Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Philip Pullman and gnosticism

I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy as they were published and loved them. I haven’t read them since and think it might be rather interesting to do so. An extract from his “controversial” (copyright, marketing departments everywhere) new novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was published in the Guardian last week, and it’s a curious piece of work. Firstly, it seems at times remarkably sloppily written. Both Mary and Joseph are described as having ‘wept bitterly’ within a hundred words of each other, which is indicative of poor editing. Pullman is straining for a voice that is part parable, part oral tradition, part modern-speak, and at times the combination sounds grating. For example:

Joseph was troubled. If this was really God's will, it must be his duty to look after her and the child. But it would look bad all the same.

Really, that ‘it would look bad’ is a dreadful piece of prose. It’s only a small step away from God ‘being there for him’. Similarly, the ending of the following sentence is simply lazy:

On the few occasions when Christ came close to Jesus, he did his best to avoid contact with him, but from time to time someone would ask him who he was, what he was doing, whether he was one of Jesus's followers, and so on.

And, what’s more, this is the second use of “and so on” within a page. It doesn’t read like a finished version to me.

But what most struck me about the story is how gnostic it is. People do comment that His Dark Materials is gnostic, but when I read the books I didn’t know enough about gnosticism to notice. Here, though, it is striking. The stranger who continually approaches Christ is clearly a gnostic Archon. He tells us:

"There is time, and there is what is beyond time. There is darkness, and there is light. There is the world and the flesh, and there is God. These things are separated by a gulf deeper than any man can measure, and no man can cross it; but the word of God can come from God to the world and the flesh, from light to darkness, from what is beyond time into time."


in writing about what has gone past, we help to shape what will come. There are dark days approaching, turbulent times; if the way to the Kingdom of God is to be opened, we who know must be prepared to make history the handmaid of posterity and not its governor.

The word “shape” appears over and over in gnostic literature (and Cormac McCarthy) while the idea of the Kingdom of God being opened – man finding the way out of his current prison – is also suggestive of gnosticism. That the stranger explains that this will happen because of those “who know” clearly places it within a gnostic context.

As the story develops it becomes clear that Christ has been identified by the Archon as a carrier of the fire:

"There is time, and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God."

Compare that last sentence with McCarthy’s The Road: “If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” The boy in The Road is also, of course, a carrier of the fire, as we are told throughout the novel. Eventually, he comes to realise this. “I am the one,” he tells his father. Here, Christ also comes to understand his position: ‘The words "we who know" were some of the most thrilling he had ever heard.’

In a BBC webchat, Pullman was asked if he was gnostic. His reply was equivocal:

Not really. The essence of gnosticism is its rejection of the physical universe and the whole tendency of my thinking and feeling and of the story I wrote is towards the celebration of the physical world. Nevertheless, gnosticism is a fascinating and very powerful and persuasive system of thought.

This is something that Pullman is clearly wrestling with. He discussed it at length in a speech to the Blake Society in 2005 (opens in a PDF), in which he pondered whether gnosticism was a system within which he could feel happy. Referring to William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, he concludes:

Gnosticism is a perennial system of radical existential scepticism that flares up in times of millennial crisis such as the present....The idea is that the real God is nowhere to be found in this universe, but is infinitely distant. Our souls... belong with Him, the distant unknowable God, and not here in this world, because each soul is a spark of divinity that was stolen and imprisoned here by the evil creator of the material universe, the Demiurge or false God who is worshipped by all those who aren’t in the secret. Only those who know can pass on the secret knowledge of how to find our way back to our true home. What could be more thrilling than to feel ourselves in possession of knowledge like that, and of a fate so grand and all-encompassing? To feel our own lives bound up so intimately with the origins and the destiny of the universe itself? It’s no wonder that the Gnostic impulse keeps flaring up again like an underground fire that can’t be put out.

Note that use of “thrilling”. It is the same word he uses to describe Christ’s reaction to “those who know”. Ultimately, though, Pullman edges away from gnosticism. He concludes:

The defining mark of Gnosticism is its mistrust and hatred of the natural world, its contempt for bodily experience, and that is why, for all the intoxicating excitement of the conspiracy theory of creation, I could never be a Gnostic...

Nonetheless, like many other modern writers, Pullman seems to find something seductive in the tenets of gnosticism, something which addresses the unedifying aspects of our contemporary existence. It is a dangerous seduction, precisely because of the objection Pullman raises that, at its most reductive level, it is antipathetic to the human experience.

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