Dust in Pullman's Novel Northern Lights

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Dust in His Dark Materials
Essay published by JParry on 25th Jul 2007.
There is currently 1 Comment. We're interested in hearing yours! Dust is the central concept of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, the purpose of all its action and the great philosophical explanation behind all the mysteries. Most of the main characters are to some extent engaged in the quest to understand Dust, either to destroy it or to preserve it. Throughout the trilogy, however, Dust acquires a bewildering array of meanings, facets, forms, and functions. It operates at numerous different levels, both literal and metaphorical, within the story and as a philosophical metaphor for real life, and it is an extremely difficult concept to really come to grips with, even after repeat readings of the book and much thought. In “Circumventing the Grand Narrative: Dust as an Alternative Theological Vision in Pullman’s His Dark Materials”, Anne-Marie Bird attempts to apply Derrida’s theories of deconstruction to the idea of Dust, to examine and reconcile the ways it functions to subvert absolutes and binaries while also seeming to put forth a “grand narrative” of its own. She places the “alternative theology” of Dust within the context of modernity and post-modernity, totalizing and totalitarian narratives, and the place of spirituality in contemporary life. I wish to analyze the different roles Dust plays in His Dark Materials¸ and to try to understand the extent to which all these meanings can cohere into one overarching meaning, and the extent to which there very dissonance is part of the symbolic nature of Dust in the larger, philosophical sense. Dust, with its vast array of meanings, is a grand metanarrative, the first cause and reason for everything. But its nature is such that it undermines any restrictive, totalitarian aspects of such an overarching narrative. Dust is a tangible metaphor for what it means to be human, in all its dizzying complexity. The first clear reference to Dust in the trilogy is in its relationship to growth and maturity. Dust is described as “elementary particles that don’t interact in any way with others – very hard to detect, but the extraordinary thing is that they seem to be attracted to human beings”, but much more strongly to those who have gone through puberty (TGC 8Cool. This is extraordinary indeed. Such an “elementary particle” somehow interacts with human beings, in a way no ordinary particle is capable of. The sophistication of this interaction belies the supposedly elementary nature of the particles, and hints at something mysterious and powerful. The specific nature of this interaction, the connection to puberty and growing up, suggests to the all-powerful Church in another world, in attempting to fit the existence of Dust into its worldview “. . . given the Church’s nature, there was only one thing they could have chosen. The Magisterium decided that Dust was the physical evidence for original sin” (GC 371). From the association between Dust and puberty, the Church makes the leap to a causal relationship between Dust and sexuality. This interpretation reflects the Church’s need to fit all evidence and facts into a unitary, ulterior, all-encompassing ideology to support a single truth. The interpretation of Dust as evidence of Original Sin not only fits the Church’s orthodoxy but actively supports it, seeming to offer scientific corroboration for Church doctrine. It is not long before some in the Church take the step of seeking to eliminate the malign influence of Dust by experimenting with children. As it turns out, the causality the Church reads into Dust is part, but not all of the truth. There is indeed a connection between Dust and maturity and sexuality, but that connection is only one part of the far grander meanings and powers of Dust. The complexities of Dust, and its consciousness, are not really hinted at until the end of the first book, when Lord Asriel, the father of Lyra, the young protagonist,...
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