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.
Hey, Spengler. Harry Potter is just an adventure story for kids.
No more and no less than that.
Get a life.
Reading Harry Potter and the names within, would be easier than trying to read that thing.
Summary: pretentious fart name-dropping to prove how widely read in high culture he is.
I think the guy has a point. Tapping your "inner feelings" for power is Hindu/New Age. Superman had genetic powers he used for an ideal.
Harry Potter has no ideals, only "feelings". He is the perfect liberal.
I've never tried to swim in quick sand, but it must be something like reading Spengler's prose.
Well, I am glad at least one person found the piece slightly interesting :-)
But he's right! I like Harry Potter, but you need to understand that it's the mental equivalent of a Snicker's bar.
Well put. I think that's what he was trying to say. Just took him a lot more words than it took you.
This Spengler (has it a family name to go with that, like Spengler MacMagonnary? Or is it missing its first name, like Rickey Spengler? Or is it merely an ego, like Prince or Madonna?) appears to be educated beyond its ability. Are we supposed to think it's the Teutonic sage who was wrong about nearly everything, Oswald Spengler? He's been pushing up daisies for something like seventy years, so under those conditions, he could perhaps have written this.
A lightweight that can fire a broadside of big words is still a lightweight. This is something I see a lot of -- people projecting their pre-existing framework onto someobody else's work, and then bitching that the work is no good because it doesn't fit the frame.
You know, "One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish" was also a milepost on our society's road to perdition.
And the snide replay of Dorothy Parker's comment on AA Milne is perfectly apropos: in 2005, people still read Milne.
Criminal Number 18F
How to tell if a person is both full of themselves and intellectually bankrupt: Over reliance on citations of other works or other people.
It's saying two things at the same time:
1. The ideas I come up with can't stand on their own. I have to cite what other people have said about it.
2. Be impressed by all the things I have cited. Look how well read I am.
Whenever I read a book where the author does the same thing, I end up ditching it for something better.
I think this guy is right on.
Rowling has nothing on Tolkien.
Interesting Harry Potter ping.
At least of the dust jacketrs
Austen's Elizabeth Bennet must give up her pride;Actually that would be Mr Darcy. Lizzie's problem is prejudice.
Cheese youse ignant.
"decline of the west" Spengler. "nom de plume" -- Google it.
"jejune Manichaeanism",...(I looked it up) I can hardly wait till I can work this into a coversation with friends. If I can also work in "schadenfreude" and "denouement" into the conversation or philosophical statement it will be a really fun day.
Sorry, I'm one of those people that despises Harry Potter, Steven Spielberg and StarWars.
Why in the world so called adults are standing in line at midnight to buy and read a Harry Potter book is beyond me.
Jeez Louise, this guy is a real crank.
The "chosen one", "guy with god on his side", "got superpowers because his cause is just" is as old a device as it gets.
On these grounds modern western readers are just as degenerate as their medieval ancestors.
Are we supposed to think it's the Teutonic sage who was wrong about nearly everything, Oswald Spengler? He's been pushing up daisies for something like seventy years, so under those conditions, he could perhaps have written this.
Rowling has little on C.S.Lewis if you ask me. Lewis wrote with a bigger vocabulary and I think better plots, and yet was as easy to get into for kids.
Even so, Tolkien is a little much for the Rowling audience. My girl is 8 and reads the Potter and Lewis books and their ilk; she had trouble starting T.H.White and definitely won't do well with Tolkien yet.
But she likes Terry Pratchett and Cards "Enders Game" - go figure.
My wife and daughter were up at midnight to get this new one and the last one, in costume yet. Its a party, nearly all kids, not adults.
Lily: How much did this ship cost?
Picard: The economics of the 24th century are a little different. You see, money no longer exists.
Lily: No money? You mean you don't get paid?
Picard: The aquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our existance. We seek to better ourselves.
Star Trek is pure Marxism.
So what's the poor schmoe who grew up in a dysfunctional family supposed to do with this "inner well of familial emotions"? Become a sociopath?
"Actually that would be Mr Darcy. Lizzie's problem is prejudice."
How did I know you would be wrong about that? Lucky guess, or just picking up on a pattern?
"In Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice, the issue of pride is a central one. Both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are disliked at separate points for their pride--Darcy is described towards the beginning as the "proudest, most disagreeable man in the world (p.7)." At one point Miss Bingley says to Darcy, about Elizabeth, to "endeavor to check that little something, bordering on conceit and impertinence, which your lady possesses." She is referred to as having an "abomidable sort of conceited independance" (p.26); her manners are described by the others as "very bad indeed, a mixture of pride and impertinence"
I think this is the best article yet on the subject, and I think it lamentable that pride or lack of education seems to prevent some from giving it fair consideration.
It's interesting that everyone reacts by attacking Spengler.
"My wife and daughter were up at midnight to get this new one and the last one, in costume yet. Its a party, nearly all kids, not adults."
Kind of reminds me of the furor over Rocky Horror Picture Show.
And, it is fantasy. Anyhow the KIDS ARE READING. GET OVER IT.
Yeah, the guy who's been dead since 1934 or so...
"nom de plume" -- Google it.
Oh, so this pretentious, fatuous and incompetent writer was asking to be compared to the pretentious, fatuous and incompetent philosopher... now I get it. But wait, didn't I do that already?
Criminal Number 18F
"But wait, didn't I do that already?"
Not by a parsec.
Decline of the West? Is he talking about Hawaii or Japan?
One can say the same about the Old Testament.
From one point of view, a major problem is that the Harry Potter rage promises what can't be delivered to his audience. Harry's got the magic powers and can bring about "good" things with them. Well, okay, we hear you Harry. But his audience, they can't do boo; they can only lose themselves in games of pretend. Like when the Lord challenged the sorcerers to "do something good or evil."
What, you never read books about King Arthur, when you were a kid? It's the same kind of story as Harry Potter is, as are many beloved fairy tales.
Well one of the themes is how pride and prejudice may be mistaken for the other by casual observers.
And you are quoting not the views of the author, but those of her characters, which is not the same thing.
In particular, you citing as authoriry Miss Bingley, who is not presented by Austen as the most astute of observers, is exceedingly riaky.
Not everyone thinks that Tolkien is all that great/readable.
But only if one wants to looks stupid.
[I think this is the best article yet on the subject, and I think it lamentable that pride or lack of education seems to prevent some from giving it fair consideration.]
[It's interesting that everyone reacts by attacking Spengler.]
The central theme of this article by Spengler is the decline of our civilization as evidenced by the narcissistic characters in the fiction we read. This topic has been flogged to death for as long as there has been civilization to discuss it, but usually not in such a tiresome and ponderous manner.
Such snobbishness invites criticism in return, and in this instance the criticism is deserved.
He makes some good points, though. The Potter books do have an oversimplified view of good and evil. Some characters are naturally good, and others naturally evil, and that's that. Introspection and internal division aren't central features of the book.
But the soldiers who won the Second World War for us were largely readers of comics and other junk literature. They weren't averse to sacrifice or higher values or overcoming the self, but they didn't make a cult of such things, as some on the other side did.
"Spengler" reads something like Frederic Wertham and other critics of comics and popular literature of the 1950s. He's high-minded and right about much in popular culture. But Wertham underestimated the resiliancy and durability of society, and perhaps "Spengler" has done the same.
I don't know of any ancient writers complaining about narcissistic fictional characters.
Maybe you just meant to say the decline of civilization in general has always been talked about. Sure. And some times they've been completely right.
"they can only lose themselves in games of pretend."
As to the overall theme that a culture fixated on self-absorption is a decadent one, I can find little to criticize except to note that plenty of cultures that are at less then their apogee have had the same problem. In fact, I can't think of a single culture without it. It may be a part of the human condition, in which case either we're all on the road to perdition or perhaps we're simply human. That the human condition displays imperfections is the very source of literature in the first place.
I do think that the overall issue of magic - or magick, or majick, or a basketball player named Johnson - has a good deal to do with the desperate hope of the powerless for some means of bringing the powerful to their knees through some means that is at once mysterious, obscure, omnipotent, and nonexistent. Mumbling corrupt Latin and making strange gestures and focusing one's putative mental powers on willing a condition other than the mess one is in is, I am afraid, the common refuge of the impotent. This also is cross-cultural and as much a human imperfection as halitosis and hangnails.
And so to our young friend Harry. The entire submergence in magic is an expression of an adolescent rebellion against powerlessness that is addressed by a hot rod, a credit card, and eventually by a job to pay for it all. It is at that point that, like Faust, we find that our power comes at a price.
"The central theme of this article by Spengler is . . . "
. . . contained in this sentence: "A culture may be called decadent when its members exult in what they are, rather than strive to become what they should be."
Spot on. Jacque Barzun says just about the same thing in "Dawn to Decadence." What else do you think explains MTV and hip-hop?
"Such snobbishness invites criticism in return"
When I was a kid it was considered "snobbish" to say "isn't" instead of "ain't" and "I saw" instead of "I seen."
Time for some people to put the things of childhood behind them.
I like O.S.Card's alternate history series.
I tried to read Tolkin, when I was 22 and it a bore and absolutely unreadable! Everyone kept telling me that THE HOBBIT and the Ring books were right up my allesy; they weren't and still aren't. But the damned HIPPIES sure loved those books.
"A WRINKLE IN TIME" and the rest of that series, is really quite good for kids, as are the NARNIA books.
And I think that Jack Finney's novels, novellas, and short stories would really suit a lot of 11,12, and 13 year old as well as adults.
But this whole anit-Potter industry is just plain crazy and I don't even like the books; find her writing to be 10th rate Roald Dahl, as a matter of fact.
There's nothing wrong with children playing games of pretend. As a matter of fact, few children actually do it today, which is why imagination is in such supply nowadays.
this is reality of it people: its just a book,magic doesnt exist and no kid is gonna turn into a devil worshipper because he read about a little kid who wears big round glasses and yells PRESTO every few pages...JEEEZ