Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Why Harry Potter Matters, Now

In case you've been under a rock recently, the publishing industry is gearing up for the biggest day in its history since Gutenberg made his little contraption.

So what's the big hairy deal? Why would millions of people around the world stand in line outside bookshops this Friday, a little before midnight, to buy a book? Why have amazon and B&N sold some 2 million copies of this thing before the release date? Why is the author of a pack of children's books a billionaire, and how has she incited the Jesus hate-club to burn, ban, and brutalize these stories? WTF is going on here?

As it has been in the long history of literature, since a blind poet wandered around Greece singing about another pointless war in the Mideast and the general insanity of men in groups, it is all about a single artist holding up a clear, bright mirror to the demonic face of human institutional ego.

This is the point: Cornelius Fudge and Dolores Jane Umbridge are in Washington and London and Baghdad and Cairo and Moscow—they are all around us, even within us in some shape or degree. Lucius Malfoy sits in the CEO's office of most American multinational corporations. Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters are in Darfur, where they call themselves the Janjaweed; they have been in Rwanda and also passed through Fallujah and Haditha. Rita Skeeter sits in a FOX News studio, spewing lies and hatred against anyone who calls down this ruling evil and its cult of death. And again, each of these people and groups also lives within us, in the darkness of suspicion, racism, and fear.

Fortunately, we can also look around and within ourselves to find Professor Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Minerva McGonnigal, Professor Lupin, or Rubeus Hagrid. If you work in the media, Dumbledore is a honey-voiced, steely-eyed Texan named Moyers; if you follow politics, Lupin is a former vice-president from Tennessee; if you're a blogger like me, you know that McGonnigal is a gentle but fearlessly inquisitive and often uncompromising beauty named Huffington. Every one of these characters is also alive within you, if you can scrape away the distortions left by the others, which are mistakenly called "evil."

This leads to another point that I think Rowling makes very well in her fiction: there is no such thing as evil. There is excess, there is the malignant warping of inner truth and original nature; but there is no evil. To call a thing or a person evil is to give it a power that it does not, and never will have.

It is, I admit, a difficult lesson to digest in this era of global tyranny, government corruption, religious pedophilia, and the foul self-indulgence and arrogance of wealth.

In the latest movie, based on the fifth book, there is a living example of this lesson. Dumbledore's confrontation with Voldemort at the end of this story is their only personal encounter. Well, how does Dumbledore meet this symbol of Evil, who is there to kill and bring down everything in the world that Dumbledore is defending? Does he call him "despot," "tyrant," "Islamic fundamentalist extremist," or "Satan"?

Nope, he calls him Tom—the man's original name, the one he has had since boyhood. In other words, Dumbledore refuses to play the power game: he will not add to the energy that Voldemort has already stolen from others. He doesn't drop his weapon, mind you, or offer his antagonist therapy or sympathy (Karl Rove's complaint against liberals); but he will not aggrandize him with Evil or any of its epithets. In the worlds of art or geopolitics, it just doesn't get better than that.

So there is more than the economy of an often-faltering industry at stake in this event, the end of the Potteriad: there is also the message of the story itself, which is a frontal assault on the modern state and its tendency to transfigure men and women into sheep—principally through the use of media slaves. If 7 continues in this vein, we can expect to see more fictional portraits of Bush, Blair, Rove, and their bought media (for a more detailed study of that, check out my article Harry Potter and the State).

People in our culture tend to consume literature the way they eat: we are very much a literary "fast food nation," to borrow Mr. Schlosser's metaphor. Healthy societies, from Homer's Greece to Lao Tzu's China to Virgil's Rome to Thoreau's America, have done better.

We have heard that the way to judge the quality of a nation is to examine the way it treats its poor/its children/its animals; I would add that we could also look at how it reads. In our era of the 30-second sound bite and the Sunday morning television liar's brunch, we are in desperate need of improving our ability to communicate overall, and that includes our ability to read. Harry Potter is a good place to start because the books are substantive in metaphor, generally well written, and of course massively popular. Reading literature to penetrate appearances and inspire honest, open debate is exactly the sort of activity that Al Gore recommends in his new book: it is very much a democratic practice. And as Professor Dumbledore would remind us, democracy, when it truly happens, is a greater magic than anything we do at Hogwarts.

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