Who Does This?
Sunday, July 22, 2007
THE INNER LIFE OF VERUCA SALT: This is a post about the Harry Potter series and genre. It isn't especially spoilery for the final book, but yeah, I've read it and that'll show in this post. So if you're avoiding specific spoilers, you should be able to read this post, though not the intensely spoilerific one below. If you're avoiding even very general spoilers, oh for pity's sake close the window now!
One of the most confusing things for me about the Harry Potter series has been the way it doesn't cross genres--it just switches. A genre-cross is easy to identify. Take the Veronica Mars tv series. It's noir crossed with teen drama. So okay, once you buy the basic premise that a teenager would ever be an effective p.i., the world (...mostly) works. The world can be judged on consistent standards based on how well the noir and teen-scene elements combine.
The Harry Potter world can't be judged that way--at least not in books two through five. Book one is a classic genre cross: quest fantasy plus school story. It ends with the bad guys defeated and a big feast!
After that, things start getting weird. I mean, imagine if Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were written as if you were supposed to feel genuine pity for Violet Beauregarde, who didn't know what she was doing and had never been taught better, but Augustus Gloop was still a hilarious cartoon character! It would be disorienting, I think, that moral switchback. (I should note that I have absolutely nothing against cartoon-fantasy, and think it can be awesome--I picked Roald Dahl for its exemplar because I love his stuff--but if you try to import or half-import its assumptions into realist-fantasy you end up with something really creepy.)
That's how the middle Potter books feel to me. Dudley Dursley's pig tail isn't so funny once Muggle-baiting is introduced as a real problem; it starts to be harder to discern which people's pain we need to take seriously as readers. It starts seeming like good people's pain is important but bad people's is not.
And that's... a little too realistic, you know? Because we always have such an easy time, anyway, only believing in the pain of people we already like, and dismissing or excusing the pain of people we don't.
I was initially convinced that book seven had finally become an entirely realist-fantasy book, rather than a cartoon-fantasy one: a book in which everyone's pain matters. After finishing it, I'm no longer convinced of that, though I do think it was trying to be that, and the series was trying to move from cartoony to realist-fantasy.
HALO MADE OF SNAKE: This is the really spoilery Deathly Hallows post. If you don't want that, close this window, because this post is more spoilt than year-old milk.
I've had a couple hours now to think about the thing, and trawl about the vast Intertubes looking at others' thoughts. And I'm still about as ambivalent as I was when I finished the thing. The parts of this post where I talk about what I didn't like are longer because I think they need more explaining, not because they took up the bulk of the book. So this will be two excellent things, one awful thing, and one medium-sized irritation. There were other great moments (the Ravenclaw pass-question!) and other more minor problems, but these are the ones that leaped out at me.
ZOMG so awesome: The friendships. This is the first book since Harry Potter and the Stop Condescending to Americans Stone where I really liked watching Harry, Ron, and Hermione interact. Even when they were fighting, I got the reasons and was willing to watch the fallout. I think the two moments where my hands made embarrassing involuntary-pompoms were the conversation between Harry and Ron after the silver doe/sword episode, and... heh, I can't even remember, but I know it was one of the later moments with these three, e.g. "Are you a wizard or what?" Oh, or maybe Hermione killing the cup!
And although I have a medium-sized problem with the Snape/Lily thing--see below--I loved, loved, loved that they were best friends, and that their friendship felt real. It wasn't solely romance for him; it was some unfortunate combination of eros, projection, philia, and need (as much his need to love as to be loved, I think), and... yeah.
I'll also say that the image that gave this post its title is amazing. Like the Gryffindor hourglass spilling its rubies, it's an image I'll remember.
Sitting in her U-bend, thinking about death: I'm pretty sure I love the deathiness, and the emphasis on acceptance of death. This was Rowling's main theme, and I love her for making this her theme, seriously. I don't agree with all of her ethics, but the big non-negotiables here are that death must be faced, death is real, death is not the very last thing, and death is not the worst thing that can happen. All of that is three thousand percent true, and I'm so, so glad a popular author is saying it, no joke.
Yeah, but I really can't get past: Who would Jesus torture?
Yeah. I really, absolutely can't get past the fact that our possible Jesus-figure and, if nothing else, hero uses all but one of the Unforgivable Curses. And... rargh. Let me try to untangle my problems with this storyline.
Thing One: "Unforgivable." I don't think a Christian can throw this word around lightly. You put this word out there and you're already setting off all my theological Sneakoscopes.
But having thrown in this word, if you later show Unforgivable Curses being tossed around in a way that's glamorized ("That was very gallant of you," or whatever McGonagall's creepy line is), made to seem both righteous and cool, I think it has to be because you've decided to delve more deeply into what is really unforgivable, why these curses are called that, etc. Instead, it just seems like the curses are unforgivable when they're used for bad reasons--the acts of mind-control, torture, and killing are neutral in themselves.
Thing Two: The rise and fall and rise of the Dark Arts. I never bought that destroying someone's memories was somehow more forgivable than controlling their actions, or even torturing them. I would at least hope that I would go through a lot of physical pain to keep my memories of those who are important to me. I don't get the hierarchy here at all, and it creeped the flesh offa me that Hermione stole her own parents' memories, did an end run around their free will, and... got absolutely no textual or subtextual hints that this was wrong to do.
Thing Three: So, Harry Potter can cast the mind-control curse and the torture curse, and still gets told by Dumbledore (and everyone else, Lord how I tired of this!) what a wonderful and selfless person he is?
This isn't the complex morality of wartime. This is easy "it's okay when our side does it."
I feel for you, you little horror: Also, I find it weird and unsatisfying that Rowling is clearly drawn to the conversion narrative--in this book alone, we get more on Regulus, Snape, and Dumbledore himself--but has such a hard time conveying the actual reasons behind or process of conversion.
Am I wrong about this? Am I missing stuff? This is the place where I most worry that my overidentification with characters is getting in the way of my lit-crit.
But for me... I find it bizarre that we get no hint of what made Regulus switch sides. Did he find that he lacked the stomach for it, like Draco? Did he decide it was wrong (which is a different thing), and if so, why? Did he decide Voldemort's success would ultimately damage the pureblood world he loved?? We just don't know. (And I loved Kreacher's tale a lot, but the disadvantage of getting the story that way is that Regulus remains opaque.) I think we got a bit more on Dumbledore--he woke up to the fact that he was neglecting his responsibilities, and I think we can assume that his family tragedy moved him from "for the greater good" to that Koestler line about two and two not adding up to four when the numerals are human lives. It's still a bit odd that his change of heart is so offscreen, but okay.
And then, of course, Snape. We see his friendship with Lily, his love shading into romance, and her disagreement with his friends' political allegiances. In other words, we see the "no duh, huh?" stuff.
What we don't see is why he chose those friends, nor to what extent he adopted their views. We don't see anything, other than raw romantic love, that pushed him into Dumbledore's service--not even a moment of realizing that if it wasn't Lily's child it might have been someone else's, and feeling empathy.
And this is pretty much the only interesting question, to me: Why does someone reject his family, his friends, his community, to take on new commitments and a new belief system?
If the answer is "romantic love and nothing else," that's unrealistic. I know that my own views have changed or shifted on a lot of things due in part to romance. (Not, mostly, my religion--despite the way I tend to talk about it!) But the process was always more like, romance--> taking the beloved's views seriously for once--> thinking about them --> either adopting them or (most often) becoming more sympathetic to them while still holding some variant of the views I held before. I know we're all supposed to think that no one ever thinks in this country anymore, that we all just emote at one another, but I'm fairly sure that if you get three intelligent people who undergo major shifts in philosophy, one of them should have something interesting to say about it.
And, maybe more important than the preceding paragraph of rampant overidentification, there's this: If romantic love is what propels political/ethical conversion, we are well and truly screwed. It's hopeless. Don't try persuading them. This is the After Virtue argument gone feral: We lack shared premises, so reason is doomed, and all we can do is shove beautiful potential victims in potential victimizers' faces until they realize just how wrong they are.
(That's worked so well for women, amirite?)
So... it isn't that I needed Snape to discourse on the imago Dei. It isn't that I needed Regulus to delineate the foundations of human rights. It's that I needed somebody to say something about how you come to know that what you're doing--what you're deeply enmeshed in--is wrong, and how you change.
And while we're here: Blah blah blah did the magical mechanics make no sense or is it just me? and also Narcissa saved his life! -cakes.
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