4 Responses to “Harry Potter and the burdens of talent”

  1. 1 Laura Schaefer July 29, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    all other points aside- did the headmaster of your middle school perform abortions??

  2. 2 JSC7 July 29, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    No, but I figure there’s no Planned Wizardhood either.

  3. 3 my admission of having been a gamer is embarrassing so I'll leave my name out. While JSC7 will know who I am without even needing to see the unpublished email, for the internet and posterity, I'll have plausible deniability. July 29, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    Shit, my first reaction was also, “the headmaster of your middle school performed abortions??” and I bet you put that in without explaining it just as a bait to be able to respond that there’s no Planned Wizardhood.

    I can see how somebody would accuse you of missing the point, but I think that criticism wouldn’t be valid. Critiquing the logic of the fantasy world from within the world is just a rhetorical vehicle; ultimately your argument is critiquing the impact of this fantasy world upon its readers. And that’s something I deeply agree with.

    This relates to my personal narrative of how I left roleplaying… in one sense I probably outgrew it, but hey, Mr. B never did so it’s not an inevitability.

    Addicting to fantasy, and specifically tabletop RPGS (and sometimes LARP) had been a huge obstacle that I have overcome. Not so much D&D, but later on, what was really a problem was White Wolf and the ‘World of Darkness’ (e.g. Mage the Ascension and Vampire the Masquerade—by the way, I found a mac version of VtM: Redemption at a used bookstore for $5! I started playing it but when my hard drive crashed and I got a new one, the reinstall for some reason left out a bunch of stuff, including Mac OS Classic, on which the game runs…).

    White Wolf was deeply addicting for me because it was so rooted in world history; the whole thing went into incredible detail in going through pretty much all of world history and reinterpreting it such that major events the work of supernatural creatures. While the main plot came out of Europe, White Wolf expanded to Asia with the ‘Kindred of the East’ which used Chinese/Buddhist-Hindu mythology to come up with an alternative concept of vampires and other supernaturals. Integrating a number of Asian mythological strains was impressive in itself, but it also tied it thematically and politically with the western theater. And then there were expansions into Mesoamerican mythology as well… shit, look at me, I’m going off.

    The point being was that it was deeply compelling because (1) it was based on the real world and thus easier to believe and identify with and (2) it offered a vision of the world that made more sense, in a way, In particular, the whole Mage cosmology and way in which magic worked made so much damn sense. Or perhaps I should say, it didn’t necessarily make more sense, but it was more exciting. It was partially the allure of hidden knowledge, to know the ‘real’ supernatural story of the human crossing over the Bering Strait, or Rome and Carthage, or colonization of the Americas, or the Hiroshima bomb, and infusing history with the supernatural made it so much more grand, epic, and exciting.

    These two reasons are why White Wolf proved addicting in an even deeper way than D&D. Hmm, come to think of it, within D&D, Planescape was the most compelling setting for me, and perhaps you as well, probably because it was the setting that most offered a vision based off historical cosmologies. The cosmology of the inner planes made up that logical juxtaposition of classical categories of elements, and outer planes arranged by alignment and corresponding to/attempting to encompass every and all real-world historical pantheons… but as wonderful as Planescape’s stylization was, it was probably that sylization that made it further removed from reality and thus was not as compelling for me as White Wolf. Also, D&D ultimately stuck to the normal narrative of good and evil, even if it did allow for some ambiguity by introducing more gradations and varieties of good and evil. In this sense Planescape was worse than normal settings, because it reinforced the metaphysical basis of alignment. For example, in a normal Prime Material Plane setting, you could be Neutral evil and still be working for a ‘good’ cause, i.e. just because you were ‘evil’ didn’t mean you were always fighting on the side of a force that was metaphysically defined by being ‘evil.’ But when you died and went to the Outer Planes, you went to the place that matched your alignment and thus were metaphysically subsumed after all. In contrast, White Wolf’s underlying metaphysical system was not a linear duality between good and evil, but a cyclical triad between dynamism, stasis and entropy (in Werewolf, the ‘weaver,’ the ‘wyrm’ and the ‘wild’). This had a huge impact on my personal development, because it was the first time I had seen (or perhaps paid attention to) a way of looking at the world that was different from the old ‘good/evil’ narrative. Its nuance had a deep impact on my development, which I think was one positive outcome of my fantasy/RPG phase.

    What happened to me was that over time I came to a realization; I noted that very often, because of my knowledge of the White Wolf retelling of history, I knew about historical events or mythology that I otherwise wouldn’t have known, which was pretty awesome. But the thing was, I was stuffing my head with all this fantasy. It might have gave me insights into the real world… but why not just go directly to the real world? Instead of incidentally knowing a bit of history here and there, why not learn history directly? Ultimately White Wolf was wasting space in my head with something that wasn’t real. And in an elitist sense, it rankled my pride that it was somebody else’s fantasy; I wasn’t even creating it myself. And as much as I can respect the genius of White Wolf, it was the finite work of a small subset of humanity. Whereas real history is the work of all of humanity. Err, not that we can ever have direct access to ‘objective history’… but the attempt is to focus on the real world, on the things that have shaped the world and made it what it is.

    [I should probably add a disclaimer that I’m consider myself a relativist and don’t believe that there is any external, independent and objective ‘real-world’ (or if there is we are utterly unable to perceive it or say anything that refers to it or talks about it). So I recognize my use of ‘real world’ isn’t rigorous, because I am using it as an objective external thing in order to compare fantasy to. Sorry about that inconsistency, but I’m not going to bother figuring out how to (or whether it is even possible to) revise these insights to be consistent with my epistemological views.]

    You probably see what I’m getting at; that my motivations for and the effects of my escape into fantasy is exactly the sort of thing you criticize Harry Potter for doing.

    And in the sense that I got over this escapism, I agree with your critique about Harry Potter. Ultimately, I learned that the real world was infinitely more compelling than any fantasy world because of the sole fact that it is real.

    This critique applies to pretty much any and all fantasy; and indeed, from this realization I ultimately stopped reading any fantasy and science fiction, and eventually, nearly all literature. Now, years go by between each work of fiction that I read (unless I’m using a work of fiction as a primary source). I recognize that I’m missing out on witnessing people’s creativity; I recognize that sometimes, fantasy can be an ideal escape because it is frivolous but still mentally stimulating (and that escape is sometimes healthy); and I know that very often, fiction can be the carrier of potent philosophical themes; but I fear slipping back into that wonderfully comforting complacency. So this is one baby I’m going to let go with the bathwater, at least for now.

    One thing I disagree with you about is your interpretation that Harry Potter (or even LotR) is bad because it presents a world of binary, dualistic values without nuance. It’s especially bad for that reason but that’s not the central reason. The problem is escapism. White Wolf, even though it helped expand my ability to see the world in a nuanced way, took me out of and away from the real world. Similarly, in White Wolf, the problems are significant; in Mage, we’re talking about the destruction of reality itself (and, while I stopped following it, apparently White Wolf came out with a series of “end days” books in which the White Wolf universe basically ends: the Vampires’ Gehenna, the Mages’ Armaggeddon, the Werewolfs’ Apocalypse, the Wraiths’ Oblivion, it all comes true. After that series of books, the original World of Darkness was discontinued, and now White Wolf has come out with an entirely new series of World of Darkness books, which are pretty much the same but ever-so-slightly-different so you’ve got a whole new set of books to buy. I think it’s total bullshit.). The problems of White Wolf are massive, and supersede things like lack of drinking water, but that doesn’t make it any better than Harry Potter. The specific manifestations of fantasy can make it more egregious, but even if we’re talking about a world that is more nuanced than good and evil, a world where there are problems that are greater than the problems of the real world to internally justify ignoring the image of the real-world problems within the fantasy world, the problem is people leaving reality, not the nature of that escape.

    Which leads me to my next point. I said fantasy worlds were deeply compelling when they were based on the real world, but that doesn’t explain why I didn’t go immediately to finding the real world the most compelling of all. Or rather, I did give the reason that supernatural retellings of history are more epic, but that’s not the more important reason. The reason that we escape into fantasy is that the same reasons that make the real world compelling also make it horrifying. The real world is compelling because it is real, but that means that death, suffering, injustice and helplessness is all real. It’s not just an abstract construct within a fantasy world. The concept that things can actually be serious is a hard one to stomach. It’s hard to process that such chaos exists, especially when we are sheltered from having to face it by our developed-world comforts and security. I mean, think about it. Can you imagine a role-playing game or fantasy novel where we/the protagonists go around and use magic to, say, give drinking water to Mumbai? It’s a ridiculous idea because such action would force us to be aware of the horror of real-world problems, which would defeat our purpose of trying to escape with these fantasy narratives. Solving the problems within a fictional narrative would provide no satisfaction because once we had allowed ourselves to become aware that there was a real problem, we would have to recognize that we were not solving it by indulging in fantasy.

    I probably ran away from the world into fantasy originally more for issues of social maladjustment than for issues of being traumatized by global awareness, but social maladjustment is in itself a way to run away from the the trauma of global awareness. Fretting about social maladjustment is a way to make the world revolve around the self. It lets us pretend our pathetic, individual problems matter, and that because they matter, we are not worthless and our lives are not meaningless.

    And to be honest, this is a sense of the running from the world that I haven’t gotten over yet. I don’t indulge in it all the time, but I still do fall back into self-pity and needing to believe that my problems matter in order to validate my existence to myself.

    Which is to say, I’m still a self-centered little shit. But after getting over fantasy, at least I pay attention to the world some of the time.

    Now, the point you bring up about replacing magic and Hogwarts with philosophy and Harvard is a fascinating one I never thought of. I think I’ll need to reflect for a bit about the connection between escapism and elitism before I have something good to share.

  4. 4 " July 29, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    Hmm, another thought. I guess for a majority of people who don’t have addictive personalities like I do, and for whom any given piece of fantasy is a temporary retreat from the real world, the values and worldview conveyed by that piece of fantasy matter a great deal. In which case the worldview of a narrative is important in a different way; it’s a lot worse if somebody gets lost in a fantasy world, no matter what its worldview, but the majority of people who come into contact with a work of fantasy are not in that category. So for those people, for whom the escapism is temporary, the lasting effect will come from the values the book conveys. The people who see the world in black and white are probably the same people raised on things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. And, let’s face it, the Bible too; all these fantasy narratives eventually tie back to the theme in western civilization of good versus evil, and the main generating text for this theme has been the Bible. Never mind if the Bible is the real root problem or not, just focusing on the issue at hand, we could say that fantasy, along with any and all fiction, has a responsibility to convey nuanced values in a world where the narrative of good vs evil dominates. This does not have to be incompatible with telling a good story, although not falling back on good vs evil will probably always require more complexity. Not necessarily because the idea of good vs evil is inherently simpler, but because good vs evil is the default narrative.

    But I’ll maintain that not addressing real-world problems is not the issue. Harry Potter probably shouldn’t situate itself within the real world if it can’t plausibly justify why those problems are ignored in preference of squabbles among elites, but I think that fantasy can’t be fantasy if it confronts real-world problems directly, because of what I talk about in terms of the lack of satisfaction when real-world problems are engaged within the narrative but cannot be actually solved through the fiction. Fantasy should try to tackle such problems, but through parable. So if a work of fantasy is a parable for addressing real-world problems through a nuanced worldview, the book or movie theater can become an incubating chamber for positive human growth.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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