Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is scheduled for release July 21. And barring possible plot surprises, heroic Harry is doomed to die in this seventh and last book of J.K. Rowling’s hugely popular teen sorcerer series. He will follow wise and self-sacrificing Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry headmaster Albus Dumbledore and a half-dozen fellow students into some vague though presumably comfortable afterlife, apparently as a disembodied spirit.
Given that the Potter books now rank second only to the Bible in their popularity, what are we to make of Harry’s pending death?
Boasting solid five-star Amazon ratings and over 300 million sales, Potter is a clear symptom of Western civilisation's slow slide back into naturalistic mythic paganism. Despite our electronic heart monitors and computerised intravenous drips, modern technological optimism is finally colliding with the unavoidable reality of death. In a banal mockery of Nietzsche’s "Eternal Recurrence," Western civilisation is reverting to an epoch of tragedy, a worldview that virtually defined the Ancient Greeks and Romans — and which they then rejected some 1,500 years ago, voting with their feet in favour of the Christian comedy.
The Potter books encapsulate three cultural temptations that have undercut the once Christian West ever since the philosophers of the 17th century Enlightenment launched their insurgency against Christendom. In historical order, those trends are: first, the reduction of human reason to mere practical technique or "problem-solving"; second, the rejection of rational metaphysics or theology in favour of self-conscious myth-making (now glorified as post-modernism); and now, last and most clearly with Harry’s death, the slowly-dawning realisation that human mortality still punctures all of our idiosyncratic "realities" and renders human technology (even genetic engineering and sorcery) mere distraction and vanity.
Harry’s education at Hogwarts rivals modern medical schools in its philistine pragmatism. Whether studying spells and potions, dark arts or magical beasts, the sorcery students learn only how to "do" things, like flying on brooms, de-gnoming gardens or creating gluttonous feasts. Magic is just another craft. What they should "be", what sort of character they should cultivate, never becomes a topic of instruction or conversation. Harry is encouraged only to be true to himself. And one of the four school "houses," Slytherin, is explicitly dedicated to the nasty kids, presumably because that’s just the way they are, and they have a right to an education sharpening their nasty skills.
It’s unclear whether Rowling is deliberately parodying modern "self-affirming" schooling here. But the pedigree of her stunted understanding of education and human reason includes the likes of Enlightenment philosophers Spinoza, Descartes, Bacon and Locke. In their quarrel with Ancient metaphysics and Christian theology, early modern philosophers sought to harness reason to the "relief of the estate of man" and the creation of a "heaven on earth" through technology. So they rejected any sort of metaphysical speculation and therein the contemplative intellect as essentially useless, asserting (in Thomas Hobbes’s words) , "We know only what we make."
Whatever the differences among the Enlightenment savants, they agreed that reason is not a mirror of an independent reality, mundane and divine, to which human beings must conform themselves. Rather, they redefined reason as a human construct, obedient to human purposes. Yet any definition of those purposes, beyond the endless increase in human powers, has remained up for grabs.
The result of this philosophic lobotomy we see today in a medical profession fully committed to expanding its techniques, but oblivious to any distinction between its legitimate and illegitimate purposes. We see it in accountants and engineers who work themselves to death, because doing is all they know, because no one has taught them that happiness is found in contemplation and worship. And we see it in the Hogwarts (and Springfield Elementary) school faculties, dedicated to empowering students, but deliberately recusing themselves from training characters in righteousness and nobility.
The modern technological ambition to reconstruct both material and human nature has naturally culminated in the post-modern presumption that we can all construct our own personal, virtual realities. In contrast, the claims of Christendom stood or fell on issues of historical fact, like whether that tomb was really empty. But these days, we’ll deliberately commit to any likely story that will temporarily make us feel good.
In this context, author Rowling is symptomatically post-modern, not in the obvious fact that she is creating a new myth (as did Tolkien), but in her blithe assumption that whatever reality lurks behind the mythic is basically benign. For all the murder and soul-sucking in the Potter books, Rowling pokes hardly at all into questions of what lies beyond the veil. Spirits haunting Hogwarts, like Nearly Headless Nick and the Fat Friar, provide reassurance of some sort of commodious afterlife, despite the cutthroat will to power in this life, so it really doesn’t matter who’s won when the whistle blows.
Modernity’s Achilles’ heel
And yet… and yet, death remains a problem — a serpent Rowling has not avoided but rather tried to domesticate. And the viper cannot long imitate the garter snake. The culture of ancient Greece and Rome, the world of Homer, Sophocles and Virgil (and most of the world besides), was virtually defined by their awareness that human beings would always strive for a nobility rendered ephemeral and pointless by their mortality, and the more noble the human, the more tragic the death. Life itself is the undeserved misfortune suffered by noble characters — the classic definition of tragedy.
For this tragic epoch, the Good News of the Christian Gospel (as pundit Chesterton said) was original sin, the revelation that life wasn’t pointless cruelty, that the universe wasn’t stacked against man, but rather that man was simply his own worst enemy. Conjoined with the promise of the "resurrection of the flesh" and eternal life, this meant that life was basically the undeserved good fortune enjoyed by ignoble characters — the very definition of comedy. So Christendom was expressed in the farces of Dante, Chaucer and Cervantes. And the joys of contemplation were opened to the meanest intellects in the church’s endless parade of feastdays.
After a thousand years of Christendom, however, the insurgents of the Enlightenment found the idleness of worship and the reign of clerics an affront to human pride. They believed that unleashing all the potential of human technology alone would render mankind healthy, wealthy and wise. Some thought, with Hobbes, that life made commodious and safe would become reconciled to quiet death in old age. Others, with Descartes, believed that the development of medical technology would bring practical physical immortality. Either way, man the worker would emerge as the happy master of his own house.
It hasn’t turned out that way, of course. First, the modern obsession with conquering human suffering has made Western man pathologically soft and sensitive, discombobulated by daily irritants our grandfathers would have simply ignored. Second — confirming the Christian hypothesis of original sin — the expansion of man’s power over nature has meant (as others observed) the expansion of some men’s power over other men. Given today’s malignant public administration, economic interdependency and mass media, almost no one now pretends to be the master of his own house.
And third, technology itself has developed a credibility bubble; its promises of happiness have outstripped its delivery, and with every further development of medicine, death looms larger as the final frontier — unknowable, implacable and unavoidable. So the last man’s ideal life has become perfect fitness until 75 or 85, then a little poison for a comfortable death. And to this he dedicates life-coaching, organic cooking and treadmilling.
Colliding with the inevitable
This is where Harry’s death comes in, as yet another symptom (like Columbine High) of where we’re heading. It took 400 years for the Enlightenment buzzards to roost. For four centuries, Western pragmatism has coasted on its reserves of Christian optimism. But the tipping point was reached when the sexual revolution threw off the last of Christian "oppression", and then raised a next generation of deracinated barbarians.
Kids today have far fewer self-serving illusions than their baby boomer parents. Death has always been the staple of adolescent literature; but today the hero dies. So they can again understand Achilles’s complaint, "Do you not see what a man I am? How huge? How splendid?… Yet even I also have my death and strong destiny; there shall be a dawn or afternoon or noontime when some man in the fight will take the life from me also."
So there is a silver lining to the pagan cloud, descending over the land. Modernism was a kind of naïve vanity, predicated on an immature bracketing of the big questions of life — like the businessman who resolves to spend time with his family once his bundle is made. But kids now are realising that, even if you’re a technological wizard, you still die in the end. Culturally they feel the heart flutter, the shooting pain down the left arm, the memento mori. The now-manifest spiritual vacuity of the pragmatic epoch means they’re now open to something, almost anything.
Joe Woodard is former editor of the Canadian conservative magazine Western Standard, now teaching in Calgary.