What Dogs Teach Us About Dying                           

Today the gentlest, cheeriest little dog died in my arms, and I couldn’t help thinking: How much they have to teach us. If, as Socrates says, “to philosophize is to learn how to die,” then all dogs must be philosophers because they know how to die. Augie was of indeterminate age, abandoned in the wilderness two years ago probably because he was old, and then rescued by us, to spend his last few years on a warm cushion and eating good food. He never complained or demanded, and was generally happy to be allowed to sniff and to mark corners — checking his p-mail and faecebook posts, as we like to say. He never got into quarrels with the other dogs, and was happy to receive affection. 


For months we felt him winding down, and knew that he was full of cancers and other growths — yet not once did he cease to be cheerful. Only in his last two days did he not express enthusiasm about food and walks; and as he just lay on his cushion, we knew from his face that it was time. Dogs have a way of looking at you: “Come on, it’s time, isn’t it?” — and you both know that you both know. They accept it without grumbling, as if it’s just like going out to pee — no big deal, because it’s part of life, like everything else. 

   With my very first dog Cassie this moment hung over me for months as an impending catastrophe, but on the actual day the “look” was simple and factual — not a matter of opinion or interpretation. She had had a big growth in her throat for months, which made breathing difficult and swallowing painful. An operation would have been tricky and too traumatic, since she was already 13. I had no idea if I was capable of making the decision, for this was the dog of my life. The evening before, I was driving home from a friend’s house when I saw a huge male raccoon twisting and writhing in the middle of the road. He had had his back broken by a car. I knew what I had to do, and put him out of his misery by running him over again. It surprised me that I could do that, and the raccoon was like a heavenly visitor who came to teach me something about clarity and love: I knew without hesitation what had to be done. The next day, tears streaming down my face, I held Cassie in the vet’s back room, and when she went limp I could tell — in the beauty of her now perfectly soft, relaxed body — how much pain she had held in all her stiffness. I realized at the same time just how much pain I had buried in my own stiffness.

   The next day was one of the most terrible days of my life as, alone in a pine forest, I tried to see through my tears as I buried her and built her a cairn of rocks and pine cones. For a few weeks after I would be in anguish about her: was she wandering alone somewhere in some vast darkness, did she have food, did she have a warm soft place to sleep…It was of course I myself who was wandering in the vast darkness, the great anxiety about extinction and the curse of loss. Then I had a dream in which I was hiking and saw Cassie running in a flowered field, and I knew she was okay. All along she knew that she had to go soon, and she had endured her pain because she was waiting for me to break through my wall of fear and realize. The moment was unambiguous. After a very slow walk, she licked my hand and looked me straight in the eye: It’s time, don’t you think?

   When my young St.Bernard, named Dragon, got bloat — a frightening and agonizing condition in which the intestines become tangled — and nothing more could be done about it, before I lifted him into the back of the truck for the vet to come and give him the fatal potion, he and I stood outside the emergency clinic. He panted, but sat there for a while looking up at the stars and leaning against me. I knew that he knew, and that he had total trust. When we brought his body home, my oldest dog Tabouli — who had been in love with the young giant — ran out to see him, but her right eye was bulging and twisted; there had been some tumor in her head that had exploded that night, and it was no councidence that it happened exactly when Dragon died. She died soon after, also peacefully and in my arms. She knew that Dragon had gone, and she chose not to continue living.

   When I put them in the car to take them to the vet, I am always amazed at how trusting they are. I only ever take them to the vet when they are in pain. I am convinced that they know when their time has cone, and I am deeply moved that they might know that I know. Of course, I’m aware of all the arguments that say that I don’t really know, that they don’t know, that they have no sense whatsoever of death — but I simply don’t believe these arguments and trust my own experience. My dogs have taught me that there is a way to be matter-of-fact, simple, and calm about death: it is no different than walking or pooping, and part of the same process. There has been a life; the life was good, it was complete, it was satisfying and there was nothing lacking. Tabouli would spend her last days lying on the front porch smelling the mountain air, her ears twitching and turning: the whole world was there in her contemplation, and what had been given was not only enough, but rich and beautiful. There is nothing to lament.

It is not growing like a tree

In bulk doth make Man better be;

Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,

To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sere:

A lily of a day

Is fairer far in May,

Although it fall and die that night— 

It was the plant and flower of light.

In small proportions we just beauties see;

And in short measures life may perfect be. 

(Ben Jonson)



Dust: A Remarkable Word

What is Dust? Witches have never worried about Dust. All I can tell you is that where there are priests there is fear of Dust. (Serafina Pekkala, The Golden Compass, p.314) Whenever the word “dust” is mentioned in Philip Pullman’s trilogy,  we know it cannot literally mean “dust,” such as the kind that accumulates like a thin layer of snow on our bookshelves, or the kind that irritates our eyes in a “dust-storm.” What is the Dust that can cause dread in priests and that Lord Asriel equates with sin, suffering, and death itself?
A reader of His Dark Materials who has no acquaintance with the King James Bible and the poetry that grew from it can only find Pullman’s use of the word an inventive oddity, belonging (like “fairy-dust”) to a pure fantasy world and not really “our” word. But if the words and rhythms of the King James Bible sing in the marrow of our literary sensibility, then Pullman’s word is our word, and resonant, like flesh, or kingdom, or tree.

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground… (Genesis 2:7)

   In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. (Genesis 3:19)

   He hath cast me into the mire, and I am become like dust and ashes. (Job 30:19)

With its etymology in an Old Germanic word meaning fine flour, powder, then vapor or smoke, “dust” expanded to mean primal earth, materiality itself, the fine particulate matter that we decay and disintegrate into. It becomes an image of our mortality and insignificance: Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bunghole? (Hamlet, 5.1.225) And from expressing our insignificance, it conveys downfall and humiliation: Now, France, thy glory droopeth to the dust…(Henry VI Part 1, 5.3.29). “Dust” now expresses what we are made of, but also what we frantically spend our lives trying to get away from but in the end must be brought down to — for dust is always “down.” In George Herbert’s extraordinary poem Love (3), dust even encompasses our moral frailties, not our terrible deeds (sin), but our inescapable dispositions: Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back / Guilty of dust and sin. Dust thus represents what we seek to transcend: our all-too-human natures, our weakness, our stupidities, as well as our mortality and the fact that we are biological and nothing more.

Pullman’s use of the word has all these 17th century overtones, but Lyra’s world includes the Dickensian urban landscape, and here the word picks up another layer of significance. The modern British use of the word dustbin and dustman comes from the meaning of dust as “refuse, sweepings” — the cinders and ashes from billions of coal fires, but also the trash thrown out with those powders. In Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend one of the main characters, Mr.Boffin, the “Golden Dustman,” gets rich from the mountain of “dust” that he inherits. Such mountains were features of every 19th century city, such as this one from King’s Cross in London:

In the 14 July, 1850, edition of Dickens’ journal Household Words, Richard Henry Horne describes the mound:

About a quarter of a mile distant, having a long ditch and a broken-down fence as a foreground, there rose against the muddled-grey sky, a huge Dust-heap of a dirty black colour,––being, in fact, one of those immense mounds of cinders, ashes, and other emptyings from dust-holes and bins, which have conferred celebrity on certain suburban neighbourhoods of a great city.  (“Dust: Or Ugliness Redeemed,” p.379)

What exactly is in the dust heap?

The principal ingredient of all these Dust-heaps is fine cinders and ashes; but as they are accumulated from the contents of all the dust-holes and bins of the vicinity, and as many more as possible, the fresh arrivals in their original state present very heterogeneous materials. We cannot better describe them, than by presenting a brief sketch of the different departments of the Searchers and Sorters, who are assembled below to busy themselves upon the mass of original matters which are shot out from the carts of the dustmen.

The bits of coal, the pretty numerous results of accident and servants’ carelessness, are picked out, to be sold forthwith; the largest and best of the cinders are also selected, by another party, who sell them to laundresses, or to braziers (for whose purposes coke would not do so well); and the next sort of cinders, called the breeze, because it is left after the wind has blown the finer cinders through an upright sieve, is sold to the brickmakers.

Two other departments, called the “soft-ware” and the “hard-ware,” are very important. The former includes all vegetable and animal matters — everything that will decompose. These are selected and bagged at once, and carried off as soon as possible, to be sold as manure for ploughed land, wheat, barley, &c. Under this head, also, the dead cats are comprised. They are, generally, the perquisites of the women searchers. Dealers come to the wharf, or dust-field, every evening; they give sixpence for a white cat, fourpence for a coloured cat, and for a black one according to her quality. The “hard-ware” includes all broken pottery, — pans, crockery, earthenware, oyster-shells, &c., which are sold to make new roads.

“The bones” are selected with care, and sold to the soap-boiler. He boils out the fat and marrow first, for special use, and the bones are then crushed and sold for manure.

Of “rags” the woollen rags are bagged and sent off for hop-manure; the white linen rags are washed, and sold to make paper, &c.

The “tin things” are collected and put into an oven with a grating at the bottom, so that the solder which unites the parts melts, and runs through into a receiver. This is sold separately; the detached pieces of tin are then sold to be melted up with old iron, &c.

Bits of old brass, lead, &c., are sold to be melted up separately, or in the mixture of ores.

All broken glass vessels, as cruets, mustard-pots, tumblers, wine-glasses, bottles, &c., are sold to the old-glass shops.

As for any articles of jewellery, — silver spoons, forks, thimbles, or other plate and valuables, they are pocketed off-hand by the first finder. Coins of gold and silver are often found, and many “coppers.”

Meantime, everybody is hard at work near the base of the great Dust-heap. A certain number of cart-loads having been raked and searched for all the different things just described, the whole of it now undergoes the process of sifting. The men throw up the stuff, and the women sift it. (p.380)

Everything is recycled. Pullman must have known that many of the ingredients for the dye works and brick kilns owned by Jordan College have been sifted from Dust. As the Zen saying goes, “there is no trash.” The dust-heap becomes an image either for the cycle of life, where nothing ever disappears but always finds new form; or for Resurrection, because nothing really perishes but always lives on, because its essence is Life. Dust thus becomes the image for Life that is rejected, discarded, swept out, perhaps because of its anarchic fertility and the chaos of possible transformations of supposed “waste matter.” The great English painter Stanley Spencer sees it this way; his representations of dustbins always have a peculiarly mystical feel, as receptacles spilling with the organic:

In The Dustman, or The Lovers, we have something like a resurrection from the dead, in which there is a heart-bursting, erotic reunion counterpointed with joyous rediscovery of objects from a dustbin that turn out to be magically intact:

In these beautiful paintings, Dust is life, not death — essential vitality, not waste. In that dustbin is the chaos of thrown-away, rejected things that holds the secret of regeneration. Is this what the priests are afraid of? And is it only the spirit of death — the Magisterium, Asriel/ Azrael — that would see Life as Death?

A Haze of Gold: Tolkien’s Warrior Heroes


What kind of novelist writes his worst prose and also his best prose when he writes about warrior heroes? Surely a novelist who suffers from hardened indifference to the turgidities of obsolete heroic ideals and at the same time feels genuine longing to be the kind of person who can be moved by such ideals. Both tendencies are at work in the lengthy descriptions of cardboard warriors such as the Riders of Rohan:

Now the cries of clear strong voices came ringing over the fields. Suddenly they swept up with a noise like thunder, and the foremost horseman swerved, passing by the foot of the hill, and leading the host back southward along the western skirts of the downs. After him they rode: a long line of mail-clad men, swift, shining, fell and fair to look upon.

Their horses were of great stature, strong and clean-limbed; their grey coats glistened, their long tails flowed in the wind, their manes were braided on their proud necks. The Men that rode them matched them well: tall and long-limbed; their hair, flaxen-pale, flowed under their light helms, and streamed in long braids behind them; their faces were stern and keen. In their hands were tall spears of ash, painted shields were slung at their backs, long swords were at their belts, their burnished skirts of mail hung down upon their knees. (Pp.33-34)

Clear, strong, swift, shining, fell, of great stature, strong and clean-limbed, flaxen-pale, tall, long-limbed, stern, keen: the adjectives pile up to depict a one-dimensional blond purity, driven by certainty of purpose and unquestioning loyalty, without inner struggle, without any experience of even the grime of exertion. If these were elves, one might accept this portrayal — but elves are interesting by virtue of their long perspective on history. These Riders are made of sparkly cardboard, and the reader can sicken of too much martial nobility. Tolkien’s prose here, which consists of long lists of attributes without his usual rhythmic finesse, also betrays a lack of interest: perfunctory exposition, because he knows that before he sets in the foreground the far more interesting heroism of hobbits, he needs to get the conventional martial types out of the way first.

   The more developed versions of these types are Aragorn and Boromir. The former takes a long time to come into his own, and when he announces himself to the Riders the prose turns from cardboard to cartoonish:

Aragorn threw back his cloak. The elven-sheath glittered as he grasped it, and the bright blade of Andúril shone like a sudden flame as he swept it out. ‘Elendil!’ he cried. ‘I am Aragorn son of Arathorn and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!’

Gimli and Legolas looked at their companion in amazement, for they had not seen him in this mood before. He seemed to have grown in stature while Éomer had shrunk; and in his living face they caught a brief vision of the power and majesty of the kings of stone. For a moment it seemed to the eyes of Legolas that a white flame flickered on the brows of Aragorn like a shining crown. (P.36)

At moments like this the reader yearns for powerful artistic economy: it would have been stronger if suggested and not described, and the attempt to describe weakens severely the attempt at expressing  moral force, which a reader can imagine better than an author could describe. Part of what makes it weak is the presupposition that majesty must be recognized by such obvious signs, whereas true nobility is usually not at all manifested so stereotypically — for instance, in hobbits. The paragraphs just quoted might have been laudable in a twelve-year-old; indeed, perhaps what we get in the first half of The Two Towers is something resembling a child’s view of adult activity, which is a necessarily one-sided view because the child has no experience of the struggles and agonies underneath the calm adult surface.

   Yet in spite of the generally two-dimensional portrayal of warriors in this book, something astonishing happens around the death of Boromir. This was the hero that nobody much liked: the typical truculent, resentful, competitive, boastful pagan warrior whose flawed character contrasted with Aragorn’s intelligent, self-effacing nobility. No reader is ever surprised when Boromir attempts to take the Ring from Frodo. It is striking too that Tolkien doesn’t describe Boromir’s final battle with the orcs, because this would have been a chance to ennoble him through witnessing his martial prowess and courage. Instead, Aragorn finds him after the battle, dying, and Boromir confesses that he tried to get the Ring from Frodo and repents the attempt. He tells Aragorn to save Minas Tirith because I have failed:

No!’ said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. ‘You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!’ (P.16)

At first we cannot help but be puzzled at this reaction: Why is Aragorn suddenly so affectionate to someone he has hitherto disliked and distrusted, and why does he tell him he has “conquered” when plainly the orcs have killed him and the trouble has only just begun?  Aragorn must be responding to a moral conquest, or self-conquest. Tolkien doesn’t spell it out here, and his tact — remarkable in an author capable of saying so much! — draws the reader into an intimacy with the two warriors. Aragorn will remain a distant, shadowy figure to a reader who cannot pause and consider what lies behind rhe words. Here, he is admiring Boromir for his act of confession — not only for the confessing of a terrible moral failure, but for confessing it to his rival, with the risk that the rival might spread the news and tarnish the failed hero’s name to posterity. A real warrior is not afraid to manifest himself, and Boromir has just shown the highest courage in not hiding his one shameful deed. Aragorn is also deeply touched that Boromir has trusted him with this. At this moment, what is realized is a bonding through vulnerability, contrition, admiration. Boromir and Aragorn could be each other, and the death of Boromir frees Aragorn to become the king he should be. Tolkien’s prose in this little exchange has delicacy and density, in contrast to the two passages quoted earlier. It is as if he is unconvinced by all the glory and manliness, but convinced by the hero’s vast capacity for trust, respect, tenderness, and moral courage — qualities deeper than mere fighting confidence.

   This is a book in which choices are made on every page, and after Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli have had a brief discussion of alternatives and settle on a funeral boat, the preparations are made without deliberation: the heroes just know what to do, and there is a ceremonial rightness about each detail of the funeral. They go about composing each detail with care and affection, partly from knowing what they themslves might want for their own funerals, but more from knowing what is right for Boromir because each of them could have been him and might have failed in the same way. It is this empathy and imaginative reach into each other’s hearts that distinguishes the Tolkien hero from a mere fighting machine, and the precise ceremonial sensibility that arises from such a heart elevates all the participants into a harmony of action that draws even landscape and light into heroic ritual:

Now they laid Boromir in the middle of the boat that was to bear him away. The grey hood and elven-cloak they folded and placed beneath his head. They combed his long dark hair and arrayed it upon his shoulders. The golden belt of Lórien gleamed about his waist. His helm they set beside him, and across his lap they laid the cloven horn and the hilts and shards of his sword; beneath his feet they put the swords of his enemies. Then fastening the prow to the stern of the other boat, they drew him out into the water. They rowed sadly along the shore, and turning into the swift-running channel they passed the green sward of Parth Galen. The steep sides of Tol Brandir were glowing: it was now mid-afternoon. As they went south the fume of Rauros rose and shimmered before them, a haze of gold. The rush and thunder of the falls shook the windless air.

Sorrowfully they cast loose the funeral boat: there Boromir lay, restful, peaceful, gliding upon the bosom of the flowing water. The stream took him while they held their own boat back with their paddles. He floated by them, and slowly his boat departed, waning to a dark spot against the golden light; and then suddenly it vanished. Rauros roared on unchanging. The River had taken Boromir son of Denethor, and he was not seen again in Minas Tirith, standing as he used to stand upon the White Tower in the morning. But in Gondor in after-days it long was said that the elven-boat rode the falls and the foaming pool, and bore him down through Osgiliath, and past the many mouths of Anduin, out into the Great Sea at night under the stars.

For a while the three companions remained silent, gazing after him.

Read aloud, this is a passage of transcendent power: the visual and aural perceptiveness,  the modulation of long and short sentences, the falling cadence of the last two sentences — everything is perfect, every detail placed where it should be. The effect is of a Wagnerian death set in a Albert Bierstadt painting, in which the sunlight, rocks, and trees all come together in a magnificent ceremony of living and dying. The golden light and illuminated fume from the waters are the mystery of life itself, yet the rocks and trees keep their own colors and shapes, as in the Bierstadt painting above. Tolkien’s landscapes are almost never like the following Bierstad painting, where everything is engulfed with light in a mystical swallowing.


Tolkien’s landscapes are mountains and plains heroically elevated, and his warriors are attuned to them; they are not mystical landscapes in which everything melts into one light. His warriors remain themselves, different, irreducible, yet capable of singing together and for a friend.

   More than anything he says or does, it is Boromir’s funeral that makes us love him. Why is that? His death awakens something in his comrades, the knowledge of the vivid proximity of death for all of them, the respect and affection for one who perishes fighting — but above all, we are swept with him in the descending sun and the descending current until he is gently absorbed into the “golden light.” I think we love him because nature seems to love him; the good embraces her own, and we are persuaded by the music of the scene to look on him with grace and generosity as his comrades do. But Aragorn knows more than the others do, and the gift to his former rival of a perfect funeral is the act of a truly heroic soul, who can love the mysterious persistence of goodness amid so much temptation and weakness. Rauros roared on unchanging.

“Just A Little Cut”: Sacrificing the Soul


Picture: The Inquisition

(The World of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, 4)

Pullman’s steampunk universe is ruled by the spirit of Dostoievsky’s Grand Inquisitor, whose religion strives to eradicate human suffering not only by plucking it out by the roots but also by preventing unruly spirits from infecting the ordered cosmos with dangerous desires and doubts. In this world the quest to deracinate suffering is achieved theologically, through the usual methods of repression and persecution; and scientifically, in a search for the physical causes and conditions of sin. Religion and science come together as Inquisitors of the human soul, seeking technologies for the vanquishing of suffering through the cutting away of sin. We have a strange new hybrid science of “experimental theology,” which reveals the cause of sin, and therefore of suffering, to lie in the relation of a kind of matter called Dust to the susceptible animal familiars of the adolescents of this world. 

   Both of Lyra’s parents, in their seemngly opposed ways, serve the cause of driving dust out — her father, Lord Asriel, arrogant explorer and scientist; her mother, Mrs.Coulter, loyal handmaid of the Magisterium. Parentally, Lyra is flanked by two enemies of Dust. Asriel says perplexingly to her, “The Magisterium decided that Dust was the physical evidence for original sin. Do you know what original sin is?” (p.367) And Mrs. Coulter, after Lyra has realized that her mother is overseeing a project to stop sin from entering the human realm through daemons,  puts it with chilling condescension:

“You see, your daemon’s a wonderful friend and companion when you’re young, but at the age we call puberty, the age you’re coming to very soon, darling, daemons bring all sorts of troublesome thoughts and feelings, and that’s what lets Dust in. And [after the operation of intercision] your daemon stays with you, only…just not connected. Like a…like a wonderful pet, if you like. The best pet in the world! Wouldn’t you like that?” (p.279)

— as if her soul has been so numbed that she cannot imagine how horrible it would sound to Lyra to have her daemon diminished to a pet, instead of remaining equal and even superior. 

 “…the doctors do it for the children’s own good, my love. Dust is something bad, something wrong, something evil and wicked. Grownups and their demons are infected with Dust so deeply that it’s too late for them. They can’t be helped…But a quick operation on children means they’re safe from it. Dust just won’t stick to them ever again. They’re safe and happy and –“ (p.278)

When Lyra seems unconvinced by this, Mrs.Coulter adds, “…it doesn’t mean your daemon is taken away from you. He’s still there! Goodness me, a lot of the grownups here have had the operation. The nurses seem happy enough, don’t they?” (p. 278) However, Lyra has noticed that there is something wrong with the Bollwanger staff: there is something blank in their faces, a lack of vitality and inquisitiveness, a tangible absence, the happiness of the drugged. It is always hard to fool intelligent teenagers: they are always right when they detect smugness or falsehood, although they might not know what it means. 

   Throughout the book the servants of the Magisterium officially make light of the operation called “intercision.” When confronted with a description of the operation as a sacrifice, the sinister Lord Boreal replies, “Sacrifice is rather a dramatic way of putting it. What’s done is for their good as well as ours” (p.93) — as if to distinguish it from mere superstitious pagan sacrifice, which has no sensible practical purpose. Later a nurse is reported to say,  “It’s just a little operation. Just a little cut” (p.247) — like circumcision, the mere removal of an unhygenic inconvenience. Indeed, to the engineers of greater social happiness, whether through the technologies of machines or of religion, the disordered human soul is largely a problem of hygiene. Just a little cut conveys a scalpel or scissors, but also the surgical casualness of a mindset that can understand nothing of what is important to a soul. The same mindset afflicted those ancient Chinese social engineers, the Moists, who wanted to amputate music — as well as all those modern social engineers who are slaves to profit, or the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or the various idols of efficiency. In spite of all the assurances as to the mildness of the cut, the intercision machine is a terrifying combination of cage and guillotine, in which the child is trapped like a rat while a great white silver blade makes the final separation between child and daemon. 

   The immense power of this image comes from the literalism of its approach to the soul: the perceived source of sin must be physically removed, with mechanical apparatus. It is religion technologized, sharing with scientism the same confident reduction of psychic realities to the shallowest kind of materialism. Even though close to the beginning of the book the Master of Jordan College has said that “…the holy church teaches that there are two worlds: the world of everything we can see and hear and touch, and another world, the spiritual world of heaven and hell,” (p.28) in fact this church acts as if all can be reduced to one world. The reductionism comes from chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis in the Bible of this world, with its startling differences from our own version of the Fall:

 And the woman said uno the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

  But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

   And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

   For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and your daemons shall assume their true forms, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

   And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to reveal the true form of one’s demon, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.   

   And the eyes of them both were opened, and they saw the true forms of their daemons, and spoke with them.

  But when the man and the woman knew their own demons, they knew that a great change had come upon them, for until that moment it had seemed that they were at one with all the creatures of the earth and the air, and there was no difference between them.

   And they saw the difference, and they knew good and evil; and they were ashamed, and they sewed fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. (pp.367-68)

The Dust of the King James Version becomes in this world actual physical particles that come out of the aurora borealis and find location in daemons. Hence daemons are our link to sin; hence daemons become demonized. 

   Intercision is an especially powerful image to those of us who have experienced the oppressive might of any religion that attempts to separate us from a part of our soul that it considers bad and a hindrance to happiness or salvation, but that we feel to be an essential part of our living souls. The cage with its mesh barrier between child and daemon is a perfect image for being imprisoned in a religion that wants to cut away the most human parts of us: it is a form of human sacrifice, and Lyra is right in her revulsion. I will not say that the intercision cage is an image of all religions; indeed, all religions have their softer, kinder faces as well as their harsh, tyrannical ones. In Christianity the latter would be those sects obsessed with guilt and human littleness, who hate the ordinary human being and expend most of their energy in inculcating self-loathing and self-mistrust so that the vile sinner will surrender to the church. The cruel faces of  Hinduism and Buddhism would be the sects that are analogously obsessed with “killing the ego” and “stopping the mind.” Such sects will always acknowledge that the battle is difficult, and that surrender to “the truth” will at first feel bitter and even terrible; but unlike the servants of the Magisterium, they would never describe it as “just a little cut,” a phrase that can issue from the mouth only of someone who cannot feel what a human being most cherishes, or who feels it but seeks to minimize the appearance of harm by expressing the sacrifice as a matter of hygiene. I’m not saying (at least, not here!) that the conquest of sin and the ego are unimportant; rather, the manifest obsession with loathing vast areas of human activity is a sure indication of some form of dementia — the unhinged mind hanging open and creaking in the black night of something that would rightly be called demonic, while all the time regarding itself as lucid and correct — like the nurses at Bollwanger. 

  In one respect, although the image of the intercision cage is both shocking and sickening,  Pullman does not see far enough into Extreme Religion, and it may show that he has only experienced the milder faces of religion. Extreme Religion does not drag you screaming to intercision cages: no, it spends many years getting you to build the cage inside your own heart, through the long grinding nights of guilt and fear and the knowledge of your own inadequacy and worthlessness, until you are brought to the point of perpetrating the intercision yourself. Only you can cut away your daemon. Pullman expresses precisely and achingly the hellish half-life that ensues the attempt, but the truth is that it is not possible to cut away or kill your daemon, and the horror for victims of Extreme Religion is the hacked at, wounded daemon that is still connected in agony by a few raw unbreakable ligaments and that yearns forever for a full integration. If the pain ever becomes sorrow, then there is hope of acknowledgement and healing; but if it is denied, then the sufferer is doomed to the hell of righteous serenity — again, like the nurses at Bollwanger. (Dostoievsky’s Inquisitor has both.)

   Lyra brings the courage and intelligence of the teenage girl to this. Her heart tells her that this is wrong and repulsive, and she will unwittingly be fighting a war for human wholeness, in which what is called sin is one of the names for the great mystery that involves suffering. She is the child who has to dig herself out of the violent presumption of her parents and find a way to a human life that can be lived — with our daemons. Lord Asriel becomes the archetype of all those sages, East and West, who are technocrats of the emotions, who would solve the problem of suffering once and for all:  “Somewhere out there is the origin of all the Dust, all the death, the sin, the misery, the destructiveness in the world. Human beings can’t see anything without wanting to destroy it, Lyra. That’s original sin. And I’m going to destroy it. Death is going to die.” (p.373)  Lyra is not moved by this because she senses that it comes from an idiotic and two-dimensional view of life that would close the doors to all depth of soul — for how could anyone be so certain that sin, misery, destructiveness, and death are simply bad? If all fantasy epics are concerned with the sacred, then the central concern of Pullman’s trilogy is that sin, misery, destructiveness, and death might hold the key to the sacred. In destroying these, we would be destroying nothing less than ourselves. Intercision is in fact suicide.

 A Coda: A Third Fold

So far in this essay I’ve ascribed a twofold significance to the image of intercision, the religious and the technological, but in fact there is a third: the faceless, bureaucratic state with its clean shiny hospitals and its vast social welfare system that has the might and authority to take children from parents. The myrmidons of the state see themselves as benevolent agents for the public good, authorized to sacrifice individuals for the well-being of all — and it is this conceit of sacrificing a small thing for a big thing that creates the mindset that sees a personal violation  as “just a little cut.” This is the perspective of the nurses and doctors of Bollwanger. For the 21st century reader of this book, Bollwanger expresses fear of the anonymous omnipotence of the modern state that can “disappear” your children and force its will on primal bonds of children to parents, and children to daemons, for the sake of creating social hygiene. The fear is expressed in resistance to mandatory vaccinations, the many accounts of medical kidnappings, and state seizures of children from parents deemed not competent to take care of them. It is the deep anxiety of impotence in the face of a vast, shadowy, ruling institution. Lyra’s world is in fact a threshold between two eras: there is the steampunk era of a dirty, Dickension city, bustling and dangerous, and perplexed with religious and scientific controversy — and there is Bollwanger, symbol of the modern state, which offers clean, convenient living and also death to the soul. The genius of Philip Pullman is to have imagined a threefold world so clearly — the theocratic, technocratic, and bureaucratic, all flowing together into one complex delta of anxiety.