His Dark Materials, Part 2: Commitments, Propaganda, and Blurry Lines

Just to be clear, if you’ve clicked on the video before reading, I’m not invoking, nor am I exemplifying, Godwin’s Law.  Read on and you’ll see what I mean.

I began writing about Philip Pullman’s series of novels His Dark Materials with a discussion of what I believe to be the wrong reasons for dismissing, criticizing, or derogating it.  Many, especially in Christian circles, have dismissed it as a piece of atheist propaganda meant to destroy children’s belief in God.  Pullman, in essays about C. S. Lewis, has made the counter claim that Lewis, in his Narnia books, was propagandizing to bring children into the Christian fold.  My contention was that whether or not either one of them was right was beside the point in terms of the literary merit of either series of books.  What I want to do briefly here is to explore that blurry boundary between writing with a passionate aim and propagandizing, and how these relate to art.

To some extent art is about technique and skill.  The very word “technique” comes from the Greek technēs, very inadequately translated as “art”.  It is better translated as “skill” or “craft” or “art” in the sense of the “art” of doing something.  The word for builder or carpenter, tektōn (the word, by the way, which in the New Testament describes the professions of Joseph, husband of Mary, and of Jesus of Nazareth, and which doesn’t necessarily imply what we call carpentry), is related to technēs.  Without skill or craftsmanship, without having mastery of one’s craft and doing a good job at it, one cannot create art, be it painting a picture, carving a statue, building a good house, building a stone wall, writing a novel, singing a song, or making a movie.  

On the other hand, mere “technical” skill (how the meaning of the word has fallen!), while necessary for art, is not sufficient.  Even his greatest detractors agree that the late Thomas Kinkade had real artistic skill; the problem was that he came to use it to paint kitschy, sentimental works appealing to the lowest common denominator.  Andy Warhol was enormously talented, and yet for all his pose of post-modern irony in making multiple prints of Marilyn Monroe or Campbell Soup cans, he never produced what I would consider art.  Similar examples in other fields of endeavor abound.

I would say that one thing necessary for true art is a passionate concern or commitment.  What that concern or commitment is directed at is less important than the concern or commitment itself.  Now we’re getting into very murky territory here, and I make no claim to original insights or to solving knotty aesthetic issues; but I contend that there is a very subtle and hard-to-identify line between “passionate commitment” and “propagandizing”; and that this line is to some extent subjective.

In a very broad and loose way, I’m going to define “passionate commitment” as “commitment to a theme or idea or belief that informs one’s life, gives meaning to it, and is in some sense greater than oneself”.  Such a commitment could be religious, political, philosophical, or of various other sorts.  More than one such commitment might overlap, though by and large a person would not have a large number of such commitments.  The point is that we dismiss a painter like Kinkade on the grounds that he’s in it for the money.  Not that doing art for money is intrinsically wrong, or that being the stereotypical “starving artist”, unrecognized in one’s own lifetime, ipso facto makes one’s work “authentic” or even good.  Rather, we expect that a real artist has some guiding principles or beliefs that inform his work.

Thus, if one looks at the work of a pop-culture artist such as Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Doctor Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog, The Avengers), it is evident that he is producing work for the mass-market audience–pop culture, if you will–but that he indeed has passionate commitments that inform his art and raise it above the run-of-the-mill pop schlock that surrounds us.  He clearly cares very deeply about feminism, the position of women in society, social justice, and redressing wrong.  He also is a disillusioned atheist, which, while not as much evident in his works, still can be seen with careful viewing.  In any case, it is clear that Whedon is not trying to make converts or to give didactic expositions of his beliefs; rather, he has deep beliefs and commitments beyond just having a successful show or making a buck, and these show in his work.

Propaganda, on the other hand, has as its primary goal the conversion or persuasion of others to the view it puts forth.  The level of skill involved in making propaganda may be great–it has to be done reasonably skillfully if it is to succeed in its goal–but the main purpose is not to tell a story or paint a picture or produce a work of art as such, but to preach a sermon.  The art is merely instrumental towards that goal.

It is as an example of this that I’ve embedded the infamous Triumph of the Will, the masterpiece of propaganda by Leni Riefenstahl.  The movie is obviously a piece of Nazi propaganda; but Riefenstahl was an enormously gifted director, and for all its unsavory content, Triumph is considered, from a technical perspective, to be a masterpiece of film-making.  It is still studied in film schools, and directors such as Ridley Scott and Peter Jackson have studied it to learn cinematic techniques.  Great skill, talent, and craftsmanship went into making it; but it is obviously intended to glorify the Nazi state and Hitler.

But then again, the matter is blurrier than we might like.  One of the great masterpieces of cinema, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, is a savage satire of Nazi Germany, and even uses some of the techniques and imagery developed in Triumph of the Will.  The Great Dictator, as I said, is a masterpiece, and I’d recommend that all see it.  Still, one might argue that it, too, is propaganda.  After all, it is intended to influence people against the Third Reich; and the speech at the very end of the movie is pretty much straight propaganda, not even particularly linked to the story line.  Propaganda doesn’t cease to be propaganda just because it’s the good guys using it for the right cause.  True, Chaplin’s film is a cinematic masterpiece; but then again, Nazism aside, so is Riefenstahl’s.

To complicate it further, consider another film from that era, Casablanca.  I recall seeing it as a freshman in college at the local art house theater.  I was blown away, and have been a Bogie fan ever since.  Anyway, not long after I saw it, I overheard a professor (who must have been in his thirties or forties at that time–it was 1981 or ’82) talking about the movie to a colleague.  He had seen Casablanca for the first time, too, and at one point he said, “Well, it was a lot of propaganda.”  I thought, The greatest romance movie of the 40’s, and all you can see in it is propaganda?!  Of course, it is propagandistic; as were lots of movies made during World War II.  But is it mainly (or at all) art?  Of course many critics argue that it was a B or C movie that wound up making good for reasons aside from the actual script, but that’s a different issue (and one worth a future post).  What I’m interested in is the question of propaganda.

To some extent, it’s in the eye of the beholder.  If Germany had won, the discussion would be whether that piece of propaganda, The Great Dictator, could really be considered art; and we’d take for granted that Triumph of the Will was one of the greatest masterpieces of world cinema.  It’s a matter of whose foot the shoe is on.  On the other hand, I’d argue that films like Casablanca, while having healthy doses of propaganda–or propagandistic elements–aren’t propaganda as such.  Triumph and Dictator were both obviously pushing views about Nazism, pro and con respectively.  Casablanca was telling a love story with a bit of suspense and action added in, which happened to be set against the background of current events in Nazi-occupied North Africa.  While it was obviously anti-Nazi, that wasn’t its raison d’être.  In principle, the story could have been set in any exotic locale during time of war without suffering; whereas Triumph of the Will and The Great Dictator could not have been.

The final wrinkle is that both Riefenstahl and Chaplin passionately believed in their causes.  The two films may have been propaganda, but they also sprang from deep beliefs and commitments of the directors; and such deep beliefs and commitments are what we defined above as being a prerequisite for true art.

Without claiming to solve this problem, I’d suggest the following.  Propaganda–something pushing a view–is propaganda, whether artistically done or not, whether it’s by our side or not.  Most propaganda isn’t true art for the same reason that most public service announcements (and yes, PSA’s are technically propaganda) aren’t art:  they’re made to spec for the purpose they serve, and that’s it.  Rarely, when a true believer happens to be the one helming the project, propaganda can become true art, even great art, while not ceasing to be propaganda.  How it will be received, of course, will depend on the views of the audience–unlike the case with The Great Dictator, I doubt that Triumph of the Will will be raking in the cash at art theaters anytime soon.

On the other hand, art more generally, while it may be ideologically informed by the artist’s views or commitments, never has those front and center as the main driving motivation of the art.  It may even contain aspects of propaganda (as with Casablanca) without tipping over the line and becoming propaganda, because that never becomes its focus.  There may be borderline cases, of course–what about All the President’s Men or The Manchurian Candidate, for example?  Still, I think this framework is a useful one.  Which brings us back, after a very long excursus, to Philip Pullman and His Dark Materials.

In his case, you have, I think, yet another situation.  Sometimes an artist sets out to write something to push his views on something–atheism in the case of Pullman, who is very explicit that promoting that view was one motivation he had in writing the series.  Then, however, it turns out that the artist is too much of an artist to lapse into pure propaganda.  His native sensibility keeps pulling him away from the ideology and focusing on the art.  This is what Pullman does.  He always focuses on Lyra and Will, telling their story, developing their personality, and making us care for them.  His intent is there, certainly; and as I’ll discuss in later posts, it starts popping out erratically and obtrusively in the last novel of the series.  For the most part, though, Pullman is much too good an author not to keep it under control, and one could read the series and see it mainly as an adventure, without noticing the ideological subtext as much.

Thus, I’d define both His Dark Materials and the Narnia series as art.  Propagandistic art, as was Casablanca, but art, and not mere propaganda or propaganda that happens to turn into art.  I do think that Pullman and Lewis came at it from different angles, though.  Lewis, I think, intended just to write children’s stories, but his Christianity was so central to who he was that Christian themes were very close to the surface.  In the later books, I think he lost control of it a bit and got ham-handed–certain parts of The Silver Chair and all of The Last Battle spring to mind.  Still, he never let it tip over into pure propaganda.  On the other hand, Pullman started out to write propaganda, but was too much of an artist to be able to pull it off.  Like a good artist, he kept his ideology subordinate to the story, until near the end when he, like Lewis, wasn’t quite able to rein it in.  Like Lewis, he managed to keep it in the art realm without it falling into outright propaganda.

Thus, I don’t think it’s fair to label either Narnia or His Dark Materials as simplistic propaganda aimed at winning young hearts, minds, and souls.  However, I understand that passions run high in matters of religion, and it takes a lot of subtlety, as well as the ability to rein one’s own emotions in when assessing a work of art.  Moreover, as we’ve discussed, it is the case that, to a greater extent than we’d like, propaganda is in the eye of the beholder.  Therefore, the controversy about the works of Pullman and Lewis is understandable; nor is it likely to go away.  Still and all, though, I am not willing to dismiss His Dark Materials, despite their having a commitment to materialism and atheism that I cannot sign on to.  I would also say that for an intelligent child who understands the issue and who is able to separate his or her beliefs from the world of a novel or movie, and who has a good relationship with his or her parents so that discussion of reading material in a non-threatening way is possible, it would not make inappropriate reading even for a Christian.

So, having got the discussion of subtexts and agendas out of the way, we will start actually looking at the novels themselves in the next installment of this series.

Posted on 05/10/2012, in book reviews, books and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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