Thursday, July 26, 2007

Harry Potter, inter alia. May contain spoilers.

So, I'm back after extended interweb technical issues, and should be online constantly now. Woo-hoo! I have got my myspace up and running, and have read Harry Potter number seven. I can't say I was blown away, but it certainly got me thinking. Look away now if you don't want to know what happens...

Harry's sacrifice

Harry reconciles himself to death for love: for the love of individuals, certainly, but in their place as members of the human race. His job is to do no less than sacrifice himself - his life - to save the human race. The distinction here is between a faction which accepts the equal value of every human life - wizards, Muggles, and to an extent elves and giants - over the followers of Voldemort, the Death Eaters, who have chosen to be nourished by death (aka authoritarian power) over love (aka paternalistic authoritarianism). But who is in charge in the world Harry sacrifices himself for (he does not yet know that he will in fact survive)? In one sense Harry has won a victory which will allow Muggles born with magical powers to participate in the magical world, and to protect the remainder from unsolicited magic. It is a victory for the status quo; a very conservative cosmos.

A conservative cosmos

What first struck me was, when Harry and Hermione are frantically on the run around rural Britain, living outside mainstream society in both the magical and muggle worlds, Hermione dons pyjamas to go to sleep in. It struck me that Philip Pullman's Lyra would never waste time or resources on such homely comfords when she was on her perilous epic voyage. And from there the prfound conservatism of Rowling's worldview unfolded as I read. That Christianity is never discussed in terms of the series' cosmology, but the carols ringing out from the church as an assumed part of the normality of Christmas eve in the wizardly village where Harry was an infant seems to offer an extraordinarily Anglican view of the role of churchgoing in the moral lives of Potter's Britain. Churchgoing is a tradition which rumbles on, yet offers no dialogue with the battle for the moral souls of the wizarding world. We are told that this is a village largely populated by wizards. Had it been a Muggle village, we might have identified some interesting commentary on the relationship between Muggle and wizard cosmology. But this is a church full of wizards, and the lack of further comment is very puzzling.

That Harry's world is one embedded in Judaeo-Christian moral absolutes, not to mention a ringing endorsement of social conservatism has been noticed by a Catholic journalist, Leonie Caldecott, who in an article for Touchstone, Paradise Denied,
defends Rowling against her Christian detractors, emphasising how far her cosmology reinforces that of Christianity. She contrasts the cosmology of Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, arguing that it represents an aggressive attack against childhood. Pullman, she claims is, by offering up, in the shape of a fairy tale, a story which has adopted a Neoplatinist dualism, but opted to see the material, rather than the spiritual, half of the cosmos as the one of greatest experiential significance, he has endangered the spiritual education of the hundreds of thousands of young people who have devoured his books: "Young people, of all faiths and none, who contemplated the fragility of life after September 11th, require all possible spiritual resources to face the future." (It is only fair to point out that Caldecott wrote her article after only five Harry Potter books; I think she was quite prescient about the final pair, and am entirely unconvinced that they would have altered her line of argument.)

It would be easy to be put off by her Catholic viewpoint. However, I think she makes some very good points if her agenda is taken into account. One cannot help but be reminded of Richard Dawkins' "viruses of the mind" thesis (now presented most fully in his ludicrous "The God Delusion.") I suspect if he weren't so blinkered he could enjoy a lively conversation with Caldecott, for she is surely claiming a similar role for the role of myth in childhood. What is striking is that both Dawkins and Caldecott seem terrified of the consequences of children having access to the wrong kind of ideas, although of course they would differ massively on what the right kind of ideas are. What is extraordinary is that neither pauses to wonder that we got to here with children having had access to the 'wrong' kinds of stories for millenia. Caldecott has the excuse that her religious beliefs are her strongest priority. For Dawkins, yet again, venturing onto ground about which the social sciences have a great deal of intelligence and insight to say, his failure to take them serious as disciplines (notwithstanding the quality of some individual exponents, and I could say as much about biology or any other discipline) means that there remains a huge unfilled space in his thought which renders much of his published thought risible.


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