Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Happy Aniversary


So, Harry Potter - then.

I can't pretend to be an expert - I've not read all the books, but I've read three and spent this weekend locked in hell watching all the films back to back (my friend's revenge for making her watch all six Star Wars movies in one weekend).

Let's lay down some theoretical premises then. Children’s' literature is middle class - in the nineteenth century sense - essentially born of bourgeois ideology - Rousseauian noble savage and all that. You can see traces of the themes in Wordsworth's Prelude
Oh, many a time have I, a five years' child,
In a small mill-race severed from his stream,
Made one long bathing of a summer's day;
[...] as if I had been born
On Indian plains, and from my mother's hut
Had run abroad in wantonness, to sport
A naked savage, in the thunder shower.
That should suffice to illustrate the point. Medieval literature treated childhood as adulthood in miniature.

The point of all of this is simply - a key feature of Modern children's literature is the delineation of a separate child's world. Further, that Evil in this context is that which would destroy the child-world and bring adulthood into it - as an example see the current Narnia film with Tilda Swinton doing a Venus in Furs routine as the White Witch. In the book, the Witch is clearly seductive, sensuous and worldly - with Red Lips and everything. She is evil in such ways as to deny Christmas, to assault a core ritual of childhood.

Obviously, genuine evil has no place in a children's narrative - holocausts are not conducive to innocence. Evil is known simply by announcing itself as such and acting in such a way as to intrude on the innocence of childhood - just as evil is the Other of any other discourse/narrative - in any other story - the thing that shatters the ability to keep the fictional text-world together.

That is, I'd suggest, children's fiction revolves around the maintenance of the protected dependent status of children.

Now, to Potter proper. I'll make a few points. I suggest that, in psychoanalytical terms Potter is in a feminised position - the position of the object of desire, the objet petit a:
The concept of the objet petit a is central to Lacan’s theory of desire,
which arguably represents his major contribution to psychoanalysis. It is an expression of the lack inherent in human beings, whose incompleteness and early helplessness produce a quest for fulfilment beyond the satisfaction of biological needs. The objet petit a is a fantasy that functions as the cause of desire; as such, it determines whether desire will be expressed within the limits of the pleasure principle or “beyond,” in pursuit of an unlimited jouissance, an impossible and even deadly enjoyment.
(From here [PDF]). The objet petit a structures desire and thus structures narrative synchronically and diachronically - in traditional gothic fiction in it the lonely female in the tower being menaced by a count. In Harry potter it is the boy in the labyrinthine Hogwarts.

As he is desired so too is he dangerous - a maternal curse has made him anathema to Voldemort (causing 'death' once already). The Object petit a is supposed to arise from the primary castration of the subject by language (significantly Potter is marked with a signifier - the scar on his forehead). To obtain the forbidden object of desire is to undo language and the symbolic order - to understand all is to forgive all, and to understand that the object of desire is just another thing breaks down the oppositions that structure meaning around it.

In Children’s narrative, to introduce the adult world comprehensively is to destroy the distinction between the fantasy of childhood and the fantasy of adulthood. To vouchsafe the symbolic universe Harry must be protected - this is the function of the equal and opposite evil of Azkaban and the Ministry - the smacking, chastising parent.

Here we are now approaching the key of my discussion - his privileged position as the vouchsafe of the Law makes Harry Sovereign - in effect, as beyond the law as any Monarch. Hence so many stories in the novels revolve around not simply the old Boarding School stories of breaking the rules, but also the authorities' connivance and favouritism in Potter's breaking them.

Herein, I think, lies the appeal. Adults shouldn't read children's books. Magic shouldn't exist. Rules shouldn't be broken. Evil should not be so prominent in children's narratives. There is a pleasure in transgression going on, an escape into naughtiness but without danger or complexity (I mean, my jokes about Voldemort being a freedom fighter against the totalitarian Ministry of Magic - I mean what penal regime has Souleating torturous monsters as a part of its system?). Hence why people who would not read fantasy normally do so.

Politically, the books are highly PC - mixed sex and race boarding school and mixed class (though how economics works in a world of magic is never explained). No-one ever discusses Hogwarts' tuition fees. Despite Draco Malfoy being an old fashioned aristocratic snob versus our meritocratic heroes, there's plenty of 'blood lineage' flowing around in Potter following in his father's footsteps - it's all in the blood. Add this in with Potter's Sovereign status and we start to see a fairly conventional fantasy narrative of the return of the rightful king and re-establishment of a functional natural order (Of course, what makes Harry so special is the absence of parent's his lack - just as Star Wars ends with the re-establishment of the family order).

Perhaps I haven't been as clear and concise as I'd like, but that strikes me as needing too much work for a blog.


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