Monday, December 3, 2007
I read The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife as well. I would have read The Amber Spyglass, but some kid filched my copy. The Golden Compass has now been made into a move coming out this week staring Nicole Kidman, and it is quite justly in my view drawing the ire of various Catholic organizations.
The linked to analysis in the previous sentence does a better job than I will, but any thoughtful person has to recognize that the book is an attempt to malign religion in general, and Christianity and Catholicism in particular. There really isn't any way you can tell a story which involves the Church (called the "Magisterium" in the book, which is the Catholic canon legal term for the teaching authority of the Church, and for the doctrinal content of what is taught) kidnapping children, taking them to a sinister medical facility/concentration camp in the arctic, and performing bizarre and mutilating experiments on them, and not have it be anti-Catholic. But it is not as if this is any big secret, either. Pullman has averred that his His Dark Materials trilogy is about "killing God," who turns out to be an old senile man much in need of offing.
Now such reliable organs as The L.A. Times are coming out to say it is just more of the same old Catholic intolerance and bigotry that is protesting against the depiction of the Church as a bunch of crazed Nazis. Pullman has helpfully elevated the debate by calling offended Catholics "nitwits."
One might complain that had an author written a book about an alternative universe in which thinly disguised Jews tortured children, and, say, manipulated the world through their control of finance, the MSM would find more to protest about. But in today's climate, especially in the UK, one wonders whether even that would do more than get a few rabbis exercised and earn some positive reviews from the BBC. (Catholics used to complain that anti-Catholicism was the Antisemitism of the intellectuals, but this was before the intellectuals went back to antisemitism.)
Pullman's trilogy is a work of considerable literary merit, which does not keep it from being pretty poisonous stuff. Madame Bovary is a really great novel but I suspect that to write it Flaubert had to have been a really twisted guy. The literary organs are falling all over themselves to heap praise upon Pullman's books, of course, having been nauseated by the success of the Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and the Harry Potter series, all of the latter being, in one way or another, powerful teachers of essential bits of the Judeo-Christian world view and virtues, especially for kids. All of these books I am happy to see my kids reading, and they have all (except 4 year old Mark) read all of them. Pullman, naturally, hates Narnia, and is probably not fond of the other books either. He appears to have set out to write the anti-Narnia, and to be fair, has done a pretty good job. Well, if there weren't a battle of good and evil in the real world, LOTR and the rest wouldn't be so entertaining, would they?
The main point of this post, however, is to point out an irony. The villains in the Golden Compass and sequels are the Catholic-Nazis -- a fair characterization of the book's point, since anytime you have villains running concentration camps with medical experiments, that is psychic charge you are invoking. But in fact, if you want to experience the flavor that contemporary fascism would have when translated into first rate children's literature, you cannot, in my view, do better than Pullman's series.
To be fair, I am not saying Pullman is some sort of neo-Nazi. I think his invocation of fascist themes and memes is probably unconscious. It is just that similar jobs tend to call forth similar tools. The European fascists generally and the Nazis in particular very much wanted to cut off the influence and ultimately destroy the Judeo-Christian God and the Church in particular. They had political reasons for wanting this, but also ideological and (weirdly) religious reasons. Not all of the Nazis were devotes of the occult, but many of them were, and the ones who were not very much understood the importance and power of building a fascist mythos which could motivate and inspire people. To put together their ideology, the Nazis pulled out of the great cesspool of European ideas a lot of nasty things that would have been much better left alone, but among them was the idea that Christianity, which they saw as nothing more than a kind of Judaism, severed people from their inner Nature spirit, their pagan, let's run through the woods naked sort of thing. When Pullman has the Church taking children to camps to sever them from their daemons -- their animal- embodied-soul-mates that every whole person in his alternative universe has -- he is just parroting in kid lit form the old canard you could have picked up in a hundred disreputable places in Bavaria or Vienna in the 1930's.
Another interesting parallel between Pullman's imaginative vision and that of those you might call the "esoteric fascists" is the blending of the occult and science. For those of you who don't want to read books on this stuff, think Hellboy. If you do want to read books, read anything by the very valuable Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. In Harry Potter, the magic is at worst morally neutral, often comic stuff. In LOTR, there is good and bad magic, but the good guys are good for the right reasons. Narnia, of course, is merely Christianity. Pullman's picture is a lot creepier. It is much more like the occult science one comes across reading about the 20th century fascists, with their fascination for both high technology, advanced physics and occult powers. Call me old fashioned, but mixing together weird physics and the occult just creeps me out. It makes me think of the "perverted science" that Churchill was right to worry about. I concede this is a subjective impression.
More obviously, all of this, "eschew Christianity, children, and get in touch with your inner bear! It is powerful, and not the same sex as you are!" is pure New Age rubbish, which in turns owes a lot to the neo-paganism our jackbooted friends did so much to popularize and, one would have hoped, though vainly, discredit. Thus here is my larger point. The anti-modern, anti-religious, and anti-American fervor coming out of Europe these days, very much including the UK (and some culturally advanced spots in the US), is not what a lot of people seem to think it is. The Pullman books I view as rather typical. I think the standard view is to see anti-Judeo-Christianity as an aggressive secularism, that just doesn't want religion shoved down throats of good little atheist children who just want to learn evolution and get into a good university and go on to work in a big corporation someday. If only it were so. People have this Whiggish idea that first there was barbarian darkness, then Christianity, which was OK in its ways for civilizing things somewhat, but now it is time to move onward and upward already to a new, cleaner, more hygienic and more rational world, where bad old superstitions are respectfully laid to rest.
If only history were so orderly and kind. Unfortunately, the daemons won't stay in their cesspool. People, or Europeans anyway, keep wanting to shed their clothes and run through the trees. St. Boniface chopped down Thor's oak tree, but there seem to have been acorns everywhere. The thought here is like Chesterton's, that when people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything. But "anything" seems to be what sprouts up from what has been laid down, decade after century, on the smelly, and actively decaying floor of bad old Europe. I mean really, if you have a weakness for this sort of thing, why not just take the little guys camping, and lose the neo-pagan mythos brainwashing? Just a suggestion. Nothing like camping to sell you on the virtues of modernity.
No, I am not saying that if your kids go to see the lovely Ms. Kidman (definitely a draw in my case) in the Golden Compass, they will come home to start doing weird science experiments in your basement and start saying that the Christian god should be killed. Kids are smarter than that, for one thing. Most of them. On the other hand, you do not have to be the crazed, rosary clutching Catholic fanatic of Hollywood's paranoid imagination to think there is something, in fact several things, pretty darn creepy not far below the surface of Mr. Pullman's oeuvre. My hope is that the movie will bomb, and Hollywood will have to go back to less alluring efforts to corrupt the young.