The World of the Dead consists of a dim and desolate, endless plain populated by the ghosts of the dead: wispy cold vapors, material certainly, but barely the memory of a body, and capable only of whispers. Within this barren, never changing landscape, they shuffle and murmur eternally, in uncountable, infinitely increasing number, eventually forgetting the feel of the world, the joys of their lives, and even their own names. Only their sorrows and weaknesses do they remember, and these only because they are subject to the endless torment of the Harpies -- foul, flying beasts who circle the ghosts, ceaselessly taunting them with the darkest secrets of their lives. Nothing but this happens here. Nothing but this has ever happened here. And nothing but this will ever happen here. Except, perhaps, that eventually, as years, decades, and centuries drag on, the terror and shame provoked by the Harpies' shrieks fades and blends in with the gray monotony and lifelessness of the terrain.
Mary Malone nearly collapses from the sight. Some distance from her modest hut in the world of the mulefa, cut into the side of a hill she finds a window opening into another world. But it is not the window, or the existence of another world that shocks Mary. She herself comes from our world and passed through several such windows before settling in the world of the mulefa. No, what gives Mary the feeling that "the ground had given way beneath her mind" is what emerges from the window:
a procession of ghosts . . . old men and women, children, babes in arms, humans and other beings, too, more and more thickly they came out of the dark into the world of solid moonlight - and vanished. That was the strangest thing. They took a few steps in the world of grass and air and silver light, and looked around, their faces transformed with joy - Mary had never seen such joy - and held out their arms as if they were embracing the whole universe; and then, as if they were made of mist or smoke, they simply drifted away, becoming part of the earth and the dew and the night breeze (AS 431-2).
Before vanishing, an old woman ghost approaches Mary and whispers the following cryptic advice: "Tell them stories. They need the truth. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well. Just tell them stories" (AS 432).
What sort of a universe is this, in which the dead, consigned from time immemorial to a blank, barely material existence, should suddenly emerge into the moonlight, only to then transform and become part of the stuff of the world? And what sort of universe in which this seemingly miraculous turn of events, this passage from a World of the Dead to an animate, material World of Life, should be effected by the simple telling of true stories? It is the universe of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials and, as I shall attempt to show in the pages that follow, it is a universe that rests upon a very particular vision of material spirit and of the practical and ethical implications of such a vision. I have found it difficult to write straightforwardly about His Dark Materials, especially with the phrase "material spirit" in mind. In part, this difficulty stems from the dizzying richness of the narrative interconnections among the various characters, worlds, elements, and ideas that comprise the trilogy. But the difficulty also arises because nearly all of these relate in one way or another to material spirit, not to mention to a variety of visions of matter and of spirit and of their relation that have been elaborated over the past 20 odd centuries of human history. Pullman enters subtly, and above all, narratively into a philosophical conversation with many voices.
In composing my meditations on the stimulating density of His Dark Materials and on its participation in key philosophical conversations, I have constrained myself in three ways - that make my own text modestly experimental -- by the example and vision of Pullman's text. First, I have structured my own text as a series of "stories" (rather than as a conventional expository argument) to attempt to follow what I take to be the central ethical implication of Pullman's universe: to tell true stories. Second, I have treated all the "characters," whether they come from the universe of His Dark Materials or from the history of philosophy in my universe, as if they existed on the same plane. Thus I have provided no more "background information" for Heidegger (who told a story about truth in our universe) than I have for Mrs. Coulter (who experiments on children in the trilogy's universe). What matters to me about these people are the stories they tell and the things they do and then, the things we can make of these. Third, I have sought to tell these stories in a way that will be comprehensible to an audience at least close to as broad as the one for Pullman's own narrative. In shedding, as much as possible, the conventions of expository argumentation and of a specialized technical vocabulary, it may be that some valuable elements of conventional academic writing - a certain abstract clarity, complexity, and nuance - have been lost as well. However, I have considered that if these, at least to some degree, have been sacrificed, it is a sacrifice worth making in order to honor Pullman's example of making discussion of profound philosophical and ethical issues - of what we and the world are made of, and of how best to live with that - accessible to an audience broader than that of professional philosophers or even, of academics more generally. If I am to write, in other words, about such questions as matter and spirit and what sort of life might be lived in a universe of matter and spirit, or of material spirit and spiritual matter, then - precisely because of the broad and fundamental relevance of such issues -- it feels important to me to do so in a way that spells out more inclusively some of the densely packed shorthand language in which we and other academics are used to conducting our discussions of such issues. With all this in mind, I'd like to begin this little collection of true stories with a story about truth and about just what makes a story true within the universe of His Dark Materials. Following this, I will offer stories about what that universe is made of, what a self is made of, and then, finally, about two different kinds of equipment with which to operate in that universe.
1 The Alethiometer, or, What is truth?
The Master of Jordan College, in the Oxford, England of Lyra's world, presents Lyra with what he calls an "alethiometer," explaining to her that it "tells you the truth" (GC 73). The alethiometer, "surprisingly heavy," looks like a "large watch or small clock: a thick disk of gold and crystal" (GC 73). Lyra will examine the instrument more closely and discover that
there were hands pointing to places around the dial, but instead of the hours or the points of the compass there were several little pictures, each of them painted with extraordinary precision. . . . There were three little knurled winding wheels . . . and each of them turned one of the three shorter hands, which moved around the dial in a series of smooth satisfying clicks. You could arrange them to point at any of the pictures, and once they had clicked into position, pointing exactly at the center of each one, they would not move. The fourth hand was longer and more slender, and seemed to be made of a duller metal than the other three. Lyra couldn't control its movement at all; it swung where it wanted to, like a compass needle, except that it didn't settle. (GC 78-9)
Lyra, a child just approaching the cusp of puberty, apparently an orphan raised with little education by the scholars of Jordan College, can only begin to surmise its workings, getting no farther than recalling that "meter means measure . . . like thermometer." Later she hears (GC 125) that the first half of the instrument's name comes from the Greek word aletheia, "which means truth" so that it is a "truth measure".
All that there is can be divided into two great realms. At least that is the story that Socrates tells in Plato's long collection of conversations and stories called Republic. Socrates calls these two great realms "the visible" and "the intelligible" (Republic 509d). He imagines them as laid out on a line progressing from less real (the visible) to more real (the intelligible), and running alongside this line is another line progressing from less true approaches to what there is to more true approaches to what there is (510b). The most real and true is the realm of what he calls Ideas or Forms apprehended by reason, for example the Idea of Goodness. That is to say, not a good horse, or even something we might think of as good, like justice, but just plain old Goodness, existing eternally and unmixed with anything tangible or visible or material in any way at all, unmixed even with any other form. From there, we can move down one step to mathematical forms and entities (like a triangle, say) apprehended by thought. At this point, we encounter the bottom edge of the intelligible world and we move down the line, across into the visible world, where most of us would probably say we lived. At the top of the visible world are objects available to perception. For Socrates, these tangible objects we perceive are already mere copies of, and bear less reality than, their corresponding immaterial Idea. And then, the least real and least true: images (or reflections) of perceived objects conceived by the imagination, for these are copies of copies of reality.
Socrates goes on to imagine the World of the Living (the phrase is mine), the visible world, as a dim and desolate place tucked deep beneath the earth at the end of a long, steep, and perilous descent (Plato Republic 514-517c). It is a world of shadows and of copies, and of copies of copies, of flickering, mutable shapes. Socrates likens the World of the Living, the world of the senses in which you and I live out our daily lives, to a darkened cave lit dimly by a fire that we cannot see. We sit shackled from birth with our backs to the fire, our necks and feet immobilized, staring at a wall. Meanwhile, a procession of individuals, carrying objects, parades along a walkway, all but the objects hidden by a low wall, between the fire and our backs. The fire casts the shadows of these moving objects against the wall before our eyes. And we "deem reality [the Greek word here is "alethes"] to be nothing else than the shadows of the artificial objects." The fire in the cave, Socrates explains, corresponds to our own sunshine, the shadows cast on the wall to the three-dimension tangible objects we see every day by the light of the sun.
However, there is an alternative to this grim World of the Living. Socrates imagines a prisoner freed from his shackles and forced to turn his head away from the wall and toward the walkway and, beyond it, the fire. Upon seeing the objects carried on the walkway he would shrink away in disbelief: his shadows would be far more real (alethes) than these unfamiliar entities (516d). The light of the fire would sting his eyes and he would wish to return to his place among the other captives in the cave that is the World of the Living (516e). And if he should be forcibly dragged up the dangerous path toward the mouth of the cave and emerge into daylight, Socrates says, he would find it painful, resist it, and, upon exiting the cave would be nearly blind. He'd need to get used to the light, looking first at the more or less familiar shadows cast by the sun's rays, then at the reflections of things in water, and then at things themselves. Then gradually, he would begin to study the night sky and then eventually at the daytime sky before finally, he would be able to look upon the sun itself. In the end, he would be able to conclude that the sun was the source of all that he had hitherto experienced. Socrates explains to Glaucon, who is listening to the story, that the sun outside the cave in his story corresponds to the Idea of the Good and that the rough ascent and process of gradual habituation corresponds to the process of education, a kind of turning away from illusion and toward the truth of the Idea (eidea): "The starting point of all" (511b), "mistress . . . that . . . bestows reality (aletheia) and at the same time imparts apprehension" (517c).
At the beginning of the story, aletheia seems simply to refer to something like the portion of reality available from a certain perspective, such as that of the newly released prisoner who would deem his familiar shadows more real (alethes) than the objects that cast them. But by the end of the story, aletheia appears as an effect -- literally the offspring -- of our apprehension of the Idea through reason. The prisoners in the cave thus are far from aletheia in two ways: first, because they are looking at shapes that are themselves merely shadows of copies and second, because they do not know this. In other words, they hold the belief that their shadows are reality. We, coming from outside the cave and sharing Socrates' belief that reality resides in the immaterial realm of Ideas, would say they hold a false belief. Conversely, as the freed captive grows accustomed to the light of the sun (Plato's Idea) he begins to see everything - the Idea, its copies, the condition of those who mistake the copies for reality - as it is: he begins to hold true beliefs. Aletheia, in other words, comes to mean by the end of this story the correspondence between a thought or proposition about reality and reality itself. Over the course of many centuries and many stories, this view of aletheia as truth, will come to be known as the correspondence theory of truth because in it, truth will mean the correspondence or agreement of a statement or thought about reality with the actual state of affairs of reality. It's the idea of truth we have in mind most of the time, for example when we say that it is sunny outside, that the dress is black, or that zebras have stripes.
With this in mind, we would reasonably expect an instrument such as an alethiometer, or truth meter, to be able to tell us how a statement or thought (or belief) that we hold concerning reality measures against a true belief. Just as a hygrometer measures the amount of humidity in the air against the fixed standard of 100 %, and just as a fuel gauge measures the amount of gas in our tank against the fixed standard of "Full", so an alethiometer, if it is indeed a truth measure, will measure the amount of truth in a statement or belief or thought against the fixed standard of an absolutely true belief. If the alethiometer is indeed going to measure the truth, in Socrates' sense of the word, Lyra should be able to present the alethiometer with a thought or belief or statement about reality and it should tell her how much truth there is in that thought, or how well it corresponds to reality
But in fact, the alethiometer doesn't function in this way. It does not measure the truth of beliefs already held. Rather, it responds to questions posed by its user and it does so through a process that leaves quite a bit of room for ambiguity, for interpretation, and so, I would say, for creativity. Each of the thirty-six pictures painted on its dial corresponds to an infinitely extending ladder of associated meanings. So, for example, the first meaning of the picture of the marionette is "obedience," the second "submission," the third "grace" and so on infinitely. The user of the alethiometer formulates her question in terms drawn from three of these thirty-six ladders of meaning. She then clicks the three fixable hands into place, each one pointing to one of the three pictures that symbolize the component terms of her question. She must also hold in her mind the "rungs" on the ladders of meanings associated with those pictures on which the specific terms of her question lie. For example, in her first successful reading, Lyra is curious about the fate of a group of spies. She sets the three fixed needles to point to serpent (for "cunning"), crucible (for "knowledge, what you kind of distill"), and beehive ("hard work"): "so out of the hard work and the cunning comes the knowledge, see, and that's the spy's job and I pointed to them and I thought the question in my mind" (GC 143-4). At this point, the free needle will begin its errant swing around the face of the dial, pausing to point at different symbols a given number of times. In this way it indicates to the reader where on the thirty-six ladders of significance the elements of the response can be found. By attentively following the needle's movements and pauses and then assembling the indicated meanings, the reader comes upon the answer to her question.
So we can see that the "meter" part of "alethiometer" really means not so much "measure," but rather "indicator." For the alethiometer points to the truth of the situation Lyra inquires about rather than measuring the truth of her belief about that situation. But if that's the case, then the truth that the alethiometer indicates seems very different from Socrates', or from the truth of the correspondence theory of truth. If truth is something indicated, or pointed to, in response to a question, and if the processes of asking, pointing, and comprehending the pointing all involve a great deal of interpretation, then truth starts to look much more like a conversation, like something put together in the process of seeking it, like the way to get somewhere in a strange town, putting together the various instructions you've been given. Truth starts to look, in other words, like the provisional result of a contingent, creative process in the world, not an immaterial proposition running parallel to it.
I'm not saying that the alethiometer doesn't answer Lyra's questions. Certainly it does. I would even say that it often answers her questions with statements that seem to conform to the criteria of the correspondence theory of aletheia. But there are other times when it does not, or when it answers questions she seems not have asked, or when it answers questions in ways that make no sense. There are also times when it appears to scold Lyra, or to give abruptly short answers. Above all, the alethiometer seems always to tell Lyra what she needs to know to go on, to choose a path from among those in front of her, or to take the next step in her adventure. All of which suggests that either the alethiometer has nothing at all to do with aletheia, or that the aletheia it does have to do with goes well beyond the correspondence theory of truth. Anyway, when someone claims that a statement or thought corresponds to reality (and therefore is "true") we might just understand that to mean something like "the world actually is enough like my view of it to permit me to undertake certain actions in relation to it with greater than not probability of success." The point is that the truth that the alethiometer indicates accommodates (rather than excludes) a range of terms - such as fiction, nonsense, and invention - that we are accustomed to associating with creativity and so to viewing as the opposites of truth. After all, it is Lyra - whose name recalls both the poet's lyre and a liar -- who comes to possess and to learn intuitively to read the alethiometer. We could call it a "truth meter," but it might be better to think of it as a "reality indicator."
But this then brings us back to the beginning of Socrates' story about the cave in Plato's Republic. For we saw there that aletheia initially did seem to mean something like a quantity of reality. In fact, that meaning of aletheia was one of the predominant meanings of the terms right up until the time that Plato told his story. For "early aletheia meant neither agreement between a proposition and its object nor agreement between judgments. It was not the opposite of 'lies' or 'falsehood' (Detienne 52)." Martin Heidegger told a story of how aletheia shifted in its meanings so that we wound up inheriting the correspondence theory of truth meaning of the word as ""the agreement of the representation in thought with the thing itself" ("Plato's Doctrine" 168). Before this time, however, aletheia more commonly meant "unhiddenness" or "unconcealment" or, we might say "disclosure." It wasn't so much, in Heidegger's story, a property of reality or of the thinking mind, viewed as separable from each other, but rather an effect created through a dynamic contact between the two. Heidegger's story, which is really just a story about Plato's story, emphasizes a peculiar aspect of aletheia, understood as the interactive process of unconcealing. For every effort we make to find truth, to know, to "unhide" some of reality inevitably also hides some of reality. In response to our "queries" - or rather, to the relatively open disposition we assume when we wonder -- reality continually reveals and conceals itself ("The Essence" 146, 151). The search for this kind of truth feels more like wandering through the woods than like driving down the highway toward a final destination. Truth is more the name for an endless journey than a destination, more a process than a product.
In Heidegger's version of the story, a capacity he called "poetic reason" furnishes our best way to relate to reality and language so as to make truth ("The Origin"). With the word "poetic," which comes from the Greek word for "making' (poiesis), Heidegger stressed the creative dimension of knowing. I can give you a better idea of what I think Heidegger meant by "poetic reason" by looking back at Lyra and her alethiometer. Lyra finds that in order to read the alethiometer she must assume a special frame of mind - "making my mind go blank" - that Mary Malone describes, quoting the poet John Keats, as "negative capability": "...capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" (SK 88). In the Keats' letter from which Mary quotes, "negative capability" was a quality he used to explain "the formation of a man of Achievement, especially in Literature," citing Shakespeare as his prime example (43). I think that for these purposes, working successfully with the alethiometer entails ability akin to "poetic reason," a reason open to wonder and uncovering, discovering and inventing.
The alethiometer thus presupposes a view of truth as process and that process as creative. It also presupposes a way of conceiving the relationship of the thinking being to the stuff he or she thinks about it. Plato's story of truth (like any correspondence story of truth that has been formulated since) assumes a division and an opposition between subject (the thinking entity) and object (the stuff out in the world the subject is thinking about). In John Dewey's story about truth, he called this the "spectator notion of knowledge". Against it he posed a notion of knowing and of truth that assumes that the knower inseparably forms part of the reality of which she wishes to gain knowledge. In such a view, Dewey figured, "it follows that the self becomes a knower. It becomes a mind in virtue of a distinctive way of partaking in the course of events. The significant distinction is no longer between the knower and the world; it is between different ways of being in and of the movement of things; between a brute physical way and a purposive, intelligent way" (Dewey "The Need" 4). Interestingly, Dewey, like Heidegger, believed that art best explores and expresses this mode of truth and, moreover, drew upon Keats' description of "negative capability" to evoke it (Dewey, Art 32-34).
Rather than treating reality (or the world, or matter, or being) as external, passive, inert, and finite (and so as fully knowable given enough time and the proper techniques), Keats' negative capability, Heidegger's poetic reason, and Dewey's participatory notion of knowledge all treat reality simply as an aspect of the same single animate, contingent, free, and open fabric of which we ourselves are just another, differently shaped and configured aspect. When she reads the alethiometer, Lyra both concentrates and empties her mind. In this respect the alethiometer seems to mimic her with its three fixed and its one, errant, wandering needle and in so doing to remind her (and us) that we are not separate from what we would know or from the technologies we use to know. In view of this, a true story in Pullman's universe, like the true stories that Lyra tells in combination with the alethiometer, might be characterized by their openly disposed but purposive, inventive engagement with the material world, rather than by their perfectly faithful, polished mirroring a world of reality that they remain outside of.
2 Dust, or, What is the universe?
Boris Rusakov, an experimental theologian from Lyra's world, originally discovered Dust. He isolated an elementary particle that mysteriously clustered, as Lyra's father explains, "where human beings were, as if it were attracted to us. And especially to adults. Children too, but not nearly so much until their daemons have taken a fixed form. During the years of puberty they begin to attract Dust more strongly, and it settles on them as it settles on adults" (GC 370). In our world, it is a particle physicist, Mary Malone, who conducts experiments with elementary particles she refers to as Dark Matter, Shadow Particles or, simply Shadows. Her research has turned up similar - though not as far reaching -- discoveries concerning Dust. Having rigged up a computer to filter out other elementary particles, Dr. Malone has observed that, when connected by electrodes to the computer, "if you think the Shadows respond." Moreover, connecting various archaeological artifacts to the computer, she has found that, "Anything that was associated with human workmanship and human thought was surrounded by shadows" (SK 89). Finally, testing various fossil skulls, she and her colleagues observe, "there was a cut-off point about thirty, forty thousand years ago. Before that, no Shadows. After that, plenty" (SK 89). From this, she concludes, though she can scarcely believe her own conclusions that Shadows are "conscious" or are "particles of consciousness" (SK 88).
In Lyra's world, all discoveries like Rusakov's must be reported through the Holy Church. Worshipping and ostensibly serving the will of a deity known most frequently as "the Authority", the Holy Church most closely resembles, in doctrinal terms, our Roman Catholic Church. But it also incorporates Protestant teachings, has no teachings concerning Jesus Christ, and, most importantly, exerts a vast, supranational influence over sovereign governments, educational institutions, and other aspects of culture. These worldly activities are overseen by a priestly bureaucracy known as the Magisterium, which encompasses a number of bodies of which the two most important are the Consistorial Court of Discipline and the Society of the Work of the Holy Spirit. Initially seeking to discredit the discovery, the Holy Church eventually resigned itself to incorporating it into church doctrine and, striking upon the relationship between Dust's change in behavior post-puberty and the biblical story of the Fall (which climaxes with God's decree "for dust you are and to dust you shall return") the Church calls Rusakov's particles Dust, declares Dust the physical evidence for original sin, and undertakes a variety of investigations into its possible eradication.
Joseph Campbell, the late American scholar of comparative mythology in our world, once observed that "The biblical representation of God as somebody 'up there,' not the substance, but the maker of this universe, from which he is distinct, had deprived matter of a divine dimension and reduced it to mere dust" (21). Campbell goes on to explain how, in the process of consolidating their own mythologies of a transcendent deity, the Levantine religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) incorporated many symbols of earlier mythologies, whose god or gods were immanent - "down here" -- as signs of the Devil. And we might begin to see a relationship between the position of God in the Levantine religions - maker but not of this universe - and Socrates' account of Ideas and Truth, which we arrive at, similarly, by turning away - literally looking up in the cave allegory -- from the deceptive world of things around us. We might call both of these views transcendental, in the sense that they both position entities valued positively - God, Truth - as transcending, apart from and beyond, the material stuff of the world. The Holy Church's account of Dust, conscious matter that responds to human beings, especially after they have acquired sexual awareness, squares perfectly with Campbell's version of events.
But actually, crazy as it sounds, it turns out that the Holy Church is right. At least they are on the right track: Dust does have something to do with Good and Evil, it does come from what the Church simplistically calls the Devil, and it is intimately connected with matter. Two rebel angels explain to Lyra's friend Will:
The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty - those were all names he gave himself. He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves - the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are, and Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. Matter loves matter. It seeks to know more about itself, and Dust is formed. The first angels condensed out of Dust, and the Authority was first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie. One of those who came later was wiser than he was, and she found out the truth, so he banished her. (AS 31-2).
Coming from our world, Mary Malone laughs when Lyra raises the question of good and evil in relation to Shadows. But she is soon disabused of her apparently naïve trust in the value free character of her (or indeed any) scientific investigation. For having learned (from Lyra) how to go beyond mere observation to actual communication with Shadows via her computer keyboard and screen, she learns that Shadows are indeed the same as Lyra's Dust and as Dark Matter and that they are indeed conscious. They tell her, moreover, that they number in the "uncountable billions," that they are "angels," and that angels are "structures" or "complexifications" of Dust. Then, when Mary asks if "Shadow matter is what we have called spirit", the Shadows reply "from what we are spirit; from we do, matter. Matter and spirit are one." They go on to explain that they intervened in human evolution for vengeance and that she must go to find Will and Lyra for she is to "play the serpent" (SK 248-250).
Let me take a moment to reconstruct this story of Dust. In the beginning, we might say, was matter. But matter already has a propensity to love itself and to wish to know about itself. Dust turns out to be just the name for matter that has undertaken this enterprise. Thus, Dust is itself matter, only matter that has begun to understand itself. (This suggests, by the way, that some matter has not begun to know itself, but also that it might at any time. There is no suggestion anywhere in the story of Dust that some matter is somehow essentially better equipped to begin this process than other matter). So we have Dust. Angels then appear as complexifications, structures, or condensations, of this matter-now-Dust - a kind of matter raised to the second power. And we can thus also begin to understand why Dust should be found in greater concentrations around adult humans (who have gone through the process, at puberty, of loving themselves as matter and of desiring to explore and to know more about themselves as matter, as bodies) and around objects that have been thought and worked by human beings (here too is an instance of matter - the human being - loving and seeking to understand more about matter - the raw material upon which the human works). All of this might be characterized as the setting for the drama of His Dark Materials. From out of that setting of matter loving and coming to know itself, Dust itself arose and came to relate to itself in a kind of condensation that we call an angel. This angel told subsequently formed angels that he was their creator and that they must serve him in a Kingdom of Heaven. Some of these angels rebelled and were defeated in battle some thirty or forty thousand years ago. In vengeance, the rebel angels enticed matter to desire knowledge of itself and of the material world around it.
And it's not just human matter that partakes of the relationship that is Dust. The mulefa, a four-legged creature with a diamond shaped spinal structure and language, live in a kind of symbiotic harmony with gigantic trees. With legs at each of the corners of their spines, the mulefa hook the hoof of each of their "side" legs into the naturally lubricated holes of the hard, round fallen seed-pods of these trees. In this way, they "wheel" rather than run. In the course of their movement, they break down the hard shells of the seedpods and release the seeds, thus ensuring the growth of further trees. The trees' flowers, it turns out, are fertilized by particles of Dust, called sraf in the mulefa's language. However, as Mary discovers, the Dust no longer falls straight into the upturned blossoms of the flowers but rather seems to be flowing out of the universe, as though drawn by some gravitational force.
In the course of Mary's investigation of the sraf flow, one mulefa tells the story of their species as it has been retained orally for 33, 000 years.
One day a creature with no name discovered a seedpod and began to play and as she played she . . . . saw a snake coiling itself through the hole in a seedpod, and the snake said, "what do you know? What do you remember? What do you see ahead?" And she said, "Nothing, nothing, nothing." So the snake said, "Put your foot through the hole in the seedpod where I was playing, and you will become wise." So she put a foot in where the snake had been. And the oil entered her blood and helped her see more clearly than before, and the first thing she saw was the sraf. It was so strange and pleasant that she wanted to share it at once with her kindred. So she and her mate took the seedpods, and they discovered that they were mulefa and not grazers. They gave each other names. They named themselves mulefa. They named the seed tree, and all the creatures and plants. (AS 224)
It may well be that all across the innumerable parallel universes that constitute His Dark Materials, and not only in Lyra's and ours, matter of all kinds (and not just human-shaped manner) found itself enticed by the vengeful, rebel angels' entreaties and came to seek to know itself, like the first mulefa, like Adam and Eve, like all curious children in puberty.
Of course, neither the stories of the Garden of Eden nor of the first mulefa, nor for that matter the story told in His Dark Materials, are really true. Or are they? Lyra's father, recalling for her the story of Adam and Eve encourages her to think of the story like "an imaginary number, like the square root of minus one: you can never see any concrete proof that it exists, but if you include it in your equations, you can calculate all manner of things that couldn't be imagined without it" (GC 372-3). Likewise, Mary's mulefa friend reminds her that her story is a "make-like", their word, Mary tells us, for metaphor. In view of my story of the alethiometer, we might say that these stories are true enough. That is, that the stories serve as creative indicators of a portion of reality: with them in mind, their listeners may rearrange their relationship to themselves and to the world around them in a more congenial fashion. Or as William James once put it: "ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience" (30).
Dust is a story like that. It is a story about how things hang together in the universe, and in particular it tells us how the tangible stuff of which our bodies our made hangs together with that other weird stuff we have, that feels so separate from our bodies, called thoughts. In other words, it is a story that imagines a certain relationship between matter and spirit, body and mind. It tells us that we are matter. But then it tells us that as matter we partake of a propensity, inherent in all matter, to love and to understand itself. "Matter and spirit are one," as the shadow particles inform Mary Malone. And this then tells us something not only about ourselves, but also about other matter and how we might relate to it. For if we share with matter this propensity, then we would seem to be called to relate to it not as animate to inanimate, let alone human to animal, or even subject to object, but rather - as we saw Heidegger and Dewey's stories also called us to relate to ourselves and the world around us -- as living matter to living matter.
Hegel tells a different story about spirit and matter. In Hegel's story, an immaterial entity known as Geist (German for "spirit") requires a "body," and so it posits the material universe. But this material universe, initially, exists outside of, or alien to, Geist, in a kind of tense opposition (Hegel 5). From this point of departure, Hegel tells the story of world civilization as a story in which matter and Geist ceaselessly evolve their relationship (Hegel 6-7). Humans of course have a very special role to play in this story. Because we are thinking matter, capable of self-awareness, we become the vehicles through which Geist and matter can be reconciled. Through human thought - more specifically through the thought of Hegel and anyone who thinks through his philosophy - matter (in the shape of humans) recognizes its destiny as the material realization of Geist (Hegel 468). In Hegel's story, recognizing that our true being lies, as it were, in embodying an absolute cosmic spirit and that our entire history has been the gradual process of coming to this recognition enables us to work in ways that establish a kind of harmonious communion whether this be with our material nature, with other human beings or with the nature around us.
A slightly, but crucially different, version of this story is told by Spinoza, about one hundred years before Hegel. Spinoza imagines that there is just one Substance, his name for all that there is. It can be called "God or Nature" (Ethics II/206). This substance has two attributes or, as we might put it more commonly, qualities or aspects, which are also just two different points of view concerning Substance: the attribute of "thought" and the attribute of "extension". Though Spinoza had specific technical reasons for using these two words, for the purposes of our story it will be helpful to think of them as spirit and matter, respectively. So we can view God or Nature from the point of view of "thought" or of "extension", but either way we are looking at the same single Substance. All that we see around us, Spinoza claimed, could be understood as Modes of the attributes of this single Substance (Ethics II/68). Modes: modifications. And everything that we see, in Spinoza's version, can be understood as being composed entirely of relations; relations of relations of relations, all the way to the bottom. I find it helpful to think of Substance as though it were a body of water and what appear, from our point of view, to be isolated entities (me, you, God, Goodness, a triangle, leaf, cloud, dog, table) really are just like differently configured ripples or splashes on the surface of the body of water. Spinoza argued that beatitude (his word for a joy that can perpetuate and communicate itself) consisted in knowing this and in acting in accordance with this knowledge. It consisted, in other words, in the ripple on the pond knowing that it was not merely a ripple on the pond (as though separate from the pond), but was actually of the pond.
Hegel admired Spinoza and, from some points of view, their respective stories seem much more alike than different. Both constructed all-encompassing philosophies that sought to find a place for everything within and around us. Both believed deeply in the power of reason - once it was freed from narrow instrumental functions - to help guide human beings to a better existence. But in one respect, at least, they are very different. Hegel's story of Absolute Spirit tells of a transcendent, immaterial entity "coming down," as it were, and finding itself inevitably in its embodiment in matter. Spinoza's story of Substance, in contrast, unambiguously and from the outset embeds God in Nature, ties Thought inseparably to Extension, and makes all existence a modification of -- a kind of event within and of - this Substance that, once again, is itself "God or Nature." These differences might be seen even more sharply when we compare Dust to Geist and Substance.
All three stories offer an account of what we see in the world around us. In particular, all three try to explain the diversity of the world in relation to a single, binding force and all three try to include within their stories an explanation for the relationship between the things we can see and touch (like our bodies) and those we cannot (like our thoughts). Within the framework of these aims, all three stories see the universe as fundamentally relational. By this I mean that in each story, to understand what a thing is and to explain what it is you have to talk about its relations to other things. Moreover, in all three stories, understanding and honoring the web of relations in which one is embedded or that actually make one up - however differently that web might be imagined in each story -- is essential to happiness. However, Hegel's story of Geist departs from a separation of spirit from matter and then has to offer a version of human history as existing for the sole purpose of reuniting the two. It entails, in this sense, a belief in both transcendence and necessity. However much Hegel may have wanted his story to avoid the pitfalls of the Levantine religious story of a creator deity outside the universe of his creation, Geist still stands above and beyond matter, constantly putting it forth as body to Geist's rational mind. Likewise, the binding force in Hegel's story requires things to be exactly as they are, unfolding toward the realization of a final, cosmic purpose.
The story of Dust, on the other hand, like Spinoza's Substance, is entirely immanent, and knows no separation of matter and spirit. The universe of Dust is a self-creating, self-organizing, and self-sufficient one and it likewise grounds itself in relations. First, matter relates to itself in its striving to know itself, which striving actually constitutes Dust. But then, in the condensation that forms angels, Dust relates to Dust. Finally, Dust relates to beings (human or otherwise) that exhibit an informed interest in the world and who, in so doing, echo or extend the original relation (of matter striving to understand itself), which gave rise to Dust. Moreover, Dust exists and releases its binding effects completely contingently. That is to say, Dust is the finite product of matter's interest in understanding itself and there is nothing at all in Pullman's universe to guarantee that Dust will continue to exist. Hegel's story of Geist exists in a kind of ideal version of time, in which everything leads up to the final and permanent and inevitable reunion of Geist and the world. But the story of Dust could always have been different and could turn in any number of directions. Dust then, the cosmic force binding all that there is within Pullman's story, like the truth of the alethiometer, arises contingently and immanently in the course of matter's relations with itself. This critical feature of Dust drives the action of Pullman's story, which in many ways can be understood as a battle, fought both on the grandest cosmic scale and at the level of tiny individual choices, between the forces that would destroy Dust and the forces that would create it.
3 Daemons, or, What is a self?
"Lyra and her daemon": these are the first words of the trilogy and, whatever the importance of first words in general, in this case they help underscore the centrality of the relationship between human and daemon in Pullman's universe. This relationship forms one of two points (the other being the relational event that is Dust) around which, as in an elliptical orbit, the worlds and dramas of His Dark Materials turn. A daemon, an animal-shaped body with independent powers of sensation, affect, will, thought, and speech, comes into being upon the birth of each human and, upon his or her death, simply vanishes like an extinguished flame. Throughout life, however, the daemon and human remain connected by what is characterized most frequently as an "invisible bond" or "link." In part, this bond may symbolize the constant mutual companionship of human and daemon: talking, worrying, caring, conspiring, arguing, teasing, and playing. Though at exceptional moments in the trilogy we may encounter a human without a daemon (or vice-versa), in normal circumstances human and daemon constantly accompany one another. Incidentally, humans in our world have daemons also - we simply have lost (or have never adequately developed) the ability to see them. Before puberty, the daemon possesses the ability to change shapes, corresponding at times to the affective states of its human, at times to necessities (camouflage, warmth, ferocity) imposed by circumstances. But around puberty, daemons "settle" or "fix" upon one shape that they will then retain for the rest of their lives.
As Lyra's adventure begins, rumors abound concerning the unseen, child-snatching Gobblers who have been taking children throughout England and ever closer to Lyra's own Oxford. The name Gobblers it turns out derives from the acronym of the group: the General Oblation Board. A shadowy, emergent organization with the Holy Church, the General Oblation Board is run by the charismatic and brilliant young scientist and explorer, Marisa Coulter. Mrs. Coulter directs an experimental facility called "Bolvangar" in the far frozen North of Lyra's world. At Bolvangar, a team of scientists and nurses under her direction conduct tests and experiments on the behavior of Dust on just pre-pubescent children. Central among the experiments is what is called "intercision": the permanent severing of the invisible bond that connects each human being in Lyra's world to his or her daemon.
Mrs. Coulter's experiments with Dust, fueled by her acceptance of the Holy Church's doctrine concerning Dust and original sin, develop from coupling the fact of one's daemon settling at puberty with the observation that Dust concentrates more thickly upon humans at puberty. She arrives at the hypothesis that if the link between child and daemon is severed just prior to puberty the child can forevermore be free from the affliction of Dust and in that sense be cleansed of original sin. One cleric reports that the early results from Bolvangar are encouraging: "Dust is an emanation from the dark principle itself" and the promise of isolating Dust thereby promises the isolation of the dark principle and a kind of return to a prelapsarian state (GC 95-6). As Mrs. Coulter deviously explains to Lyra, "Dust is something bad, something wrong, something evil and wicked. Grownups and their daemons are infected with Dust so deeply that it's too late for them. They can't be helped....But a quick operation on children means they're safe from it. Dust just won't stick to them ever again. They're safe and happy" (GC 282-3).
She's right that Dust won't stick to them ever again, but she's lying that they are safe and happy. But to understand this, I have to tell you more about the relation between human and daemon. Pantalaimon, Lyra's daemon, pulls away from her and she feels "angry and miserable. . . . It was such a strange tormenting feeling when your daemon was pulling at the link between you; part physical pain deep in the chest, part intense sadness and love. And she knew it was the same for him. Everyone tested it when they were growing up: seeing how far they could pull apart, coming back with intense relief" (GC 195). Likewise, at another moment, when "something black hurtled at [Pantalaimon] and struck. He fell sideways in a flutter of shock and pain, and Lyra cried out, feeling it sharply. . . . Lyra was nearly mad with Pantalaimon's fear and her own" (GC 155). The "invisible" bond linking human to daemon, whatever else it may be, clearly physically constrains the movements of the two beings in relation to each other. What's more, it seems to serve as a kind of conductor of sensation and affect. When Lyra encounters some of the nurses from Bolvangar, who have undergone intercision she finds them unimaginative and incurious, "brisk," "blank," and "sensible" (GC 238). Indeed, a zombie is explained as a human being who has undergone intercision (GC 375) and therefore has no "will of its own." Likewise a contingent of "severed" soldiers fights fearlessly and tirelessly in battle. Destroying the invisible bond that links daemon to human, intercision reduces the human to something like an automaton and the daemon to an equally unlively "wonderful pet" (as Mrs. Coulter will deviously describe the effect to Lyra). Curiosity and imagination, interest and intellect, affect and expression then all appear to depend upon the integrity of the invisible, but material, bond between human and daemon.
Indeed, not only these intellectual and affective states and expressions, but also vitality itself appears to depend similarly on the integrity of this bond. Thus, when Lyra and Will, both very much alive, seek entry to the World of the Dead they are stopped short by the boatman who tells them that Pantalaimon cannot enter the world of the dead. As they plead and cajole and even threaten the boatman (rightly anticipating the unimaginable agony of Lyra being separated from Pantalaimon), he explains:
'It's not a rule you can break. It's a law like this one...' He leaned over the side and cupped a handful of water, and then tilted his hand so it ran out again. 'The law that makes the water fall back into the lake, it's a law like that. I can't tilt my hand and make the water fly upward. No more can I take her daemon to the land of the dead. Whether or not she comes, he must stay.' (AS 283)
And the same will go for Will, though he is from our world and so cannot yet see his daemon. As he and Lyra are rowed across the lake to the World of the Dead he feels "an agony building inside him" and notes that
Part of it was physical . . . as if an iron hand had gripped his heart and was pulling it out between his ribs . . . But it was mental, too: something secret and private was being dragged into the open, where it had no wish to be, and Will was nearly overcome by a mixture of pain and shame and fear and self-reproach, because he himself had caused it . . . So will knew that all those things were part of having a daemon, and that whatever his daemon was, she, too, was left behind, with Pantalaimon. (AS 285).
Not long after entering the World of the Dead, Will and Lyra begin to feel a kind of profound weakness and exhaustion.
Plato (Plato Phaedo 105d) and Aristotle (On the Soul 402a7, 413a22) both identified psyche (usually translated into English as "soul") with the principle of life. In his story of the soul, Plato initially considered the body (and its functions: sensation, appetite, etc.) as little more than a kind of prison. Later, however, in Republic Plato complicated his own story a little bit (Republic 441a). There, the soul has three parts: appetitive, spirited, and rational. Of these, only the rational part survives the death of the body. In life, the rational part Plato likens to a charioteer who must bend the horses of high spirit and appetite to his will. Though spirit can be steered into an alliance with the will of the rational charioteer, appetite can only be either unleashed or suppressed and whipped into a kind of passive acquiescence with the allied forces of reason and high spirit. Appetite, in this passage of Republic drives human beings to a sensual contact with the world (sight, sexuality, thirst, and hunger are the examples given) and is always thus embodied. Thumos, or high spirit, may lend affective force either to bodily desire or to disembodied reason. It is the task of the rational part of the soul to keep high spirit from allying itself with the appetitive body. This helps explain why, in the simpler schema of Phaedo, Plato's main character Socrates would welcome the death of his body as a relief, for his soul (or what in Republic is the rational part of his soul) may at last lay down the reins and partake without struggle of the happiness of reason, unencumbered by the sensuous appetitive impulses of the body.
While saying that the soul "cannot be a body, for the body is subject or matter, not what is attributed to it," Plato's earthier student Aristotle, wasn't so sure that any part of the soul could survive independent of the body it informed (On the Soul 412a19). He saw the soul as what he called the potentiality of the body's actuality; and compared the relationship of soul to body to that of shape to wax. And he was certainly clear that appetite, sensation, affect, and reason were all functions of a body informed by soul. Aristotle felt that plants had a kind of vegetative soul function, capable of nourishment, that animals had this function plus a sensitive soul function, capable of sensing and responding by movement to what they sensed in their environment, and that human beings had, in addition to these two soul functions, a rational soul function, through which we become capable of reflection (On the Soul 414b). I don't believe Aristotle would have accepted Plato's view (attributed to Socrates in Phaedo) that the soul would be better off without the body. But his story does seem to suggest a kind of hierarchy among these soul functions, with the rational function and the human being that possesses it ranking much higher than those functions more tightly bound to the matter and the body.
It's in this sense that Pullman's true story of "soul", if that's even the right word, goes beyond these classical Greek accounts as well as beyond many subsequent Christian and secular views that depend upon them. Let me quickly run through the dimensions of Pullman's "soul." It serves as: 1) a transmission belt for thought, affect, and sensation 2) an essential condition for intellectual and affective activity and expression, and 3) a generator of vital force. Now, to these, Pullman will add one more: sexuality. Lyra's society considers touching the daemon of another human being a gross violation of manners. Pullman gives a chillingly concrete sense of why, however, only when someone actually touches Lyra's daemon. Lyra accidentally falls into the hands of some of the doctors at Bolvangar. A struggle between Lyra and the doctors and between Pantalaimon and their daemons ensues when:
Suddenly all the strength went out of her.
It was as if an alien hand had reached right inside where no hand had a right to be, and wrenched at something deep and precious.
She felt faint, dizzy, sick, disgusted, limp with shock.
One of the men was holding Pantalaimon.
. . . . She felt those hands....It wasn't allowed....Not supposed to touch... Wrong.... (GC 275)
The description recalls what we might expect from a passage describing sexual abuse, particularly the molestation of a child. The violation renders Lyra immobilized, disgusted, and incapable of coherent thought. She physically feels the hands that touch Pantalaimon, and feels them "right inside where no hand had a right to be." The link between human and daemon now appears also as the site of sexuality. This view seems confirmed, with a reversal of values, when Lyra and Will, now in love, willfully break the taboo and touch each other's daemons: "Lyra gasped. But her surprise was mixed with a pleasure so like the joy that flooded through her when she had put the fruit to his lips [precipitating their first passionate kisses] that she couldn't protest, because she was breathless" (AS 498).
Lyra and Will are not the only ones to discover the link between daemons and sexuality. On the contrary, Mrs. Coulter (and of course the Holy Church) has also made the connection, as she explains condescendingly to Lyra long before Lyra has experienced this herself: "You see, your daemon's a wonderful friend and companion when you're young, but at the age we call puberty, the age you're coming to very soon, darling, daemons bring all sort of troublesome thoughts and feelings" (GC 284). She goes on to connect these "troublesome thoughts and feelings" and Dust, concluding "and that's what lets Dust in. A quick little operation before that, and you're never troubled again" (GC 284). Lyra for her part eventually intuits the connection between sexuality and the "settling" of a daemon's shape when, after she and Will touch each other's daemons, she concludes that "neither daemon would change now, having felt a lover's hands on them. These were their shapes for life; they would want no other" (AS 499).
So in Pullman's true story of the soul, we find all the functions traditionally associated with the soul. But the narrative force of Pullman's story leaves us feeling - because of our identification with the protagonists of the tale - that in his universe any position that would treat the soul as separable from or transcendent to the body, or as in any way immaterial, leads to cruelty and suffering. Moreover, it is clear that the special functions of the soul, in his universe, are not located in or embodied by the daemon, any more than they are located in or embodied by the human. Let alone are they located in some sort of ghostly ether. All of these functions, instead, Pullman situates immanently within the invisible, but very much material bond between human and daemon.
This emphasis on immanence and relations in the making of a self appears also in the stories of two contemporary philosophers. Gilles Deleuze tells a story whose main character is called David Hume. Hume, according to this story, looked and looked to find a tiny something in "human nature" that wasn't made up of relations. But he couldn't. Everywhere he looked in the human psyche he found relations: relations among his or her own various capacities (of sensation, perception, association, and invention, each of which was itself made up of relations) and relations among these and the varied set of relations that make up the rest of the world. As Deleuze put it in an interview sometime later: David Hume made "a vital discovery, a certainty of life which, if one really adheres to it, changes one's way of life." It is that "relations are external to their terms" (Deleuze and Parnet 55-7). It's the idea that relations between things are not less real than those things they relate. Relations are just as much things as things. "'Peter is smaller than Paul', 'The glass is on the table': relation is neither internal to one of the terms which would consequently be subject, nor to two together" (Deleuze and Parnet 55; Deleuze Empiricism 101, e.g.). "Smaller than" or "on" in the two sentences above should be taken, according to Deleuze, as substances, as things, not as secondary qualities or accidents of other, more "real" things like Peter, Paul, the glass, or the table. To say, as Hume did, that what we think of as our selves (i.e. human subjectivity) consists in nothing but a vast and complex collection of relations is not to say that we are nothing or even secondary. It is just to admit that no matter how deeply we look, there is no rock bottom relation-free core that we can point to as our "true self."
They have a life of their own, relations do - like the relation between a daemon and a human, which is, in some fundamental and encompassing sense, simply Life. Giorgio Agamben brings this uncannily back to Pullman's universe in a little story he tells about the Greek word "daimon" (from which, of course, our word daemon comes). Daimon, Agamben says, "neither indicates a divine figure nor merely refers to the one who determines destiny. Considered according to its etymological root (which refers it to the verb daimonai, 'to divide, lacerate'), daimon means 'the lacerator, he who divides and fractures" (117). In other words, Agamben differs from those who have interpreted the word daimon in Greek texts to mean a supernatural divine figure or some sort of essential guiding destiny. Instead, he wants, when we see the word daimon in a text to think in terms of a dividing force. With this in mind, Agamben reflects upon a fragment written by Heraclitus, a philosopher who lived long before Plato's time: ethos anthropoi daimon. Agamben explains that this is usually gets translated as "for man [anthropos], character [ethos] is the daemon [daimon]." But Agamben, in view of his deeper investigations of and meditation upon the term, paraphrases the passage this way: "Man [anthropos] is such that, to be himself [ethos], he must necessarily divide himself [daimon]" (118). Agamben's novel interpretation, like Deleuze's story about Hume, like Pullman's story about Lyra and Pantalaimon, puts the emphasis on the relation. There is no core to which some daemon could guide us to help us "be ourselves", because we become ourselves only in our relations, and first and foremost in that relation that we constitute with our daemons.
In both Deleuze and Agamben, we find a notion of the human subject (or soul or self or psyche) that underscores Pullman's own emphasis on the vital importance of the relation between human and daemon, independent of and equal to the importance of either of the two poles (human or daemon) of that relation. Here again - as with the images of the alethiometer and of Dust -- Pullman decisively falls in on the side of immanence and relations. Just as there is not, in his universe, any transcendental non-relational Truth nor any transcendental non-relational Reality, so also there is no transcendental non-relational Self to which we might turn if we are wondering who we really are. What we call a self is nothing more or less than the relation between our daemon and us. The relationship between human and daemon, as we have seen, forms upon birth and remains singular and unique to every human. This relationship simply is the self in Pullman's world, but this relation is also dynamic. So that we might say that the self in Pullman's universe is relational and becoming (rather than being).
This may explain why special capacities and experiences attend those who have complicated, while preserving the integrity of, their relationship with their daemon. Consider the example of touching a lover's daemon, as Will and Lyra do. In view of my story about the self-constituting relationship between human and daemon, the touching of a lover's daemon might suggest the sort of prodigious expansion and enrichment of the self that comes with the softening of its boundaries in sexual love. Thus, Will and Lyra, having declared their love and shared their first passionate kisses are drenched in Dust and "seem the true image of what human beings always could be, once they had come into their inheritance" (AS 470). Likewise, take the voluntary separation from one's daemon, for example, as Will and Lyra experience it in their adventure in the World of the Dead. Lyra may cry to the Boatman at the World of the Dead that she can't leave Pantalaimon behind because "he is me," and in some sense she might be right, but she's not entirely right. Perhaps in this case the Boatman or the laws for which he speaks, like Giorgio Agamben, may know better. Voluntarily testing one of the "natural" limitations imposed by the relationship, and enduring the subsequent pain, complicates the relationship between human and daemon. In this sense, I feel, it is as though it loosens the boundaries of the self and, in so doing, enriches it. And it makes sense to us when we discover that a voluntary separation from one's daemon at adolescence - which is not the same as intercision, just as sexual love is not the same as sexual assault -- forms part of an initiation rite among the witches and shamans in Lyra's world. In all these cases, the humans and daemons that undergo such a voluntary separation develop the ability to stray far from each other, without diminishing the sensorial, affective, intellectual or vital forces their relationship gives rise to. On the contrary, the humans and daemons thus "reconfigured" become capable of greatly extended powers of action since they may function, effectively, as two individuals sharing a single will but acting in two different places, far removed from each other.
4 The Subtle Knife and True Stories, or, How do we live?
The subtle knife was constructed in the late 17th century by Cittagazze's guild of philosophers, who were experimenting with matter and managed to construct a two-sided blade. One side is sharp enough to cut through even the strongest of materials as if through soft butter, while the other side, subtler still, is able to pierce the fabric separating one universe from another. Thus, the bearer of the subtle knife possesses the extraordinary capacity of opening "windows" between worlds. The knife has been handed down from the time of its invention from bearer to bearer through a fight in which the new bearer will lose a finger - which loss comes to be known as the mark of the bearer. Through a twist of fate, Will is pitted in such a fight with a usurper who has illegitimately stolen the knife from its proper bearer, the last in the line of guild philosophers. Winning the fight, and losing a finger in the process, Will becomes the bearer of the subtle knife and is instructed in the mechanics and rules of its use by the former bearer.
The subtle knife proves to be an instrument of great practical power. For centuries, the philosophers of Cittagazze grew wealthy, stealing into other worlds, robbing goods, and returning to Cittagazze unhindered (SK 187). With it, Will wins a stand-off with the mighty Iorek Byrnison, King of the fierce and otherwise invincible armored bears (AS 107), fends off the specters of Cittagazze (SK 234), can compel angels to do his bidding (AS 11), and of course moves freely in and out of numerous worlds. Indeed, the knife is also known as "aesahaettr", or "god-destroyer" and it is widely believed that it is the one weapon that, in Lord Asriel's hands, could decisively tilt in his favor the balance of his contest with the Authority. The only hint we have that the subtle knife might be anything other than an unambiguously good thing to have and to use comes when Will accidentally breaks the knife. Iorek Byrnison, king of the bears, master blacksmith, protector of Lyra and now-ally to Will, expresses reluctance when Will and Lyra ask him to mend the knife. Though he is capable of doing so, and trusts Will and Lyra's good intentions, neither he nor Will can perceive the edge of the window-cutting side of the blade, and Iorek believes they therefore cannot know the knife's "intentions" and fears that use of the knife may have unintended effects.
The alethiometer decides the issue when Lyra, at Iorek's bidding, consults it: "There was lots of things it said. I think I got it clear. I think so. It said about balance first. It said the knife could be harmful or it could do good, but it was so slight, such a delicate kind of a balance, that the faintest thought or wish could tip it one way or the other...And it meant you, Will, it meant what you wished or thought, only it didn't say what would be a good thought or a bad one. Then...it said yes. It said yes, do it, repair the knife." Moments later, she confides in Will that the alethiometer, also said "the knife would be the death of Dust, but then it said it was the only way to keep Dust alive." (AS 182-3). The ambiguity of the knife's relationship to Dust is resolved in the events that follow. The knife is repaired and, indeed, with it Will and Lyra are able to free the ghosts from the world of the dead, certainly a critical move in the battle to preserve Dust and keep it alive. However, Will and Lyra eventually come to learn of the knife's other, concealed, effects. It turns out that every time the knife is used to cut a window between the worlds, a spectre is created. Moreover, every opening between the worlds that goes unclosed functions as a kind of drain through which Dust leaves the universe.
If we consider what it makes possible, the knife would seem to be something like unlimited power and freedom, not only freedom to move unfettered, but also freedom to impose one's will unconstrained by the will or strength, let alone the needs or interests, of others. It is, in short, a means of transcending the constraints imposed by matter. Yet in Pullman's universe of material spirit, this kind of freedom - believed in and unscrupulously exploited by the guild philosophers of Cittagazze - carries the ultimate ethical cost. The use of the knife - even if one closes every window one opens -- creates spectres, which feed off the interest and attention of adults, draining Dust irretrievably into an abyss, and eventually rendering the world as lifeless and inert as a mechanical clockwork. In a sense, we might think of the guild philosophers as guided by a kind of very narrow instrumental, technological reason: one concerned with short term, local efficiency and not with the larger temporal or spatial webs of cause and effect. In this sense as well they seem driven by an impulse to transcend the limits of matter, since it is, after all, because of matter that we live in time and space.
Conversely, we might say, the preservation of Dust and so of the possibility of creativity and Life in the universe depends precisely on refusing the temptation of employing the transcending gifts of the knife. Such a "law" (law in the sense of a natural law, like the Boatman's law) is of a piece with the fact, conveyed to Will and Lyra by Will's father, that an individual's lifespan is drastically shortened by living in another world. The two laws taken together present Will and Lyra with an excruciatingly simple ethical choice: keep the knife and move back and forth between each other's worlds to live out their lives together in love, thus contributing to the destruction of Dust, or destroy the knife and with it any chance of ever seeing each other again and thus participate in the preservation of Dust. Individual happiness and fulfillment or the collective good? Will and Lyra come to realize that they actually could not be happy living out their lives together, knowing the collective cost exacted for doing so. In other words, they come to realize that in such a universe as this, their greatest and most durable happiness will come from destroying the knife and not merely accepting, but embracing the here and now of their lives in their respective worlds. As Will's father exhorts, 'we have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere" (AS 363). The knife then becomes a figure through which emerges a picture of at least one dimension of ethical action in a universe such as Pullman's: it must be immanent and attend to the relational character of being in this universe. I'd like to illustrate this further with one last little tale, about another "tool" that emerges from Pullman's trilogy as at least equal in power to - and far more durable and sustainable than -- the subtle knife.
When Lyra and Will discover and express their love for each other, and thus come to reflect a humanity come into its inheritance, it is because Mary Malone made a mistake. Recall that a ghost who told her to "tell them true stories" approached Mary at the opening from the World of the Dead. Well, Mary, whom the Shadows had informed would have to play the "serpent" to Will and Lyra's Adam and Eve, is at a loss as to how to do so, how to tempt them. So she takes the old ghost's injunction to apply to that task. Never mind that the ghost, as we shall see, knows nothing of Mary or her task and isn't talking about her at all. Mary believes that the "them" in the exhortation refers to Will and Lyra. And so, accordingly, she leads Will and Lyra into temptation with her own true story of renouncing her vows as a nun upon her discovery that the rich world of her senses filled her with a greater sense of connection and belonging than the dry path of renunciation advocated, indeed imposed, by the Holy Church, for example, in Lyra's world. She doesn't set out to tell this story, it just happens to be the true story appropriate to the occasion of the questions that Will and Lyra ask her about her life as a nun.
But that's often how it works with true stories and temptation, once we have rid them of their connotations of danger and darkness: they are, in other words, perfectly innocent. But also, perfectly experienced. In this sense, true stories are also pedagogical stories. In his beautiful book on education, the French seaman and philosopher Michel Serres writes, "No one really knows how to swim until he has crossed a large impetuous river or a rough strait, an arm of the sea, alone. . . Depart. Go out. Allow yourself to be seduced one day. Become many, brave the outside world, split off somewhere else. These are the first three foreign things, the three varieties of alterity, the three initial means of being exposed. For there is no learning without exposure, often dangerous, to the other" (4). Serres also explains that pedagogy always involves seduction and that such seduction, though it may well be a temptation, can only be called evil by those who would have us live in ignorance. Or, to put it in other words, by those who would constrain - or even sever -- our relationship with our daemon; who prevent us from becoming ourselves, as Giorgio Agamben might put it, by preventing us from splitting off, from venturing out, as if wandering through the woods, into the unknown. So Mary's story, like a teacher's, combines experience (it derives from having been somewhere, from having lived) and innocence (it doesn't necessarily set out to get anywhere in particular).
In this, as it turns out, in making this mistake, Mary actually complies perfectly with the apparently misunderstood injunction. For the old woman ghost offers Mary something like a report from the World of the Dead. There in that world, where the ghosts vegetate under the tormenting shrieks of the Harpies, Lyra and Will have made a deal. Asked by the ghosts to tell a story of her life, Lyra begins to tell her tale, which is also, of course, the tale we have been reading. As she does so, the Harpies quiet their shrieks and perch nearby to listen attentively. Earlier, when they questioned her entrance into the World of the Dead, Lyra had made up a story which had nothing to do with her actual experiences, prompting the Harpies to attack and taunt: "Liar, liar liar." But, now, the Harpies confess that Lyra's true story nourished them. With this in mind, they agree that they shall renounce the position given them by the Authority. Their new responsibility will be to conduct the ghosts through the World of the Dead to the passage into the world of the mulefa on one condition: "they will have to tell the truth about what they've seen and touched and heard and loved and known in the world" (AS 317). They have to tell, in other words, true stories, which is to say stories that integrate their experience of life, which is to say, their experience of sensorial ("seen and touched and heard"), affective ("loved"), and intellectual ("known) existence. This should not be too much to ask (except in the case of infants, who shall be exempt), the Harpies reason, and Lyra concurs, because "If they live in the world, they should see and touch and hear and learn" (AS 318). So a true story of the sort that can elude the World of the Dead is a story of experience, of a full experience of the world, just as Mary's tempting tale is a tale of experience.
And in Pullman's immanent universe, in which Republic of Heaven must be built right here and right now because "for us there is no where else", the very rootedness of these stories in a fully integrated sensual, affective, and intellectual experience is precisely what makes them innocent as well. For they don't aim for the Truth (in Plato's sense of aletheia), or even to achieve a particular goal (like the calculating manufacturers of the subtle knife). One may shape them, to be sure, according to one's pleasures and the circumstances of the occasion, but all the Harpies require is that one report one's experience. Beyond this, of course, lies the implication that one should have an experience to report. But that just sends us back to living life fully here and now. Not because otherwise we'll be consigned to a lifeless World of the Dead afterward, but because we'll be making a World of the Dead of our own lives here and now if we don't. Just a report. Just a true story. A true story (alethiometer) of the unfolding complexity of the relation that is oneself (daemon) in full sensual, affective, and intellectual engagement with the dynamic relation that is the world (Dust). In having no ulterior motive other than the communication of one life lived immanently from all the dimensions of our being with all the dimensions of the being of the world, the true story becomes at once both an experienced and innocent story and by being both of them, in Pullman's universe (which may be ours as well), a true story becomes a story to live by.
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I would like to thank students in two seminars - one for freshman and one for graduate students - at the University of Michigan for expanding my own readings of the novel; Vincenzo Binetti for guiding me at a crucial moment; Ana Ros for patiently reading and talking me through numerous drafts; and my children Adam and Eva Colás for first sharing with me the wonder and the challenges of His Dark Materials.
Because Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials is a work generally found in the Young Adult section of the bookstore, I'd like to offer a bit of background on the work. His Dark Materials consists of three volumes: The Golden Compass (1996; published in Britain as Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000). Though marketed for adolescents, and received (as an instance of the genre known as "high fantasy") almost exclusively by scholarly critics working within the field of children's literature, Pullman himself has insisted, and most reviewers and critics concur, that the work, like J. R. R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy or C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, offers an engaging, mature, and substantial narrative reflection on the kinds of themes (death, destiny, ethics, sexuality, religion, theology, innocence and experience, sin, and imagination, to name a few) that I and readers of this journal are accustomed to finding in canonical works of adult literature. As Millicent Lenz puts it: "'Where do we come from? Where do we go? What is our purpose as human beings and how should we conduct our lives?' These are . . . the kinds of questions asked by children and philosophers" (Introduction 2). Indeed, the final volume of the trilogy won Britain's prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year Prize, the first "children's book" to win the award. For more information on the trilogy, please visit the comprehensive website "Bridge to the Stars" at http://www.bridgetothestars.net or see Jones. Citations from the trilogy will be included in the text as follows: GC = The Golden Compass; SK = The Subtle Knife; and AS = The Amber Spyglass.
Though most of the critical work on the trilogy still consists of reviews and religiously oriented summary (e.g. Tucker, Loy and Goodhew, Rayment-Pickard, and Gooderham), several scholarly critics have published essays relating the work to various approaches current in academic literary and cultural studies today. Naomi Wood's two essays, written from within the sub discipline of children's literature, on the trilogy have linked it to ecocriticism and gender studies, and to issues of power (Wood "Paradise Lost and Found" and "(Em)bracing"). Anne-Marie Bird's two essays explore the metaphorical functions of Dust in relation to psychoanalysis and to deconstruction. And Millicent Lenz canvassed the extensive intertextuality of His Dark Materials. Yeffeth's very recent collection of essays bridges popular and scholarly approaches to the trilogy. Finally, a recently published volume of scholarly essays (Lenz and Scott) brings together works by several of the scholars mentioned above.
See Bird "Circumventing," in which the author reads Dust as Pullman's alternative to both Christian and European Enlightenment "grand narratives" in that the figure provides explanatory connections without closing off contingency or uncertainty.
I can't resist noting that, in fact, a favorite pastime of Pullman nerds (like myself and my kids, at least when they were younger) seems to be to imagine the shape of one's daemon and even to give it a name.
This also suggests why Pantalaimon (like other children's daemons) can change his animal shape to match or compensate for Lyra's affective state. In this aspect, daemons reflect the intensity, volatility, motility, and potential of children's affect and levels of interest (Wood).