... but I stopped. Now I'm a dad, and may blog again...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

349: Dark Materials and Dæmons

Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine 

"Sisters," she began, "let me tell you what is happening, and who it is that we must fight. For there is a war coming. I don't know who will join with us, but I know whom we must fight. It is the Magesterium, the church. For all it's history [...] it's tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can't control them, it cuts them out. Some of you have seen what they did at Bolvanger. And that was horrible, but it is not the only such place, not the only such practice. Sisters, you know only the north: I have travelled in the south lands. There are churches there, believe me, that cut there children too, as the people of Bolvanger did – not in the same way, but just as horribly – they cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls – they cut them with knives so that they shan't feel. This is what the church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling..."

This quote comes early on in The Subtle Knife, the second book of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. It is the first explicitly spoken summation of a major sentiment expressed within the plot of the first book, Northern Lights. In Northern Lights we meet the General Oblation Board, a dangerous and powerful Christian council obsessed with bizarre and cruel experiments. They have devised a method of severing children from their dæmons (physical manifestations of their souls expressed as companion animals). The result is hideous mutilation, dispair, shock, and death. This is done in the name of persuing an interest in an elementary particle known as Dust which may or may not be material evidence for Original Sin.

So clearly is this an accurate analogy of the place and purpose of religion in the real world that it may not have needed to have been stated so explicitly. The complex and intruiging plot, I think calls for a bit of occasional overstatement to add occasional spots of clarity to the mist and the intreige. The direct statement is that male and female genital mutilation (sometimes euphemised as circumcision, and widely accepted as normal when inflicted upon baby boys) is an obscene evil, and any person or organisation that practises it must be punished and destroyed.

Earlier in the trilogy Lyra, the main protagonist, is told about the old Catholic practise of creating castrati singers by cutting off the testicles of a young boy. Most grow into fat deformed half-men, but some retain a bizarre, delicate singing voice. This, apparantly, is what god wanted to hear, and his followers in the church were more than happy to butcher young boys in order to do so.

But the cutting that is done to children and their dæmons in the His Dark Materials universe is easily and obviously interpretted to mean more than that obscene attack on child's genitals. The cutting experiments are, via some twisted dogmatic unthink logic, intended to preserve a childs innocence by proventing them from growth into adulthood and the accompanying feelings. The cutting that real-world religions do is always intended to stifle and control humanity. Feelings that make us human such as love, lust, greed, jealousy, are condemned as sinful and banned. To add to that is the disgusting concept of Original Sin; thanks to our earliest ancestors desire for knowledge and disobedience of god, we are all born sinners – the sins of the father. So religion cuts away our humanity with laws and punishment, in this life and the fabricated next.

The speaker of the quote at the beginning of this post is a newly introduced character, a witch called Queen Ruta Skadi, speaking as a guest at a council of witches we have already accepted as goodies thanks to their actions in the first book. As yet I know nothing about this Skadi witch ; her motivations and eventual fate remain a mystery to me, so although I firmly agree with her opening words, I still retain my healthy skepticism. I find this wise especially with regards to her continued words:

"...So if a war comes, and the church is on one side of it, we must be on the other, no matter what strange allies we find ourselves bound too."

This is an evil I see as great and misguided as religion itself. It is the attitude that makes Western lefties oppose the toppling of Middle Eastern dictators by Western governments ; taking the side of any evil as long as it hates the West. It is the attitude that makes Western liberals afraid to condemn practices such as female genital mutilation, and female veiling in Islamic countries, because of a pathetic adherance to cultural reletivism.

It is also the seed of a weak argument used against atheism ; that which states that atheist societies are best summed up by the practices of Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany (which out of these four examples can immediately be ignored because it wasn't atheistic and had close ties to the Catholic church), Mao's China, or North Korea. Communist Russia, China, and North Korea, although constitutionally atheist, can more accurately be summed up as personality cults. God is replaced by the general, the supreme leader, the chairman. His picture adorns every wall, his word is final and all-knowing, he is not just a god, he is superior to god.

So although these societies are not churches, they should not be sided with against churches, as they are an equal or perhaps greater evil. Through their pretence towards communism, great leaps forward, and extreme-left greater-goodness they create such an evil that Queen Ruta Skadi would be a vicious fool to side with them.

I have no wish for spoilers and will not google or wikipedia for hints as to this new characters eventual fate, but I fear that unless she sharpens her thinking, she will not achieve her goals. If a lesser evil topples a greater evil, the lesser rises to fill the vacuum.

I'm not sure I have ever read an adults book as rich and complete as this supposed kid's trilogy.

-both quotes from Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife.

Satan struggles through hell in a Gustave Doré illustration of Paradise Lost.

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