Friday, December 16, 2011

Shakespeare, The Golden Compass, and a guy named A.C. Bradley

So, a fortunate series of events turned my HS religion class today into a discussion of the brilliance of Hamlet.  It sent me tonight to the hundred-year-old classic of Shakespearean analysis by (dead white male) A.C. Bradley, called Shakespearean Tragedy.  If you like literature, but haven't read this former "given" of college English reading, you should open a tab for or Project Gutenberg right now.  

The insight that struck me when I first read the book three years ago, and did again strongly tonight, comes from Bradley's first lecture.  He talks about how, unlike Greek tragedy, the cause of the tragedy in Shakespeare isn't Fate.  It's not God(s) either.  It's the particular flaw that lives in the hero amidst all his native strengths, and it's always a moral flaw.  Now, Bradley is not a Christian moralist.  But he's a human, and therefore he's a ready-made moralist nonetheless.  He says: the main evil action --the evil that leads to everyone's destruction-- isn't usually the hero's evil.  It belongs to uncle-king Claudius, to Iago, to Goneril, Regan & Edmund, to the Houses of Capulet & Montague.  But the tragic hero's flaw will get him caught up in and ruined by the working out of the battle of evil.  Shakespeare's brilliance is that 1) Yes, evil will eventually lose; the bad guys will be destroyed by their evil, but 2) a whole lot of good --including the hero's own life-- will be destroyed when the truth will out.  It'll cost you your wife, daughter, title, land, and apparently every member of the Danish court.

Don't misunderstand this --and this is key-- Bradley doesn't think Shakespeare has any kind of karma, providence, fate, or kismet.  The Bard is not interested in poetic justice.  Nor does Bradley think he is trying to answer the Problem of Evil.  No, it's just that Shakespeare knows that evil is not self-sustaining.  It will collapse, and when it does, it will take out those whose choices put themselves in the way of it, even if they themselves are the very ones bringing down the evil antagonist (like Hamlet, Othello, Lear).  The perfect image he gives for this eventuality is that of the world retching out the evil.  He speaks of a necessity of nature to fix the problems of great injustice.  He speaks of the play's movement as a "convulsive reaction" and says that "in its efforts to overcome and expel [the main evil] [the world] is agonized with pain, and driven to mutilate its own substance and to lose not only evil, but priceless good."  It's true: all the bad guys do die horribly in King Lear, but then, so does the flawed Lear, and the utterly flawless Cordelia too.  

Which brings me to my modern literature showpieces.  I have no need for my literature to be Christian.  If Lewis makes it Christian explicitly, and Tolkien does it accidentally: fine.  But I need my literature --poets, novels, short stories, movies-- to be human.  To be real.  To follow the rules of this plane and cosmos and metaphysical dispensation.  J.K. Rowling, Euripides, and A.E. Housman are great literature, even without a purposeful Christian viewpoint, because they get us right.  I hate that I can see large chunks of myself is both Hamlet and Iago, but I love that William Shakespeare "sets me up a glass where I may see my inmost part."  I've learned that I've got a weird mix of Neville and Draco in me too.  In the necessarily tragic storytelling of the "epic" fictions which I've discussed before, we see again and again Bradley's Shakespeare-learned lesson.  If you want the eventual defeat of Sauron, the White Witch, the Volturi, and Voldemort, you're going to have to risk losing Boromir, Denethor, Edmund/Aslan, Irina, and countless loved ones of Harry Potter, all because of someone's tragic flaw.  As Alfred says in The Dark Knight: "You have inspired good, but you spat in the faces of Gotham's criminals. Didn't you think there might be some casualties? Things were always gonna get worse before they got better."  Wrongs get righted, but the losses are...well, umm, tragic.  This is good storytelling: following the contours of human nature.

This doesn't just happen in terms of death.  It's shown in how good choices, bad choices, and random chance work themselves out.  As I've mentioned befoere, at least in talks, the beauty of Rowling is that, even if she didn't intend that the one really problematic moral choice made by her good guys failed because it was immoral, at the very least the story logically plays out like that.  It did fail; it did --utterly unnecessarily-- cost at least one hero their life; and "providentially" it turned out to be essential to the side of good in the closing action that it failed.  The last chapter is entitled "The Flaw in the Plan", and the flawed plan is not Voldemort's.  This happens because Rowling organizes her story within the rules of the world --Shakespeare's world, our world-- and is willing to follow it then to its natural conclusions.  She doesn't force it; she doesn't cheat; she doesn't reveal her hand.  

Contrariwise, I just read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (the trilogy containing the The Golden Compass) over the weekend, and, to put it bluntly: Pullman doesn't get this.  Now, I'll need to take some time soon and give a full evaluation of HDM, including why I read them, but I can't right now.  Part of the wait is because I want to cool off a bit first and try to give a hopefully fair discussion.  But it'll be hard because of the human, natural standards I've explained above.  I don't really care if Pullman has Christian sympathies --or any religious leanings-- the problem is that he's flawed as a writer and atrocious as a philosopher.  Heck, Eminem is about as far from Christian music as you can get, but if you listen to him, there is something honestly human and accurate in his lyrics.  Pullman lacks that.  I know that HDM is the atheist's/agnostic's answer to Narnia, but that doesn't mean he gets to skip out on the nature of humans, both as characters in his books or as his readers.  

I have many sins to accuse Pullman of, and none of them are religious.  But let's leave aside his sleight of hand, his bait-and-switches, his poor pacing, and his three anti-climatic climaxes (in one book).  Let's just compare him with the authors above.  No HDM character is self-identifiable for the average person.  They are all either too heroic or too corrupt, or just too shallow.  Nobody, good or evil, could be considered a tragic hero.  If a trait in a good character may appear initially as a flaw, it'll either get re-evaluated by the reader in light of future events (though, not matured in the character, mind you) or be subsumed into a greater trait that they always had, but which some event will bring to the surface.  If there's a flaw in a bad character, it's just part of their awful nature.  The closest thing to a really complex character is Mrs. Coulter.  Don't get me wrong: I loved Lyra, the protagonist, but while she's rounded, she's not complex.  She never has a truly hard decision; she has no major, in-world moral flaw; and she has no internal doubts.  

In HDM, there are some tragedies, but they're not real tragedies like in Shakespeare, Tolkien, or Rowling.  Oftentimes people seem to die just to add to the pain of the main characters' lives or to show the evilness of the bad guys responsible for their deaths.  A few sacrifices are brought about because of a choice or a positive character trait --one quite beautifully, actually, in Book Two-- but there are no tragic climaxes.  Not one character has to seriously pay for their personal moral choices.  Justice is served according to the political/religious stance you take.  In Shakespeare's and Rowling's canons, the sole moral codes are --just like in Pullman's-- simple, unspoken, Natural Law "right and wrong" systems.  And like those two, Pullman's world abhors the evil in itself, but unlike the first two, his world doesn't convulse and mutilate itself to expel the evil, and/or the tragic good characters along with it.  The irony is that the first two and a half HDM books prophesy a rather specific cosmic overthrow and shakedown of good and evil, justice and tyranny, freedom and bondage....but it doesn't happen, at least not as anyone would imagine.  The "greatest and last clash" between free thought/love and Authority, has next to no personal investment by most characters, it sees the presumed ultimate duel traded in for a vulture attack, the battle doesn't really "do" anything other than create cover for the kids to attain their next micro-goal, and while the main protagonists have to do hard things, they never make a real choice of forsaking one good option in order to accept a painful, but more virtuous, one.  Maybe that's why Pullman has to dump lots of unearned despair and pain in whenever he can, even at the last pages of the book, so it seems like it wasn't too easy.  The road wasn't easy, but the decisions generally were.  Oh, did I mention that while they "destroy" God and guilt, they still don't get to live happily ever after?

Someone may protest that since Pullman disbelieves in a higher power than there should no sufficient reason within his world to make it retch out the wrong.  Leaving aside comparisons to the equally divinity-less but still "morally demanding worlds" of Rowling and the Bard, I still call Pullman a cheater because in his world there are prophecies, fate, rules of metaphysical governance, and, oh yeah, a gizmo that will always tell you the truth.  Sorry Phil, that's a way more supernaturally rigorous place than Othello's universe.  The reason I feel sorry for the kids who say "His Dark Materials were my Narnia growing up" is that in HDM they never learn that you have to change behaviors, there are no personal flaws to be fearful of, there won't be peace and happiness in the end anyway, and worst of all, there's never a place where a person has to decide between two great goods and know that they're closing off a lot of stuff forever in the process and that this choice could fill their life with regret.  Summary: Philip Pullman may want to kill God, but he doesn't even have real humans with which to replace Him.


  1. Father, great post. I would question your statement that you don't need a literary work to be 'Christian' as long as it is true to human nature. Aren't these two things inseparable, if Christ = Truth and Truth is written on the human heart? If human nature is portrayed truly, it cannot _not_ be Christian. But maybe you meant "religious".
    Otherwise a great post with great points. I haven't read nor will probably ever read The Golden Compass but it's nice that there are people like you to read it for me. :) Take care and God bless you!

  2. Oops, sorry, Jill; you're absolutely right. A good distinction you made there: "If human nature is portrayed truly, it cannot *not* be Christian. But maybe you meant 'religious'."

    That's what I love about the insights that guys as far apart chronologically as Basil the Great and G.K. Chesterton had: that there is Christian stuff in the great epics and tragedies of the unevangelized. I think it's Tertullian who, despite disliking pagan literature, said *anima naturaliter Christiana*, "the soul is naturally Christian".

    And, you're welcome to the fact you don't have to read The Golden Compass. I figured if I'm gonna start talking about these books, especially the controversial ones, I better know something about them, and Pullman's are the most notorious, most likely to need a ready answer, and the most likely to make me look silly if I say "I haven't read them". But that's my job: to take that particular bullet so good moms and dads can just skip 'em!

  3. Thanks, FF, for cutting to the core of the goodness within (or lack thereof in the case of HDM). You know my feelings about Rawling, et. al. and about Lewis and Tolkien, but it appears that Rawling is beginning to find her way into the Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton CAMP in my mind. Again, thanks for your insight.