John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright

No Subtle Knife and no Amber Spyglass

The box office failure of THE GOLDEN COMPASS has seen to it that the sequels are not going to be made. (So I hear, via Libertas, from Kyle Smith, quoting an article from  Atlantic, quoting a letter from writer-director Chris Weitz).

I have not seen the movie: but the visuals looked splendid. I had heard the rumors that the plot was weak. If those rumors are true, that and that alone, and not the jovial and divine laughter of heaven, is what killed this movie.

One of the comments over at Libertas got me thinking.

 "Know what I don’t get? How a guy that believes Chrisitanity is a bunch of hocus pocus, parlor tricks, and nonesense answers that with a story about magical objects and talking polar bears."

But I do get it. I am not a mind reader, but I am a novel writer, and I know enough about the creative process to hazard a guess. It is only a guess, but here it is:

Once of the spurs on the heel of the boot of the muse that jabs us in the butt and gets us to spend long hours hunched over a typewriter is this: we read a book and think we can do it better. Not that we can do any old book better: we read some particular book -- in this case, Narnia -- and we say "I can write a better version of THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE."

So Mr. Pullman (I imagine) sits down to write a "better" version of Narnia. He thinks about what would be better than a land of Talking Animals? The inspiration comes to him: animals who represent your soul! Animals that show outwardly your inner nature! A novelist will immediately see the story potential here: what would it mean, for example, to let someone else touch and pet your soul? What would it mean to be separated from your soul?

The brilliance of this idea moves him to his next planning step. What would be better than a White Witch? Why, let us make the cold Witches of the far north the good guys, flying on rafters as they do in older and more authentic myths! Indeed, let us make the Northern Lights, the cold of the north, the theme of the work, the gate way to a greater world!

What is better than a Wardrobe that opens in to fairyland? Now, if you are Mr. Pullman, the childish innocence of Narnia is one of the things you dismiss as a weak spot in the tale, one of the things you think you can improve on. More realistic would be a gate way that was a violent matter, a wounding knife, a very dagger of the mind, that opened the gates between life and death, but which has a terrible price. The knife gouges the child who uses it; each gate releases a spectre of death into the world! Now we are cooking with gas!

What is more impressive than an African lion? Since our setting is the far north, why not a Polar Bear? Better yet, a polar bear in armor?

What is better than the horrific, silly, stupid story of sacrifice and resurrection? (For keep in mind that to Mr. Pullman, and for most atheists, the Passion story is not merely false, it is personally offensive: they feel sick to their stomach when they hear of it, for it offends their sense of justice, their sense of self-worth and human dignity). Instead of having a magic lion lay down his life to save the traitor Edmund, let us have the boy stab God to death with a knife! (Now Mr. Pullman's brain is afire, and he is jotting down notes quickly) Better than having God stabbed to death, why don't I be brave (for all atheists tell themselves it is bravery, not arrogance, that drives them) why don't I be brave and show God for what he actually is-- a doddering, drooling old cripple!  I'll have the boy stab the drooling cripple to death! BWAHAHAHAHA! No, wait, that might make the lad seem a tad unsympathetic. I know! God will be in a coffin, and I'll have the lad, not recognizing him, clumsily try to help him and cut the coffin open, and GOD WILL DRY UP AND BLOW AWAY IN THE WIND LIKE THE CHEAP FRAUD HE IS!

How true! How like life!

--- and so it goes. The things that seem so forced and unrealistic to us, the painfully mechanical or meaningless motivations, the lapses in plot logic, the sheer and utter lack of organism or organization to the story are not bugs, they are features.

This incoherent rubbish is precisely Mr. Pullman's world view laid out in the form of a mythical tale. It was astonishing for me to discover it, but the very reason why so many partisans of Mr. Pullman adore his work, is that this is what they think life is like, and so the book, to them, is a breath of honest fresh spring air. The materialistic world-view is philosophically incoherent, petty, and vengeful. The profound emotions involved in Aslan sacrificing himself to save Edmund mean nothing to them: the petty combination of hot hatred and cold contempt we see in the stupid scene where Mr. Pullman's God dies by withering up and blowing away on the wind is the core emotion of the atheist world, and anyone in emotional sympathy with this world view reacts with the pleasure of recognition when they see it portrayed in figures in a tale. They cannot laugh, and so they snicker.

The incoherence, in other words, of telling an atheist tale in a story about magical objects and talking bears, the irony, the contradiction on an emotional level, is the very thing the writer sought.
Above is my answer I wrote to the comment given there. Here is will elaborate one more point.

That central image of God being stabbed and vanishing into dust is a paramount one to the emotional nature of atheists. The atheist (I speak from personal experience) feels like someone fighting a ghost. An atheist utters a simple and logical argument to show why no one should believe in God, and yet, for some reason, the belief in God persists. No matter how often you clobber the ghost, not matter how frail and insubstantial it seems, the damned thing just won't die.

It does not make sense. Reasonable people cannot believe such nonsense, yet, for some reason, everyone does, everyone you admire, all the great figures of history, all your ancestors. The stress of facing the impossible warps the mind: something has to give.

What gives is your sense of humility. Something snaps in the atheist mind, and he becomes an Illuminatus, an Enlightened One. The atheist realizes, with breath-taking, awe-inspiring, wondrous awe, what the answer is. The reason why he does not believe in God and everyone else does is that He Is Smarter Than Everyone Else. He is enlightened; they are benighted. He is rational; they are superstitious. He is the Man of the Future; they are apish men of the past. He is brave; they are craven.

Some atheists stop at this point and go no further. They are reasonable men, and they stay reasonable men. They have, either on an emotional level a sense of decency, or on an intellectual level a stoic philosophy, that enables them to carry on in a rational way, and they do their work and don't cheat at cards.

Other atheists cannot stand the strain of being the Lone superhuman in a world of ape-men, and the stress causes a second rupture: they think that they are above moral rules. The temptation whispers in their ear: if God is dead, everything is permitted. If the belief in God is irrational, who is to say the belief in social mores, traditions, laws, honesty or chastity is not equally superstitious? The atheist remembers the day he stopped believing in God, or the day he realized he was smarter than everyone else: every time he swings the hammer of the iconoclast, and breaks another long-held ancient rule, every time he shocks the world, a sense of liberation, of enlightenment, comes once again.

They get drunk on iconoclastic shock. They want to smash ideas. They want a revolution.

They become followers of Nietzsche, or something equally as depraved. They say they stand beyond good and evil; they say that notions of right and wrong are control mechanisms, and that  a brave man casts aside normal notions of right and wrong. They say that sex is natural and marriage is unnatural, and that unnatural sex is the most natural of all. The atheist ceases to be a real atheist at this point, and becomes a member of a cult, in psychology, if not in actuality. Their new beliefs have all the earmarks of religious dogma, but merely leave out a personal or conscious God. The atheist-turned-cultist becomes a partisan of some causes or some mystical concept, the Life-Force or the March of History or Evolution or Transhumanism. Those with less lofty ambitions turn their devotion and energy into political causes, like environmentalism, or socialism.

The one strangely recurring theme in their various different philosophies, and I cannot explain why this pattern shows up again and again, is a hatred of innocence.  These atheist-turned-cultists never seem to like marriage, families, children, babies. If they like one, they tend not to like the other. (Robert Heinlein, for example, liked babies, and had definitive opinions on child-rearing. But he hated marriage: he regarded monogamy as a trap and fornication as liberation. If you believe my theme given above, you can see in Mr. Heinlein's writing career when he suffered iconoclasm addiction and went from a reasonable, decent atheist into an atheist-turned-cultist. I will give you a hint: STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND.)

This dislike of family life takes several forms. In AMBER SPYGLASS, the sexual neurosis of Mr. Pullman are sufficiently clear that they need little comment from me: Mr. Pullman is trying to make the argument point that Christianity discourages and demeans the sex act, which is the central life-creating and liberating act of all time, the very thing that saves the universe. It is just not sex withing marriage that has this magical and uplifting power. When he talks of the liberating and creative power of sex, Mr. Pullman means "unchaste sex" only. No one in the end of his novels ends up married to anyone else. No one even ends up together.

In atheist-turned-cultists of the Leftist political persuasion, the sexual neurosis takes the shape of a ghastly desire to kill babies in the womb. They want sex without real-world consequences, and since one of those consequences is Junior, Junior has to be depicted as a mere mass of cells, a Nigger, and subhuman, and subjected to abortion.

But it is innocence itself that these iconoclasts dislike, the simplicity and purity of innocence.
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