Friday, August 03, 2007

My Daemon is a Tiger

Not that I'm in the least surprised. Excuse me a moment while I preen and reach for my favorite Angela Carter story.

Find your demon here:

(That's Northern Lights for you Brits).

And if you haven't read His Dark Materials yet but promised me you would, you have exactly four months.


Sancho said...

It is extremely irresponsible of you to place means of procrastination in the way of your readers ;-)

The creature compass seems to be biased towards feline animals, a snow leopard in this case. Now I'm sure that there are worse identities to assume - a rat or a chicken for example - but that doesn't mean that it deserves any credit for failing to discern my antipathy towards cats...

I've been writing about animal spirits recently - so it leaves me wondering whether Pullman is deliberately referencing the early modern phenomenon. The idea of animal spirits goes back of course to Galen, but he assumed that these spirits flowed through the blood, before the separate workings of the circulatory and nervous systems had been discovered. From Descartes to the English physicians of the 18th century, however, men of medicine became intrigued by the workings of the nervous system, and devised a theory whereby the nerves were tiny canals filled by special fluids or 'animal spirits'. These spirits flowed throughout the body, moving constantly, transmitting perceptions, and responsible for thoughts, and memories, and dreams as they left particular impressions in the ventricles of the brain.

Two developments helped to modify and subsume this theory: the first, pursued by David Hartley, believed the nerves to be solid, and explained perception in terms of nervous vibrations; the second was the discovery by Galvani and Volta that electrical currents were responsible for motion in the body.

Now, if we assume that Pullman, given his interest in early modern fiction, is familiar with the animal spirit theories, what is he trying to do with them in these books? On the one hand, animal spirits were used as a means of explaining the interaction between soul and body, between the immaterial and material forces of man. By rejecting the animal spirit theory, numerous thinkers were led to a materialist position, where motion and thought were seen to be self generated, which left the soul rather redunant. Given Pullman's hostility to Christian theology, I would have thought he would have sympathised more with the latter view.

One explanation, perhaps, is that the animal spirits theory was linked to a certain view of the role of the passions, in which our impulses were in many senses beyond our control; swayed as we were by external forces that could upset the spirits in the nervous system. Perhaps it is this view of the freedom of human passions with which Pullman sympathises? With the move to electrical theories in the later 18th century, there seemed to be much more scope for controlling the body's unruly nature by mechanical means, of taming the body, and our lusts and loves. Pullman appears to loath, perhaps understandably, the sexual repression promoted by much organised religion, so this may make his position more comprehensible.

Perhaps this is the excuse to read his work that I have been needing...

muse said...

S- there's an article in there, I feel sure of it. With crossover appeal! History of science meets early modern studies meets children's lit.

I think there is also a Latin word for animal spirits/souls. Although I could be mistaken because I last remember hearing it two years ago at the Ph.D. party and I had had a bit too much to drink at that point. John C. from my grad program knows. John, are you out there?

Also- doesn't the idea of animal spirits go back to before Galen. Like maybe Ovid? Or Pythagoras?

muse said...

Pullman is not hostile to Christian theology. First off, it's FICTION not philosophy. And second, his main influence is Milton! Third, his book imagines a world governed by a corrupt and dogmatic theocracy that just happens to be Christian. Read the books already!

muse said...

Final point- Yes you are right about Pullman's interest in sexual repression. But I think this is more his indebtedness to Blake (and Blake's indebtedness to Milton in the end). But again, he's not anti-theology. He's anti-theocracy.

sancho said...

Gosh - thank you for all the comments, Muse, even if you are providing me with a distraction ;-)

1. 'doesn't the idea of animal spirits go back to before Galen. Like maybe Ovid? Or Pythagoras?'

In all probability you are right - I'm certainly not going to pretend to be an expert on classical pneumatology. I used Galen only because a) he seems to be the reference point for the early-moderns and b) perhaps provided the first systematic explanation of the relation between animal spirits and human neurology, but I wouldn't be surprised if he were indebted to even earlier thinkers. How did Ovid conceive of these spirits?

2. 'Pullman is not hostile to Christian theology. First off, it's FICTION not philosophy. And second, his main influence is Milton!'

But the same could be said for another Miltonist CS Lewis, whose fiction the author most certainly did want us to read as theology. And I'm pretty sure that Pullman is on the record as saying that he wishes his novels to be seen as the antithesis of the Narnia series; to 'do for moral atheism what Lewis did for Christianity'. I can't quite see how it can be plausible that Pullman does 'not' have a theological or philosophical agenda.

I'm aware that Pullman claims he is anti-Church rather than anti-Christian, but I don't think that's quite the same as being anti-theocracy. If this were true, why did he not use a little imagination and incorporate some aspects of religions which are truly political in formulation, such as Islam? I agree wholeheartedly with Pullman that fiction is at its most powerful when it deals intelligently with moral issues, but by setting up the Church in its most caricatured form, there must be a danger that he ends up blowing raspberries at a banality. From what I understand though, these caricatures are are much worse in the last book in the series than in Northern Lights/Golden Compass.

3. 'Yes you are right about Pullman's interest in sexual repression. But I think this is more his indebtedness to Blake'

Ah - this makes sense in terms of Blake's emphasis upon the creative impulse, and the erotic aspects of his art. But I've always thought of Blake as pursuing a reformation of religion rather than bringing death to God.

Didn't Blake make the sentient point that the power of religions stems from their being able to control sexual behaviour? If so, perhaps this is carried forward in what must be the thinly veiled criticisms of circumcision in Pullman's work: or to what else is all that talk about incisions and knifes a reference?

In which case Pullman is perceptive, because it is this aspect that most has evangelicals up in arms, who I've seen repeatedly make the claim that Pullman is promoting sexual immorality...

Another excuse to read the books!

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