Posts Tagged ‘innocence and experience’

Milton, Blake and Dust in Pullman’s His Dark Materials

January 15, 2023

Pullman acknowledges his debt to Milton’s Paradise Lost, a masterpiece of literature that nowadays eludes many people, for a number of reasons: it’s in verse, it’s very long (12 books), it’s about religion, it’s written in 17th century English, which is a little different from today’s, though far from impenetrable. Milton’s aim was to write the ultimate epic, the story of creation, and the redemption of humanity by Jesus’ death. He tells of the temptation of Eve and the Fall of the first humans, tempted by Satan.

Unfortunately for Milton, Satan takes over the story, becoming rather more of an interesting hero-figure than God or his son. And the question of the Fall also becomes double-edged: before it, Adam and Eve mimsy around the Garden of Eden blandly doing the gardening and having rather wet and innocent conversations, and a bit of very dull sex. Our feeling tends to be, well if this is paradise, I’m not sure I’m all that interested. The temptation is to take the forbidden fruit, of the knowledge of good and evil, after which they become humans as we know them: sex and arguments and blaming each other. And the real question is, why was the fruit forbidden? Because, is Milton’s and God’s answer, and that’s that… and we humans have become what we are because we have that knowledge. There are consequences: death. Adam and Eve have no idea what it is and cannot imagine it; we are the only species on the planet that knows of death and can contemplate it… And while I’m on with the Miltonic parallels, clearly there is an intended resemblance between Asriel’s armed camp preparing for battle with the Authority, and the building of Pandaemonium in the second book of Paradise Lost.

Pullman is fully aware of the importance of this difference between innocence and experience, and how it shapes us through our lives. There are things which happen to us which change us irreversibly, and which we cannot easily explain to others who have not experienced them. How do you describe to someone innocent the experience of an LSD trip, or sex for the first time, or indeed what love actually is? And, of course, you can’t rewind from any of these points, or turn back the clock: you are now changed, experienced. I have often felt that it’s perhaps easier for adult (experienced) readers to overlook this liberating aspect of Pullman’s stories, whereas they may perhaps be more eye-opening or life-affirming for younger readers. I don’t know for certain, of course; I’m on the wrong side of the fence here.

So in His Dark Materials, there are forces – organised religion – who would have humans remain permanently in a pre-pubescent state of innocent obedience, easily controlled. And the rebellion Pullman visualises is one against this tyranny, which might install the republic, rather than the kingdom of heaven. The more I think about it, the more utopian I find this notion, as well as extremely attractive. The idea of humans taking control over their own lives and their futures, rather than kowtowing to external forces, is one which has been revolutionary through the ages, and sadly, we are no nearer to achieving it…

Here is where Milton and Pullman overlap, for me: the crux is free will, which Christianity says we were given as a test: would we freely choose to obey and serve God, or would we wilfully choose what we shouldn’t and take the consequences? Milton feels the first humans made the wrong choice and it had to be rectified; Pullman lauds that choice, and has his Adam and Eve figures willingly give in to temptation and not regret it.

Dust. There is a serious amount of philosophical, even theological argument woven in to the novels; we don’t have to worry too much about it or strive too hard to comprehend it all. There is a serious information dump about Dust and its link with the Christian notion of original sin in the final chapters of Northern Lights, in conversation between Lyra and Asriel, and I’m still not sure how convincing I find this, given Lyra’s supposed age at this point. The concept is further developed in The Subtle Knife, where the arrival of Dust is linked back 33,000 years, presumably to the time of the first emergence of human consciousness in our species, which is where Pullman seems to situate the mythical Adam and Eve event and the original ‘Fall’. I’ve still not completely fathomed the significance, several times iterated, that things began to go seriously awry three centuries ago with the making of the knife: I can’t fit this timing in to a historical event, though I suppose we are at the start of the Enlightenment and the scientific era…perhaps a more astute reader can enlighten me here. Clearly these two dates are significant to Pullman’s ideas, and the second Fall, in the world of the mulefa, has the effect of reversing something.

Philip Pullman: The Tin Princess

July 29, 2022

     This is another of the four Sally Lockheart novels, detective stories of a sort, set in the late nineteenth century. It’s clearly a tribute to Sherlock Holmes in some ways, in terms of time and place, and there is also a gang of helpful street children clearly modelled on the Baker Street Irregulars. There are also links to an earlier novel in the series, The Ruby in the Smoke.

What interests me is that Pullman’s target audience is evidently younger teenagers, even more so than with His Dark Materials, but his readers are treated from the start as intelligent and thoughtful, and Pullman weaves in complex ideas and themes without ever being patronising, preachy or moralising.

It’s a fast-paced story, as Pullman knows that is what his readers will expect. The setting quickly shifts from Victorian London to an invented, small Central European kingdom threatened by the global ambitions of both the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. This was perhaps the aspect of the plot that I found least convincing, but then I’m an ageing reader well-read in history, and of Eastern European origin myself.

Pullman doesn’t avoid emotional attachments between his characters, and complex relationships either; nor does he dwell too long or in too much detail on them. It really is quite eye-opening to see how such a skilled writer has a sharp focus on the people he’s writing for. As in his better-known series His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust, Pullman shows his strong belief and trust in uncorrupted young people, who will be decent and do the right thing given the opportunity; corruption and deceit comes with adulthood, and this theme is obviously developed more thoroughly and in a much more complex manner in the later books, where innocence and experience are more foregrounded, and the myth of the Fall is much deliberately under the microscope.

It’s a ripping yarn in which despite the heroic efforts of the young, in the end evil triumphs – Pullman is only being harshly realistic here, and in our sad world, young people need such lessons – and adults are exposed as corrupt, servile and hypocritical. And Pullman does ultimately leave his readers with a glimmer of hope at the end, in that there are also some decent grownups in the world too. But it’s clear, good must be fought for, cannot be assumed.

Samuel Johnson: Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

February 23, 2017

51yhyoyvael-_ac_us218_I’m not quite sure why I went back to this, 42 years after I last read it as an undergraduate. But it was an interesting little digression: Rasselas, the privileged prince, escapes from the happy valley where the emperor’s offspring are confined and determines to explore the world and find out what to do with his life; he’s pretty quickly tied up in the philosophical problem of whether to work out the best way to happiness and contentment or to get on with actually living life…

It was published in 1759, exactly the same year as Voltaire’s Candide, which it immediately reminded me of, except that Voltaire’s conte is more obviously and deliberately satirical, whereas Johnson’s tale mocks lightly while ultimately bringing our naive hero gently to his senses.

Rasselas discovers there’s no happiness to be found in stasis: we must always be striving for something new, and we also need to see and experience misery in order to recognise happiness. Is it better to get on with living and enjoying life, rather than trying to plan ahead to achieve perfection? Equally, it’s important to be yourself, rather than to imitate someone else, or to strive to be someone you are not: there is no place for gurus. It is impossible to plan for every eventuality. As the prince, his sister and their companions travel around, everyone they meet who initially appears to have found the answers and to be happy, is actually dissatisfied in some way with their lot…

Johnson also explores the contrast between innocence and experience, which William Blake was to present in his songs some thirty years later: would it be better to just be satisfied with the state of innocence in which Rasselas begins? or perhaps explore and experience the world and then go back to seclusion? Where can there be true happiness, in that forever sheltered state of initial innocence or some carefully sought out, deliberately tried and tested path, from which clearly it’s not possible to return to the womb, as it were?

We are in the early days of the development of the novel, it occurred to me: Fielding’s Tom Jones was published ten years earlier, and what a difference! True, Rasselas isn’t really a novel, and has a philosophical purpose whereas Fielding sets out to divert and entertain. I was struck, nevertheless, by how sophisticated Tom Jones was as a text, by comparison, in terms of form, structure and language, but above all, characterisation. Rasselas is didactic, a tale of ideas, and also part of prose fiction finding its feet, writers exploring the potential of a new form, but it’s not a book I gaze fondly at on the shelves of my library…

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