Thursday, November 19, 2020

Phase space


I love stories and storytelling, and want to become a better teller of stories. And so, I spent some of a birthday book token on Philip Pullman’s Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling. Pullman is, rightly, a celebrated storyteller. He is also something of a celebrated atheist. It doesn’t take much intellectual rigour or integrity of character to be an atheist—or, indeed, a theist—and perhaps both things are out of fashion anyway, but there must be some who possess both, and I am disappointed that Pullman does not seem interested in being one of them. When he writes about religious faith and religious texts, as he does a great deal, the deftness with which he deploys his fallacies does not make a sure path through the woods.

That said, he is an excellent storyteller, with a raven eye and the ability to weave a nest from idea-twigs. And one of the ideas he returns to over and again is that of phase space, a term stolen from theoretical physics, which, taken for his own purposes, Pullman considers as “something like the sum of all the consequences that could follow from a given origin.” [DV, p.87] This he describes by analogy as a vast wood, or forest, crossed by paths, such as the one taken by Little Red Riding Hood on her way to visit her grandmother. The purpose of the storyteller is to follow the path, making decisions as to which fork to take, perhaps slowing down to look at whatever may be found next to the path, but never stepping off it, for, the moment you do so, you lose your audience.

I am fascinated by this elegant idea, and how it applies not only to the telling of story in general but specifically how it applies to the library we know as the Bible. The sum of all the consequences that could follow from a given origin describes, to me, the knowledge of God, who sees the whole forest from above, and who walks its paths, from the track taken by Little Red Riding Hood to the paths made by a stag beetle in search of a mate and the deer in search of a safe hollow in which to give birth to her fawn, paths beyond number, both habitual and provisional, and every path not taken. That there is a wood which, moreover, can be traversed, and paths, taken or not, is blessing. That we must leave a character for now, facing a seemingly impassable obstacle, while we pick up the progress of another character along another path, curse.

Here is an idea by which to understand the Garden of Eden, that plays so very much on Pullman’s mind. He paints a picture of a petty God who wants to keep the humans in the servitude of innocence and punish them for losing it, and Satan as the Saviour who leads us from captivity to the wisdom of experience. I see a world of possibility and responsibility that calls for just such experience-gained wisdom, learned only through suffering that God would shield his children from for a time, but not for ever, and a long path out of childhood through adolescence to maturity. Every story needs a given origin, and ours begins in media res, not with a myth about origins but a myth about purpose, not asking how is it that we exist? but, what do we exist for? And not, why are we here? but, why are we here? Here, in exile in the walled garden city of Babylon, so far from our home in Jerusalem? And why must the great Father and Mother of All Humankind not consume the fruit of the tree God, not they, has planted in the very midst of their kingdom?

The Hebrew Bible is precisely a collection of stories concerned with a path through the woods. A path that rescues life through a cataclysmic flood, unleashed by shadowy forces, a path the protagonist is pointed to by a powerful ally who, from then on, will often be described as walking on the waters. Paths that lead out from the Plain of Babel, though we cannot follow them all and must choose which one to take. A path that beckons Abram and Sarai out from Ur into the unknown, to live as sojourners in a place that their descendants will call home. A path through Egypt, to save many peoples from famine and out of Egypt as refugees, and seemingly around and around the wilderness while those who have known nothing but slavery to capricious gods might find paths to a new identity. Paths in and out of a land of promise; paths that lead, through love and betrayal, to unity and to division; paths that detour into long exile. And, in exile, a collection of Writings on the theme of wisdom, borrowing from other nations, other ideas about the world, yet distinctive in the way in which the forest is mapped by Jewish cartographers.

One of the key ideas that really comes to the fore in these Writings but has in fact been there all along at the corner of our eye is that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. And this has often been understood as, if you are wise, if you know what is good for you, you will be in fear of God: this fear will prevent you from stepping out of line, off the path, where the Monsters lurk. Though, of course, in such a reading, God is the ultimate Monster; or the best weapon of the ultimate human monsters. But in every other case, the something of the Lord refers either to something that is inherently the Lord’s—the arm of the Lord, the eyes of the Lord, recognising of course that these are metaphors—or to something that has been given a particular purpose by the Lord—the angel of the Lord, the mountain of the Lord. So, it would only seem fair that we should take the fear of the Lord to refer either to a fear that is the Lord’s, or to fear that is surrendered to the Lord.

Many Christians don’t like the first option, because we have been conditioned to think of God in Greek Platonic terms, the Ideal far above and behind the jealous, squabbling pantheon of Greek gods. Some atheists, such as Stephen Fry, claim they would have more time for an honestly jealous God; Pullman seems to see no such distinction. But Yahweh is not at all a Greek god, and fear is a perfectly legitimate thing for such a god as this to experience: fear for those he loves, for avoidable pains and unavoidably suffering on the path from naivety to maturity. Wisdom might flow from such a fear, as drops of blood from a man in another garden on the night before he is tortured and executed. Or, and these need not be mutually exclusive understandings, it may be that when such a man willingly surrenders his fear to God, so that God takes ownership of it, it is transformed into wisdom. In any case, there is something reciprocal here, and generous, and brave. In these Writings we might discern the discovery of some given magnetic field, the invention of a form of compass, and their use by adventurers to venture beyond the horizon.

And in these Writings, the path of wisdom is absolutely grounded in the material world, from close observation of the natural world from lizards and ants to rock badgers and gazelle, snakes and eagles, rivers and winds and trees, and every conceivable realm of human experience, from ships carrying traded spices on high seas to ivory towers of learning, hard toil both honest and bitter, extravagant and modest pleasures. This world is also inhabited or visited by a divine council, including the satan or counsel for the prosecution, by freshwater and saltwater and celestial non-human sentient beings. What we make of these—and the earliest tellers of these stories seem not to be of one mind—matters. We can claim that they are metaphors that are erroneously taken literally, and who are in any case no longer required as we have found better explanations for what they were groping towards, but that would be to entirely misrepresent ‘metaphor’ and ‘literal’ and ‘better explanation’. This world also takes in, within its compass, a shadowy realm of the dead; but the goal of the story is not to leave this world behind for a fairer shore, but, rather, the making new of our world, countless times over, through the rise and fall of civilisations, through the planting of human society as ‘trees’ and the (re)movement of human society as ‘gardeners’.

In short, the story Philip Pullman finds himself so compelled to tell is already told, and well. This is, of course, hardly a surprise; for every fresh story is a variation of archetypal stories, and none the worse for it, as he himself frequently acknowledges. Every great story is a path through a phase space that bears re-walking, and the taking of previously unchosen paths, and Pullman is well equipped to play in the woods. But he urges the storyteller to pay attention to the path through the wood and not be distracted by the trees, and I fear that he has failed to take his own advice.


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