinedly domestic realm, where Jane Studdock, a character who had not appeared in the first two books, is struggling with her doctoral dissertation on John Donne.  Indeed, it’s not clear for quite some time that book three has anything to do with book two; Lewis has reset the scale of the narrative from scratch, almost as if we’re back in the Shire or Lyra’s Oxford with no knowledge of the divine beings who closed out the previous volume by chanting for a dozen pages or so.

The results of Lewis’s strategy are kind of cool.  The book remains largely in the realm of domestic realism; the main plot follows a shadowy group called the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (or N.I.C.E., an almost Pynchonian touch—and it wouldn’t surprise me if That Hideous Strength crossed Pynchon’s mind as he was writing Gravity’s Rainbow) whose forays into fascism are but a prelude to an even more dastardly and far-reaching plot.  Gradually, Lewis gradually unearths the Merlin myth for incorporation into his Christian narrative, and then, at the very end of the book, brings down the planetary gods of classical antiquity as well.  But because the book doesn’t begin with the grandiose—say, an impending war in Heaven involving every conscious entity—the parade of deities at the end doesn’t come off as hyperinflated.  Also, there’s the fact that Lewis has some fun with the planets; as each god arrives, his or her nature suffuses the house in which the principals have gathered.  Here’s the first arrival, as felt by Ransom and Merlin:

Quick agitation seized them: a kind of boiling and bubbling in mind and heart which shook their bodies also.  It went to a rhythm of such fierce speed that they feared their sanity must be shaken into a thousand fragments.  And then it seemed that this had actually happened.  But it did not matter: for all the fragments—needle-pointed desires, brisk merriments, lynx-eyed thoughts—went rolling to and fro like glittering drops and reunited themselves.  It was well that both men had some knowledge of poetry.  The doubling, splitting, and recombining of thoughts which now went on in them would have been unendurable for one whom that art had not already instructed in the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled vision.  For Ransom, whose study had been for many years in the realm of words, it was heavenly pleasure.  He found himself sitting within the very heart of language, in the white-hot furnace of essential speech.  All fact was broken, splashed into cataracts, caught, turned inside out, kneaded, slain, and reborn as meaning.  For the lord of Meaning himself, the herald, the messenger, the slayer of Argus, was with them: the angel that spins nearest the sun.  Viritrilbia, whom men call Mercury and Thoth.

So now you can tell your students (if you have students) why it’s worth their while to study poetry: it will enable them to maintain their sanity when mercurial Hermes Trismegistus shows up at their door.  And quite seriously, the “all the fragments” passage and the “all fact was broken” sentence are very nicely rendered.  I wouldn’t say that the entrance of the ancient deities is worth the price of admission by itself, but I certainly would say that Lewis handles this delicate matter of expanding narrative scale rather more deftly than Pullman handles the final struggle with Heavens-to-Mergatroid.

But the ending of Lewis’s novel!  Ye gods!  You want a reductive and contemptuous ideology, I gotcher reductive and contemptuous ideology right here.  In the novel’s closing pages, after the Forces of N.I.C.E. Evil have been defeated, the Director-with-a-capital-D (formerly known as Ransom) tells Jane Studdock what it all means:

Go in obedience and you will find love.  You will have no more dreams.  Have children instead.

You should understand that Jane’s clairvoyant dreams about Merlin and disembodied talking heads have driven the narrative from the outset, so that when the Director tells her she will have no more dreams, he is at once informing her that her nights will be easier (which counts as a relief) and that she will no longer have access to the supernal (which counts as a demotion but also a relief).  It’s not quite as cruel as it sounds.

But it’s still be fruitful and multiply—and most of all, stop trying to get that Ph.D.!  Leave the thinking to the menfolk!  To which Jane replies, “My Author and Disposer, what thou bidst/ Unargu’d I obey; so God ordains,/ God is thy Law, thou mine: to know no more/ Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.” Whoops, no, that’s Milton.  Sorry about that.  Anyway, Jane complies, and on the final page she goes into the marriage bower to start havin’ babies with her husband Mark.  Now, this is a pretty raw deal for our Jane, not merely because her husband, preceding her into the bower, has thrown his clothes carelessly around the room (“How exactly like Mark!” she thinks with relief at the knowledge he is there), but more importantly because Mark is a bit of a pud and a toady who has spent most of the novel currying favor with the baddies at N.I.C.E. in the hopes that it will advance his career and give him Power Over Others.  It’s as if Jane’s reward, for her good work and her conversion to Christianity, is that she is ordered to bear Mark Steyn’s children.

Oh, all right, to be fair, Mark has an epiphany on his way to the bower in which he sees himself (rightly) as “a coarse male boor with horny hands and hobnailed shoes and beefsteak jaw” (you know, sort of like Steyn!) and the insinuation is that he will henceforth be more worthy of the lady Jane.  But still, as Erich Auerbach once said of this closing scene, “ew ew ew ew ew.”

To wrap up this Internets-breaking post with an observation and a question: it appears that for Pullman, as for Lewis, the fate of the universe hinges on what women do with their, you know, female sexuality.  Indeed, this seems to be an important concern of the Church in our very own world!  So when the Tempter shows up in The Amber Spyglass, in the shape of nun-turned-cosmologist Mary Malone, she basically tells Lyra to go ahead and do it, do it, do it ‘til she’s satisfied (whatever it is), because long walks along the beach with your new lover are way better than that flesh-scourging, pleasure-denying ascetic routine.  And she doesn’t even have to get married or have babies!  And she can go ahead and grow up to get a Ph.D. if she wants to, just like Mary did after she left the church!  You know what comes after that, right?  Deregulate women’s sexuality, and global financial-moral crisis follows.  You wind up with women doing science, women kissing women, men marrying box turtles, chaos in general. 

Now here’s the question.  In Pullman’s universe, everything went wrong with the cosmos a little over three hundred years ago, when the scientists of Cittàgazze, housed in the Torre degli Angeli, invented the Subtle Knife and began cutting into other worlds, thus (unwittingly) releasing the Specters who can suck the living spirit right out of your body.  As Pullman writes: “Three hundred years ago, the Royal Society was set up: the first true scientific society in her world. Newton was making his discoveries about optics and gravitation. Three hundred years ago in Lyra’s world, someone invented the alethiometer.” But why pick that point in history as the fateful turning point?  The Royal Society was founded in 1660, yes.  Hmmm.  Was anything else going on around then?  Major political events in English history, perhaps?  Major English poets writing major epics?  Maybe even a dissociation of sensibility of some kind?  As I’ve admitted, I’m a complete Pullman neophyte, so I don’t know if he’s discussed this elsewhere.  But I will suggest that whether or not human character changed on or about December 1660, thenabouts was the last time an English writer (like, say, Milton) could get away with writing in the high style about things like the war in Heaven. 

Your thoughts about any or all of the above (except the bit about George Lazenby)?

Posted by Michael on 04/08 at 03:10 PM
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