Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

My rating: *
Spoiler Alert

The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, Book 3) The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

My review

This book is well written and the story really hooks you in, but I really disliked the philosophy Pullman is pushing. This philosophy seems to be a kind of Nietzschean materialist version of gnosticism (phew!). His is a universe which allows only of one interpretation, a place where the event is nothing but the intervention of chaos and the void and must be negated so the status quo can be restored in the full glory of its disciplinary order. It is a universe where the human curiosity for knowledge leads to ruin and annihilation (although the author overtly claims the opposite) and where the fluidity of identity must be replaced by the supremacy of the rational and by fixed identity.

Just to break down those abstractions a bit. The ‘event’ is the opening up of windows to other worlds by scientists – Lord Asriel and the scientists in the Cittagazze. This leads to the beginning of the breakdown of the universe and the potential annihilation of consciousness. It is scientific curiosity about what is out there and other worlds that leads to this situation.

Views on identity centre around daemons (souls). Children have daemons which can change shape until they reach puberty. After that, they become fixed which Pullman indicates several times is a good thing and a sign of maturity and wisdom. This identity also appears to maintain the social order. Once a servant always a servant. As Lyra explains in The Amber Spyglass the daemons of servants are usually dogs, indicating that these are people who need to be led and ordered around. One is not a servant due to unjust social circumstances or questionable social hierarchies but because that is what one’s nature is and one must remain as ordained. Entire armies of Tartars have wolf daemons. If one is not happy with one’s daemon – too bad – you are stuck with it. So much for social justice or working on the self as a project.

Lyra, when she hits puberty, loses her intuitive ability to read the alethiometer and must then be formed by the disciplinary institution of the (boarding) school in order to develop rational techniques to read it. It is the Modernist idea that fantasy and intuition are the province of childhood and are properly replaced by adult ‘rationality’. C. Wright Mills provides a classic example of this kind of thinking in his 1959 work The Sociological Imagination.

Dust appears to be conscious matter which works in sync with humans – it is both attracted to humans and generated by humans. It relies on humans to aggregate into a conscious form. Angels are beings who can’t quite pull it off in terms of really existing because they have no real material body. They are half existences (even if they are powerful) and envy the body of humans.

A propos this angelic nature, Will is content to ask entities such as angels whether they are stronger or weaker than humans. When the first angel he meets, Balthamos, replies he is weaker than humans, Will bluntly tells him that he has to do what he orders him to do in that case. This theme of exploiting his position as the strongest emerges again and again. If Will thinks he can exercise power over somebody or something he doesn’t hesitate to do so. The Nietzschean hero indeed.

‘God’ or ‘the Authority’ is an evil being who only wants to dominate and control Man and is frightened of the power of the latter. What we have here is an old-fashioned modernist anthropomorphic view of the universe. Humans (and the equivalents thereof) are the centre and the raison d’être of all conscious being.

On another topic, the idea of a romantic interlude between two twelve year old children resulting in the salvation of the universe both present and future is both tacky and unconvincing. Why should ‘Dust’ (aka conscious matter particles) find such an event to be the stabilising point?

There is no room for multiple interpretations of elements within Pullman’s cosmology, which makes it a very closed and small universe. At the same time it is hard to pin down what is actually going on satisfactorily and it all seems very confused and self-contradictory at the edges. It would appear that both scientific and spiritual forms of experimental knowledge are dangerous to the well-being of the entire universe and that the best we can do is conform to a rigid disciplinary status quo which will preserve our nature and protect us from the danger of annihilation. There is nothing but a gaping void beyond or outside of this status quo. Even when you are dead you are recycled to guarantee the ongoing existence of this ghastly stasis.

In conclusion, one is left with nowhere to go at the end of Pullman’s trilogy but that would appear to be the author’s aim in any case.

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