"death is better than life"

And while I’m meditating on atheists, here’s a puzzle. As is widely known, the enormously gifted fantasist Philip Pullman has a particular loathing for C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, calling them “propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology.” The messages of Lewis’s books are: “Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people; and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it.”

Some of these charges have more substance than others — in the fiction of Lewis and Tolkien alike it’s rarely if ever good to be “swarthy” — but it’s the charge of being on the side of death against life that puzzles me. For I can't think of another novelist who has Pullman’s enthusiasm for dying. For instance, Yambe-Akka is the goddess of death among witches in these books, and we are told that she was “merry and lighthearted and her visits were gifts of joy.” (Here’s where he gets the name.) Pullman imagines a world of the dead, a vast hopeless prison of souls from which his heroine Lyra will rescue people by annihilating them — and indeed, one can easily see how annihilation would be preferable to the almost-nonexistence of these poor souls, so like the “shades” Odysseus visits in the twelfth book of the Odyssey.

But it’s one thing to say that annihilation is less bad than eternal emptiness, another thing altogether to positively cheerlead for it. As I have written elsewhere, Pullman portrays his characters’ obliteration as a kind of joyous merging with the Cosmos. He even says of one character that the “atoms of his beloved” will be waiting for him when he disintegrates — which would be true except that his beloved has ceased to exist, has been scattered into atoms herself, and the same is about to be true for him. Atom are just atoms — whether they once belonged to good people, bad people, stag beetles, or lawn chairs — and once we’re vaporized, we quite obviously no longer have an identity to be joined with any other identity.

Similarly, Pullman writes misty-eyed descriptions of children expiring in a “vivid little burst of happiness [like] the bubbles in a glass of champagne” — as though the most wonderful thing that could possibly happen to someone is to be annihilated. In general Pullman makes death sound like a dream come true. Okay, well, fine — whatever gets you through the night. But if that’s your view, then isn't there a wee irony in your castigating someone else for thinking that “death is better than life”?