Monday, August 1, 2005

Mourning Dumbledore

Last night, my daughter and I mourned Albus Dumbledore. Perhaps there aren't many out there in Blogland who would understand, but that's all right. I was, in fact, watching for this moment.

The kid has been reading the new Potter tome for a week, and as she neared the climactic chapter in which the old Professor is killed, I kept an eye on her. Maybe it's necessary to have a certain feel for literature that others might think rather abnormal or excessive. I recalled my first experience with Dostoyevsky, at about the age of 13, when I physically reeled for days from the effect of an encounter with The Brothers Karamazov. But there was no one around who I felt safe to confide in, and I was a boy: you're not supposed to cry, and certainly not about a book.

I felt the same kind of bond forming between my daughter and this other literary universe of J.K. Rowling. If you read the op-ed page in Sunday's New York Times, then you saw evidence that this sort of bond is not at all rare. It is the connection between one reader's inner truth and the beings that flow from a great writer's heart—this connection, I have found, is often where the deepest insights are discovered. As the sage healer of the American Sioux, Black Elk, once said, "Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking." So also is literature.

Thus, my kid cried last night, once she had learned that the gentle headmaster of Hogwarts had been murdered. And so did I.

We mourned him together. She cleared off a bulletin board in her room and began pinning up pictures and drawings (one of them her own, reproduced here); and then we lay down beside this impromptu altar and contemplated an ending. Whether or not we succeeded in finding any meaning to it doesn't matter as much as that we tried.

You can't skip over Death in the raising of kids, or you do so at great risk. Loss can be the most fertile ground for learning, when it is experienced with feeling and modesty. This, of course, was the direction of Maria's literary experience last night, or at least one of them. How well and fully we handle Death reflects how truly we will live. It is not a matter of "getting over it," but rather of stopping to feel both the loss and the pulse of Life that continues in the field of consciousness, beyond the transformation of the body. Why should it make a difference whether the death is of a pet, a family member, or a beloved character in a story about a magical universe populated by wizards?

We live in an age of violent Death, an era of Terror. Can we raise children in a blissful ignorance of it all? No, of course not. A kid Maria's age has already been through 9/11, and is exposed regularly to the news of death and fear that soaks our culture in the same sense of omnipresent dread that the wizarding folk of Rowling's magical realm live beneath. Lord Voldemort is not a stereotypical or superficial bad guy from a book: he is a living presence among us. He is Osama bin Laden and George Bush and Tony Blair and the rulers of Sudan and all the other madmen who live and rule by power and violence.

Fortunately, Professor Dumbledore is also real—more real, I would say, than Lord Voldemort. He lived a life of joy and modesty, trusting in the spark of truth and beauty that lives, however deeply repressed, in every sentient being. His trust was finally violated beyond correction, and he was killed.

But he is not dead—not in the sense that many of us may assume. Nor are any of the victims of the Voldemort-consciousness of our time. I don't think we can afford to make such an assumption, if we are to have any hope of survival. However, if you happen to believe that death is a cold and rigid termination of consciousness; that there is no life beyond the dissolution of the body; then I cannot convince you to believe otherwise. Nor would I wish you to, anyway—belief contains most of the error that leads us into an Age of Terror. But if we are to have any hope of transformation, of a renaissance from the medieval darkness of our current era, then we had better allow our children the opportunity to discover their own truth about Death. Part of that process may involve staying up very late at night sometimes, to feel together the loss of an old and gentle wizard whose life was guided by the strength of Love.


Anonymous said...

I wish you had put the comment "SPOILER AHEAD" infront of your letter to the NY Times


You should have written:
I, like many other parents, I’m sure, have been through this already. ... I wrote about it here.

Comment by Brian Donohue — July 7, 2006 @ 7:33 am

Brian Donohue said...

Merlin's beard, I'm sorry folks. But, well, the book's been out for a year now. The "news" has been all over the media and the web (there's actually a very well-written site called which advances the theory that Snape and Prof. D. arranged this death, kind of the way some are saying about Ken Lay).

But consider this: no one can "spoil" the meaning of the metaphor on you. That's the part of the literary experience that is uniquely yours. I think that feeling a personal meaning of what a horcrux is, for example, is much more significant than knowing who died or how it will all end. Who looks back at you in the Mirror of Erised from your own life? What do you find in your own Pensieve? Where do you discover your "room of requirement?" These are the questions we need to answer in our encounter with art of this sort.

Kazaam said...

Dumbledore is not dead and Harry will not me optimistic or just someone who does not want to face te hard facts of life...Life as a fantasy is much better that the mayhem and chaos and lies of this world, where everybody wants to kills each other in the name of religion or some other bullshit reason.