Pullman's evangelizing atheism
The title of the first of two sections I'll excerpt from Kathy Young's interesting article on "A Secular Fantasy: the flawed but fascinating fiction of Philip Pullman"...
I haven't and probably won't read Pullman. But there's been quite a bit written about him-- and some of you may be familiar with his work or what's been said about it...
In any case, I thought this was interesting!
While Pullman has said that he is interested in “telling a story, not preaching a sermon,” he slides more and more frequently into preaching as the story goes on. Some of his favorite ideas—for instance, that the human body with its senses is far superior to the fleshless spirit of the angels, or that the best afterlife is to become one with nature—are stated again and again and again and again. The idea that the transition from childhood innocence to adult experience should be welcomed, not feared, is illustrated by a heavy-handed plot twist in which Lyra and Will’s sexual awakening proves to be the key to the world’s salvation. When ideology and literature collide, literature suffers.
The Amber Spyglass is not quite on a par with the first two novels: Its new characters and worlds are generally less interesting, far too much space is given to sententious musings about the meaning of life in a post-God world, and eventually you start to feel that Pullman is trying to cram too many messages into his narrative, even if that means unnecessarily dragging it out.
He stacks the deck too. It’s not clear, for instance, why the Authority needs to keep the souls of the dead in such a wretched place and not even bother to reward the faithful. Conversely, to sell the idea that “the sweet and most desirable end” for the souls of the dead is to drift into nothingness, Pullman depicts this dissolution as an ecstatic moment in which the souls’ atoms not only become one with the universe but mingle happily with the particles of deceased loved ones (whom, for some reason, they couldn’t find among their fellow ghosts).
Worse still, Pullman paints every character connected to the Church or religion, from the fascistic zealots of the Magisterium to the crazed monk in the world of the dead who stubbornly believes he’s in paradise, with an antipathy that sometimes recalls Ayn Rand’s demonization of her welfare-state bureaucrats. (In a 2003 interview with the Christian magazine The Third Way, Pullman conceded that this tendency was “an artistic flaw.”) Those on the anti-God side, meanwhile, are judged far more leniently....The double standard grates at times.
When Time Out New York asked him about his anti-religious message, Pullman replied, “The position I’ve always taken is that religious intolerance and tyranny is just one aspect of a wider problem, which is the tendency in human societies toward absolutism.…We have to struggle all the time against that tendency toward wanting the one ‘true’ answer that abolishes all the others forever. That’s true in politics, and it’s true in religion, and it’s true in every aspect of human life.”
But Pullman is soft-pedaling his position. His Dark Materials, at least, explicitly singles out religion as the major source of oppression throughout human history. “That is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling,” the tiger-slaying witch queen says with the author’s obvious approval. In Pullman’s novels, religion is not credited with any positive contributions to human society (whereas, in real history, the Catholic Church played a key role in ending such practices as forced marriage and infanticide) and is blamed for some things to which it has little if any connection (such as genital mutilation intended to prevent sexual pleasure).
The Third Way interview offers an interesting window into Pullman’s beliefs. At first he asserts, very much in the vein of Dawkins and Hitchens, that faith in one God is itself the source of evil: “Every single religion that has a monotheistic god ends up by persecuting other people and killing them because they don’t accept him.” Asked about the crimes committed by atheistic totalitarian regimes, Pullman responds that “they functioned psychologically in exactly the same way,” with their own sacred texts and exalted prophets: “The fact that they proclaimed that there was no God didn’t make any difference: it was a religion, and they acted in the way any totalitarian religious system would.”
The interviewer presses on, pointing out that in that case, perhaps belief in one God isn’t really the root of the problem—and that not only Stalin but even the secular French revolutionaries in the 18th century killed more dissenters than any Church authority. Pullman fires back with a non sequitur: “Well, that was very comforting as the flames were licking round your toes.” When he finally acknowledges that “the religions are special cases of the general human tendency to exalt one doctrine above all others,” it comes across less as a reconsideration of his views than as a grudging concession....
And then, the final section of her essay-- as Young notes Pullman's explicit attempt to attack Narnia...
The intolerant underside of Pullman’s views also can be seen in his intemperate attack on C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia, launched in a 1998 essay in The Guardian. He is hardly the first to accuse Lewis of sexism for his tendency to relegate girls to subordinate roles, and of racism for his negative depiction of the dark-skinned Calormenes. What stands out is the nastiness of Pullman’s rhetoric: He calls the Narnia books “ugly and poisonous things” and “nauseating drivel,” and he declares that he hates them “with a deep and bitter passion.”
Pullman’s specific criticisms of Lewis—which include not only racism and misogyny but class snobbery and a “sadomasochistic relish for violence” and the elevation of childhood innocence over adulthood—are cautiously supported by some critics and hotly disputed by others. If you approach His Dark Materials in a similarly uncharitable spirit, you could find similar grounds for complaint.
Sexism? Heroic though Lyra is, it is mostly Will who fights and who gets to possess a special mystical weapon, while some of Lyra’s greatest feats are accomplished by the “feminine” method of clever manipulation and lies. The trilogy’s main adult female character, Mrs. Coulter, is virtually a cliché of feminine evil—a cold, ruthless siren who schemes, lies, and seduces her way to power—until she is partly, and not very plausibly, redeemed by a spark of stereotypical feminine virtue: maternal love.
Class snobbery? The illegitimate but aristocratic-born Lyra is vastly superior in intelligence and initiative to the lower-class children she befriends; the other hero, Will, is the son of an officer in the Royal Marines. Sadomasochistic violence? Pullman’s trilogy features some very unpleasant deaths and mutilations.
This is not to say that Pullman is a misogynist, a class snob, or a sadist, only that he should be more cautious in branding others with such labels. It is not much of a stretch to think that Pullman sees himself as the anti-Lewis....
Writing in the British Spectator, critic Caroline Moore argues that “Pullman, for all his superior imaginative powers, is paradoxically more intolerant, more fiercely exclusive and more violently propagandist than Lewis.” That’s a shame, because there is much in Pullman’s message that deserves to be commended, including the idea that, in a world without God, one can find meaning in human consciousness, human work, human freedom, and human responsibility to the world.
Yet His Dark Materials has already earned a place of honor in contemporary popular literature and may well end up as long-lived and beloved as the Narnia series. An interesting if often frustrating thinker, a masterful if flawed storyteller, Philip Pullman deserves the larger audience he is likely to find with the release of the Golden Compass movie. For some readers, his stories will stimulate a discussion of religion and freedom, raising tough questions for believers and nonbelievers alike. For others, it will be the stories themselves that endure: tales of bravery and magic, of heroic children and armored bears, that can stand on their own regardless of any self-consciously heretical message.