Nature, Romanticism, & Harry Potter
Dear Unknown Friends:
As we continue to serialize the great lecture Aesthetic Realism and Nature, which Eli Siegel gave in 1950, I’ll comment here on a work that, 50 years later, has been affecting men, women, and children throughout the English-speaking world. I refer to the first of the Harry Potter novels, by J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, originally published in England in 1997. What does its enormous popularity say about people and what they are looking for?
First of all, the importance of this novel, its goodness, and the enthusiasm about it are explained by the following principle, the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” And the chief opposites that Ms. Rowling has made inseparable are the opposites that are central to romanticism, that new way of feeling and showing the world which began in Europe at the end of the 18th century: the opposites of the strange and the ordinary.
Eli Siegel is the critic who showed that romanticism did not stop by the second half of the 19th century, as is generally thought—and it has never stopped. He documents that fact in his essay “Romanticism Is Still with Us.” These are sentences from the first and last paragraphs:
All romanticists have tended to make reality and wonder akin, the fact and strangeness like each other....Romanticism, essentially, is just as strong today as ever. I feel that anything big of these times will have to honor it. The reason is, it meets something in man’s mind he can’t do without; something he must go for.
These opposites are together in many aspects of our present culture. They are, as I noted some months ago, in the Pokémon characters that have taken children so much: the Pokémon creatures are certainly strange; yet they have motives (good and bad) that children see in everyday life, including in themselves. Strangeness and ordinariness have been affecting people for several decades in the Star Trek TV series and its sequels—as beings of different galaxies have annoyances, jealousies, hopes, and conversations pretty much like those to be met in American households and offices.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is, I believe, true literature; while not art in excelsis, it is art. And the ordinariness and strangeness of reality are more deeply one in it, more sincerely joined, than in many contemporary presentations. We see them right away in the title. Harry Potter is about as unmysterious, non-tingling, ordinary a name as one could think of. Sorcerer’s Stone is something else. And this boy with the dull name, who is hardly striking, and wears eyeglasses held together with Scotch tape, is a wizard; in fact, a very special wizard.
The Countering of Contempt
Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy that shows what the most hurtful thing in the human mind is. It is contempt, the desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” In all contempt, there is an ugly severing of reality’s opposites—beginning with the making of one’s dear self and what’s coming to it disjoined from, and opposed to, what the outside world deserves. In the lecture we are serializing, Aesthetic Realism and Nature, Mr. Siegel speaks of other opposites: the contempt of using "nature"—with its grass, ocean, skies, birds—not to value people more, but to put them aside and deeply despise them.
And there are the ordinary and the strange. Millions of people day after day feel the ordinary is dull. In so feeling, they have contempt: they have wiped out the meaning, annulled the life, made into nothing the true mystery which are in a relative, a city street, the brick of a building, a coffeepot, a co-worker at a nearby desk. Men, women, and children then go after creating a separate “exciting” world that is deeply disparaging of reality and people. They can do this through drugs, drink, interest in violence, misuse of sex, and simply having a world within themselves apart from and preferred to everything. Also, millions of people are afraid and scornful of what seems “strange"; they feel that only what they’re used to, only persons “like” them, are friendly and matter.
So the severing of the familiar and the strange can be equivalent to boredom; fear; the deep disinclination to learn something new; coldness to the insides of other people; racism. It is always narrowness. But when we see these opposites as one, we are seeing a world we have to respect, a world we cannot have contempt for. The need to like the world itself by feeling the wondrous is factual and the factual wondrous, is, I think, what Mr. Siegel is speaking of when he says romanticism “meets something” in people that we “must go for.” It is the chief reason Harry Potter is so popular.
There Is the Family
The Harry Potter books are being read by both young people and adults; and one of the things their popularity shows is that people like seeing criticism of the family. In the Dursleys, the relatives with whom young Harry has to live, we meet contempt in the form of narrowness and smugness. This contempt includes the ridiculous, evil, and common feeling that since your child is yours he is wonderful and superior to all other children. Criticism, often satiric, of the family as self-caressing and narrow is part of the history of the English novel. It is in Galsworthy; it is in Dickens. And Ms. Rowling’s satire (though there are some mishaps in it) adds to that history. This novel has true humor.
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley sever horribly the familiar and the strange, the conventional and the wondrous. They don’t want to see any wonder in the world, and that is why they hate Harry. They have a child, the obnoxious Dudley, whom they adore and to whom they give multitudinous presents. In turn, Dudley sees reality as something to grab, despise, and have power over—a power that often takes the form of bullying Harry. In being affected by all this, readers, young and older, are welcoming a criticism of acquisition—which is related to the use of family against the world in its wideness. After Dudley shows he will have a tantrum unless he gets more than the 36 birthday presents he sees before him, there is this response from Mr. Dursley (page 22 of the Scholastic paperback edition): “Little tyke wants his money’s worth, just like his father. ‘Atta boy, Dudley!’ He ruffled Dudley’s hair.” Within this book is criticism of the profit motive: the desire to own things rather than see their wonder.
Magic and Everydayness
The way magic is present in this book is important and lovely. Harry, after finding out he is a wizard, will attend a high school for witches and wizards, Hogwarts. In Self and World, Mr. Siegel comments on Marlowe’s Faustus, and quotes Dr. Faustus calling the various studies at Wittenberg University “Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible, and vile.” Says Faustus: “’tis magic, magic, that hath ravished me."
People have seen magic as a way of being able speedily to manipulate the world—of not having to work to understand it. Writes Mr. Siegel: “When, as Doctor Faustus does, we go for dismissing the wearisome world, we are saying hello to magic” (p. 11). But in Harry Potter, the magical world is not a dismissing of the ordinary world: it is itself a oneness of the strange and ordinary. The way school life in a wizard school is so like school life in an “ordinary” school, makes for both the depth of the book and its humor. This magic is not a speedy changing of reality: there is work—courses to take, some difficult, some boring; there are exams, worry about them, cramming. This sentence, for instance, is a oneness of the supernatural and workaday:
Three times a week they went out to the greenhouses behind the castle to study Herbology, with a dumpy little witch called Professor Sprout, where they learned how to take care of all the strange plants and fungi, and found out what they were used for. [P. 133]
The wizard-witch world that Ms. Rowling has created is, as I see it, principally a way of saying that there is a world within the world of customary England, which the narrow, unimaginative, acquisitive Englishman doesn’t know about. The “magic” world really stands for this world felt with greater wonder; it stands for a greater honoring of the agogness of things. (Meanwhile, there are persons at Hogwarts, too, enamored of contempt as power, and that fact makes for the plot’s central conflict.)
A character valuable in late 20th-/early 21st-century literature, is Hagrid, who assists at the school though he was unable to graduate from it. He is massive, gigantic, rough, awkward—and very tender. He carried the infant Harry in his arms; and he lovingly nurses a baby dragon. Related to the strange and the familiar are the grotesque and the kind. They are important in romanticism too: Hugo made them one mightily in Quasimodo, the bell-ringer in Notre Dame de Paris. They are one in Hagrid.
Ms. Rowling’s prose is generally quite good, and some passages are beautiful. This, about Hagrid’s buying Harry an owl (needed for school), has strangeness and sweetness—and dark and light—and mysterious manyness become a particular creature one can care for:
Twenty minutes later, they left Eeylops Owl Emporium, which had been dark and full of rustling and flickering, jewel-bright eyes. Harry now carried a large cage that held a beautiful snowy owl, fast asleep with her head under her wing. [P. 81]
I have commented a little on the fact that in this very contemporary book there is a picture of the world as a oneness of opposites. Eli Siegel is the critic who explained what art itself is—what makes a work of any time or place beautiful: “the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual.” He is the philosopher who understood the human self, and he showed that what we most deeply want is to be like art: to put opposites together in ourselves. That is why people today are so interested in Harry Potter.
Because of Mr. Siegel’s beautiful intellectual and ethical courage, Aesthetic Realism exists: the most necessary and kind education there is. It is the means to understand and combat contempt and to have—not only in art, but in every aspect of life itself—the deep and bounding pleasure of respect for the world. Some of that pleasure is in Harry Potter. And I see the popularity of that book as a sign of how much people want Aesthetic Realism.