Monday, May 03, 2010

Philip Pullman, enough with the Biblical retakes

I have not read Philip Pullman's the The Good Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and though I enjoyed His Dark Materials, I probably won't. That's because I'm weary to the bone of imaginative worlds defined by the Bible, indeed by any of the scriptures created 1000-3000 years ago that still define the universe for billions.

The anti-Christian cosmos in His Dark Materials is shaped by Scriptural monotheism, only inverted. The work is a Satanic Scriptures, with a demonic Yahweh and heroic rebels against the divine order, but it's still completely in the grip of the old mythology. William Blake said that Milton, in Paradise Lost, was on the devil's side without knowing it. Pullman is on the "devil's" -- i.e. divine rebels' -- side quite consciously (the trilogy takes its name from Milton's phrase for the chaos out of which God formed the universe). But he's still telling the same old (to me) tired story.

Christopher Hitchens, Rottweiler to God's Rottweiler and to what he sees as a Rottweilerian God, naturally enough glows with admiration for an imaginative writer who portrays the little god behind the Biblical curtain as an aggressive psychopath. Hitchens writes reverently of The Good Jesus:
Pullman’s daring heresy is to rewrite the Fall as if it were an emancipation, and as if Eve had done us all a huge favor by snatching at the forbidden fruit. Our freedom and happiness depend on that “first disobedience.”
That is not daring. It's the oldest idea in the book (literally) -- the "Fortunate Fall,"* -- the notion human free will was born in defiance of divine will. The Christian formulation is that the human drama is composed of re-establishing the complete union of human and divine will severed by the Fall.  Pullman, instead, celebrates in His Dark Materials the complete separation, in a climactic "ding dong the witch is dead" moment. But that is, again, simple inversion.  If you're a confirmed atheist, why pit your heroes and heroines against Jehovah?

In fantasy and science fiction I prefer writers who try to imagine truly newly societies and mindsets, as opposed to Roman or medieval costume dramas or Biblical retakes. The most successful work of this kind that I've read is Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game tetralogy.  Card, too, imagines future worlds inhabited by human cultures shaped by religions in existence today, including variations on Catholicism and Taoism, not to say a vague secular intergalactic federalism.  But he brings these recognizable human cultures into contact with species that are truly Other, culturally as well as biologically: a race of insects that dooms itself to total war with humanity because it doesn't recognize at first contact that humans don't regard the killing of a few individuals as a mere haircut or pruning; a species of mammals that comes near to a similar catastrophe because they don't recognize that humans, unlike themselves, are not reborn into a vegetable existence; a manmade articificial intelligence that brings humans to the edge of divine consciousness.

Perhaps it's childish of me to mold these personal preferences into an aesthetic credo There are doubtless many who find Pullman's quasi-theological climaxes full as uncanny and powerful as I find Card's arboreal transformations of sentient mammals or Ender's extradimensional computer-aided interventions.  In fact, to be honest, I do myself: the moment in His Dark Materials when the dead are released from the prison of the underworld into a moment of ecstatic final dissolution has joined in my imagination with the sequence of underworlds from Homer through Virgil and Dante. I also found powerful Pullman's sketch of a technologically advanced Christian theocracy  -- as if the happy bloody accident of Christian Europe learning religious tolerance after it had exhausted all the alternatives had never happened.  And the daemons in animal form that accompany each human being throughout life, and don't take the fixed form of any one animal until puberty, are as lovely as Hitchens says they are.

So take that, Sprung. Let those who will enjoy the latest atheist-Manichean-Christian mashup, and go find something else to read if you must.

*See, for example, the kicker in the 15th century English lyric Adam lay ybounden:

Ne had the apple taken been,
The apple taken been,
Ne had never our ladie,
Abeen heav'ne queen.

Blessed be the time
That apple taken was,
Therefore we moun singen.
Deo gracias!

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