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Phillip Pullman, in conversation

Posted by Simon Parke, 14 February 2020, 4.58pm

A while ago, I spoke with Phillip Pullman, the English novelist responsible for the trilogy ‘His Dark Materials’ and ‘The Good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ.’

Where is authority to be found in the world, I asked; and is there anyone he admires?

You’ll not be surprised to hear that the story-teller Pullman, finds significant authority in the story-teller, for as Jane Austen said of the novel Northanger Abbey, it is the place in which you find ‘the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties.’

Pullman quotes these words with approval and as exactly true of that period when readers saw narrative as a proper vehicle for moral enlightenment; for instruction as well as delight.

‘In those days, they took for granted that the behaviour of human beings, in all its variety, could be faithfully depicted in stories; and that stories would have a moral effect. And, as a matter of fact, so do I. Together with pretty well everyone else who has ever read a book, I find that an entirely natural way of reading.’

One of the difficulties of being human is knowing what or who to believe. But it is significant, he says, that the more inspired religious leaders opted for stories above systems or rules.

‘What we are now,’ continues Phillip, ‘is partly the result of enjoying, and pondering on, and emulating – or avoiding – the models of human behaviour set out before us by Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, George Eliot and Dostoevsky, not to mention the great fairy tales – and passing on what wisdom we gain from it to our children.’

It is a self-evident truth that the psychologically-healthy enjoy stories, in which they reach beyond their own story, for other people’s experiences, ‘for other people’s tales of difference - to inspire, frighten or reveal.’

And when these two stories collide, my own and another’s, something dies in us and something is created. We can’t go back; a new story appears.

Pullman admires the elusive spirituality of these authors; but struggles to find such spirituality today.

‘Certainly not the Archbishop of Canterbury or any political leaders.’

Anyone else?

‘I run into a few wise and wonderful creative people who seem to put art and painting above wealth or fame. I’m not so pure. I quite like the idea of a bit of success and money. But I can’t think of any recent public figure… apart from maybe Nelson Mandela. He was pretty close to that elusive spirituality.

He was graceful; and it wasn’t just how he spoke with such grace and charm. It is the fact that he’d spent twenty five years in prison and didn’t come out bitter and wanting to kill.

Yet he was a man prepared to kill when fighting against apartheid.

It’s a saint-like quality – but he cannot have done what he did without political cunning; and presumably at one point, as I say, prepared to kill.

A man who came through the horror of prolonged imprisonment not broken or bitter or filled with hatred.

Extraordinary…quite extraordinary.’

 
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