Wild Untutored Phoenixes… Phoenices… er…

At the start of Philip Pullman’s great His Dark Materials, Lyra is a wild child, a seeming orphan, playing in the grounds and on the roofs of an Oxford college, who needs to be chased away from the fruit trees. A sensitive reader might remember Eve from the Garden of Eden, at least in her unfallen state, and the connection is made explicit for us by The Amber Spyglass (2000):”The girl, then, is in the position of Eve, the wife of Adam, the mother of us all and the cause of all sin” (71). Having obtained the alethiometer, a sort of divining instrument, she is able to comprehend and use it, without any training.

As I wrote in “The Republic of Heaven: The Betrayal of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy”, Pullman allows Lyra to retreat from a character able to communicate with everyone and who has agency, to a much more subservient character. In fact, as soon as she meets Will Parry, she is very much more girly and cooks him breakfast, albeit badly, and then spends much of the final volume in a coma. At some point, she falls, in a sequence I think we have to read as sexual (but involves marzipan) and loses that innocence. By the end of the novel, she is destined to have a formal education of the kind she had scorned at the outset of Northern Lights and may at best hope for a bluestocking existence. She has to be taught to use the alethiometer.

Of course, this innocence/experience thing is drawing on William Blake (his Songs of Innocence and Experience, which feature a sleeping Lyca) and Heinrich von Kleist’s parable of “On the Marionette Theatre” (1810). Let me quote myself:

This story describes a brief encounter between the narrator and a dancer, Herr C., in the town of M. in 1801. The two see a performance of string puppets and Herr C. claims the marionettes have a grace that dancers could learn from. The puppets, being artificial, “would never be affected” because they are not self-conscious. Self-consciousness for humans is “inevitable because we have eaten of the tree of knowledge. And Paradise is bolted, with the cherub behind us; we must journey around the world and determine if perhaps at the end somewhere there is an opening to be discovered again.” The narrator responds with a story of a graceful young man who pulled a thorn out of his foot; seeing himself in a mirror, the young man recognised his likeness to a similarly-posed statue. Afterwards he became self-conscious and narcissistic. Herr C. then tells a further story, about how he fenced with a Russian family and then fought a tethered bear. Try as he might, Herr C. was unable to defeat the bear. The human’s self-conscious actions were unable to defeat the animal’s unconscious actions. Herr C. concludes that humanity’s grace can be eventually regained: “grace returns after knowledge has gone through the world of the infinite, in that it appears to best advantage in that human bodily structure that has no consciousness at all — or has infinite consciousness — that is, in the mechanical puppet, or in the God.” Grace can be regained by eating for a second time from the Tree of Knowledge.

Great things can be done unconsciously – or, rather, without consciousness – by those in a state of grace.

When I wrote both chapters, I’d clearly forgotten France Gray’s concept of the “Wild Untutored Phoenix”.* Gray discusses the various ways in which we deny that women are funny or have a sense of humour – they are too prudish or gossip too much or… It’s a variant on How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Gray suggests “When women are visible making people laugh, deny the existence of a conscious creative process” (8). It’s just an accident, it’s just chance.

But it was of the Wild Untutored Phoenix I thought when thinking about Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Obviously we all have our theories about who one of her parents is, but what is clear is that she can use the force without the, admittedly limited, training that Luke had, a training which when returned to is cut short. Do we read this as a real talent and skill, or do we end up with some essentialised wild girl, running around, having to be chased away from the fruit trees? At what point will discipline chop off her agency.

Pleasing although Finn is as a character, could he be the Will to her Lyra? Will she modify her needs in favour of his and will she – like Han, who was not a Jedi – be put into a sleep? Will she keep her agency? We have the example of Leia to look back to – canny and strong in the first (fourth) movie, slave in the third (sixth) (although she has a few weapons left to her). Can a woman be allowed to stay strong and her talents not get undermined?

We’ll see.

 

Note

 

* As far as I can see, this is a reference to an article on D. H. Lawrence by F. R. Leavis in Scrutiny. This is an odd – Lawrence would say queer, no doubt – linkage that I need to think through more.

Bibliography

  • Butler, Andrew M. “Bearly Conscious? Deconstructing Pullman’s Postmodern Marionettes”, Philip Pullman. Edited by Catherine Butler and Tommy Halsdorf, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014: 96-112.
  • Butler, Andrew M. “The Republic of Heaven: The Betrayal of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy.” Children’s Fantasy Fiction: Debates for the Twenty First Century. Edited by Nickianne Moody and Clare Horrocks. Liverpool: ARPF/Liverpool JMU, 2005: 285-298.
  • Gray, Frances. Women and Laughter. London: Macmillan, 1994.

Making the Green One Red

Teaching across several modules brings about odd juxtapositions. And that is especially so of Laughing Matters and Horror.

This week, I was lecturing on the Comedy of Remarriage, using Stanley Cavell’s (problematic) Pursuits of Happiness, where (drawing on Northrop Frye) he discusses the green space that characters go to in romantic comedies to work through the chaotic phase of desires. Obviously this goes back at least as far as A Midsummers Night’s Dream and the forests around Athens, but it comes right up Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Montauk Beach. Cavell notes that in three or four of the comedies of remarriage he discusses the space is called Connecticut (“this locale is called Connecticut. Strictly speaking, in The Lady Eve the place is called ‘Conneckticut,’ and it is all but cited as a mythical location, since nobody is quite sure how you get there, or anyway how a lady gets there.” I’m assuming it was a location where people thought they could get quicky marriages just outside of New York.

Meanwhile, with a certain amount of trepidation, on the Horror module I showed The Last House on the Left as a video nasty, a film that was only passed uncut in the UK as recently as 2008. I suspect the three students that showed up found it tame… Robin Wood argues “The reason people find the violence in Last House so disturbing is not that there is so much of it, nor even that it is so relentlessly close and immediate in presentation. It is these three positions – the position of victim, the position of violator, the position of righteous  avenger – and the interconnections among them that Last House on the Left dramatizes.” Martin Barker suggests “The film puts us on the side of a sense of the characters’ failure. There is no hope in their world. There is no one in the film who can be our point of view”. To me one aspect of horror is what it makes “nice” people do (compare the end of Let the Right One In) and the estranging impact of the sound track.

The basic narrative is one about two (sexualised, drinking) teenagers who go to the city for a concert and are kidnapped by the quasi-family of criminaks they’ve attempted to score drugs off. The two are sexually assaulted and raped, with one killed and the other left for dead. And then, in a twist of fate that bekongs in Dickens or a fairy tale, the criminal’s end up with one of the teen’s parents and revenge is taken.

The parents live in Connecticut.

I’m not saying that The Last House on the Left is a romantic comedy but…

Just as Craven’s film disturbs with its comic relief, so there is a dark side to the romantic comedy. I suspect — it’s been a while since I studied the period — that some attention has been paid to the sexual politics of the seductions of Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not to mention Titania. Someone, I think Laraine Porter but it might be Frances Grey, notes the gender imbalances of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, where women are more likely to be exposed to sexual violence in a period of sexual licentiousness and suspended rules. No must not be deconstructed.

But it brings me back again to a sense of how comedy can be subversive and conservative, horror can be subversive and conservative and comedy and horror are a flea’s bite apart.

Terry Pratchett (1948–2015)

It must have been somewhere around 1984 or 1985, and it must have been in Kevin’s bedroom, one lunch time or after school, that there was an advert in a computer magazine for The Colour of Magic (1983). Maybe it was a bit later and it was The Light Fantastic (1985). At some point I bought both — I suspect at a long-lost sf and gaming shop in the Broadmarsh Centre — and read and enjoyed, although I preferred the novel to what was effectively a few novellas. I bought each paperback as it came out and, in 1989 in Leeds at a convention, had the slightly embarrassing experience of queueing up to get an already-signed copy of Mort (1987) signed by Pratchett. I had found copies of The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981) in the local library and read them — indeed I bought the latter when the library sold it.

At some point in the early 1990s I went to a conference on Mikhail Bakhtin in Sheffield, and sat there wondering why no one was talking about Pratchett and Death. Eventually, this turned into an article for Foundation (“Terry Pratchett and the Comedic Bildungsroman” (1996)), which I was never quite sure whether was a parody of an academic or serious. As if there’s a difference. In time, Farah Mendlesohn, Edward James and I edited a collection of essays on Pratchett for FoundationGuilty of Literature (2001), which was nominated for a best-related book Hugo, and when I started writing books for Pocket Essentials it was one of the ideas I pitched. That was a fun summer or autumn, reading the novels one by one, made weirder by receiving a missive from Colin Smythe.

It had come to someone’s attention that I was writing a biography of Pratchett and people were somewhat aghast that I hadn’t spoken to anyone more than remotely connected to Pratchett. I pointed out that this was a work of criticism — which wasn’t actually reassuring to all parties, but it was hoped that it would be better than the one that three people had edited a couple of years earlier. Coughs quietly. And indeed, I was led to believe that a biography might not be objected to — although I presumed that most of it would be about someone sat at a keyboard. I was invited to visit Colin Smythe and picked up from the station by a large expensive car, and was lent a copy of the book that was going to come out just as we went to press.

At that point I had OD’ed on the novels. At some point I wrote a piece on Only You Can Save Mankind (1992) in relation to other virtual reality war novels — “’We Has Found the Enemy and They Is Us’: Virtual War and Empathy in Four Children’s Science Fiction Novels” (The Lion and the Unicorn (2004) 28(2)) — and I was commissioned to edited a book on Pratchett for Greenwood Press, An Unofficial Companion to the Novels of Terry Pratchett (2008), which damn near killed me. Certainly I could have done without an all-night proof read of the galleys putting right the errors introduced into the manuscript. And I learned — as I had with the Pocket Essentials — that some of Pratchett’s readers don’t like anything other than absolute praise. OK, sobeit: He was the finest comic writer of the last thirty years. But sometimes he nodded.

This is going to go on, but here are two parts of the intro to the Greenwood volume. I’m not sure I ever read Making Money, but I will and no doubt will be lured back to read him. Just because you love a writer’s work, doesn’t mean that it can’t be criticised. Continue reading →