Friday, December 29, 2006

Facing the "Deathly Hallows"

Our banner quote author for this week is no doubt familiar to many of you, whether by experience or reputation. She has been featured in this space before, and perhaps will be again. Her latest book, we learned last week, is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and is the last in that series of epoch-making stories.

Some 16 years ago, J.K. Rowling was visited by a stream of realization that happens every so often with creative artists in particular, and even sometimes to ordinary people like me and you. During a train ride from Manchester to London, which I suppose takes a few hours to complete, the entire universe in which her Harry Potter stories unfolds was revealed to her, and at a time when she didn't have a pen to write it all down with. I think she understood what had happened, and that the sole credit she deserved for having received this visitation of consciousness is that she had made herself ready.

This, indeed, is how all true magic occurs: we prepare ourselves in humility and receptivity, and that draws the creative energy of achievement toward and through us. This is the sum and substance, I think, of the teaching that is delivered through the character of Professor Dumbledore, who is the speaker of the lines in our banner quote (they are, of course, from his closing address to the students in Goblet of Fire, after the murder of Cedric Diggory in the graveyard).

Dumbledore is an iconic figure of sagacity and good humor: he lives in and from the center of his being, and is rarely drawn out of that core. Thus, he is a natural leader. He is also something of a radical, as is revealed in the fifth and sixth books, in which he is increasingly ostracized from the government, the educational system, and finally from society at large. With his death near the end of Book Six, it appears as if Hogwarts and the world at large have been engulfed in darkness; that we are now entering a place of "deathly hallows," where the fundamentalist delusion (represented by Lord Voldemort) has been transmogrified from the dominant into the sacred.

It is very much like what the various doctrines of religion and nationalistic pride have done to our world today. The Voldemort ideology of division and hatred, cloaked in the gleaming shroud of nationalism and piety, has been the signature, the hallmark of the Bush administration and its lapdog neocon Congress. Now this observation has caused a few readers of my own work to suggest that I am against religion. This is not quite true, and in fact derives from the same tendency to see everything in bipolar shades as characterizes fundamentalism itself.

To be against something, after all, is rather a waste of energy. Everyone has a right to his delusion, as long as it is a private one. But once you become a leader, you incur a cosmic responsibility to abandon your delusions, to expose them to the light of common sense. This goes especially for the most pervasive and potentially destructive beliefs, those of religion and patriotism.

As I mention in my discussion of Lord Voldemort in Tao of Hogwarts, there are moments in a person's life where religion might serve a developmental purpose. If being a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist works for you--if it guides your life forward today--then be grateful for it and remain with it. But also hold the awareness that tomorrow, next week, or next year, there will be something new and fresh to lead you, and the time will come to leave the old belief behind you. Once, however, you concretize the doctrine into an eternal truth which will admit no examination, no questioning, no revision or expansion, then you have strangled the breath out of the belief, and it is now dead--you might say it has become a "deathly hallow."

In the character of Dumbledore, we hear the teaching that destiny is made not by an external God or by powerful armies of occupation, but by individual choice. As you choose, so will you be led. It is therefore no random coincidence that, at a time when our ability to choose is being severely restricted by the Lord Voldemort forces of fundamentalist belief, these stories of wizards and magic have struck such a deeply resonant chord within people all over the world. At the end of a long train ride 16 years ago, Ms. Rowling made that choice, and shared it.

The measure of her success in that decision is not merely that it made her into a billionaire, though that does indeed count for something. Her success may more surely be discovered in what the world gained in understanding and growth from her work.

Growth, after all, is not an automatic process; it is a function of choice. Where the heart sets its aim, the mind will follow. This is not a point of doctrine; it is a principle of self-direction, as intimate and inimitable as each person who makes the choice. This, as Professor Dumbledore teaches, is how true unity is achieved.

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