Book Review of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter ...


Dear L and S,

I've heard so much from you and other friends about the Harry Potter books, that I've read both "Philosopher's Stone" and "Chamber of Secrets". I suppose you're wondering what my take on it is, and whether I side with all the fundies in banning the book. It will take me much longer to explain, and you're going to wonder if any literary critic ever went to such effort on children's literature before, but I guess I would come down on the fundie side.

First, I will say it was enjoyable reading. It's a modernized version of such children's classics as "Encyclopaedia Brown" or "Hardy Boys". Like those books, it is basically a detective novel. Unlike those books, it adds the gratuitous Goosebumps grossness so beloved by Madison Avenue. Like those books, it lacks depth both in its good and bad characters. Surely you will grant me that the Dursleys are exaggerated caricatures with about as much realism as Wile E. Coyote. The same holds for even the arch-enemies, the Voldemorts, the Snapes, the Malfoys etc. The good characters aren't really any less cartoonish, Hermione, Dumbledore (yes, even him!), Mrs. Weasley etc. About the most complex characters in the story are Hagrid, and of course, Harry. But I think you would agree with me that none of these characters hold a candle to the character development in other children's classics such as Johnny Tremaine, or even Ramona the Pest. So no one is reading this book because it gives insight into human nature, it's primarily escapist literature, like a Tom Clancy novel.

After saying that, I want to point out that the hero of the book, demonstrably the most complex character of the story, is a peculiarly modern invention. Not because he is an orphan, we already have our Sara Crews, Oliver Twists and David Copperfields. Nor because he is a nerd in a hostile environment or a shrimp among bullies. Rather, he captures the essence of the fractured families so peculiar to our modern age. When over 50% of our school children come from broken homes, we must recognize that there have never been in history, so many emotionally and physically orphanned children, children who paradoxically are wealthier than ever before. They can afford Kalishnikovs, heroin addiction, computers with Internet chat rooms, unlimited access to pornography of every kind. We've never seen the possibility of unleashing such an emotionally crippled generation on the world before. This book speaks to that generation. Perhaps it is because this generation is so crippled by television and MTV that the characters have to be cardboard cutouts. At any rate, I do not see this book becoming a classic or even in the same league with Dickens or Lewis.

So what's the magic about the book? Well, it takes place in an exclusive British private school, and that immediately appeals to all us closet Anglophiles in the colonies. Hey, we more or less consciously all follow British royalty, which can be shown by trying to name even one royalty in Belgium, for example. But school settings are depressing. I mean, either they are totally exploitative: "Fast Times at Ridgewood High", or they are reminiscent of those smelly chemistry labs we hated so much. (Or even, at a more conscious level, of the recent spate of Columbine violence.) Rowling manages to avoid both these pitfalls by making all the subjects new to us. If anything, the mystery of "Potions" class puts us, not in a nasty reminiscent mood that calling it "Chemistry" would, but rather in the anticipatory feeling of being a freshman again in a new building, totally in awe of the corroding fume hoods that hover over the mysterious "Lab". If you gave it any thought, school should always be full of awe and mystery, it is only the mishandling of our public schools that has so jaded our generation. Rowling manages to recapture that awe in this clever metaphor. So amazingly, Rowling has re-mystified the schools, re-hallowed the halls, and re-consecrated the curricula. Kudos to her for accomplishing that.

The theme of magic also gives her literary license to do great violence to the plot. Oftentimes I'm left wondering why magic is so quickly forgotten between chapters. For example, why should travelling take any time at all (say in Dumbledore's absence from protecting the Philosopher's Stone) when even Mrs Beasley can travel instantaneously by "Floo Powder"? This "magic" metaphor is hopelessly inconsistent throughout the books, especially when compared with say Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings". Again, if the story is not written to develop characters, neither is it written to create believable alternative realities, as in say, Frank Herbert's "Dune" or Tolkien's Middle Earth. Clearly magic is used only as metaphor for education or science, and often for humor as well as plot gymnastics. So what can be so bad about that cleverness?

Yet it is this theme of "magic" that so infuriates the fundies. Is there anything in the above analysis that would spark such religious hatred? Well, actually, yes. You see, Christians (and I use the label for people who take the Bible seriously) *believe* in magic. The best explanation of this apparent paradox that I have found is in the writings of G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis. If you have never read Chesterton's "Father Brown" stories you will find in them a delightful pre-modernist blend of science and magic, of Sherlock Holmes in a priest's hassock. One story has Father Brown investigating a murder done by "ghosts", in which he reprimands the atheistic witness saying that it is because he believes in ghosts that he knows this was done by a human hand. Likewise, in the postscript to Lewis' book "Screwtape Letters", he has the demons at a banquet toasting each other on the invention of the "atheistic magician", the man who believes in magic without believing in God. Even in 1945 when Lewis wrote that book, he could see the trends that led us to the postmodernism of the 1980's, and the "New Age" religions that were exactly that, atheistic magicians. So you see, it is the reintroduction of magic that Christians find so dangerous. It is an innocuous, innocent introduction to poison, a sweet wine-cooler given to toddlers, a hashish brownie that makes magic palatable, this is what scares fundies.

Do I, a serious physicist, believe in magic? Absolutely. I also believe in extraterrestrials and faster-than-light communication. All these are outlined for us in the Bible. Moses did magic tricks for Pharaoh, which were imitated by Pharaoh's magicians until they cried uncle and told Pharaoh, "you'd better listen to this guy, we can't duplicate that last miracle." Angels are definitely not of terrestrial origin. And prayer must travel faster than light if it can work backwards in time. Like I said, people who take the Bible seriously are quite willing to believe in miracles and magic. The catch is, God expressly forbids magic. Moses gave strict commands that all magicians, fortune tellers, mediums, witches and wizards were to be stoned to death. In the New Testament, as the Christian church spread, great bonfires were lit on Crete and everyone brought their witchcraft books to be burned. In the last book of the Bible, St John the Divine warns a church that they tolerate a witch, code-named Jezebel, and it will be to their destruction.

Why has the Christian church taken such an adamant stance against magic? To rephrase a more recent scientist, "To any sufficiently backward culture, science is indistinguishable from magic." Isn't it entirely reasonable that the magic of the Bible is merely scientific results transplanted in a backward culture? If so, then why the hangup about magic? That is exactly the point. If we cannot separate magic from science, we destroy the last four centuries of scientific advance, we regress to the Dark Ages, we initiate the decline of the West. Not because magic doesn't work, no, precisely because it does work--sometimes. It is the Christian view of magic that protected the West from destruction, that triumphed over the Golden Horde and the marauding Moors, and it was the Christian view of magic that led the West out of the Dark Ages. Let me consider these two themes below.

Why is it that Chinese civilization, that recorded the supernova of 1034 and invented the magnetic compass and gunpowder, never reached the heights of Western science? Why is it that 4000 years of Chinese medicine was helpless against the devastation of communicable diseases that were the primary killer of large populations, plague, smallpox and cholera, yellow fever and malaria? Why is it that the Greeks who could determine the diameter of the Earth, postulate the existence of atoms, discover the rules of the stars and planets, and invent trigonometry, never flowered into the rich fields of mathematics and astronomy that so defined the Renaissance? Why is it that the Arabs, with the invention of zero, of algebra, of metallurgy, still could not turn these insights into a scientific program that say, produced superior armament for battle?

Stanley Jaki, a historian of science, argues in a number of scholarly books that all these civilizations were unable to separate science from magic. So that, for example, Chinese medicine never got beyond treating symptoms because deeper explanations were neither sought nor encouraged. That mathematics in Greece degenerated into numerology. That Arabian chemistry became alchemy. In all these situations, magic was a seductive siren that misled productive inquiry into successively deeper dead end cul-de-sacs. How was this possible? Because magic has a very different metaphysics than science, a very different set of presuppositions.

Magic assumes that there are innate "powers" that enable a person to effect an outcome. This innate power varies from person to person, and from thing to thing. It is not far removed from an animist religion that imbues inanimate objects with special properties. In contrast, science democratically assumes that all men are created equal, all rocks are created equal, all futures are created equal. Therefore science was often portrayed in decades past, as a rational belief, as a de-spiritualizing of nature. Jaki disagrees. It is precisely because the Christian religion posits belief in an unchanging God that makes "Laws of Nature" possible. If God were arbitrary and manifold, one would never be sure if any "Laws" were possible, much less discoverable. The rationalist science of the Renaissance depended crucially on the rational God of the Reformation. This is what the Chinese, the Greeks and the Arabs lacked, and this was the soil that grew the success of the West from the seeds of faith.

The reintroduction of magic then, undermines the very foundations of science. When and if a post-modern relativism overtakes science, science will rapidly fall into disrepair and ruin. Already the cracks are appearing in the facade. It is not clear who will win the battle in this next century, as we depart the Age of Reason.

As you can see from my previous paragraph, a Christian view of magic protects science from losing its foundation. More importantly, it protects people from "the Dark Arts", as Rowling calls it in her books. As Rowling reveals in both books, the Dark Arts involve the annihilation of personality, the "possession" of people's minds. Unlike the democratic view of mice and men characterizing science, personality is distinguished by its uniqueness. No two people think the same way. And when they do, we talk about "possession", about the personality of one being displaced by another. Wait a minute, isn't this merely psychology and neurobiology? Is this not also science?

No, as Kant ably describes in his treatises. For science deals with observables, with phenomena, but the mind deals with thoughts and abstractions, the noumena. Now I have other reasons for disagreeing with Kant, but his distinction has held sway for 200 years, so it bears repeating. The mind has its own realities that are only remotely observable. Thus some modern psychologists have despaired of ever understanding it, with its trillions of neurons and zillions of cross-connecting dendrites, preferring to treat it as a black box with measurable outputs. Nonetheless, all of us learn at a very young age to recognize voices, connotations of speech, thought processes that uniquely identify an individual. And we are quick to identify changes in these processes, even to say whether "so-and-so is out of his mind".

Some, such as Noah Chomsky, have even argued that we may not be born with a knack for science, but we are born pre-programmed for language, for exactly those person skills described above. We spend far more time in the noumenal realm than in the phenomenal. There's far more money to be made in advertising than in educational TV. Face it, we are social creatures, not scientific animals. Thus, it is acutely important that society not get sucked into "the dark arts". What do I mean by that? Well, many people have analyzed what exactly took the most scientific nation in 1930, and turned into the Nazi war machine. What would make a whole society, "sick"? The same might be asked about Japan in 1910, or Russia in 1920. If it can be said that a person loses his personality, so it might also be said that a nation or society loses its conscience. Plato wanted a "philosopher king", George Washington wanted a democratically elected republic, their goals were the same, to prevent the assimilation by powerfully evil men, to counteract the "dark arts".

Ultimately, magic is about control. It's about power. It's about manipulation. It's about appearances without substance. It's about symptoms, not causes. It's about quick fixes and slow deaths. It's about selfishness and greed. It's about denial and desperation. It no more solves the problem of disease than Chinese medicine cures malaria. It cannot heal, it can only hide. And this is precisely why it hinders science. It is precisely why it damages society. It is precisely why those Cretans burned their spell books. Because Christianity provides the real thing, the cure for the cause, the medicine for the soul, the regeneration of life, the power to transform. So it is that Christianity and magic are oil and water, fire and ice, they are mutually exclusive, incompatible and death to each other.

Pax Christi,

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