Courtesy of New Line Cinema
My son, Ben, and I are reading The Golden Compass.
In Phillip Pullman’s rich fantasy world every human being has a visible daemon, a spirit that takes an animal form, and serves as a lifetime companion. Daemons protect their humans, nudge them in the right direction, express dismay when humans enter dangerous territory, fight to the death if they have to, and die with their humans if it comes to that.
Last night we read the horrific scene where the heroine, Lyra, discovers a boy who has had his daemon severed from him by a gang of nefarious scientists.
Before this point Lyra’s already had some pretty disturbing experiences. She’s seen her father almost poisoned, her best friend kidnapped, found out that the leader of the kidnappers is in fact her own biological mother. Lyra’s talked a giant bear out of cracking a man's skull between his teeth. And right before she finds the daemon-less child she finds herself under a sky full of witches. But nothing seems to disturb her as deeply as the sight of this little “half-boy.”
“Her first impulse was to turn and run, or to be sick. A human being with no daemon was like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out: something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of nightghasts, not the waking world of sense.”
In a recent study, child development researchers compared the language skills of five year olds who had imaginary friends with those who didn’t.
Not surprisingly, the kids with imaginary friends were significantly better storytellers. More surprising is that the kids who were better story tellers didn’t seem to have measurably better verbal, vocabulary or story comprehension skills than the kids with no imaginary friends.
Still, the researchers felt compelled to state that this in no way proved that having an imaginary friend improved story telling skills. Furthermore, they stressed, it was entirely possible that children with better verbal skills invent imaginary friends to give expression to these innate skills.
Possible, but unlikely. According to Nancy Andreasen, the former editor in chief of The American Journal of Psychiatry, and author of The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius, there is still no convincing study that has found a significant link between innate intelligence and creativity. With the materialist bent of contemporary cognitive science, however, it’s probably hard to get funding for a scientific study that attempts to prove that there may never be any quantifiable neuropsychological explanation for why some people are more imaginative than others. Ergo, the ritualistic genuflection of the aforementioned researchers.
But if we were allowed to play with a hypothesis, that there is no innate difference in language abilities between children who imagine beings into their lives and children who don’t, this would yield at least two interesting questions. First, what would then drive a kid to unconsciously invent an imaginary friend? Second, if we were to consciously set up the circumstances that would encourage the invention of imaginary friends, would this improve a child’s story telling and writing skills?
Long before the invention of writing, our world has had daemons, though most of us accept them as conceptual, not actual creatures. In Greek mythology Zeus transformed the inhabitants of the Golden Age into daemons and sent them into the world to protect and serve mortals. Socrates relied regularly on his daemon, a voice he said warned him about mistakes but never told him what to do.
According to the psychotherapist Thomas Moore, daemons were understood by the Greeks, who prized reason above all things, as those instructive irrational drives that served reason in ways we might not understand at first. Moore makes a compelling point about the differences between the classical Greek education, with its myths and archetypes, and the rigid, scientific practicality of our own.
“Today, we have surrendered to a view of the human being as a mechanical being ruled by a brain, and we see education as instilling skills and facts with the purpose of having a successful career and making as much money as possible. We ignore the education of the heart and the revelation of a deep power and direction within the person. As the Greeks understood, society fails in such a condition. Not only the individual, but the community, too, needs the force of the daimonic to deal with the challenges life continually presents.”
Pullman, a vocal and committed atheist, has an interesting take on how we might allow and cultivate all the best powers of the imagination, without sacrificing our scientific rigor. Near the end of The Golden Compass, Lyra reads the book of Genesis with her father.
“It en’t true, is it?” she asks. No, her father admits, not in the way we usualy understand truth. But he suggests she think of the story as “an imaginary number, like the square root of minus one.” Even if that truth isn’t a concrete entity, you can use it to calculate “all manner of things that couldn’t be imagined without it.”