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"The language of pictures": visual representation and spectatorship in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials.

Phillip Pullman foregrounds the act of storytelling in His Dark Materials, and many critics have explored the thematic and literary implications of its function in his novels. (1) Most of these studies discuss oral or written storytelling, but I will investigate an alternate mode of telling and receiving in the trilogy: the visual mode, especially as it functions on the levels of expanding fields of vision and hermeneutics in His Dark Materials. Pullman's own interest in visual literacy opens the door to this examination: he has collaborated with an illustrator to write a few short graphic novels, the most well-known of which is Spring-Heeled Jack, a reinvention of a popular Victorian penny dreadful; he has also written two essays about picture books and graphic novels ("Invisible Pictures" and "Picture Stories and Graphic Novels"). He made his own illustration debut in His Dark Materials by creating the woodcuts that precede each chapter of the trilogy. Thus, Pullman's fascination with "the notion that you can tell stories, you can ask and answer questions, and so on, by means of pictures" ("Interview") drives this study.

Pullman's multiple manifestations of the visual in the novels--by way of images (as with the daemon, the alethiometer, and the spyglass) as well as via modes of visual representation, spectatorship, and acts of visualization-often function as means for character and thematic development in His Dark Materials. The visual literacy advocated by the trilogy emphasizes that learning to recognize the potency of visual texts and to engage in multiple active and curious ways of "seeing" allows the viewer to expand his dynamic interaction with the world around him.

The relationship between the visual and the verbal "sister arts" has been a subject of study from the beginnings of western philosophy and certainly has its roots in far earlier times and cultures. His Dark Materials, in its historical context, employs visual storytelling in ways that draw upon and move beyond a classical study of the sister arts. While the trilogy employs classical elements such as iconography and ekphrasis, Pullman writes in the wake of what W. J. T. Mitchell terms the "pictorial turn," an occurrence he places during the advent of video and internet technology:
   [The pictorial turn is] a postlinguistic, postsemiotic rediscovery
   of the picture as a complex interplay between visuality, apparatus,
   institutions, discourse, bodies, and figurality. It is the
   realization that spectatorship (the look, the gaze, the glance, the
   practices of observation, surveillance, and visual pleasure) may be
   as deep a problem as various forms of reading (decipherment,
   decoding, interpretation, etc.) and that visual experience or
   "visual literacy" might not be fully explicable on the model of
   textuality. (16)

Thus, my investigation into visual representation in His Dark Materials indulges the conceptual framework suggested by Margaret Dikovitskaya, who states that "Objects of visual studies are not only visual objects but also modes of viewing and the conditions of the spectatorship and circulation of objects" (64).

In the worlds of His Dark Materials, one fundamental condition of active spectatorship is the possession of Dust, the life-force of Pullman's created universe and the central metaphor for consciousness in the trilogy. It is a physically existent substance, but only in the mode of the visual: at no point does any character touch, taste, hear, or smell Dust. While it is invisible to the naked human eye, more than one character manages to see it. Attempts to see and interpret Dust, or see and appreciate evidence of it in other visual manifestations, drive the action of the entire trilogy--which suggests that Pullman's work, insofar as it employs this investigation into visual literacy, is largely about the way the human subject chooses to perceive the world around him.

The first scene of The Golden Compass foregrounds the visual impact of Dust as well as its mysterious importance in the trilogy. When the story opens, Dust has never been seen by any person in the room (or many outside of it) with the exception of Lord Asriel, who introduces it by a slide show of photograms, some of which are taken with "a standard silver nitrate emulsion," and others with "a new specially prepared emulsion" (The Golden Compass 20). This second category of slides involves a new way of exposing and examining a visual text, and it is this new way that reveals one of the first pictures of Dust. Pullman emphasizes Dust-as-visual-text by having it appear to the characters in the novel by photogram, and to the readers of the novel by ekphrasis--"a fountain of glowing particles" (20)--before it appears by name. Furthermore, that Asriel uses a "projecting lantern" to exhibit the Dust is of narrative interest in light of Pullman's own memories about magic lanterns:

I remember the wooden boxes my grandfather used to have, each one packed neatly with painted glass slides showing scenes from Bible stories or fairy tales or ghost stories or comic little plays with absurd-looking figures.... [W]e sat in the darkened room with the smell of hot metal and watched one scene succeed another, trying to make sense of the narrative and wondering what St. Paul was doing in the story of Little Red Riding Hood--because they never came out of the box in quite the right order.

I think it was my grandfather's magic lantern that Lord Asriel used in the second chapter of The Golden Compass. (His Dark Materials 294)

In the same way, the scholars and Lyra attempt to "make sense of the narrative" of Asriel's slide show, a narrative that is new and confusing for them--very much like St. Paul's entering the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Pullman also designed a woodcut for this chapter that draws attention to the photograms; it depicts a hand on a projector from which a triangle of light emanates (His Dark Materials 14)--a visual cue to highlight the first visual text in the trilogy.

Pullman's focus on the eyes of his characters during this scene is significant, for through this imagery "seeing" becomes both a solitary and communal act, both a way to access and analytize knowledge: Lord Asriel "stood to one side of the illuminated screen. Lyra could see his dark eyes searching among the Scholars as they peered up at the slide of the Aurora, and the green glow of his daemon's eyes beside him. All the venerable heads were craning forward, their spectacles glinting" (The Golden Compass 23). The exposure of this new vision is captivating, and not only because of the photograms themselves. Readers watch Lyra as she watches Asriel and the scholars; the scholars watch the screen as Asriel watches them. New ways of seeing are not just interesting for their own sake: they are interesting for what they reveal and for the way that revelation is taken in by and affects others.

Lyra, the daughter of Lord Asriel and the future savior of Dust, is also important visually here, though not in the same manner as Asriel and the scholars. A physical description of Lyra is difficult to find in this scene; indeed, she does quite a bit of crouching and hiding in order to remain out of sight. There is a brief moment when she falls asleep "with Pantalaimon curled around her neck in his favorite sleeping form as an ermine" (27), which recalls the DaVinci painting "Lady with an Ermine" that Pullman has mentioned as an inspiration for his character and her daemon (Bobby), but otherwise Lyra is visually inconspicuous--except, that is, in regard to the reader's perspective.

Pullman has mentioned that in choosing a narrative viewpoint for his work, he engages in some of the same "storytelling decisions" that face a film director, who chooses camera angles and length of shots ("About"). Pullman's third person point of view allows him the dexterity to zoom in and out of characters' heads, cut to different settings, and provide commentary beyond that of his characters. The choice to present Lyra's manner of participating in the visual in this scene as the spectator allows the reader to absorb most of the scene from Lyra's vantage point: when Lyra is reminded by Asriel's physical stature how afraid she is of him, the reader becomes afraid of Asriel as well; when Lyra's view of the object in the metal box is blocked, so is the reader's.

The reader must rely heavily upon Lyra's interpretations to make sense of what he sees, and one of the most interesting ways in which Lyra makes sense of what she experiences while hiding in the wardrobe is her conversion of the audible into the visual, and more specifically a written visual:

"It's [the particles of light in the photogram] coming down," said Lord Asriel, "but it isn't light. It's Dust."

Something in the way he said it made Lyra imagine dust with a capital letter, as if this wasn't ordinary dust. (The Golden Compass 21)

Lyra's imagining the word in its written form highlights the importance of visualization as a mode of awareness and interpretation. Indeed, as Lyra deepens her work with visual texts throughout His Dark Materials, she becomes further and further aligned with the motif of expanding consciousness in the trilogy.

Dust is a key visual metaphor in His Dark Materials, but for most readers of the trilogy the visual textpar excellence is the daemon, itself evidence for the existence of Dust. Since the church of Lyra's world interprets Dust as evidence of original sin, the General Oblation Board finds that "the most effective method of preventing Dust from settling on the child is to separate the body from the daemon before the onset of puberty" (Bird 116). Thus, the daemon is a visual clue by which one might begin to perceive the Dust narrative. Most critics who devote large passages to the examination of the daemon note that it is, in simplest terms, a visible, audible, physical manifestation of a human's soul in the figure of an animal that, although able to change shape when young, becomes "settled" in a particular form during puberty. However, the critics often move on to discuss the origins of the daemon--Jung's anima/animus (Pinsent 209), Socrates's or Aristotle's daimon (Bobby 7), Freud's threepart psyche (Dolgin 78), the concept of the animal guide in folklore (Lenz, "Philip Pullman" 140)--or examine its developmental implications in terms of identity or sexuality (Colas 57; Hines 43; Lenz, "Philip Pullman" 127; Matthews 129-30), its psychological implications in terms of self or conscience (Lenz, "Awakening" 8; Shohet 29), or its metaphysical implications in terms of essence and soul (Colas 55, Zettel 40). While these aspects of "daemonology" are fascinating and important to understanding the manner in which the daemon functions in the trilogy, the daemon-as-visual-construct is largely neglected. Two studies of the daemon by Hines and Bobby, are of particular interest here, however, since they do begin to develop observations about the daemon's "visuality." (2)

One of Hines's basic claims is that "daemons make people legible to others as well as themselves" (38), which is of vast importance to identity and community in Lyra's world. The daemon is a visual representation of one's inner essence, personality, or emotions. Lyra, who enjoys the fact that Pan still has the freedom to change shape, learns from a gyptian sailor that "there's compensations for a settled form": "knowing what kind of person you are. Take old Belisaria. She's a seagull, and that means I'm a kind of seagull too. I'm not grand and splendid nor beautiful, but I'm a tough old thing and I can survive anywhere and always find a bit of food and company. That's worth knowing, that is. And when your daemon settles, you'll know the sort of person you are" (The Golden Compass 167). The people of Lyra's world are especially well equipped for reading visual signs because the form of an adult's daemon functions as an icon, a symbol indicating a mode of being. Seeing one's own daemon's settled form is helpful to understanding one's identity, and seeing others' daemons' forms allows one to make judgments about how to interact with them. Hines points out that one of the earliest descriptions of Lord Asriel's face, a "face to be dominated by, or to fight," and his behavior, like that of "a wild animal held in a cage too small for it" (The Golden Compass 13), is "focalized through Lyra" and "translates into similes that suggest his snow leopard daemon. The idea of the daemon is so natural that Lyra relies on it to imagine reading a person's face" (38).

The daemon is not simply a static icon, however; it is animated, and thus presents a complex synthesis of form and behavior. Bobby quips that "one may conjecture that the sheer length of the trilogy comes from Pullman having not one, but two sets of body language to describe," but the point is not to be taken lightly, for these behaviors comprise a sort of visual text. It is quite clear from the start of The Golden Compass that Lyra deciphers the visual cues of daemon-human interaction innately, for she determines the Master's guilt of attempting to poison Lord Asriel by a combination of human-body and daemon-body language: "From her hiding place Lyra watched the Master's eyes, and indeed, they flicked toward the table for a second, where the Tokay had been.... [The master's face] was impassive, but the daemon on his shoulder was shuffling her feathers and moving restlessly from foot to foot" (17). Lyra's ability to synthesize two disparate visual cues--the impassivity and the shuffling--indicate her potential growth as an active spectator.

Lyra explores her propensity for acute visual literacy via one of the main "figures of seeing" (3) in Pullman's trilogy: the alethiometer, which "works by Dust" (The Subtle Knife 91), and thus provides another manner by which the Dust narrative becomes visible. The first description of the alethiometer occurs in the mode of "notional ekphrasis"--John Hollander's term for "works of art, which, however palpable in the text, are figments of [the author's] imagination" (Putnam 1):

It lay heavily in her hands, the crystal face gleaming, the golden body exquisitely machined. It was very like a clock, or a compass, for there were hands pointing to places around the dial, but instead of the hours or the points of the compass there were several little pictures, each of them painted with extraordinary precision, as if on ivory with the finest and slenderest sable brush. She turned the dial around to look at them all. There was an anchor; an hourglass surmounted by a skull; a chameleon, a bull, a beehive....Thirtysix altogether, and she couldn't even guess what they meant. (The Golden Compass 78)

The alethiometer is clearly a work of art; the "extraordinary precision" of the "finest and slenderest sable brushes" underscores the exquisite craftsmanship of the piece. As Murray Krieger points out, ekphrasis functions as a "device that ... break[s] into and halt[s] the temporal flow of discourse by forcing us to pause over an extended verbal picture" (68); here, the ekphrastic nature of the passage is enhanced by the fact that Lyra and Pan also pause for quite some time over the alethiometer. Burton Hatlen views the alethiometer as a convention of fantasy: "Like Tolkien ... Pullman is writing a quest story in which talismanic objects--Tolkien's ring, the compass and the knife and the spyglass of Pullman's trilogy--play a central role" (78). But while the alethiometer is certainly fantastic, it does not function simply as a talisman; for it to be useful, its possessor must understand it, and that understanding involves deciphering its symbols as well as perceiving and manipulating their complex relationships. Though at this point in the novel Lyra "couldn't even guess what [the symbols] meant," she eventually intuits a way to figure them out, the process of which is fundamental to Pullman's emphasis on both the capacity of the visual to convey as well as stimulate complex ideas, and the importance of active spectatorship and broadening fields of vision.

Like the daemon, the alethiometer is related to iconology. Pullman has spoken often about basing his design of the alethiometer on the concept inherent in emblem books, a concept Frederick de Armas describes as "the notion that an image reveals a divine mystery and thus informs more clearly than complex ideas found in language" (12). Pullman remarks,
   What did influence [his creation of the alethiometer] were those
   extraordinary devices they had about the middle of the sixteenth
   century--emblems, emblem books....The idea was that you had a
   little moral ... a little piece of wisdom encapsulated in a verse,
   usually Latin, usually doggerel, and a sort of motto, and
   illustrating those there was a picture.... So I invented the
   alethiometer using a mixture of conventional symbols, such as the
   anchor, which is a traditional symbol for hope, and ones I made up.

The "language" of the alethiometer is, by nature, pictorial. Pullman's remark on the "doggerel" morals attached to the emblems is telling: though his creation of the alethiometer is based on the emblem books, he modifies their design by removing the verbal, interpretive aspect. He remarks further on this "doggerel" aspect of the written morals in emblem books in his essay "Invisible Pictures": "the words are so prescriptive, forbidding any interpretation but the 'correct' one.... The result is often oddly disappointing: a picture which seems to teem with all kinds of delirious meanings turns out to embody some banal message like Peace is better than war or Look before you leap" (165-66). By freeing the symbol from its univocal "correct," or traditional, translation, Pullman creates a visual text not "oddly disappointing," but, rather, rich with interpretive possibilities--one that encourages an active and imaginative viewer to play with the multiple levels of meaning suggested by each symbol.

Pullman takes care to detail the manner in which Lyra reads the alethiometer, thus emphasizing the visual richness of its icons and the active mode of seeing required to arrange and interpret them. Her first successful reading of the alethiometer occurs under Farder Coram's guidance:

"What are you asking it, Lyra?"

"I'm a thinking--" she stopped, surprised to find that she'd actually been asking a question without realizing it. "I just put three pictures together because ... I was thinking about Mr. de Ruyter, see.... And I put together the serpent and the crucible and the beehive, to ask how he's a getting on with his spying, and--" (The Golden Compass 143)

Lyra's surprise at finding she's been asking a question (which, presumably, has always been a verbal action for her) indicates that she is at the beginning of understanding the workings of the alethiometer. Her subsequent struggle to articulate her thoughts, evidenced by the ellipses, also emphasizes that the manner in which she is thinking about the symbols is not, in its most basic sense, linguistic. Shohet suggests that the alethiometer is "one of the trilogy's central figures for writing and reading [that points to] His Dark Materials' relationship to canonicity" (26), and certainly the plural possible meanings of the symbols and the user's interpretive role mirror Pullman's own work with his source texts (works by Blake, Milton, etc.). However, to maintain that the user's role is strictly that of a "reader/writer" (Shohet 26) excludes the visual source and significance of Lyra's expanding field of vision.

To illustrate the importance of this difference in perspective it is helpful to look at Pullman's "How to Read the Alethiometer" article on the Random House website, in which he provides a long description and demonstration about how to ask a question:
      The inquirer moves each of the hands in turn until it points to
   one of the three symbols.

      But that is only the physical part of the process. The other part
   is mental. The inquirer must endeavor to hold in his or her mind a
   clear picture of where each of the meanings comes in its range.
   Evoking the image of ladders with rungs extending downward is
   sometimes advised by skilled practitioners of alethiometry. Picture
   three ladders side by side, each rung being one meaning in the
   range, and mark distinctly the rungs corresponding to the meanings
   you intend--for example, by imagining a bright light shining on
   them, or ribbons tied around them, or by covering them in gold
   leaf. The inquirer must hold that image firmly, without losing it
   for a moment, while setting the hands in position. (n.p.)

Pullman's phrasing--"clear picture," "image of ladders," "imagining a bright light ... or ribbons"--affirms that the user of the alethiometer works primarily in the visual mode. While he later describes the process linguistically for his less visually experienced readers--"the alethiometer supplies the semantic content of the message, and the mind of the enquirer supplies the grammatical connections between the individual elements"--he goes on to advocate for a type of spectatorship involving both depth and breadth: the user must have "deep familiarity with the symbol ranges" ("How" n.p.). The more focused one is on analyzing what one sees, and the more open one is to a broad range of meanings, the more perceptive one becomes.

Shelley King also treats the alethiometer as a symbol of reading, specifically based on the passage above regarding semantics and grammar, but her description of its workings is perhaps more in line with Lyra's method of use: "Reading the alethiometer is thus cast as a complex interpretive act, one requiring the ability to entertain multiple strata of symbolic meaning while actively working to construct the relationships connecting them" (107). Consider Farder Coram's perception of Lyra in The Golden Compass as she uses the alethiometer: "Farder Coram was a chess player, and he knew how chess players looked at a game in play. An expert player seemed to see lines of force and influence on the board, and looked along the important lines and ignored the weak ones; and Lyra's eyes moved the same way, according to some similar magnetic field that she could see and he couldn't" (The Golden Compass 151). As Lyra continues to use the alethiometer, she develops a way of seeing that includes not only each individual symbol and its subsequent meanings, but also the manner in which those meanings, across the symbolic spectrum, work together--her visual literacy is both deepening and broadening. Furthermore, this way of seeing is important to develop, for it is because of her innate skill with the alethiometer that Lyra is able to embark upon her adventure to the north that ultimately results in her saving Dust (which is the substance, or rather force, that allows the alethiometer to function in the first place).

Throughout the trilogy Pullman expands his emphasis on visual hermeneutics. The final scenes of The Golden Compass bring Lyra's interpretations of daemons and the alethiometer together, and also reveal the importance of and complications involved in spectatorship when it comes to complex visual signs. At Svalbard, Lyra understands the visual clue of Iofur Raknison's "Coulter" doll as evidence that Iofur wants to be a human who has a daemon, which allows her to carry out her plan. Lyra uses her alethiometer to find Iorek's location and make Iofur think that she is a daemon who would like to switch allegiance from Iorek to Iofur. At this point, "[the alethiometer] was so much a part of her now that the most complicated questions sorted themselves out into their constituent symbols as naturally as her muscles moved her limbs" (The Golden Compass 327). Pullman echoes that effortlessness in the way he presents, on the written page, her interaction with the alethiometer: the reader, unable to engage first hand in Lyra's state of visual thinking, is allowed to experience her speed and ease by receiving the process in the translated form of verbal conversation (The Golden Compass 327, 340).

Lyra's deepening understanding of visual symbols causes her to become more conscious of the power of the visual cues she can offer as well. During the fight between Iofur and Iorek when Iorek seems hurt, "she would not do him the teachery of looking away, for if he looked at her he must see her shining eyes and their love and belief, not a face hidden in cowardice or a shoulder fearfully turned away" (The Golden Compass 352). Lyra, then, is also aware that others perceive her visual signals. And, yet, Pullman reminds us that Lyra is not capable of seeing everything, for she misses the fact that Iorek is pretending to be hurt in order to deceive Iofur. This limitation is an important one, since Lyra and Pan realize at the end of the novel that they have "misread" the Dust narrative first offered to them through Asriel's photograms in the first scene. Pan laments, regarding their following the prevalent interpretation (i.e., the one they learn through verbal means, from the adults around them) of Dust, "We believed them, even though we could see that what they were doing was wicked and evil and wrong" (The Golden Compass 398). Lyra and Pan are still becoming accustomed to deciphering the meanings of the various (and often disparate) texts they encounter. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes,
   The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we
   believe. In the Middle Ages when men believed in the physical
   existence of Hell the sight of fire must have meant something
   different from what it means today. Nevertheless their idea of Hell
   owed a lot to the sight of fire consuming and the ashes
   remaining--as well as to their experience of the pain of burns. (8)

What one sees affects what one believes, so Lyra's slow path to revelation, obstructed by the way she has seen others react to Dust, is understandable.

Since The Subtle Knife takes place beyond the scope of Lyra's world, the new "sights" Lyra experiences in Will's world both liberate and complicate her readings of visual and verbal texts. Context plays a significant role in the levels of and types of conclusions Pullman's characters draw, for as Pullman notes in negotiating the relationship between picture and text, "looking at the whole of a page, not just the picture on it" ("Invisible" 164) is key to interpretation. Lyra, so used to reading daemons, is at a loss when she first meets Will, because he does not seem to have one. Lyra is here faced with the same dilemma Pullman's readers encounter, for, as Bobby explains, "the human-daemon link represents conflicts between internal and external expressions. Various passages in the trilogy reveal instances when the children (or the adults) behave in one way while daemons betray predominant yet hidden emotions" (n.p.) Without this visual text of Will's otherwise hidden emotions, Lyra finds it more difficult to understand him, so while she does not need to be near Will in order to ask the alethiometer about him, "she wanted to look anyway":

[S]he looked down at the sleeping boy. He was frowning, and his face glistened with sweat. He was strong and stocky, not as formed as a grown man, of course, because he wasn't much older than she was, but he'd be powerful one day. How much easier if his daemon had been visible! She wondered what its form might be, and whether it was fixed yet. Whatever its form was, it would express a nature that was savage, and courteous, and unhappy. (The Subtle Knife 27)

Despite the fact that it would be much "easier" for Lyra if she could see his daemon, her guess about his "savage, and courteous, and unhappy" nature suggests that Lyra has been able to perceive it through other means--his behavior, his tone of voice, his facial expression. However, she is unsatisfied without a proper visual, and she satisfies that need by using the alethiometer. She "relaxe[s] her mind into the shape of a question" (27) about Will's character, and "when she [sees] the answer, she relaxe[s] at once" (28).

Pullman's emphasis on visual acuity finds another vehicle in a second main character, for Will's ability to understand the cues of Lyra's daemon develops significantly throughout the novels. When Lyra cannot explain, through her sobs, the manner in which she has betrayed Will's identity to the man looking for him, Will relies on Pan to receive the message:

"You're going to be so angry. I promised I wouldn't give you away, Ipromised it, and then..." she sobbed, and Pantalaimon became a young clumsy dog with lowered ears and wagging tail, squirming with self-abasement; and Will understood that Lyra had done something that she was too ashamed to tell him about, and he spoke to the daemon. (The Subtle Knife 156)

Will here is interpreting a combination of visual and verbal texts similar to the combination he may have seen offered in picture books, a type of text with which he (and the reader) are presumably more familiar. Lawrence Sipe examines this interpretive dynamic:
   It is an intriguing idea that the interrelationship of words and
   pictures mirrors the thought process itself. Irving Massey's
   assertion that, "Thinking consists of a constant alternation
   between image-making and word-making" is given support in reading
   theory by the "dual coding" hypothesis of Mark Sadoski and Alan
   Paivio, which suggests that cognition has two separate (though
   related) structures: one for processing verbal information (either
   in speech or written language) and one for processing nonverbal
   information (such as visual stimuli). As we alternate our attention
   between words and pictures in a picture book, then, we may be
   representing the verbal and nonverbal information in separate
   cognitive structures; following this, through the complex
   referential connections between these two cognitive structures, we
   construct an integrated meaning. (101)

The meaning Will constructs is, indeed, integrated: Lyra's words give him the content of her message, but her body language and Pan's form and behavior portray her emotions of sorrow, regret, and anxiety as "Pantalaimon was flickering from shape to shape in his agitation: dog, bird, cat, snow-white ermine" (The Subtle Knife 156). According to Nikolajeva and Scott, there is "a broad spectrum of word/image interaction" with "a number of characteristic dynamics" (225):
   For example, in symmetrical interaction, words and pictures tell
   the same story, essentially repeating information in different
   forms of communication. In enhancing interaction, pictures amplify
   more fully the meaning of the words, or the words expand the
   picture so that different information in the two modes of
   communication produces a more complex dynamic. When enhancing
   interaction becomes very significant, the dynamic becomes truly
   complementary. Dependent on the degree of different information
   presented, a counterpointing dynamic may develop where words and
   images collaborate to communicate meanings beyond the scope of
   either one alone. (225-26)

In The Subtle Knife, the relationship between the verbal and visual texts in Pan and Lyra's confession is "counterpointing," since the visual plays a large part in the way the viewer understands the verbal, and vice versa. Thus, Will's increasing familiarity with the visual text Pan offers allows him to negotiate the relations among a plurality of texts, a skill that becomes important later in the story. Although Lyra has warned him, verbally, about the danger of her mother, upon his first visual encounter with Mrs. Coulter, Will sees "with a shock" that "the woman herself was beautiful ... lovely in the moonlight, her brilliant dark eyes wide with enchantment, her slender shape light and graceful" (The Subtle Knife 204). Were this combination of visual and verbal texts present in a picture book, Nikolajeva and Scott would call it "contradictory": "An extreme form of counterpointing is contradictory interaction, where words and pictures seem to be in opposition to one another. This ambiguity challenges the reader to mediate between the words and the pictures to establish a true understanding of what is being depicted" (226). The appearance of Mrs. Coulter seems to belie Lyra's unappealing description, and Will's "shock" suggests his confusion as he attempts to decide how to understand this challenging, contradictory relationship. The addition to the scene of the daemon-as-visual-text allows him to settle the debate: "but as she snapped her fingers, the monkey stopped at once and leaped up into her arms, and he saw that the sweet-faced woman and the evil monkey were one being" (The Subtle Knife 204).

Even as Lyra manages to overcome the problem of Will's daemon's invisibility throughout The Subtle Knife, Pullman couches her discoveries about Will in visual terms. When Will and Lyra are talking about their pasts as they travel with the witches, Pullman writes that "where Will was concerned, [Lyra] was developing a new kind of sense, as if he were simply more in focus than anyone she'd known before. Everything about him was clear and immediate" (308). This occurrence is "new for her, too, to be quite so perceptive" (308). Heightened visual acuity, then, is not just about interpreting symbols, but about negotiating interpersonal relationships--for Lyra's "new sense" is part of the bond of love she and Will are beginning to share.

Lyra's field of vision expands even further as a result of her relationship with Mary Malone, the nun-turned-scientist of Will's world who happens to be researching conscious shadow particles, or Dust. Mary performs her research in a visual manner through her computer, nicknamed "the Cave": "shadows on the walls of the Cave, you see, from Plato" (The Subtle Knife 88), Mary explains to an oblivious Lyra. Mary's reference suggests at once the visual nature of her investigations and the fact that she does not yet truly understand (and knows she does not yet truly understand) the visual data she has been analyzing, for those who watch the images on the wall of Plato's cave are unaware that the shapes are actually shadows of more "real" objects. Lyra does not understand Mary's reference to Plato, but Lyra's "experiment" (92) with the Cave, in which she pretends the Cave is similar to the alethiometer, causes her to react to the visual of the "dancing lights, for all the world like the shimmering curtains of the aurora" (92) in a manner that suggests she is about to broaden her field of vision: "And as Lyra watched, she felt the same sense, as of trembling on the brink of understanding, that she remembered from the time when she was beginning to read the alethiometer" (93). On this "brink of understanding," Lyra makes a "guess" that leads her to the idea that "They [the Shadows] could make any shapes you wanted. They could make pictures if you wanted them to" (93). This time, pretending the Cave is the alethiometer, Lyra is able to explain to Mary that what it is saying, "it's saying in my language, right--the language of pictures" (94). Lyra's calling the "language of pictures" her language is telling; at this point in the trilogy Lyra is confident in both her own abilities to read pictures and the fact that pictures can function in the signifier/signified manner of language.

In this scene Lyra also learns that her language of pictures is not the only way for people to communicate with Dust:
   [The Cave] could use ordinary language too, words, if you fixed it
   up like that.... There's a way they have in [China] of talking to
   Dust, I mean Shadows, same as you got here and I got with the--I
   got with pictures, only their way uses sticks. I think [the Cave]
   means that picture [of the I-Ching] on the door, but I didn't
   understand it, really. I thought when I first saw it there was
   something important about it, only I didn't know what. So there
   must be lots of ways of talking to Shadows.... I hadn't realized
   before. I thought there was only one. (94-95)

Though Lyra says "pictures are easier to work" (97) for her, she has become aware of different modes of presentation, communication, and interpretation. Interestingly, all of the ways she mentions here are actually visual: the computer eventually uses written words, and the I-Ching involves interpreting visual/spatial patterns of sticks. Furthermore, through her own visual display on the Cave for Mary and her verbal conversation with her in which she both explains her visuals and questions Mary's own experiences, Lyra takes part in the process of "transmediation"--"the translation of content from one sign system into another," during the process of which "new meanings are produced" (Charles Suhor qtd. in Sipe 101-02). As Lyra explains her visual messages she comes to new ideas: "But when it went on to that second bit ... it meant Asia, almost the farthest east but not quite. I dunno what country that would be--China, maybe" (The Subtle Knife 94). The dash indicates Lyra's leap in understanding, provoked by a combination of the alethiometer's icons, the I-Ching hanging on Mary's door, and her attempt to translate her ideas into the verbal mode for Mary.

Mary's own widening understanding or vision (suggested in part by the number of times she widens or rubs her eyes in the scene) is significant as well. At first she claims of the display on the Cave (which leaves her "astonished") that "you don't read it in the sense of reading a message; it doesn't work like that" (The Subtle Knife 93), and yet because of Lyra's visit she does, indeed, format the computer program to use written language. Highlighting the visual aspect of this format, Pullman notes that as Mary types, "the words arranged themselves on the left side of the screen," and as the Shadows answer back, she "felt as if she had stepped on a space that wasn't there" (247), an invisible space of which she has only just become aware. When she becomes agitated and "all her education, all her habits of mind, all her sense of herself as a scientist were shrieking at her silently: This is wrong! It isn't happening! You're dreaming!" she finds her reassurance in the visual: "And yet there they were on the screen: her questions, and answers from some other mind" (248). The scientist in Mary, the part of her that is careful, methodical, and anchored to the sensory world, is thus repelled by and attracted to the evidence on the screen, and the curiosity those opposite forces create in her allows her to expand her field of vision and develop her already active mode of spectatorship in order to become, eventually, the main interpreter of the visual narrative of Dust.

The heightened emphasis on ways of seeing in The Subtle Knife comes to a climax in The Amber Spyglass, as the Dust narrative becomes not only visible, but understandable. The episode in the Suburbs of the Dead and the Underworld, Mary's creation of the amber spyglass, and the closing scenes of the trilogy all serve to highlight the importance of active spectatorship, expanding fields of vision, and creative visualization as a means for growth of human consciousness.

One of the most bizarre phenomena Pullman's characters notice as they enter the Suburbs of the Dead is that "the edges of things were losing their definition as well as becoming blurred.... The color was slowly seeping out of the world" (The Amber Spyglass 248). Andrew Leet analyzes His Dark Materials' dimly visible underworld in terms of Pullman's moving away from "Heaven and hell and other dualistic black-and-white images" (178): "Without either color or clarity, the powerful images of the afterlife that have been so carefully crafted throughout the generations and reinforced by popular culture suddenly seem less clear-cut in Pullman's world" (179). Leet's point regarding Pullman's challenges to tradition is a good one, but the Lady Salmakia's explanation that "we think the landscape is fading because these people are forgetting it" (The Amber Spyglass 250) links vision to memory and consciousness; as ghosts move closer and closer to the land of the dead, the world becomes dimmer until they get to the point even of forgetting their own names (313)--their awareness of their own identities. Pullman's land of the dead is one of fading consciousness, and thus there is no use for any visual stimuli (let alone broadening fields of vision) that would produce any moments of "visionary" importance.

Karen Patricia Smith's analysis of the underworld segments in terms of the trilogy's use of the fantastic tradition of "perilous journeys" highlights several important aspects of this episode:
   A journey to the world of the dead is formidable and is one that is
   rarely undertaken in children's literature. In the classic
   tradition this is an Orphic journey.... [Pullman] pushes the
   analogy further by having the children ferried over by a boatman,
   who resembles Charon.... Orpheus found the price (to avoid looking
   back) too heavy for him and ultimately fails the test. The price
   for Pullman's children? They must leave their individual souls
   behind, or as Pullman calls them (somewhat ironically), their
   daemons. (144-45)

Orpheus's inability to resist the edict not to look back confirms the importance, and even reassurance, of the visual to the conscious, living human. Lyra's "price" of leaving her daemon involves, along with intense psychological, emotional, and even physical pain, losing that visualization of her own self: the outward manifestation of her soul that reminds her (especially after the episodes involving intercision at Bolvanger) of her consciousness, of her "alive-ness." Pullman emphasizes Pan's appearance in a haunting, heart-wrenching manner during this scene, and to heighten the importance of visualization to emotion, he does so through Will's eyes:

What animal he was now, Will could hardly tell. He seemed to be so young, a cub, a puppy, something helpful and beaten, a creature so sunk in misery that it was more misery than creature. His eyes never left Lyra's face, and Will could see her making herself not look away, not avoid the guilt, and he admired her honesty and her courage at the same time as he was wrenched with the shock of their parting. (The Amber Spyglass 284)

Hines's label of Will as "the reader's ambassador" (45) works well here: Will's understanding of Pan's (and therefore Lyra's) emotional state allows the reader to understand the nature of their parting as well. Bobby remarks, "It seems intentional, then, that as Lyra leaves him for the land of the dead Pan takes the form of a whimpering puppy, an image to which a child will most certainly relate."

Later, when the boat reaches the far shore, "Lyra didn't want to get out: as long as she was near the boat, then Pantalaimon would be able to think of her properly, because that was how he last saw her, but when she moved away from it, he wouldn't know how to picture her anymore" (The Amber Spyglass 288). The anxiety here--that part of Lyra's own self will not have an accurate "picture" of another part of herself--is at the heart of her despair. Her "language of pictures" dominates her thought process as she navigates the underworld: "every moment in front of her mind's eye was that terrible image of the little dog-Pan abandoned on the jetty as the mist closed around him, and she could barely keep from howling" (306). Lyra's visualization of her daemon sets her apart from the others, for while the other travelers to the land of the dead feel similar effects of having abandoned their invisible daemons, "It's [Lyra's] misfortune that she can see and talk to the part she must leave" (282). That Lyra can see her daemon is only a "misfortune," however, because of the painful emotions of this particular occurrence. As the Chevalier Tialys points out, "Maybe the people in Lyra's world are the only living beings to know they have [daemons]. Maybe that's why it was one of them who started the revolt [against the end of consciousness]" (302). In terms of "the big picture," the ability to see one's daemon suggests a growth towards higher levels of perception and consciousness, which also puts one more in touch, emotionally, with the rest of the world.

Mary's invention and use of the spyglass occurs simultaneously, in the structure of Pullman's narrative, with the land of the dead episode; just as Lyra and Will and the Gallivespians are making their way through the shadowy, visionless realm of the dead, Mary is exploring new, conscious-expanding modes of seeing. It is important to note that in The Subtle Knife, Mary begins by accessing the opaque Dust narrative only through the amorphous shapes of her computer. In that same volume, with Lyra's help, she comes to communicate with Dust through the visual/verbal means of written language on her computer. By the early chapters of The Amber Spyglass, Mary uses, independently, the I-Ching's combination of visual patterns and "enigmatic" verbal passages full of images she must interpret (The Amber Spyglass 80-81). When she crosses into the land of the mulefa, she again finds herself combining visual and verbal texts when she learns their language: "Little by little, Mary realized that their trunks were playing a part in communication, too. A movement of the trunk would modify the meaning of a sound.... As soon as she saw this, Mary imitated it, moving her arm as best she could in the same way, and when the creatures realized that she was beginning to talk to them, their delight was radiant" (124). The mulefa communicate via a "counterpointing" dynamic, and Mary's engagement in reading visual cues alongside verbal ones essentially prepares her for what Millicent Lenz calls her ultimate "mystical vision" ("Philip Pullman" 135), which occurs because of "their [hers and the mulefa's] mutual 'invention' of the amber spyglass." By means of this vision, she "finally com[es] to an understanding of how 'sraf' (their equivalent of 'Dust' or shadow particles) connects with her own research into the nature of consciousness" (133).

Mary's process of discovery emphasizes a central tenet embedded in the Dust narrative. When Mary first sees sraf she finds that "it didn't obscure ... shapes in any way; if anything it made them clearer" (The Amber Spyglass 231). Furthermore, the first image she uses the spyglass to see reveals the difference between a child zalif's sraf, "a golden haze ... of little swirling currents of intention that eddied and broke off and drifted about," and an adult zalif's sraf, "the very image of responsibility and wise care" (231). She interprets these visual cues similar to the way in which people of Lyra's world perceive the visual text of the daemon. Mary's ability to see Dust makes her "ready" (231) for the task the mulefa have in mind for her: to figure out how to save the seedpod trees.

The eldest zalif Sattamax explains, "You can see things that we cannot, you can see connections and possibilities and alternatives that are invisible to us, just as sraf was invisible to you" (The Amber Spyglass 234). Mary's ability to visualize stems from her being human. By the conjunction of this human way of seeing and the one the amber spyglass affords, she attains what Lenz aptly calls her "mystical vision ("Philip Pullman" 135): "the sense that the whole universe was alive, and that everything was connected to everything else by threads of meaning" (The Amber Spyglass 449). Mary understands that
   ... wind, moon, clouds, leaves, grass, all those lovely things were
   crying out and hurling themselves into the struggle to keep the
   shadow particles in this universe, which they so enriched.

      Matter loved dust. It didn't want to see it go. That was the
   meaning of this night, and it was Mary's meaning too. (452)

Mary, then, through careful observation, contemplation, and visualization, refines the theory Lyra and Pan put forth regarding Dust at the end of The Golden Compass: "What if it's really good" (398). Thus, when Lyra and Will "fall" because they, in Mary's words, "saw each other differently" (478), and reverse the flow of Dust, Mary does not even look through the spyglass to see how their sraf clouds appear, for "she knew ... they would seem to be made of living gold. They would seem the true image of what human beings always could be, once they had come into their inheritance" (470).

The final push to expanded visual literacy and fields of vision occurs when Serafina Pekkala and Mary Malone, two of the wisest characters in the trilogy, trade ways of seeing in order to expand each other's views of the world. Mary allows Serafina to see Dust through the spyglass (The Amber Spyglass 478), and Serafina teaches Mary how to see her daemon, which, writes Lenz, is the way her "soul-growth is joyfully fulfilled" ("Philip Pullman" 136):

"If you could see him," Serafina went on, "you would see a black bird with red legs and a bright yellow beak, slightly curved. A bird of the mountains."

"An alpine chough ... How can you see him?"

"With my eyes half-closed, I can see him. If we had time, I could teach you to see him, too, and to see the daemons of others in your world." (The Amber Spyglass 477)

Mary's first encounter with her daemon is ekphrastic--Serafina describes him, and Mary recognizes him and becomes excited about his existence, exhibiting the concept of "ekphrastic hope" which occurs "when we discover a 'sense' in which language can do what so many writers have wanted it to do: 'to make us see'" (Mitchell 152).

W. J. T. Mitchell argues that "the central goal of ekphrastic hope might be called 'the overcoming of otherness'" (156), and certainly Serafina's description of Mary's daemon eventually leads Mary to ask the witch to teach her how to see him, so that she might integrate him into her selfhood. When Mary actually does see her daemon for the first time, Pullman describes the process in these terms:
      In Mary's world they had a kind of picture that looked at first
   like random dots of color but that, when you looked at it in a
   certain way, seemed to advance into three dimensions: and there in
   front of the paper would be a tree, or a face, or something else
   surprisingly solid that simply wasn't there before.

      What Serafina taught Mary to do now was similar to that. She had
   to hold on to her normal way of looking while simultaneously
   slipping into the trancelike open dreaming in which she could see
   the Shadows. But now she had to hold both ways together, the
   everyday and the trance, just as you have to look in two directions
   at once to see the 3-D pictures among the dots. (505-06)

Many of Pullman's readers have very little trouble recognizing the 3-D picture analogy, and in this way Pullman makes Mary's type of "seeing" available within the realm of real-world possibility: Pullman wants his readers to see things they have never seen--or never bothered to see. According to Lenz, "Pullman implies that humans need multiple states of consciousness to see multiple realities" ("Awakening" 7); he also implies that many of these important realities are presented or can be accessed in visual ways.

Mary Harris Russell reads Will and Lyra's separation at the end of the trilogy in a positive way, especially in light of their and Mary's widening understandings of the world: "All these three characters see doors opened, not closed. All can now look out to others. The daemons of Will and Lyra are now fixed, which signals their opening to both the larger joys and pains of adulthood. Mary Malone, for the first time, learns to see her daemon.... [T]heir worlds are enlarged, not diminished" (72). The new perspectives the characters have learned to employ now allow them to experience more fully the lives to which they return, for their heightened consciousnesses promise a richer and more rewarding perception of the various texts--including the visual--that the world has to offer. Mary and Will are on the way to developing the ability to see the daemons of the people in their world, and as Serafina says, "they won't see yours or Will's ... unless you teach them as I've taught you." Mary's answer, "Yes ... Oh, this is extraordinary, yes!" (The Amber Spyglass 506), suggests that Mary will continue to develop and spread this new way of seeing.

Though Lyra loses, with her maturity, her innate childlike ability to read the symbols of the alethiometer, she certainly has developed a wider perception. While there seems to be an irony here, especially in regards to Pullman's development, thus far, of Lyra's perceptive abilities, it is important to note that Lyra's loss comes as a result of her coming of age, and of Pan's "settling," which means that Lyra is now surrounded by Dust. This new, self-conscious mode of being will actually allow her the capacity to develop even more complex understandings of not only the iconology of the alethiometer, but also the larger "text" of the world around her. Lyra will have to study in order to regain (to a better degree, it is important to note) her ability to read the alethiometer, but that study is a worthy path to the creation of what the mulefa would recognize as even more beautiful sraf.

Pullman's last "lantern slide" (a tellingly named collections of vignettes, meant to fill in some "narratives gaps" of the story, which he intersperses among the volumes of the trilogy in the His Dark Materials Omnibus edition) suggests the ongoing process in which humans must engage to develop a wider visual perception can, in turn, lead to a higher level of consciousness:

Lyra at eighteen sitting intent and absorbed in Duke Humfrey's Library with the alethiometer and a pile of leather-bound books. Tucking the hair back behind her ears, pencil in mouth, finger moving down a list of symbols, Pantalaimon holding the stiff old pages open for her.... "Look, Pan, there's a pattern there--see? That's why they're in that sequence!" And it felt as if the sun had come out. It was the second thing she said to Will next day in the Botanic Garden. (His Dark Materials 933)

The syntax of the passage, at first composed largely of description couched in sentence fragments, creates the impression of a photograph, and Lyra's discovery of the pattern of symbols leaves little doubt that she will regain and deepen her ability to read "the language of pictures." The image of the sun coming out highlights the visualization process and also echoes the story of Plato's cave, except that for Lyra, the sun is not blinding at all, but welcome: she is very ready for this alternative way of seeing. The last line of the lantern slides is tantalizing to His Dark Materials fans: How does Lyra communicate to Will in the Botanic Garden? Is it simply through a sort of hopeful apostrophe, or have they learned how to "travel" in the manner Xaphania suggests, by using "the faculty of ... imagination" (The Amber Spyglass 494)? Xaphania's (and Pullman's) qualification of the term here is important: "But [imagination] does not mean making things up. It is a form of seeing ... nothing like pretend. Pretending is easy. This way is hard, but much truer" (494). Xaphania's trailing off after the word "seeing" suggests how difficult it is for her to express the process in verbal terms, and she resorts to defining it by what it is not. The trilogy, then, suggests that multiple "forms of seeing" are difficult to learn, but tremendously powerful and valuable.

Discovering new ways of seeing is not always safe, especially in a world like Lyra's (like the reader's?), in which governing bodies seek to mandate certain "truths" about reality. When Mrs. Coulter first sees "The Clouded Mountain," the fortress of The Authority,

[i]t reminded her of a certain abominable heresy, whose author was now deservedly languishing in the dungeons of the Consistorial Court. He had suggested that there were more spatial dimensions than the three familiar ones--that on a very small scale, there were up to seven or eight other dimensions, but that they were impossible to examine directly. He had even constructed a model to show how they might work, and Mrs. Coulter had seen the object before it was exorcised and burned. Folds within folds, corners and edges both containing and being contained: its inside was everywhere and its outside was everywhere else. (The Amber Spyglass 395)

The author of the so-called "heresy" turns out to be correct, but his way of seeing is considered dangerous by the powers that be. Millicent Lenz quips that Xaphania, the angel who first discovers that the authority is not who he seems, "was banished for perceiving that the emperor had no clothes" ("Philip Pullman" 148). Indeed, by the end of the trilogy, Xaphania alerts Will and Lyra to new, true ways of seeing: in Xaphania, the reader finds a figure of hope.

Berger writes that "We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice. As a result of this act, what we see is brought within our reach--though not necessarily within arm's reach" (8). In a similar fashion, Mary says of the Shadow particles, "you can't see them unless you expect to" (The Subtle Knife 88). Just as important to modes of spectatorship and ways of seeing in His Dark Materials is a suggestion embedded in her statement: if you see only what you expect to see (because of the dogma of the authorities around you), you will discover nothing else. For the Dust narrative, first presented as a fragmented visual by Asriel's photograms, is only fully understood when Mary's voyage to another world, her experiences with Lyra and Will, and ultimately her experiment with the spyglass make that narrative fully "visible," in the richest sense of the term. Likewise, the world offers Pullman's readers a text, and given that it is human nature to be curious and to make meaning, active spectators who seek to expand their fields of vision can see that the world presents itself as a (multivalent) story, even if much of it is being told without words.



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(1) See, for example, the works of Colas, Hunt, Lenz, Scott, Shohet, Squires, and Thomson.

(2) For other examinations of the daemon, see, for instance, Colbert 97-109. Frost 261-70, and Tucker 141-46.

(3) The term "figures of seeing" is employed here in partial response to Shohet's term "figures of reading." Shohet's analysis, which draws largely upon Pullman's intertextual engagement, is thorough and convincing. However, two of her figures of reading--the alethiometer and the amber spyglass--are more accurately figures of seeing, for the manner in which they allow characters to "read" the world is primarily visual, not verbal.
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Author:Greenwell, Amanda M.
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Date:Mar 22, 2010
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