Philip Pullman — the extended e-mail interview

Philip Pullman — the extended e-mail interview November 28, 2007

However much I might disagree with Philip Pullman’s beliefs and his characterization of Christianity in the His Dark Materials trilogy, it must be said that Pullman very graciously agreed to exchange several e-mails with me back in September, for my article on The Golden Compass that appears in the current issue of Christianity Today.

Only a fraction of this “interview” ended up in the article itself, but a lot of what he said was quite interesting, so I figured I’d post a longer, and slightly edited, version of it here. (“Slightly edited” here means that I have moved a few bits around, and inserted one or two follow-up questions and answers into the middle of a previous answer; plus I have deleted the usual “hi how are you” sort of pleasantries.)

As you can see, I had no idea how quickly he would respond, or how much opportunity there would be for follow-up questions, so I tended to bunch the questions up somewhat — and there wasn’t time for some of the follow-up questions that I might have wanted to ask. Maybe one day we’ll have a voice-to-voice conversation, but for now, this will do!

– – –

PTC: First, the obvious hook for this story is the upcoming movie version of The Golden Compass, and there has been some talk in the entertainment media of late about the movie “toning down” the perceived anti-religious elements. Nicole Kidman, for example, was quoted as saying that she would never have signed on to the trilogy if she had thought there was anything “anti-Catholic” about the movies; and Chris Weitz has said the focus of the trilogy will be on “Authority” rather than “God”, per se. From your perspective, is this an acceptable adjustment? Or has an important element of the book been lost? How do you anticipate the sequels, which in book form were more explicit about the religious-mythical elements than the first part of the trilogy, will deal with this? Can they be purged in a way that keeps the story’s narrative and thematic integrity? And how would you respond to, say, Kidman’s characterization of the trilogy?

PP: There are two ways to make a film: one is to spend several hundred million dollars, and the other is to spend about twenty thousand. Each imposes its own constraints. In the case of an expensive film, the people who put up the money obviously deserve to have their concerns taken into consideration. So do the stars. I know that Nicole Kidman, for example, was persuaded to take the part because she knew that the whole arc of the story of her character Mrs Coulter (and I hope I’m not giving away anything for people who haven’t read the story, but I can’t make this point without doing so) included not only great wickedness but also a great redemption, brought about by the growing love she helplessly feels for her daughter. That is only one of the moral turns and complexities that make this story very far from the simple “Pullman says that evil is good” nonsense put about by some stupid and tendentious journalism. As for the “Authority” business, I’ve always made it clear that theocracy – the political exercise of religious authority, which is what the Magisterium in the story embodies – is a special example of the regrettable tendency of humankind to believe in “one size fits all” answers: to cling to the extreme of dogmatic fundamentalism whether religious or not. In fact (and I’ve pointed this out too many times to go through it all again) the purest example of theocracy in the twentieth century was Soviet Russia. So I have no problem with the way the film has put the emphasis; it could hardly have done otherwise. Finally, as for the second and third films, no decision has yet been made to go ahead with them. It will depend on the box office returns, as everyone always knew.

PTC: How would you characterize your own beliefs? Atheistic, agnostic, materialist, etc.? A friend of mine who is both an atheist and a committed materialist told me she didn’t understand why His Dark Materials was being touted as an “atheist” trilogy, because the Dust seemed very “spiritual” and “mystical” and unnecessary to her. Tony Watkins has also written that the Dust makes the books more “dualist” than materialist. Do you think there is something “spiritual” about your books, and does this coincide with anything “spiritual” in your own outlook, or are people perhaps reading too much into a handy and very effective plot device? If your own views are more at the materialistic end of things, why do you think your books have pointed in a seemingly opposite direction?

PP: Deep waters here. Those who are committed materialists (as I claim to be myself) have to account for the existence of consciousness, or else, like the behaviourists such as Watson and Skinner, deny that it exists at all. There are various ways of explaining consciousness, many of which seem to take the line that it’s an emergent phenomenon that only begins to exist when a sufficient degree of complexity is achieved. Another way of dealing with the question is to assume that consciousness, like mass, is a normal and universal property of matter (this is known as panpsychism), so that human beings, dogs, carrots, stones, and atoms are all conscious, though in different degrees. This is the line I take myself, in the company of poets such as Wordsworth and Blake.

As for ‘spirit’, ‘spiritual’, ‘spirituality’ – these are words I never use, because I can see nothing real that seems to correspond with them: they have no meaning. I would never begin to talk of a person’s spiritual life, or refer to someone’s profound spirituality, or anything of that sort, because it doesn’t make sense to me. When other people talk about spirituality I can see nothing in it, in reality, except a sense of vague uplift combined at one end with genuine goodness and modesty, and at the other with self-righteousness and pride. That’s what they’re displaying. That’s what seems to be on offer when they interact with the world. And to my mind it’s easier, clearer, and more truthful just to talk about the goodness and modesty, or about the self-righteousness and pride, without going into the other stuff at all. So the good qualities that the word ‘spiritual’ implies can be perfectly well covered, and more honestly covered, it seems to me, by other positive words, and we don’t need ‘spiritual’ at all.

But in fact my reaction to the word ‘spiritual’ is even a little more strongly felt than that; I even feel a slight revulsion. I’m thinking of those portraits of saints and martyrs by painters of the Baroque period and the Counter-Reformation: horrible grubby-looking old men with rotten teeth wearing dark dusty robes and gazing upwards with an expression of fanatical fervour, or beautiful young women in sumptuous clothes with wide eyes and parted lips gazing upwards with an expression of fanatical fervour, or martyrs having the flesh ripped from their bones as they gaze upwards with an expression of fanatical fervour – gazing at the Virgin Mary, or a vision of the Cross, or something else that’s hovering in the air just above them. And you know that what they’re seeing isn’t really there; that if you were there in front of them, you wouldn’t see the Virgin sitting on a little cloud six feet above the floor; all you’d see would be the rotten teeth or the sumptuous clothes or the torn flesh and the expression of fanatical fervour. They’re seeing things. They’re deluded, in fact.

So the word ‘spiritual’, for me, has overtones that are entirely negative. It seems to me that whenever anyone uses the word, it’s a sign that either they’re deluding themselves, or they’re pulling the wool over the eyes of others. And when I hear it, or see it in print, my reaction is one of immediate scepticism.

Finally, back to Dust. And again I’m giving things away that might spoil the story, but Dust is my metaphor for all the things that your atheist materialist friend no doubt believes in as firmly as I do: human wisdom, science and art, all the accumulated and transmissible achievements of the human mind. This is both material (located in books, etc, and in living people who can talk about it) and, like consciousness, seemingly non-material. But without matter, it wouldn’t be there at all. Everything that is Dust is the result of the amorous inclinations of matter (Blake: “Eternity is in love with the productions of Time”).

PTC: Your trilogy does an amazing job of interpreting certain aspects of the Old Testament (and the legends surrounding it) quite literally (e.g. Enoch), and it touches on Church history too — but if memory serves, there is no mention of Jesus as a character in this cosmology. To some readers, this has been a curious gap. Where does he fit into your mythos? Given that the depiction of everything that came before and after Jesus — God, Enoch, the Church, etc. — is pretty negative, would Jesus himself have been “bad” somehow? Or, as a “good” person, did he not fit in?

PP: His omission from HDM was deliberate; I’m going to get around to Jesus in the next book. I have plenty to say about him.

PTC: I look forward to reading this. Any word on when it might be out?

PP: No, but not yet, I’m afraid. I spend too much time answering questions and doing that sort of thing.

PTC: What sort of response to your books have you been perceiving from Christians? Compared to, say, the Harry Potter ruckus. Have you been surprised by any criticisms? Surprised by a lack of criticism? Have Christian responses to your books been thoughtful, reactionary, etc.? Have you perceived any differences between England and North America in terms of the reception your books have had among Christian readers?

PP: The Christians at the fundamentalist or evangelical end of the spectrum have been so preoccupied with denouncing the wickedness of Harry Potter that they’ve hardly noticed me at all. There are one or two exceptions – a couple of Christian journalists have made it their business to attack me, but their readings of the book have been so comically inadequate that no-one has taken any notice of them; and at a public meeting I was once denounced by a Christian headmistress for advocating under-age sex, and it took no more than a couple of questions from me to establish that she had never actually read the passage she was complaining about. So if that’s the best – or the worst – that that sort of Christian can do, I have little to worry about.

Christians at the other end, what you might call the thoughtful liberal end of the spectrum, have on the contrary been very welcoming. Many of my most interesting letters have been from, many of my most interesting conversations have been with Christians both Protestant and Catholic. They can see that I take these big questions seriously, and that the morality – the values that the book as a whole upholds and champions – is something on which we can all fully agree.

PTC: There has been a lot of attention lately given to atheist books by the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (both of whom are British like yourself — coincidence? something in the culture?). Do you think the broader cultural discussion raised by these books might help pave the way, in a sense, for The Golden Compass and its sequels? Is there a sense in which maybe His Dark Materials was ahead of the curve?

PP: The success of Dawkins and Hitchens – and Daniel Dennett for that matter – is a sign, to me, that the broad culture is much more questioning and open-minded than many people assume. But the things those three write are different from a novel like HDM, and HDM is different from polemic and argument like ‘The God Delusion’. I am a storyteller. I revel in the ambiguities and shadows and suggestions of metaphor. Dawkins too, in his science books, is a storyteller – a great one – and his use of metaphor there is masterly. If I have a criticism of ‘The God Delusion’, it is that he seems to over-simplify, to insist on one single literal meaning for the word ‘faith’, and that he doesn’t acknowledge that God is a metaphor – just as Dust is.

PTC: Hmmm, could you tease this out a bit more? I can understand Dust as a metaphor within a work of literature, but in what sense is God a metaphor? (I assume both you and Dawkins are referring to God as he is perceived in the real world and not in a work of fiction — and certainly the people Dawkins takes issue with would see God as more than metaphorical.)

PP: I don’t expect Christians to see God as a metaphor, but that’s what he is. Perhaps it might be clearer to call him a character in fiction, and a very interesting one too: one of the greatest and most complex villains of all – savage, petty, boastful and jealous, and yet capable of moments of tenderness and extremes of arbitrary affection – for David, for example. But he’s not real, any more than Hamlet or Mr Pickwick are real. They are real in the context of their stories, but you won’t find them in the phone book.

PTC: Your trilogy is frequently compared to the writings of Lewis and Tolkien, and it coincided with the rise of Harry Potter. Were you consciously “responding” in some way to, say, the Narnia books when you wrote His Dark Materials, or were you writing out of a more general desire to express a viewpoint that happens to disagree with Lewis’s in some profound ways? I am also curious as to what you make of J.K. Rowling’s series, now that it is finished; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows quotes the New Testament approvingly, and is very much concerned with the continuation and integrity of the soul after death; indeed, one sign of Voldemort’s evil is that he has divided his soul in the horcruxes. This seems at odds with the thrust of your own trilogy, where the continuation of the soul or personality beyond the grave is something to be escaped, and the spirits of the dead are happy to be dis-integrated. What is your take on the Harry Potter books and movies? Are they too “Christian”? Or, perhaps, do they share with your books a distrust of “Authority” and a decentralized, “Republican” view of Heaven? (As some people have noted, there is an afterlife in Rowling’s books but no direct role for God.)

PP: I have only read the second of the Harry Potter books, and I can’t say very much about them.

PTC: The second but not the first? Interesting! Any particular reason?

PP: Simply that I was asked to judge the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award, and it was on the shortlist.

As for Narnia – I’ve expressed my detestation for that series on several occasions and at length, so I won’t say very much about it here, except to note something that some commentators miss when lumping Lewis and Tolkien together, which is this: that Tolkien was a Catholic, for whom the basic issues of life were not in question, because the Church had all the answers. So nowhere in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is there a moment’s doubt about those big questions. No-one is in any doubt about what’s good or bad; everyone knows where the good is, and what to do about the bad. Enormous as it is, TLOTR is consequently trivial. Narnia, on the other hand, is the work of a Protestant – and an Ulster Protestant at that, for whom the individual interaction with the Bible and with God was a matter of daily struggle and endless moral questioning. That’s the Protestant tradition. So in Narnia the big questions are urgent and compelling and vital: is there a God? Who is it? How can I recognise him? What must I do to be good? I profoundly disagree with the answers that Lewis offers – in fact, as I say, I detest them – but Narnia is a work of serious religious engagement in a way that TLOTR could never be.

I leave it to others to say whether, or in what ways, HDM resembles or doesn’t resemble HP or Narnia or TLOTR.

PTC: A number of commentators have argued that, while your books are critical of Christianity etc., they nevertheless reflect Christian virtues such as love and self-sacrifice. Six years ago, Daniel Moloney wrote in First Things magazine that, “if the Christian myth actually is true, you would expect a gifted storyteller trying to tell a true story to arrive at many Christian conclusions about the nature of the world we see.” How do you respond to this sort of analysis — both as an evaluation of your work (does it carry within itself a latent Christianity?) and for what it says about Christian critics who have tried to engage with your books?

PP: My answer to that would be that I was brought up in the Church of England, and whereas I’m an atheist, I’m certainly a Church of England atheist, and for the matter of that a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist. The Church of England is so deeply embedded in my personality and my way of thinking that to remove it would take a surgical operation so radical that I would probably not survive it.

But that doesn’t prevent me from pointing out the arrogance that deforms some Christian commentary, and makes it a pleasure to beat it about the head. What on earth gives Christians to right to assume that love and self-sacrifice have to be called Christian virtues? They are virtues, full stop. If there is an exclusively religious sin (not exclusively Christian, but certainly clearly visible among some Christians) it is the claim that all virtue belongs to their sect, all vice to others. It is so clearly wrong, so clearly stupid, so clearly counter-productive, that it leads the unbiased observer to assume that you’re not allowed in the religious club unless you leave your intelligence at the door.

PTC: If I can move from the personal to the communal or societal, would you say that substituting a God-less “Republic of Heaven” for the “Kingdom of Heaven” might be a form of “radical surgery”? Does atheism benefit from the Christian heritage, and how can a society that turns to atheism survive without it? (As you noted, one of the worst regimes we have ever known was Soviet Russia — a system that, while theocratic in form perhaps, was certainly officially atheistic.)

PP: But the problem with Soviet Russia wasn’t the atheism, it was the totalitarianism. The totalitarianism is also the problem with Saudi Arabia, as it was with the Taliban’s Afghanistan, with Calvin’s Geneva, with the Inquisition’s Spain …

Does atheism benefit from the Christian heritage? Of course it can benefit from the best of it. I would hate to live in a world where all the Christian art, philosophy, literature, music, and architecture, not to mention the best of the ethical teaching, had been obliterated and forgotten. My own background, as I’ve said many times, is Christian to the core. Christianity has made me what I am, for better or worse. I just don’t believe in God.

PTC: Perhaps what made the virtues seem “Christian” in this case was the narrative form in which they were expressed; Moloney alludes to a parallel between your mythos and the Christian mythos in which the world is held hostage by an evil supernatural entity, and a messiah is needed to conquer the spirits of lust and domination with innocence and humility at great personal cost, etc. “Such a story is not subversive of Christianity, it is almost Christian, even if only implicitly and imperfectly,” he writes.

But moving beyond that, Tony Watkins, for one, has raised the point that true virtue doesn’t seem possible in a materialist world, because no one truly acts freely; instead, our actions are the end results of various deterministic (and, following quantum physics, random) forces — our genes and memes, basically. (My phrasing, not Tony’s.) It may be wrong to say that virtues belong to a particular religious sect — and I would agree — but without some sort of religious basis, there seems to be no particular motivation to be virtuous, nor does it seem possible.

Does looking at it from that angle make any more sense?

PP: Well, I think that’s a very bleak and limited view of human possibility. No motivation for virtue if you don’t believe in God? What about the joy you feel when a good action of yours brings a happy result for someone else? What about the basic empathy we feel even for creatures who aren’t human – a rabbit caught in a trap, a little bird inside the house trying to get out through a closed window, a polar bear drowning in a world where the ice is melting? That’s not due to religion: it’s due to the fact that we’re alive and conscious and able to imagine another’s suffering.

As for the existence or otherwise of free will, that is so profound a question that philosophers and scientists have been plumbing it for centuries if not millennia and the answer is still as far off as ever. But the only way we can live, it seems to me, is to believe that our will is free. A sort of psychological confirmation of this (though, like everything else, it may be deceptive) is that good things, or the right things to do, involve more effort than bad things, or the wrong things. We have to struggle against ourselves sometimes, and thus we can ‘feel’ the existence of free will, even if we can’t demonstrate it logically or scientifically.

It’s always interesting to see things from another angle, and it’s important to be able to. But (a short lesson from film) there may be two or three good angles to shoot from, but there are dozens of bad ones: i.e. camera angles that are ‘expressive’ of nothing but the director’s wish to draw attention to himself rather than the story. The ‘best’ camera angles are those that show the subject most clearly so that the audience is not distracted from the story. Students and young directors, and bad directors, love the eccentric angles; great directors most of the time go for the plainest and simplest. The plainest and simplest description of the world, for me, and the truest, is that there is no God, but that human beings are capable of great goodness and great wickedness, and we don’t need priests or Popes or imams or rabbis to tell us which is which.

PTC: I finally got a copy of Killing the Imposter God yesterday — thanks again for the tip! — and while I have only had a chance to read bits of it so far, they draw parallels between your book and a movement among theologians during the mid-20th century that sought to do away with the “medieval” understanding of God and replace it with something more sophisticated. The authors of this book say they are reading the trilogy on its own terms, without looking at it through the grid of comments you have made in essays and interviews, and they say “we find some of the most eloquent testimony against Pullman-the-atheist in Pullman-the-writer”. They also write, “Even as Pullman is killing off his medieval imposter God, he raises up for his readers a divinity fit our age”. This then ties in to their reading of Dust. Their approach leads me to wonder … if, as you (quoting Blake) have said, Milton was of the devil’s party and didn’t know it, is it possible you are of God’s party and don’t know it?

PP: That would be embarrassing, wouldn’t it? But I think this question touches something that I answered in my previous email, namely the tendency among Christians (and no doubt other religions too) to think that anything they like in the work of an avowed atheist or agnostic is a sign that really the said a. or a. is deluding himself, and that he’s really Christian, only he doesn’t know it. But I resist that interpretation, as you’d expect me to. I’m not deluded: Christians are. There is no God.

PTC: If I can put it this way, do you think your stories are dangerous? Should they be dangerous? I know some Christians who brush the books aside because, well, they’re only fantasy. How would you respond to that? (I do not mean to imply, by the way, that “danger” is necessarily bad — you may recall that line in the Narnia books about Aslan being “good” but not “safe”. The best books, I think, are always a little “dangerous”.)

PP: I expect you’re right, but it would be a bad idea for a writer to think that if ‘good’ books are ‘dangerous’, then ‘dangerous’ books are necessarily ‘good’. Once you start measuring your success by the amount of fuss you cause, you’re measuring the wrong thing. In fact you shouldn’t either know or care what people think of your work. Much better to write as if no-one will read it at all.

PTC: One of the books I’ve read — Shedding Light on His Dark Materials by Kurt Bruner & Jim Ware — addresses the question of “authority” as it is treated in your trilogy, and they make a point or argument that had not occurred to me, at least not in so many words: That characters like Farder Coram and John Faa embody what authority — particularly of the paternal, fatherly type — should be like, and therefore the story speaks to a “hunger” for fathers and even for authority itself.

Given that opposition to authority and, indeed, to the Authority is a major theme in the trilogy, how would you respond? What place for authority might there be, if any, in a “republic of heaven”?

PP: Thanks for letting me know about this book. I’d never heard of it.

Briefly: yes, you could certainly read John Faa, Farder Coram, and even Iorek Byrnison as being images of benevolent paternal authority. It was important for Will, for instance, who knows his father for such a short time and yet whose search for him drives much of what he does, to see that it’s possible to be both powerful and good. To quote from the last chapter of The Amber Spyglass:

“For Will’s part, he admired the massive power of Lord Faa’s presence, power tempered by courtesy, and he thought that that would be a good way to behave when he himself was old; John Faa was a shelter and a strong refuge.”

I’m sure there’s a religious echo in that last phrase. But as I do all through the book, I hope, I locate this quality firmly in a living human being, and not in some distant or imaginary or abstract God. Qualities such as authority and love and kindness – or their opposites, such as cruelty or evil – are not abstract. They have no existence outside human life. They can only exist when embodied in a human being. That is where the difference between me and a Christian is most clearly marked, I dare say.

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