Posts Tagged ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’

Karen Armstrong: Sacred Nature

July 23, 2022

     In this latest book Karen Armstrong develops her idea that monotheism led people to view nature and their relationships with nature in a different way from other peoples; they came to see ‘God’ as separate from the world rather than an integral part of it. For her, then, the early modern, increasingly scientific and rationalistic world-view, particularly in the West, let to the idea of nature as a resource for human use and exploitation, rather than humans striving to live in harmony with creation which included ‘God’. God thus became something completely separate from the world, and other, the original holiness or sacredness of the world and nature was sidelined, and we have ended up in the current situation where the planet is rapidly being destroyed, in the sense of becoming unliveable for our species, at least.

Armstrong is building on and developing ideas that she has already expounded in recent books; through her knowledge and understanding of religion and history, she argues for a radically different relationship between human beings and the world we inhabit, which would involve, for us in the developed world at least, much sacrifice of what we currently have and enjoy, at the expense of the planet.

It was interesting to learn that apparently, the Chinese have no creation story in their myth or tradition. Her message develops from both Chinese and Indian philosophy, and to a lesser extent from Islam, and is about a world-picture that the West and Christianity has left behind at its cost. She extracts many important, if not vital, lessons from the wisdom of past ages, and yet sadly, she ultimately comes across in this book as disconnected from the chaos that is the contemporary world: I cannot see how, in practical terms, enough of us can begin to bridge the gap she describes, to make the transition she hopes for, and with which many thinking people will surely agree.

She emphasises the importance of quiet and solitude, two things which the modern consumerist world obviously despises and does its best to eliminate from our consciousness. Quiet people, who enjoy solitude, are not ideal consumers; noise, groups, gregariousness facilitate spending money and generate profits…

I enjoyed this book, and it slowed me down and made me think and reflect a good deal. I was particularly gripped by her thoughtful and innovative reading of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And, though I wish things might turn out differently, I do not see her book changing the world.

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage

October 19, 2017

So, horrid weather allowed me to feel far less guilty about taking a sofa day and reading this book – which I’ve been waiting for, for ages – cover to cover. It was brilliant. Obviously this first read was plot-driven, so I’ll be coming back to it for a re-read pretty soon. Meanwhile, I’ll try not to drop too many spoilers in what follows, but I don’t think I’m ruining anything by saying that this volume is set ten years before the events of His Dark Materials, and tells us how Lyra ends up in Jordan College, and the second volume – whenever that appears, although apparently Pullman has finished writing it – will take us ten years beyond the ending of the original trilogy. So, in some ways these two novels may perhaps be seen as ‘add-ons’ but they are full stories in their own right…

We are into well-crafted plot fairly rapidly, and I was amazed to realise how quickly and easily I slipped back into the parallel universe that is the one of the original trilogy: it seems quite ‘normal’, if that makes sense. I’ve always liked the way that Pullman ‘makes it strange’ in a Brechtian sense so that we notice the differences sufficiently, not to be oblivious to them, and yet we are not in so strange a world that we cannot easily connect it with our own. Although the plot is instantly gripping, I was aware that Pullman is piggy-backing his new story onto our memories of what went before (strictly, after, I suppose…). Characters re-appear, different because younger, and in different roles and this, of course, fired up my desire to go back again to HDM. And, most interesting of all, we are back with real philosophical questions, about the nature of consciousness itself, and how it developed in humans, and how far it extends down the chain of being and matter: we are back with Dust, and original sin, and innocence and experience. Pullman is an ace story-teller on one level, and on another, he really makes his readers work: if you only get an easy read out of this, you have missed so much.

As with HDM, there is the shock for adults of realising that children can sometimes know and understand more than we do, precisely because of their innocence. And Pullman does not pass up an opportunity to emphasise the liberating power of reading and libraries to children either, a note which always resonates with this particular reader.

I found myself thinking at one point, ‘well, it’s just more of the same old formula’ and then told myself that that was exactly what I wanted: more of that world, those people, those questions… Pullman has said that this novel is darker than the trilogy, and it is – there is more evil, and yet I was also struck by a strong sense of a network of good people with good intentions, doing their best in a difficult world, a feeling that I think is reinforced by the links with characters we met in different situations previously; it’s also a valuable message for us in our own benighted real world: there are a lot of people striving to do good, succeeding, and making real, small differences.

The second half of the book is set against the backdrop of a calamitous flood affecting all of southern Brytain, perhaps an acknowledgement of climate change most obviously, but one which reminded me very strongly, in terms of Pullman’s descriptive powers, of some of the more hallucinatory sections of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I shall have to look more closely into this one.

In short, an excellent read which gave me a very happy and satisfying sofa day, and briefly sated my desire for more of the world of His Dark Materials. I hope I haven’t spoiled it for you: get on and enjoy it yourself!

%d bloggers like this: