Writing about a book of essays is hard because each essay is a complex entity unto itself; each one has a brilliant idea that I’d like to write about – but then I read the next one and I forget what I was so interested in a few pages back.

Suffice to say that this book analyses the writing of stories and is made up of talks the great Mr Pullman gave (I’m not sure why this collection of transcribed talks is described as a book of essays, but that’s neither here nor there.) I think this book is mainly of interest to people who write stories, but if you’re a Philip Pullman fan and would like to know more about the ideas in His Dark Materials trilogy, then this is the book for you. But it’s quite long and pretty heavy at times.

The bit I want to focus on in this review comes from the chapter called I Must Create a System (subtitle: A Moth’s-eye view of William Blake). One problem with this book is that Pullman describes himself as being a lowbrow intellectual and yet he’s read, and re-read, the likes of Milton and Blake – ancient poets that I’d heard of but certainly never read. If he’s a lowbrow then I’m a Neanderthal (one effect of reading this book is that it makes me feel rather ignorant).

I’m not going to go into the ideas of William Blake or this review would go on forever, but I’ll give you a relevant quote from Pullman: “William Blake, as we know, had such extraordinary and penetrating insights into the nature of religion, and expressed them with such force and clarity, that it’s always worth looking at what he has to say on the matter.”

All I want to do here is give you one amazing quote which shows a brilliant way of writing, or “literary device” to the highbrow. The context of this quote is systems; in other words systems for thinking about life and for writing stories. Christianity is a system in that it explains life, as is Marxism, Feminism and – a particularly relevant one today as it describes an ancient form of conspiracy theory – Gnosticism.

This whole discussion comes from the following line by William Blake:

“I must create a system, or be enslav’d by another Mans…”

When I first read that line I thought Pullman would write about how modern man is trapped (enslav’d) in economic systems of work and debt – but he didn’t. He’s more interested in systems that help people write stories and think about life.

The quote I offer you here makes the idea of systems seem more approachable, in that (unlike religions or ideologies) it doesn’t claim to have all the answers.

Here’s the quote (by Pullman, not Blake):

“So each one of us has a whole complex of attitudes and experiences which, if they’re not as coherent as a worked-out system, function in a similar way. They provide the solid and unquestioned support for all the work we build on top of them…

“It might seem from the outside like a haphazardly acquired combination of prejudice, ignorance, random experience, scraps of cracker-barrel sententiousness, things they were taught before they were seven, superstition, sentimentality, wishful thinking and saloon-bar knowingness; a gimcrack, jerry-built, patchwork thing, crawling with dry rot, with rats in the basement and death-watch beetle in the attic, with staircases that lead nowhere and corridors blocked off by fallen masonry, with broken windows banging in the wind and great holes in the roof letting in the rain.” (from Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman, page 391).

What I love about that passage is how beautifully it flows; it’s fun to read and each one of the items listed could open up another story.

What’s brilliant about this literary device is that you can use it to summarise a large number of complex things. One of the problems I find with writing an article is that I’ve got too much to say: pages of notes, website links, facts, figures, opinions, and quotes – all of which are clamouring for entry into the promised land (my article).

But, as St Peter might say at the Pearly Gates, only a few are allowed in. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by it all and forget what I was writing about in the first place; I forget that I wanted to make a point and should be using facts, figures, and quotes to back up my point.

A final word to end this article: in case you were wondering that Philip Pullman is some sort of new-age, born-again Christian who writes fiction to peddle religious messages – rest assured. He went through a short religious period when a teenager and has been a sceptic ever since, but an enquiring sceptic who searches through religious texts for a better understanding of how their systems works – some of which is put to work in His Dark Materials.

This quote, from the essay Talents and Virtues, sums up his approach rather well:

So when I say ‘theocracy’ in the context of what I’m saying tonight, I’m not limiting the term to those states that base their authority on the existence of a supernatural creator. What I’m talking about is the tendency of human beings to gather power to themselves in the name of something that may not be questioned, and to justify what they do in terms of absolutes: absolute truth; absolute goodness; absolute evil; absolute hatred; if you’re not with us you’re against us.” (from Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman, page 407).

Although Pullman is right to condemn the tendency to use religion to control other people, isn’t he throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Don’t religions have some spiritual and social value?

A final observation: the final part of this quote shows how the colon and semi colon should be used; it’s one of the few things I remember from school; and Pullman uses it here to present a list; this is quite rare as my impression is that people use these punctuation marks in a way that wasn’t sanctioned in school, like I am doing here, as a means of separating up sentences; I’ve been told this is not good practice so I better stop here.

This review was also published on Goodreads: Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman | Goodreads

Rupert Wolfe Murray
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