Wednesday, March 14, 2007

It All Comes Together

This winter it was Joan Didion, fellow Sacramento girl. During global warming winter, it was Ted Hughes. It happens -- I get on a kick of reading everything by one writer, submersing myself in their ouvre, if you will. (You won't, and that's fine, I support you.) During my Ted Hughes stage, it was "Birthday Letters" over and over, occasionally watching "Slyvia," though that was more of an excuse to get Daniel Craig fix until the Casino Royale dvd comes out. These days, there's been a rash of children's literature books, mostly in the fantasy realm of things, along with collections of Grimm's fairy tales, folk lore, myths, all sorts of books whose presence in my flat explain why I will be alone for the rest of my life.

Right now, I'm making my way through Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series (It's a reference to Milton! See my brilliant musings on that and why I'd suck face with Satan here!) Now, if there's one thing that warms my geek heart more than Romantic poetry, obsessive patterns in book purchasing, or tea, it's when different things I'm reading come together and connect the dots, with a little side dish of Daniel Craig. Wouldn't you know it, that's just what happened this week. I know you can't wait to read about it, so I won't make you wait any longer. It's a tale the involves geeky young adult literature,Paradise Lost, Keats, particle physics, Dark Matter, Daniel Craig, and more!

The His Dark Materials series concerns itself with a lot of standard children's literature (talking animals, archetypal figures, action and adventure with the smallest hint of young love) but it differs in that it resists pedantic rhetoric of "good vs. evil" didacticism. If you read an interview with Pullman, he loves to talk about his work as being a direct reaction to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. He faults Lewis for being so rooted in regurgitating Christian doctrine, and Tolkien for poor writing and faulty structure. Not to mention, they can both be insulting to children's intelligence, and frequently fall into the trap of simplifying things to: "There are bad people, and there are good people and they should fight to the death." While I'm at it, both Lewis and Tolkien bust out some pretty blatant misogyny, which may not be the best thing to inundate children with. (Lewis definitely takes the cake in that regard BTW.) While Pullman's books still have a characters who are villains, and a heroine and hero to root for, each character has complex layers to them, resist stark definition and Pullman never paints in blunt swathes of black or white. One topic he won't to bend on is the corruption of the Church. It's cruel, perverted, and power hungry. The Church (or, in the world of HDM, "The Magisterium") is looking to discover the secret of what they call "Dust," which they believe to be the source of Original Sin. As the plot moves forward, it's clear that this Dust is what we call Dark Matter...

....Which was the focus of a fantastic article in the New York Times sunday magazine. In it, they explain that scientists are now describing the universe as being composed almost entirely of dark matter. 96% of the universe if made of it, while only 4% of the universe is made of the same things we are. I spent all night trying to come up with an analogy that would explain this, and this (measly) example is what I came up with:

Say you have a glass which has water in it. On top of the water are a couple drops of oil, separate from the water, naturally. Would you say that you have a glass of water, or a glass of oil? Unless you're usually required to wear a soft-shell helmet at all times, you would say that you have before you a glass of water, especially if you were told that the glass in front of you is 96% water, and only 4% oil. Our entire approach to the universe, to the matter that makes up the cosmos, has been to describe it as if it were a glass of oil. (I'm mixing metaphors here, but bear with me.) Galileo was once branded a heretic for suggesting that the sun, not the earth was at the center of our galaxy. Who knows what kookiness the Evangelicals will come up with once word of this gets to them. I'm gonna hope that they can't come up with anything, so they end up spouting up whatever comes to their mind first: "Gays killed the dinosaurs!" But anyway, back to my point:

What makes us (our toothpaste, your mom, Mars, carbon) is an aberration to the rest of the universe. We're something for the gag reel of the cosmos.

Something about this article struck my imagination. I like thinking of everything we know as just a blip, a possible mistake, a hair on the plate of the Big Bang. Everything we know about the very basics of matter - neutrons, protrons, electrons - is completely moot when it comes to Dust. I like that Dark Matter seems like something we can only understand if we confront the ego with which we've been looking at the universe as being made of what we are made of; I like that it seems like it'ss something that could only be illuminated to us if we stop trying to try and define it in terms we understand...

Which is precisely the point Keats was trying to make when he wrote of his philosophy of Negative Capability, which would be my creed, if had one. If I had more than a ridiculous mid-20's understanding of what "creed" means. What luck then, that Pullman quotes Keats himself! Lyra, the brave and foolish heroine of the series, is racing to stop the ominous Mrs. Coulter (her very own mother!). It seems the beautiful, cruel woman is intent on defining Dust, only so that she can destroy it, eradicate the threat it poses to the Church's power. Lyra crosses into our world (long story) and meets up with a Physicist in Oxford who may just have a clue (but definitely has good taste in poetry). She explains to our heroine that Dust can be found in our world too, and it looks like it's not just thoughtless matter:

"Yes," Dr. Malone went on, "they know we're here. They answer back. And here goes the crazy part: you can't see them unless you expect to. Unless you put your mind in a certain state. You have to be confident and relaxed at the same time. You have to be capable -- Where's that quotation..."
She reached into the middle of papers on her desk and found a scrap on whcih someone had written with a green pen. She read:
"'Capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.' You have to get into that state of mind. That's from the poet Keats, by the way. I found it it the other day."

So really, between HDM, some dark matter, and some Keats, I'm one very happy, very massive dork. Oh, did I promise some Daniel Craig? They've just wrapped shooting the film version of "The Golden Compass," book one of the His Dark Materials series. And who's playing Lord Asriel, Lyra's ominous father? Daniel Craig, natch. Don't say I never do anything for you.