27 December 2007

Charles Williams discussion continued

A while ago, Orphan Ann & I were having a discussion about War in Heaven. Here's a continuation.

Orphan Ann wrote:

Concerning my dissatisfaction with War in Heaven, you said that “the more important question is whether the elements you mention are flaws in CW’s book and I like it even though it’s a poor work of literature, or whether it’s a great work that just doesn’t appeal to you”. This obviously isn’t a simple duality – and you, equally obviously, didn’t mean it as one – but it’s interesting that you cast our primary responses in an emotional form. We do use evidence and logic to attempt to persuade people of the rationality of our responses, but these are ultimately shaped by our feelings. Our responses can never be proven – but this has the corollary that as long as we’re sincere, we can both be right. We may be on an intellectual road to nowhere, but at least there’s plenty to see along the way; and though I don’t doubt that our opinions may change along the way, I’d like to cast our discussion in more co-operative terms. Despite the fact that dialectic is a fundamentally co-operative form, I don’t intend to persuade you of anything so much as explore your views and explain my own.
Let’s get started. You took issue with my description of the novel as “too intellectual”. For reference’ sake, this is what I said:
“I thought that it was good, but too intellectual and didn’t have enough time spent on the characters themselves (with the exception of the Archdeacon and Persimmons.) That it’s a somewhat austere novel for this reason which one wouldn’t ever expect to be popular.”
(That second sentence, by the way, means what it says. I wouldn’t ever expect WiH to be popular, but that doesn’t map to my views. Goodness knows, if all writers tried to pander to my tastes, nobody could ever afford to publish anything.)
I’m going to talk about that quotation a fair bit, I’m afraid; and I expressed myself very poorly with it. I didn’t mean that WiH is full of ideas and metaphorical big words in the same way that Moby Dick is. I’m afraid that’s the only one of the books you mention that I’ve read (nor did I finish it; I should try it again.) And the quotations from Persimmons’ book revealing the Graal to be in Fardles are just an efficient form of info-dumping, which I’m not sure I could better. (“Info-dumping” is the art of explaining to the reader what they need to know to understand the story, whether it’s saying that the Bennets have five daughters, or Gandalf’s talk to Frodo about the history of the Rings. I can waffle more about this if you’re interested.) No, my description of the book as “too intellectual” is to do with something subtler: CW’s attitude to characterisation.
We agree that, in your words, “CW’s characters are kind of flat, almost two-dimensional”. But we differ radically in our interpretation of this mutual assessment – if I may make so bold, it seems that you’re approaching it from a writer’s point of view, and I’m approaching it from a reader’s. Now, I knew that CW had a broadly “mystical” worldview – he’s written a book about the Holy Grail, after all – but no more than that. Saying he’s “some kind of Neo-Platonist” explains a lot to begin with, including why I described Persimmons as being unspiritual, and makes the strictly allegorical, rather than just philosophical, framework of the novel stand out more clearly. The characters aren’t as real as the ideas they represent.
Here’s my problem with this kind of characterisation. I’m currently inclined to regard a novel as being, on one level at least, an argument the writer is presenting to the reader, whether as simple as propaganda or as complex as King Lear. (One might define a novel’s artistic seriousness as its level of self-consciousness of its argumentative nature, but it might not be a very good definition.) And on another level, the same novel is its own proving ground: if the novel doesn’t seem to describe the reader’s world accurately, then its thesis is wrong. If one allows a novel to make unsupported assertions, one forfeits the right to pass judgements on it, because it exists in a vacuum; it can’t be compared to anything else, and any novel can be said to succeed on its own terms. This isn’t a door to infinite aesthetic merit, but I hope it closes the door to infinite error. Of course, there’s plenty of room to wiggle there, and some of the most interesting are: that a reader’s assessment of a novel’s realism in this sense is subjective, and even the same reader’s response changes on a re-reading; that a novel can (I think) possess its own psychological realism independent of the characters’; and that a novel without “material realism”, such as WiH with its Holy Grail and black magic traps, can still be realistic. I suppose literature could be compared to mathematics, in that a (probably infinite) number of sets of axioms can be created and logically combined to form mathematical systems, but only one describes the physical world. All geometrical systems are self-consistent, but if you built a house on Riemannian principles, it would have to belong in R’lyeh. I think that by abandoning realistic characterisation, CW’s essentially asking us to take his vision or leave it; we can’t engage with it, and the novel’s just seems artificial (Hermetic?) and, well, irrelevant. And he’s left himself undefended against logical complaints such as: If Adrian is a mask of the Form of Innocence, doesn’t that mean that all children are, and that there’s nothing special about Adrian himself? Or, Why would anyone believe something as strange and baroque as Platonic Forms? (I think the former is a good point myself, but there are answers to the latter.) I suppose another way of saying this might be: If the real world can lead CW to his own spiritual beliefs, why can’t a realistic world in his novel leads its readers to the same conclusion?
This is why I was so upset about the treatment of Mornington’s death and the mystery subplot. They only work if we agree to treat the characters as unreal; the unimportance of the murder is tricky, on one hand, but it’s also rather callous. And if CW doesn’t seem to care about his characters, why should he care about real people? That’s my ultimate objection to WiH’s characterisation, I suppose: it makes the novel solipsistic. (Tangentially related to this is an idea I had about novels described as preachy, or however you prefer to put it. They’re making arguments and assertions and the fictional apparatus is only really in there to sugar the pill, but it doesn’t work and just adds to the wordcount. I’m not saying that this is true about WiH; just thought you’d find it interesting.)
I wanted to talk about CW’s treatment of non-Christianity, but I don’t have much to say about it because I don’t remember the novel well enough, so I’m afraid this is going to be rather truncated. My issues here partly stem from the kind of realism I was talking about in the last paragraph, but I should admit here that the fact that I’m not a Christian is affecting my response. It’s true that Persimmons is a spiritual man (I’m not so sure about Sir Giles, but that might just be my faulty memory.) But he’s not spiritual in the right way. And Barbara may be “a profoundly solid, rooted, happy character”, but look at what happens to the poor woman! Nor would I describe her as especially spiritual (is she in the “Castra Parvulorum” scene at the end?) You said that “Williams sees something strangely salvific in Lionel’s assumption that everything will be difficult and that the universe will not be handed to him on a silver platter”; I didn’t see this, but I’m sure you know him better than I do.
I suppose it’s only fair to acknowledge the weaknesses of my arguments, which boils down to the fact that it isn’t really grounded in anything, and more than I’m accusing WiH of being. In a sense, it’s a circular argument, because I’m hoping to persuade you that my axioms are realistic, but I can’t demonstrate that they are. All I can do is hope you find me sincere, which is how I framed our discussion earlier; I must have been aware how unsteady the ground was beneath my arguments. It looks to me as if your best hope of disproving my points would be to focus on the uneasiness of my marriage of emotion and reason – if I can persuade you of some things, I can prove others – but that’s no proof. (And part of the point of my geometrical metaphor was that what seems to be right may not be.) I’ve also talked a lot about the necessity of realism in a novel, but a novel is by definition not real, and that has to be acknowledged, too. In a sense, the obviously false stage-set characterisation does put the characters in their correct relationship to the world – but it’s our world, not theirs. But I am deeply torn on these issues, and I seem always to want to have my cake and eat it.
Now for some minor points. About the Archdeacon and his replacement: I was referring to the scenes where the replacement spouts obviously drivel and the Archdeacon reflects on how foolish it is, at a couple of points earlier on. It just struck me as being straw-man stuff. And while you thought his identification with Sir Galahad was “weird and bizarre, not presumptuous”, I had the opposite opinion: it made perfect sense to me, was trivial, even, but also arrogant. So I wasn’t upset by his death, as I’d been expecting it and read it as his assumption, just as you did. (Incidentally, in the versions of Arthurian legend that I’m familiar with, Sir Galahad is the bastard of Sir Lancelot and Elaine of Carbonek, so he didn’t exactly have a household at all. Or if he did, it was his grandfather’s.)
I think I’ve worked out why the Graal was said to be in Ephesus, by the way. There are so many versions of its history that there’s no point in looking for a ‘real’ answer, and even if I’d found one, I wouldn’t know if CW knew about it. So I turned to the Letter to the Ephesians, and there I found chapter 6 verses 10-17. I’ll quote it here in the Authorised Version to stop everyone running to their bookshelves:
“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. 11Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. 13Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. 14Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; 15And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. 17And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

Verse 12 looks especially relevant to me in this respect – I’d been wondering why WiH was called that, for though I’m familiar with the quotation it didn’t seem that relevant, a little bombastic, rather. It’s hardly a war, is it? And it’s in the Home Counties, not Heaven. Oh, and there’s a reference to Prester John at the end of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, though it doesn’t mention him guarding the Grail.

You drew a distinction between “novels” and “psychological thrillers” in your last letter. That looks intriguing; could you expand on it a little?

And I replied:
...I’m going to jump right in onto a quote from your letter: “Why would anyone believe something as strange and baroque as Platonic Forms?” Well, you see, I do. I do believe in the Platonic Forms. And maybe right there that’s why I love Williams: because he gives earth, bones, flesh, wings, feathers, feet, hands, and faces to those abstract Forms. So instead of seeing his characters as watered-down two-dimensional versions of “real” people (i.e., people we meet every day in all their complexities or rich characters we meet in traditional novels), I see them as vital textual representations to the imagination and to the senses of extra-sensory spiritual Realities. But I’m not really answering your question. You didn’t ask “Does anyone believe in Platonic Forms?” you asked “Why would anyone believe in them?” Well, that’s a hard one to answer. Why does anyone believe in anything? I’m reading a good essay by C. S. Lewis right now entitled “On Obstinacy in Belief.” It is designed to answer the charge that Christians keep on believing things in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This isn’t the place to go into that essay in detail, but even my incomplete reading of it helps me to formulate my answer to “Why would anyone believe anything?” They believe it because of a combination of factors, such as personal experience, early education, logic, evidence, and/or authority. So from a psychological point of view, I probably believe in the Platonic Forms because they were presented to me at a young age through C. S. Lewis’s fiction and later through a college philosophy class, and presented in ways that were fascinating and compelling. Then there’s just a hint of “Biblical evidence” in Hebrews. Hebrews 8:1-6 says:
1Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; 2A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man. 3For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer. 4For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law: 5Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount. 6But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.

Hebrews 10:1 reads:
1For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.

All these seem to be saying that the earthly tabernacle is just a copy of the real one in heaven. And that thrills me!

I’ve written a bit more about my neo-Platonic beliefs here and here; Eurydice wrote about Lewis & Plato very eloquently here. Of course, I’m a Christian, which implies that I’m not a thorough-going Greek-golden-age Platonist—-if it’s even possible to be such a thing here and now! I believe that the World of Pure Forms exists in the mind of God, and will only exist in some external sense in the New Heavens and the New Earth. But the practical consequences of this are the endless striving of human beings after perfection, the flashes of “Joy” or “Sehnsucht” that some when we catch a glimpse of a more perfect copy through a beautiful landscape or a work of art, and my feeling when I write a poem that I am trying to copy the real poem as it exists in a more perfect sphere. So even though you are right that CW's “characters aren’t as real as the ideas they represent,” in CW’s worldview, that makes them more real. Does that make sense?

Now, you next asked (very intelligently, I might add! This was an excellent challenge for my mind): “If the real world can lead CW to his own spiritual beliefs, why can’t a realistic world in his novel leads its readers to the same conclusion?” I think that the answer must be that it wasn’t the “real world” itself that led CW to his spiritual beliefs—if by the “real world” you mean this terrestrial/phenomenal/material/sublunary world that we can taste, touch, and live in at the moment. No, I don’t think he found his beliefs there. He would probably say, if asked, that he received his beliefs via revelation from the Other World—from God, from the world of the Angelic Beings and the Pure Forms. He could have received this revelation in the traditional way, as mediated by Scripture and the teaching of the Church and of other Christians, or he could have received it in a more direct, mystical way, through personal meditation or revelation. I don’t know which; perhaps after Grevel Lindop’s new biography comes out, we can find out! But anyway, he didn’t learn about Substitution and Exchange through the natural order of things, but through a Supernatural Order.

Now, this is not how Williams would have said it himself. He probably would not have understood the question if you asked him, “Did this earthly world teach you your spiritual beliefs, or did you learn them from some other realm?” You see, his faith was always an assumed or presupposed foundation beneath all his writing, teaching, and thinking. He simply lived and thought as if religion were absolutely necessary and everyday, yet with the supernatural always contingent and proximate. Religion was constantly, consistently relevant. Martin Browne said Williams “set the room aflame. I have never met any human being in whom the divisions between body and spirit, natural and supernatural, temporal and eternal were so non-existent, nor any writer who so consciously took their non-existence for granted.” He, whether intentionally or subconsciously, didn’t really see the difference between this life and the next, just as he overlooked the division between one person and another, or between people and Christ. He just thought that they flowed into one another and shared an identity, and so could share experiences in a way that seems miraculous or magical or bizarre to a materialist or even to a somewhat skeptical Christian like myself.

So what does this do to his characters? Well, let me make a digression. I talked to Rosie about this topic the other night, and she quoted Dorothy Sayers to me. Sayers said something along the lines of “An author has an obligation to his/her characters, once they’ve been created, to let them live their full lives, to let them develop and express themselves just as parents need to let their children develop” or something like that. Basically, once I’ve created a character, I need to let him live and not force him to represent something else or to function in some kind of symbolic fashion. But I submit for your inspection the proposition that this is oneway of writing fiction; that it’s not the only way, nor the most moral way. I don’t think that authors have moral obligations to their characters. Perhaps they have artistic obligations. But even then, I think that there are innumerable “correct” or “good” ways to write characters. And Williams chose to write them in the way that he read the world: as point of correspondence between the natural and the supernatural, between God and man, between the Eternal Virtues and their human copies. What do you think of that?

So let me see if I’ve addressed the essential elements of your careful and thorough argument. You said that you think “by abandoning realistic characterization, CW’s essentially asking us to take his vision or leave it; we can’t engage with it, and the novel’s just seems artificial (Hermetic?) and, well, irrelevant.” Hum. Let me take a few points here. First of all, I don’t think that CW is really abandoning realistic characterization—or, to say the same thing the other way around, isn’t every novelist? You did mention that “a novel is by definition not real.” Yes. Even Jane Austen’s emotionally and psychologically complex characters are not “real.” They are made up, obviously, but they are also much, much less complex than any real human beings. Even the most psychologically nuanced short story that purports to narrate the thoughts of one human being during a few minutes cannot capture the complexity of the workings of the human brain; even stream-of-consciousness is artificial, because it does not express the consciousness of the writer, and is itself fabricated and (honestly) much slower than the actual speed of thoughts. It’s kind of a fractalization: each writer choose a level of complexity at which his or her characters will function, and manipulates an appearance of reality consistent with that level. CW’s level, I would suggest, is just different than the majority of novel-writers’. So the psychology and character development in his books are about as realistic as, say, conjuring earth and snowstorms with a pack of cards (The Greater Trumps) or watching a house burn and burn and not burn up (The Place of the Lion) or transporting oneself through time and space by means of a stone with the letters of the name of God inscribed on it (Many Dimensions) or walking in the land of the Dead and bringing that land closer and closer to the realm of the Living (All Hallow’s Eve) or practicing substitution with one’s martyred ancestor (Descent into Hell). This is the reason for the title of War in Heaven: the point is that every spiritual battle (and the prayer over the grail by the Archdeacon, Mornington, and the Duke against the evil designs of Persimmons et al was quite an intense battle!) is simultaneously happening on earth and in Heaven. Just like you pointed out (thank you very much!) with the connection to Ephesians. It’s all gloriously absurd! It’s fantastically unrealistic; it’s super-realistic, it’s Archetypal, it’s Platonic.

But I don’t think this makes it hermetic or irrelevant. In his own life he practiced “Substitution.” “The Doctrine of Substitution & the Way of Exchange” was one of the ways that he thought “co-inherence” (sort of oneness, or unity, between people and between people & God) can be actively practiced. Everyone participates in physical exchange (I am dependant on the farmers who produce my food; those who go to war die in the place of those who stay home and for whom peace is purchased, etc); we can choose to see these personal/social/political contacts as blessings and practice co-inherence in the strength of Christ’s resurrections. We can make compacts to bear one another’s burdens. These principles can work among the living in any space and time, and also with the dead and the unborn. The clearest explication of “The Doctrine of Substituted Love” comes in the chapter of that title in Descent into Hell, in which Stanhope carries Pauline’s fear for her, so she is no longer afraid to meet her doppelganger. Also, in chapter V of He Came Down from Heaven, Williams gives a non-fiction account of this principle. Williams claims that the mockery hurled at Christ on the cross, “He saved others, but he cannot save himself” was actually the rudimentary expression of a universal principle: nobody can save himself, but we can voluntarily substitute ourselves for others and “carry their burdens” quite literally, even though those burdens may be spiritual, emotional, or medical. Martyrs and the Eucharist are examples of Christ in us and us in Him. Evil was consumed by good when Christ suffered on the Cross, and now our lives can be united to good in Christ’s earthly life.

I have very tentatively tried to practice some form of substitution. But the real way I have found William’s novels relevant is the beautiful tranquility, serenity. This is my personal favorite, my homing locus in all his fiction: the sheer serenity of his saintly heroes. In each of CW’s novels, there is at least one character who lives in a great serenity, whose soul has a center of calm. See my previous entry on CW's principle themes. In War in Heaven it’s the Archdeacon, and, to some extent, Barbara. But it’s what I most admire about his characters, and it’s how I want to live my life: in active submission, volitional submission, vital tranquility, purposeful peace.

So then I would strongly disagree with your statement “And if CW doesn’t seem to care about his characters, why should he care about real people?” I think he does. In a more intense, deep, profound way than many writers. I think he cares more about Mornington than Dickens cares about Tiny Tim. That’s a huge bold claim! The fact that Mornington’s death goes unmourned is the greatest act of celebration of his life, because his death ushered him into the peace of God’s presence in which he had tried to live at one remove. His death was not a cause for sorrow, and CW could not insult him by having any of the characters mourn his passage into glory. And I mean that seriously, and so did Williams.

OK, now a few of the smaller issues you raised. I’m fascinated by your proposition that I’m approaching War in Heaven from a writer’s point of view, and you’re approaching it from a reader’s. This really interests me, and perhaps explains a lot about the variance of our approach, but I haven’t figure out how yet. I’m also not sure how to respond to your analysis of my duality: whether “whether the elements you mention are flaws in CW’s book and I like it even though it’s a poor work of literature, or whether it’s a great work that just doesn’t appeal to you.” I guess I just don’t see any way out of that polarity—although I recently decided that my old schematic of “Great Literature” and “Good Literature” was sort of baloney. I mean, I can’t really discuss Walter Wangerin, for example, on the same plane as Dante, but does that make Wangerin of lesser value? He’s just different. So I suppose you want to suggest that we should throw out the question of whether or not War in Heaven is a great work? That’s OK. And as far as the emotional nature of our responses; well, yes, there’s certainly a strong emotional component contributing to which works of art we “like” and don’t like, but I would say that there are many other components which contribute at least as much—education, family tastes, early exposure, peer pressure, reason, logic, one’s own development of skill and of aesthetic evaluation—so that the final reason for an aesthetic reaction is nearly impossibly to identify.

You said “Our responses can never be proven – but this has the corollary that as long as we’re sincere, we can both be right.” I’m not sure if you intended that statement sarcastically, because I can’t help but take it that way. I do believe that one of us is “right” and one is “wrong,” or that we each have elements of accuracy and inaccuracy in our evaluations. I do believe that on some level a book “is” or “isn’t” what any given reader may say it is. And that, of course, comes back to my fundamental belief in abstract absolutes. Similarly, if I thought we were “on an intellectual road to nowhere” I’d get off that road as soon as ever I could, not matter how much there was too see along the way! My life is set on getting somewhere, somewhere very particular.

Oh, one last comment. You asked me to expand on my distinction between “novels” and “psychological thrillers.” Oops! I meant to make a distinction between novels and metaphysical thrillers! That was a big mistake. CW called his seven works of prose fiction “metaphysical thrillers,” and T. S. Eliot called them “Spiritual thrillers.” And this is because, although these books fit the standard denotation of novels (“fictitious prose narratives of book length,” OED), they violate many of its accepted connotations. We expect novels to be realistic, to some degree, unless they’re shelved with fantasy. We expect them to have significant character development. So perhaps the whole problem about characterization could be solved by simply changing the genre-label. We don’t expect the same treatment of people and events in epics or odes as we do in novels; let’s not expect it of metaphysical thrillers, either. That’s my suggestion! What do you think?

I recommend reading The Place of the Lion if we’re going to continue this conversation, especially if we want to pursue the Platonic discussion. I’m basing most of my opinion of CW’s skill and worldview on that book as well as on Descent into Hell. They’re my favorites!

26 December 2007

A Ballad for Christmastime

In the Eye of the Beholder

Sublime with awe, the Artist bent
To brush the final touch.
Each atom sang its own delight,
Bound beauty to its dust.

His masterpiece whirled sphere in sphere
Complex with vital noise.
He breathed in beauty, basked in light,
And taught the dancers joy.

His theatre had a double stage,
A double audience:
He, the first who gazed and laughed;
The other, innocence.

His pleasure had a double source
Until pathetic sin
Smeared black on art and audience
In atheistic pain.

And then the Artist had to shrink
From His eternal size
Down to an ugly miniature
Un-done, unrecognized.

He squashed His vast aseity
In ordinary skin
And wore a common body
Never fair to Him.

His eyes grew dull on monochromes
Fertile, flat and dull.
A topographic monotone,
Imagination lulled.

And then His sacrifice grew sharp
With hues of blood and pain.
His suffering knew ugliness,
His vision red and stained.

He made libation of His art
And His aesthetic eye
As well as of His breath: the fair
En-graved when He died.

Then He descended to a vault
Where opposites are kept,
Where comeliness is chaos, where
His tears went when He wept.

The artwork in that gallery
Was torture to His hurts,
For each piece was a parody
Of His perfected works.

There, He starved for want of light;
And more, for beauty’s death,
And closed His eyes, and shut His ears,
And every artist wept.

And so a silence grew. It spread
To every studio.
For three days inspiration ceased
While He lay in the cold.

At dawn on Sunday, someone read
A story with an end,
And leapt up to his drawing-board,
Seized pencils, and began.

He drew a sunrise, and a tomb
With nobody inside.
He heard a noise and turned around:
The Artist was alive!

The great Creator stood and smiled
With upraised, wounded hand.
The wonder was, He gave the art
To that inspired man.

Which came first? The prophecy,
The painting, or rebirth?
And which will last: these joyful tears,
Or new creative work?

20 December 2007

Golden Compass Review

Review of The Golden Compass

So, I’ve seen the movie! I took several students to see it on Tuesday, and we preceded and followed the movie with some excellent discussion as to the merits and dangers of both the book and the film. Before I discuss the movie, let me recommend one absolutely essential post by Jeffrey Overstreet to you. Please read it! And here’s a really good review by Alan Jacobs, and here’s a link to a site where you can download a podcast from Mars Hill, Audition, on which Alan Jacobs in interviewed regarding Pullman’s book and the new film.

OK, first of all I’d like to talk about The Golden Compass as a film only, without reference to the book. Well, I’m not a filmmaker, nor a professional film critic, but I do love movies. And I’d say that as a movie, The Golden Compass was 100% successful. The score was compelling, the pace good, the visual effects beautiful.

The casting was very good. Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) was sexy and dangerous and slimy; Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) hard and fast and sharp and just perfect, really; Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) perhaps a bit smaller and slighter than I pictured him, but with piercing eyes and an intense presence; Gandalf’s (I mean Ian McKellen’s!) voice good for the bear; Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott) perfectly gritty and gravelly; Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) extremely mysterious and sultry; and Fra Pavel (Simon McBurney) disgustingly creepy. A stunning cast. Saruman (Christopher Lee) for one of the leaders of the Magisterium is just right; I hope we get to see more of him in the other two films.

And the acting is superb! Each actor had very convincing gestures and unique voices. Their physicality was in each case excellent. Serafina Pekkala’s deep voice, with a rasping edge, accentuates her inhuman sexuality and supernatural power. Lee Scoresby’s habit of talking sideways with a crooked grin (a bit reminiscent of Harrison Ford as Han Solo) expressed his easy-going caution. Lyra is great. That girl is an extremely talented actress. She has a very mobile face, with a crookedy grin of her own and a lopsided way of speaking well adapted to a Liar. She could play innocent, ignorant, fierce, stubborn, and even sexy. She’ll be amazing as the series goes on. She has a powerful independence and attraction that will fit perfectly with the Rousseauian young romantic in the later books, especially the last.

Finally, and very importantly for this story, the CGI surpassed my expectations. I was afraid we’d have a repeat of the sickening pathetic beaver buffoons from LWW. But these computer-generated animals looked very realistic and quite solid. And—best of all—there was no stupid humor associated with them. They were not Disney cute and fuzzy critters; they were not simply anthropomorphized children; they were not (thankfully!) silly. They were animals; rational animals; daemons. My only disappointment with the children’s daemons was that they didn’t shape-shift very often. When they did, the transformations were smooth and convincing. There was a moment when Pantalaimon turned from a brown ermine into a white one; quite nice. There was a lovely moment when he effortlessly slid as a small mammal off of a roof into a bird-shape, so that the fall glided into a flutter. Beautiful! I would have enjoyed many more changes. But my commendation to the CGI artists, and to the director for rejecting the comedic impulse so often gratified with talking animals.

Now, let’s move to the next phase of discussion: The Golden Compassas a film adaptation of the book.
This is definitely one of the most satisfying book-to-movie adaptations I have seen. There was a lot of plot streamlining, some character merging, and a good deal of simplification that happened in the transition process. However, these simplifications are necessary in order to adapt a novel of 350 pages into a 2 hour movie. I would have been happy had the filmmakers decided to go the Lord-of-the-Rings-three-plus-hour-epic route. The book deserved it. But I’m happy that there were no shocking plot changes (like in Frankenstein--the 1931 version, which I saw recently) or character destructions (like Faramir) or ridiculous additions (like the atrocious riding the ice scene in LWW!) or pervasive alterations of tone and emphasis (like in the beautiful new Pride & Prejudice). I have only two criticisms.

First, there was a painful lack of detail. I know most details have to go in the cutting down to a screen play, but there were surprisingly few of those little, careful, meticulous visual or dramatic details that often raise a movie up a notch. The camera didn’t often get close; the writer didn’t often slow down to build up a climax in dialogue. That was a disappointment.

Second, the movie quit at a warm-and-fuzzy moment three chapters before the end of the book, chopping off an extremely important episode that alters the trajectory of the trilogy. This is a huge fault, in my opinion! I understand why this was done, I imagine. It kept the first movie all in one world and didn’t introduce the many-universes theme that dominates the second book. It ended on a happy note, rather than catapulting Lyra into the grand tragedy, as Pullman actually does at the end of his first volume. It made the movie feel a bit more coherent; it can almost stand alone if it doesn’t make enough revenue for the filming of the other two volumes (I’m sure it will, though).

All in all, those criticisms aren’t huge. The ending was a shock; the four of us in the theatre who had read the book raised our arms and voices in protest, shouting and groaning as the credits rolled. A nice moment of literary solidarity.

OK, now let’s turn to the larger discussion: The worldview presented in The Golden Compass as film and book, and in the His Dark Materials trilogy as a whole. I’ve already discussed the book, here. I really don’t have much to add to what I said before, what Jeffrey Overstreet says here, and what Alan Jacobs says here.

Here are the main points of potential danger in The Golden Compass. As Alan Jacobs points out, if a writer of fantasy is skillful enough to make you trust in his secondary world, he is also skillful enough to make you trust his moral judgments. In other words, it’s nearly impossible not to suspend belief while immersed in a really good work of subcreation. That’s the nature of the genre, and of the human imagination. Therefore, if you (or especially your children) see this film, keep your antennae of discernment up and alert at all times! The main reason for such caution comes from a convoluted literary history. William Blake said that in Paradise Lost John Milton was “of the devil’s party without knowing it,” and many critics have read the great epic from that point of view ever since. An epic must have a hero; Satan seems to many readers to be the most convincing candidate. Now Philip Pullman, as he has said explicitly in many interviews and elsewhere, is of the devil’s party and is fully conscious of that fact. He reveals his allegiance in his opinion of the Narnia Chronicles, which he calls “One of the most ugly and poisonous things I have every read”; “They have no shortage of nauseating drivel.”

If you take your kids to see this movie, or if they read the book, ask them these four questions before and after:

1. Who is good and who is bad in Pullman’s moral universe, as postulated in this story? What are their characteristics?
2. What is the Golden Compass and who wields it?
3. What are daemons?
4. What is Dust?

An understanding of each of these four topics reveals Pullman’s ingenious imagination, but also exposes his anti-religious agenda. Let me expound.

1. In Pullman’s moral universe, as explained by Alan Jacobs, basically anyone who rejects authority (and ultimately the Authority, God, Yahweh) is good. “Good” characters include Lyra, Lord Asriel (who may correspond to Milton’s heroic Satan), and many outsiders such as Gyptians, Witches, and Armored Bears. “Bad” characters are lumped together under the Magisterium (The Church). So it’s a simple binary: reject God, and you’re good; believe in God, and you’re bad.
2. The Golden Compass, or Aletheiometer (“truth-measure”) is essentially a tool of divination. It resembles a crystal ball, tarot cards, or an ouija board. Lyra is able to wield it by instinct, for which she goes into a trance and lets the meanings come into her mind. It was formed through some kind of astrological study. Now, of course Christians do not have to toss their hands in the air and run in fear from astrology and divination in a work of fiction. After all, Lewis’s “Space Trilogy” is fundamentally astrological in its original Medieval understanding. However, teaching children to admire a character who so closely resembles a contemporary fortune-teller or medium may have its potential dangers.
3. The daemons are perhaps the most brilliant creation of Pullman’s fertile, original imagination. They are the external expression, at once bestial and anthropomorphic, of an individual’s soul. Every physical interaction they have with their humans can be read allegorically—such as the shape-shifting abilities of children’s daemons, the limited distance which a daemon and its human can separate, and so on. However, there are at least three potential dangers if they are not pointed out to a young reader/viewer. First, the very name, which is pronounced “demon” in the movie. Pullman chose their name quite cleverly. According to the OED, “daemon” has three definitions. 1: a divinity or supernatural being of a nature between gods and humans; 2. an inner or attendant spirit or inspiring force; 3. an evil spirit or devil. Pullman’s daemons are all three, and we must be careful about encouraging children to want to have a personal demon as a constant attendant! Second, Darlin suggested that the external nature of the daemon might have a dualistic connotation, suggesting that our bodies and spirits are separable and independent (although I think that the ultimate purpose is the opposite, since when a human dies, his daemon dies, too, and vice-versa). Third, a daemon is almost always the opposite sex from its human. This suggests that we each are actually both genders—a theory which leads directly into the explicit homosexuality in a later book. Children should be warned about these implications of the otherwise amazing and desirable daemons.
4. Dust is, in a way, the plot of the whole trilogy. How it is viewed by the opposing parties can be seen as a microcosm for Pullman’s entire project. According to the Church (the Magisterium), Dust is original sin. It does not collect on children because children are “innocent”; its accumulation causes temptations, lust, evil thoughts. According to nearly everyone else, everyone we come to love in the course of the series, Dust is consciousness. By extension, it is human creativity, imagination, accomplishment, reason, art, romance… everything that makes the human life worth living. And thus one must embrace and actively practice “sin” in order to be a happy and worthwhile individual. And by golly they do!

These are just a few of the warnings I gave to my students, and I recommend giving them to yourself, your children, and your students. Once these facets of Pullman’s worldview are recognized, go and enjoy the beautiful movie and the brilliant book! But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

One final question, on a related but slightly different topic. Just before the movie began, one of my students (“Darlin”) asked, “Do they ever make movies that are just movies anymore? It seems that all the new movies are adaptations of books.” Indeed, it does. At least, the movies with a grand scope, good effects, epic scale, and a huge box office success. Here’s a list of some new movies I’ve seen in the last year or so:
1. Amazing Grace
2. Anna & The King
3. Becoming Jane
4-6. Elizabeth, Elizabeth I, and The Virgin Queen
7-10. The First 4 Harry Potter films
11. Kingdom of Heaven
12. Les Miserables
13-15. All 3 Lord of the Rings
16. Marie Antoinette
17. Merchant of Venice
18. Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe
19. One Night with a King
20. Phantom of the Opera
21. Pirates of the Caribbean I
22. Pride and Prejudice
23. Romeo + Juliet
24. Shakespeare in Love
25. Star Wars
26. The Nativity Story
27. United 93
28. Million Dollar Baby

Fifteen of them are adaptations of books (counting the Biblical stories); ten others are historical or literary subjects. Maybe this says more about my taste than about current filmmaking trends; what do you think?

17 December 2007


Today in philosophy class we discussed the telos, or ultimate purpose, of various activities or objects, including technology. We got into an interesting discussion of art and technology's potential to either connect people together into surprising communities (such as the virtual community of strangers created by a blog) or to disconnect them from one another (such as the sad fact that I may never meet some of you commenters face-to-face, or the isolationism invoked by single-user music devices). I think this conversation deserves further exploration--and is perhaps seasonally relevant as you may anticipate giving or receiving technological gifts at Christmas. Before commenting, please take a look at some of Rosie's thoughts: Rosie has a couple of posts here and here and an excellent article here about the relationship of technology to the arts and spirituality and community.

Then I'd like to you write a comment inspired by the following questions.

1. Have you ever experienced artistic or technological community? Little Sarah mentioned in class that she has made some friends based on their interests in similar music, even though she may have nothing else in common with them. Does anyone else have a story about how technology or art brought you into community or created some kind of society?

2. Have you ever experienced artistic or technological isolation? (Are you experiencing it right now, as you answer these questions alone in your room with only the screen for company???) In what specific ways do work of art and new inventions isolate, divide, or even polarize individuals?

3. Do you think that the invention of any particular technologies can be inherently dangerous, or is the value of any given technology only in its uses or abuses? What limitations, if any, do you think should be put on the creation and usage of arts and technologies? Or do you think that responses should be made solely by consumers, and not legislated by any authority?

I'll start by narrating some anecdotes of my own. First of all, I've created some kind of a virtual community by means of technology that I would never have been able to create in the "real world," because I simply would not have met people. I've been able to communicate via email and blogs with many noted C. S. Lewis scholars, and the beauty of these contacts is that I've been able to, or am planning to, meet many of those people in "real life." This is a huge blessing to me, since I mostly do my scholarly work in isolation and am not currently a member of an academic community.

But in contrast, I've had many instances when virtual communication has been a hindrance to human relationships. The most common occurrence is a misunderstanding of tone when a message is communicated via email. Now, as a writer, I ought to be able to communicate as well by email as by any other form of written communication. Yet there's something about the speed and facility of email that encourages brevity and haste, to which even I succumb. So there have been occasions on which someone has misunderstood my attitude, or I hers, over email. I'm sure there are other examples in my own life of the disconnections engendered by careless or thoughtless use of technology.

But here's a more serious disconnect: What about the stark severing that can be caused by, or at least a by-product of, sharp differences in artistic taste? I have had very intense, difficult conversations (almost arguments) over the value or quality of works of music or literature. Yes, I know, "No war about tastes" -- but sometimes we [read: "I"] feel so passionately about a book or poem or movie or song that we simple must defend it, or our love of it. I know I've come close to raising my voice (OK, maybe I did raise by voice) over my disgust about the misrepresentation of Faramir in the LOTR movies, or about the poor choice of the weak-faced, scratchy-voice Viggo Mortensen for the kingly Aragorn, or over the consummate artistry of Wagner, or over the moral and theological value of the essays of C. S. Lewis. Yes, obviously, I need to work on my attitude! But there have been, I am happy to report, more times in which the sudden discovery of a conjunction in taste has created or fused an instant connection, which sometimes has led to a lifelong friendship.

I'd like to here some specific examples of times that art has divided or united you from/with others. Thank you!

05 December 2007

December poem of the month

This isn't a Christmas season poem; however, it does pick up an earlier theme about Christianity and Mythology. Perhaps I'll come up with a Christmas poem closer to the celebratory date. Meanwhile, happy Advent!

Semele’s example
Exodus 33:20

This love was tender, terrible: a sweet
self-sacrificing passion. As he kissed
her feet, he promised anything she wished
and swore upon the sacred river Styx.
No love had been like this: so strong it threw
his power down as plaything for her homely
hands. But she was different, for she only
asked to know him in his unveiled glory—
Only that! Zeus groaned and shuddered earth
with weeping, but his oath stood still. In pain
no god had known, he stripped off human raiment,
and, as he knew she must, she died in flames.
Into the vacuum of his agony
their son-god breathed, alive to die and rise in Spring.


04 December 2007

What is the "self"?

At the end of philosophy class yesterday, "Don" brought up the question of the self, and expressed interest in Hume's theories of the self. The following questions were composed by Don for us to answer/ponder this week.

What is 'self' composed of? Your answer might mentioned whether you think the self is composed of a mind, body, soul, spirit, combination, etc.

You might find yourself (if there is such an entity) asking the second question:
Is there such a thing as 'self-perception?' or the related: Can we really comprehend the individual?

This will obviously raise the point that if the self can observe itself, it must then have at least two parts (the observer and the observed) or be split into halves, or be able to perform the amazing, impossible operation of reflexive observation. I'll add something later on about C. S. Lewis's views of enjoyment and contemplation, a logical outgrowth of discussions of the self. But for now: Who are you; What are you?

You could also post on what the positions of various famous philosophers have been on the physicality or intellectual realities of the Self.