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Harry and Buffy

October 9, 2013

Last year I wrote a few posts about an assortment of television series, namely those created by Joss Whedon, Russell T. Davies, and Stephen Moffat, which I grouped loosely together under the heading of magical humanist adventure. The main generic characteristics: a focus on the super-human combined with a skeptical approach to any ideal of human perfection; an anti-metaphysical ethics that nevertheless glorifies curiosity; a self-conscious and ironic aesthetic that still achieves occasional moments of seriousness; a constant emphasis on the awkwardness, pain, and guilt that come from interacting with other persons.

Buffy, Firefly, Doctor Who–these examples all come from television. What about books? I want to suggest that the J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has a lot in common with the magical humanist adventure as described in the original post. Go re-read that post with Harry Potter in mind, and almost everything still applies. Unlike 24 (which I argued last year resembles the genre but diverges from it significantly), I want to say that Harry Potter just is a magical humanist adventure.

I’m going to focus, though, on the places where the Potter books diverge from my original description of the genre. I do so because that post isn’t meant to function as a simple checklist. The Potter books don’t just need to get a certain number of points to qualify. Rather, I want to see if the books can fit into a certain framework, and any apparent divergences from the framework described by that list need to be not just noted, but explained.

Super the new normal

Magical humanist adventures are about super-humanity and in-humanity, and the Potter books are no exception. But unlike any of the works I looked at last year, the Potter books take place in a milieu in which everyone is super. To be a major character in the Potterverse normally means that you’re a witch or wizard. Muggles matter not as persons, but as a category. This means, incidentally, that the series is less about racism than about colonialism. Muggles aren’t analogous to minorities who should be integrated into society, they’re analogous to primitive peoples who should be respected but left alone.

Nor does the Potterverse contain liminal figures, like Angel and Spike, or the Doctor, who straddle the line between human and inhuman. There are certainly non-humans, the centaurs, goblins, elves, mermaids, but they’re not “other” in any essential way; they feel more like foreigners than aliens. They’re analogous to oppressed minorities, not to a promise of radical transformation. Significantly, there are half-breeds, like Hagrid and Fleur Delacour, but they’re not main characters, they’re comic relief.

In one sense, this not a change from the Buffy/Who paradigm. On those shows, too, you’re either “in” or “out,” and if you’re “in,” then even if you’re not special at first, you will become special–consider Xander. Or, better, the Companions. But on those shows, the possibility of transformation is always open; one need only be chosen by the Doctor, or become friends with the Slayer. In the Potterverse, you have one chance: to receive a letter on your eleventh birthday. If you don’t, you lose. And the change isn’t really a radical transformation; the world you enter into is basically our our world, just with magical dust sprinkled over it.

When the border between “normal” and “magical” becomes solid, that is, the magic becomes much less magical. The Potterverse does try to offer a sense of boundless curiosity, a chance to explore a enormous, wondrous, dangerous, confusing universe, but in my view it’s not very successful. There is, true, the Forbidden Forest and other such dangerous realms, but magic too often becomes less something you delight in discovering, and more, well, something you learn about in school. That, or something trivial, appropriate for after-school shenanigans, or something bureaucratic, locked in a vault at the Ministry of Magic.

Death and the status quo

The one place the magic still feels magical, like something extraordinary and dangerous, is when it has to do with what it means to be human, not as opposed to the inhuman, but as dealing with personal identity, death, love, the afterlife. There’s an unstated but real divide between this deep magic and the trivial magic that dominates most of the books. Magic itself becomes ordinary; death-magic, love-magic, remain extraordinary. The effect, I think, is to separate “special” from “super,” from the ability to explore the world and shape it as one sees fit. Harry Potter isn’t special because, like Buffy, he’s fated to be a great warrior, or, like the Doctor, because he can travel throughout time and space. He’s special because his mother loved him and because evil tried to kill him.

This separation of “special” and “super” has consequences. In the magical humanist adventure as originally described, curiosity was a cardinal virtue indicating a healthy desire to enter more fully into the human condition, even if that curiosity sometimes perverted itself into a flight from the human condition. A quest for perfection, especially a quest for immortality, was always portrayed as sympathetic, even if dangerous (because death must be accepted as a part of what it means to be human).

The Potter books follow this pattern to an extent; they portray the young Tom Riddle as a sympathetic character, and make us enter into Harry’s desire for his parents to be returned to him. But because they make the extraordinary appear fairly innocuous except for self-, love-, and death-magic, they draw a much starker line between good, or rather “acceptable,” and bad, “unforgivable,” curiosity. There are lists, drawn up by the magical bureaucracy, detailing what magic is allowed and what is forbidden, and while the specific rules are sometimes questioned, the questioning feels more like adolescent pushing-the-limits than philosophical opposition a la the libertarianism of Buffy or Doctor Who.

The differences here shouldn’t be exaggerated. All of the works in question here, including Harry Potter, see perfection as an impossible dream, and the quest for it as potentially dangerous. But in Buffy and Doctor Who that danger is linked to a fruitful tension, an exploration of what it means to be human given the power we have to explore and transform our very being. In Harry Potter, on the other hand, that tension is present but unexplored, because the question “why can’t immortality be good?” cannot be asked; it has already been answered by the mere fact that death is the status quo. Or, rather, Harry Potter has an answer, but in the light of the other works considered here it can appear unsatisfying. All of them connect a desire to escape death with a refusal of love, altruism, sacrifice, but Buffy and Doctor Who consider the possibility of an altruistic immortal (and so of the connection between love and selfishness) in a way Harry Potter does not.

Irony and coherence

The Potter books minimize the importance of liminality, of straddling the line between human and inhuman. We should, I’d say, connect this minimization with the strikingly different approach the Potter books take to humor, compared especially to Buffy.

What is that difference? In Buffy, humor isn’t opposed to seriousness, rather humor is the appropriate response to the confusing nature of the world–is it comic or tragic?–and the self-seriousness of evil, which is to be mocked, not because it’s easily defeated, but because part of why it’s evil is that it takes itself too seriously. Buffy mocks her enemies even while knowing they could very well kill her, but I find it difficult to imagine Harry doing the same. The humor in the Potter books is much less serious, more whimsical.

Yet the denial of seriousness is not entirely foreign to the Potter books, it just takes on a slightly different valence. For example, Harry does reject Voldemort’s pretensions, refusing to call him “he who must not be named.” It’s just not made into a joke. And he does approach a confusing, dangerous world in a spirit, if not of humor, then of play; the Goblet of Fire is perhaps the best example of this, but it can be seen also in the emphasis on sports, on pranks, on self-conscious adventure-seeking a la the Marauder’s Map. This difference can in part be explained by the age of the protagonists: we follow Harry from ages 11 to 18, Buffy from 16 to 22. Harry isn’t yet old enough to be intensely self-conscious of the strangeness of his own position, so his play remains innocent, as it were, free of irony. He sees himself as a character in a story (he can’t ever forget that he’s not just a hero, but a celebrity), but he never follows the “Scoobies” of Buffy in ironically referring to himself as a fictional character.

But if Harry were to become ironic–what would it look like? He doesn’t have any wizarding television shows to reference, because the wizarding world doesn’t actually exist. The characters in Buffy live in a liminal world, between our real world and mysterious other dimensions from which magical things emerge. Their world lacks internal coherence, so they have to supply it themselves. The same applies to the WhoVerse–the Doctor’s not from earth, but the Companion always is. The wizarding world is more like a separate world that exactly parallels our own: Quidditch–oh, that’s like soccer! The Weird Sisters–oh, they’re like a rock band! Hogwarts, the Ministry of Magic–oh, they’re like Eton and Parliament! It’s impossible for Harry to be ironic about the confusing nature of his world in part because for us, as readers, his world already coheres; it’s a facetious copy of our own. We just assume that Harry makes sense of it the same way we make sense of our own lives.

Genus and differentia

The Potter books minimize liminality and draw more sharp divisions than any of the works I considered a year ago. Wizard v muggle, legal v illegal, love v selfishness, are more often posited than problematized, though crossing some of these boundaries is encouraged–Arthur Weasley’s fascination with muggle technology and Hermione’s desire to liberate the house-elves are both portrayed sympathetically, if not exactly endorsed. These divisions differentiate Harry Potter from the other magical humanist works, in ways more bad than good. I would argue, though, that the books remain instances of the magical humanist genre, for the differences are not differences in fundamental outlook, but rather in tactical approach. Philosophically, Rowling agrees with the other writers of magical humanist adventures, but aesthetically, she distrusts their embrace of uncertainty.

For example, consider the divisions between the races, and how these are both ontological and legal, and how Arthur and Hermione attempt to undermine them. Arthur and Hermione’s attempts they ignore the obvious fact that there are real differences between wizards and muggles, humans and elves, differences that ought to make some sort of difference to our ethical reasoning. The books put too little effort into showing us what it means to treat someone as an equal when you can do magic and they cannot, or when their entire being is bound up in their status as your servant.

But, paradoxically, it is precisely because the divisions are so absolute that the book fails to recognize the problems inherent to any attempt to overcome them. Muggles never really interact with wizards, so we never witness the problems that would result from such an attempt; thus, we don’t notice how strange it is to portray anti-muggle sentiment as analogous to racism. The house-elf dilemma is done better–the elves tell Hermione they don’t want to be free–but the issue is never explored at length; we never see a serious attempt to understand what it would mean to recognize the moral value of the elves without forcing them out of their magically-determined social niche. Instead, we see Rowling’s anti-ontological humanism coming into conflict with her desire to build a well-defined world parallel to, but separate from, our own.

On the other hand, consider the opposition Rowling draws between love and selfishness. In shows like Jekyll these are explicitly aligned; love is biological, and only altruistic when it involves sacrificing yourself to protect your family and friends, which is itself a kind of selfishness. The actual events in Harry Potter are mostly compatible with this view: love doesn’t mean following moral codes, it means helping your friends, and acting lovingly is always justified. Thus the paradigmatic act of love in the Potterverse being Lily Potter sacrificing herself for her son is not incompatible with Harry casting the Cruciatus curse to protect McGonagall and no one looking twice. Nevertheless, the moral language Rowling uses does attempt to get at something more Christian than biological. It remains confused, I think, but perhaps less so than in these other works. And this because it at least leaves itself open to moral laws drawn from ontological, rather than just biological, distinctions and imperatives.

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