Thursday, February 21, 2019

Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling is the fourth book in the series. Like the previous entries, I enjoyed this novel a lot. The plot is interesting. It is full of fun characters, places and situations. Things get darker here and some interesting themes are introduced. 

Harry and his friends, as well as some enemies, are back for a fourth year at Hogwarts. This time, the evil Lord Voldemort is slowly gaining strength and hovering around the edges of the story, threatening Harry. At the same time, the Triwizard Tournament has come to Hogwarts. This is a magical competition between young wizards. Each participant or champion is chosen by a different magical school and represents that school in the competition. Despite the fact that he never intends to enter, Harry is maneuvered by unknown interests into becoming one of the champions from Hogwarts. Harry and the other participants are presented with a series of difficult and dangerous hurdles to overcome. Harry and the other champions are tasked with getting past dragons and dealing some ornery Merpeople as well as engaging with a host of other frightening creatures in their quest for the cup. Things turn a bit ugly when Harry ends up in a fight to the death with Voldemort himself. 

I have commentated that in previous books, the series had settled into a certain routine. This book continues some of the patterns of the last three. The narrative mostly consists of Harry and his friends’ day to day adventures. There is a whole host of entertaining passages to read about characters and creatures thrown in for good measure. Harry and his friends are getting older, so they are starting to become interested in dating. There is ball that diverts the interest of the students of Hogwarts and their guests from other magical schools. On the periphery, as usual, Lord Voldemort is sneaking around and is plotting to do bad things to Harry and the world at large. The magical competition and its mini adventures are similar to the magical encounters from previous books. Despite its familiarity, I found all this fun and interesting to read about. 

Rowling does begin to throw in some new and interesting elements here. The realities of the universe that the author has built begin to present themselves here. This world of Harry Potter consists of a worldwide community of wizards and other magical creatures that exist in parallel to the nonmagical, known as the Muggle, world.  This magical world hides its existence from the nonmagical world through the use of magical means. This world of magic has its own government, educational system, social customs, etc. This society is mostly a free one, it has elections, laws, a system of ethics etc. Throughout the series, we have seen that the society is flawed however. In this book, the flaws become a lot more apparent. We see that people, such as Harry’s Godfather, Sirius Black, are sometimes falsely imprisoned, the authorities sometimes impose death sentences on magical creatures based upon false pretenses, and the government is shown to be sometimes corrupt. 
Furthermore, around the time of Harry’s birth, a savage war raged between the government, which was controlled by the forces of light magic, and Voldemort’s and his dark wizards known as Death Eaters. Sirius Black tells Harry how during the worst of times, when Voldemort was murdering and torturing people and targeting his opponents’ families, many of the wizards on the light side resorted to unethical tactics and compromised their ideals in order to fight Voldemort. This seems an accurate representation of how free societies and individuals sometimes behave when under existential threats such as war. 

Perhaps the worst societal ill depicted involves magical species known as House Elves. These creatures are in a condition of slavery. They are bound to particular families and are controlled through magical means.
Harry’s friend Hermione decides to take up the cause of the House Elves. She comments, 

"You know, house-elves get a very raw deal!" said Hermione indignantly. "It's slavery, that's what it is!... Why doesn't anyone do something about it?" 

Later she observes how the oppression is covered up and that even in a book, Hogwarts, A History, that she admires, the existence of House Elves at the school, is omitted,

"House-elves!" said Hermione, her eyes flashing. "Not once, in over a thousand pages, does Hogwarts, A History mention that we are all colluding in the oppression of a hundred slaves!" 

Hermione decides to do something about it and begins a campaign to free them and provide better living conditions for them.

I think that Rowling is depicting an interesting dynamic here. We see a flawed magical society, that contains some oppressive and harmful institutions, that is threatened by the outside forces of Lord Voldemort, who have no morality and are completely malevolent. 

It seems that Rowling is portraying a magical world with parallels to the real world. Our modern democracies have been, and continue to be, imperfect. There is injustice and oppression in places. Yet, in the past and present, there are malevolent forces that are much worse, that are trying to destroy all of society. I will use a World War II example because it tends to work well.  During World War II, in the United States, there was terrible discrimination and violence aimed at people of color. It was the time of Jim Crowe, the mass lynching of black men and the internment of Japanese Americans, to name just a few of the terrible wrongs. Yet, outside, there was Nazism. Despite everything that was wrong inside of America, there was no moral equivalence between the two systems. I am not saying that there is not injustice and wrongs in modern day democracies, or that there are not malevolent forces lurking on the outside, but the situation that existed during World War II and afterward just makes for a clear-cut example. Many of the same dynamics, in less dramatic form, still exist. 

Hermione, as a friend and ally to Harry Potter, has positioned herself on the side of civilization, against the forces of barbarism as exemplified by Voldemort. Yet, she realizes that within the civilization that she is defending, like our own, there exits terrible injustice. She does not give up and try to overthrow her civilization, but she tries to reform and improve it. She attempts to do so by using peaceful means.  I think that this says a lot about the way our world and history has worked. Existential threats like Nazism and Communism were eventually defeated through the use of force and threats of force. The horrors of Jim Crowe, mass lynching, etc., have ended by people using peaceful, democratic means. There is still a ways to go, but the past offers valuable lessons. Rowling seems to be trying to mirror some of this in her world. 

It may be obvious in what I wrote above that this book takes the turn into darker storytelling than I have talked about in previous posts. References to torture and other nasty things that Voldemort and his allies engage in abound. Voldemort also murders several characters in this novel. Harry begins to show real pain at the loss of loved ones. Though I am sometimes skeptical  of the overabundance of dark fantasy and science fiction that seems to be vogue these days, Rowling does not go too overboard here. Also, the series did need some variation. 

This book continues all the motifs that led to the success of the previous novels. However, Rowling does add these more serious plot points and themes. I find that they add to the story in a positive way. Despite this, the novel is still a lot of fun and I enjoyed it a lot. I will likely continue with the series.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon

As I have written previously, I have decided to read a few books on the subject of colonialism. To start, I have decided to read a few books that are considered important to the belief systems known as Postcolonial theory.  Written in 1952, Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon is one such book. This was originally written in French. I read the Charles Lam Markmann translation. 

Fanon was a native of Martinique, which was a French Colony. During World War II, he joined the Free French forces and fought in combat against Axis forces in both Africa and Europe. Fanon was wounded, and he was decorated by the postwar French government for his service. Later, he became both a psychiatrist and a philosopher. His background had a great effect upon his ideas. 

This work is a philosophical condemnation of racism and colonialism.  It is also Fanon’s analysis of the psychology and sociology behind racism and colonialism. He examines both the perpetrators and the targets of racism here. 

This work is written in an unusual way. At times, the prose reads like a conventional essay. At other times it lapses into a stream of consciousness and seems almost poetic. This was a translated work so it is difficult for me to tell for sure, but Fanon’s prose seems powerful as well as sincere. The author includes a fair amount of literary analysis, and the text is heavy with quotes from novels, philosophical works and poetry. Fanon quotes thinkers and authors as diverse as postcolonial theorist and poet Aimé Césaire to Sigmund Freud to Georg Hegel.

Fanon first describes the terrible and ubiquitous racism that he and other black people have experienced throughout the world. He next tries to formulate a psychological and cultural theory that explains both those who hold racist views as well as those who are targeted by them. He believes that the concept of “black” had become ingrained in the psyches of all people of all races.  This image was synonymous with all the racist stereotypes attributed to black people. He writes a lot about how culture has placed the concept of “blackness” and black people as “the other.” Thus, “black” had come to mean uncivilized, stupid, violent, lazy etc. Black people themselves had internalized these views. 

Fanon writes,

White civilization and European culture have forced an existential deviation on the Negro. I shall demonstrate elsewhere that what is often called the black soul is a white man’s artifact.

Furthermore, the concept of whiteness had come to mean civilization, intelligence, nobility in the psyches of most people of all races. 

As a result, most black people throughout the world had developed an inferiority complex. In addition, most black people identified more with the image of “whiteness” than of “blackness.”

Fanon goes on to say,

There is no help for it: I am a white man. For unconsciously I distrust what is black in me, that is, the whole of my being.

Ultimately Fanon calls for the world to move past racism and the concepts of “whiteness” and “blackness,”

He writes,

To us, the man who adores the Negro is as “sick” as the man who abominates him. Conversely, the black man who wants to turn his race white is as miserable as he who preaches hatred for the whites. In the absolute, the black is no more to be loved than the Czech, and truly what is to be done is to set man free.

Fanon was a psychologist. He used the theories behind psychoanalysis to further formulate his own theory. He develops something of a psychological profile for black men, black women, white men and white women.  He draws heavily on such theorists as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Thus, the author finds that racism and its effects are akin to psychological illnesses. In the end, Fanon admits that he does not have all the answers but advocates for a world where the concept of whiteness and blackness are eliminated. Along the way, Fanon suggests that something similar, but not identical, goes on with all oppressed and colonialized peoples. He draws both parallels and contrasts between racism aimed at black people and antisemitism.  He also mentions that he believes Marxism is one way to bring about what I would call a colorblind world. 

I think that Fanon’s description of racism throughout the world is hard hitting and sometimes infuriating.  Of course, the world has changed since this book was written. That is important. It is also significant, as racism and oppression are still with us. His call for the world to move beyond racism is, of course, spot on. 

As for Fanon’s psychological theories, I think that this is a bit of a mixed bag. His description of racism and how its targets are made to seem like “the other” seems to be a true reflection of reality. I think that this process can be applied to any group that is the target of bigotry and oppression anywhere in the world. Without a doubt, some oppressed people develop an inferiority complex. Yet, I am not sure that this inferiority complex was as universal as Fanon portrayed it to be, even in in 1952. 

Fanon does a lot of generalizing about black people and white people as well as about men and women. Perhaps this is par for the course for the time this is written. However, in my opinion, such generalizations are not a way to get to the truth. I also find many of the psychanalyst-related theories, especially those that relate to Freud, unscientific and unsubstantiated. Once again, such theories were all the rage when this was written.  Nevertheless, I found this part of Fanon’s reasoning lacking. Finally, I disagree with Fanon’s advocacy of Marxism. 

Based upon what I have read online, this book is highly esteemed in many circles.  It had, and still has, a great influence upon post-colonialist thinking. For this reason alone, it is important. Fanon’s writing is also unique and distinctive. It is also an eloquent and powerful indictment of racism, stereotyping and “othering” as well as being a powerful call for equality. I found the psychological theories, which are the basis of the book, to be questionable however. With that, I recommend this for those interested in these subjects. 

My commentary of Colonialism/Postcolonialism by Ania Loomba is here.