Of the Postmodernists' Party without Knowing It: Philip Pullman, Hypermorality and Metanarratives

Article excerpt

Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy is thematically concerned with resisting existing social codes and practices, particularly those linked with the practice of organized religion. Pullman attempts to establish a secular humanist metanarrative in which he strives to recuperate and valorize mythical Judeo-Christian figures traditionally associated with 'evil'. While secular humanist metanarratives dominate the field of children's and young adult literature, Pullman's version is unique in that it overtly assigns a defining role to the resistance of conservative social practices and thus overtly positions itself in opposition to religious, particularly Judeo-Christian, metanarratives (Gooderham 2001 p. 157). Ideologically realigning secular humanist texts in blatant opposition to such religious metanarratives is a challenging undertaking, and Pullman's critics have found it not completely successful. This paper agrees that Pullman's 'new' metanarrative does not effectively challenge either Christian or secular humanist metanarratives of the past, and argues that Pullman's portrayal of the concepts of morality, subjectivity and childhood is unstable, vacillating between the implicit acknowledgement of dialogic discourses, and the explicit impulse to resolve these discourses within a monologic perspective. It further suggests that, although he does not manage to establish his 'new' metanarrative as a viable alternative to those of the past, the tension created by this vacillation between the dialogic and the monologic does allow him to destabilize not only the metanarrative that he seeks to subvert, but also the one he attempts to champion. As such, in 'His Dark Materials', Pullman implicitly, and very likely unwittingly, invites his readers to adopt a postmodern 'incredulity toward metanarratives' (Lyotard 1984 p.xxiv).

That Pullman's representations of morality, subjectivity and childhood are unstable becomes more sharply evident it considered from the perspective of George Bataille's concept of hypermorality, with particular reference to the implications that this concept has for subject and agent positions within the text. Hypermorality is a basis for challenging existing moral codes, enabling a revolt against what is accepted as moral and good in order to pass judgment on it. It is not an amoral or nihilist stance, as Bataille is clear that hypermoral actions and judgments require a deep understanding of moral codes (Bataille 1985, pp. 22-23). Bataille defines a morally good character, within a Christian society, as one who has a 'strict fidelity to good, based on reason' (Bataille 1985, p.23). A moral action in a society shaped by a Christian humanist metanarrative, then, will require moral agents to have an understanding of what society deems to be good and to use reasoning when confronted with a choice between right and wrong in order to arrive at the decision that conforms to that standard of good. A hypermoral action in the same society occurs when moral agents have a rational understanding of what is deemed to be good, but use their power of reasoning to pass judgment on that standard, often resulting in a choice to do what is deemed as bad or evil within their social environment. That Pullman conforms to Bataille's conceptualization of moral choice as a rational process can be observed in his portrayal of Lyra's moral development in Northern Lights. Early in the text, Pullman's narrator recounts an incident in which Lyra removes some coins from the skulls of dead Jordan College scholars. These coins represent the daemons of the scholars, a physical manifestation of a human's soul that disappears upon death. At the time, Lyra is unaware of any moral implications that her actions might have, and her repentance of this action is one induced by her fear of night-ghasts, rather than fidelity to a moral code (Pullman 1996, pp.50-51). This contrasts with the later events surrounding the death of Tony Makarios, a boy who, having been severed from his daemon, clings in death to a piece of dried fish. …