I’m not aware of any mythology that says the universe was created by human beings; we always turn up afterwards, and the relation we have with the place we find ourselves in is part of what gives the system its emotional tone—determines whether it’s tragic, or optimistic, or dramatic, or whatever
William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, has a name for people who have never doubted the assumptions they live by: he calls them once-born. And once you’ve doubted, once you’ve seen the arbitrary and contingent and contradictory nature of the system you didn’t think was a system at all, you become as it were twice-born.
I love the audacity of this opening—the sheer nerve of Milton’s declaring that he’s going to pursue “Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” to “justify the ways of God to men.” How could anyone fail to thrill to a story that begins like this? How could any reader not warm to a poet who dares to say it?
We have to leave the unself-conscious grace of childhood behind and go in search of another quality altogether, the quality of wisdom. And that involves engaging with every kind of human experience, making compromises, getting our hands dirty, suffering, toiling, learning.
As the whole story does, indeed—it’s a movement away from fantasy and towards realism, which is why Lyra goes to school at the end of the book: a cruel disappointment to some critics, academics and teachers themselves, actually, who seem to have lost any sense of the nobility, the moral value, the sheer passionate excitement of education
What freed me from it was remembering the well-known lines from plate 10 of Jerusalem: I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create. Those are the words of Los—Blake’s fallen angel, the divine aspect of imagination: “in fury & strength.”
“Of amplitude almost immense, with stars / Numerous, and every star perhaps a world / Of destined habitation.”
So reading one sort of stuff will damage; reading another sort of stuff will improve. And we shall decide which is which.