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Pullman’s the secret commonwealth

Nietzsche tells the story of a madman who lights a lantern in daylight and runs into the marketplace crying “I’m looking for God”.


Sean Sheehan


Non-believers scoff when he tells them: “We have killed him – you and I. We are all his murderers …. What were we doing when we unchained this earth from the sun? Where is it moving to now?” The madman throws his lantern to the ground. He realises he has arrived too soon. People have not found a way of living without God.

Pullman’s first trilogy, “His dark materials”, tells the heroic tale of how God is killed. But the theocratic organization, the Magisterium, is not destroyed.  The book of dust is the follow up trilogy and its second volume, “The secret Commonwealth” is set after the events of “His dark materials”.

The heroine from all the books, Lyra Belacqua, is now a young woman and the Magisterium fears her. It does not accept the death of God and seeks to regain power by controlling the rose gardens in central Asia. The roses are a key to the mystery of Dust.

Dust is the name for elementary particles, attracted to consciousness because they too are self-aware. The oppressive Magisterium wants to eliminate Dust, associating it with original sin. Dust is associated with the strange bond that unites a person with their daemon. Metaphorically, it is human solidarity and empathy.

In “The secret Commonwealth”, Lyra’s daemon has left her and the story is about how she struggles to find him. It takes her to Anatolia and sinister events taking place around the source of the roses that pharmaceutical companies and the Magisterium are seeking to control.

Lyra has to reconnect with the secret commonwealth, forgetting it is part of what she once intuitively understood. No longer an adolescent, she has fallen prey to the lure of a rationalism that, in its own way, is as closed to existential reality as is religion. The mortgaging of earthly happiness and justice for a paradise in heaven charges a heavy rate of interest: illusion, false hopes and guilt.

An exclusive rationalism is equally blinkered, half closing the doors of perception by a scepticism that reduces experience to the empirical.

The secret commonwealth is “the world of hidden things and hidden relationships. It is the reason that nothing is only itself.” The best way to see it, Lyra is also told, is to look at it sideways “out of the corner of your mind.” It needs imagination, which is what Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon, has set off to find for her when he realises she has misplaced this vital aspect of experience.

Pullman is doing what Walter Benjamin strived for: “to arch the bow so that the arrows zing into flight [confronting] two ends at once, the political and the mystical.”

The secret Commonwealth” is both political – power struggles, fundamentalism, male violence are packed into the story – and, in its portrayal of what cannot be reduced to rationalism, and mystical.

“The secret Commonwealth” by Philip Pullman is published by Penguin Random House

(Photos: Pixabay)

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