See No Evil…

While attending a conference a few months back, I became engaged in a fascinating conversation about Harry Potter with Dr. John Hare (of Yale Divinity School).  Though we both enthused about aspects of the saga, one point on which we were a bit at odds was whether or not there is a Manichean strain in the novels that one should be concerned about—he taking the affirmative and I the negative* (and I want to note that he was not lapsing into the “magic in HP is bad” tirade).  After pressing me on these matters that are a bit outside of my element (seeing as I’m not theologically trained, so please jump in to correct anything Travis, Revgeorge, Danielle, others…), I promised that I would re-read the novels with this concern in mind.  I did so, and I’m still not persuaded that there is any Manichaeism at work.

*[Note added: Just to clarify, he was not necessarily holding this interpretation, but noting that some might do so.  I thank him very much for triggering me to revisit the texts in a new way.] 


Maybe Manichean?

Here is a concise encyclopedia description of Manichaeism (but check out the long Wikipedia entry for fuller discussion and references):

“To account for the existence of evil in a world created by God, Mani posited a primal struggle in which the forces of Satan separated from God; humanity, composed of matter, that which belongs to Satan, but infused with a modicum of godly light, was a product of this struggle, and was a paradigm of the eternal war between the forces of light and those of darkness. . . . Light and dark were seen to be commingled in our present age as good and evil, but in the last days each would return to its proper, separate realm, as they were in the beginning. The Christian notion of the Fall and of personal sin was repugnant to the Manichees; they felt that the soul suffered not from a weak and corrupt will but from contact with matter. Evil was a physical, not a moral, thing; a person’s misfortunes were miseries, not sins” (emphasis mine).

The possible concern raised by Dr. Hare focused on the existence of evil objects and their ability to infuse evil in those around them (e.g., certain books, horcruxes), which he seemed to think could reflect [or be interpreted as reflecting] the materiality of evil as a force in the world.  I can see why one might think so; after all, certain kinds of books are kept away from students in the Restricted Section of the Hogwarts library and the locket horcrux negatively affected those who wore it. 

Choice and Knowledge

However, I think there is another, non-Manichean way of understanding these objects.  First, the horcruxes.  The effects of the locket horcrux on its wearers—especially Ron in Ch. 19 of Deathly Hallows—can be accounted for by the fact that horcruxes are extensions of parts of Voldemort’s soul.  As such, a shred of Voldemort (who chose to be evil) calls out to tempt an already jealous and insecure Ron.  Ron ultimately chooses to resist the temptation, and in so doing he symbolically destroys the locket horcrux and conquers his “inner demons.”  Evil is thus moral, not physical.

Second, the books.  Though a large black and silver book in the Restricted Section let out a “piercing, bloodcurdling shriek” when Harry removed it from a shelf (in Ch. 12 of Sorcerer’s Stone), these forbidding volumes are symbolic of the evil knowledge contained within them rather than being literal oozers of evil waiting to take possession of unwary readers.  We encounter in several places warnings about “knowledge that should not be sought.”  This is why Hogwarts has a course on Defense Against the Dark Arts, but not one on the Dark Arts.  We can see this most sharply in Slughorn’s memory (in Dumbledore’s pensieve) of Tom Riddle’s wheedling information about horcruxes out of him (in Ch. 23 of Half-Blood Prince).  Not only does Slughorn say to Riddle “with your uncanny ability to know things you shouldn’t . . . ,” he also gets his back up when Riddle presses him on how one encases one’s split soul in an object after murdering someone: “There is a spell, do not ask me, I don’t know! . . . Do I look as though I have tried it—do I look like a killer?”   How clever to represent evil in such vividly imaginative ways.  But we need to distinguish carefully representation or symbolism from literal belief.  It seems pretty clear to me—and it has been argued forcefully on this site in a number of places—that Rowling emphasizes the role of choice in becoming who we are.

Managing Mischief and Verging on Censorship?

The implication here is that one would only seek such Dark Knowledge if one was bent on evil purposes, and so there is some knowledge that no one ought to have access to.  Knowledge-seeking Hermione does not like the sound of that!  After all, isn’t knowledge a value to be sought?  (Or is it wisdom rather than knowledge that we are to seek, and what precisely is the difference?  Dr. Frankenstein learned his answers the hard way.)  Aristotle notes in Nicomachean Ethics that there are some actions and feelings that “automatically include baseness,” such as “spite, shamelessness, and adultery, theft, murder” (Bk. II, ch. 6); and he even goes so far in his Metaphysics to say “there are also some things it is better not to see than to see” (Bk. XII, ch. 9).  Perhaps certain feelings, actions, or even knowledge can be so evil as to be severely managed or even banned.  (Perhaps knowledge of creating atomic weapons or of how to torture an innocent person, for example?)

And a large issue that Rowling grapples with in relation to this non-Manichean vision of good and evil is, given the fact that some will choose evil and seek out the knowledge-that-ought-not-be-sought, the very best of the very good will need to know enough about evil—despite the extreme risks—to combat the bad guys and steer others clear of bad stuff.  Few are up to the task.  We have good-hearted Harry who can conquer Voldemort.  We have noble Sherlock Holmes who strives to out-maneuver sinister Moriarty.  There are others in the pages of heroic literature, and hopefully some in real life.

So do you think there is some knowledge we should never seek?  And what should we do about it?

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Around the Common Room 5 August 2011

korg20000BC had a great idea the other day; at least I thought so. I’ve always tried to come up with a different name for each post of miscellaneous stuff I post up, but it’s simpler and probably more efficient to just call it all Around the Common Room. :)

In some really great news for Harry Potter literary nerds and geeks, Harry Potter for Nerds: Essays for Fans, Academics, and Lit Geeks by Travis Prinzi, Pub proprietor, is now out and available for purchase!!

From the Amazon product description: ‘Harry Potter for Nerds’ is a collection of the most exciting ideas from twelve Hogwarts Professors about the world’s best selling books. Travis Prinzi, author of ‘Harry Potter and Imagination’ and webmaster at The Hog’s Head, has tapped his Potter Pundit friends in Fandom and at better universities around the country for their insights about the literary magic of the seven novels, from their ring composition to the symbolism of the planets, from the Dante, Spencer, and MacDonald echoes to exploration of the meanings of magic and technology. Profound and far-reaching as these ideas are, the essays are all written in accessible style and tone. Serious readers of Harry Potter will delight in the conversation each chapter offers with another lover of the Hogwarts Saga and its greater depths.

Sounds like a great book for the Harry Potter nerd in your life, even if that nerd is you! ;)

In movie news, the Deathly Hallows 2 movie has been rocking the box office. It was the fastest to reach $900 million dollars, doing it in 15 days as opposed to Avatar’s 18 days. Here’s a more complete story on it. H/T to R.Ross for sending me a link to this. Deathly Hallows 2 also passed the $1 billion dollar mark for worldwide box office, beating Transformers: Dark of the Moon to that mark and also tying Avatar’s mark at being fastest to $1 billion at 19 days. For more details, see here.

Two other movies recently out, which might be of interest to our patrons, are Cowboys and Aliens and Captain America. I won’t say much about them as I haven’t seen them and don’t plan to, but here’s a review on Cowboys and Aliens and here is one on Captain America. As with all reviews, beware of spoilers. Feel free to share your thoughts on either movie.

I started reading Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen the other day, so I thought I would share a link to something related to Austen. This posting can be summarized as “the healing power of Jane Austen,” entitled The Great Escape of Jane Austen by Vera Nazarian. The author touches on many themes which we’ve also covered here at the Pub. It’s a nice Friday read.

And finally for a Friday funny, here is David Copperfield vs Harry Potter. Enjoy!

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Moving Pictures*

Almost everyone has them, whether in your wallet or safely tucked away at home.  I’m referring to pictures.  We take them, treasure them, show them, longingly look at them, tell the stories behind them—and yet are more often than not dissatisfied with them.  Why don’t we ever look like our pictures (especially our driver’s license photo, which could often be mistaken for a mug shot)?  How come when we go to put a picture of our favorite person in a special frame, it’s not easy to select the one that looks like the person, I mean really looks like him.  And none of them ever quite does….

The reason is that people are dynamic, and a flat, two-dimensional, piece of paper snapshot ripped out of a narrative context cannot capture the essence of the person.  Not even the blandest among us can be thus reduced.  At best, the photo can trigger a dynamic memory of, say, merry eyes and laughing smile as little Amy darted after the new puppy with her hair streaking behind her and the afternoon sun on her face.

But not even these triggered memories where we can contextualize the snapshot with a narrative can tell the whole, true tale.  As C. S. Lewis noted so poignantly in A Grief Observed, “The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her.  And you want her to; you want her with all her resistances, all her faults, all her unexpectedness.  That is, in her foursquare and independent reality.”  How we ache to hold the reality of the person in her absence, whether it’s a city block or an ocean or mortality that separates us.

What an exceptionally powerful and moving gift, then, that Rowling has given us with her creation of “moving pictures.”  Of course we now have movies, camcorders, and any number of increasingly small devices for recording human action, but they often capture either self-conscious people who cannot relax enough to be themselves or those who act up and ham it up for the camera.  Whether the moving pictures in the Harry Potter novels are on chocolate frog trading cards, in newspapers, or in family photo albums, they seem to be able to capture and reflect the genuine essence of the person—for good or ill.  Many of us likely choked up and had tears in our eyes when Hagrid gave Harry at the end of his first year at Hogwarts “a handsome, leather-covered book . . . full of wizard photographs.  Smiling and waving at him from every page were his mother and father.” 

To be able to have a more vivid sense of connection with those we love in their absence, even after death, is a gift so many would want, though may not have thought to imagine.  Do you have a favorite “moving picture” in any of the Harry Potter novels and/or films?  What do the moving pictures/images mean to you?  Would you want moving pictures like those in the Wizarding World?  Or do you think that—like the Mirror of Erised—they would be a double-edged sword?

*Thanks to my Art Historian colleague and friend Adrienne Baxter Bell for sparking my interest in this topic.  (And the title alludes to my favorite album by my favorite band, whose very literal album cover has nothing at all to do with this post–unless you can figure otherwise.)

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