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“As if it would make a difference”: Philip Pullman on Stories

If The Once and Future King didn’t have overwhelming sentimental appeal for me, His Dark Materials would most likely be my favorite story. I love those books because they are so rich and weighty, and because they communicate a real love of the world—of nature in the grandest sense and of mortal, sublunary existence. I also love them because they are so obviously true. Philip Pullman knows how to tell a story, and he knows that fantasy can be real in ways that other ways of telling cannot.

In Laura Miller’s lovely New Yorker profile of the author, Pullman explicates his belief in fiction. He also engages in a little moral philosophy. It turns out that Pullman—an atheist, and famously so—is opposed to what we might call hegemonic readings; that is, readings that claim to be free of interpretation, without error, and beyond dissent. While I may not share his complete disdain for the Narnia books (I do think he’s right on when it comes to Tolkien, though) or his all-encompassing antipathy towards monotheism, I’m with him on that count.

Good postmodernist that I am, I don’t believe that “literal” readings are possible—to read, to understand, to explain is to interpret. Reading is an inherently subjective process. That doesn’t mean, however, that reading is meaningless. I believe that narrative and metaphor are powerful paths to truth—maybe even Truth. I spent my college years reading the New Testament as literature, and I ended up writing my senior thesis on the Gospel of Mark, a story which I believe demands personal engagement and provokes each reader towards a unique awareness. It is an engine for understanding. There is no authoritative reading; its truth is available to anyone who can read it.

Speaking not just of his own stories but of stories in general, Pullman is beautifully expressive. In an address he delivered earlier this year, he contrasts the “School of Morals”—the school of right living, which is articulated through novels and plays and all manner of good narrative—with theocracy:

In his speech, Pullman contended that the literary School of Morals is inherently ambiguous, dynamic, and democratic: a “conversation.” Opposed to this ideal is “theocracy,” which he defined as encompassing everything from Khomeini’s Iran to explicitly atheistic states such as Stalin’s Soviet Union. He listed some characteristics of such states—among them, “a scripture whose word is inerrant,” a priesthood whose authority “tends to concentrate in the hands of elderly men,” and “a secret police force with the powers of an Inquisition.” Theocracies, he said, demonstrate “the tendency of human beings to gather power to themselves in the name of something that may not be questioned.”
This impulse toward theocracy, he announced at the end of his speech, “will defeat the School of Morals in the end.” He sounded oddly cheerful making this prediction; in his books, Pullman enjoys striking a tone of melancholy resolve. He continued, “But that doesn’t mean we should give up and surrender…. I think we should act as if. I think we should read books, and tell children stories, and take them to the theatre, and learn poems, and play music, as if it would make a difference….

Those, I think, are words to live by.

December 29, 2005 | Permalink

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