Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Book review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J. K. Rowling

I largely agree with Stephen King’s advocacy of the merits of J. K. Rowling: the Harry Potter novels—especially the later ones—manage a combination of imaginativeness and pacing equaled by few other writers. While acknowledging Rowling’s achievement, however, and counting myself among the deeply absorbed readers of the series to the end, I want to comment on my dissatisfaction with its last installment.

The primary flaw of this book lies in its cavalier dismissal of the moral complications involved in the use of extreme force. This dismissal violates the values of Rowling’s make-believe world, returning the reader to everyday relativism with an anticlimactic thump. From the beginning, the books led us to understand that the wizarding world operates with a code roughly analogous to, but fundamentally different from, human theories of justified violence and war. The wizarding system of morality draws a clear line between minor offences and three Unforgivable Curses: those that murder, torture, and enslave others. The rules of wizarding set the limits of legitimate violence with a specific, strong prohibition.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry crosses the line, unequivocally and shamelessly torturing an enemy with an Unforgivable Curse. The situation allows Rowling the opportunity to grapple with the moral difficulties of just war theory: if wartime requires good people to act immorally—even unforgivably, by conventional standards—how do we assess the human consequences of just war for the perpetrators as well as the victims of violence? The novel’s answer: no sweat! We win! The narrative forgives the supposedly unforgivable in advance, framing the action to encourage rooting for Harry to go ahead with it already, and then never hints at any consequences of Harry’s choice.

This choice to deflate the problem of unforgivable curses is one example of the novel’s larger inability to play by its own rules. Two other problems both contribute to the cheeriness of the epilogue, which trades epic complexity for cuteness. The simpler of these is the logic by which Harry claims the elder wand. The climactic duel between Harry and the incarnation of ultimate evil turn on the results of an ordinary skirmish in which Harry has disarmed Draco Malfoy and thus gained ownership of the elder wand, though Draco does not possess the wand at the time. By this reasoning, anybody who disarms Harry becomes master of the world’s most powerful weapon, but nobody seems interested in trying.

The more complex problem involves the logic of sacrifice. Harry’s ability to save a world by embracing his own death parallels the Christian myth of sacrifice in many ways, and, not coincidentally, it runs into some of the same logical problems. The Christian version of redemption by sacrifice has caused theological trouble for millennia. Why does the sacrifice of one being redeem the sins of others? Doesn’t that redemption require some kind of deal in which Satan accepts the trade? If so, why does an omnipotent God have to negotiate? If not, why does an omnipotent God have to sacrifice anything, let alone God’s only child? The story gains great emotional power from the idea of sacrifice, but explaining the necessity for and nature of the sacrificial transaction requires some seriously complex theology because common sense doesn’t do the trick. The complexity of the problem is a danger sign for the novelist who would take Christian sacrifice as a model for a plot.

Rowling’s version borrows the Christian mystery of sacrifices that protect other beings from evil, but Rowling removes the complicating factors that make the Christian story so interesting and troublesome. Harry is only mostly dead, for one thing, and his victory is disconcertingly complete. Whereas the whole series of Harry Potter novels drew its energy from the suggestion that dark wizarding came not only from Voldemort but also from every character’s susceptibility to temptation, the Battle of Hogwarts allows Harry a total victory. Voldemort’s literal death is unsurprising, but his metaphorical death in the elimination of evil people and even significantly evil thoughts at the end of the book provides cheap, simple satisfaction. The book sidesteps the central question of the Christian story of victory through sacrifice: why does evil persist after the redemption?

Hence the lack of occupations in the epilogue, where the central characters wallow in domestic bliss with no jobs or, more importantly, vocations. I know Rowling has assigned them work in post-publication interviews, but I’m enough of a formalist to say that’s cheating: the key issue is that the end of the last book doesn’t provide a substantive logic for continued conflict, and the epilogue flows smoothly from that lack of conflict. If you’re going to posit the continuance of evil (or, say, the homosexuality of a leading character), you need to make it work in the book—and the book ends, “And all was well.” As much as I enjoyed reading these books, and that is very much indeed, all is not well when an epic ends without grappling with the persistence of evil.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

For my convenience

Here's a great moment in technology. I just got an email that was sent to the whole faculty. It begins, "For your convenience, I have attached a PDF file of this email."

I admit that I couldn't resist opening the file to confirm that statement. Yup: it's a PDF of the same formatting and text of the email. Perhaps next time, we could also receive an image file of the PDF of the email.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Polls and the Iowa Caucuses

As an Iowan who experienced the Democratic caucus last time around, I'd like to offer a perspective that sometimes attracts a little coverage (as in this 2004 piece) but then disappears for a long time.

When you go to the caucus in Iowa, the first stage of the process is like a live, public primary: each candidate has a designated space, and his or her supporters go to that place. But then a viability rule kicks in: any candidate with less than 15 percent support (or more, depending on the situation) is declared non-viable, and his or her supporters go other groups.

Based on today's poll numbers, therefore, a typical precinct will see everybody but the Big Three eliminated right away. Your Richardsons or Bidens might survive in a precinct or two, but every precinct will have a significant chunk of voters, probably somewhere between 15 and 30 percent, who aren't able to support their first-choice candidates. If Iowa remains close, those voters could play a large, even decisive, role in determining the state winner. This two-stage process will reward candidates with broad support and low negative ratings--the ones most likely to be the second choice of those Dodd supporters who need to find a new horse to ride on caucus night.

My guess is that the caucus process will result in Obama surpassing expectations based on his pre-caucus poll numbers, but that's just my guess. My main point is that anyone considering the possibility of a candidate catching a wave in Iowa should consider the poll numbers in the context of the caucus process.

Monday, October 01, 2007

A bizarre argument for arts education

I'm a big fan and proud veteran of public-school programs in the arts, especially music. Because I wish school arts programs well, I hope they enjoy better supporting arguments than this one, offered by Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland in the Boston Globe. (Winner and Hetland teach at Boston College and the Massachusetts College of Art, respectively.)

Starting with the big question, "Why do we teach the arts in schools?" Winner and Hetland argue, in brief,

1. The common claim that the arts make students "smarter" (or higher achievers) in other subject areas has not held up to scrutiny.

2. However, arts classes are valuable in another way because their teachers tend to use techniques that develop "life skills" such as critical self-examination more than teachers in other classes.

3. This "arts-like approach" can be adapted to teaching other subject areas.

That last step is the kicker: if the only demonstrable benefits of the "arts-like approach" can be exported straightforwardly out of the arts classroom, why should we bother with the arts classroom as anything but a transitional space, where certain (not very revolutionary) teaching techniques are examined and extracted until the arts themselves become wholly unnecessary?

Again, I write as a supporter of arts education, but the logic of this article, ostensibly in support of the cause, constitutes one of the most effective attacks on it that I have encountered.