Friday, April 2, 2010

In the beginning was …

Yesterday I found myself taking a rather provocative position on the Passover holiday, initiated not so much by my own atheist inclinations as by the coincidence of a BBC report on labor conditions in today's state of Israel. This happens to be one of those years in which the celebration of Passover overlaps Holy Week, which is consistent with the unfolding of the events in the Passion narrative. Today is Good Friday, the most solemn day of Holy Week and, for those of us more musically inclined, the day for which Johann Sebastian Bach composed his setting of the Passion text from The Gospel According to Matthew. One thus has to wonder whether or not the London Telegraph deliberately chose this day to run Salley Vickers' review of Philip Pullman's latest novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. While Vickers make no explicit reference to any of the Holy Week rituals, her first paragraph makes clear how many of those who honor those rituals view Pullman:

Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was bound to become something of a hornet’s nest. Known for his dislike of organised religion and the unflattering portrait of God in his trilogy His Dark Materials, Pullman has been branded as a latter-day anti-Christ by those who evidently feel that the Christian spirit is best served by threat and unreflective antagonism.

Thus, by choosing to write about both Pullman and Vickers, I realize that I may be directing my own atheist skepticism in equal measure to the two religions for which this week is so significant.

I shall not try to summarize Vickers' review. I think it is sufficient to have provided a hyperlink to it. I do wish to explore one of the points that she makes, but first I would like to make some observations about the book itself. Most important is that I had heard nothing about this book until I encountered the Telegraph review. I discovered that it already has a page on in place, where one reads that the book has not yet been released in the United States but that it can be pre-ordered. There are, of course, plenty of books by European authors whose American release lags behind the "local" one; but one still tends to encounter news when such new titles are on the way. (Stieg Larsson's books are probably the best current example.) However, to the extent to which His Dark Materials embodies a conspiracy-theory view of organized religion, it is, at the very least, amusing to wonder whether or not the "radio silence" over Pullman's recent activities is a result of "dark powers at work!" More likely, however, is that those in "the trade" are more interested in tracking the progress of Danielle Trussoni's Angelology on best-seller lists and in its ability to attract reviews like the one by Geeta Sharma Jensen that appeared on the JSOnline site for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Now, with "Angelology," Trussoni storms into the fiction arena, successfully muscling into the world of the "DaVinci Code," vampire novels and heart-pounding Indiana Jones-like treasure hunts.

Even those who know Pullman only through the film version of The Golden Compass know that his books do not prompt language like this from his reviewers!

This brings us to Vickers' own approach, which amounts to a synopsis of the plot and an examination of its significance. Three paragraphs of that analysis particularly caught my attention and deserve further consideration:

Pullman is a supreme storyteller who knows better than anyone that a myth needs no justification. Myths give us the facts. They are not the “facts” of testable evidence but of a different order of reality. This distinction is one that it seems very hard for the modern mind to grasp. The ancients had no problem with it. History, science, philosophy and ethics were all conveyed through stories. The opening of St John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the word”, can be translated as, “In the beginning was the story”.

This is not to diminish or trivialise the significance or truth of that story. Indeed, that is done by insisting on it as historical fact which must be supported to the death, or to others’ deaths, or descried as childish and banal. The story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, for example, is not a historical account but an imaginative rendering of an existential condition which we all recognise: the feeling that we have in some sense lost an initial innocence and security to which we can never return. Only fundamentalists believe in a literal paradise; but most of us respond to the image, or the drama, and the image and the drama have their own reality.

The truths which myth deals in are more like the fundamental data of human consciousness; we have always played with them in an attempt to adumbrate life’s ambiguities and discover meaning. Freud grasped this when he formulated the Oedipus complex from the story of Oedipus, who kills his father and marries his mother, but Freud could not resist bending the myth to suit his own theoretical ends.

Begin with her observation about translating John's Gospel: The word subject to those two translations is the Greek "λόγος," which appears frequently in my own posts. However, when I write about it, I am not writing about its use in the New Testament but about the critical role it plays in Plato's "Theaetetus" dialog. Specifically, it arises in conjunction with the mistaken view that, in this dialog, Plato "defined" "knowledge" as "justified true belief." This wording does not appear in F. M. Cornford's translation. What we find instead is the following passage, in which Theaetetus makes his fourth attempt at giving Socrates a definition of knowledge on the basis of something he heard from an unnamed third party:

He said that true belief with the addition of an account (λόγος) was knowledge, while belief without an account was outside its range.

Cornford's use of "account" fits nicely with Vickers' use of "story;" and, even if Plato has Socrates refute Theaetetus' proposed definition, there is much value in recognizing the connection between "knowledge" and "story," as well as to another reading of "λόγος" as "description." We can also appreciate the extent to which an account provides justification for a belief, along with the recognition that the force of justification may be enhanced when the account is a narrative one. Thus, beyond what she says about Pullman's novel, I feel that the most powerful proposition in Vickers' text is her suggestion that it is through λόγος that we can come to those "fundamental data of human consciousness." She pursues this argument because she sees this conclusion as the ultimate message in Pullman's novel, which means that, ultimately, his book is less a reflection on how religions are practiced and more an extended elaboration of a hypothesis about the very nature of our consciousness. She further seems to suggest that through fiction Pullman can develop perspectives that continue to elude both scientists and philosophers, which would make his novel a pretty powerful book. Perhaps Pullman will establish himself as much as a threat to scientific conventions as to organized religion!

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