What accounts for the success of the Harry Potter series, as well as the “Star Wars” films whence they derive? The answer, I think, is their appeal to complacency and narcissism. “Use the Force,” Obi-Wan tells the young Luke Skywalker, while the master wizard Dumbledore instructs Harry to draw from his inner well of familial emotions. No one likes to imagine that he is Frodo Baggins, an  ordinary fellow who has quite a rough time of it in Tolkien’s story. But everyone likes to imagine that he possesses inborn powers that make him a master of magic as well as a hero at games. Harry Potter merely needs to tap his inner feelings to conjure up the needful spell.

“Tonstant Weader fwowed up,” Dorothy Parker reviewed A A Milne’s “Pooh” stories in the New Yorker, and I am sad to report that reverse peristalsis cut short my own efforts to read J. K. Rowling’s latest effort, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In any event I am less interested in reviewing the book than in reviewing the reader.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but complacency is the secret attraction of J. K. Rowling’s magical world. It lets the reader imagine that he is something different, while remaining just what he is. Harry (like young Skywalker) draws his superhuman powers out of the well of his “inner feelings.” In this respect Rowling has much in common with the legion of self-help writers who advise the anxious denizens of the West. She also has much in common with writers of pop spirituality, who promise the reader the secret of inner discovery in a few easy lessons.

The spiritual tradition of the West, which begins with classic tragedy and continues through St. Augustine’s Confessions, tells us just the contrary, namely, that one’s inner feelings are the problem, not the solution. The West is a construct, the result of a millennium of war against the inner feelings of the barbarian invaders whom Christianity turned into Europeans. Paganism exults in its unchanging, autochthonous character, and glorifies the native impulses of its people; Christianity despises these impulses and attempts to root them out. Western tradition demands that the individual must draw upon something better than one’s inner feelings. Narcissism where one’s innermost feelings are concerned therefore is the supreme hallmark of decadence.

A culture may be called decadent when its members exult in what they are, rather than strive to become what they should be. As God tells Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust,

Man all too easily grows lax and mellow,
He soon elects repose at any price;
And so I like to pair him with a fellow
To play the deuce, to stir, and to entice. [1]

What characterizes the protagonists of great fiction in an ascendant culture? It is that they are not yet what they should be. The characters of Western literature in its time of flowering either must overcome defining flaws, or come to grief. Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet must give up her pride; Dickens’ Pip must look past the will-o’-the-wisp of his expectations; Mann’s Hans Castorp must confront mortality; Tolstoy’s Pierre must learn to love; Cervantes’ Don Quixote must learn to help ordinary people rather than the personages of romance; Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister must act in the real world rather than the stage. Goethe’s Faust I have long considered the definitive masterwork of Western literature, first of all because its explicit subject is the transformation of character. As Faust tells Mephisto,

Should ever I take ease upon a bed of leisure,
May that same moment mark my end!
When first by flattery you lull me
Into a smug complacency,
When with indulgence you can gull me,
Let that day be the last for me!
That is my wager! [2]

Failure to correct defining flaws, of course, leads to a tragic outcome, as in Dostoyevsky or Flaubert. More consideration is required to portray characters who change rather than fail, to be sure; that is why the late Leo Strauss thought Jane Austen a better novelist than Dostoyevesky. Finding the right partner in marriage, after all, is the most important decision most of us will make in our lives. Whatever good we otherwise might do has little meaning unless another generation draws its benefit, and that character of the next generation depends on the character of the families we might form. If we take inventory of all the married couples we know, how many of them can be said to have done this with due consideration? Courtship is a high drama that should keep our teeth on edge. Instead, we relegate the subject to the genre of romantic comedy, and to the consoling familiarity of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

The more one wallows in one’s inner feelings, of course, the more anxious one becomes. Permit me to state without equivocation that your innermost feelings, whoever you might be, are commonplace, dull, and tawdry. Thrown back upon one’s feelings, one does not become a Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, but a petulant, self-indulgent bore with an aversion to mirrors. To compensate for this ennui one demands stimulus. That is the other ingredient in J. K. Rowlings’ success formula. Magical devices distract us from the boredom inherent in the characters, and one cannot gainsay the fecundity of the author’s imaginative powers. She manufactures new enchantments as fast as Industrial Light and Magic churns out new computer-generated graphics for the “Star Wars” films, or amusement parks erect faster roller coasters.

Pointy hats, it should be remembered, were made to fit on pointy heads. Rowling’s fiction stands in relation to real literature the way that a roller coaster stands in relation to a real adventure. The thrills are cheap precisely because they could not possibly be real. The “boy’s own” sort of adventure writing popular in Victorian England had a good deal more merit.

When we put ourselves in the hands of a masterful writer, we undertake a perilous journey that puts our soul at risk. Empathy with the protagonist exposes us to all the spiritual dangers that beset the personages of fiction. In emulation of the ancient tale in which a seven days’ sojourn among the fairies turns out to be an absence of seven years, Thomas Mann sends Hans Castorp to the magic mountain of a tuberculosis sanitarium – but it is the reader is captured and transformed.

We are too complacent to wish upon ourselves such a transformation, and too lazy to attempt it. We find tiresome the old religions of the West that preach repentance and redemption, and instead wish to hear reassurance that God loves us and that everything is all right. We have lost the burning thirst for truth – for inner change – that drives men to learn ancient languages, pore over mathematical proofs, master musical instruments, or disappear into the wild. We want our thrills pre-packaged and micro-waveable. Above all we want our political leaders, our pastors, our artists and our partners in life to validate our innermost feelings, loathsome as they may be. I do not know you, dear reader; the only thing I know about you with certainty is that your innermost feelings would bore me.

Western literature, along with all great Western art, is Christian in character, including the product of a putative heathen like Goethe, whom Franz Rosenzweig correctly called the prototype of a modern Christian.[3] It is Christian precisely because it deals with overcoming one’s “inner self.” A jejune Manichaeanism pervades the Potter books as well as the “Star Wars” films, and I suppose a case could be made that such a crude apposition of Good and Evil corresponds in some fashion to the emotional narcissism of the protagonists.

In that sense, Christian leaders who disapprove of the whole Potter business simply are doing their job. According to some news reports, Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, disparaged Rowling’s books in a private letter written two years ago. But according to NZ City on July 18, “New Zealand Catholic Church spokeswoman Lyndsay Freer says there is some question over the validity of the letter. She says more importantly, Vatican cultural advisors feel the book is not a theological work and is just plain children’s literature. Ms Freer says it’s wonderful children are being encouraged to read, and the Potter books are no different from the likes of Grimms’ Fairy Tales and Star Wars.” How reassuring it is that the ecclesiastical authorities of Auckland have taken the initiative to correct the pope on this matter.

[1] Faust, translated by Walter Arndt. W.W. Norton, New York 2001, lines 340-343.
[2] Op. cit., lines 1692-1698.
[3] See The pope, the musicians and the Jews (May 9, 2005) and Why the beautiful is not the good (May 16, 2005) for discussion of the Christian character of Western culture.


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