Friday, December 21, 2007


I was going to write a post on the Accents series I bought in Oxford, but it needed a lot of space to do it justice; as so often, the thought of moving to another blog host looked good, as did putting Movable Type on my webserver, much tinkering, all boring and a stupid use of time. Meanwhile I came across a podcast in the Guardian of John Mullan and audience throwing questions at Philip Pullman. I think if anyone wanted to study English accents they would do well to start with something like this podcast, which gives one a variety of accents to compare - but as boring technical problems remain unresolved I leave this large topic for later. Meanwhile, a sample of this interesting interview:

Q (Very Young Reader): Why did you choose to put the religious plot in The Amber Spyglass?

A (Pullman): Well it was there from the beginning actually because it was always the power

I mean the power that has dominion in that world is a religious power and I wanted that to be there because um that's the most dangerous sort of power it seems to me

A power that rules in the in the in the name of something that may not be questioned

Religion um -- and this is something I've said a good few times -- religion is something that is very good when it is far away from power, when it concerns itself with the poor, with the suffering, with the oppressed, with injustice, with that sort of thing, with the sick, religion does good things.

When you give it political power, when you give it the power to send armies into war or to order people to be executed or to to reach into our lives and tell us what to to eat and drink, what to wear and so on, when it has that sort of power, the power of punishing people basically, it goes bad very very quickly

and I wanted to I wanted to see what it would be like to imagine a world in which religious power had that sort of authority. That's why I put it in.

Q (Older Reader): I was just wondering about whether you, the characters in the book are predestined at all, with the daemons for example, servants all have dogs as daemons, and I wondered whether the daemons are a sort of view of the predestination of these characters or whether the daemons are dogs because they have become servants

A (Pullman): That's a question that other people have wondered about so perhaps I didn't put it very well in the book

It's not a it's not a it's not a limiting thing, it's not a determining thing.
If your daemon is a dog it means that you're happy in the sort of in the sort of structure where you know who has the authority, where you know who's the boss,
dogs like to know who's in charge,

and if you have a group of dogs, a pack of dogs, there's a top dog and there's a bottom dog and there's a, they all know their place in the order, they like that, it keeps them happy, they know where they are.

And it seemed to me that if your daemon was a dog it would tell you that you'd be happy working in a sort of structure where there was someone in charge and you were happy to obey orders and carry them out. It doesn't say anything about your character apart from that, it doesn't say whether you're good or bad or strong or weak or clever or silly it just says that's the sort of person you are and you'd be happy in that sort of structure.

So it would probably turn out as I said in the story that if your daemon is a dog you'd be quite happy being a servant and there are some people who I've no doubt would be happy carrying out orders and making sure things are all right for the person in charge and so on.

That's why but it doesn't say anything more about you than that.

Q (Young Reader): I was quite intrigued about the concept of dust and how it's like so complex and you use it to portray so many things like puberty and the universe and everything really

(John Mullan): It's one of those all-purpose symbols

A (Pullman): It means -- well, now here I'm wondering whether I should interpret my own work and tell you what it means

I'm kind of reluctant to tell you what things mean because as I'm the chap who wrote it that gives me a sort of authority in this field

but I'm not sure that I do have that sort of authority because

If you think, if you've got a theory of dust and you've worked it out you have every right to do that.

When the book, when the book is finished and published the autocracy of writing, which is an autocratic procedure, I'm a despot, I'm a tyrant when I write because I have absolute power of life and death over every sentence, every comma, every, every character, I can kill them, I can bring them to life, I can cut off the end of this chapter and start somewhere else, I'm the authority and no one can tell me not to do it.

Once the book is published the autocracy of authorship comes to an end and the democracy of reading begins, and that's the point when I cease to have any authority.

I can't tell you what it means.
I can tell you what I think it means -- and so can anybody else.
But if I tell you what I think it means that'll, because I wrote the book people might think that that is what it really means,
and there's no more argument about it,
but I don't want that to to happen, I want there to be discussion about it,
I want you to think about all the things it might mean --
You've come up with a good few things there
If I if I

But you have asked me a question and it's unfair to evade it so I'll just say the word 'consciousness'. And leave it at that.


If Pullman has always had undisputed control of the text that appeared in the published books he is a very lucky man. Especially the commas.

On the subject of intentionalism, it's interesting to look at PP's answer to the last question in light of his comments on daemons as dogs. The dog-daemon reply struck me as a flagrant piece of question-begging -- after all, an animal with strongly hierarchical instincts might just as well want to be top dog, the one giving the orders. (Cf. Robert Altemeyer's work on the authoritarian personality, most recently in The Authoritarians.) So it would be reasonable to find such daemons accompanying persons in all sorts of positions - for example, in all ranks of the military, or a hierarchical Church. The sort of person who wants to know his/her place in a system needs other people above, below and on the same level forming that sort of system. We may note, for example, that someone like Pullman would not satisfy anyone with that sort of personality: he would be reluctant to exercise authority over someone who wanted orders to follow, but equally reluctant, as far as one can see, to accept a position requiring obedience. What he likes is to exercise authority over a text, a non-human object, and to abjure authority over what other humans do with the object once it exists.

Pullman thinks a disposition to obedience says nothing about your moral virtues or vices. Sadly, Bob Altmeyer has yet to write a series of bestselling children's books culminating in a movie starring Nicole Kidman. Altmeyer:

Don’t think for a minute this doesn’t concern you personally. Let me ask you, as we’re passing the time here, how many ordinary people do you think an evil authority would have to order to kill you before he found someone who would, unjustly, out of sheer obedience, just because the authority said to? What sort of person is most likely to follow such an order? What kind of official is most likely to give that order, if it suited his purposes? Look at what experiments tell us, as I did.

If that isn't a moral issue it'll have to do, until the real thing comes along. Links for the lazy repeated: Pullman, Altmeyer.


Jenny Davidson said...

Thanks for Pullman transcription--it is awful, I am too impatient/lazy to listen to podcasts, I want it only at reading speed, though I eyed that one with a pang this morning and thought it might almost make me break my non-podcast habit...

I have many times pondered this question of dog daemons! And regretfully concluded that Pullman must like birds more than I do and dogs less. So that, yes, much as I love those books, I think his point about dog daemons and authoritarian structures and servants is somewhat disingenuous, and I like your question about hierarchies...

Ithaca said...

JD, I know, whenever I see Podcast, 47 minutes, my heart sinks. The Guardian claimed to have a print version on offer and the click just took one back to the podcast.

Of course, my heart also sinks when something is offered as a PDF download, which is Altmayer's format, but it's a very interesting book so worth reading that way.

Jenny Davidson said...

I will pursue Altmayer for sure; thanks...