Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter and Time, Part II

Yes, I stayed up until 5 AM reading on Saturday morning. No, I didn't finish until quite late in the evening -- and as my mom put it as I wandered towards bed early this morning, "welcome to the "Old Farts Club," which apparently includes in its activities not staying up to finish things you've been waiting years for. No spoilers in this post, just some tangled thoughts on time, and what I wanted so badly in my written exams to call "the time of reading."

It's funny, that now that "we know everything," as JK Rowling has put it, I'm feeling a bit sad. Not disappointed--if there's one thing I didn't think The Deathly Hallows approached even once it was disappointing--but sad. Lost, as it were.

I think I'm already feeling nostalgic for Harry Potter.

I've been reading the books since sometime in college, when I finally overcame my "Kids' books are dumb" thing. And I liked Harry Potter. I disparaged the series often (for length, for unwieldiness, for their hodge-podge of half-used mythology, for the debt Rowling clearly owes to Tolkien...etc), but I think it was because I felt bad liking something so much that wasn't "high literature." Tolkien I could make an excuse for: He's one of "us," an academic, a man who wrote a book to house languages he dreamed up in the spare time left him from writing one of the most influential (if often too much so) articles on Beowulf in the 20th century

What I forgot in all of this is one simple thing, of which I was reminded during a dinner table discussion with my family when I was still about half-way from the finale's close. Literature is what survives, what remains. As much as literature is a constructed category -- it depends, as it is passed down, so much on chance. Take the Ruin, for example.* So much of our engagement with this poem is predicated on the things about it which we cannot know. Literally a ruined text, we can only proceed on fragments of the poem -- and so our supposition that this is Anglo-Saxon poetry, Anglo-Saxon literature, is based on an incomplete object, a text that will never be whole. We can't really say its status in the time of its writing -- but it, and many other poems left to us, were similarly fragmented in an 18th century fire, and we'll never know what texts we lost.

The fragments of the past are something we engage in collecting, enshrining, fearful of what might happen if they pass away. And I don't think that's a bad thing. But there's a simultaneous necessity, one I think Rowling points to strongly in her final book -- the responsibility of humans to one another. The responsibility of living, thinking beings to one another.

And so I feel -- ironically, perhaps, but truthfully -- exiled at the end of this long series, which began so long ago. I didn't know about Harry Potter before September 11th 2001. But it was first published in this country in the fall of 1998, when I was only a sophomore in high school. I wrote here about Ron Silliman's beautiful review of the movie, which was so evocative in its description of the way the movies illustrate the effect of time, and their connection to photographs and film which present images out of the past. I was particularly moved by these lines of Silliman's review:

There was a world once, all of these objects say to us, in which so much had not always already happened. In which the irrevocable, that irreversible flow chart, had not already occurred, with all the consequences that can never be undone.

For me, the Harry Potter series will always be connected to the terrible aftershocks of a single day in September of my sophomore year of college. It's a tangled web of problems and forces, questions that aren't easily answered and "enemies" that aren't easily recognized or understood. And that description isn't just for one or the other, the books or the wars being fought in the real world.

But the one unfailing tenet in these books is that in a world where love is possible -- perhaps there was still hope. Hope that "good" could triumph over "evil". Not without pain, not without loss. And not without questions, terrible questions that have no easy answers. But the premise, it seems, of these books is that the better side of what it means to be human can win out over the side that is cruel.

I don't know if these books will ever be called "literature" -- I won't be around in a time that can make those distinctions. Doubtless there are many worthier books by less known authors that might deserve that distinction more than Rowling.

But it seems to me they're part of a tradition of narratives written that argue there is still hope. And maybe it's the childish part of me -- but when such distinctions are made, I hope the lessons of Harry Potter do remain: That choices matter more than talents. That every living thing deserves respect. That people can change, and are often more than what they seem. That sacrifices made for love -- real love, whatever that is -- are worth something. That that same love can "save" people, help them become more humane, help them recognize that we have so much to love each other for.

I can't return to the world of Harry Potter again for the first time. I don't know if I'll ever pass it on to children who will encounter it anew, meeting Harry and his friends and their magical world as if it were the first time those books have ever been opened. And I know the time of their readings will be different from those of my own -- though for better or worse I don't know. What I do know is that the time of these books -- a well-loved refuge for me and many as we navigated the end of one millennium and the blood-stained beginning of another -- have many things to teach the readers to whom one passes them on.

And I sincerely hope I do. Because for all its many pitfalls -- perhaps the greatest gifts we can give to each other are at once the simplest and most elusive things we have: hope, and love.

One final note: As I was getting ready to head to bed Saturday evening, my younger sister, GMH, who had been reading the book all day too, knocked on my door.

"I'm glad we've been expelled from Hogwarts, Kate."

I was confused, and asked her why.

"Because now we can stop worrying about Harry's world, and start fixing our own."

And maybe there's some truth in that, for all of us who've grown up (though not all at the same ages) with the Boy Who Lived.

Back to our regularly scheduled orals reading reports sometime early this week.

*-Thanks are due to both my brilliant little sister -- formerly Opera Sis on this blog, now GMH (who survived reading not only Harry Potter but this post in one day), and LJS, for forcing me to clarify my thinking on the part of this about literature.


highlyeccentric said...

thank you. I will be distributing links to all those who tell me HP is "badly written" and "not literature"