“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.


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