A humanist (mis)reading of Harry Potter?

I confess, the third paper in the Ravenclaw Reader has made me question the wisdom of this blog project. And at the least it shows how very differently people can read the Potter books. Siddarth Pandey, who appears to be a PhD student at Homerton, Cambridge, approaches them with a copy of Deleuze in his back pocket.

Let’s start with a few observations. Pandey wants to argue that magic is fluid, and this fits Deleuze’s way of thinking about the universe.

Movement indeed determines both the being and the experience of magic, so that Rowling’s fictional world is forever embrace by shiftiness. (p.57).

To that end he evidences the changing staircases of Hogwarts, the Burrow “burst[ing] with the strange and unexpected” (Chamber p.37), the enchanted Ford Anglia that takes on a semi-wild existence of its own in the Forbidden Forest, what he suggests is a “mysterious magical pact” (p.55) between the Marauder’s Map and the Room of Requirement which means the room doesn’t appear on the map, the ways in which the dark magic objects in 12 Grimmauld Place resist attempts to clean and remove them so that it seems as if they’re actually “waging war on the house” (Phoenix p.109), teapots that go berserk and squirt tea on their Muggle user, the paintings whose occupants wander off from time to time, and so on.

marauders_mapThe problem with this list is its equally easy to go through it and point out other explanations specific to these features. The absence of the Room of Requirement from the Marauders’ Map is explained explicitly within the narrative as part of the magic of the room, and implicitly by the probability that the Marauders never found it in their time in the school.  The strange things of the Burrow are only strange to Harry, who has never been in a wizard’s house before. They are regarded explicitly in the text as “perfectly normal” (Chamber p.37). The objects of Grimmauld Place are the detritus of a dark wizarding family, who imbued the house with all the things they could think of to keep people like the Weasleys (and the Ministry) away. The teapots that go berserk have been bewitched to do so by Muggle-baiting wizards.

There are only three things on the list which might suggest some unpredictable fluidity to the world. However, of these, the changing staircases of Hogwarts are presented as part of the ingrained magic of the building, without explanation – a peculiarly magic exaggeration of the normal predicament of the child new to a secondary school: getting lost on the way to class because they’re unfamiliar with the building. The paintings are a more interesting case: their magic is never explained, but there appears to be a consistent logic to them. Whereas photos only seem to have the movement of their subjects, paintings participate in the personality – perhaps the soul – of their subject. The apotheosis of this in the narrative is the way in which Dumbledore’s portrait engages actively in events after his death.

In the end, it is only the car which proves unpredictable, given life of a kind by the charms placed on it, and presumably, the beating inflicted on it by the whomping willow. I feel that Pandey reads his “fluidity” into the text:  on closer inspection the evidence for it is blown away as chaff before the wind of narrative logic.

He is right, I think to read magic as entirely non-transcendent in terms of the Potter universe. Yet I can’t see myself that this has anything to do with the “force of magic [having] a indeterminable interiority” (p.58), it is more because it is the science and technology of the magical world. The non-transcendental nature of magic doesn’t mean there is no transcendence in Rowling’s creation, it just means the transcendence is located elsewhere, and I would say that it is love to which Rowling allocates the transcendent value that weaves through the heart of the story.

As for Pandey’s idea that the takeover of the Ministry by Voldemort’s supporters is somehow a critique of “religion in a fundamentalist sense”, and that the motto “Magic is Might” seems “closer to the hallowed tone of ‘May the Force be with you'” (p.63), well, I can only suggest he fails to see a parody of political sloganeering that almost certainly has literary echoes of 1984’s “War is Peace” and the like. There is nothing about the paraphernalia of Voldemort’s rise to power that carries any overt or even implicit religiosity; there is much that carries explicit echoes of how power operates in a fascist dictatorship. I assume Pandey has had some very extreme experiences of fundamentalist religion, which might explain – if you will excuse the politically incorrect word – this misreading of the text.

There are some very interesting observations in Pandey’s argument. His attempt to offer a (very clever) Deleuzean reading is probably beyond my limited intelligence, but it seems to me to flatten the detail of the book and impose a framework on it which doesn’t fi. He is also unusual in arguing for “magic’s humanist pull” and its “aversion towards transcendence” (p.65) This essay, more than most is crying out for a response. Unfortunately, it does;t really get it. The response is briefly complimentary to the author, and then goes off on a line of its own. I would have expected this paper to generate a lot of discussion, and a fair bit of push-back.