Skip to comments.Harry Potter and the Decline of the West (Spengler)
Posted on 07/18/2005 9:57:30 PM PDT by Eurotwit
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 Rowlings 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.  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!  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. 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.
Hee, hee. Have they modernized Nancy Drew yet - i.e., put her in low-cut skanky Cristina Aquilera/Britney Spears clothing?
I recall a scandal a while back when new editions gave her a modern hairstyle and a visible figure.
I hate to admit this, but it's not far removed from the sort of stuff I churned out for papers in college. It seemed to work very well, and I'm not sure if there was always this unwritten acknowledgement among the professors that "yeah, we know this is all intellectual auto-eroticism, but that's the way the game is played."
Dear Lord, I hate dim little Harry...now "1776" - there's a book I can sink my teeth into! Better yet check out "April 19 - the first day of the revolution". It is very detailed, even giving insight into the hygeine and culinary habits of the forefathers...
Is this the level of argument that you want to sink to??? Really scraping the bottom there, FRiend.
What is it, just a desperate attempt to deny that intelligent, educated people could possibly disagree with you?
I invite people to disagree with me. This forum would be the conservative version of the goosestep party known as DU if we all agreed on anything.
He's got special powers that the school is merely refining and developing.
...which requires study and effort, and does not always yield results. There are a few spells which Harry cannot successfully cast--if you were familiar with the book, we could discuss what that says about the kind of boy Harry is.
And along the way, we see him breaking school rules, disobeying teachers, lying, and doing things that the dumb old teachers couldn't get done.
Most of the actions that you have cited are not glorified at all. In fact, it shows Harry to be a pretty common teenage prat. And no, he does not go unpunished or unscathed for his digressions.
(me) "I have no problem with discussing controversial aspects of the books"
(you) "Yeah, you do."
No, I do not. We have different goals. I am enjoying a discussion--I am, really. If I weren't, I'd be weeding the flowerbed or something. You are trying to convince me that you're right and I'm wrong. Different goals. I am not insisting that you must read the book. That is no different than telling someone that they must NOT read the book. When it comes to specific content of the book, however, having read it helps when arguing a point.
I sure hope that the F/11 crack was uncharacteristic on your part.
Ya just gotta pay attention more closely to tech in the movies like us nascent gear heads.
LOL! Do you have any quotes from L. Ron Hubbard too?
Hence, the "joke" and non-serious flippancy in the prior response. The descent into absurd silliness from Potter kitsch is a riot! Love it!
How do you think Harry Potter would hold up vs. Gozer? Like Rick Moranis, running around barking?
Depends upon his answer when she asks him if he's a god...
When we talk about the Crucifixion, when we discuss how God sacrificed His Son so that our sins may be forgiven, he cries. Always. He knows that it is real. It touches him in a way that fiction never will.
Next time I read LOTR (it's been a few months, after all!) I'll keep in mind what you've said about the different POVs. I've never noticed that.
(RFF: Maxa ping)
Harry Potter is about as nefarious as The Three Little Pigs. At its core, it's essentially the same story. Overpowering forces exist; be prepared, be smart, do right, and you can win out in the end.
The author of Potter got a lot of inspiration on a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland she said in a recent interview.
Coincidentally, Rudy Maxa, travel writer who has a PBS travel show, just aired his trip to Edinburgh in my market last week. Old Edinburgh legends and folklore would point a very imaginative writer toward a Harry Potter character. Hulking dreary ancient buildings there could easily be imagined as a school for wizards. There's even an "Apprentice Column" in a church in Edinburgh, a much better column than others in the church created by an apprentice whose work so angered the jealous master sculptor that he tried to kill the apprentice.
Though Maxa said nothing about the similiarity to the Potter books, the seeds are all there for anyone to see. I guess that good Christians should never visit Edinburgh, Scotland, the last outpost on the road to hell.
His character seems flexible enough that he can be worked into a variety of absurd and high-weirdness situations. I'd like to see Harry Potter worked into the famous "Gorn" episode of Star Trek.
A chilling post. Especially since teaching kids "to think" no longer retains any elements of logic.
From this review of (the readers of) Harry Potter books, he exudes contempt for those who are looking for escapist literature.
When I was younger, I loved reading, because I was brought up on Edgar Rice Burroughs and C.S. Lewis, as well as Heinlein's juvinile books. I "graduated" to "real" literature, but I never lost my love of escapist stories.
Sometimes it's nice to read something that just takes you away from where you are, and what you're doing. I find myself spending at least 4 hours a day reading: Mostly technical and system administration manuals, network protocol guides, and trying to understand just what the heck the network architects at Microsoft were doing... I just started reading a little ditty titled "Mastering Windows Server 2003," a light read at a bit over 1700 pages. Hopefully, I'll have it finished in the next week.
Believe me, once I'm finished with my first Microsoft test (I'm scheduled to take my first Windows Server exam a week from Friday), I'm going to be ready to read the new Harry Potter book, to get as far away from computers as possible. And it will be with something I can sit back and enjoy as fun, rather than something "good for me." Something I can read over quickly, without having to look for any hidden meanings. Look, I could go back and re-read "The Oddesy," Dante's "Inferno," or another of the classics, but I'm looking for something light and fun.
Rowling has nothing on Tolkien.
Agreed, but they are coming from two completely different places. While I love Tolkein, let's face it, to really "get it," with Tolkein, it takes some work. Tokein actually created middle earth because he felt that England had been "cheated" by having no indiginous (sp?) mythology. Sure, there's Beowulf, but that doesn't really compare with the Norse, Greek, or Roman mythos, does it?
His was a decades long work to come up with an entire mythos.
Rowling wrote a story about a little wizard.
They're both wonderful (IMHO), but in entirely different ways. And I'm one of those guys who "poo-poo'd" the whole "Harry Potter thing" while the LOTR movies were coming out. I never even saw one of the movies until after the Return of the King movie was released. I had no interest in the HP movies or books. But I saw the first movie on cable, thought it was pretty good, decided to read the book, and I was hooked!