Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Deconstructing Harry

In the film Adaptation, Charlie Kaufmann's fictional alter-ego jokingly suggests to his also fictional twin brother that the serial killer in the brother's screenplay should cut off pieces of his victims' bodies until they die, and that he could call himself "The Deconstructionist." If you haven't seen the film that probably doesn't make much sense, but it was the first image that came to mind when I happened upon this literary deconstruction of the Harry Potter series over the long weekend. The author of this little treatise has done an enormous amount of work going through just about everything that could possibly be linked to certain aspects of the novels, and while a number of these associations seem like pretty unbelievable stretches to me the piece still makes for some interesting reading.

The most glaring misconception of the whole thing, to my way of thinking, is in treating the Harry Potter series like serious literature in the first place. As one critic commented, the series is essentially "Tom Clancy for kids," a collection of adventure stories that are mostly plot-driven and involve navigating the main characters through a long series of extreme events interspersed with shallow character development and a bit of comic relief. It strikes me as profoundly unlikely that much thought went into the possible deeper interpretations of the book as it was being written aside laying out the basic plot and integrating various concepts from Western esotericism without much understanding of what they imply. Still, literary criticism does not end with the author's intent, and it may be that a plot-heavy saga like the Potter series actually absorbs more from the surrounding culture than a more intricate and introspective work might.

Our would-be Deconstructionist begins with a Preface that sets the foundation for the literary criticism that is to follow. The basic premise seems to be that the fundamental problem he or she will be examining is that while the Potter series is a work of fantasy it preserves much of what is wrong with the real world and simply "amplifies" those problems by infusing them with the device of magick. My take on this is a little different - in essence, it sounds to me like the criticism here is that the series is not escapist or utopian enough. But is escapism really such a good thing? One point that I think the Potter series does make well is that by itself magick doesn't necessarily fix anything, and if it's used in the wrong way it can make things a whole lot worse.

In CHAPTER ONE – Psychology and Injustice, the author puts forth the thesis that the character of Harry Potter displays many symptoms of what in the real world might be called mental illness. For me this is a real non-starter in that the same criticisms could be applied to just about any action hero. Harry is narcissistic - but the whole plot really does revolve around him. Harry has a tendency to resort to violence - but look at most action stories and you will find a hero who does the same. Furthermore, a number of the examples of this that the author uses involve children of Junior High School age, and let me tell you, I was on the receiving end of plenty of violence at that age and so were most of my nerdy friends. In a lot of cases that really is how kids are. It is true that anyone who believes all the things found in the wizarding world to be real could reasonably be considered schizophrenic, but those things are the reality of the world detailed in the series. In addition, I think that Harry's apparent lack of introspection is due to the plot-heavy style of the books that limit character development rather than some sort of social or political commentary that was either deliberately inserted by Rowling or unintentionally absorbed from the culture around her.

In CHAPTER THREE – Nature and Technology, the author's criticism turns to one of the few things about magick that I think the Potter series gets right. Contrasting the series with the works of Tolkien and Lewis, one of the main differences in the Potter series is that magick is not treated as "natural" and positioned as the enemy of "unnatural" technology. Instead, it goes with the perspective that I consider to be essentially true in the real world - magick is a kind of technology. By limiting the role of consciousness in the casting of spells the Potter series does make a different kind of error, in that spiritual realization has a lot to do with how effective real magick is, but at the same time the division of "natural" and "unnatural" is even more ridiculous. Isn't it true that everything in existence, including both magick and material technology, is a part of nature?

The next chapter, CHAPTER FIVE – Odds and Ends, contain what I consider to be some of the more dubious associations of the whole piece. Tolkien and Lewis are certainly influences on the Potter series, but given the degree to which the series steals from just about every fantasy trope it would be difficult to imagine a similar story which did not. Furthermore, trying to compare Rowling with James Joyce is just plan ridiculous. Granted, a few of the character names are similar between the works of Rowling and Joyce and there also appear to be a few structural similarities, but when you get right down to it the "talent gap" between the two writers is pretty vast, at least from a literary perspective.

In the final section, EPILOGUE, the author notes that whether or not the criticism leveled by this series of articles is correct, it still constitutes a thought-provoking analysis of the series. In this I agree - I wouldn't be responding to it here if I didn't. I furthermore agree that critical thinking is a vital part of childrens' education that is often overlooked in our culture and the lack of it among adults is a real detriment to our society. Where I part company with the author is that I don't necessarily think it to be a problem that a lot of media entertainment doesn't teach those skills. Media, even reading, is to some degree a passive experience and as a student of psychology I have doubts as to whether or not the deepest and most introspective story in the world could really teach such skills. What is necessary for that is to reflect upon the concepts brought up in any piece of entertainment in a dynamic conversation that engages the mind of the reader. Media can't do that, only people can.

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