19 December 2007

His Dark Materials

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.
- Oscar Wilde

Philip Pullman once remarked that he was surprised that the Christian right had taken so little notice of his trilogy. That seems to have changed with the release of the cinematic version of the first volume, and recently I've been reading various reviews and interviews that I've found around the internet. And a better illustration of Wilde's dictum I can't imagine.

Pretty much the only thing that's certain is that Pullman regards himself as an atheist, and considers his novel as an attack on organised religion, and Christianity in particular. Anything more than that is unclear. While some avowed Christians believe that Pullman is teaching children to kill God, and that His Dark Materials is evil, others—most notably the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England, Dr Rowan Williams—think that the novel(s) should be read by everyone. I've even heard it called 'a Christian classic', with some believing that, while Pullman thinks he is attacking Christianity, he is inadvertently upholding its principles. Many materialists and atheists have embraced the work as being 'anti-Narnia'; yet others—myself included—have been mildly confused as to why everyone thinks the novel is so materialist: it rather seems dualist, since everyone in Lyra's world has a dæmon, effectively an embodiment of the soul. Pullman's response: you don't have to be an emergent materialist to be a materialist.

Maybe you do, maybe you don't. But while some have called for a boycott of the film, others have criticised it for pulling too many punches—for not bashing God enough (for example, the tyrannical Magisterium is never referred to as 'the Church', as it is in the novel).

There are altogether too many critics, too many bandwagons, too many agendas: blissful ignorance is not an option, then, for anyone with a modicum of intelligence. Less antagonistically, I mean to say that the books are causing such controversy that you owe it to yourself to ignore everything you've heard, read them, and find out what the fuss is about. Just remember that, as Wilde said, art mirrors the spectator, not reality.

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