The Tyrany of the Imagination?

Interesting Op-Ed in Today’s New York Times from Philip Pullman. Pullman is the author, most recently, of His Dark Materials Trilogy. He is something of the anti-C.S. Lewis. Despite being a writer of children’s fantasy, he is materialist and atheist of the strongest sort. It is this tension between realism and imagination that he contemplates in the Op-Ed.


Pullman basically states that he doesn’t believe in the supernatural or unreal:

And there may be something in that. For example, take ghost stories. I don’t believe in ghosts and disembodied spirits. I used to believe in them, and I can remember how thrilling it was, when I was a child, to read ghost stories with the thought, “This could be true, this could really happen. . . .” But that was a long time ago. I don’t enjoy ghost stories in quite the same way these days. The trouble is that such tales have to convince you on the supernatural level as well as on the mundane. Part of your mind has to believe that there could be a disembodied spirit full of malice haunting this old house, there could be a nameless evil presence lurking in the crypt — and there just couldn’t. Disbelief, at that point, is just too heavy to suspend.

The problem is that despite this he is complled to write from a different perspective. His will asserts rationality, realism, materialism, the fundamental rightness of what he knows about psychology, politics, science, etc. But his imagination simply won’t function under those constraints:

So I came to the conclusion some time ago that imagination and reason were two powers that didn’t always agree, and that the one who had sovereignty was the imagination. There’s nothing democratic about what goes on in this business. Everything about the act of writing fiction is an exercise of absolute and despotic power. There’s no point in deploring this, or wishing it were all nicer and kinder, or gentle and caring and inclusive. It’s a tyranny, and that’s that.

So Pullman gives his imagination reign and writes what he writes: imaginative fiction (fantasy if you insist). But he feels that the realist side must also play a part under the direction of imagination:

Reason, memory, emotional experience, whatever we know of social and political truth, the craftsmanship we have slowly and laboriously acquired — all these things must come into play. Only then is the task worth doing. But these faculties must work under direction; there’s no discussion, and there are no votes. They must behave like the devoted subjects of a tyrant, and dedicate their utmost efforts to serving their ruler.

This is a fascinating concept, that the artist must give his imagination free reign and that reason must serve imagination. I think Pullman is right. Art must transcend reason. What I think is limiting in Pullman’s case is his inability accept anything outside of reason or the material world.

Pullman’s Dark Matterials series is a case in point. Although the first book is first rate, an exceptional and captivating story, the series is pulled down by his politics and larger world view. His attacks on God (figurativly and literally in the story) and a spiritual understanding of the world eventually suck the energy out of the work. Daniel P. Moloney, writing in First Things, captures this problem:

The nonreligious fantasy author is forced to play the mythmaker twice, as it were. He has to develop a cosmology of the way the world really is, the nonreligious account that re­ places the account given by the religions he rejects. And he has to write the fantasy story, obeying all the rules of the larger account and then creating his own world within it. In the first two books of the trilogy, Pullman merely alluded to the larger account while telling an imaginative and exciting adventure, which promised to be one of the best ever. In the third book, however, he needed to explain his theory of innocence and adulthood, which he thought required him to tell a different story of the Fall, which in turn tempted him to explain how everything we think and feel can be explained simply by scientific materialism.

It seems that Pullman let his “reason” get the better of his imagination in this one. For that reason I am not sure Pullman really lets his imagination rule. Perhaps imagination is really just another tool to communicate what he believes are his more rational beliefs . . .

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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