Friday, May 12, 2006

Pay No Attention to the Woman Behind the Curtain
Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling’s Sleight of Hand

What is left to be said or done about the Harry Potter phenomenon?

First off, I must confess to never having read any of J.K. Rowling’s books, nor indeed to having any great desire to do so (a few pages has proved sufficient). Maybe some day I will get around to it and be pleasantly surprised, although I suspect that my bias against all things Potter is by now too strong and too firmly established for this to happen. Chances are I would be focusing on finding things to complain about—and doubtless be more than satisfied in my quest—to let myself be swept along by the story.

The movies are another matter. As a film surgeon and movie addict, and as a researcher of all things mythological in our predominantly movie-shaped culture, I have had little choice about seeing the Harry Potter movies. Nor, for the last couple anyway, has this been any great chore. (Actually, I never saw the second movie. Since the first was so unsurpassibly awful, and since the two films shared the same director, I steered well clear of it.)

Because the J.K. Rowling/Harry Potter phenomenon is so pervasive and formidable unto itself, however, it has proved all but impossible for me to watch and enjoy these movies purely on their own merits, or to resist the urge to place them within the context of their own flabbergastingly inflated success. The success of “Harry Potter’—inseparable from the money he has made—comes down to the degree to which the books and movies have colonized the consciousness of Western culture, in the process becoming a veritable meme (psycho-social franchise) unto themselves.

Of course, this is not really the case, because Harry Potter is actually part of a greater meme—that of teenage empowerment through magic—a meme that has been growing and mutating for decades. Needless to say, Harry Potter is not Jesus Christ, and J.K. Rowling is not St. Paul. Yet Harry Potterism has some (if not all) of the earmarks of a 21st century cult, even a religion, primarily I suspect because sorcery is a meme whose time has come. If so, Rowling and her fictional creation are the leading avatars of our day. So why do I feel such disdain, even contempt, for those who bow down at the trash altar of Harry Potter’s magic?

The third movie, from Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, was imaginative, lively, and entertaining. The most recent, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire from director Mike Newell (all the films have been scripted by Steve Kloves, the unhailed auteur behind Flesh and Bone and The Fabulous Baker Boys), was less imaginative or lively, and considerably longer, but it possessed a new level of morbid intensity and visual flare, and managed to be mildly entertaining. It was also undoubtedly aimed at more mature audiences than the previous films.

Yet even these films left me thinking more about what they (and the source material) lacked, than contemplating whatever small virtues they do possess. When you get down to it, the Harry Potter franchise possesses one single major virtue—its subject matter. Leaving aside the question of literary merit (since I haven’t read the books), and judging solely by the movie adaptations, there is next to nothing (so far) in Rowling’s deft presentations of witchcraft and demonology to young audiences that can be called either original or inspired.

In ten years or so, Harry Potter has attained the kind of cult status—the fanatical following, mainstream popularity, and cultural clout—that it took Lord of the Rings half a century to achieve. And although Tolkien’s work could also be called a pastiche, a reworking of old (timeless) myths and fantasy elements, it did so with a full understanding of the archetypes it plundered, and of the reasons for their lasting appeal. As such, the books aspired to (and maybe attained) a mythic dimension all their own.

The Harry Potter series doesn’t aspire to, and consequently doesn’t attain, anything like mythic dimensions. Eschewing any interest in archetypal resonance, it is content to trade in stereotypes instead. In fact, besides the Dementors (which might have been inspired directly by Carlos Castaneda’s “Flyers”), I can’t think of a single lasting contribution that Rowling has made to the field of fantasy fiction. On the other hand, I could come up with an almost endless list of things that she has failed (or been too complacent and lazy) to do. But who has the time?

When the movie The Matrix came out, it satisfied and even surpassed the fantasies, dreams, and expectations of millions of teenage sci-fi heads, appealing to their sense of alienation and strangeness. Using familiar archetypes relating to heroic quests, the search for wisdom and transformation, it answered a need in young people to find their own means of empowerment and inspiration. The brilliance of the movie was in presenting sorcery as something that pertained to our daily lives, something that could lead us to a new interpretation of reality and of ourselves. And this is precisely what sorcery is: a new interpretation.

As some of you already know, I wrote a whole book (Matrix Warrior) that attempted to organize and interpret the movie’s ideas with the exact same end: that of providing empowerment and inspiration to the young and dispossessed. I doubt that I could write, to the same end, even a convincing couple of pages on the Harry Potter series, however. So little of it can be applied to our daily lives that there is little to say about it. Even more damningly, not much of it pertains to any existing traditions of sorcery.

To give the most immediate example, there are no sorcery schools to be found in occult history. If such schools existed (back in ancient Egypt, for example, or Atlantis, or even perhaps in the present day, hidden away in secret compounds beneath or orbiting the Earth), it is pretty hard to imagine they would in any way resemble Rowling’s Hogwort, a place where kids learn sorcery in a classrooms, sitting at desks, making fun of each other like regular school kids. Hogwort is a place where witches don’t even make their broomsticks and wands with their own hands, but instead buy them in a magic store. Where there are flying football matches and sorcery tournaments, and where fledgling sorcerers learn to fly before they learn to heal a common head cold. In a word, where sorcery is really just an additional commodity, within an otherwise conventional social milieu.

It may be countered that J.K. Rowling is writing for children, and can hardly be expected to show any great regard, or even respect, for the magical traditions which inspired her work. After all, it may be argued, children are not ready for a deeper understanding of magic anyway. But that is just presumption. How do we know what children are ready for?

J.K. Rowling has no qualms about depicting the intricacies of dark magic, complete with sadistic bloodletting, the summoning of dark lords via ectoplasm, and all the grisly and macabre intensity that such scenarios entail. Why then does she flinch from exploring with equivalent depth and intensity the sorcery of Harry and the other Hogwort students? Where, for example, is lucid dreaming? Why is astral projection given little or no play in her scenarios, a total no-brainer for enriching magical stories and something that both children and adults can easily understand and relate to?

Instead, we get endless tournaments, contests, trophies, much pomp and little circumstance, all of which anchor the fantasy world within the dreary confines of the public school system, and illustrate the sort of competitive narrow-mindedness that oppresses children everywhere, and which the idea of personal empowerment via sorcery is surely the very antithesis of. Besides the dubious effects of this on Harry Potter readers and viewers (that of strengthening the social doctrine of achievement based on competition and reward), it makes for pretty dull entertainment.

Any work that draws upon the Gnostic tenet of individual illumination is bound to bring about mixed, even conflicting, results. The Matrix—a true Gnostic work that inspired hundreds of viewers to seek out a deeper understanding of themselves and of “reality”—also led to two execrable sequels, not to mention everything from popsicles to coffee mugs. In the process it helped countless millions of “fans” to sink deeper into the socially-imposed stupor of our technological age, reducing the some of the brightest ideas to mere commodities, and assimilating and inverting its own message.

To give a less frivolous example: for the hundreds of Gnostics inspired by the example of Jesus to seek out their own illumination, countless millions are content to abide in sheeplike subjugation to Paul’s Christ and the Jews’ Jehovah. A genuine message of self-empowerment can lead (will lead) to the precise opposite result for the vast majority, by definition unable to grok such a message. Yet, in the exact same manner, false and shallow imitations of magical truths—works like Harry Potter whose message is really one of conformity—may also serve to guide a select and discerning few, beyond the imitation, to the real thing.

To give a well-known example, cheesy horoscopes on the back page of moronic tabloids, while serving to debase the ancient and noble art of astrology, may also provide enough of a taste for certain readers to seek out genuine knowledge from more worthwhile sources. Astrology is powerful enough, not only to survive such debasement, but to use it to its own ends.

Ditto sorcery.

No matter how poorly J.K. Rowling’s franchise may serve to propagate novel ideas relating to magic, alternate realities, and the hidden potential of human beings (especially adolescents!), it is still getting the basic ideas out there. It is probably pointless to lament the series’ lack of originality or vision, since it is just such humdrum, pedestrian qualities that have allowed the books and movies their enormous popular appeal, and hence influence, in the first place.

And for the millions upon millions being slowly stupefied by Rowling’s and Hollywood’s unimaginative, superficial, and stereotypical presentations of magic, there will always be a canny few wise enough to take the books and movies for what they are: crass commercialization of the oldest wisdom of all that nonetheless offers up its pleasures, while serving to pique children’s curiosity and stir the sorcerer within. Such readers and viewers will have little choice—if they are to appease that stirring—save to seek out deeper and more satisfying sources of inspiration. They may even, if so guided, wind up at play in the fields of Castaneda and the true sorcerers and magicians of the world, both ancient and modern. At which point, Hogwort will become just a memory, and Harry Potter will be cast aside along with all the other outgrown toys. Like training wheels that have served their purpose and become a hindrance and an embarrassment, such childish things are stashed away in the attic, when we are ready to ride.


Jim Spindler said...

Thanks, don Jake, for keeping Hope alive. The Real Stuff will out, you're right, and drubbing those drabs now and then, as you are so wont to do, helps clear the way. Me gusta su estilo!

Gus said...

I was amazed at how some of my acquaintances who quickly deride, and debunk anything, and everything I have ever mentioned remotely “paranormal” were so immersed in the Potter fields. It just confounds me how these people can be so enthusiastic over something, seemingly because it is fiction, whereas similar topics are approached with complete disdain if they are said to contain so much as a kernel of truth. Perhaps the tag line of “fiction” serves to alleviate any concerns of ridicule they may attract if they are discovered to be harvesting an actual interest in something at odds with their precious conformity and acceptance.

Retro said...

Well writen.

Indeed it amazes me aswell how people, just waft away true and visionary idea's. But beeing obsessed with the latest mobile phones. Spacy music, with stars and the whole shabam.

I've studied engeneering, they like technology. But my presentation about a new ideological space travel, just shut them down in to ridicule.

It seems they got a dis-ease, not beeing able to connect the dots.

Harry Potter, is brainwashing at best for the NWO.

Ever seen loosechange ?

Anonymous said...

Please. Harry Potter is fictional, as you well know. So maybe the series has affected some in a negative way, but it's not like it's the only book that has done so. This is no hate letter, but I simply can't stand those who take time out of their day to bash a fictional character. But then again, I dislike movie critics. Let us be the judge of what we like. No need to get nasty.