Happy Friday, all. Notices first:
There’s a new episode of Wrong With Authority up for you to download, here. WWA is a podcast about movies about historical events, created and starring myself, Kit Power, Daniel Harper, and James Murphy. We take it in turns to host. This time, James is hosting, and we’re talking about Shadow of the Vampire and Gods and Monsters, two movies about the lives of genius directors of classic horror cinema. So far, the show is getting better with every episode, so check it out. I believe podcasts in which white guys talk about movies are a real rarity online, so tell all your friends.
Sam Keeper is still being really interesting about Rogue One at the moment… and I’m not just saying that because Sam is saying nice things about me and Phil (though that obviously shows excellent taste).
I myself do have more to say about Rogue One and Star Wars generally, but I’m taking a bit of a break for now. Instead, here’s the first of a new occasional series about another obscure, niche fantasy franchise you probably haven’t heard of.
A little while ago, in the context of a post about John Hurt, I talked a little about the character he plays in the Harry Potter films: Mr Ollivander. Ollivander is an interesting ‘way in’ to thinking about some aspects of J.K. Rowling’s weltanschauung.
Ollivander is a rarity in Rowling’s work, and also in the films. Not only is he irresolvably ambiguous, but he’s also a character who has a fundamentally different view of the world to everyone else. These two things taken together mark him out. There are other people in the stories who have perspectives that are unorthodox in the Wizarding World, but they are all either evil or foolish. (In the films there is also Luna, who is neither… but screen-Luna is a very different beast to page-Luna.)
As I noted in the John Hurt essay, Harry – who normally arrives at very decided views on people very quickly, and who usually turns out to be right – is always unsure about Ollivander. Of course, he turns out to be right about Ollivander anyway, in the sense that he’s right to not be sure about him. Not because he later turns out to be evil, or a Death Eater (or is it ‘Deatheater’? I don’t know, I listened to the audiobooks) in disguise, but simply because the books themselves aren’t sure about him. He turns up again in later books and his character never resolves one way or the other.
Rowling doesn’t treat Ollivander with her customary spite. It’s an old saw that good writers have to be sadists towards their characters. I’m not sure that’s true. But that isn’t what I’m getting at anyway. As a writer, Rowling generally has an extremely cruel and judgemental view of people. She tends to be less judgemental than is warranted towards characters she has decided, a priori, that she likes and we should like too. Sirius Black, for instance. But conversely, she tends to be extremely judgemental – in a casually-yet-obsessively callous way – towards people who, all told, are guilty of very petty and human sins. For instance, she draws Sybil Trelawney (the Hogwarts Divination teacher) as dishonest, vain, pathetic, melodramatic, and a comedy drunk. The disdain and contempt she repeatedly revels in heaping upon this relatively inoffensive creature is strangely feverish.
Rowling is writer enough to set up characters whose flaws require sympathy, and then strangely reluctant to afford them any. She either flatly denies that they need any (for flaws anyway) because she has decided, despite evidence to the contrary, that they are perfect, or she refuses sympathy towards the glaring imperfections of characters she sees as weak. Weakness is a particular horror of Rowling’s, and also Harry’s. He is never more anxious and self-pitying (both of which he is a lot) than when he thinks he has detected a weakness in himself, or thinks others have detected a weakness in him (real or imaginary). For instance, he frets for ages in Prisoner of Azkaban, over his inability to withstand proximity to the Dementors. When he confines some of his fears to Remus Lupin, Lupin seems to immediately sense the source of Harry’s anxiety, and to sympathise, because he hurriedly blurts out an excuse for Harry’s vulnerability, saying “It’s nothing to do with weakness!” This is in the context of a storyline in which Lupin’s old school friend Peter Pettigrew (they were in a circle of friends with Sirius and Harry’s father James) is depicted as about the most contemptible entity imaginable, and his wickedness stems fundamentally from his weakness. As we learn more about this circle of friends, we learn that both James Potter and Sirius Black were hateful little shits at school. Giant Quiddich hoops are jumped through in later books to explain why James Potter – despite being an egomaniac and a bully – was actually a great bloke, or at least became one. The key difference between James (who grew up to be a hero) and Peter (who grew up to be a traitor) is that James’ nastiness was at least strong, whereas Peter’s was weak. Weakness is inherently evil, for Rowling. Worse, it’s revolting. There is nothing worse than being weak. Not even being fat is worse… and for Rowling, who absolutely hates fat people, that’s saying something. Of course, it’s not either/or. Peter Pettigrew is fat.
The films, in their customary fashion, soften all this somewhat, at least with regards the non-evil characters… by, for instance, hiring Emma Thompson to play Trelawney as merely scatterbrained and lonely.
Ollivander, by contrast, is written far more closely to his character in the book. He is genial, amiable, helpful, and untrustworthy. He is untrustworthy, it transpires in the books, because he has unusual beliefs and interests. This is generally the way in Rowling. Much as she ostensibly celebrates eccentricity, and sneers at middle-class conformity in the persons of the Dursleys, she is actually deeply suspicious of anyone with non-mainstream views and interests. She ridicules Hermione for her political dissent. Beyond policy disagreements between elites, she represents the only other (possible) form of political dissent in the Wizarding World as the kooky conspiracy-theorizing of the Lovegoods. Essentially, by the worldview apparently taken for granted in the books, you either accept the basic validity of the status quo, or you’re Hitler, or David Icke… or, at best, a smug and condescending elitist reformer like Hermione.
(I’ve written before – and may do again – about how Voldemort is the Right and the Left, and anyone else who wants to fundamentally change the world, all rolled up into one big ball of fanaticism… see here and here… a view confirmed by Rowling’s inability to tell the difference between fascism and radical anti-fascism on Twitter.)
In Rowling’s world of flattened and banal ‘magic’, witchcraft and wizardry are so dull and omnipresent that they are normality. It becomes necessary for her to needlessly multiply entities, as they say. She must, in order to create mysteries, invent an extra layer of the mystical and occult beneath the mundane, quotidian ‘magical’ reality of the Wizarding World. (This is something that happens again and again in the books, in various forms. As Dan Hemmens pointed out in his majestically irritable sporking of Deathly Hallows, for some reason a magic sword isn’t enough to destroy a Horcrux; it must also be impregnated with basilisk venom too!) This extra layer she invents around Ollivander is ultimately explained in the final book… which is to say that she invents it and then retrofits it back onto the continuity of the rest of the series. It is to do with wands, how they’re made, how they work, how they ‘choose’ their owners, how they develop and sometimes change allegiances. The extra layer, in other words, is to do with Ollivander. And it had to be so, because he’s one of the few things going right the way back to the first book but also still ambiguous.
Rowling is often credited with encouraging literacy. She supposed to have gotten an entire generation reading (an idea about which hardly anything has ever been said that isn’t either too kind or unfair on Rowling, or not secretly venomous towards young people). But her attitude to books, reading, and literacy is actually very complex. She is happy to use reluctance or inability to read as a signifier marking characters out as beneath contempt (Dudley, Crabbe and Goyle) but her treatment of book-enthusiast Hermione is deeply ambivalent. Hermione’s attachment to books is depicted as obsessive, unhealthy, and purblind as often as it is admirable and helpful. Hermione even runs-down her own bookish cleverness at the end of the first book, in favour of Harry’s bravery and compassion, despite having shown no less bravery and compassion herself. The actual librarian in the stories, Madame Pince, is an unlikeable nonentity who fetishizes books over people. And the books in the school library, though often said to be treasure troves, usually tend to come up with partial answers far too late. Useful insights tend to come from instinct, recalled-conversations, etc. In the second book, Chamber of Secrets, one of the teachers puts all his own books on the class reading list, and they turn out to be full of unscrupulous lies.
The ambivalent attitude to books can be found writ-large in the sixth book, Half-Blood Prince, in which Harry becomes attached to an old chemistry textbook that offers insights which help him jump ahead of everyone else in his class. But the useful insights in the book are all scribbled in the margins rather than printed in the text itself. And it turns out that the notes were made by Snape when he was a wannabe Death Eater, and also contain vicious curses. In the end, the safest thing to do with the book is to deliberately lose it. Harry’s response to his own use of one of the vicious curses is to blame the book, and throw it away. The valence of this is changed in the film to Harry being encouraged by Ginny, who quietly and suddenly seems more mature than him, to put aside a dark side of himself. It looks, partly down to how hard Daniel Radcliffe is trying to invest Harry with much-needed interiority, like Harry realises something scary and distasteful about himself and, with some help from his friends, acts to address it. This is rather likeable, despite being yet another iteration of the already-accomplished-girl-teaches-boy-to-be-the-hero trope. It is certainly more likeable than Harry’s reaction in the book. Having recklessly used a curse he doesn’t understand on Malfoy, who was crying alone in a toilet at the time, and discovered that it inflicts life-threatening injury, Book!Harry’s main concern is whether Snape is going to give him detention. Snape is, needless to say, depicted as an utter shit for being angry with Harry for slashing open the skin of a fellow pupil. This is a writer so immersed in her own fantasy world, and her own adoration of her chosen favourites, that she’s not only forgotten whether any of what she’s writing makes sense, she’s also forgotten basic standards of human decency. But I digress…
Whatever we think of it, written information is viewed with suspicion in Rowling’s world. More fundamentally, there seems to be no such thing as discovery, dissent, or revelation in written or printed words. As noted, the only meaningful dissent is Hermione’s – smug, arrogant, out-of-touch, elitist, middle-class – liberalism. Aside from that, there is Lovegood’s Quibbler, the equivalent of the National Inquirer crossed with conspiracy theory websites. The only other periodicals are inconsequential ‘womens’ magazines’ (Witch Weekly), and the Daily Prophet. The Prophet is the ‘respectable’ news source, but carries only sensationalism and scandal-mongering (Reeta Skeeter) or political reportage which slavishly follows the establishment line, as when the magazine uncritically accepts the view of Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge that Harry and Dumbledore are nutty troublemakers for claiming that Voldemort has returned. You could see this as a satirical jab at the media, and you’d be right, except that it underlies a more fundamental mistrust of all literacy in the books. Harry’s schoolbooks are either filled with banalities (the moons of Jupiter), lies (Lockheart’s autobiographies), nonsense (crystal gazing and tea leaves, which is as silly in Rowling’s world as in the real world), dull (history books are nothing but recitations of dates and names), sinister and off-limits (full of methods of magical torture) or simply unread. There are no new theories, no hypotheses, no philosophy, no new discoveries, no new proposed paradigms, no debates, no competing perspectives. Books are not places where one finds discussion or analysis of ideas. Political perspectives are not debated. There is no great conversation, and no great battleground. Moreover, such ideas as there are seem frozen in time. Ideas have no history. They are not evolved and contested, or developed, or disproved, or championed, or dissected, or melded.
Where does all this go? It’s tempting to say that it is simply edited out, that this aspect of society has no analogue in the Wizarding World in the way that many other aspects of society do. But I don’t think this is quite right.
Firstly, surface levels of the magical world are arranged so as to give the impression of there having been debates and competing perspectives. These features look like the end results of such a history of ideas. It’s a strange kind of idealism (in the philosophical sense) in which it is definitely ideas that drive history, change, politics, society, government, etc (reality being fundamentally immaterial as well as deterministic in Rowling’s world), and yet the ideas don’t seem to have come from anywhere. They’re just there. It’s a bit like Castrovalva, which popped into existence – complete with people and customs and traditions and opinions – a couple of minutes before the Doctor and his friends arrived. Castrovalva too has a library full of books which detail a flat and meaningless history which is little more than a recitation of events. But at least Castrovalva is admitted to have been a recent creation, which explains its lack of any intellectual history, or the lack of substance in its written record. That’s part of the point of the story. Rowling’s Wizarding World, like Castrovalva, was created a second or two before we walked into it, but neither troubles to admit as much or take much trouble to cover it up. So the first answer to ‘where does the history of ideas go’ is: into a sort of contextless present political ‘situation’ which is happy to just be there without any real history.
The second answer is less straightforward. The history of ideas becomes a hidden history, an occluded history, a history of rumour and myth and obsession. It becomes a strange thing: a pocket of mystical, disavowed, and occult gnosis within a world that is itself notionally such a pocket.
But the pocket world that is the Wizarding World is not actually an alternative world, but is actually content to be a kind of banal mirror held up to the most banal and superficial aspects of our world… the aspects, or perhaps I should say the representations, of our world that are all over the mainstream media. Normality as understood by tacit, centrist liberalism. The Wizarding World is a mirror to this mirror. And yet it fails to act like a hall of mirrors, distorting for effect, or like an infinity effect created by two mirrors facing each other, or like a reflecting telescope, which reflects reflections in order to magnify. It’s more like a tiny mirror being held a long way away from a huge one, so that the tiny mirror contains an obscure cameo of everything the huge mirror reflects. And far from distorting the image itself, it simply reproduces the image in miniaturised and distant form.
The pocket-within-a-pocket thus becomes the furtive, guilty recognition of the fact that, despite being set amidst the ineffable, the Harry Potter stories are in fact entirely effable. They are based on effability. Effability is their rationale, their organising logic, their raison d’etre. They are, by design, the de-magicification of the concept of magic. Ollivander’s little subculture – the devotees of the story of the Deathly Hallows – is a kind of loose brotherhood of occultists within the non-occult space of Rowling’s pseudo-occultic magical community.
It is also inhabited by Xenophilius Lovegood (who’s into it precisely because it’s fringe, and his attraction to fringe ideas is presented as pathological), by proto-Voldemort and pseudo-Hitler Grindelwald (who looks to be the recurring villain of the Fantastic Beasts movies), and for a time by Dumbledore. Dumbledore and Grindelwald are friends and their mutual obsession with the Deathly Hallows is the conscious logic behind what is strongly implied to be a homosexual love affair (this is a can of worms all to itself). It is also the mystical basis for their sometime shared ideology of Wizard supremacy. This is fairly acute of Rowling, in that it connects a supremacist and fascistic ideology with an underlying attitude of hermetic and insular mysticism – which has some basis in fact. The consciously ideological ‘intellectuals’ of fascism, particularly Nazism, were often obsessed with mystical volkisch legends. There is a definite axis (pardon the pun) of fascism which intersects with quackish mysticism, mythical accounts of racial heritage, and a fascination with a supposedly lost and occluded ancient past which is now retold only in legend.
This ties in with the way in which Voldemort, the only person in the stories who ideologically wishes to fundamentally change his own society, is himself both the Left and the Right simultaneously. The very flatness and mundanity of the Wizarding World, its nature as a cameo of a straightforward reflection, is a function of the view of the world which sees ‘normality’ as inherently non-ideological. The Wizarding World is populated largely by middle-class professionals, officialdom, bureaucrats, functionaries, desk-jockeys, clerks, etc, or by petty bourgeois small traders. The few working class characters (in the conventional sense) we see are generally insignificant and moronic (Stan Shunpike, Knight Bus conductor) and are, without exception, not engaged in industry or production. The lowest forms of working class drudgery are carried out by the Elves, who are depicted as slaves but who are also… well, again, that’s a whole can of worms to itself. Things like toilets and cars are ‘muggle artifacts’, implying that people in the Wizarding World do not make such things, or indeed anything… which makes it a puzzle to figure out where all the things in the Wizarding World come from. The world is full of artifacts, produced things, and yet they are simply there (again, the contextless presence of a present situation, coupled with a silent amputation of any history). This is another way of saying that the commodity form is edited out of social reality in the Wizarding World. Things are bought and sold, but the process of production is left forever undepicted and unmentioned. The only people who actually make anything in the Wizarding World are the Goblins, who create magical swords and armour, etc., and this is only because they are not human. (Yet again, the goblins are another can of worms by themselves.)
The point is that Ollivander becomes Harry’s way into understanding the closest thing the Wizarding World has (besides the magic-Nazism of the Death Eaters) to an internal counter-narrative, a layer of occult knowledge, a genuinely eccentric current of dissent, a subculture with its own hermetic lore and priorities. It is a loose fraternity of men who are steeped in ‘wand lore’, the study of the attitudes and choices of wands.
This, by the way, is also the closest thing in the stories to an admission that the Wizards and Witches are served by sentient beings who are both absolutely indispensable and utterly in their thrall. The helpless but integral nature of the wands is the closest the stories get to noticing that the kind of society manifested in the Wizarding World – middle class, petty bourgeois – is impossible without the support of creative forces which are both vital and almost totally unacknowledged. It is the closest thing to an acknowledgement of the creation of value elsewhere. Far closer than anything found in the more prominent discussion around House Elves. It is entirely in keeping with Rowling’s tendency to emphasize the agency of inanimate objects over humans, without recognising that she is doing so… but then commodity fetishism is, in many ways, the central logic of these stories, which is why they often seem like a novelisation of various concepts in bourgeois economics, which is commodity fetishism codified.
But we’re at the end so we need to kill off a much-loved regular, for shock value. I think I’ll kill Phil this time. Sorry Phil… but that’s storytelling for you.