Friday, November 26, 2010

I've been re-watching Star Trek: The Next Generation lately. I'm only up to episode 7 of Season 1, but the experience has been fascinating. Seeing the relationships between Picard, Riker, Troi, Crusher, LaForge, Data, etc. build up again from the beginning is fun. I didn't remember that Picard could be so irascible, or Riker so smug. Re-evaluating my crush on Wesley is good, too; I can see how, as a little girl, he might be dreamy, but now all I see is his awful sweaters and the highly unrealistic way he saves the day all the time. What a Mary Sue! Best of all, the episode I watched today has Data in the role of Sherlock Holmes . . . "Oh Data, you scamp," I say as I shake my head, my face mirroring Riker's shit-eating grin.

The intro to the show, though, is becoming relevant to what I'm writing about lately. It says: "Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before."

This desire to explore, to seek, to know, is exactly the drive I think I'm beginning to pinpoint in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. The trilogy, a beautiful set of books sort of yet not entirely written for children, is a re-writing of Milton's Paradise Lost, which is in itself a re-writing of Genesis and all classical mythology.

The central struggle in PL is between obedience and knowledge. God says, "I'm asking very little here; just don't don't eat from that tree!" Satan, Eve, and to some extent Adam, each respond, "But why?" God's command is that each knows her or his place: Satan's place is in Heaven, under the command of the Son; Eve's place is in the Garden, under the command of her husband; Adam's place is in the Garden, protecting Eve, worshipping God, and not asking the angel Raphael too many silly questions regarding the nature of the universe and Creation.

However, in each character's heart there is a need to challenge this restrictive authority. They don't want to keep to their place in the chain of being; they want the chance to grow, to ascend, to understand. Milton weaves a complex web of rules and rebellions, but the desires motivating Satan, Eve, and Adam are pretty relatable for me. How many times as a child did you ask your parent "Why?" and receive some version of "Because I said so!" or "You wouldn't understand." That was never fun for me; each time I got a pat answer, the resolve in my heart steeled all the more: Someday I will grow up, and find out, and then they'll see.

The pro-Satan reading of PL is a popular one; its most famous advocate was the poet, William Blake, who wrote Songs of Innocence and Experience, the title and subject matter of the poems pointing back to the Edenic conflict. But I'm not sure that Pullman reads PL that way. For him, Satan is not the hero of the epic because he didn't win. But, in Pullman's view, the desire for experience that motivated the first Fall is good; it is what compels us to learn about ourselves and the universe. It is, essentially, consciousness. The restriction of this desire is in itself cruel, wrong, and a restriction of absolute free will. So Pullman rewrites the story.

Pullman's trilogy is more narratively complex than Milton's. For instance, there is no single Satan character. Instead, there are a host of characters who play roles such as Lord Asriel as "the dynamic, powerful rebel," Lyra Silvertongue as "the artful compulsive liar," and Sister Mary Malone as "the apparently-innocent questioner/tempter." But these roles are slippery and unstable. Lord Asriel also performs as Christ-figure, giving his life to save his daughter. Lyra acts as a new Eve, committing a new Fall. Lyra's mother, Mrs. Coulter, is almost satanic in her single-minded avarice and ambition for evil, but even she eventually plays a combination of Mother Mary/Christ as she nurses her daughter back to health and then sacrifices herself for Lyra's safety.

I'm not sure where all this will go; the paper is about how there is a cycle of reading/writing going on, and how each author conceives of the acts of reading and writing, and the essence of the creative impulse. Chaos, the primary matter out of which God created the universe, is going to come in there somewhere; I think it is analogous to Pullman's Dust. But mostly, for now, I just love it when pieces of my life come together, when I find out that the "new worlds" I am exploring are not light years apart like they are for Picard, but just a heartbeat away, sharing space with me, and it's up to me to make the connections.


aaron wk said...

oh, this is nice! i like it! i should probs watch star trek, huh. and probs read PL. then i would understand MOAR! but srslr, good stuffz.

Chandrahas said...