Wednesday, July 25, 2007

First Thought on Harry Potter's End

Note: Do not read this if you don't want to know what happened in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

The Harry Potter series is finally at an end. I read the final volume practically at one sitting. I used to do this all the time, but now that I'm older, I'm far harder to captivate. Harry Potter captivated me. It’s been quite an adventure, and since to make an end is also to make a beginning, I feel moved to share my first thoughts about its end. My initial and unconsidered response upon closing the seventh book was happiness for its young readers. The series ended in a way entirely appropriate to children’s literature, which is, after all, what Harry Potter is. In children’s stories, people live happily ever after, the wheel turns, and the children of one generation turn into the parents of the next. In “adult” mythology, on the other hand, there is usually a higher price to pay for the kind of trials that Harry endured. Thus, as an "adult" reader, I have to confess an initial frisson of disbelief. But as I thought further, realizing that J.K. Rowling is a serious and good storyteller, and that I should trust her instinct above my own, my view began to chage. I began by doing the math. This revealed that, in “real” time at least, the ending hasn’t happened yet. Nineteen years later lies not only in Harry’s, but also in our, future. As the wise ones are constantly reminding us, in the eyes of Heaven, or the Divine, or, if you prefer, simply the Universe, we are all still children and our ending hasn’t happened yet. Unlike Harry, none of us who have read the books, have yet to meet our end. That happiness is possible, therefore, is a great affirmation of hope.

When I speak of the end of the Harry Potter series, I’m not talking about its denouement. That was handled really rather perfectly by anyone’s standard: the willing sacrifice, the veil of the temple rent as Harry gives up the ghost and meets his own Holy of Holies face to face, even the redemption of Snape. All this was both satisfying and inspiring, for from its very beginning, Harry’s tale was a tale told in the shadow of death, and as such we needed to pass through that shadow. Voldemort’s quest for immortality was less an act of wizardry than the avatar of our industrialized world where death is the ultimate enemy and no price, including total warfare and medical bankruptcy is too high for the elite’s survival. Yes, the denouement was a good one, and much, much more might be said about it, but for now, I want to stay with the end, because this is where Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows appears to be most original.

Mythic tales of Harry's magnitude have a tendency toward bittersweet epilogs. The chosen one accomplishes what he came for, but the quest costs him everything. Look at the Trojan War. The Greeks win the war, but lose their civilization. Against all odds, Odysseus makes it home, but he’s a wreck and who knows what is left after twenty years have been robbed from his marriage to Penelope? King Arthur's peaceful kingdom is shattered when he is slain in battle by his twisted half brother Mordred and both he and Excalibur are received back into the arms of the Lady of the Lake. The Holy Grail disappears. In more recent quest stories, Frodo destroys the ring, but at the cost of both himself and Middle Earth. He sails to the west with the elves, leaving behind a world bereft of magic. In C.S. Lewis' series, all the friends of Narnia, save Susan, perish in a train wreck. Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker overthrows the empire, but will remain forever haunted by what happened to him, while Leia and Han find happiness in one another’s arms. In the Philip Pullman series, we are expected to find happiness in being returned to random atoms. By all the rules of these Western myths, Harry should have emerged from his ordeal as something more than human. as Dumbledore, a figure set apart, wise beyond all measure, but not an ordinary friend, husband and father.

But that is precisely what Harry becomes. Harry actually succeeds at conquering death. And the only way to really conquer death is to live. Harry and Ginny settle down to a happy married life. The series ends not far from where it began, at the wall of Platform 9-3/4 with all the joy of wizard children setting off into a life that is not dreary, mechanical and standardized like our own, but magical, infused with wonder. For these children, education will not be literal and mechanical, but transforming, surprising, life giving, powerful and fun.

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” read the inscription on the tomb of James and Lily Potter. This is a quote from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Harry comes to this place on Christmas Eve and later that same night is almost killed by the serpent Nagini, disguised as an old woman. That should have cued us if we hadn’t known before, that Harry’s journey was a journey of faith, as old as time, as old as Moses telling the Israelites in the deadly desert, "Choose life."

Dante’s great epic was called Commedia because as a Christian, Dante knew that the story of his faith did not result in fallen cultures and broken heroes, but in happy endings: aliveness beyond all measure in the center of a universe whose greatest power is love. Jesus did not return from the cross a broken man, but one who had conquered death. When Buddha encountered the armies of his own Voldemort Mara under the Bodhi tree, he discovered that violence and death and terror are not real, but only the manifestations of a disturbed mind.

My own personal heroine Rowena Ravenclaw said it so well on the inscription on her diadem, the last of the external horcruxes that Harry discovered: “Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure.” In English, we think of wit as mere cleverness, the ability to be droll. The French know better. Their word for “wit” is “l’esprit,” spirit. Spirit is breath, inspiration, intelligence. It is free. It is alive. How could Harry have really defeated death and not found life in abundance on the other side?

Love trumps all things. Amen.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Report from Disobedience School

Note to my friends: Sled dogs are unique in the canine world as they are not expected to be obedient, but engage, insofar as dogs are able, in critical thinking. They can often know better than their handlers where the ice is thin and when it is best to veer off the beaten trail. This short piece reflects on a growing discomfort with how the entertainment industry may be dulling our own best instincts.

I recently asked a young friend of mine why she liked reality TV. This for me was an honest question. I could see no appeal whatsoever in watching rich people move into their mansions and say vapid things about their kitchens. Sure these people were good looking and some of them even contributed to the entertainment world, but there was nothing at all interesting about their private lives. I was aware of being completely disconnected from a phenom. So I did what I always do when I don't get it. I asked.

And my friend said, “Watching this stuff allows me to vicariously experience the kind of lifestyle I’ll never get in real life.”

I said, “Private jets and big energy inefficient houses make you feel fabulous?”

She said, “Yes.” And I fell silent, because more than ever, I needed to think.

I found myself remembering all this when I went to see the new Harry Potter movie on Friday the 13th. I arrived at the theater early. Used to be when I was early I would be treated to film trivia, background music and ads from local merchants. This time, the pre movie world was almost as slick as the film.

First I watched men swim with sharks. The men wore chain mail because as one said, “If you make a mistake in this business, you’re not likely to get a chance to make a second.” The element of danger was viscerally present, the same fight or flight mechanism that fuels our culture of stress now transformed into entertainment and thrill. Then I watched ads for video games featuring inhuman robots and impossibly leggy girls being pursued by dinosaurs. These were clearly rated “Teen.” After that I watched the most bizarre ad for Scion in which deviants rose up from the sewers and turned sheep people into talking heads before driving away in their boxy car. Nothing is as it seems. The world is dark and fearsome. Be glad this is only fantasy. Any further explanations would be most welcome.

Now that I was suitably mesmerized, it was time for the hard sell. First, I got a very brief behind the scenes look at the film The Bourne Ultimatum which involved an assassin, a human who is both not himself and who is “very hard to kill.” The clip, quite short, teased me like a travel poster with the aerial views of Italy, Paris and Tangiers. It seemed like the teaser for the next feature, which was clearly the "main event," a break from fantasy for the greatest reality of them all, the United States National Guard. Like the pledge of allegiance at a ballgame, everything came to a halt as we were treated to the first hand experiences of the real men and women who sacrifice so much that our country might be great. Flags waved. Helicopters buzzed. Petroleum was used in abundance. The rescue of a pregnant woman from a flood was meant to warm our hearts toward these unsung heroes, ordinary doctors, teachers and other professionals risking their lives for “the most important job a person can do.” Soldiers as saviors. I suppose there had to be some truth in advertising, for there was a small note that “we might even be called to defend our country overseas,” but this happened very quickly and was overlayed upon a scene of a helicopter landing in a lush, green clearing dotted with oak trees that bore no resemblance at all to Iraq. As I watched this, I was suddenly reminded of Roman legionnaires who did hard military duty in return for little plots of real estate in the provinces which they had conquered from the indigenous people. The military was the way a poor boy might achieve social mobility. To fly in those helicopters and rescue pregnant women from floods was the way an ordinary Joe or Josephine could participate in the fabled world of the movies.

Then we were back to The Bourne Ultimatum. The second behind the scenes film was far more detailed than the first. Universal Pictures wanted me to know that no expense was being spared so that I might have a world class entertainment experience. Everything was shot on location, they said, showing cameras on tracks following chase scenes down the streets of Rome, the souks of Tangiers, the boulevards of Paris. It was important for those who would never actually get there, to have the opportunity to see real places in the movies. (And for all the rich people who actually jet all over the place, Universal couldn’t fool them.) This clip assumed that the movies were doing me a public service, by broadening my limited experience. Now I felt like a farm kid during the depression, being cheered up by being allowed to peek at other people’s ideas of glamor, to be lifted, for a moment, out of my tawdry and narrow existence, into the world of those who are so rich that all the consequences of their actions are borne by others.

It couldn’t get worse, but it did. Now I was subjected to dancing cats with frightening humanoid faces. Tom Kat goes to the movies. A pretty Kitty takes his money, serves him popcorn and a soda and rematerializes again on the screen wearing a black ball gown. She stretches her arms out toward Tom, who is also transformed into a tuxedoed dancer and they twirl about in each other’s arms, themselves the stars, until they are once again restored to their seats in the audience.

The appeal to my self importance could not have been more disturbing. The idea that my personal fulfillment needed the blessing of the film industry and the U.S. Military was even more disturbing. And still more disturbing than this was the idea that my loyalty to this world was being both assumed and encouraged. Entertainment in return for compliance. I was very aware that people were working to manipulate me in ways that felt very propagandistic.

After that came the official preview of The Bourne Ultimatum, which, since I had been behind the scenes, felt like an intimate insider conversation, despite exploding buildings and desperate assignations on cell phones. At last, after other incomprehensible film previews, I finally watched what I had come for, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The dark side of their elite life in the wizarding world made this ordinary muggle shiver just a little bit.

Who's in charge here? I ask you. What am I being asked to live for? What am I being asked to die for? Dolores Umbridge denied that Voldemort had returned and punished anyone who said otherwise. I wonder, dear ones, I wonder. . .

Monday, July 9, 2007

A Natural History of Religion

A friend asked me to reflect with her on a recent spate of books by scientists and philosophers that assert that religion is bad for us. I am only at the beginning of my reading, but already I am encountering some rather muddy thinking and sweeping conclusions based upon some pretty dubious premises. I post a link to a glowing exception. David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionary biologist who, at least to me, shows fascinating insight on religion as an evolutionary phenomenon.

As one whose primary focus is religion, I have much to add, but I could never even begin to write about biology with Wilson's grasp and authority.

Monday, July 2, 2007

IASD Update

You can download a copy of my powerpoint from today's conference, by clicking on the link.