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Theft, pt. 2: the abhorrence of skepticism

May 25, 2013

[part 1 of this post found here]

I said, last time, that plagiarism is wrong in the same way deception is wrong; seduction is wrong in the same way infidelity is wrong; abduction is wrong in the same way apathy is wrong; murder is wrong in the same way suicide is wrong; torture is wrong in the same way opium is wrong; memory-erasure is wrong in the same way repression is wrong; remote-controlled action is wrong the same way rash action is wrong. And all of these sins are abhorrent in a way theft, for example, is not.

To pursue this Dantean system-building further: why isn’t theft abhorrent in this way? It might sound as if what I’m saying is that these possessions are fictional, and the sins are abhorrent because they reveal the fiction. But in fact I mean the opposite. Material possessions are fictional too–indeed, fictionality seems inherent in the idea of a possession. A possession is something I can give away, or have taken away from me, because it was never “really” mine. Immaterial “possessions,” we want to say, are really mine, but this, I argued last time, isn’t true either: they’re not mine, they happen to me. Possessions are a fiction agreed upon by the community, and theft is a crime against both the owner and the community. The sins I discussed last time aren’t either, at least not primarily; they’re something deeper, something like crimes against nature, or against grammar, or against God. This is what I mean by the word “abhorrent.”

But to call them all abhorrent is not to say that they’re of equal seriousness (if it makes sense to say that some sins are more serious than others). It’s to say that they’re things that can’t be done in the normal course of things; they’re a kind of magic. Once you get past the increase in material well-being, this is what magic promises: the ability to commit unnatural offenses, that is, to put people in situations where otherwise absurd skepticism would begin to seem justified.

And really, this is what J.K. Rowling’s Potter-verse is all about. The Dark Arts center, of course, on the Unforgivable Curses: Avada Kedavra kills, Imperio controls, Cruciatus tortures. Life, liberty, (un)happiness: most of us cannot imagine giving these away. That’s what makes taking them with magic so unforgivable: it puts the victim in an unimaginable situation. But love potions and memory spells? The Harry Potter books treat those with a great deal more leniency (in ways I often found rather disturbing), in much the same way that infidelity and repression may be troubling, but aren’t seen as evidence for skepticism, they’re just part of ordinary life. Abusing language, apparently, is so integral to ordinary life that it’s truth serums, not spells that aid in plagiarism or deception, that have to be regulated. It seems our words and our hearts and our memories are not quite as inalienable as our lives and our liberty and our sensations.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2013 1:39 pm

    The Latin I knew years ago is resurfacing a little while reading your post. Abhorrere in Latin means to shudder or recoil from. It occurs a lot in Vergil’s Aeneid, when Aeneas witnesses something that is divine or (as you say) “a kind of magic.”

    I’d be interested to hear more of your thoughts on Harry Potter. I’ve had numerous conversations with my students and ND friends who really defend HP and do not understand what I find somewhat lacking, and even disturbing, in it. I think you’ve touched on it here. Although certainly a story about good versus evil, it seems to sometimes have selective-sensitivity to certain evils as you point out. I think a lot of readers miss these, and I find that fact unsettling as well.

  2. June 1, 2013 1:31 pm

    My thoughts on Harry Potter are… numerous. Some of them in the post I just made. But I have three main things I try to say whenever I have this conversation:

    1) The Ministry of Magic is a terrifying dystopia and yet it’s treated like it’s just a magical version of the somewhat incompetent but mostly well-intentioned UK Parliament.
    2) The magic used isn’t at all transcendent, for good or ill; it’s not “real” magic, so to speak, it’s just glitter covering over a completely mundane portrait of the real world.
    3) Harry Potter is always “the good guy” no matter how many creepy/evil things he does (using the Cruciatus curse on a bad guy, etc).

    I think this adds up to JK Rowling being a liberal bourgeois Calvinist, i.e. thinking government is the answer, caring about concrete results not abstract ideas, and believing in double predestination. Of course these are all just tendencies not deep-rooted convictions so there’s counter-evidence but on the whole I think this is an accurate description. Also apparently I now use the word “bourgeois” non-ironically. I must be in grad school.

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  1. Theft, pt. 3: magical ownership | Ironical Coincidings

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