I think that’s what it’s going to have to come to. I have to learn to say these things, and I’m going to have to work them out in Spanish. I recently forwarded one of the deacons a list of books for his daughter who loves to read in English. On the list was the Lord of the Rings, and he was surprised. He admitted he had never thought through these things clearly, he was just leery of anything of that nature. So what I’m going to start on is something on fantastic literature.
All posts for the month November, 2010
Posted by zartman on November 29, 2010
By a unanimous vote today, the congregation agreed to the deacons’ and overseeing pastor’s proposal to have me as a pastor in training. I’ll start 1 January 201
2 (make that 2011).
As those of you who know me personally know, I’ve never angled at the pastorate. I have never been convinced I’m the kind of person for it. I’m still not entirely convinced, but I am more certain of it than formerly. This is due to the process followed.
I have the training to be useful in a local church, as long as there’s teaching to do, or worship to lead, or anything that doesn’t require me wearing a suit—I don’t own a suit and have never bought one for myself, or even a coat for that matter. So I was keen to be of use here, and after eventually we joined the church, I was put to work. I’ve been, at times, really busy, and I sometimes miss the long, idle months before joining when my Sundays were a gradually deepening delight of reading, especially after the day of worship, and especially Henry Vaughan.
Anyway, the pastor approached me back in April or so, and wanted me to consider becoming a sort of auxiliary pastor. We have two congregations that work very closely on everything (even the budget), and the pastor of the other congregation right now oversees both. I was not entirely surprised, but still, I wondered that he should ask me. I’ve never had anybody in a position of spiritual authority suggest it to me, though plenty in no such position, which I routinely ignored.
I asked advice from some people and was surprised that the sober people, who knew me and I respected, did not discourage me. So I told the pastor I had no reason to say no.
Well, then the original scheme, which involved another person as well, fell through, and after a long wait I was recently approached again by the pastor. The deacons wanted me to formalize my connections to the church and become the pastor in our congregation, under the direction and guidance of the pastor in the other congregation. I didn’t have any reason to say no, and they felt the congregation would be accepting. So a letter was distributed last week informing the congregation of the proposal. Today they voted and it was a unanimous yes.
And I’m very pleased about the way it took place. My spiritual authority suggested it, godly counsel was to go ahead, we waited a prudent, long time, and then the congregation—having had a good time to learn something about me—confirmed it. Actually, I think the way all that fell into place was ideal.
I also like the situation. I’m inexperienced and I really did not pay any attention to any pastoral anything in seminary. I don’t know what exactly it all entails, but I don’t have to go in and be in charge. I’ll work under the direction of an experienced pastor, and learn what is expected of me. No doubt there are drawbacks: the problem of another culture, my struggles with Spanish, the fact that I’m rather at a low ebb on the books I need and very likely half a dozen unanticipated things.
And all the problems, shortcomings, worrying situations and all those things, without which there would be no point for the job to begin with. Which is not to minimize them. And now to buy a suit . . . and perhaps some shoes that I can wear with a suit . . . and see if this turns out to be the beginning of the rest of my life.
Posted by zartman on November 28, 2010
The crocus, while the days are dark,
Unfolds its saffron sheen;
At April’s touch the crudest bark
Discovers gems of green.
Then sleep the seasons, full of might;
While slowly swells the pod
And rounds the peach, and in the night
The mushroom bursts the sod.
The winter falls; the frozen rut
Is bound with silver bars;
The snowdrift heaps against the hut,
And night is pierced with stars.
Posted by zartman on November 27, 2010
In the EU things are conducted in English, and that’s led to a boom in English studies, no doubt, and its nice for English teachers.
And maybe also for the politicians. First Daniel Hannan, and now Nigel Farage. I love this kind of stuff.
Posted by zartman on November 27, 2010
Most days we get a torrent. This year we don’t have the steady rain for six to eight hours. Just a huge torrent for an hour or so. It may repeat later in the day, we may have an entire day with rain on and off, and occasionally a few without any rain. Lots of fog on the mountains most of the time. It’s my kind of weather.
Of course, you have to be prepared, and that is the problem isn’t it? It’s like the cold: people don’t like having to think to deal with it. I’m pleased by that kind of thing.
I accidentally found a good umbrella—left the old one in the bus and didn’t realize I’d lost it till I needed it the next day. I bought a new one coming out of the TransMilenio from one of the many opportunist merchants cleaning up during the rainy season, and it’s automatic. I don’t know how it will last, but I like the automation. It’s my fourth umbrella here.
I also have good boots for the rain. Indispensable, really. Sometimes it’s just the puddles, sometimes it’s the way the crowd pushes you around, and sometimes it’s the torrents flowing down the streets. Nothing makes the rainy season satisfactory like having the right boots, and nothing else will really do.
I was sitting in an elaborate chamber a few days ago looking through the window at the street between the rains. The room’s walls are covered in purple velvet with white wood trim. The ceiling is elaborately coffered, and all of it rather opulent except for the wire over the windows and the cheap, modern furniture from Office Depot. It was like reading Edwin Muir on poetry in the bus. We take our satisfactions mixed here, and are jolly grateful there are any of them at all.
Except, of course, for the jolly satisfying rain.
Posted by zartman on November 26, 2010
There is a scene in The Amber Spyglass in which the dagger is re-forged by the king of the armored bears. The scene is my favorite in all the Dark Materials trilogy. It is so good that I found myself wishing Tolkien had written it. And this is instructive.
In the first place, it has a vivid, scientifical sort of observation to it that makes it come alive in the details. This kind of careful observation in the description of an imaginary event is like magic. If you can get that sort of thing in the right place, you’re well on your way to being a worthwhile storyteller.
In the second place, the scene is magical in that it is suffused by wonder. There is desire, anxiety and danger all mixed in, along with the delicate work as everything is prepared and then the procedure is followed. One of Pullman’s great strengths is that he really has a sense of wonder toward what we think of as science. I really doubt that science comes with all that much wonder; it may be because when we are taught in school, we’re shown a bunch of tricks; or maybe I’m just obtuse. In any event, there is something about the old dream of the cosmos as an elegant machine of wooden and brass parts that is half magical and I find very compelling in Pullman’s parallel universe.
In the third place it is instructive, or at least I found it instructive, that when he’d reached that point in the development of his burden, he had gotten so preachy I really wished what was happening had been done by another writer. The big, gaping flaw in Pullman is his obvious point. His petulant, gay angels; his good-at-heart harpies; the homophobic womanizer formerly known as Enoch and now the supreme power of the universe; God, the decrepit bastard; and what is really the worst of all: the happy, environmental tribe of rhomboid shaped sentient elephants with their dying, motorcycle-gang way of life in harmony with the trees and the great, natural highways of their universe. This string of cliches, irresponsible and implausible cynicism and other such failures of imagination really hamper a work . . . of imagination.
What Pullman had in the first book, a world you were keen about and actually wanted, he squanders with his tendentious preaching. In the end our heroes eat the fruit nobody forbade them. Whether they have sex or not is not entirely clear—apparently it has something to do with original sin in the minds of the Biblically illiterate—but it does not appear to be anymore essential than the eating of the fruit. How this event solves all the world’s ills is not clear either. What happens behind the scene is that a brave, weak, petulant gay angel prevents a priest from murdering the children by murdering him first, thereby defeating the Geneva based catholic Magestireum of the parallel universe. Great! Thanks to Lyra’s parents, the totalitarian angel formerly known as Enoch is cast to his death, along with them and all their flaws. Oops! Thanks to a female angel who might for all practical purposes be Satan him/herself, the particles of consciousness some meddling corporate scientists (I wonder how long he had to sit around thinking that one up; all Pandemonium dedicated to a cosmic project of ecological sustainability; Milton is indeed rolling in his grave—I mean, Shelley) were wasting can be conserved again. About time! Thanks to the fact that puberty has erased all of Lyra’s natural power to use the alethiometer, she can devote herself to the life of a scholar, and whatever it was her boyfriend Will, now banished back to his own universe, did with the rest of his life I cannot now recall; I’m pretty sure it was something boring like helping Al Gore or showing the world that crazy people really are simply victims of corporate greed.
And it really is too bad because the books have some great moments. When the bear, an inhuman, soulless, somehow sentient being devours the carcass of his best pal (another cliche—remember the Texan? Fell defending the Alamo, more or less), you have something hair raising and imaginative. It explains the bear exactly, makes him alien and eerily familiar at the same time. The chilling father Gomez with his pre-emptive penance is another—perhaps not so imaginative—interesting detail; how he tames the foul fowl of the motorcycle elephants’ world. The suspense is always good and the confusion of the battles would have made for a great movie franchise.
It reminds me that I read the work in translation and it suffered because of that. When cliff-ghasts become ‘fantasmas del alcantilado’ something has indeed been lost. The at times positively mechanical translation was a shame, especially since Pullman had some brilliant coined designations in the first volume. It would take real dedication and ability to do justice to Pullman in his best moments, and with a trilogy that kind of builds itself into the same sort of ephemeral scattering toward which Pullman believes all life to be heading . . . well, what’s the point?
Posted by zartman on November 25, 2010
One of the things I struggle with is that I feel like my ability to express things in Spanish is at the level of a caveman. It has suffered years of neglect and it suffers by the comparison of my years of investment in English.
I tried to express the delicate coming together of all things at the end of Ecclesiastes when the theme of death, age and wisdom meets with the theme of joy, youth and relative ignorance. Failed. I hope I suggested something to the more involved, but for the average person, I failed.
This week I have the compassion of Jesus. Bowels, and affections. Last time I tried to say anything about that I managed to say absolutely nothing. One would not think these concepts were so difficult to wield, but at least for me, it is the hardest thing to find fine, precise expression in Spanish, especially since by now the effort to do it in English is relatively minimal. Never mind the problem of the audience; that’s another one, real, but not the focus of attention until this preliminary problem is overcome.
Solutions? I have proposed to one person a kind of project of translation of theological texts. He’s too busy right now, but I think eventually it will really work out to great benefit if we can sit around discussing options and working toward the exact way of putting things. I need to have more interactions of this kind if I’m ever to get more subtle ideas across.
Words in Spanish do not have that same translucent quality for me that words in English do. They don’t live or behave the way the English ones do. If they have an interior—and I’m sure it exists—I haven’t reached it. And one of my perplexities is how to proceed in that regard.
Posted by zartman on November 24, 2010
Occasionally one’s heart is cheered by the discovery of some insatiable saint who is willing to sacrifice everything for the sheer joy of experiencing God in increasing intimacy. To such we offer this word of exhortation: Pray on, fight on, sing on. Do not underrate anything God may have done for you heretofore. Thank God for everything up to this point, but do not stop here. Press on into the deep things of Cod. Insist upon tasting the profounder mysteries of redemption. Keep your feet on the ground, but let your heart soar as high as it will. Refuse to be average or to surrender to the chill of your spiritual environment. If you thus “follow after,” heaven will surely be opened to you and you will, with Ezekiel, see visions of God.
Posted by zartman on November 23, 2010
Heheheheheh. Tou funny. I have no reason to feel any sympathy for Gerald Priest, but I wonder how that wonderful quotation feels nowadays?
And the devil sez, “Blow to the cause, is what it is. Blow to the cause. Well I aint the prince of the world for no reason, now. Can we look at the funding angle? Where did you say Mammon waz at the moment? Get him on the blower. I need some ideas is what I need, and this is right up his alley.”
Posted by zartman on November 19, 2010
Clouded with snow
The cold winds blow,
And shrill on leafless bough
The robin with its burning breast
Alone sings now.
The rayless sun,
Day’s journey done,
Sheds its last ebbing light
On fields in leagues of beauty spread
Thick draws the dark,
And spark by spark,
The frost-fires kindle, and soon
Over that sea of frozen foam
Floats the white moon.
—Walter de la Mare
Posted by zartman on November 19, 2010
I’m too busy with things to give the old blog that much attention, oddly. And I’m not sure when this will stop. One kind of knows a blog is on the skids when the comments are drying up anyway. I doubt I’ll kill this one–though I might–but it does kind of look like I’ve used up a second blog. One never really knows, but if my life changes in the way I think it will, then I think things will change here. Anyway, for the time being, I’m not going to try.
Posted by zartman on November 17, 2010
They call it winter. It rains, is cloudy and chilly, and without heating, people get cold because they have to wear more clothes. Besides, it seems to demand more thought and effort than they’re willing to expend. I don’t understand why the human race is this way in the face of changes of temperature.
It is the weather of Ecclesiastes. I had to teach on Ecclesiastes last night and I’ve enjoyed the study. I’ve also enjoyed only having to teach a bit of it and not be responsible for the whole. You have to steer delicately between people’s perceptions that it’s an existentialist treatise or that this shows the part of Solomon’s life when he was not “walking in fellowship with the Lord”—more avoidable in a Reformed–ish setting, but not unavoidable. If the book is about anything, it is about resisting simplifications, and where do simplifications abound more than in the interpretation of Ecclesiastes?
That sort of steering reminds me of some of what C.S. Lewis used to do. How he’d gently set aside silly perceptions by showing reasonably that they were not reasonably possible (he’s got a really good one on prayer I recently read, an area where one from time to time runs into superstition). So it helps to have the idea Lewis did well to try to aim at. With a clear idea you can make progress, however slowly.
Which has been taking up my life of late: thinking about how to teach people. I’ve just finished teaching my way through Luke 6, and I found the words of Jesus difficult to explain. So they should be, but one almost approached them with dread. Here’s an interesting discovery I made: he begins with a chiasm. It seems obvious, but it had never occurred to me before that Jesus would be quite a hand at the device. I wonder what the practiced among his audience thought when they realized how deftly he’d done it? It reminds me of 2:14 of Ecclesiastes. There’s a curious use of parallelism there: the device exactly echoes what the preacher is saying, the parallelism being sort of an anti-parallelism that makes everything vanish like vapor. How do you make people who seem to understand the hermeneutical principle of the analogy of faith as imposing the clear text on the unclear (never mind the problem of which text is clear to begin with) understand the difference between interpreting and imposing? It’s the difference between suggesting and declaring, and I’ve backed down on declaring myself, trying to resort to the more difficult strategy of suggesting.
That is a long, hard way to go. It introduces into my life another kind of winter, a longer lasting more perpetual one. Winter’s satisfactions, however, are deeper.
Posted by zartman on November 15, 2010
Barfield’s point in Saving the Appearances is very similar to Lukacs’s point in this book. But while Barfield is mostly to establish and clarify the point of the evolution of consciousness and that all our knowledge is participatory, Lukacs is working on the implications of this realization. One can see this by considering the history recounted in each book. Barfield looks and ancient and pre-modern history. Lukacs deals with the modern age—the last 500 years, more or less. Barfield is trying to establish what used to be in order to show the difference. Lukacs is telling us how we have become aware of those differences in the course of human events.
We have passed through an age—the Modern Age—in which we believed we actually observed phenomena as they existed and independent of our perceptions. This simply is not true, says Barfield. And Lukacs says, It is no longer possible for informed persons to believe that; we know better. Heisenberg teaches us—still Lukacs speaking—Durhem teaches us, this is what constituted Einstein’s failure, here is how Pascal anticipated it, here we see the idea shining through in Paul Valery and over here in Wendell Berry.
In short: Lukacs offers a reasoned synthesis of modern learning that points clearly to Barfield’s conclusion. All this assumes you have read Barfield, of course, but if you’re interested in the problem of epistemology you have to anyway. Lukacs comes at it from another way, which is helpful. And while he’s sometimes awfully strange (perhaps because he’s an eastern European), he will always add to your understanding of whatever it is he’s writing about. This book is about our present location in the stream of history.
Posted by zartman on November 13, 2010
Every once in a while it is good to promote Remonstrans. I think it is the best blog in the world.
In a world awash in fake everything, the truth is strong medicine, and what I like about dissidens is that he delivers very strong medicine. It is not for the feeble-minded, and if you are feeble-minded, then you should quit. A good remedy for feeble-mindedness would be to read Remonstrans and understand what he’s saying.
So if you for some reason have stopped reading Remonstrans, or have never considered what there is said with more clarity than anywhere else, today is a good day to go and get a good sense of what it is about and why it is valuable.
Posted by zartman on November 12, 2010
Section Six: Part I – And, O ye Dolphins!
Section Six: Part II – Vulture Gryphus
The Inca, great but limited by his pride, was unable to notice that from Olga’s eyes his old enemy Minerva gazed on him once more.
She felt a deep, bright note sounding, and an ancient harmony responded in her soul. Gazing on the unbreathing Inca she felt again the old fierce joy. The trumpet́s loud clangor excites us to war—Olga remembered, rejoicing. “Dryden!”
Vulture Gryphus cringed as if she had uttered a magic work, and his masters howled in panic before the Inca scattered them like dogs. Vulture Gryphus reached for a charm, and then snatched his hand away from the spontaneously kindled satchel. He struggled to remove it, while the light of the flames lit the form of the Inca. Olga saw him: faceless save for two small points of red light. An expressionless, sardonic contempt somehow emanated from the Inca; Olga sensed it and was puzzled.
She smiled and found herself saying, “There is within this level of the all-ordered world no place for you, deserter of the cosmic liturgy.”
The Inca grew in size, and the owl on Olga’s shoulder rustled.
Not lost, but deepened in the consciousness of Minerva, Olga remembered an ordered list of memories: the death of both her parents, the boarding school struggles, the emergence of order in her search of literature, of wisdom in her search among the parts for metaphysical unity, the glimmers and then the light, and organ voiced Milton striding across the waters—she had dreamed that, somehow—Milton striding across the waters and calling to the dolphins.
She stood now, between the cosmos and the Inca, and she refused to let him pass. Olga became a focusing point of order, and Minerva took possession, shutting out the Inca’s will to chaos.
Vulture Gryphus crawled on the floor of the chamber behind, retching and convulsing as he slowly died in the grip of the Inca. The Inca’s mind held him without noticing, closing his grip with the dawning awareness of an increasing impotence. Minerva came with stronger and greater strength, incarnate in the ordered mind of Olga. The Inca tried to swell once more, to overcome, and then with a howl he failed and fled.
“They found huge arsenals,” said John McGrath. “Interstellar power stations and whole abandoned fleets.”
“An alien invasion, John?” Margaret asked, incredulous.
“How else do you account for it? Strange technology with what looks like ancient Inca writing . . . unknown in our part of the galaxy. And the strangest thing—that temporary black hole. You really ought to go and see the IMAGE reports. It will blow you away.”
“More than Milton?” And with that they were silent, remembering Olga, disappeared.
Cosmic, Olga-Minerva laughed a transcendental laugh which shook the owl. Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, she thought, high imperious in her glee and joy unyielding.
Posted by zartman on November 11, 2010
The next morning Vulture Gryphus returned. He made charms and muttered words, gestured in the corners and made foul smoke arise from the fire. He tried to drive the owl away, but was apparently unable to approach it. He stared at Olga with malevolence, but she was not moved. She had been prepared and now she waited; the owl was with her.
Sometimes Vulture Gryphus was inside, sometimes he went outside. He provided Olga with food and water, and he brought wood for the fire. He was a servant to her, even though he kept her prisoner in the cabin. Now he was outside, for he was more open to the influence of his masters than when he was in the cabin. He wondered again if the mistake he made had been fatal: the wards. He received no answer, and he refused to be tortured by it. Now he laid himself open to the feeling of the wind, to the influence of the winter lakeside. He chanted, feeling the rhythm of his words.
That evening Vulture Gryphus tried to lead her into the mysteries. Olga saw they were bent and crooked, that he was beckoning her into a landfill of trash and rotting garbage. With the light of wisdom she could fly over, fly through his tangled mysteries and from a better vantage understand them.
But she let him lead her, and it was like walking in a labyrinth, for the shaman was ancient, almost older than the Inca. She passed along the way of his mysteries through valleys between mountains of bones. She saw they intrigued him because they shifted like the paths of the sea. She followed all the way through and came to the end of his mysteries, the place where all his learning ended and his masters began. There she looked into an abyss.
Olga did not quail before this. She knew that even as Minerva she was not strong against it, or rather, she realized that as Minerva she was in many ways an equal, and with cunning could evade them, trick them, and with wisdom perhaps even defeat them. Hers were all the weapons of Minerva. It was a temptation to pit herself against them; she both resisted and did not resist them, looking out over the endless abyss and listening to the chattering of the masters of Vulture Gryphus.
What now?—she wondered.
Vulture Gryphus shuddered and vomited on the floor of the cabin. She had remained unaffected while he had undergone oppressing darkness, exhausting labor, visions intolerable of the bird-like heads of his masters. He had stood before the entrance of annihilation, leading her there, and she had remained serene. Had she lost all her higher faculties? He felt a clarity of despair in his soul, and pushed it way.
The next day the Inca sent a ship, and they were taken up into it and left the cabin, the lake, the planet all behind.
Posted by zartman on November 10, 2010
Vulture Gryphus went all afternoon in his snowshoes. He continued walking all the night. The spirits were strong with him, especially on the hills under the night sky. Late in the night the stars came out and it became cold. He ate some corn from his satchel and ate some snow and continued through the dawn. The second day he rested for three hours, and he came to the lake shortly after noon on the third day.
He saw the hut down by the shore, and the spirits surged about him. He fought but fell into a trance, still walking, the edges of the white world becoming purple and the sun fading as in an overcast sky. O my masters! He cried silently, and they relented, swirling near the edges of his consciousness and heightening it almost to the point of a vision. The world became disproportionate: the path to the hut a valley opened before him and he ran.
Pausing with an effort at the door of the hut, he fumbled in his satchel as he looked around. He forced himself to notice: the lake was frozen over, the sky above was blue, the sun dazzled down on the white world, the mountains rose beyond the lake. He saw footprints, her footprints. But he did not see the ship she must have come on.
His fingers found the small fan of feathers and the dangling nut of the ward inside his satchel. He was breathing hard; his breath was steaming. He closed his mouth and breathed through his nose as he worked the tangles out of the ward still inside the satchel with his hand. The spirits were strong and urging him to enter, clamoring almost audibly. He clenched his teeth and breathed with difficulty. He forced himself to notice the cold against his legs, the breeze that fanned his hair. Then it was ready.
“Forgive me, O my masters,” he whispered as he drew the ward out. Pushing open the door he hung the ward on the handle and then closed the door behind him. He heard their cries subsiding, the charm warded them away from the hut.
He turned in the dark hut. It felt warm to him. He waited for his eyes to adjust, in possession of himself again. Something lay on the lower bunk, weak, but alive. Vulture Gryphus could hear it breathing. She was alive! and he had her: the bride of the Condor. The rook had been wrong.
* * *
The impassive, leathery face bending over her whenever the bowl was held to her lips contained some dark and disturbing eyes. Olga reflected, after it withdrew and she lay flat again, that she had never seen eyes so intense, so remote, so full and empty at the same time. Then as they stared into her own eyes the eyes widened and became alarmed, the face twisted away and a she heard a horrible bird-screech. She felt a new warmth in the cabin, a warmth that was not exactly a physical sensation and a new presence with it.
Magnanimous he came, a terrible joy he brought, and Vulture Gryphus feared and hated it. It oppressed and asphyxiated him; the cabin became bright and intolerable and Vulture Gryphus in desperation banged at a wall in the corner, rose to his feet with a great effort and hurled himself through the small window, dragging himself out heedless of the broken glass. He fled into the darkness and the cold, and his masters received him.
In the cabin Olga sensed the great light though she could not see it and the cabin remained dim. She felt an overwhelming joy, a wholeness, a sense of smallness and inconsequence came over her like pure relief.
“Out of my head, small one!” some great king cried with the voice that establishes laws. “Out of my head are you born. Minerva!”
Olga had again that sense of a vast, whirling joy, she saw moons as intelligences dancing around a great god, there was the rushing of a wind or perhaps water . . . or was it the light rushing audibly? And then a darkness into which the distant embers barely penetrated, a flutter of delicate wings about her ears, and then her eyes opened and she was on the bunk in the cabin. On a chair nearby, an owl, which she hadn’t noticed before, was perched. It blinked at her and for some reason she laughed, she knew not why; she felt rich, extravagant and serene.
“Minerva?” she said. “I have been born . . . Minerva!”
Posted by zartman on November 9, 2010
I got an American edition in which the title—for whatever reason—is The Golden Compass rather than The Northern Lights. Silly, of course, because there’s really no compass involved. The device featured on the cover of the first edition is properly called an alethometer and resembles a compass only in some of its exterior features. Perhaps those in charge of such decisions cynically decided that was enough where Americans were concerned, and no doubt they were right.
Back in 1976 Kingsley Amis wrote a curious novel called The Alteration. It was what people are nowadays pleased to call an alternative history. Philip K. Dick devoted one of his drug-induced, fascinating, bizarre and eventually not entirely pointless novels to the notion; and curiously enough, Dick’s novel makes an appearance in Amis’s—as a sort of tribute, I suppose, to American letters. The Alteration may or may not have influenced Pullman—he is certainly better read than your average American, and it is doubtful whether your average American has heard of The Alteration or even of its author. What is curious is how many of the tricks Pullman uses come up first in The Alteration.
Which is not to say Pullman is not ingenious, but to steer us toward something pretty bright and interesting in his alternate universe. An alternate history has to play on what we know and mingle in the strange, and I think Pullman does it deftly. While any historian is going to balk at the impossibility of alternate history, Pullman does it in a way that doesn’t unreasonably strain disbelief with an over-strong gravitational force of ignorance. Quite the contrary, and I think Pullman has a pretty good sense of judgment: his measure and proportion here are hard to criticize.
You can really see his judgment when it comes to telling a story: using suspense, putting all the elements in the right order and to the right proportion, giving the perfect touch (when he conjures up—at the end of the scene !—the whole image of the ice encrusted balloon drifting through the arctic skies, for example). The sense of exploration and his love or at least cunning exploitation of the Newtonian dream of the cosmos as an elegant machine is something very satisfying about this book. Along with that, the book is exciting, one of the most exciting books I’ve read in a long time, and I’d read it again just for that. What a joy to be led along and not really let down.
The sense of exploration is heightened and heightened as the expedition reaches places stranger and stranger. I found his places and situations done well: vivid and interesting—even the repulsive arctic laboratory was more or less what it ought to have been—not quaint, but one of the most modern things in that world. And that he doesn’t mingle the things badly when it comes to familiar and unfamiliar elements is perhaps because of his deft use of names (anabaric, coal-silk, philosophical instruments, atomcraft [brilliant!]; though I thought he overdid it once: cauchic). He is really good at all this.
There are cliches. The cowboy with the long, enormous gun and his American way of speaking—but then, he’s an American type so who cares? The silliness about women scholars being repressed (bah), the hocus pocus view of religion and hierarchy—rather veiled in mystery, which saves it; one can sense the cliches that make the minds of modern “intellectuals” look bulgy and muscular in the background. But he knows the story is the thing and these minor irritations remain minor.
I can live with a story that paints the established religion as anything from a harlot on up since I’ve read the Bible. That doesn’t bother me; Pullman has nothing on St. John of Patmos. The church in his world is a sort of superstitious guardian of the mysteries of science or some such thing. It’s mostly innuendo. It’s nothing as hideous as the nightmare of American evangelical religion in our universe. No, what really nags at one is the eventual unending suspense. You need a bit of a let down from it, but the book is unrelenting, which makes it a bit thin on reflection. He resorts in the end to having the villain explain things to the protagonist at the point where all seems lost. This sort of thing at that point in the book has to be brief so that the suspense isn’t squandered. Of course, it is a children’s book, but what kind of elitist doesn’t think that children can think too? Is the anti-Narnia to be that there are none of the wondrous depths the vile, racist and misogynist (bah) C.S. Lewis somehow conjured up out of the withered sticks of tradition, religion and mythology? So there’s a bit of a hollow core (I understand the second and third books are more to the point, and I will be reading them shortly).
The heroine is a great idea. She’s interesting because she’s a determined pathological liar who inadvertently manages to turn her best friend into the whole burnt offering that opens the door to new wonders and possibilities. Really stubborn, really lucky, and fully believable—along with a resilient stomach. In order to have a good story you need human error, or human errors and human impulses that will create the conflict and necessary tension to produce the suspense and excitement. This girl does mistakes and impulses very effectively; she lives the life of unintended consequences to the max. One gets the idea that among the virtues, a feckless audacity ranks pretty high with Pullman. The problem is, this makes the good and the bad perilously indistinguishable, and that is just not good story telling. I think it will come back to bite him in the next stories, but I don’t think it has thought of that yet in this first volume.
Names and concepts are brilliantly done in the alternation Pullman presents, as I have said, but what is most fascinating to me is how he can take standard situations and circumstances and by doing the thing right, make them new and fresh and even expand on them. It’s like Kingsley Amis, only just as good and still different. I like his witches, and I like the hints of the religion he drops. His gypstians are a bit of a cliche of the outcast and sentimental, but I like the river fog they allow, the undrained midlands, and especially their manner of speech. It’s hard to mingle the quaint science of Newton with a laboratory from the late 20th century, but he does it, and other such things.
The book does contain some curiously strong descriptions of events. I’m surprised he was able to get away with all the gore and violence he did, and on top of it that he got congratulated for it. Does it go to show that it’s the ideology that counts or that the storytelling is what really counts? I’m not sure, but my money would not be on the latter, for all that it’s a clear strength.
I know it may sound sarcastic to some; but I don’t think I can help it. I admire the book and wish I had his powers. I mean to learn from him, one way or another, and I am hoping that in the next two books Pullman does not disappoint. Whether he does or not, I’m grateful for the enjoyment of the first. When you discover a really good book you are usually faced with a dilemma, and I’m pleased I had it again in my life: does one save the reading of it for times of maximum enjoyment, or does one take it along to brighten all the grey bus rides, monotonous waiting rooms and snatched intervals of disoccupation? When the satisfaction at the end outshines the melancholy fact that the book has been read, was too short and those precious hours are past, you know it has been good reading no matter where.
No my friends, we aren’t in Narnia anymore, and I am not sure that we can even count ourselves so lucky as to still be in the USA surrounded by cardboard cut-out Americans selling nefarious religious paraphernalia. Troubled waters; but if this is the bait (and I understand it is), I’m hooked!
Posted by zartman on November 8, 2010
Section Six: Part I – And, O ye Dolphins!
Section Six: Part II – Vulture Gryphus
Vulture Gryphus waited in the cold entrance looking out at the snow, the bare trees leaning and twisted and with their twigs blurred into the low, grey sky, at the bare shrubs accenting the white landscape, the withered, yellow clumps of long summer grass that stood out of the snow. A rook circled and called once. Then it landed near the entrance where Vulture Gryphus sat. It brought news but was in no hurry. He was in no hurry either; five hundred years he had waited, after all. He knew that she was on the planet: the girl, the sacrifice. The bird would tell him where and then he would arise and go.
He known the moment was coming: the spirits had been distant, as if searching elsewhere. He had lived as other men who live in solitude, without the alien and familiar spirits whom he served. The Inca sent messages, and the Inca’s chief servant sent messages, but Vulture Gryphus ignored all these. He served his masters for they were the Inca’s masters though the Inca did not acknowledge them. The time for that would also come. Yes, the time for that would come. The time for all things would come, and Vulture Gryphus awaited knowing that his masters would be released: the moment of their glory and the twilight of the gods!
The sunlight shone through the grey clouds wanly, making a brightness in the grey skies without really breaking through. The rook flapped clumsily up into the air and glided the short distance to land in front of Vulture Gryphus.
“What news, brother?” Vulture Gryphus, squatting, bird-like, asked the rook.
“She is come.”
“I have known this,” he said to irritate the rook. They were self-satisfied, the rooks, he thought. It turned its head and glared from an impassive eye for a few seconds.
“She is to the north, two days. There is a man-nest by the lake beside the mountains.”
He understood, and suddenly he felt the spirits gathering about him again.
“She cannot live until you come,” the rook added.
“We will see,” he said with what might have been a slight smile. “Thanks, brother.”
The rook glared at him again, then it ducked its head and leapt around, flapping heavily over the snow. It went low, and he watched it till it vanished and there was no more sound. Then he turned to get his satchel. Inside the cave the spirits were so strong he almost fell into a trance.
Soon he was moving north over the snow.
Posted by zartman on November 8, 2010
“It was a signal?” John McGrath asked.
“Apparently. Now its silent. I have it at home but it doesn’t wreak havoc with things anymore.”
“Weird technology.” And he wondered if it really was technology.
“And Olga disappeared.”
“It’s troubling . . . still, I’m sure she’ll be ok, knowing her. What have her parents said?”
“She was . . . I mean, is an orphan.”
“Maybe that’s better,” he said gently.
“John! She’s been abducted—”
They sat in silence a while before Margaret spoke again. “John . . . I had the dolphin examined.”
“Like from a bird. And a spent quartz signal. That’s all.”
“Maybe you should take it to a witch doctor to examine,” and he regretted saying it immediately.
She sat back. Obviously John McGrath was not at his most helpful today. Perhaps his family troubles were preoccupying him. She decided to let it drop.
* * *
When she woke up she was in a dim room lit by a few red lights. The room shook a few times, there was a whining noise, and then a nauseating moment when the whole floor seemed to fall away and twist hard to the left. And then Olga passed out again.
* * *
The lake was freezing, the sky a deepening blue. The clouds brooded behind the mountains and the moon hung in the sky, a fingernail of light above the pink of sunset. A forest spread into the valley between the hills across the lake. Olga breathed the cold air. Behind her the ship lay steaming, a wreck.
She heard the distant cry of a bird. She watched the sky darken and the light fade out of the lake. She felt the cold as a breeze stirred. The cold came through the soles of her boots, and she wished she had worn better boots.
She was standing by a cabin, which had a bunk bed and a sort of fireplace, a table and a chair and nothing to eat. It was dark and chilly inside. She wrapped herself in some blankets and began to wait. She slept.
Posted by zartman on November 6, 2010