Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Harry Potter and the Gift of Death

A rough draft. I have other things I need to be doing this morning.

I love, of course, the big, swirly stuff, so I latched onto this recent post at Fr. Jake's place. However, following his link to the original, I already found so much to argue with in the opening paragraph (is there a "collective psyche of the West?" is there even a psyche, much less a collective one? I am too much an existentialist for that.), I've decided to stick with the parts Fr. Jake extracts:

...The modern experience of a radical division between inner and outer--of a subjective, personal, and purposeful consciousness that is paradoxically embedded in and evolved from a world that is intrinsically unconscious, impersonal, and purposeless-is represented historically in our culture in the great division between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. In the world view of the modern West, the Enlightenment essentially rules the outer cosmos and the objective world, while the Romantic aspirations of our art and music, our spiritual yearnings, rule the interior world of the modern soul. In the Romantic tradition--represented, for example, by Goethe and Rousseau, Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Beethoven and Holderlin, Emerson and Whitman all the way up to our post-Sixties counterculture--the modern soul found profound spiritual and psychological expression. The Enlightenment tradition, by contrast, represented by Newton and Locke, Voltaire and Hume--and more recently by thinkers such as Bertrand Russell or Karl Popper, the cosmologists Stephen Hawking and Steven Weinberg, or the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins--has been mainly informed by rational-empirical science. In a sense, the modern soul's allegiance is to Romanticism, while the modern mind's allegiance is to the Enlightenment. There is a kind of schizophrenia within the world view that all of us grew up with in the twentieth century. Our spiritual being, our psychology, is contradicted by our cosmology. Our Romanticism is contradicted by our Enlightenment, our inner by our outer. There is no easy congruence between those two radically different world views; yet, to use Faust's term, they are somehow forced to "cohabit within our breast"...
This isn't really a new insight so much as a fairly well presented one (the further idea, that "humankind has entered into the most critical stages of a death - rebirth mystery", is a bit too apocalyptic for my taste. I'm a "wars and rumors of wars" kind of guy; like the poor, the advent of the Great Revelation Which Will Change Everything has always been with us, which means it will never be with us; not, at least, until everything really does change, once and for all). It does highlight the battle between the Enlightenment and Romanticism which is still going on (although I think it rages for reasons entirely different from those Mr. Tarnas cites. It's really a simple matter that neither has entirely run its course; and then there's the issue that neither is truly unique nor original in human thought; which is another reason a revelation is surely not at hand; pace, William Butler.). If nothing else, it presents a nice contrast to a far more interesting view of European (i.e., Western) history and civilization, as examined by Jan Patocka and related by Jacques Derrida. And that, in turn, points up that it's very hard to read the last book of the Harry Potter series and not think that J.K. Rowling has been reading Derrida and thinking about religion and responsibility and mystery:

In the proper sense of the word, religion exists once the secret of the sacred, orgiastic, or demonic mystery has been, if not destroyed, at least integrated, and finally subjected to the sphere of responsibility. The subject of responsibility will be the subject that has managed to make orgiastic or demonic mystery subject to itself; and has done that in order to freely subject itself to the wholly and infinite other that sees without being seen. Religion is responsibility or it is nothing at all. Its history derives its sense entirely from the idea of a passage to responsibility. Such a passage involves traversing or enduring the test by means of which the ethical conscience will be delivered of the demonic, the mystagogic, and the enthusiastic, of the initiatory and the esoteric. In the authentic sense of the word, religion comes into being the moment that the experience of responsibility extracts itself from that form of secrecy called demonic mystery."--pp. 2-3
That is Patocka on European history as a history of Christianity, via Derrida. Patocka's thesis is that religion introduces responsibility to the other into a society subject to "mystery" of the orgiastic and demonic, and is in fact distinguished by subjecting the latter to the duty of responsibility to the other. The "orgiastic," the "demonic," feeds the individual (one might say the "ego," if that can be done without invoking Freud). According to Patocka, says Derrida:

an experience of the sacred as an enthusiasm or a fervor for fusion....has as its effect, and often as its first intention, the removal of responsibility, the loss of the sense or consciousness of responsibility. --p. 1
I would pause right here to note that one of the key themes of the Harry Potter series is responsibility. The Ministry of Magic ("MOM"; I love that acronym!) keeps those with magical powers responsibile for their actions, and wants such persons trained up in the responsible use of their powers. Voldemort, of course, represents the "demonic," even the "orgiastic," use of magic, especially in his abuse of others, stories recounted in the last two volumes of the series. The demonic leads to the "loss of the sense of consciousness of responsibility." If there is anything Voldemort represents and even offers, and which Harry and Dumbledore symbolize the opposition to, it is that. And, of course, as even Dumbledore's story (not fully revealed until the end of HP7) represents, this matter of responsibility is always a matter of a vigil, a vigil that is related to, and made clear by, death. For Dumbledore, this revelation comes with the death of his sister. For Harry, this revelation comes when he learns he is "the boy who lived." Derrida, through Socrates and the Phaedo, connects this to the origins of philosophy, which is the origin of coming to responsibility:

For it is indeed a matter of care, of "keeping-vigil-for," a solicitude for death that constitutes the relation to self of that which, in existence, relates to onseself. For one never reinforces enough the fact that is it not the psyche that is there in the first place and that comes thereafter to be concerned about its death, to keep watch over it, to be the very vigil of its death. No, the soul only distinguishes itself, separates itself, and assembles within itself in the experience of this melete tou thanatou. It is nothing other than this concern for dying as a relation to self and an assembling of self. It only returns to itself, in both senses of assembling itself and waking itself, becoming conscious, in the sense of consciousness of self in general, through this concern for death....For it is thus that the soul separates itself in recalling itself to itself, and so it becomes individualized, interiorized, becomes its very invisibility. And hence it philosophizes from the very beginning. Philosophy isn't something that comes to the soul by accident, for it is nothing other than this vigil over death that watches out for death and watches over death, as if over the very life of the soul. The psyche as life, as breath of life, as pneuma, only appears out of this concerned anticipation of dying.--pp. 14-15
At the end of HP7, Harry is walking out into the Forbidden Forest to face Voldemort, to die at his hands because he knows he is the seventh Horcrux, the penultimate but unintended repository of a piece of Voldemort's tattered soul. It is the supreme irony of the book, crowning the initial irony of Voldemort getting a partial report of the prophecy from Snape, and choosing to make it true by choosing to kill the infant Harry Potter. He sets into motion a chain of events which end in his death 16 years later, but only because of the character of Harry Potter, because of the choices Harry makes. As he walks to his death, Harry takes out the Golden Snitch left him by Dumbledore, holds it to his lips, and whispers: "I am going to die." J.K. Rowling reported that she cried when writing some of the last portion of this book; I can only imagine it was at this scene she did so. Harry is not Abraham, choosing to give the gift of death to another. He is the sacrifice, choosing the gift of death for himself, having seen the deaths of so many friends, among them Tonks, Remus, and Fred Weasley. So now he gives the gift to himself, and to his friends, by giving them his death. But at that moment the vigil becomes "this vigil over death that watches out for death and watches over death, as if over the very life of the soul. The psyche as life, as breath of life, as pneuma, only appears out of this concerned anticipation of dying." And so the family and friends of the orphan appear, to comfort him, to succor him, to assure him that he is doing what must be done, not for his death, but for his life. It is a question of the weight of history, of events in place long before he was born. It is also, and more importantly for Harry, a question of responsibility:

History can be neither a decidable object nor a totality capable of being mastered, precisely because it is tied to responsibility, to faith, and to the gift. To responsibility in the experience of absolute decisions made outside of knowledge or given norms, made therefore through the very ordeal of the undecidable; to religious faith through a form of involvement with the other that is a venture into absolute risk, beyond knowledge and certainty; to the gift and to the gift of death that puts me in relation with the transcendence of the other, with God, as selfless goodness, and that gives me what it gives me through a new experience of death. Responsibility and faith go together, however paradoxical that might see to some, and both should, in the same movement, exceed mastery and knowledge. The gift of death would be this marriage of responsibility and faith. History depends on such an excessive beginning."--p. 5
Harry displays both responsibility and faith. It is his loyalty to Dumbledore that calls Fawkes to the Chamber of Secrets. His loyalty to Dumbledore remains unshattered, although shaken, in the Order of the Phoenix, and although what he learns about Dumbledore in HP7 disturbs his quiet honoring of his mentor, his responsibility to the charge given him remains unyielding. He declares himself Dumbledore's man in HP6, and reaffirms that position in HP7, when Dumbledore is gone. This faith, and the responsibility he undertakes because of it (the lone quest for the remaining Horcruxes, without revealing the secret of them to anyone who might help), exceeds both mastery and knowledge, the two arenas Dumbledore and Voldemort both lay claim to (and it consumes the latter, and sorely tempts the former, who in the end cannot resist the temptation and so is swept from the field before his time). And here again, having accepted responsibility and acted on faith (which should be understood as trust, not as belief), Harry is able to use the Resurrection Stone not to recall the dead from their peace (Dumbledore's error, as he freely admits to Harry), but to draw himself nearer to them, even as he approaches them and accepts their realm, readies himself to exchange his world for whatever their's offers. He is ready, too, to die, not in the place of the others, but in order to give them "a little longer to live:"

I can give the other everything except immortality, except this dying for her to the extent of dying in place of her and so freeing her from her own death. I can die for the other in a situation where my death gives him a little longer to live, I can save someone by throwing myself in the water or fire in order to temporary snatch him from the jaws of death, I can give her my heart in the literal or figurative sense in order to assure her of a certain longevity. But I cannot die in her place, I cannot give her my life in exchange for her death. Only a mortal can die, as we said earlier. That should now be adjusted to read: and that mortal can only give what is mortal since he can give everything except immortality, everything except salvation as immortality.--p. 43
The error, the sin, the evil, of course, of Voldemort: he is all too willing to let anyone and everyone die in his place, to bring their deaths so he can achieve immortality, or something near it.

In order to put oneself to death, to give oneself death in the sense that every relation to death is an interpretive apprehension and a representative approach to death, death must be taken upon onself. One has to give it to oneself by taking it upon oneself, for it can only be mine, alone, irreplacably. That is so even if, as we just said, death can neither be taken nor given. But the idea of being neither taken nor given relates from or to the other, and that is indeed why one can give it to oneself only by taking it upon oneself.--p. 45
Voldemort, of course, only gives deaths to others; he cannot give the gift of death, because he cannot first take it upon himself. In this way Harry is, again the "anti-Voldemort," but not because he is more powerful than Voldemort. Dumbledore has already shown, in HP6, that he is far more skilled a wizard than Voldemort. Dumbledore not only "casually" battles Voldemort (Harry notes that Dumbldedore seems no more concerned than if he was simply strolling through the lobby of the Ministry of Magic), he unravels almost all of Voldemort's secrets, and the ones he doesn't uncover, Harry and Ron and Hermione do. It is power, of course, which finally undoes Dumbledore, just as it threatened to do when he fought Grundewald and his sister was killed. That grief never leaves him, and finally undoes him when he tries to use the cursed ring for his own end (to disturb the dead, as he later puts it). Voldemort, in the end, is not undone by power, which he always fears, but by powerlessness, the one thing he cannot battle. There is no power without resistance, and when Harry offers himself unresistingly to Voldemort, it is Voldemort who, in that very instant and thereafter, because of Harry's choices and Harry's actions, loses the power of life and death. Voldemort fails because he refuses to ever take responsibility (Remorse is the one thing that would cure the soul of a wizard who kills with an Unforgiveable Curse. What is remorse except accepting responsibility?). Voldemort and Bellatrix represent the demonic, the orgiastic; it is all they pursue and all they desire. In the end, it is their undoing.

The concept of responsibility is one of those strange concepts that give food for thought without giving themselves over to thematization.....This paradoxical concept also has the structure of a type of secret--what is called, in the code of certain religious pratices, mystery....The exercise of responsibility seems to leave no choice but this one, however uncomfortable it may be, of paradox, heresy, and secrecy. More serious still, it must always run the risk of conversion and apostasy; there is no responsibility without a dissident and inventive rupture with respect to tradition, authority, orthodoxy, rule, or doctrine.--p. 27
The power of powerlessness. How powerful is Harry Potter, at any point in the stories? He is a gifted Seeker, but even that doesn't guarantee his team wins every Quidditch match. He is not as knowleadgeable as Hermione, nor as savvy as Ron. He needs his friends, and in the end it is his friends in Hogwarts who inspire him to do what must be done; it is their gift of death, taken upon themselves, that shows him he must give it to himself by taking it upon himself. But throughout the stories it is his "dissident and inventive rupture with respect to tradition, authority, orthodoxy, rule, or doctrine" which leads him to success, which creates the responsibility he finally fulfills by the most creative rupture of all: making a willing sacrifice of himself for his friends. Derrida quotes Patocka on what could be almost said directly on this point:

Responsible life itself was conceived in that event [The Christian reversal of what Patocka calls "the social problem of the Roman Empire...consolidated on the grounds mad possible by the Platonic conception of the soul, a soul which could have a relationship to the transcendent Platonic "Good" through the orgiastic or demonic. Christianity reverses this through responsibility] as the gift of something that, in the end, while having the characteristics of the Good, also presented the traits of something inaccessible to which man is forever enslaved--the traits of a mystery that has the last word. Christianity understands the good in a different way from Plato, as goodness that is forgetful of itself and as love (in no way orgiastic) that denies itself.==p. 30
It isn't that Harry is a Christ figure by making this sacrifice; it is merely that he is a Christian.

All quotes from Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, tr. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1995).


  1. Cynda Bellamy6:51 AM

    This link was forwarded to me years ago, and I'm not sure I will even be allowed to comment upon it at this point.

    I confess that I am not a philosopher, a philosophy/psychology major (as the one who forwarded it to me), nor even one who can even come close to understanding the gibberish that is haute couture here. That being said, it is intriguing that you make the point that Harry's self-sacrifice does not make him a Christ-figure but rather a [mere] Christian.

    Might I suggest that [mere] Christians are supposed to be those who follow in Christ's footsteps? Or perhaps that was the whole point.

    Nevertheless, in spite of my vast ignorance of the majority of what you've written, I do appreciate your insight.

  2. read all the books its way better than watchnig the movies they cant even compare to the books

  3. Can you email me? This is a subject i've been working on for a number of years. I was wondering if you had done other work on it.