the magic of harry potter

some time ago i was asked a very interesting question by stripesknitted. the question, in translation, was this: is harry potter a wizard (a person who does magic), or not?

i have great respect for stripesknitted,  and use the question here only as an initial quote for a broader discussion of certain cultural tendencies.

so, here we have a very interesting, direct and searching question: is harry potter a person who does magic, or is he not? i consider this to be a question without answer, and there are a number of reasons for that.

the first part of the question, namely, ‘is harry potter a person?’ merits closer attention. therefore, let us take it apart.

the usual definition of a person is – according to  ‘a living human being’, with body (and sometimes clothes, etc., depending on the dictionary involved). so, given that harry potter is a character in a book, and it is quite impossible to see or otherwise confirm him having a living  body, i would chance to guess that he is not a person, not in the conventional sense of the word. (from this, of course, are excluded such cases as mere coincidences with human beings named ‘harry’ (born before 1981) and having the surname ‘potter’)

next part of the question deals with ‘magic’. according to the same dictionary, magic boils down to ‘the art of producing supernatural effects or controlling supernatural forces through incantation’. in order to understand ‘supernatural’, the ‘natural’ has to be defined, and it being ‘having a real or physical existence’, we can see that ‘supernatural’ then is something that surpasses or goes beyond the real or physical existence. this all is very nice in a non-fictional universe. but what we have in the world of j.k.rowling, is a fictional universe which in no way can be defined as ‘having physical existence’. thus, what passes for ‘natural’, ‘supernatural’ and ‘magic’ all are figments of the author’s imagination, defined and built by it. the links that allow the reader to understand this imagination, are the latin ‘incantations’ and our common western cultural background of fairy tales, fantasy and related literature.

summing up the first part of this discussion, the question cannot be answered because a) harry potter is not a person, and b) because the magic he could do, exists in a fictional, unreal universe. zero plus zero (in Euclidian terms) equals zero.

and now the second part of my rambling thought. that is, if anyone is reading this far. the magic of harry potter. because there definitely is some, but not in the place it is commonly sought. also, I would like to hypothesise why a question like the above-mentioned could arise in the present society.

first, I would like to refer to ursula k. le guin. in her ‘Plausibility Revisited’ she excellently defines the aims and purposes of fiction in general and fantasy in particular:

In fiction, the story is not what happened. Fiction didn’t happen. What happened doesn’t matter to fiction, and history or fact can’t validate or invalidate it. [..] What validates fiction is plausibility, which it creates for itself, most notably through accurate, honest observation of the world it creates. [..]

Fantasy is far more direct in its fictionality than either realism or science fiction. Its contract with the reader is a different one. There is no agreement to pretend that its story happened, might have happened, or might ever happen. Its invention is radical. With the informed consent of the reader, fantasy deliberately violates plausibility in the sense of congruence with the world outside the story. [..] What constitutes plausibility in fantasy is the coherence of the story, its consistent self-reference.

the world created by j.k.rowling is highly plausible because it is very well conceived and quite self-consistent. it does not mean it is ‘real’ or ‘existent’. it just means the reader finds it easy to believe and understand, as there are few loopholes and inconsistencies (like, for instance, blinking snakes in hp-1) left in the bookverse.

second, I’d like to make some empirical observations about the time I live in, and the culture that accompanies it. this is the time of unlimited information, journalism and accessible facts. wikileaks, news agencies, social networks and mobile phones tend to keep the individual (person) ‘plugged in’, ‘in the loop’, always ‘informed’. notice the scare quotes. if one does any content analysis – not even content analysis, mere keyword study – on the main news sites and infostreams, a certain bias and leaning towards a certain type of information, mainly negative, become obvious. overloaded with ‘facts’, the human does not have the time either to analyse or to systematise the information they have to process daily. it can be said (metaphorically) that the present society has developed a cult of facts, an altar of information, upon which it sacrifices the ability to think, analyse and grow in self-reflection which leads to wisdom.

it can be said, then, that the present occidental culture has exchanged technology for spirituality, and ability to think for making endless lists of ‘facts’.

third. nobody, nothing has cancelled the human soul, the creativity, the desire for the marvellous, the expectation of the miraculous. regardless of the framework of expression, the human society divides the world into the sacral and the profane (Eliade, PATTERNS IN COMPARATIVE RELIGION, 1958, p30). now, when the society busies itself with ‘facts’ and ‘information’, by doing that it covers up the spiritual and the sacral with a lid of sorts.

yet the sacral will out, one way or another. numerous writers and philosophers (le guin, tolkien, king, simsone, bloom etc.) have noted that fantasy and sci-fi literature are the mythology for the modern age. it answers the longing of the human soul to be elsewhere, to touch the sacral, to create within the limits of fantasy. when the infostream makes the minds and hearts shallow, the fantasy and science fiction try to deepen the feelings, develop the thinking ability, allow the imagination to play.

fourth. a culture of infostream as a rule, imposes certain restraints upon the thinking. this has been discussed both by jean baudrillard  when he speaks of simulacra and education, and allan bloom in ‘the closing of the american mind’ which lean towards either literal or allegorical understanding of all texts presented. in simpler words – the present-day westerners have to make special effort to understand second and higher level metaphors and quite a lot of humour.

yet fantasy and science fiction are exactly that – metaphors. this is where their magic is. this is why harry potter books are supernatural – because they are metaphors, they contain the great story of the quest and battle of good vs. evil, inner conflicts and difficult choices. these books cannot be read as facts, nor can they be read as allegories. doing so, the magic is not only lost, but it becomes perverted, poisoned, and poisons the mind of the reader.

so, summing it up: fictional universes rely on self-consistency for plausibility, which has nothing to

do with reality. the western society has developed a strong line for information, which tends to replace wisdom and spirituality. the sacral, the spiritual, seeks new ways of expression and new forms of existence. one of those forms is fantasy and science fiction literature. fantasy and sci-fi are always metaphor and must be read as such, otherwise they destroy the reader in unpredictable ways.

if anyone has had the patience to read this far, congratulations. now the last partian shot.

I think that those who say that potter books (which are not flawless, but this is not the matter of this discussion) are evil because they are about magic (the literal reading), and those who try to wave wands and do semi-latinised incantations (the literal reading again), and those that seek reflection of british politics or political correctness (allegorical reading) are equally wrong. they should have chosen very different books to read and never try evaluating a remote fictional metaphor based on the bible or reuters homepage. the potterverse is not about facts or practices. it is about choices and purity of heart – as a good consistent fantasy world should be.

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