Friday, November 23, 2007

Philip Pullman on C. S. Lewis

Hugh Chandler, my former dissertation advisor at the University of Illinois at Urbana, sent me this interview with Philip Pullman concerning his "loathing" for C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. David Downing, my fellow IVP C. S. Lewis author, wrote the following "roaring" response:

Pullman obviously brings a lot of anti-Christian baggage to his reading ofLewis; I think he would have "loathed" the Chronicles, regardless of the characters or incidents he found there. Pullman is being willfully obtuse when he says THE LAST BATTLE is about Lewis killing off his main characters. The book explains in one sentence what happened to the children on Earth; it spends the last third of the narrative showing their lives in the eternal morning of the new Narnia, with Aslan and his faithful followers from all generations. THE LAST BATTLE is not about sad endings in this world (tho Lewis knew all about that from childhood), but about wonderful beginnings elsewhere. For a creative writer, Pullman shows are markably stunted imagination in his inability (unwillingness?) to envision the worldview of faith. In any case, I think the less said the better. Others have berated the Chronicles, getting more attention than they deserved with muddled & befuddled psycho-babble. But their effect on the popularity or critical reputation of the Chronicles have been no more than that of gnats trying to bring down a lion. Isay, "Let the heathen rage," and pay the Pullmans of the world no mind . . .

David C. Downing

Yeah, and I'll bet Pullman thinks C. S. Lewis went to his room after his exchange with Elizabeth Anscombe and spent three days in a fetal position planning the Chronicles of Narnia.

P. S. This is a redated post, which I have updated because The Golden Compass is in theaters.


Dave S said...

Pullman's reaction is one of a cynic. He cannot imagine anyone living in a happy world, so he has to destroy it.

Jason Pratt said...

Goodness, Vic... after being Ed-spammed (death by a thousand drivels), I can't say I would have had the fortitude (much less the patience) to go read Pullman's interview. I'm impressed. {g!}

I'll say this for Pullman: his young adult fantasy trilogy is awfully ambitious. It takes a certain amount of real talent (and moxie) to design and write a three book plot of what amounts to an exposition and development of Blake's thesis: that God is the Great Enemy and Satan the real hero of Milton's _Paradise Lost_.

Now someone who does that, to whatever extent he takes the philosophy of his own work seriously--what opinion _would_ he likely have of Lewis' work?

I'm thinking it isn't only cynical reaction. That sort of thing doesn't account for the scope of what he's actually accomplished (or at least attempted--taking advantage of a lot of people of good will in the process... {sigh})

Dave S said...

Cynicism may not be the only motivation, but it can take one a very long way. Witness Voltaire, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Twain, Wilde, and Mencken, all cynics to a lesser or greater extent whose cynicism fueled and shaped their writing.

Jason Pratt said...

I think his work is a lot more focused than cynicism. (Or perhaps it would be better to say that his cynicism is reserved for a rather narrow slice of topic: specifically religious truth claims and particularly the truth claims of the religion he's most familiar with.)

The people who most appreciate his _Dark Materials_ trilogy, don't think he's being cynical at all. They think he's offering hope against something that offers no hope--against two hopeless things, really, since the essentially atheistic reality of his novels offers no hope in itself. Hope comes from the contributions of individuals who can rise above the ultimate nature of their Nature, to create and define truths. The other hopelessness comes from people who insist on inflicting their own invented truths on other people.

It may be philosophically incoherent (although neither is he altogether wrong in several respects, which is why his work has as much strength as it does). But it appeals to a lot of people who see authority (and especially Authority) as being inherently oppressive and untrustworthy (thus ditto for people who make authority claims, especially about Authority); and who want to feel sanctioned in whatever creativity they feel like doing.

It's written for people who want to be authors while ultimately disavowing Author-ity. {sigh}

And, given the premises, there's something to that. Heck, even given _we're_ right, there are some real truths in that: no derivative creature has the right to make claims of being the final Authority.

Pullman affirms this truth (quite absolutely), while also saying there is no higher authority than the derivative creatures (what they're being derived from not being an Authority at all); and so, since we derivatives creatures are all ontologically equal, we can and should be only final authority over ourselves.

That isn't cynicism, per se. It's mythopoeic counter-evangelism. Given that this truth-claim about the ultimate subjectivity of truth claims, including such things as moral truth claims, is true; then here (in mythopoeic illustration) is how we truly ought and ought not live, especially in moral relation to each other.

Like I said, it isn't coherent. But it can be a dark enchantment, even (especially) on people of good will who don't know what to believe, and even are humble enough not to want to offend others by claiming they know final truths (which claim, by its nature, must be exclusive in some way). They can go from innocently (and very rightly) claiming that people are truly hurting and truly need to be helped; to admiring how truths are ultimately only kaledoscopic perceptions of our own.

(And then be truly confused when someone says he has to reject the second part, _because_ he takes seriously the truth claims made by his beloved in the first part. {sad s} True love, for sake of the beloved herself, cannot agree that the truth claims of his beloved can only be ultimately perceptual illusions. He truly believes her when she says that people are truly hurting and so truly ought to be helped. The more he actively and devotedly loves _her_, the more he must reject Pullman's metaphysics.)

Dave S said...

Sorry, but that still sounds like cynicism. A hopeless irrational worldview is about as cynical as you can get.

Jason Pratt said...

{shrug} I guess I think of cynicism as being primarily sardonic in tone. Pullman's story doesn't strike me as sardonic.

A bit more crudely: the cynics I meet make it a principle not to give a crap about anything, and exercise this principle as a kind of mental sport. I think Pullman really does give a crap. Moorcock strikes me as a cynic. Pullman doesn't, yet.

Pullman is openly hostile; and I think he fudges in order to protect his own position and/or to attack his opposition; and I think his position is ultimately incoherent (which is why he has to fudge it.)

But he also strikes me as honestly trying to find and provide some semblance of hope within the sort of reality he believes to be true, despite its characteristics. And I think he honestly sees the Church as being a loathsome enemy that _ought_ to be opposed, because (as far as he believes) it tells lies in order to attain power over people.

Pullman is a crusader; in the most negative sense of that word (no argument from me there). And he might well become a cynic someday. The kind of enchantment he himself is suffering from, can easily lead to that. But I wouldn't say he's a cynic yet.

(Just trying to be as fair as possible to the opposition. {s})

Anonymous said...

Dave- did you even read the interview? From what you said, "He cannot imagine anyone living in a happy world, so he has to destroy it.", it appears not. First of all, Pullman's believe as he states it is that he invisions a world of responsibility, and the purpose of this responsibility is to improve the world. I don't know how you get from wanting to improve the world for everyone to trying to destroy everything.

Anonymous said...

Are you guys serious? Pullman is a humanist, not a cynic. His books are underscored by compassion and love. Maybe he exaggerates a little on Narnia, but the books do present a shallow and childish view of Christianity. Someone from another culture would not learn one thing about Christian values from these books. Doesn't the monarchist, anti-democratic themes disturb anyone?

Anonymous said...

So sayeth two people (or possibly the same one) who agree with Pullman's beliefs, and dislike Lewis's. Pullman is a purveyor of faith just as Lewis was before him. He just takes the opposite stance. And instead of making a case based on the merits of atheism, he seeks to destroy theism (specifically Christianity) by expounding on its flaws.

Just my two cents.

Unknown said...

I once heard a talk in which the speaker described Pullmann as a stoic because of the mood at the end in the Oxford Botanical Gardens (which I'd better not discuss further for the sake of anyone who hasn't read the books and doesn't want the ending spoiled).

I'm just waiting for the "self-organising dust" theory of consciousness to catch on. Prima facie it doesn't sound any less far-fetched than most of what comes out of the materialist camp.

Anonymous said...

pullman comes off as a pedophile. what a sad, sad man. do something better with your life than sit around daydreaming about little boys and girls all day, and writing up mythical stories about them destroying Christianity or whatever. the guy is apparently too obsessed with children and probably can't stop thinking about touching them.

anybody who reads this mythical garbage, much less the clever little pedophiles that write fantasy/mythical crap, needs to come out of the basement and go outside for once. have you ever considered competitive sports???? probably not because you're too much of a fruitcake to play football or something.

anybody who is seriously entertained by fantasy/mythical books is a social moron and has about 6 friends who are in the same book club and they discuss mythical creatures and play magic the gathering. there's more to life than that people!!! buy a basketball and a goal from walmart and spend some time outside, in a light colored shirt and shorts (NOT black gothic crap), and dribble around the driveway a little bit, maybe take some shots.

you people are the social rejects of the world.

Anonymous said...

umm...yeah C.S. lewis is a genius!!! i love his work...especially the way it is bibical. I have to say ...i will forever shun philip pullman and his golden compass BS. im sorry but i just think it is horrible...i heard that they are gonna diss christians...and i also heard that they name their stuffed animals..."deamons" or w/e...that is TERRIBLE!!! i spit upon philip pullman's work. it is disgusting...

Anonymous said...

To Trent - What a horrible series of things to say. I didn't realise that following Christ (or playing sport) gave carte blanche to insult others without ANY proof, literary, physical or otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Books are about ideas, and some ideas are better than others. As someone of faith I was thrilled to see what appeared to be an attempt to connect physics to faith, and materialism to spirituality. Pullman's work touches upon some elements of belief held by Ayn Rand and Carl Sagan. Both had no time for faith in God but espoused various virtues associated with seeking truth. There is a fundamental question here: If life is meaningless, then what matters beyond the self and pleasure? The reasonable answer has to be "nothing." This is the problem I had with the motivation for Lord Asriel and the other, dour would-be godkillers (lower case 'g' on my part). Why should Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter work so hard for such a poor outcome? The answer "truth" just seems kind of empty when it disappears with death. Some have described Pullman's work as Tolkien with "characters," (an attempt to say that Tolkien's world was populated by ciphers) but the characters of Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are just poorly drawn. Honestly, what man among us, if he were Lord Asriel and had Lord Asriel's beliefs would not be shagging Mrs. Coulter, Ruta, and Serafina Pekkala?

Anonymous said...

The film was crap too.
They left out that kid's death at the end cause they thought 'Nobody wants to see the cute little moron sidekick die'
Heck, I even saw The Golden Compass book in my [Catholic] high school libary.Seriously, with the things against the church in that cursed book...

Anonymous said...

I am a Christian, but I took it upon myself to read The Golden Compass series. As far as the story line goes, I really liked it. It captured me immediately. People get so caught up in the fact that it is anti biblical, but its fantasy. Not a portrayal of what his personal religion is. I'm by no means promoting him, but remember, J.K.R. didn't get the Christian community's royal blessing either with her Harry Potter books. And those books are amazing.