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The Byrne Report

Potter Nausea


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Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being--like a worm.
-Jean-Paul Sartre

IN EARLY JULY, nauseated by the state of the world, I experienced an overwhelming urge to read a 600-page book: Being and Nothingness. Searching to define "freedom," Jean-Paul Sartre published his epochal work of philosophy while France was occupied by Nazi invaders in 1943.

The Petaluma Copperfield's did not have a copy of Being and Nothingness or even a philosophy section. What it did have was a 100-foot-long sign-up sheet to purchase Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Declining to toss $29.95 at billionaire J. K. Rowling, I ordered up a dose of truth instead. A few weeks later, around midnight, I was chugging away on Being and Nothingness, when I heard a lamp click off upstairs. Waiting until my partner, Stacey, was fast asleep, I crept into our bedroom and slipped a different 600-page book from her hands. I began to read, impelled by the anguish of knowing that Potter would once again thwart the unspeakable Voldemort, my existential hero.

The Potter tales, you see, are explicated by Being and Nothingness. Indeed, the two books should be read simultaneously for maximum effect. Consider, if you will, the ethically thin universe in which Potter resides. Composed primarily of middle-class English wizards who know oodles of circus tricks, it is a bleak reflection of our Muggle world. A Hobbesian landscape in which magical technique has failed to triumph over poverty, illness or capitalism, it is, to lean upon Sartre, an Apparition of our Being--a Being-in-itself consciously experienced by the Reader as Being-for-itself. That is to say, Potter's unnamed alternative universe finds meaningful existence for us because it does not exist.

It holds, coiled within the heart of its Being, the worm of Nothingness; as Sartre notes, Nothing defines Being.

It is only through the ministries of the nihilating Lord Voldemort, the anguish-dispensing Dementors and the squads of Death Eaters that meaning can accrue to the universe-which-must-not-be-named, which we instinctively recognize as a pale shade of our own. The Sartrean Voldemort embodies Nothingness; i.e., he concretizes Potter and his pals by being the negation of Hogwarts. By seeking to destroy Potter, Voldemort imparts form, or "facticity," to the undifferentiated Beingness of Potter's World of plenitude. Sans the struggle with Voldemort, the wizards would, of course, be nothing but hopeless dilettantes practicing parlor tricks.

It is the Dark One, not Potter, who chooses the true path to freedom. Voldemort does not rely upon hoary Hogwartian dogmas for courage. He smashes tradition's chains and liberates himself and his followers by freely choosing to "nihilate" the self-deception at the core of Potter's decadent society: a belief in the goodness of magic. He rejects Dumbledore's psychological determinism and authoritarianism, as well as the realpolitik of the Ministry of Magic, declaring that he alone is the cause of his own actions. The alumni of Hogwarts find cold comfort in their nonexistence by struggling--absurdly--against Voldemortian Negation, which is nothing less than self-responsibility revealed.

The proof of the nonexistence of the Hogwartian universe is ipso facto its magical character and the resultant Bad Faith of the socially fractured wizardry who claim free will where they possess none. Critiquing psychoanalysis in Being and Nothingness, Sartre notes that magic is a poor substitute for Freedom: "By rejecting the conscious unity of the psyche, Freud is obliged to imply everywhere a magic unity linking distant phenomena across all obstacles . . . [But] magic does not avoid the coexistence . . . of two contradictory complementary structures which reciprocally imply and destroy each other." No, says Sartre, magic denies reality and, in doing so, affirms it.

Make no mistake: Rowling's phenomenological success is based upon her unconscious ability to shamelessly manipulate our Freudian and Jungian archetypes. But the Oedipally confused Harry Potter, the repressed Hermione Granger and the hyperactive Ron Weasley are, in Sartre's analysis, all guilty of nothing less than Bad Faith; i.e., they lie to themselves by unquestioningly accepting the magical determinism spoon-fed them at Hogwarts.

Only the abused child, Tom Riddle, sees through Dumbledorian lies to the reality of the nonexistence of Anti-Muggle Land. In doing so he becomes a free Being. He becomes himself--Voldemort--and he necessarily brings Harry Potter into Being. For to be truly Voldemort, he must strive to negate Potter and Rowling's fictitious nonworld.

The only way for the Dark Lord to be defeated forever is for Harry Potter to stop lying to himself. If he--and we--abjures magical explanations, then true Negation can be recognized and abolished in the nonmagical place: our world.

Muggles, unite!

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From the August 10-16, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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