Archive | May 29, 2007

The Wild Abyss

I’m a big fan of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, which has been called the “anti-Christian answer to Narnia.” (Though I’m a big fan of Narnia too. Knee-jerk pro-Christian attitudes and knee-jerk anti-Christian attitudes are both impediments to literary enjoyment, among other things.) It has also inevitably been compared with the Harry Potter series, though IMHO it’s much better written.

Lyra Belacqua and friend The books (mainly a trilogy, though there’s a fourth book of sorts, and rumors of a fifth on the way) take place in a parallel universe in which everyone’s soul is externalised in animal form (think “familiars”), and follows the adventures of a girl who may hold the secret to … well, it’s a long and complicated story, involving witches, gypsies, balloons, trepanning, talking bears, homosexual angels, human sacrifice, the rooftops of Oxford, holes in the fabric of reality, the I Ching, original sin, mental illness, the afterlife, lapsed nuns, Neanderthal skeletons, a frail and senile Jehovah, and a substance called “dust” which bears some resemblance both to the “dark matter” of contemporary physics and to the Jain version of karma. (Some plot points seem borrowed from Steven Brust’s To Reign in Hell.)

The theme of the series is the interplay between what Blake called “innocence” and “experience,” and the danger of overvaluing the former at the expense of the latter. At the end of the day I’m not sure that Pullman offers a coherent account of these two concepts, or that the ethical outlook of the third book can be reconciled with that of the first two, but the books are terrific nonetheless. The series is marketed as children’s fiction, but there’s nothing essentially juvenile about it.

The title comes from these lines of Milton’s:

Blake's Satan Into this wild Abyss,
The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds –
Into this wild Abyss the wary Fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage

Anyway, the first book, The Golden Compass (known as Northern Lights in England), is being made into what looks to be a beautiful, well-cast, and fairly faithful movie; check out the poster and trailer.

Some comments from the filmmakers have suggested that they plan to tone down the anti-Christian content. Other comments from the filmmakers have suggested that they don’t plan to do so. There’s not much anti-Christian content in the first book, though, so we’ll have to wait for the later films to see. Clone Wars (Some fans have also wondered how the films will handle the ending of the last book, which seems to imply sexual intercourse between the two main characters, both about thirteen years old. But that’s easy. The books take place within a few weeks of each other, but the studio plans to make its three films one every two years: thus by the time they get to the third film the stars will be 18.)

In other news, here’s the trailer for the new Clone Wars cartoon series, which seems to take place in the chronological interstices of the old one.

More clone wars? Hmm. That’s one period of Star Wars history that I don’t really feel I have a whole lot of still-unsatisfied curiosity about. Oh well.

More Spencer Nonsense, Part Deux

Earlier this month I wrote a letter to the New York Times and posted it here. Then I discovered that the Times would only print letters that haven’t appeared previously, so I deleted the letter from my blog. But since they didn’t print it anyway, here it is again:

To the Editor:

Patricia Cohen’s May 5th article “A Split Emerges As Conservatives Discuss Darwin” contains the following remarkable sentence: “Victorian-era social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer adopted evolutionary theory to justify colonialism and imperialism, opposition to labor unions and the withdrawal of aid to the sick and needy.”

Ms. Cohen’s charges against Herbert Spencer are false in every particular.

Herbert Spencer First: Spencer was in fact Victorian England’s leading opponent of imperialism; in Social Statics he described Western colonialism as bearing “a very repulsive likeness to the doings of buccaneers.”

Second: in his Principles of Sociology, Spencer hailed labor unions as a bulwark against the “harsh and cruel conduct” of employers, and advocated replacing the “slavery” of the wages system with self-governing workers’ cooperatives.

Third: far from advocating the “withdrawal of aid from the sick and needy,” he regarded the provision of such aid as a positive moral duty (though he stressed that it should be given in such a way as to avoid encouraging dependency).

Finally, inasmuch as Spencer developed and published his basic ideas on biological and social evolution prior to and independently of Charles Darwin, it makes little sense to describe him as a “Social Darwinist.”

Why do these bizarre distortions of a great humanitarian thinker persist?

Roderick T. Long

While, as I said, the Times didn’t print my letter, they did publish the following partial retraction:

A front-page article last Saturday about a dispute among some conservatives over whether Darwinian theory undermines or supports conservative principles erroneously included one social Darwinist among Victorian-era social Darwinists who adopted evolutionary theory to justify colonialism and imperialism. Herbert Spencer opposed both.

Score a victory for the Herbert Spencer Anti-Defamation League!

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