Review of “The Golden Compass”

[by Andy Pollack]

On Christmas Day the New York Times carried yet another chilling tale of the dangerous impact of religion on our society. It quoted a juror who had held out for the acquittal of a Black man charged with shooting a white youth threatening his son on how he was pressured by Bible-thumping fellow jurors to vote for conviction. One juror said “this government was founded on the law of Moses,” and that the guilty verdict was “an act of God” and was reached “through prayer.” Jurors prayed out loud during deliberations. Such a story is not surprising in a country with a religious fanatic as President; in a country where Presidential candidates of all parties trip over themselves in their rush to pay tribute to their deities; and in which the head of science education in Texas is pushed out for supporting evolution.

In this context the opening of “The Golden Compass,” the first installment of the movies based on the antireligion “His Dark Materials,” (hereafter HDM), Philip Pullman’s trilogy for young adults, couldn’t be more welcome. HDM is a fantasy tale in which Lyra, an independent, adventurous girl in another universe, goes on travels to distant climes and other universes to discover the meaning of the mysterious phenomenon of “Dust,” and is aided by witches and armored bears, cowboys, scientists and “gyptians” (her world’s gypsies). These adventures occur in the context of attempts by the Church to maintain its authoritarian grip on all the people of Lyra’s world. To do so they must counter Lyra’s efforts. In these escapades Lyra is accompanied by her daemon, an animal which is something like a witches’ familiar, or a material representation of a person’s conscience or soul.

While the film, and the book it’s based on, don’t delve as deeply into Pullman’s antireligious themes as the second and third volumes, we can take heart from the fear it has struck into the hearts of such as the Catholic League’s William Donahue. He called for a boycott of the film and denounced the books as “atheism for kids,” worrying that parents who take their children to see the movie will buy the whole series as Christmas presents.

Before the film opened, the books had already sold 15 million copies and been translated into 40 languages. The film was number one in its opening week in the U.S. and in each of its 25 foreign markets. In the United Kingdom, where the film had its greatest success, HDM is second in popularity only to Harry Potter. When Pullman was interviewed on MSNBC, one of the questions he took from listeners was from a Virginia girl whose class of eight-year olds was reading the book.

In a CNN interview the film’s producer, Chris Weitz, denied that Pullman was antireligion, a line echoed by various liberal theologians and media pundits. Weitz added that “There was tremendous marketing pressure for an upbeat ending,” but claims that if he gets to film the rest of the trilogy, he can be “much less compromising. “

Pullman himself admitted the impact of the need to get big studio financing behind the film in order to guarantee enough revenue to even be able to get the riskier second and third installments made.

In several recent interviews Pullman has also said his main target wasn’t religion so much as religion misused for political power, adding that he also wanted to oppose totalitarianism in any form. “It doesn’t matter to me whether people believe in God or not,” but “whether people are cruel or whether they’re kind, whether they act for democracy or for tyranny, whether they believe in open-minded enquiry or in shutting the freedom of thought and expression.”

But the books themselves, and repeated statements by Pullman himself, make clear Pullman’s own, explicitly antireligious beliefs. And it’s clear from the books and from interviews that for Pullman, the authoritarianism of religion is intertwined with that in the spheres of the family, sexuality, class and culture. For liberals afraid to abandon God, Pullman attacks religion solely as metaphor for other evils. But in fact Pullman attacks religion as part of a multifaceted attack on repression in all its aspects.

“I’m not deluded: Christians are. There is no God… God is a character in fiction: one of the greatest and most complex villains of all – savage, petty, boastful and jealous, yet capable of moments of tenderness and extremes of arbitrary affection.” God, like Hamlet or Mr. Pickwick, is real only in the context of their stories: “you won’t find them in the phone book.”

Six years ago he said “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief,” and in 2003 said “I’ve been saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry [Potter] said. My books are about killing God.”

In the third volume a former nun describes Christianity as “a very powerful and convincing mistake.” Another character says “Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.”

Pullman frequently describes himself as a materialist, saying that without matter consciousness could not exist. He takes it the next step and claims that consciousness “is a normal and universal property of matter (this is known as panpsychism) , so that human beings, dogs, carrots, stones, and atoms are all conscious, though in different degrees. This is the line I take myself, in the company of poets such as Wordsworth and Blake.”

Yet Pullman will have no truck with talk of “spirit,” “spiritual,” or “spirituality. ” These words for him correspond to nothing real, and “the word ‘spiritual’, for me, has overtones that are entirely negative.”

In the face of such evidence of Pullman’s intentions and belief, it’s sad that liberals are unable to admit the obvious. It’s very difficult in this society to overcome the psychological and emotional crippling which prevents people not only from believing that they could survive without a deity, but that anyone else could either.

Thus freelance writer and children’s literature critic Jenny Sawyer wrote in the Christian Science Monitor that “it’s not religion Pullman takes aim at, but a society in which children are raised in a spiritual and intellectual torpor.” She claims his target is not even authoritarianism in general, but “authoritarian adulthood – and misguided notions about how best to help children grow up.” She claims God is just a metaphor: “Pullman’s God is not the God of religion, but the didactic, authoritarian voice of adulthood.”

Sawyer and other liberals try to strip away the debunking of religion from Pullman’s denunciation of all kinds of authoritarianism, whereas in fact Pullman sees them correctly as intertwined.

Pullman also sees an innate ability of people to act virtuously without religion. On the one hand, he cites the “basic empathy we feel for a rabbit caught in a trap, a bird trying to get out through a closed window, a polar bear drowning in a world where the ice is melting… That’s not due to religion: it’s due to the fact that we’re alive and conscious and able to imagine another’s suffering.” On the other hand – and this is the central theme of the books – he insists on our ability to learn from experience, without the aid of “priests or Popes or imams or rabbis.”

The film does retain reference from the books to the Church’s horrific experiments on children in its effort to suppress the results of “original sin.” And even though the Church is referred to only as the Magisterium, that term is in the real world the name of the teaching authority of the Vatican, led by the pope. (And in any case the costumes of the Magisterium figures are clearly intended to be other-universe versions of clerical garb.)

One critic calls HDM “the first fantasy series founded upon the ideals of the Enlightenment rather than upon tribal and mythic yearnings for kings, gods, and supermen. Pullman’s heroes are explorers, cowboys, and physicists.” But they are also witches, and of course Lyra herself. In this regard Pullman has magically used fantasy to argue for materialism.

HDM was in part inspired by John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” especially by William Blake’s claim that “Milton was of the devil’s party and didn’t know it.” In Pullman’s words, “All of the imaginative sympathy of the poem is with Satan rather than with God.”

Pullman was also inspired in a negative sense by C.S. Lewis’s pro-Christian “Chronicles of Narnia,” the first volume of which appeared in film version two years ago, also during the holiday season (the second installment is due out next May).

Pullman considers the Chronicles “morally loathsome,” condemning their misogyny, racism, their “sado-masochistic relish for violence,” and “the sheer dishonesty of his narrative method.” The Chronicles are “propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology. Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people.”

He points with horror to the fact that one character is denied entry to paradise because of her happy acquiescence to her sexual coming of age (referred to delicately as her interest in “nylons and lipstick and invitations”) . Lewis “didn’t like women in general, or sexuality at all. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up.”

This last criticism gets to the starkest contrast with Pullman’s own trilogy, which is one long tribute to growing up, to sexual awakening, to the triumph of experience over innocence (a coupling borrowed from Blake).

In HDM the church condemns growing up, particularly sexual awakening. “That’s what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling,” says a character in the third volume.

Pullman inverts the story of the Fall of Man, arguing for the virtues of knowledge. One could say Lyra and the other heroes of the books serve as a collective Prometheus, helping to preserve and expand humanity’s access to self-awareness and thus their ability to build what Pullman calls “the Republic of Heaven” – i.e., a good and aware life now rather than in a nonexistent hereafter.

In contrast to Lewis, Pullman doesn’t bemoan the loss of innocence or vainly seek its recapture, but rather celebrates the harder but truer acquisition of knowledge.
As he wrote in an introduction to a recent edition of “Paradise Lost,” his story is “an account of the necessity of growing up, and a refusal to lament the loss of innocence.”

This account unfolds through the adventures encountered and challenges mastered by the main character, Lyra, a stubborn, independent 12-year old, who stands up for her friends and is loyal to her allies. She is equally determined to stand up to adults seeking to twist and constrain her, yet learns (not always without difficulty) from adults seeking to encourage her independent development. She is courageous, but not in a mindless way, rather by learning to master her fears and channel her emotions.

It may seem odd that a self-described materialist would rely on fantasy to get his message across. But Pullman has faith in people’s ability to learn from metaphor rather than be constrained and enchained by them. This is coupled with an insistence that we learn from each other by enrolling in “the great school of morals,” a school whose textbooks are the stories we tell each other on the stage, in print, and, when permitted, even in the classroom.

“Look at children`s faces as you tell them a story, or as they sit in the theatre. Look at the rapt flushed expression on the face of a child involved, lost, in a well-loved book. That’s the look of someone entering the school of morals” – a school in which we learn “gratitude, concurrence, and common kindness.” Success in this school can lead to an adulthood in which we can “act as if we were celebrating the marriage of responsibility and delight.” While worried that humanity could lose its struggle for wisdom and survival, his words can inspire us with the beauty and wonder of a lifelong pursuit of those goals.
And such stories themselves must evolve as humanity does. “From time to time it needs re-stating to take account of the currents that have flowed through cultural life, through public discourse, since it was last stated.” For instance, he is careful to note that the “great school of morals” is also one in which one class has tried to teach “manners” to subordinate classes and people of different cultures.

Pullman is concerned not only about the evils of openly authoritarian governments, but just as much by those of his own U.K. and of the U.S., for instance the encouragement of creationism, and the lies told to ignore the dangers of climate change or to justify aggressive wars,

Pullman also denounces the authoritarianism of everyday bourgeois life: its relentless busyness, the impossibility of finding silence and time to reflect, the commercial pressures… When everything has a logo attached to it, when nothing can take place without commercial sponsorship, when schools and hospitals have to act as if their guiding principle were market forces rather than human need, what price the school of morals? What it would fetch in the market, and not a penny more.”

Our happiness that Pullman’s books are being filmed is increased by our anticipation for his promised next book: A long novel which will delve deeper into the nature of Dust in the course of exploring his thoughts on the character of Jesus.

We look forward to being able to say to this book what one child said happily after viewing a theatrical production of the books in London: “It made me suspend belief.”

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