Three Short Opinions
on Philip Pullman, Charles Dickens, & Freddie deBoer
The below has been excerpted from my personal reading journal (and lightly edited)—spoilers abound. I enjoyed all texts referenced much more than these brief blurbs might suggest.
The Reverent Philip Pullman
Well. I've finally gone and read the anti-Narnia, and it was a hoot. Credit to Pullman, and credit to Lewis, who still has a more elegant multiverse than any of his haters or wannabes. The Wood Between the Worlds may not draw on quantum yadda yadda but it's a more captivating, memorable image than almost any of its multiverse cousins.
Also, it turns out Pullman’s “battle against heaven” is barely important to the plot of His Dark Materials, to the stakes of “the world will be destroyed!” I know it sets some of the players in motion, but the disaster that Lyra and Will’s preteen sex is supposed to stop has... nothing to do with heaven or Asriel or any of that? The disaster, the stakes, all (secretly!) revolve about the Subtle Knife and a cosmology that both Pullman's gods and creatures are subjected to.
In some ways, that's smart. His atheist chest-thumping is the worst part of the trilogy by far, and a cosmology that enwraps the church and angels and god, while furthering mystery, is a better angle of attack, certainly a better worldbuilding tack. In other ways, what the hell? He doesn't know what to do with Coulter or Asriel right until he's killing them. There was something too consistently incoherent about those two, and the battle against heaven in general, to be ignored. It was like a spur in the side of the entire plot. Or worse. Elements were incredible, and my own fractured reading (I listened to much of it while commuting) probably played a role. But he too often fails to land his setup. Coulter's change of heart? Unexplained, off-stage. Asriel's killing of Roger? Ignored, forgotten. Will's father learning of the bomb and saving Lyra's life? Deus ex machina without even the courtesy of believing in God.
In truth, though, the inconsequence and ineptitude of Asriel is (maybe) a sign of Pullman’s haunted reverence. He’s referred to himself as a "A Church of England atheist,” and within this trilogy he only mentions Jesus once, and that's put in the mouth of a former nun. His profanity, basically, only goes so far. Enoch as the main bad guy? Not even St. Michael?? His Anglicanism clings to him. I haven't read his (presumably terrible) book about Jesus, but he's gone out of his way to be respectful of dogma in a way his critics don’t seem to acknowledge. It’s almost Evangelical. He hates the church, but his fake-god drifts away, not killed by any human character, but by demon-like beings and, again, more or less off-stage. Even the posturing irrelevance of Lord Asriel, the way his bomb is created through murder and adds to the metaphysical disaster of Dust, carries a criticism of New Atheism that I'm not even sure Pullman intends.
In short, for a trilogy that deeply loathes the Roman Catholic church, the most self-defeating points of plot and character all revolve around flamboyant anti-Catholics. The substitution of Enoch as the villain instead of any major Christian figure (again, St. Michael!?) tells you all you need to know: the God of the Bible isn’t present, much less a target Pullman manages to mar.
The Minor Scope of Victorian Epics
Despite how much real estate Dickens chews up, his cast of characters in David Copperfield is pretty limited. A little like The Moonstone, I couldn’t escape a feeling of smallness from beginning to end. We see a few different parts of England, and we meet a memorable series of portraits, but the boys he befriends in his youth are the ones we follow into adulthood, and the same with Agnes and Peggotty and Mr. Peggotty and Emily—he’s writing a novel, I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s such obvious narrative constrictions. But the vitality with which he insists on recalling his life (however fictionalized), often made me notice the artificial narrowness of its scope. You have written 800 pages! Surely you met at least one lawyer who didn’t go to your primary school!
One idea I haven’t read enough about is the degree to which theatre influenced Dickens. He was something of an amateur actor himself, if I remember right, and there’s definitely a sense of each scene being fit for a stage. The whole book, even, despite its intimation of large-scale events by sheer dent of length, is often reduced by the narrator fore-fronting his memory. In Ham and Steerforth’s tragic scene, Dickens narrates almost like an actor responding (with the audience) to the sounds of a storm created by off-stage effects. We don’t join the sailors on the wave-ravaged ship or the lovers gone abroad, we listen to the mast shatter or hear about the voyage in a garden. Australia exists only in the form of a written letter, despite its importance for the ending. The Victorian serial is often compared to a TV show, which makes sense, but there’s a cramped geography to every section, to say nothing of the way characters enter and exit, that’s absolutely stage-like.
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Freddie deBoer’s The Cult of Smart
The buzz on this book about K-12 education: great diagnosis, goes a bit off the rails in its prognosis. I think that's right. Freddie makes a convincing, lasting argument for the ways in which we are creating economic losers, are rigging the system for everyone who's able to spend their day on Twitter talking about rigging the system. Personally, I'm always open to another crisis regarding the schooling of my children, and while this book offers plenty of anxiety, it also offers some grim, shoulder-shrugging help on that front.
It doesn't matter where my daughter goes, Freddie tells me. She's smart! She's gonna be smart if you put her in some charter school, an overcrowded public school, or if she stays home and just reads all day for twelve years. I completely agree with this, in theory, and Freddie’s compelling on how little schools actually do to democratize the knowledge workers of tomorrow. The purported point of public schooling—its ability to level the economic and cultural playing field by way of education—is (statistically) a myth, he claims.
To be clear, he’s not against schools, per so, he’s against the way education has been weaponized and instrumentalized. Me, too! All the same, there’s a contradiction lurking. For example, he talks about charter schools juicing their impressive numbers by encouraging difficult students to drop out, but he recommends allowing twelve-year-olds to drop out as a reform. Isn't...that what charter schools are doing within this crappy system? Like, they haven't waited until the revolution to attempt to improve the experience of kids who want to stay in school? They haven't pretended kids who want out shouldn't be allowed out (however cruelly they've gone about such work—and until the system changes, IMO, what they’ve done is cruel)?
Freddie does go out of his way to suggest some “realistic” reforms, including the whole “twelve-year-olds should be able to drop out of school.” But nothing he says on that more “practical” front sunk in, for me, and it's because he doesn't seem to care about those solutions. Not really. He wants to upend the country first and schools second, and there's a logic to that: our schooling problems are cultural problems built atop economic problems; there is no reform without overhaul. Fine. Maybe. But it’s at this point I flirt with ad hominen: the motherf***er doesn't have kids. These people never have kids! I actually care about the experience my daughter will have more than I worry about her getting the different type of Roman columns just right. In other words, if school’s social good far outweighs its educational good, which is Freddie’s point, then parents are actually more justified in seeking out the best learning environments. What happens when you’re seven matters because you are alive and experiencing the world, and some of us have to make a choice right now, this year, and not only once a revolution of untold proportions arrives.
Freddie is right about our cult of smart, but until we’re magically Finland1, the day-to-day choices remain overburdened.
The year is 2076. I am chewing the cud of my lunch with my empty gums. I am standing in line at the Wal-Cost in order to blink my vote into the facial recognition screen that says hello in its warm, AI voice. I am smiling. I select, “The Sentient Hologram of Bernie Sanders.” Twelve people reblast my voting story on their feeds. I die in the basement of my oldest son the night a clone of George W. Bush, this time pansexual and already painting, wins his second term.