A few months ago, someone in some GeekFamily chat thread said, “Hey, where are the fantasy-slash-YA-book geeks at? Philip Pullman has a new series coming out in October, maybe one of you should write about it!” And in the course of reading those sentences, my face went, “Hey, that’s me, I’m totally a… oh HIM.”
I am not sure how my intense one-sided clash with Philip Pullman began. I read The Golden Compass seventeen years ago and thought it was brilliant. The Subtle Knife, eh, not so much. The Amber Spyglass was a breakneck volley of, “That was beautifully done there,” and, “HOW CAN YOU BE SO WRONG?!” But it wasn’t the books themselves, really. It was his interviews that, time and again, inevitably made me want to punch him. (Figuratively.)
Now, don’t get me wrong. Philip Pullman is known to be an extremely outspoken atheist. I am a poorly-practicing-and-fairly-heretical-but-ultimately-faithful Roman Catholic. But this isn’t the source of my beef with him. Well, it is, but it’s a little more complicated than what you’re thinking.
I mean, lots of my favorite writers were and/or are atheists. Terry Pratchett was, but his work is full of deep wisdom and truths we all can agree on, and his interviews were delights. Diana Wynne Jones was, and since her death, I’ve gone and made her my own personal Patron Saint of Creativity, which might be offensive to an atheist. Or a believer, for that matter. These people, we may have theological disagreements, but we’re ultimately operating on the same plane of understanding.
Philip Pullman, on the other hand, makes me rant, “You are totally wrong! Everything you say I completely disagree with! You are living in a different universe from me in which even the laws of physics don’t match up!” He even rubs me the wrong way when talking about something we agree on, like the importance of libraries.
Leonard S. Marcus has a wonderful collection of interviews with fantasy writers called The Wand in the Word, a who’s who of late-twentieth-century young people’s fantasy: both Pratchett and Jones are in there, as well as my ultimate-favorite/daughter’s namesake/also-incidentally-definitely-not-atheist Madeleine L’Engle. Every essay is a thrill of these are my people, I know what they mean and they know what I feel… and then, next to last, Philip Pullman starts up, and there’s a proverbial record scratch sound effect. How does he do it?
Okay, the essay in The Wand in the Word is not quite as bad as all that. Not entirely. It’s just when he gets on to talking about Tolkien, describing Lord of the Rings as “nothing truthful… about human nature, or society, or men and women. Nothing true in it at all. It’s all superficial adventure.” Okay excuse me I was so moved by the truth of a speech about heroism in that “superficial” story* that I named my kid after the guy giving it. Who are you to question what makes a story true, dude? (He’s also bashed A Wrinkle in Time, which means he’s officially indirectly insulted both my children, so ugh on him.)
Here’s where we get to the heart of the clash between our belief systems. If my personal faith—not religion, faith—could be summed up in one word, that word would be logos. In the Gospel of St. John this Greek word is usually translated as “The Word,” and that passage is definitely where my religion and faith most powerfully intersect. But logos actually connotes something bigger than just Words: order, logic, meaning, sense. Cause and effect. My whole world-view is founded on this concept—that there’s an underlying meaning that holds the multiverse together into a story. Also why I’m particularly attached to the translation “The Word.” I believe in Story.
Philip Pullman doesn’t just not believe in an Old-Man-in-the-Sky kind of God, he doesn’t believe in Logos. He doesn’t believe in this underlying order to the universe, that stories are Truth, that everything fits. Which is genuinely incomprehensible to me. How can a storyteller deny the universal Truth of Story?
Look, don’t try to answer that question for me. It’s on me. I’m not saying he’s wrong. I’m saying that, on a profound, ingrained level that I can barely touch with my conscious mind, I, personally, don’t get it.
But once I took a rather long and thorough—therefore you’d expect more likely to be accurate—online “Which Fantasy Writer Are You?” quiz. I’d give you three guesses on my result, but “three” is entirely too archetypal a number, and he’d have a problem with that.
Hence my theory that, when all is said and done, Philip Pullman is not my nemesis. Philip Pullman is my Shadow Self.** Or, to use his terminology, my Daemon.*** Emphasis on the demon, maybe.
It’s funny, I always thought Wednesday Addams was my inner dark side. On the outside, I’m this painfully nice, sweet, quiet, innocent girl, but on the inside is Wednesday, a morbid, snarky, sullen witch who’s utterly unimpressed by what anyone else thinks. But she’s not inner enough. I love Wednesday, and I love secretly being her on the inside! I may keep her suppressed from the average person I meet on the street, but I definitely don’t keep her suppressed from myself, or even from the people who read what I write on the internet.
No, the Shadow Self is the part of you that you don’t want to believe is there, your Inner Darkness you need to face in order to move forward as a Fully Actualized Human Being. Facing the Shadow Self is what puts you into that Long Dark
Tea-Time Night of the Soul. It’s not fun.
I think I’ve mentioned the inspirational writing book, The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life by Vinita Hampton Wright, before… which, can there be a more anti-Philip-Pullman-philosophic title? Isn’t irony fun? Because it was this book that had a chapter all about confronting one’s Dark Side. There was a set of exercise prompts, such as, “The phrase or sentence I most fear writing down” and “The emotion that frightens me most” and “The cruelest thing I’ve ever said or done,” designed to get you right down in and cozy with your Dark Side. And then there was this one: “Write a three-page essay that explores the darkness you have either found in your creative work or feared you would find there. Write quickly and don’t edit.”
I’ve written pretty openly about darkness before, particularly the darkness of clinical depression, which I even refer to as “The Darkness.” I didn’t think, I wrote quickly, that that was quite deep enough into my Shadow, either. But what about the darkness I was afraid I would find in my work? It must be there because certainly, fear is at play in my major writing hangups.
And then, as I wrote quickly, it hit me: it isn’t what I am afraid I will find in my work, it’s what I’m afraid I won’t find. I am afraid of the darkness of nothingness.
It’s like the Fear of the Blank Page, but bigger: the fear that even if I DO put something on the page, there will still be nothing there. I’ve filled dozens of notebooks and megabytes of data space, but have I really written anything? What if I write and write but I never write anything that needs to be said? What if there’s no point? What is the point of MY EXISTENCE? Maybe I’m afraid of that known liar, Depression, proving itself right in my writing, and I’ll never find in it a point, or meaning, or a happy ending, or even God. I fear finding the chaos of nothingness instead of the logos of Story.
So here comes Philip Pullman, disparaging the Collective Unconscious and the connections of myth. Here comes Philip Pullman, reducing the most soul-stirring of stories to lies. Here comes Philip Pullman, killing God. Here comes Philip Pullman to wave my deepest inner fears in the air crying, “Hey, look at this meaninglessness! Isn’t meaninglessness great?”
Jung, as un-Pullman-like as he is, would not have me reject the existential jerk, though. There’s no growth in continuing to repress one’s Shadow Self. But the answer isn’t in giving up all my ideals about Logos and becoming a disciple of Philip, either. I must assimilate my Shadow Self, allowing him to inform my actions without letting him take over.
I mean, think about it. Facing the fear of meaninglessness by accepting it is weirdly liberating. Like, if nothing really matters, then it doesn’t matter what I write, so I can stop freaking out about not knowing what to write and just write anything. Which is, of course, the only way the bits that DO mean something will ever make it out onto paper in the first place.
If the here and now is all that exists, if there is no deeper meaning, then I have no choice but to concentrate on the here-and-now instead of the numinous. And I need to learn to focus on what’s in front of me in order to accomplish anything, in order to, ironically, actually do the work of God.
In even further irony, the word logos, being that it means logic and reason, is also sometimes used philosophically (less so in theology) as the opposite of the emotional. So if I am to honestly stake my beliefs in Logos, part of that is to be grounded in the here-and-now instead of living in my dreamworld. You know, just like Philip Pullman would have me do.
Dang it, Phil. I still feel like punching you. (Figuratively). But thanks for forcing me to grow.
Maybe I will read your new book coming out on Thursday. Maybe it’ll make me mad. But maybe I’ll be more Fully Actualized for it.
*ATTENTION PURISTS: I know very well that this speech in the movie is actually a combination of several things Sam says in the book, and a few more besides, and that they take place in different contexts, and it’s not nearly so dramatic as the movie version, but that is beside the point: Sam speaks Truth.
**Yeah, good old Carl Jung. He’s definitely of my all-is-connected logos-esque mindset. So the irony here is delicious.
***Like I said, he got stuff wrong. One of those things was he made daemons seem far too pleasant company for their human counterparts. You are not cute and fuzzy, Phil.