Monday, May 14, 2012

He Who Must Not Be Served: The Anti-Aristocratic Sentiments of Harry Potter

- Voldemort

Harry Potter, insofar as it is literature, is pop lit.  The series is built around a slightly mysterious and nite-lite foggy world that can be charitably called "quirky"; despite how much Rowling is able to pack into it, this world has never been anything more than a backdrop to me. As in most plot-driven pop lit, the world is an elaborate prop. Part of the appeal of the wizard world is that so much of it can be twisted around (by MAGIC) to serve any purpose. No wonder Harry Potter fanfiction is so popular. Things don't happen when Harry and his friends turn away, except insofar as they set up the next magical encounter or emotionally salient moment. In fact, one of the real achievements of Rowlings' vision is that the world is a beautifully designed Rube Goldberg machine to put Voldemort back into power. Every nook and cranny in the world is full of implements and techniques that he can turn to his own ends, whether it be unicorn blood or horcruxes.

But this is not (primarily) a whine about Harry Potter's shallow, usefully magical context.  Instead, I want to talk about what it means when this elaborate mechanism is turned to a certain purpose.  Rowling's world is a fable world; it is built and bent for a specific purpose.  It does not strive for realism.  It is a delivery mechanism for a moral spectacle, or, more often, a collection of moral spectacles.

In order to locate Voldemort within Rowling's ethical map, let's take a minute to watch the Death Eaters as they commune:

Voldemort and his cadre are primarily pale, well kept, mannered, thin, and surrounded by austere and antique furniture.  They are, for the most part, well off.  They keep servants. They meet in cavernous mansions.

The pattern here is far from subtle. Rowling makes no secret about the fact that the Death Eaters represent a caricatured aristocracy.  For them, values like love and friendship take a backseat to fidelity, purity, and strength.  Those Death Eaters that aren't valued for their blood or their loyalty are treated like mercenaries or hired help, able to be dismissed via Avada Kedavra at any moment.  When we see the scene above in the context of some of the warm and casual meetings of the Order of the Phoenix, the dichotomy is made bare.

And nowhere is the contrast between the Death Eaters and Harry's contingent made clearer than on the issue of equality.  At Voldemort's ministry of magic, the statue of the wizard crushing the muggles beneath his boots is the centerpiece: the Death Eaters are more powerful than the muggles, and therefore the muggles are inferior. The Death Eater philosophy embraces a "natural order" that goes back to Aristotelianism if not before; according to the Death Eaters, the world is stratified into levels of objective value and all of the levels are better off for it.  The commoners should stay with the common, the mudbloods with mudbloods, the warriors with the warriors, and the house elves with the house elves.  The Death Eaters are reactionary, but they have a positive program.  By contrast, Harry and his friends often seem more defined negatively; they are not the Death Eaters.

This quasi-Manicheanism illustrates one of the fundamental tensions of the book: Harry is a Death Eater in disguise.  He comes from a pureblood background, wields great power, and sits on immense wealth.  His identification with Voldemort is even less a coincidence in these lights.  When de Tocqueville came to America, he saw an aristocracy increasingly held to the standards of the growing middle class.  They had to be useful and humble; unlike their european counterparts, they did not have history and culture to support them.  The "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality simply would not allow them to sit idly on the same patrician chairs they did in Europe.  Harry is the American aristocracy to Voldemort's old world traditions.  No wonder He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has such a refined accent.

Compromise is key to Rowling's contrast between good and evil; Harry and his friends realize that morality is painted in shades of gray, in sharp contrast to the absolutes of Voldemort et al. But for me, the truly interesting negotiation of both Rowlings' books and the movies is finding exactly where the compromises stop for Harry and his friends. Like so much morally concerned pop media, the problem negotiated is where to find the moral rock to stand on. Harry will kill, but only the right people.  He'll use unforgivable curses, but only in the right situations. Rowling and like minded writers are concerned particularly with placating middle class moral anxieties. In the face of globalism and pluralism, aspects of the western middle class ache to find principles to found a new set of timeless values. This is why Voldemort represents a threat; against a marketplace of fluid values and ideas, the Death Eaters stand as anachronistically principled and insular. Malfoy makes his friends by connecting with the families his family has connected with for centuries; there is no comparison of shared interests, little uncertainty, and limited negotiation. By contrast, Harry's relationships seem more tumultuous and varied, and thus Harry's greatest strength is his unerring intuition. He can feel through his relationships and moral quandaries, and though he may sometimes stumble or compromise, he always ends up in the right and we envy him for his successes. This is yet another contrast;  Harry and his friends feel what is right while the Death Eaters know what is right.

This negotiation of modern value confusion animates Harry and his friends and, at times, is their heaviest burden. For example, the very fact of Slytherin's continued existence pulls at the bounds of tolerance, another middle class anxiety. Everyone at Hogwarts knows that "those people" tend to be bad for the most part, but we allow them their say, because, after all, everyone has a right to their say.  The tolerance of intolerance is a heavy burden to modern liberalism, and Harry and his friends bear it resentfully.  In fact, whenever a Slytherin turns out good, it is seen as a happy, surprising exception and celebrated as a success of Harry's openness. To be welcome at Harry's liberal consensus, you need only be willing to enter the dialogue.

I do not mean to reduce Harry Potter to the modern anxieties it expresses. In many ways, Harry's story is structurally similar to stories told in the Western tradition for thousands of years.  But even the fact that it is not a straightforward repetition of those stories casts light on part of Rowling's narrative agenda. Harry Potter is successful in large part because it succeeds at being what it tries to be; an anchor and an anthropological document for a generation of middle class desires and insecurities.

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