Art or Propaganda?
Dreamed 2008/2/7 by Wayan
for Philip Pullman, despite my dreams' dispute with him
I'm reading David Colbert's study of Philip Pullman, focusing on The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Surprised to learn that Lyra and Pantalaimon are just names that came to him--I assumed they had specific meanings in Latin and Greek. On the other hand, Asriel is (as I thought) meant to hint at the Hebrew angel of death; and Mrs Coulter's name means, (appropriately for one who severs children from their souls) a knife.
Pullman's roots include the Book of Common Prayer, Milton, the Gnostics, and David Lindsay (I thought so!), but he's closest of all to Blake, arguing that knowledge and earned, conscious grace is better than childish innocence; the moral sureties of CS Lewis and Tolkien are, for him, childish. Eve was right to take the apple. Heh. No wonder fundamentalists hate him. He states the humanist, atheist, scientific case in the deepest religious terms; sharpens and clarifies just how much these challenge authoritarian religion.
And yet... I loved that first bold conception, that justifies talking animals of a new and quite original kind, of a world where no one's utterly alone... yet the books dwindle somehow. How? Veering away from a wild, poetic, dreamlike Road Not Taken, expressing some secret wish never quite embodied in any book before... back onto the well-marked highway of Rebelling Against Churchy Pieties, of Adulthood Is Morally Complex, of Socially Responsible Maturity.
Sorry, I'm with Tolkien on this one. In his essay "On Fairy-Stories" he argues fantasy at its deepest is a jailbreak that articulates wishes, is creation--not metaphor, allegory or commentary on Reality: mere depiction.
Of course, I say that as one whose daily (or at least nightly) Reality violates Freud's and Pullman's. I experience literal magic--I have telepathic and predictive dreams, and even awake I sense auras (basically, Pullman's Dust is a sensory given for me). The Enlightenment world Pullman champions is a mere subset of mine. I do support its good works--decent plumbing and inoculations for all! And how seductive it is--that great, simple, unified, Newtonian model, a material world we live in, can improve, but eventually die in, with no need for gods, demons or souls--all those spooks that haunted us so long. It works for most observers in most circumstances, just as Newton's model does. Greatest good for the greatest number.
But out at the edge, Enlightenment breaks down. I can't endorse a model rejecting my actual experience. And when the hurly-burly's done, when the Last Battle's lost and won, Pullman's all about facing the Reality Principle--of a narrow Newtonian reality excluding me.
Dream 1: THE WHALEBACK
I'm dreaming in a sleep-lab on an upper floor of the arts building at SF State. We're studying a rare brain state discovered on an EEG (electroencephalogram) of a girl who dreams vividly. But... I'm watching her EEG trace in my own dream, while researchers record MY waveforms as I dream about HERS!
Her waveform looks like a whaleback ridge--a massive steady rise and swell of activity, fading just as slowly over a minute or more. It appears every 90 minutes or so, around REM peaks. From her morning reports, the ridge seems to reflect a transcendent experience that lifts her above her usual concerns, so she gets an overview and asks herself "What's my soul's goal in this life?"
As I observe her in MY dream, the ridge experience starts spilling over INTO my dreams! My sleep's been poor due to fever, but I do notice my weaker REM peaks do gradually synchronize with hers (I have a printout with all the times in red), and I do feel echoes of the whaleback experience.
I wake feeling I've neglected MY soul-goals--I need to try for the full whaleback.
I wake up in the sleep-lab. Two men, musicians not sleep-researchers, are arguing about show tunes in an old Hollywood musical. I admire their craft--rather forgettable tunes, but every spot where I sense the need for a certain effect, there it is--sturdy, if not brilliant. All contributes to the purpose of the song in the whole work--its point, or its mood-setting power guiding the audience toward a point, like seeking your center in the Wizard of Oz (the four questers each symbolize a Jungian function! Lion=body, Tin Man=heart, Scarecrow=mind, Dorothy=soul! A complete soul, in Toto, as they say), or the antiracist theme elevating South Pacific beyond the typical musical of its era. This musical has no showstopper, no "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"--but it moves, and keeps moving.
He says "Yeah, yeah, okay" but his tone is reluctant. Silence. At last he adds, "You admit this musical you admire has mediocre songs. You're enthusing about 'good enough in the service of a higher good'. Well, I get the logic of it, but I want great music. Period. Art that serves other purposes isn't art. It's propaganda!"
Now I'm in my college history class. Soon I'm bored out of my mind--as usual. I start sketching something sexy--my girlfriend Emily as a fur? A nude, very sexy fur.
My arm hides the sketch from our teacher, but my classmates on both sides can see. Not that I care! They're girls as bored as me--I've seen each one drawing Bad Girls with obvious lust. Twin babydyke cartoonists protect my flanks!
In the war on Socially Valued Art, I'm not alone.
No wonder my dream used Le Guin imagery to critique Pullman! Around the time I dreamed it, she was writing a long essay critiquing him among others--published the next year (2009) as "Cheek By Jowl: Animals in Children's Literature". She argues a core value of fantasy and science fiction is their embrace of the Other, taking non-human viewpoints seriously; in contrast with the stifling narcissism inherent in realist literature's Humanism.
In Part VII: Fables and Psychic Fragments, she tackles Pullman. Le Guin feels he slowly betrays his own conception of the daemons as essential parts of Lyra's people. They're visible, audible, tangible, can even fight each other for dominance, yet they don't eat, shit, piss, mate, or grow once they stabilize after childhood; in short they seem to be less like animal familiars than near-Christian souls (near because they vanish at death; as mortal as their human partners). Fake animals rather like (Pullman will hate this) Narnia's deity Aslan.
And these animal souls are disposable--whenever Pullman needs that to be convenient! Despite all the talk that they're essential, the bears, the witches, and even Lyra outside her normal spacetime don't need a daemon by their side.
That violates the core premise of Lyra's world, that losing your soul is unbearable. And in fantasy, where the constructed world is all we've got, violating your premises is fatal. If anything goes, nothing matters.
Pullman's steady abandonment of "Animal Familiars for All" wish-fullfilment (what a campaign slogan! 'A chicken in every brain'...) makes ideological sense, since he wants us to grow up and learn to live without claiming to have souls of any shape. Give up innocence/ignorance. Science is better. But "ideological consistency doth not a story make". On the levels of character and worldbuilding, he cheats us--postulates something very bold, shows us consequences... then slowly retreats from it all.
I think Le Guin's put her finger on why I feel the trilogy expands in scale yet dwindles emotionally, turning slowly into rant. Memorable rant, attaining some of the visionary power of Blake, Milton or David Lindsay, but still drifting away from a more subversive vision--a world in which all of you sense your animal soul, unlike our world where just a tiny minority of kooks and shamans like me do. Had Pullman followed out the full implications of his world-model--really an alternate personhood model, one that looks rather realistic to third-eyed me--we might have a quieter, less strident, but deeper work, critiquing both the modern world's main dogmas--religious conventionalism and Enlightenment materialism. Sigh! But that's not Pullman's wish. It's mine.
I flash back to my dream of cartooning to summon a furry spirit... and why not? The best way to change reality is to voice that secret wish that you just won't trade for the Reality Principle. Whatever straitjacket it's selling this week.
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