A Debate about Sex, Pullman vs. Milton

Subtle Knife

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve just learned from a Constance Grady Vox article that Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass turned twenty this year. I’ve written a couple of posts about Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, and I’ve been critical of what I consider to be its simplistic and somewhat muddled view of religion. (You can read those previous posts here, here, and here.) Nevertheless, I still enjoy Pullman’s fantasy vision and I appreciate the Vox article for outlining the author’s philosophy.

Even better from my perspective, Grady alerts me to a revival I never could have predicted: England Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy has adapted the 15th century medieval morality play Everyman. Grady mentions it in the Dark Materials article because Duffy’s changed ending reminds her of  Pullman’s insistence that we should let our focus on the afterlife lessen our appreciation of our earthly existence.

Here’s Grady summing up Pullman’s vision:

 In the universe of His Dark Materials, the Church and the Authority stand for conformity, for the suppression of self-knowledge and sexuality. In contrast, the fallen angels are the side of goodness and right in the moral universe of this trilogy, and they stand for the arts and sciences, for secular humanism, and for the pleasures of the body.

His Dark Materials, in fact, insists on the pleasures of the body. It imagines a kind of tripartite human nature, one that consists of a body, a ghost or spirit, and a daemon or soul — “but the best part is the body,” the books conclude. “Angels wish they had bodies.”

The body is what makes Pullman’s wicked authoritarian angels envy and hate humans so; fear of the body and of sexuality is what makes the Church castrate children and cut away their daemons. And in the end, our heroine Lyra is able to save all of the worlds by reenacting Eve’s fall and learning the pleasures of the body — by, in other words, kissing a boy. It is only after Lyra and Will kiss that they become “the true image of what human beings always could be, once they had come into their inheritance.”

The morality of His Dark Materials is an inversion of the traditional morality of the Christian fall, one that privileges knowledge and experience and the body above innocence and ignorance and the soul. It posits that true self-knowledge and true spirituality can only be experienced through the body.

Contra Pullman and Grady, I would argue that inverting the value system doesn’t solve the problem. Focusing only on enjoyment of the body while waving away the problem of sin ignores how we defile creation. If we have distorted views of sex, it’s not all the church’s fault. To come to Milton’s defense, he is no stodgy Puritan who has problems with sex. Adam and Eve, after all, engage in “the rites mysterious of connubial love” in the poem. Nor, for that matter, does he believe that humans should be kept in ignorance, and we see the angels Raphael and Michael lecturing Adam extensively about history, theology, and other matters. (We could wish that they also lecture Eve, but 17th century sexism is a different issue.)

What Milton understands far deeper than Pullman is that human pride corrupts the goodness of God’s creation. Adam and Eve, like Satan and the other fallen angels, let their self-absorption blind them to God’s bounty.

To be sure, there are many churches that equate sex with sin and maybe Pullman’s book is good for counteracting those voices. A few weeks ago I wrote about how D. H. Lawrence also provides a useful corrective for such narrowness in The Man Who Died. I acknowledge that the tradition is strong in Christianity. It’s just not the only tradition in Christianity.

And now to Duffy’s new adaptation of Everyman. Here’s Grady again:

In the original play, Everyman (guess who he represents!) is told by God that he will soon die and be judged. Everyman asks various figures to accompany him to judgment — his friends and family, his worldly goods — but one by one, they all refuse. In the end, Everyman is only able to achieve absolution and be cleansed of his sins by repenting before God and flagellating himself. This is traditional medieval Christian morality at work: It is only by scourging his body that Everyman is able to achieve a soul clean enough to be welcomed into heaven.

But in Duffy’s adaptation, first performed at London’s National Theatre in 2015, salvation by self-flagellation proves to be a false track. Instead, Everyman is only able to accept his death and find spiritual transcendence by repeating the prayer, “For the gifts of my body I give thanks / At the hour of my death.” Everyman’s ecstatic gratitude for his body climaxes in a moment reminiscent of the climax of His Dark Materials: “Praise to my tongue for snowflakes, tequila, / marzipan, mint, cheese and honey, every kiss. / Every kiss.” (Marzipan, coincidentally, features prominently in Will and Lyra’s kiss.)

Like His Dark Materials, Duffy’s Everyman cannot find the sense in a theology that punishes the body. Instead, theology must be experienced through the body, and it is only through celebrating our bodies that we can experience true spiritual transcendence.

I’m no religious historian but I’ve sometimes wondered whether the tradition of self-flagellation and contempt for the body (and sexuality) grew out of the 14th century Black Plague, when the body proved to be so unreliable that people focused on life-after-death as a coping mechanism. (Experiencing the death of one in three people (!) can scar a society.) In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which appeared at the end of the 14th century, Nature is peeved at being disrespected by Christian Camelot and gets Gawain to admit that he loves his body.

But maybe I can’t blame it all on the Black Plague. St. Paul, after all, was suspicious of human sexuality, as was St. Augustine. Anyway, there are some Christians who associate sex with sin and others of us who see ts as a wondrous gift.

Grady, doing her own wondering, speculates that modern technology has made it easier to love our bodies and therefore to stop celebrating self-flagellation. It’s an idea worth considering although it sounds suspiciously like the position that Howard Nemerov takes to pieces in his poem “Boom!” Looking at the tradition that produced Everyman and Paradise Lost, Grady observes,

At that point in history, bodies were uncomfortable and disgusting; they were filthy and riddled with disease. To get closer to God, you had to transcend the body itself. You had to punish and reject it. Relatively speaking, we’ve only recently figured out how to comfortably live in a body, with medicine and indoor plumbing and upholstered furniture. So it’s really only now that this idea of a theology of the body is finding widespread acceptance in beloved YA fantasy trilogies and in celebrated plays by Britain’s poet laureate.

Allow me to offer an amendment. When religion is used only as an insurance policy against suffering and death, then it will fail to do justice to our deepest selves, which have been made in the image of God. People’s suspicion of sex arises out of fear of our fragile bodies and out of our prideful desire to be invulnerable. Pullman may blame the church but I suspect that the church just reflects generalized fears on this matter.

Milton’s God, however knows that, when we truly open ourselves to the wonders of His creation—wonders that include both sex and intellectual exploration—then we will experience joy beyond anything we can imagine. Our tragedy is that our egotism prompts us to reenact the Fall. In our pride, we turn our backs on joy.

Confession: I’ve probably beaten this topic to death given that this is my fourth blog post on this topic.  The reason, I now realize, is that I once was where Pullman is–which is to say a secular humanist who didn’t like talking about sin. I now see his vision as a bit facile, a version of my 1970s sexual liberation philosophy. I’m arguing with the author because I’m still questioning my own conversion. Milton has been a big help in understanding what’s at stake.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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