Thursday, October 27, 2005

Philip Pullman on Blake's 'Dark Materials'

The following was posted on the UK Children's Literature email discussion list and is offered here with the permission of Tim Regan (whose notes they are). [Edit. NB: These notes are Tim's; I was not fortunate enought to get to Philip Pullman's lecture.]

Last night I went to see Philip Pullman speak on "Blake's Dark Materials" for the annual Blake Society lecture at St James's, Piccadilly. It was a wonderful lecture with a large (several hundred) and engaged audience. First up Tim Heath, the chair of The Blake Society, spoke to introduce the Society and its president, Philip Pullman. Tim "reminded" us that St James's was the church in which Blake was christened on Sunday 11 December 1757 at a beautiful marble baptismal font carved by Grinling Gibbons. (St James's also boasts a stunningly beautiful limewood reredos by Gibbons.)

"I am not a scholar, I am a moth"

Pullman started off with an analogy that he returned to later in the lecture: he likened himself to a moth, a moth that flutters around lights but that returns to some lights repeatedly. He also likened himself to a butterfly, and to a bee, but told us he'd return to sort out those analogies later.

We then turned to a lovely story about writers block, and Blake's rescue of Pullman. During the writing of The Amber Spyglass Pullman came across a book in a bookshop in Oxford on a subject that had intrigued him for a long time: Gnosticism. The book was A. D. Nutall's The Alternative Trinity: Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton and Blake. Far from confirming Pullman's understanding of Gnosticism and the themes of The Amber Spyglass he felt challenged: which plotlines needed more weight, which parts needed rewriting, which planned elements needed rethinking, had he studied this area enough, etc. He felt like he was in an exam without having adequately prepared and stopped writing (he didn't say how long this lasted). Blake came to the rescue when Pullman reread Blake's words in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

"I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create."

So Pullman realized that he could forge on, as a creator. He then addressed two questions and promised a third for later.

Question 1: What is a system?

The first question was answered by exploring several systems in use, e.g. "I'm a Christian". Systems give one an account of how the universe began and our role in it. A system might be religious, or it might be mythological, or it might be psychoanalytical, or it might be political etc. One example Pullman sketched out was Jung replacing Freud's system with his own. Pullman mentioned a "web of crystalline light" that seems to link and explain all the problems that one was previously perplexed by before one builds or discovers a system that works for you. But he made the point that the experience was the same, though the systems themselves differed dramatically. One thing that distinguishes Blake's system for Pullman is its detail and completeness. Pullman said that reading of many writer's systems was like looking at a landscape painting through a small window. One gets the impression that if one moves to the side one will see the edge of the picture, the frame, and the blank wall beyond. Reading of Blake's system is like looking through a small window at a landscape itself. One feels that no matter how one peers around the scene it extends on in every direction.

Pullman pulled out the system "science" for special consideration. He did feel that science (or the scientific method) could offer one a system: it is narrative. He used words like "austere", "noble", and "demanding" but in the end felt that science makes us become so insignificant in our own story that you'd need to be very brave to adopt it. Pullman also talked about the dangers of adopting systems unquestioningly, and asked whether a system had to console, but my notes and memory are thin on those points. I did try to tape the lecture using the voice-note facility of my mobile phone but it hasn't worked well enough to discern out what's being said.

Then we went onto...

Question 2: Should we create a system or be enslaved by one?

Pullman said this often boiled down to the choice between what you do well and what you feel is the right thing to do. One of the examples he gave was Sullivan, who felt that the work with Gilbert got in the way of his writing proper operas, but who performs his one proper opera now? Pullman used Ruskin's quote "slaves work - unredeemed" to further illustrate this point. Pullman also pointed out that having a system may help one's writing without the system itself being of interest. His example was Yates, apparently another big Blake fan, who wrote amazing poetry based within his system which itself was bunkum: "we wouldn't give tuppence for it if sold separately".

That lead Pullman to reveal his third question...

Question 3: Can a writer have no system?

The answer seemed to be "no". We bring with us so much context and experience of the world which forms an implicit system whether we accept it or not. Pullman did say that this approach, rejecting all systems, was the one he felt most intuitively drawn to, but that it was not possible. I also have the word "palimpsest" in my notes for this section but I cannot remember why!

Pullman noted that much of this implicit system is based on prejudices and preconceptions. He talked about how "as the sun moves around, the shadows change", meaning that we have prejudices written into our work that can only be seen by later generations. His example was the blatant anti-semitism of works in the first half of the twentieth century, which most authors were unaware of, but which on reading now casts a long shadow. We returned to this in the Q&A session where one questioner asked for Pullman's views on Shakespeare. Pullman replied that he knew more about Milton but that he was looking forward to learning more. But he did say that "Shakespeare's the closest we come to a writer with no system".

Lastly (ish) Pullman took us back to Gnosticism and whether it gave a system which Blake adhered to and which Pullman could too. Pullman gave a nice introduction to one key Gnostic heresy (whose name I forget): the real God is infinitely distant and our souls belong with him. A false god made the world we live in now. Here Pullman referenced another book, William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience. He talked about James' notion of "once born" people who have never had to forsake a system and find another; and "twice born" people who appreciate the world as more of a "double storied mystery". In passing Pullman noted that born-again Christians were really "once born" in James' taxonomy, and "shrill and enthusiastic". Pullman explained that Gnosticism is the natural refuge of the "twice born" and so it occurs frequently in modern culture: he gave The X-Files, The Matrix, and The Truman Show as examples. Pullman noted that Blake's genius was protean, and that he was not a Gnostic. He, like Pullman, could never be happy with a system which mistrusted and hated the physical world.

To wrap up Pullman distilled the continent within Blake's work that he had wandered around into seven axioms, seven axioms which he called "The Republic of Heaven". At this point Pullman was really in his flow and my note taking was falling way behind. (My dad used to teach shorthand at secondary school, why oh why didn't I get him to teach me?) Anyway here are the seven axioms of the Republic of Heaven:

Axiom number one: The physical world, this matter of which we are made, is amorous by nature. Matter rejoices in matter, and each atom of it falls in love with other atoms and delights to join up with them to form complex and even more delightful structures. "..and shew you all alive/This world, where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy." (Blake, Europe)

Axiom number two: things arise from matter-in-love-with-matter that are not themselves matter. Thoughts emerge from the unimaginable, the non-disentangle-able complexity of the brain, thoughts that are not material, though they have analogues in material processes, and you can't say where one ends and the other begins, because they are one thing and not two, and each is an aspect of the other. "Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five senses." (Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

Axiom number three: the consciousness that emerges from matter demonstrates that consciousness is a normal property of the physical world and much more widely diffused than human beings think. "How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense World of delight, clos'd by your senses five?" (Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

Axiom number four: bodily experience underlies, sustains, feeds, inspires, and cherishes mental experience. "Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. Energy is Eternal Delight." (Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

Axiom number five: we should use what works. And if invoking ghosts, demons, spirits, gods, demigods, nymphs or hobgoblins helps us to write, then we should banish the superstition of not being superstitious and invoke them without embarrassment or hesitation. "All deities reside in the human breast." (Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

Axiom number six: the true object of our study and our work is human nature and its relationship to the universe. "God Appears & God is Light To those poor Souls who dwell in Night, But does a Human Form Display To those who Dwell in Realms of day." (Blake, Auguries of Innocence)

Axiom number seven: the work we do is infinitely worth doing. "Eternity is in love with the productions of time." (Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

Pullman touched back on the insect analogy saying that he read like a butterfly but wrote like a bee, a phrase that's picked up again in the acknowledgements section of the 10th anniversary re-release of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy (which have some fun extras in like new chapter heading pictures and collected letters from Mary Malone, etc.)

Philip himself noted that "The lecture will be printed in full by the Blake Society in due course, I hope, and it will also appear in a book of my lectures and essays and other non-fiction, which David Fickling Books will publish."


Kelly said...

I'm printing this off until it is published. What an amazing lecture. I'm glad you were able to attend.

Michele said...

Er, I didn't ! Sorry, I thought that was clear from the fact that I said that the notes belonged to someone else...

I wished I could have gone, it sounds like it was a very interesting talk...

Mrs. Coulter said...

Wow! Thanks for posting this. I am very grateful.

Kelly said...

Ah, yes. I see that now. Ammended to say: "too bad you couldn't attend, but thank you for posting this anyway. What a wonderful talk."

Michele said...

You're welcome. I confess to posting it especially for Mrs Coulter, knowing she'd be thrilled to see it, but I posted it for other Pullman fans too...