"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Incapable Negativity

I have had an exasperating and time-wasting reading experience. If you escape that experience thanks to reading this comparably long blog, you’ll owe me gratitude. Fair warning: Bits of plot will be revealed.

The books were recommended by a dear student and by a beloved friend, and I felt I had to finish them to earn the right to disagree. But doing so, which has cost me hours of wasted life, only confirmed another friend’s warning and my initial judgment based on the first few chapters of the first book (now out in a movie I won’t bother to see). The only surprise was that the last volume of the trilogy was even more annoying than the first had promised it would be.

The books are The Golden Compass (so-called in America; in England it is called Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman, which together form a trilogy called His Dark Materials. The trilogy title is based on a phrase from Milton’s Paradise Lost, by which epic poem Pullman claims to be influenced. If so, he is influenced as William Blake was influenced by Milton: that is, to turn Milton’s vision on its head. Pullman is also influenced by Blake, of whose worst qualities he is a shallow but loyal devotee, for he too takes his own Romantic fancies to be a true imagination of reality. But whereas Blake made up for that fault with genius and poetry, Pullman has no such aces up his sleeve. I grant that he went to a lot of work to think up all the things he thought up for these books: lots of invented places and beings, a complex plot, and a consistent purpose. But their effect on me was that of occasional sparks of hope being relentlessly doused by an inescapable spiritless drudgery.

It is not necessary to get too excited that these novels are not only anti-Catholic Church but explicitly anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, anti- any theistic religion you care to think of. No less are they anti-philosophical: none of Alfred North Whitehead’s “footnotes to Plato” here. Because his books ignorantly or maliciously reduce the Christian religion to nothing more than a doctrine of tyrannical war against the body, nature, pleasure, love, and sex, their atheism poses no real threat to religion. Like many polemical atheists, Pullman is fighting a war against an enemy about which he seems to know very little outside of stereotypical clichés. (Pullman is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society in Great Britain and a supporter of the British Humanist Association, both of which promote atheist and anti-supernatural agendas.) There are, of course, significant Gnostic and Manichean influences within Christianity, as within Judaism and Islam, that do preach the evils of the material world, thereby in part bringing upon themselves Pullman’s popular kind of reaction against religious asceticism. But to tar the whole Christian religion with that one brush is dismally shallow.

The real frustration is that as a fantasy-fiction writer, Pullman reveals an impoverished and utterly derivative imagination. Though the trilogy is obviously meant to be the anti-C.S. Lewis and anti-J.R.R. Tolkien chronicles, it depends not at all on a persuasively invented mythical world like Middle Earth or Narnia. The drabness of his inventions—colorless pseudo-spirituality, repetitive plot structure, awkwardly executed melodrama—in fact only confirms the contrasting greatness of Lewis, Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling as fantasy writers of depth and vision.

Absent real invention, Pullman’s moments of dramatic intensity depend instead on parceled-out knee-jerk reversals of one after another fundamental element of the Christian religion—contrarianism in place of drama. The Fall of Man was really a liberation, intentionally re-packaged as sin by the body-hating Church, which is synonymous with the Inquisition. The fallen angels are heroic rebels against Blake’s tyrannical Ancient of Days, a worn-out old-man angel who is relieved to be dissipated into his constituent molecules in the presence of his savior, the brave little flesh-and-blood girl. Death is not heaven, hell, or purgatory but either shadow lands (like the ancients’ Hades), or absolute nothingness, or molecular dissolution and absorption back into the natural world, where one’s constituent elements happily though unconsciously mix with the molecules of former loved ones. Consciousness itself is a function not of the God-given soul but of particles of conscious dust—or rather the dust is a function of consciousness—or something. It’s never explained. Underworld harpies turn from nasty to nice by being loved and appreciated. The Kingdom of Heaven is evil; the Republic of Heaven is the noble goal.

The redemption of all universes comes when the young heroine gets laid under a tree, or, if you prefer, when she and the young hero—we’re talking ten minutes into puberty here—fall into profound love and unite their bodies and their souls, without benefit of clergy, which is evil, in a perfect apotheosis of modestly undescribed sexual intercourse on non-prickly greenery amongst the flowers of a pleasant garden-world. Meantime the Church’s hyperbolical killer-priest, Gomez—who observes that the use of wheels by the innocent rational denizens of this Eden is “abominable and Satanic, and contrary to the will of God” (The Amber Spyglass, p. 464)—is sent to kill the heroine in order to prevent her from saving the world for natural happiness by falling into erotic love. Before he can do any damage, Gomez fortunately dies by slipping on a rock and having his face held under water by a weak but determined homosexual rebel-angel, whereupon a big harmless lizard eats his body. The serpent that makes the redemptive tryst possible is a woman scientist who has told the children the story of how an erotic affair converted her to atheism from being a nun.

Apart from a few individual exceptions, the good guys are gypsies, witches, elves, harpies, rebel angels, lone inventors, children (except those perverted by specters, the by-products of the Church’s efforts to destroy the heroine), and, of course, animals. The bad guys are God, non-rebel angels, the Church and its institutions, priests, institutional scientists, professors, society, and adults generally. (At least we have been spared anti-Semitism, there being not a Jew in the whole work; Pullman’s bitter prejudice is reserved for the Catholic Church.) Ok, fine. Go ahead and invert the main stream of Western Civilization to make your point. But at least make the goodness of the good guys and the badness of the bad believable.

Good writers give us imagined people with characteristics. This writer gives us merely ciphers constructed to carry the characteristics he needs carried. We don’t get to know them or care about them except as hooks upon which the anti-theology is hung. His method of psychological elucidation is to invent for each character a daemon who, in the form of a physically palpable, intimate, and conversable animal, expresses by its actions and gestures what is going on in the soul of the human character. The result is an endlessly repeated reduction of psychology to cliché gestures. Person X is afraid of and about to be overborne by Person Y? No need to go to the trouble of describing human experience. Just show Daemon X in the form of a cowering rabbit succumbing to Daemon Y in the form of a hissing ferret, and voila, your work is done.

In rapid succession, skipping transitions with which we might empathize, the characters experience only those feelings that the manipulation of the plot demands. For example, Lyra, our heroine, who has been fighting an exhausting battle for days and is just about at the end of her physical rope, suddenly has to go on some trek for many miles and then fight a whole new set of battles, during which she begins to tire anew. Nothing remains of the previous days of exhaustion. She is infinitely tire-able, and therefore infinitely tiring. There are a few hours of rest for her now and then, but none for the reader. Some of Lyra’s bruises are treated by someone whom the plot requires for a piece of information; other bruises disappear as soon as a quick change of circumstance makes them irrelevant. At several points the injured hand of Will, the young hero, has bled so much that he’s almost dead—that is, until he has to fight some new foe, whereupon he fights, in the midst of which battle he may start (all over again) to feel tired. This lack of verisimilitude can go on for days and weeks at a time.

Characters’ entire moral and spiritual orientation may shift for the convenience of the plotting author. Pullman’s equivalent to Gollum’s last gesture at the edge of the abyss in Tolkien’s Return of the King is Mrs. Coulter’s sudden renunciation of a life of selfishness, deceit, malice, and betrayal in a fit of selfless mother-love for a daughter whom, given the story, she does not really know. Where Gollum saved the day by being true to his nature, Coulter contributes to saving the day by changing internally in a way for which the book does not prepare us and which cannot be reasonably explained according to any known human psychology. The Romantic fantasist’s idea of nature can explain it of course. In these universes, a mother’s love, once it becomes useful to the plot, knows no obstruction, though a son’s love for his mother can be heroically (and efficiently) suppressed until all missions are accomplished. At work in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s climactic moments was grace, which redeems facts by revealing the larger context in which they exist. Pullman achieves his climactic moments by brazen manipulation. Not grace but only the author is at work, visibly adjusting worlds, people, daemons, and special effects to promote his doctrine.

The characters being mere constructs, no real character development can take place, though a lot of learning does. But that learning is never qualitative, only quantitative. Every breakthrough is merely an added piece of information, rather than an insight, and it comes right on time. One could accuse the Harry Potter books too of timeliness of breakthroughs, except that there each turn in the story is effected by three-dimensional characters we have come to know as people, characters with real motives caught in believable moral crises. Here, by contrast, each turn feels like the result of clockwork. Reading this trilogy is not at all like losing oneself in a strange new world like Narnia or Malacandra or Middle Earth or Hogwarts. It is like listening to a sales pitch: The car salesman creates in your mind the need for a way to defrost the rear windshield, and voila, right on time, there he is pointing to the apparently magic button that does just that. And then he does it again. And again. And nothing is achieved but weariness: what the truth-telling alethiometer will not tell, the subtle knife will cut through, or the amber spyglass reveal—facts, facts, and more facts.

One of the silliest signs of Pullman’s agenda-driven invention is the book’s modish gender-bending. The heroine is a tomboy who begins the book running around on rooftops and fighting rock wars with village boys. The brave young hero gets to know the heroine by teaching her how to cook an omelet. With a little shove, Mrs. Coulter knocks the powerful Lord Asrael out of the driver’s seat of his own helicopter-like secret weapon. Two male angels form a gay-cliché couple, butch and fem, the latter heart-broken when the former sacrifices his life (or what passes for it among the angels) for the pro-sex, anti-Church cause. I am not making this up; Pullman is.

Theme there is aplenty, but it is one and the same throughout. Rather than developing depth, it simply accretes instances. The Church is the bad guy at the start and at the end. Nature is good and God is a hoax from start to finish. First we find it out this way, then that, then another, but the only true meaning always lies in the same place: Nature, matter, the body, and the worship of them are good; the only unredeemable evil is the life-censoring Church.

Such single-minded polemics might be bearable if the unimaginative worlds Pullman creates to carry them at least had some logic to them. But their illogic is persistent and annoying. Take angels, for example. They long for flesh and blood bodies but don’t have them. They are bright vaguenesses in the air. And yet regent-angel Metatron, who longs for the flesh of Marisa Coulter, can have the breath squeezed out of him by the strong physical arms of Lord Asrael. What breath? Angels suddenly have lungs? Apparently. And they can also die. Ok, fine. Go ahead and abandon thousands of years of tradition to redefine the term “angels,” bringing them down to an earthly level in order to prove that the Church’s doctrines are nonsense. Let the body be the only reality. Have the angels breathing in a physically refined, Miltonic sort of way. But then why are they not satisfied with other angel bodies? Why this lust for human physicality when they have their own? For no logical reason but to show that where the physical is concerned, more is better.

Or take the diamond-shaped beings in one of the multiple worlds Pullman gives us. All its creatures have one fore-leg, one hind-leg, and two side-legs (or wings) rather than a central spine with two sets of side-by-side legs. We’re told it’s because their world evolved without the principle of the spine. Ok, fine. But what keeps those four appendages at the four points of their diamond shapes? From whence (in a book that keeps promoting the knowledge of physics) the integrity of their physical shape? What is Pullman’s alternative to the spine? Not given. No need to think it up. Doesn’t matter. They’re just different, that’s all. Like it or lump it.

Or take the land of the dead. Until the great saving gesture of the heroine Lyra, the dead are mere ghosts of themselves stuck in the dead lands. But there are two other deaths: one even the ghosts don’t want; the other they do. One is falling into a black hole of nothingness, not otherwise explained. The other is breaking out into one of the natural worlds, whereupon the ghosts dissipate into the multiple realms of nature—air, water, earth, plants, people. It is the book’s consummation devoutly to be wished. But wait. Ghosts are made of molecules? If so, how can they be annihilated by falling into the abyss? If not, how can they be redeemed from their temporary death by dissipating into the molecular world of nature? Why is one death better than the other? And even if it were, why weren’t they content to dissipate into the molecular world of underground rocks and harpies? Why this arbitrary superiority of the molecules making up air and clouds and flora and fauna?

Or take the tiny space between the laminated universes—thin interstices made of the ultimate abyss of nothingness—through which the hero unwittingly cuts into other worlds with the “subtle knife.” Why didn’t someone—there’s always someone appearing out of nowhere to give timely advice—tell the hero to put Lyra’s hair there so that the explosion meant to kill her—oh never mind. It isn’t worth trying to explain.

Finally, there is the ineptness of the descriptions of battles, landscapes, and movement. Pullman will pretend to be telling us what we need to know: the sea is that way, the mountain this; good guys are here, bad guys there. But if you try actually to imagine the scene, you find you can’t really figure out where anything is. Distances increase or decrease, extreme temperatures are felt or ignored, speeds are varied, people move unnoticed—and I don’t mean just the witches, who know how to make themselves invisible—regardless of physics. All relations in time and space are exactly what the author needs them to be for purposes of plot and polemic, whether they make sense in the mind’s eye or not—usually not. His attempts to describe with verisimilitude even the physical world he worships are a hoax.

This being a story of multiple universes, characters move from world to world. But as they do, landscapes appear out of no necessity but the author’s convenience. There needs to be a shady grove with a spring and a stream so the hero and heroine can rest a bit? Voila, there one is. There needs to be a place where one can cut through the rock of the dead lands into another world? Voila, a character suddenly reports she knows where that place is. It’s hard to get to? Ok, Fine. Exactly three paragraphs are given us to show how hard it is to get to, and then voila, we are there and the pain of the journey is forgotten because now there are new adventures to meet on the other side. We have to put an end to the cutting through to new worlds? Voila, yet another character appears to tell us yet another fact: every cut increases the number of specters. It is the fantasist’s imagination on steroids—a myriad situations with no development or insight or vision we can even temporarily believe in, let alone care about.

There are instances of heroism and kindness and self-sacrifice, of course, as there must be in any fantasy tale with the faintest hope of being read. They are not any more believable than the nonsense, but here at least Pullman rises above his own polemics to indicate in spite of himself that such values are truly valuable. Such instances lead Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware, in a book called Shedding Light on His Dark Materials, to claim, as their publisher puts it, that “though Pullman intended to do just the opposite, he has created a cosmos that seems to confirm the existence of a loving God—one where truth wins out over deception, grace trumps the virtue of self-reliance, and relationship is prized above independence.” Perhaps. My impression is that they are giving Pullman’s inadvertence too much benefit of what should be a greater doubt.

Pullman’s own explanation for why things happen as they do boils down to one word. On page 491 of The Amber Spyglass, the female angel Xaphania utters the following ultimate profundity: “there are fates that even the most powerful have to submit to.” Wow! We’ve come through 1,168 pages of plot, not to mention 2,500 years of Western Civilization, in order to reach this pinnacle of wisdom: everything is controlled by fates. How illuminating! What or who are fates? Forget it. Just live in the now, enjoy the air and water and sky and your body, and oh yes, probably you should try to be a nice person, but don’t ask why. Nothing in this trilogy even attempts to address that question.

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” writes T.S. Eliot. Philip Pullman demonstrates that primitive writers cannibalize. Pullman’s only ideas are pagan negations of the ideas he reductively takes to be Christianity. His is a characteristically modern brew—one part Enlightenment worship of reason, one part Romantic worship of nature, and one part impoverished imagination—producing a pseudo-philosophy of consummate vulgarity.

John Keats, in a letter to his brothers, famously wrote “it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubt, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” On page 458 of The Amber Spyglass Pullman has Lyra use Keats’s phrase—when she could possibly have read and understood the letters of Keats is never explained—to describe how one reads the alethiometer (the truth machine) and how one cuts through worlds with the “subtle knife.” That is, you put your rational intellect to sleep and let your impulses and intuitions do the work.

Ok, fine. It being a romantic fantasy, let the heroine think she possesses what Keats observed to be the essential quality of the “Man of Achievement.” Even if we stretch the truth to grant that Lyra means what Keats meant by “negative capability,” Pullman himself lacks it. His Dark Materials instead reveals an incapable negativity. Its only content is negation of religion, its form an interminable bore.