Avoiding the Void
plus a critical appreciation of ‘His Dark Materials’
Nature abhors a vacuum
And seeks to fill it
So the presumption of abstract rationalisation
Claims to be true
Nature is a vacuum
Which it loves to populate
With energetic swirls
Around receptive centres of its self
In heavenly bodies
Somewhere temporarily included
In a place sometime
So the realisation of natural inclusion
For many years now I have been aware that the abhorrence of darkness is a source of profound human estrangement from Nature, which leads to a falling out of love with one another and our surroundings into needless opposition.
Back in 2004, I was asked by a publisher to write a review of Phillip Pullman’s trilogy, ‘His Dark Materials’. The review was rejected as ‘unintelligible’ and has never been published anywhere readily accessible.
Here it is:-
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Space, Dust and the Co-evolutionary Context of ‘His Dark Materials’
By Alan Rayner
How strange and delightful that a book called ‘His Dark Materials’ should cast such a profound light on the diverse and often contradictory ways that we understand the origins of life and our human place in Nature! For the very heart of Philip Pullman’s trilogy pulsates with the underlying theme of an ancient and ongoing struggle between what the angel, Xaphania describes as the ‘wisdom’ to open human minds and the ‘stupidity’ that attempts to close them through the power of an external Authority.
This theme could not be more relevant to our modern human predicament in an increasingly uncertain and conflict-torn world where burgeoning population, globalized economic systems and advancing agricultural and industrial technologies are having an ever more profound impact. How, in such a world, should we relate to one another, other life forms and our environmental living space? Is there anything we might learn from the narrative of ‘His Dark Materials’ that could help us to address this question? Does the story itself describe the ultimate triumph of what Xaphania calls wisdom or of stupidity? Do the biological, evolutionary and scientific themes developed in the narrative make sense, or are they just as much a product of ‘imposing closure’ as the religious orthodoxy that they are set against? Are we obliged to replace the tyranny of a fallen Godfather Authority only with the potentially equally abusive power of some other judgemental external force such as a Natural Selector, ivory-towered Academy or Republican President of Heaven?
In this essay, I will explore how the scientific and philosophical themes of ‘His Dark Materials’ skirt tantalizingly around an exciting emerging view of evolutionary processes, in much the same way that its main characters avoid the abyss alongside the way out from the land of the dead. I’ll try to show why I think the trilogy comes close to this view, but is in the end distanced from it, as is all orthodox thinking, by regarding ‘emptiness’ as a fearful absence rather than a vital inclusion of life. It does so through the heroic fictional medium of trying to make intangible space tangible and hence give it paradoxical material form. This conversion of implicit space into explicit form is most obvious in the treatment of ‘Dust’ as ‘dark’ or ‘angelic’ ‘matter’ and in the depiction of daemons and deaths. In the end, with bitter irony, it brings about the very closure of minds described by Xaphania as ‘stupid’. Will and Lyra become separated by sealing the linings between their parallel universes and lose the intuitive powers that took them on the great adventure of their young lives by allowing them to wield the Subtle Knife and read the alethiometer.
Far from being a romantic tale of ‘Paradise Regained’, I think ‘His Dark Materials’ becomes a tragedy of ‘Paradise Re-Lost’ as the opportunity for deep understanding of how life and the Universe really work and evolve is turned aside through fear of the unknown and unfathomable. It repeats a theme that has echoed through human history where just as we are on the threshold of a truly new worldview in which empathic feeling for all human and non-human nature has a chance to flourish, we step backwards. This theme is repeated, again and again, because we fail to comprehend the real nature of ‘nothingness’ and its relation to uncertainty and evolutionary creativity.
For thousands of years, faced with the variability of our surroundings and needing to secure our own survival, we human beings have made an enemy out of uncertainty. The principal combative tactic that we have brought to bear on this enemy has been to try to exclude or confine it by imposing closure upon it. That is, we have tried mentally and/or physically to box uncertainty inside or outside absolutely fixed and sealed boundaries. In this way we have consciously or unconsciously sought the security system by means of which we can wield control over the wildness that we perceive both in nature and, if we allow it free access and expression, within ourselves.
In many ways we appear to have been richly rewarded for imposing closure upon uncertainty. We have made the huge social, technological and medical strides that have marked the advance of civilizations and made our lives more comfortable and seemingly predictable, at least in purely material terms.
At the same time, however, these rich rewards have been gained at an enormous and actually unnecessary cost to our humanity, which increasingly threatens the viability of the living world that we inhabit. By imposing closure, we have alienated ourselves from one another and from non-human nature as well as from the very source of creativity that is simultaneously the vital source of uncertainty that makes our life possible and worth living at all. We have created a deeply paradoxical and compulsive culture and logic of ‘one against other’ that overrides our compassionate human feelings and sets the agenda for profound and damaging internal and external conflict.
Our insatiable desire for certainty is a real compassion killer, which flies in the face of the open-ended reality of our ever-changing human experience. It also leaves us unprepared for and so tragically vulnerable to the unpredictable repercussions of the tidal waves of natural forces that we have sought to tame and ignore. What a terrible price to pay for the mollification of our anxiety!
To break free from our compulsion to impose closure is therefore, I think, humanity’s greatest challenge if we are to continue to have a role in the living world. ‘His Dark Materials’ illustrates what a desperately difficult challenge this is. Not only do we have to let go of short-term material rewards and the elitism that places jealously guarded, one-sided authoritative power in the hands of the one or few at the ‘top’ of hierarchical systems of governance. We also have to open our minds up to our most profound fear, the source of uncertainty that lies in the darkness of the abyssal void, which, like the escapees from the land of the dead, we have been trying so hard to avoid. Just listen to the fearful way in which Will’s daemon, Kirjava describes this void:
“Every time anyone made an opening between worlds…the knife cut into the emptiness outside. The same emptiness there is down in the abyss…So all this time, Dust has been leaking out of the worlds and into nothingness”
What, in reality, is this void that we try to avoid? Can it be defined independently from matter? What would our world and universe be like without it? Thinking about these questions has led me to view this void simply as the space that inextricably permeates within, through and around — and not just outside — all physical forms, from sub-atomic to galactic in scale. This space opens up the possibility for movement and communication at the same time that it introduces uncertainty into what would otherwise be a frozen and impenetrable material world and universe. It is the source of fluidity that pools the swirling contents of the universe gravitationally together, like the solvent in a solution of solutes. Without it there wouldn’t be any room for change. Yet, we are all too prone to regard it as ‘evil’. We feel its presence as an absence of substance, which makes us seem incomplete — and hence uncertain and mortal. We desire the security of regarding our human bodies as complete, impregnable, immortal wholes, closed off from our outsides. But they are actually full of holes, which communicate between our insides and outsides. To make ourselves complete we would have to seal off the openings, like the windows in the linings between worlds cut by the Subtle Knife, through which space can gain access to our insides. But if we did, we wouldn’t be able to breathe, eat or sweat.
To avoid finally succumbing, like Will and Lyra, to the stifling imposition of closure, we therefore have to be prepared to embrace the fearful enemy that our security systems would seal off inside or outside ourselves. We have to accept that it is vital to our dynamic human existence in a changeable world immersed in an expanding universe. Orthodox mindsets, whether these are scientific or religious, cannot achieve this because they actually rely on the imposition of closure that underpins their logic of ‘either/or’. They won’t and can’t allow us to embrace our enemy — what Carl Jung alluded to as the ‘Shadow Archetype’ — that is a vital aspect of our living, responsive selves but haunts us if we attempt to exclude or confine it. In the pursuit of absolute certainty, which makes an enemy of space, these mindsets inevitably bring about conflict and division, just as they do in the climactic battleground scenes of ‘His Dark Materials’.
The need to embrace our erstwhile enemy has underlain the emergence of a new form of reasoning about processes of evolutionary transformation in the human and natural world, based on what I, together with a small group of companions, have called ‘natural inclusionality’. Natural inclusionality is an awareness of space and the variably permeable and dynamic boundaries — ultimately formed by what physicists refer to as ‘electromagnetic energy’ — that inseparably line it, as receptive, responsive and reciprocating, rather than divisive. It leads to some different and exciting ideas about what it means to be Human in a complex and rapidly changing world. These ideas are based on regarding the Human ‘Self’ as a complex, dynamic coming together of inner and outer through intermediary aspects, in much the same way that we can understand a river as a creative interplay between stream and landscape mediated through its banks and valley sides. Each aspect simultaneously shapes the other.
With this idea about ‘natural inclusionality’ and the ‘complex self-identity as a dynamic inclusion of neighbourhood’, which resonates with many long held human spiritual values and principles, we can appreciate ourselves as inextricably coupled aspects of one another and our living space in dynamic relationship, rather than as independent ‘individuals’ set forever apart. Hence it may be possible to make sense of and relate with the uncertainties of the world in a way that brings together currently divided scientific, artistic and spiritual views so that they complement rather than oppose one another. We can regard the human subject as a vital participant in and local expression of the wider realm of ‘place-time’ that we all emerge from and subside into like waves at the interface of sea and air. Hopefully, we may thereby find more creative, peaceful and environmentally sustainable ways of living together.
From this natural inclusional perspective, the consequences of severing the vital continuity between our insides and outsides are therefore diabolical, rendering us into fixtures — motionless, emotionless objects that can only be shifted from outside. ‘Free’ though we might seem to be as independent agencies, we become powerless to move of our own free will. We end up living our lives as contradictions — living dead, like the tragic silver guillotine-severed children from Bolvangar and the soul-sucked adults of Cittàgazze. Yet, again and again, both scientific and religious human orthodoxy has sought the severance of inner from outer in their compulsive quest for authoritative certainty.
And so, to my mind, the most fundamental theme of ‘His Dark Materials’ is to remind us, again and again, of the heart-rending consequences of severance, traced back to the original symbolic fall triggered by the compulsion to know how to draw the line between good and evil. A theme that all kinds of scientific, political and religious fundamentalists might do well to hear and understand, which suggests that there is far more to the evolution of life than either survival of the fittest or instantaneous Creation.
The story of our human identities as inseparable couples of inner with outer is of course most apparent in ‘His Dark Materials’ in the intimate relationship between the human characters and their non-human daemons. The descriptions of these dynamic couples and their interrelations speak not only of the soulful aspects of human life, but also relate strongly with scientific evidence coming from biology, psychology, chemistry and physics. But ultimately by making an enemy of, rather than embodying void space, these descriptions also retain linkages to paradoxical orthodox notions of independence, which result in the tragic re-imposition of closure that isolates Will from Lyra.
The most striking feature about the way the daemons are described is the fixing of their character that coincides with adolescence. This fixing makes them vulnerable to abuse, not least by the dreaded Spectres released from the holes in the linings between worlds cut by the Subtle Knife that the natural intuitive instincts of Iorek Byrnison had such good reason to mistrust. But at the same time it is seen as the fitting response to the joyous touch of a lover, which marks the conscious coming of age of special identity, when Dust begins to settle.
There are many biological phenomena that correspond with the transition from an adventurous playful realm of creative potential to stable mature form. The profound evolutionary significance of these phenomena is largely overlooked by the focus in orthodox evolutionary biology on the seeming independence and reproducibility of adults, but is beautifully illustrated by the story, akin to our own most liberating human invention, of the mulefa’s discovery of wheels.
“One day a creature with no name discovered a seed-pod and began to play, and as she played she…saw a snake coiling itself through the hole in a seed-pod, and the snake said…put your foot through the hole in the seed pod where I was playing, and you will become wise. So she put her foot in where the snake had been. And the oil entered her foot and made her see more clearly than before…So she and her mate took the first ones, and they discovered that they knew who they were…They gave each other names. They named themselves mulefa. They named the seed-tree, and all the creatures and plants.”
Here, we see the capacity for imaginative play and exploration of the possibilities contained within void localities (i.e. ‘holes’) as a vital ingredient of evolutionary creativity. This capacity occurs in all kinds of youngsters, which gather experience and energy through their inner-outer boundaries prior to maturing or metamorphosing into adult forms with limited life spans. These adult forms then indulge in the process of sexual communion that brings the receptive curvature of female and egg into dynamic relation with the assertive dynamic form of male and sperm. This process regenerates a wonderfully rich variety of new identities that we recognize by giving them names, not a monotonous clone of nameless identical entities. It therefore continually recreates rather than exactly reproduces life’s exploration in and as an ever-changing evolutionary context.
The evolutionary importance of the capacity to explore playful possibilities is evident in a phenomenon long recognised, but little understood by biologists, which is known technically as ‘neoteny’. This phenomenon, the retention of juvenile characteristics by adult forms is believed by many to have brought about some of the most dramatic innovations in the evolution of life on Earth. For example, the monocotyledons — predominantly narrow-leafed flowering plants like lilies, grasses and palms are thought to have evolved in this way from broad-leafed ancestors (dicotyledons). All back-boned creatures or ‘vertebrates’, including human beings, are thought to have evolved from the larval stages of sea squirts. We human beings are thought to be neotenous apes. Like the mulefa, we live through many years of childhood, growing very slowly before attaining adulthood and even then retain a playful curiosity and imagination, if we allow ourselves to, which is at the heart of our inventiveness. And many of our domestic animals are thought to have endeared themselves to us, like daemons, through their child-like characteristics of affection and malleability. We owe so much, its seems, to the playing field of our evolutionary youth.
So, what brings about the shift from playful juvenile exploration to adult specialization and sexual capability? Here, there may be a real-life answer, which corresponds remarkably closely in some ways with the angel-forming Dust that showers the loving couple of Lyra and Will and fertilizes the flowers of the wheel-trees, enabling them to produce the hardened pods that mobilize the mulefa. This real-life answer is both a product of life — or, more specifically, plant life — and also transformed the conditions for life on Earth. Through the special quality that chemists refer to as ‘supporting combustion’, it both empowers inner life through inspiration — in-breathing, and returns inner life to the re-creative possibilities of outer space through expiration — out-breathing and death. It is none other than oxygen — through which so many of Earth’s life forms first learned to play so very dangerously, but creatively, with fire.
Although most of us have been brought up to take for granted that oxygen is life-supporting, biological scientists have become increasingly aware over the last 20–30 years that it also has a ‘dark side’. It brings about ageing and death. The reason for this is that the space within what we call an oxygen atom is very receptive to those capsules of ‘negative charge’ that we have called electrons. These electrons are received ‘one at a time’ when oxygen is combined with hydrogen in a potentially fiery explosion like the ones that created the gap in the Aurora and the abyss. Life forms play with this fiery potential when they breathe and ‘respire’. Respiration can be thought of as a controlled explosion. It reverses the process of ‘photosynthesis’, by which green plants harvest sunlight to generate oxygen and complex organic chemical compounds from water and carbon dioxide. Where photosynthesis builds organic complexity and generates oxygen, respiration degrades organic complexity into carbon dioxide and generates chemical energy and water. The majority of organic life on Earth thrives in the balancing of these two great interdependent processes, one constructive, the other destructive — each containing the seeds of the other like the darkness and light of the yin and yang of the I Ching consulted by Mary Malone.
The ‘dark’ aspect of oxygen arises from the fact that the controlled explosion of respiration depends on sustaining a dynamic balance between the supply of fuel, in the form of organic compounds, and the demand for electrons derived from this fuel. Only if there is such a balance is oxygen reduced ‘safely’ to water. Otherwise, highly excited forms of oxygen and chemical ‘free radicals’ are generated, which can destroy living structure. Death is the inevitable consequence when the explosion runs out of control, as alluded to by the experience of Mary Malone as she drifted out of body to join with the Dust swirling above her tree-platform.
All oxygen-consuming life forms therefore face a near-death crisis when their fuel supplies run short and their growth consequently becomes unsustainable. This crisis is especially acute for land-inhabiting forms, a point that is critical to our understanding of their evolution from life underwater where oxygen travels ten thousand times slower than through air. Interestingly, Pullman’s narrative, focused as it is on ‘Dust’, overlooks this key difference between aquatic and terrestrial life, as well as the predominantly watery nature of living bodies (human beings contain on average 70 % water by weight and 99 % water in terms of numbers of molecules).
As is the way of life on Earth, it responds to this crisis of its own making with the most extraordinary evolutionary creativity and re-creativity, involving fundamental transformations and shifts in activity. The juvenile ways of active growth and energy-gathering through soft, flexible, permeable boundaries are superseded as sex organs develop and ‘skin’, in one form or another, begins to toughen, thicken and become increasingly watertight and airtight. We become, quite literally, horny and leathery! With wonderful economy, oxygen is itself involved in these changes. Its presence internally induces shifts in metabolism that lead to production of ‘anti-oxidant’ chemical compounds that not only quench its ‘free radical’ potential, but may also play other roles as hormones (including sex hormones), nerve impulse amplifiers or suppressers (known collectively as ‘neurotransmitters’), vitamins and antibiotics. Meanwhile its interplay with and incorporation into chemical compounds on external surfaces leads to the production of protective, relatively impermeable, insulating layers and coatings. These chemical compounds include the aromatic lacquers and oils that occur in the woody tissues and bark of trees and were used by Mary Malone to produce the Amber Spyglass that she needed to make the invisible Dust visible.
Here we see how life creates the spatial possibility for its own evolution through a process of mutual attunement, where change on the inside simultaneously reciprocates change on the outside and vice-versa, as in a pair of dancing partners. All evolution involves co-evolution of inner content with the larger context of which it is a local expression. By producing oxygen from water via the energy of sunlight, plants created the context that enabled them eventually to emerge from water onto land and produce a diversity of form culminating in the trees that monkeys and apes like Mary Malone can climb and swing through.
This co-evolutionary process of contextual transformation can be likened to the way human beings and landscape combined to produce the conditions suitable for wheeled transport and highways. By trampling, then riding, across landscape, people consolidated paths of least resistance. These paths were eventually hardened through the addition of rock rubble, then tarmac, enabling increasingly sophisticated wheeled craft to flow ever more speedily along.
At first sight this may sound very close to the description of the co-evolution of the mulefa with the wheel trees. There is a difference, however, in that the story of the mulefa suffers from a logical ‘chicken and egg’ inconsistency — the same fundamental inconsistency that afflicts orthodox theories of evolution and co-evolution — which, through the imposition of closure, makes it impossible in practice. The three interacting agencies of mulefa, volcanic highways and wheel trees (which require not only the sraf or Dust generated by animal consciousness to produce seedpods, but also animal assistance to enable their seeds to germinate) are treated as initially independent. How can such interdependent agencies come independently into being?
Evolutionary interdependence can’t be simply and purely a trading relationship developed between initially independent entities that are closed off from one another. Rather, it is present all along, due to the spatial continuity through permeable boundaries between inner and outer localities, nested over all scales.
The fact that we human beings tend not to realize this may be the product of the psychological as well as bodily changes that accompany adolescence. Ironically, in ‘His Dark Materials’ these changes are regarded as the origin of sraf and consciousness. But actually they represent the rationalization and consequent imposition of closure upon our wider consciousness of infinite void space, through which we make our universe and its contents seem more definite, describable and predictable. Although these changes may be essential to our adult ability to be ‘better informed’ and so care for, protect and educate one another, their influence can become abusive if we use it to impose closure upon and belittle our intuitive powers and the variable reality of dynamic Nature. They do not, in themselves, bring the kind of wisdom that the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, described as the understanding of how all is steered through all.
These psychological changes both reinforce and are reinforced by a cognitive illusion to which we are all susceptible during adolescence. As we approach adulthood, especially in traditionally male roles, we seek to see more clearly as our means of finding, catching and grasping food, making our way through the world, and avoiding and protecting ourselves and our loved ones from danger. We therefore tend to become more and more dependent on our eyesight to inform ourselves about the world around us, just as Mary Malone needed desperately to find a way to visualize Dust. By the same token, the role of our other senses diminishes, along with our emotional responses, as our skins thicken and harden and our nervous systems become inured and habituated to the uncertainties of our outside world.
In this way we literally lose touch with reality, whilst claiming to have a greater grip on it, as we strive for independence. This is because our binocular vision, penetrating through the invisibility of air and provided by eyes on the front of our faces has a powerful detaching effect, which alienates us from our outsides. Whilst giving us the seeming clarity and depth of field by which we can sort one ‘thing’ out from another, it also narrows our focus to whatever lies in front of our noses. We lose sight of spatial context and begin to see the world as an assembly of hard-lined, independent, solid objects surrounded and isolated by emptiness. It is as though we acquire a Subtle Knife, which we use to cut ‘figures’ free from their contextual ‘background’, so that they appear to move independently through, rather than as dynamic inclusions of space. And even when we perceive natural continuity, we tend to envisage this as ‘interconnectedness’, like Mary Malone searching for some form of coherence to replace her abandoned God the Father, explicitly as a ‘web’ of hidden ‘threads of meaning’ rather than as communicative channels of included space.
Only if we somehow manage to retain or reclaim and value our juvenile sensitivity to our outsides, alongside our more informed view, so that our seeing includes our feeling, can we gain the kind of open-minded wisdom that Heraclitus spoke of. We may do this in a variety of ways, all of which tend to mark us out from others in modern society as ‘unusual’ or, more disparagingly, as ‘abnormal’ or even ‘insane’. We may retain strong spatial channels between our left and right brain hemispheres, a feature said to be characteristic of dyslexics and women. We may maintain a low availability of the neurotransmitter, serotonin, in our brains, a feature said to be characteristic of ‘sufferers’ from ‘obsessive-compulsive disorder’. We may deliberately induce a low availability of serotonin by taking hallucinogenic drugs, meditating, or drilling holes in our skulls, as with Gurus and shamans like John Parry. We may gain a sense of inner-outer reciprocity through experiencing the buoyancy of bodies immersed in fluid space, like the balloonist, Lee Scoresby, in the company of his beloved daemon, Hester, who sees all around through eyes placed on the sides of her head. We may gain an all round view by gathering together around a common centre of space in circles like those of aboriginal and pagan cultures, and sharing our unique local perceptions, so that a holographic image of our situation emerges collectively.
But, meanwhile, the orthodox preclusion of such perspectives by the compulsive closure that divides the world absolutely between something or nothing (matter or space) has constructed an enormous edifice of mathematical, scientific, philosophical and governmental space-excluding logic. This ‘impositional logic’, as I have called it, can be traced back at least as far as the Greek philosophers, Parmenides, Democritus (the originator of ‘atomism’) and Aristotle. It received a huge boost from the mind-matter splitting ‘dualism’ of Descartes, which was then incorporated into the supposedly ‘Enlightened’ Scientific Revolution brought about by Newton and Bacon, coinciding with the invention of the Subtle Knife, which severed us from the space in which we are all pooled together.
Here, we see how, by excluding space and being pre-occupied with making Dust the explicit source of a consciousness and wisdom regarded as absent from children and non-human life forms, Philip Pullman’s story reverts to an orthodox, paternalistic pattern. It imposes closure on the children’s intuitive openness to spatial possibility that it actually relies upon for its hopeful outset and journey. It is its own antithesis, a heroic grail quest for explicit matter-loving particles independent of implicit matter-loving space: a paradoxically one-sided quest for the Father whilst oblivious of the Mother of all nurture. Correspondingly, in viewing the counter-current of Dust and clouds from the ruins of her tree-platform, Mary Malone sees not the reciprocity of mutually attractive, interdependent fluid feature and receptive medium in the oceanic universe, but the opposition of one to the passage of the other.
And so it is that we find ourselves turning the concluding pages of the ‘Amber Spyglass’, with hearts aching and tears welling, as our new found lovers of Willing assertion and Lyrical receptivity are forced to make an either/or choice. Rather than re-create the harmonic music of the spheres, they are required to live apart, under the spell of adult Oxford scholarship, in order to build a ‘republic of heaven’.
Paradise cannot be a republic of heaven, with all its implied paternalistic trappings of governmental closure, which severs the loving couple. Rather, it is a ‘communion of heaven’, where couples embrace their common space in a natural co-evolutionary dynamic of the kind seen in our Earthly ecosystems prior to human intervention. Maybe Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel, encouraged at last by their loving fear for the welfare of their daughter to take the plunge into the abyss, are already there, enjoined by embracing the powerful angelic space of their supposed enemy, Metatron.