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, tells Lyra that “‘Dust is what make the alethiometer work’” (GC 370). The alethiometer is a tool used to divine the truth about almost anything. Usually it takes years of study to understand, but Lyra can read hers’ (one of only a few in the world) almost instantly, as by grace. But Lyra does not control the alethiometer; rather, she must put herself in communication with what seems to be a higher power: “Whatever power was making that needle swing and stop, it knew things like an intelligent being” (GC 147). “‘It’s almost like talking to someone, only you can’t quite hear them, and you feel kind of stupid because they’re cleverer than you, only they don’t get cross or anything…. As if they knew everything, almost. . . but this is a different kind of knowing….It’s like understanding, I suppose….’” (GC 150). In order to understand the truth, Lyra has to enter into a conversation, put herself in the right frame of mind to receive the impersonal but conscious wisdom of Dust. This complexity takes the nature of Dust’s interaction with humanity and the rest of the universe beyond attraction at sexual maturity, which could be explained as a sort of previously unknown physical attraction, to a new level of conscious conversation, granting knowledge to those adept at listening. This appears to present a contradiction. As Bird writes, Dust’s status as an elementary particle “appears to be contradictory, since the profuse and diverse concepts contained in Dust would make it more of a compound substance” (Bird in Lenz, 190). This idea of “out of one, many,” instead of “out of many, one” grows in complexity throughout the books. Here, though, Dust acts as a vast collective force, somehow tapping all its own and others’ consciousness’ to report the truth: Dust is “particles of consciousness” (SK 8Cool. At this point, Dust still seems to be impartial, even if conscious – it reports the truth just as accurately to the alethiometrists of those who seek to destroy it as to those who want to protect it. The larger role of this mysterious force in the universe is still unclear.
As is eventually revealed, Dust acted for the human species and for other sentient species as it does on an individual scale for pubescent humans. According to Mary Malone, a Dark Matter researcher in our world who studies Dust as “shadow particles,” for skulls tested for Shadows, “‘There was a cutoff point about thirty, forty thousand years ago. Before that, no Shadows. After that, plenty. And that’s about the time, apparently, that modern human beings first appeared” (SK 89). The causality of this relationship is not initially clear – did Dust cause the evolution of consciousness, or did the evolution of consciousness create Dust? This is the kind of binary opposition that Derridan deconstruction is designed to undermine. According to Bird, “However, Pullman’s deconstructive strategy involves more than merely demonstrating that the negative term is precisely the very condition of the positive term; it entails the creation of something that defies binary logic – that is, a concept that includes both the physical and the metaphysical, and yet somehow also goes beyond their scope” (Bird in Lenz, 190). “Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself” (AS 31); thus, Dust is a process, an interaction, as well as a particle.
Dust is the explanation of the maturity of both individuals and humanity, associated with the dæmon, or the physical animal manifestation of the soul in Lyra’s world. Only conscious beings have dæmons, and only mature beings have settled, unchanging dæmons, and such beings attract the most Dust; Dust responds to their intentions, as to Lyra’s through the alethiometer. Except conscious beings do not simply attract Dust – they also create it. “‘Dust is not a constant. There’s not a fixed quantity that has always been the same. Conscious beings make Dust – they renew it all the time, by thinking and feeling and reflecting, by gaining wisdom and passing it on” (AS 491). According to our current understanding, elementary particles cannot be created, but Dust is no ordinary particle; instead it is the synthesis of matter and spirit, or rather the evidence of spirit as a preexisting substance given form by matter. Dæmons are not wholly physical, due to their spiritual connection to their humans and their early ability to shift forms, and adult dæmons, at least, attract and incorporate Dust. Thus Dust, especially as filtered through dæmons, mediates and synthesizes matter and spirit so that they are not simply coequal, but rather one and the same.
The modern tools of science and the scientific method, whether employed by scientists seeking empirical truth or by theologians seeking to confirm preexisting dogma, are accepted by the establishment as the proper way to investigate the nature of Dust. This is consistent with what Bird describes as “one of the central ideologies underpinning Western modernity – that is, the desire to describe, categorize, and finally to segregate all that is ordered and rational from all that is chaotic or ‘other’” (Bird in Lenz, 191). In Bird’s opinion, the irreducibility of Dust renders it immune to this process of materialistic reduction. Nevertheless, this scientific approach does yield some information about Dust, if at a terrible cost. Experiments with separating children from their dæmons seem to confirm the Church’s hope that an operation can prevent adult humans from attracting Dust, or Original Sin. But this operation also removes agency and humanity, replacing them with a “strange blank incuriosity” (GC 283). Since dæmons are associated with Dust – according to an agent of the Church, at puberty “dæmons bring all sorts of troublesome thoughts and feelings, and that’s what lets Dust in” (GC 284) – the fact that the removal of the dæmon leads to a loss of humanity implies that Sin cannot be separated out from humanity itself, from consciousness, but rather that “sin” is a byproduct or an integral factor in human consciousness, as embodied in Dust. Just as Dust is more than the Church’s sin, however, it is also more than just Science’s elementary particle, as has been made clear by the multifaceted powers and attributes of Dust in its various forms.Scientific knowledge can, however, help us understand the origin of Dust. So far this paper has confined itself to Dust in relation to humanity, whether as observed attracting to humans, as created by humans, incorporated into or vivifying dæmons, or giving wisdom to Lyra. But although conscious beings are capable of creating Dust, Dust in fact predated humans and any other conscious beings. According to Pullman, “Dust permeates everything in the universe, and existed before we individuals did and will continue after us” (quoted in Frost, 320). “Matter loves matter. It seeks to know more about itself, and Dust is formed” (AS 31-32). Thus Dust is not the first thing in the Universe – it comes from matter. And yet it is elementary, and predates all individuals. Is Dust, then, material at all? If it is a preexisting first cause to the development of individual consciousness, where did it in turn come from? This question can be partly illuminated by the nature of the scientific connection Pullman makes between Dust and the real world. Dust, in His Dark Materials, is dark matter, a mysterious substance which I not coincidentally researched for physics this year. Dark matter, which makes up the vast majority of matter in the universe, is not like any matter we know on earth, and is not detectable by any normal means. Its presence can only be inferred from its effects. Dark matter is necessary for the condensation of matter and the formation of galaxies, serving as a sort of gravitational glue. Presumably Dust acts similarly to its real-life counterpart, except instead of helping matter condense on an intergalactic scale, it helps matter understand itself and achieve consciousness.
In the last two volumes, however, it becomes apparent that not only does Dust interact with conscious beings and not only did it help to form their consciousness, but Dust formed and differentiated, on its own, into conscious, discrete beings of pure Dust long before the first conscious physical beings. These are angels. The being who described himself as God in the Bible – those were all names he gave himself. He was never the creator. He was an angel. . . the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust. . . and Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. Matter loves matter. It seeks to know more about itself, and Dust is formed. The first angels condensed out of Dust, and the Authority was the first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie. (AS 32)
Angels are beings of pure spirit, incredibly wise, old, and powerful, “their awareness spread out beyond her like filamentary tentacles to the remotest corners of universes she had never dreamed of. . . she saw them as human-formed only because her eyes expected to. If she were to perceive their true form, they would seem more like architecture than organism, like huge structures composed of intelligence and feeling” (SK 141). Yet for all that they are individuals, mortal over an incredibly large time scale, capable of being killed, capable of feeling love and hate and lust, capable of taking opposite sides from each other in the great war between the forces of the Kingdom of Heaven and the Republic of Heaven which takes place in the final book. That Dust is able to form, seemingly on its own, into such mind-bogglingly complex beings is very impressive, and would seem to imply the primacy of spirit over matter. But in fact the angels are not held up as the ultimate authority or model. They are fallible, even if most are very wise, and some are evil. And they lack flesh, solid matter and being – and “lacking flesh, they coveted it and longed for contact with it” (AS 399). The allegiance of the free beings of the universe is to Dust in its pure form, not to Angels. Angels represent one extreme of the matter-spirit dichotomy, but Dust is more important in its role as a mediating factor than alone as angels.
Dust, then, may have been present from the beginning of the universe, but it supposedly was formed “when matter began to understand itself” because “matter loves matter.” It is unclear in what sense matter “began to understand itself,” because the Authority, the first angel, long preceded the arrival of the first life. In this way, matter seems to be inherently animate, and Dust is the fulfillment or representation of a sort of world spirit like that proposed by Renaissance era philosophers. Bird posits that “Dust and the universe appear to be interchangeable in that there is no distinction between the ‘source’ and the ‘product’. . . . Thus, Pullman’s conception of Dust is very like what Derrida terms ‘full presence, the reassuring foundation’ (Writing and Difference 292). . .” (Bird in Lenz 192). This is true, in that Dust seems to both permeate and stand apart from the normal passage of time and development of complexity, and cause and effect are confused. But while Dust may be a “reassuring foundation,” the implications of Dust for human conduct, morality, and so-called theology are not immediately clear. The existence of Dust as it is, as a seeming first cause, clearly destroys all other known religions, and in the course of the book the fate of the dead is revealed to be one that no current religion would espouse. The door is still theoretically open for some other creator, but clearly such a creator has taken no role in the universe since then. Far more likely, Dust itself is the creative force. But Dust, in that sense, is an elementary particle, which facilitates the creation of consciousness and then guides it and is in turn nurtured by it. It appears to be just that, a reassuring force, rather than an active moral guide, despite its incredibly multifaceted nature.
The answer to this question becomes much clearer if we examine the ways Dust is created and destroyed. Over the course of the trilogy, the existence of Dust comes into crisis, with the Church attempting to destroy it and other people doing great harm. The Subtle Knife is a man-made tool which can cut windows between worlds. In doing so, however, it opens invisible seams into the Abyss, a non-world into which Dust inexorably flows and disappears, never to return. The Knife also creates Specters, described as the “children of the abyss” (AS 486). Creatures of pure amoral evil, Specters feed on the souls or dæmons of people, leaving them soulless zombies, without the slightest will or agency. When Lord Asriel opens a bridge to another world for the purpose of preserving Dust and overthrowing the Kingdom of Heaven, he accidentally creates many Specters and leaches off more Dust into the Abyss. When the Church sets off an inter-universal bomb in an attempt to destroy Lyra, it opens a gaping hole into the Abyss, which begins to suck in Dust at a terrifying rate. Life as we know it is threatened, as that which relies on Dust begins to weaken and die. Clearly, for the preservation of Dust and life, human beings should not tamper with the fabric of the universe. This is clearly on some level a metaphor for the horrible damage humans have done to our own world, but it is more.
For humans can not merely destroy Dust but also create it and attract it. It is through the accidental but prophesied intervention of Lyra, a human child, who falls in love at the right time and place, that the flow of Dust is stanched: “If you wanted to divert a mighty river into a different course, and all you had was a single pebble, you could do it, as long as you put the pebble in he right place to send the first trickle of water that way instead of this. . . . [when they fell in love,] the Dust was attracted them, very powerfully, and it stopped flowing the other way” (AS 478). The theology of Dust, to the extent it exists, is entirely life-affirming – saved by love.
Near the end of the trilogy, we get a specific recipe for the specific behavior that will renew the supply of Dust: “thinking and feeling and reflecting, by gaining wisdom and passing it on. And if you help everyone else in your worlds to do that, by helping them to learn and understand about themselves and each other and the way everything works, and by showing them how to be kind instead of cruel, and patient instead of hasty, and cheerful instead of surly, and above all how to keep your minds open and free and curious. . .” then more Dust will be made (AS 491-492). Clearly there is a specific, if fairly uncontroversial moral code which humans must follow to maintain Dust, and thus themselves. In that sense, Dust is an absolute framework, a “totalizing metanarrative,” in Bird’s words, of the sort that the whole trilogy has been dedicated to undermining. But is it really? Although Dust is the ultimate raison d’être, it is most important to humans and other conscious beings because of its interrelationship with them and with other life and consciousness, not because of its intrinsic wonder. The “theology” of Dust does not advocate worship of angels, or even of pure Dust. In some ways it is an absolute system. It gives a sanctity and a global importance to human life which is not found in a strictly “rational” worldview, in which human life is clearly just an insignificant blip in the enormity of space-time. Here, intelligent, self-conscious life can directly affect the quantity of Dust, and one individual human can save not just humanity, not just the universe, but all the universes.
So Dust is empowering. But it is not restrictive. In sharp contrast to most religions, the theology of Dust does not require prostration before a higher power, or the proscription of innate aspects of humanity, such as sexuality. On the contrary, the quest to preserve Dust requires nothing more or less than a realization and accentuation of the noblest and deepest parts of humanity, in a way that emphasizes the interconnectedness of all humanity and all life. The most important relationships by far are among men and women, not between humans and Dust itself as a higher power. Humanity gives itself meaning through the medium of Dust. Thus, while Dust does provide an absolute narrative and rules in that some actions lead to its destruction and some to its creation, creation always being infinitely preferable, the very nature of Dust undermines any restrictions it may seem to place on the human experience, by an apparent tautology which is nonetheless powerful. What is best in humanity, what is best for humanity, will necessarily be in keeping with the theology of Dust, because Dust is what it means to be “human,” or self-conscious, responsible, altruistic and creative. Dust is creation, and not from a divine hand but from the everyday joys and wonders of human life. Dust, so often described as a wondrous current of golden motes, illuminates humanity by giving it a fluid, infinite objectivity – a “free play of meaning” in Bird’s words. It also serves to unite all conscious beings – if they attract Dust they are all truly fellows, whether they have dæmons or not, whether they be six inches tall or six feet, or even if they are bizarre antelope-like creatures with trunks. Dust, then, inherently promotes tolerance and universality.
His Dark Materials, in addition to being a thrilling adventure epic, a complex character drama, and a work of philosophical speculation, has a definite didactic purpose. Pullman wants to promote the same virtues that he makes essential for the renewal of Dust, and condemns the sort of narrow-mindedness, repression, and restrictiveness which characterizes those who see Dust as sin and seek to destroy it. Dust, however, is not a mere placebo. Religious apologists argue that without God there would be no absolute standard of good and bad, and that the carrot-and-stick of Heaven and Hell keeps society together. The theology of Dust is not a cynical version of these religions. It does not offer an afterlife, but unequivocally places the emphasis on the here-and-now. It does not put forth a glittering vision to enforce compliance with its dictates, because its dictates are simply to be human, in the best way possible. Religions are man-made and anthropocentric; Dust brings this out into the open. Philip Pullman does not, of course, want us to believe literally in the existence of Dust. He does want us to think about the world in a new way He does want us to think about the world in a new way – Dust is a metaphor for what makes us human. He wants us to keep the wonder and openness to the unknown symbolized by the amazing golden light, while still keeping our feet planted in the world of our birth, among the people around us who make life worth living.
Bird, Anne-Marie, “Circumventing the Grand Narrative: Dust as an Alternative Theological Vision in Pullman’s His Dark Materials” in Lenz, Millicent and Carole Scott, His Dark Materials Illuminated: Critical Essays on Philip Pullman’s Trilogy. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005, pp 188-198.
Frost, Laurie, The Elements of His Dark Materials: A Guide to Philip Pullman’s Trilogy. Buffalo Grove: The Fell Press, 2006.
Pullman, Philip, The Golden Compass. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
____________, The Subtle Knife. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
____________, The Amber Spyglass. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.