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What’s life like without dragons?

The last book in the Harry Potter series is a good reason to discuss the current desire for enchantment

releaseIt appeared in Nature (August-September, 2005): “A reading of Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince by J.K. Rowling suggests that witchcraft is a skill inherited in accordance with Mendelian standards, with the “wizard” (W) gene recessive to the “muggle” (M) gene.  This  is why, therefore, “all wizards have two copies of the “wizard’s gene”, wrote three researchers from the Chromosome Research Unit of the Royal Children’s Hospital (“Harry Potter and the recessive allele”). In the following book  another group of scientists, this time from Cambridge University, using a good pun, rejected the hypothesis in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Presumption: “In line with the reasoning in the book, Hermione, a witch born to “muggles”, would need to have WM parents. But, as we find out , they are dentists and muggles, with no background in family witchcraft. The hypothesis that witchcraft is hereditary, therefore, cannot be sustained”.

You may even permit yourself the luxury of not understanding the genetic argument, but if you do not know Harry Potter and Hermione and do not know the difference between wizards and “muggles”, then with all due respect, consider yourself an outcast. Research on Google reveals 160 million references to the little wizard from Hogwarts, in all imaginable languages, from ardent fans to millennialist critics, for whom Harry teaches black magic to children. This is without even mentioning the articles in specialist journals, in which distinguished academics dissect the many aspects of  Rowling’s creations.  The  seventh and final volume will be published in July, with the customary all night mile-long queues forming at the doors of bookstores. “Can 35 million readers all be wrong? Yes”, stated literary critic Harold Bloom, who deigned to abandon the Western canon in order to massacre Professor Dumbledore and his pupils in a controversial article that, unfortunately, will perhaps be better “remembered” in future than his many erudite studies on Shakespeare and Cervantes.

There is more: research carried out by the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper has revealed that, although aimed at children and adolescents, the books were being read by “four out of five of those interviewed over 25 years of age”. The same results had already been obtained abroad. “Adults: stop fleeing from life”, fired one English critic in The Independent. “There are, however, more than enough reasons to understand this. For a long time we lived immersed in the deepest hegemony of illuminist rationality. Not that myth and magic have ceased to co-exist; they have continued latent on the margins of reason. But perhaps this is no longer enough to explain the contemporary world; there was a need, therefore, to find other instruments and repertoires capable of facing up to the challenge of (in)comprehension”, observes anthropologist Silvia Helena Borelli, who has just defended her post-doctoral thesis at PUC-SP on the subject, “Harry Potter: literary field and market, books and cultural matrixes”. Are we currently in search of the lost time of wonders – Citing Adorno, the researcher reminds us of Ulysses – meeting with the sirens in Homer’s Odyssey. “Between myth and reason he faces the supreme challenge: should he lose himself in the mythical past (reply to the call of the sirens) or mobilize his strands of reason and tie himself to the mast, listening to the song and delighting in it, but moving forward?” Against his will he went on.

For Silvia, with this gesture of moving forward Ulysses becomes a modern being, positioned ambiguously with his back to myth and facing reason, in the knowledge that if he did not have his hands tied he would not resist the call of the beautiful aquatic maidens. “There’s no way of denying that we’re living a moment that is ripe for a return to the marvelous, of which the return of fairies and magic is merely a symptom”, ponders the researcher from the Arts Department of the University of São Paulo (USP), Nelly Novaes Coelho, author of “The fairy tale”. “We’re trying to re-enchant life”, agrees Marisa Lajolo, Professor of Literature at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas [Campinas State University]. Where does the little bespectacled wizard come into this story? “There’s something else that makes Potter the hero of the moment: the circumstances that lead him to fight against the evil Voldemort. The orphan thus transforms himself into the avenger of his parents and the savior of the world. In other words, he is a paradox incarnate: he is free to realize precisely the most ambitious dreams of his parents. What kind of freedom is this? “The contradiction turns Harry into a compendium of glory, pain and the illusions of our contemporary subjectivity”, wrote psychoanalyst Contardo Calligaris in his newspaper column. But how do we interpret, then, the 35 million “wrong people” according to Bloom?

“It’s better to try and understand the taste of the readers instead of evaluating if the taste of others is right or wrong. But Bloom’s attitude is not new: literary critics almost never approve of works that have a wide circulation. It’s policing: if everybody likes it it’s not good. We only have to remember the examples in Brazil of Jorge Amado and Erico Verissimo, who had a loyal audiences but were “mauled” by the critics”, observes Marisa. Children’s and young people’s literature suffers from  prejudice on two sides. “Fantasy is an indispensable component of texts directed at children and because of this it seems to banish realism from books. The result of this is yet further proof of the lack of prestige of children’s literature”, observes the Professor of Literature from the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul [Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul], Regina Zilberman, in her book Children’s literature in schools. According to the researcher, fantasy is an important element when it comes to children understanding the world. “It fills the gaps that the individual has during childhood due to their ignorance of the real world and helps them organize their new experiences. Fantasy can also take the shape of a dream as an unsatisfied desire. It is this meaning that the enchanted being, present in fairy tales, may embody: they will represent the omnipotent adult, who is an ally and good, and who solves the hero’s biggest problems”, she assesses. Historically, however, when the folk tale passed into children’s literature, it lost, notes Regina, its rebellious content: the hero subjects himself to the dominance of the adult. “The golden apple” for Harry.

release“In Rowling books, in order to save an innocent we have the right and the duty to break the law. The right to disobedience is fully justified in various situations in the series. Harry frequently only manages to save himself and triumph over the forces of evil because of his audacity and capacity for transgressing the rules”, observes Isabelle Smadja, researcher from the University of Nancy in Harry Potter: the reasons for his success. “Although she maintains the necessary struggle between good and evil, we are far from  today’s low level fictional stories aimed at children, in which in order to let a sometimes cruel violence takes its course,  the factious pretext is created that the “good” must fight the “evil” and that, therefore, they can kill and torture.” However, before we move on to Hogwarts and fantasy literature, we need to go back to a very real past: discussion of the myth, which goes back to Plato, for whom future citizens of the ideal Republic should start their education with myths and not with rational teaching and facts. By an irony of vocabulary, the word “tale” comes from the Latin “computare”, i.e. to relate, tell facts.

Children’s literature came along very much later, as did the very notion of “child”, which is a modern invention. Between 1690 and 1697, Frenchman Charles Perrault wrote the first works of this kind. “His discovery had a double purpose: to prove that contemporary French values and knowledge were equal to those of the ancient Greeks and Romans and to entertain children, especially little girls, by guiding their moral education and upbringing”, explains Nelly. After him came La Fontaine, who used animals in order to be able to freely criticize the society of his day; the Grimm Brothers in the XVIII century, with their extremely serious work in recovering their Germanic folk roots by carrying out field research into popular stories; and in the XIX century, Andersen, who, observes Nelly, “in tune with Romantic ideals was the great voice speaking to children, transmitting to them the religious ideal that sees life as a ‘vale of tears’ we have to cross in order to reach Heaven; so, his tales are full of the daily reality, in which social injustice and selfishness rule”. But in any wood in which there are fairies there are fairy tale analysts.

The best known of these was the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, who in his studies states that fantasies “literally invade the subjectivity of children, through their reading, by reproducing the parallels that exist between it and adult reality”. Not everybody agrees. A specialist in children’s literature, Professor Jack Zipes from the University of Minnesota, does not see the wonder element as a way of deceiving young readers; on the contrary, it may clarify obscure points of life for them. Everybody agrees, observes Roberto Whitaker, author of The Sons of Lobato, that “children’s stories meet their fantasy needs, by presenting an organized universe in which the fantasy may reveal otherwise inexpressible conflicts, thus contributing to alleviating the tensions that exist inside the child”. Even the author of Lord of the Rings, J.R. Tolkien, understood the fantasy world in this way and insisted that in this game of unrealities what really interested children was to discover the “good side” and the “bad side”. “The fairy tale plays a liberating role even when it proposes doctrinaire and moralizing solutions, reflecting a process of struggle against all types of restriction and authoritarianism, while at the same time presenting the concrete possibilities of achieving utopia”, remembers Whitaker. Back to Hogwarts.

Far from the horror of Bloom, who called the series “a patchwork quilt of old clichés”, J.K. Rowling seems to have managed to create, in the assessment of Isabelle, “a modern fairy tale that reconciles modernity and the imaginary, reconciling the spirit of an era and the primitive character of desires”. “Heiress” to an ancient chest full of fantastic stories Potter’s “mother” has been transformed, notes Silvia Borelli, “into the bearer of a set of universal reference points, shaped by traditional cultural matrixes that retrieve the basic themes, which allows her stories to break down the barriers of cultural peculiarities; she constructs repertoires that are shared with readers of different racial backgrounds, religion, social class, gender and generation”. According to the researcher, it is important to note that in the books in the series “the characters are hybrids: wizards are so human that ‘they forget’ they are wizards; the settings are common, the plot unrolls, based on problems, behaviors and attitudes that are in keeping with youthful experiences, triggering strong projection and identification mechanisms”. So, where’s the magic?

“One of the high points of the series is precisely the presence of the prosaic and the everyday in the midst of the most enchanted imagination. I think that the school routine, with teachers, homework and the need to learn magic by studying hard, all this gives the book the verisimilitude necessary to anchor our imagination”, Marisa Lajolo believes. The school has, in fact, a very particular significance. “The young people accompany the characters in what is perhaps one of the final rites of passage of our society: entering a school with different teachers for each subject – a place full rules and traditions”, states psychoanalyst, Renato Mezan, Professor of the Department of Psychology at PUC-SP. “From the psychoanalytical point of view the books by Rowling deal with problems of origin that interest both young people, as well as the child inside the adult, something which Freud discovered as far back as 1890. It is remarkable how the author deals with Potter’s investigation into his origins and their appropriation.” Mezan emphasizes that, into the bargain, the books discuss current topics that are controversial in the age of globalization, like racism, social differences, prejudice, the problem of immigration, and all hidden under the cloak of fantasy. “You only have to look at the struggle of Hermione to put an end to the slavery of the elves or Ron’s financial problems.”

Would Freud enjoy reading Potter? “I think so, because he loved fantasy worlds. He was, in fact, a fan of the adventures of Tarzan. One of the curious points in Freudian analysis is the issue of magic. In Harry Potter, unlike totem and taboo, it is not linked with the omnipotence of thought but is something that has to be learned, a movement that shows how values like reading, erudition and research are important and good. Hermione, for example, saves a lot of situations because of what she reads. Only after a lot of hard work does one manage to conquer evil with discipline and persistence”, observes Mezan. Despite this new element in relation to tales of the past, Potter still has to be seen as a typical fairy tale, says Isabelle, “although the author has preferred to exchange the fairy’s disguise for the magic cloak”. According to the French professor, being a wizard at Hogwarts means being capable of realizing a large part of our desires. “The world of witchcraft conserves something of childhood, of that period when we had not yet admitted that our desires perhaps may not be realized.” The effort, however, is seen and understood by the reader. “The remarkable capacity for realizing our desires and living in the imagination without thinking the whole time that it is constructed of dreams and fantasies is part of the world of children. Potter is a work for young people, because the world of witchcraft is the metaphor of childhood vis-à-vis the adult world.”

releaseMezan agrees that for Rowling’s adolescent readers, ethical questions are put in a clear way and magic happens without anyone believing in it as being true. The magic is something else. “Those who read Potter manage to find answers to those behaviors of their daily lives about which they have doubts, that ‘I’m not alone’ feeling, it’s really difficult to get a girlfriend, etc.” However, Dumbledore’s paternal presence does not prevent him from leaving Harry to run risks, because this is an integral part of any ‘novel of education’ “, even more so, remembers Mezan, because of the serialized nature of the books, in which every year the readers grow up like the characters, a task that is not without its pain. “For Rowling, the education of children in this 21st century no longer fulfills the conditions necessary to construct a rich and interesting personality. The ceaseless attention that is devoted to children may even pervert souls that were born good”, says Isabelle. “The idea of suffering that is necessary to forge an exemplary personality and to avert the pride that success engenders lies in the strict morality and radical criticism of our society.” Potter needs to learn alone. “For the writer, morality and dignity are superior to the pursuit of happiness; an individual’s value is not measured by his success, but by his wish to become worthy of the happiness that he might achieve”, says the researcher, echoing Mezan’s ideas on persistence.

It is not enough for Harry, then, to live by resting on the laurels of the scar he bears on his forehead, the symbol of his victory over the evilness of Voldemort. There is a lot of work and a good measure of ambiguity along the way. “Harry and Voldemort have a lot in common, they’re tarred with the same brush”, says Mezan. “Their youth was difficult for both of them.” In the first book, when the wizard sits under the selection hat that assesses the profile of each young person and directs him or her to one of several of Hogwarts’ houses (each with well defined characteristics), Harry really desperately wishes not to be put in the same house as Voldemort. The hat notices and allocates him to another house even though he recognizes that the little wizard has occult ambitions that would allow him to be in the former house of his enemy. “The scar indicates that Harry carries within him the hallmark of evil. There is in him a diabolical element that responds to the anguish in every child when faced with his future and his ‘goodness’ “, explains the psychoanalyst. It will always be in the final conversation between Harry and Dumbledore, when the moral of the story has been established, that the little wizard will understand that “everything in life is a choice”.

“There’s a lot of logic and rationality constructing the narrative in Harry Potter”, finalizes Silvia. Indeed, in the analysis of Isabelle, Rowling created a magic world very close to the real one, to the point of making the world of wizards more realistic than that of the “muggles, which is caricature-like and Manichaeist, unlike the subtleties of Hogwarts”. The discovery of this complex world by a boy of 11, continues the researcher, symbolizes the passage to adulthood. Speaking of magi, Rowling talks about ourselves, about our young people. Beyond pure exoticism, reiterates the professor, the magic has a psychoanalytical function, namely to deceive the censure of the Ego, talking about another world that “is not ours”, but is, in fact, very much ours. “The series appeals to the reader’s unconscious and brings to light the question of the Oedipus complex, with the mother who sacrifices herself to save the life of her son and the various substitute “parents” who will accompany the little wizard to his final adventure.” But, above all, Harry teaches young people of any age how to overcome fear. “Faced with the imposing size of the catastrophes, we feel like children in a world of adults; impressed, fearful, always dominated. By showing us that an orphan fights a lord of evil with determination, these novels allow us to read about what we have lost, the hope of seeing, in reality, David fighting Goliath, or our smallness triumphing over the giants.”
As in fables, we have come full circle: in what way do the science of Nature and a fictional wizard agree? Unusually, through magic. “The triumphs of Francis Bacon seem to us the antithesis of magic, but only because we know that science triumphed and magic failed. In the time of Bacon this was uncertain. If you take away current knowledge you will see that Francis Bacon and the magi had a great deal in common. He himself would not deny this”, wrote the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis, a British scholar who, as a rival of Tolkien’s, liked to write fantasy stories for children. “If you think about it, we live in a world of magic, surrounded by devices that are scientifically constructed, but how they are possible is unknown to us, as laymen. This, however, is not enough for us. “Traveling by airplane, for example, does not fulfill our dream of flying, but Peter Pan undoubtedly does”, ponders Mezan. At the same time, never has the world seemed so “disenchanted” to us, using an expression of Max Weber, for whom a time existed prior to the “disenchantment”, in which people “thought that behind real events and things there was something spiritual”. The “disenchantment”, therefore, is the removal of this “something”  and the reduction of everything to impersonal forces. “For many people, this was analogous to the “fall”, to expulsion from the magical paradise of the primitive mentality”, writes Michael Ostling, from the Religious Studies Center of the University of Toronto, Canada, in Harry Potter and the disenchantment of the world. It was, let us remember, this “disenchantment” that generated modernity, the Protestant ethic and capitalism.

Harry Weber or Max Potter? “The magical world of Hogwarts is disenchanted and post-illuminist, because of the same causal mechanism that always explains the world’s transformations”, says Weber. For Ostling, the magic of Rowling is a question of training and study: a person becomes a wizard by learning to be a wizard. The magic is not achieved in any type of ritual, but by reading, practicing and doing oral and written exams. “Every time that Harry and his friends practice some ‘superstitious’ magic, like in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in the struggle against the being that turns the pupils to stone, they do it without the consent of their teachers, thus breaking the school’s hierarchy.” Magic becomes technology. “It’s curious that, in a totally opposite way, Harry’s enemy, Voldemort, comes to life by means of a magic ritual that is totally different from the technological magic practiced at Hogwarts.” In the book Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the duel between the two ends as a “tie”, despite the superior power of the dark lord, merely because both have in their magic wands feathers from the same phoenix. “The miracle, therefore, is explained as a software incompatibility, a foreseeable and explicable consequence, just as the “disenchanted” world wants it to be. He defeats evil because of a bug in the system”, jokes Ostling, whose intention is not to criticize Rowling’s books but to explain them from another angle.

“Potter satisfies our hunger for enchantment, our quest for something beyond the real. I even think that Harry is popular because his magic is disenchanted, because he turns something extraordinary into something ordinary and therefore familiar, that does not challenge or frighten us”, he says. For the researcher Potter has to be read not just as a literary text, but understood as a phenomenon. “He’s the marketing of the extraordinary as a function of the culture industry: meeting the requirements of the market in its wish for surprise and familiarity, simultaneously”, he explains. “Potter’s disenchanted world may be a good example of the interface between consumption and expectations: encouraging the desire for something new, different and marvelous and satisfying this desire with more of the same.” For Ostling, Rowling’s books are not going to take us back to an enchanted past in which magical influences were felt as being real, powerful and present. “In fact they are a reminder that such times, if they existed, have gone forever.” Enchanted or not, a good definition of the world of Harry Potter comes from his friend, Ron Weasley: “Life wouldn’t be any fun if there were no dragons”. No one doubts the truth of this. Not even the scientists from Nature.