Posted tagged ‘lucretius’

Sunday blogging: On the Nature of Things — Philip Pullman edition

April 6, 2008

So I’m late to the Pullman party. I only picked up The Golden Compass after the publicity surrounding the movie — which makes me a full ten years tardy, in fact.

But read that book I did, and then, following a course plenty of folks have travelled before me, devoured the next two books in the trilogy as fast as I could.

The best thing about the book is that Pullman’s argument about the horror of dogma self-perpetuating by force runs through just about every plot event, but almost always does not displace the glories of the work: its realization of a marvelously realized alternate world and a human story told through the lives and actions of recognizable individuals.

There is a polemic reading of the trilogy, that is, but the characters are human, not types. (Mostly human, of course. Iorek is one of the most astoundingly complete characters I’ve found in fiction for a long time, to name one among many.) Pullman’s argument against revealed religion works, in fact, because it plays on the emotions brought into play only when you care about the individual lives and deaths he has made so imaginatively real.

But a bit of pop criticism of a book that I imagine most readers of this blog found long before I did is not why this post comes into existence. Instead, I want here to bring to the surface the root of perhaps the most powerful and beautiful passage in the entire trilogy — the moment (spoiler alert) in Book Three, The Amber Spyglass when Lyra tells the multitudes of the dead what will happen if they follow her and Will back up to the world of the living.

This entire episode is infused with classical sources; the tale of living men or women descending to the underworld to seek insight or to beg favors of the dead is one that originates deep in our past, and recurs again and again in the great literary investigations of human experience. Think of Hercules seeking Persephone, or Oddyseus in pursuit of knowledge…and then Dante, accompanied by Virgil examining the taxonomy of sin and human vanity in the greatest of all such stories (IMHO, of course).

Pullman’s version speaks to that tradition, locating the center of its terror in the direct confrontation between his heroes and their own deaths.

But then, in a brief set-piece, Pullman makes the single most direct and powerful claim of the whole work for his secular vision of transcendence in death. It is the necessary affirmative statement to balance his negative argument about the anti-human qualities of revealed religions. Lyra and Will have offered to lead the dead out of the grim, hellish experience of sense-less eternity. The dead ask what will happen, and Lyra tells them this:

She took out the golden instrument. The answer came at once. She put it away and stood up.

“This is what’ll happen,” she said, “and it’s true, perfectly true. When you go out of here, all the aprticles that make you up will loosen and float apaqrt, just like your daemons did. If you’ve seen people dying, you know what that look like. But your daemons en’t just nothing now; they’re part of everything. All the atoms taht were them, they’ve gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They’ll never vanish. theyre just part of everything. And that’s exactly what’ll happen to you, I swear to you. I promise on my honor. You’ll drift apart, it’s true. But you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.”

And then there is this, as glossed by me in an earlier book of my own:

“For that which once came from earth to earth returns back again…Nor does death so destroy as to annihilate the bodies of matter, but it disperses their combination abroad, and then conjoins others with others…” But though atoms traipse through an eternal dance, coming together and falling apart, the human soul did not. Lucretius wrote, “Even if time shall gather together our matter after death and bring it back again as it is now placed, and if once more the light of life shall be given to us, yet it would not matter to us that even this had been done, when the recollection of ourselves has once been broken asunder, and to us now, no memory, no anguish remains from those who we were before.” Therefore, Lucretius concluded: “We may be sure that there is nothing to be feared after death”–for both sensation and memory are lost forever. Life is lived once, now, and that is all.

Lucretius wrote that in what I think is the greatest poem of science, Of The Nature of Things, written before 50 BCE (i.e. in the last decades of the Roman Republic).

Thus one of the foundational ideas of humanism:

This world matters; this time in which I write and you read is all in all. Our atoms may be eternal (though modern physics would say protons, whose claim on eternity has a current lower bound of 10 to the thirty fifth years) but our consciousness is not.

This is exactly the argument that runs all the way through Pullman’s trilogy. One chance means one chance to get it right. (Contrast this with the morally repugnant claim that commitment to a revealed religion is an essential precondition for leading a moral life. Scroll down to Sharon Soon’s quotes if you have a strong stomach.)

Back to Pullman. This moment comes and goes quickly in the rush of action at the end of the trilogy. After all, Pullman is writing a inversion of the battle for command of heaven and earth that typically ends with the triumph of God and the banishment of the dissident angels. There’s quite a campaign to manage, and the detour to the underworld is here, as in most epics, a subplot, a moment to pause the action, and perhaps (as here) to stand on the soap box for a while.

But this passage contains more than a skeptics credo. Instead, it is essential, I think, to the idea that Pullman wants to leave at and after his long work’s end.

As the trilogy closes, it seems, rather oddly given all the tumult of the last thousand pages or so, that everything returns to normal.Lyra in her world finds that the Church is still there, powerfully contending for allegiance and belief. It is, we are told, somewhat changed, a little less inclined towards the total intellectual dictatorship that threatened at the beginning of the book. The warring factions within and outside the church remain. Life continues.

Lucretius lived more than two millenia ago. It remains something of a mystery how his great poem survived most of those years, given the hostility of this world’s Church to his uncompromised materialism, his denial of the immortality of the individual soul.

This is an old argument, that is, one which, despite the advance of the most successful materialist program of discovery in history — the scientific revolution which began to take on its modern form just a few centuries ago.

There are communities within the science blogosphere that rage against this fact of life, this eternal return of the same battles. (See, e.g., almost any comment thread at Pharyngula.)

I’m not saying they shouldn’t. But I am saying that Pullman got it.

He explicitly presented the titanic struggle of His Dark Materials as but one campaign in a more or less endless war — not so much one between reason and folly (h/t Erasmus) as between the claims of this world vs. those of a notional next. His use of the language, imagery, even the elegance of Lucretius reinforces the point. The Greeks fought about this (as did the Jews, in an interesting way to be blogged another time.) The Romans did. Christian believers have, on both sides of the trenches. We do too. It’s better — more relaxing, certainly, and probably more conducive to tactical clarity — to take the long view. Or so, at least, I read Philip Pullman.

Image:  Luca Signorelli, “The Damned,” 1499-1505. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.