Friday, May 17, 2019

The Harry Potter Series - A Wrap-up

 This post contains spoilers. 

Those who have been reading this blog over the past several months know that I have been reading through the Harry Potter series. I have finally finished. I do not often join in on what is popular, and the Harry Potter series is nothing if not popular, but this time I am glad that I did. I enjoyed the books and I got a lot out of them. 

I thought that all of the books were good. My favorite was the first, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. That book created the wizarding world that was the basis of the entire series. For this reason and others, it was unsurpassed in originality. I also thought that this first entry held a certain level of charm that was not achieved in the later books.  I felt that subsequent books fell into a pattern that, at times, became a little wearisome. With that, this repetitiveness did not prevent me from enjoying these books. Starting with book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, all-out war breaks out between the established wizarding world and the evil Lord Voldemort and his followers. I found that this conflict helped to break the uniformity that was settling into the series. Thus, after the first book, I thought that the last three books were stronger than the earlier ones. 

This very popular book series had certain trends and themes that ran throughout. In this wrap up post, I would like to write a few words about some of these trends that I found interesting. I wrapped up several reoccurring themes in my various posts on individual books. For instance, I talked about the entire character arc of Severus Snape in my post on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows. Here, I will try to touch upon some other themes. 

There is something ironic about how the magic was portrayed in this series. The universe that Rowling created is based upon magic. It is populated by witches, wizards and all sorts of magical creatures. Yet, for all this magic, there is almost something scientific and rational about the world that the author has fashioned. Magic is studied and broken down into sub-subjects at Hogwarts. It is sometimes experimented with.  It is applied systematically. Precise instructions are laid out for particular spells. Magic is not random or chaotic in Rowling’s universe.  Instead, magic is portrayed within these pages based upon physical laws that, while imaginary, seem to be very ordered. It seems that if one applied the scientific method to them, these laws could be discovered and shown to be just another part of the way in which the world works. In fact, that is exactly what some of the characters and institutions in the series do.

These books also highlight intelligence. Harry and his friends are smart. Though Hermione is the most intelligent, the boys are also intuitive and clever. Readers of this series might be surprised that I include Ron. Harry’s closest male friend is often portrayed in a comical and dopey way. However, there is still an inner intelligence that shines through with Ron.  Unlike some bright young people in popular culture, these characters are not portrayed as snarky or smart alecks. They are sometimes smarter than the adults around them, but they do not act like they are aware of it. 

Another reoccurring theme that I have already written about in my individual posts on the books is that Rowling’s wizarding world seems to be a microcosm and commentary on the real world. The magical government, known as the Ministry of Magic, is often portrayed as corrupt, unjust and inefficient. Sometimes, good people are persecuted and bad people are rewarded. At times, draconian and unfair laws are passed and enforced. Yet, the wizarding world is at its root a free society that acts like a democracy. The wizarding world, just like the real world, has its share of immoral and abusive people. Yet despite these flaws, the established wizarding world is worth fighting for. The forces that seek to destroy it are barbarous. I covered all this in my post on Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire.  An interesting post script to all this occurs in the epilogue of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows. It is nineteen years after the major events of the book. Hermione is now Minister of Magic and Harry is running the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Presumably, they are doing a better job than some of their predecessors. Like the real world, the system is not perfect and could stand reform, but the enemies of civilization are worse. Destroying everything is not the answer. Ethical and competent people will not eliminate problems all together, but that might improve things. 

As I have written in my various posts, the plight of the lonely young person trying understand themselves, the idea of “specialness” and bullying are all intertwined and are major themes of the books. Bullying and specialness act as a kind of counterpoint to each other throughout the series.  Now that I am finished, revisiting these trends is in order. In my post on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I wrote about the fact that Harry had been exposed to bullying, and abuse by the Dursleys played into the plot. He later found out that he was special in that he had magical abilities, and that he held a somewhat legendary status in the magical world.   I speculated that this was a sentiment that was relatable to many and that a lot of people share a feeling that they are special and unique but are surrounded by those who cannot understand their distinctiveness. It turned out that throughout the series, specialness and bullying kept popping up. Every summer, Harry returned to the Dursleys, who continued to try to bully him.  As he got older and became more confident, he slowly began to fight back more and more.  Malicious teachers and students continued to try to bully and attack Harry and his friends. Tom Riddle, later to become the evil Lord Voldemort, was in many ways the ultimate bully. In an ironic twist, while he was exposed to all this, Harry’s special status was simultaneously emphasized. When Harry was an infant he had survived a murderous attack by Voldemort that backfired, and that actually left the evil lord in a near death condition. This endowed Harry with a fabled place in the wizarding world. Throughout the books, Harry never lets this fame go to his head. I can imagine a commenter being critical of Rowling, as her young protagonist never abused or even used to his advantage his fame and accolades. Some might say that this is unrealistic and that Harry was portrayed as too good. However, I think that Harry’s humility is realistic. Some people are naturally humble even when young.  Harry is this kind of person. He is believably portrayed as such. 

Rowling explores Harry’s specialness in other permutations. Some of his peers and teachers react with a combination of jealousy and scorn to Harry’s reputation. Professor Snape as well as the malicious Draco Malfoy act as if Harry is showing arrogance, despite the fact that he shows no such thing. They try to use Harry’s special reputation against him and leverage it in their attempts to bully him. Once again, I think that many readers relate to being bullied, or at least misunderstood, for possessing distinctive traits. 

Ron Weasley’s reaction to Harry’s fame is the most interesting of all to me. Ron is Harry’s great friend. There are times, however, that he feels that he is living in the shadow of Harry’s popularity. Ron’s own mother lavishes praise on Harry, perhaps leading to some tension.  Toward the end of the series, a relationship develops between Ron and Hermione and there is the barest hint that there might be some stress between Ron and Harry here. Supposedly, there was much more to this potential love triangle in early drafts of the novels, but Rowling chose to remove much of it from her final drafts. In the versions of the books that we have, Ron keeps any resentment that he has in abeyance most of the time, but it occasionally comes out, leading to minor conflicts between himself and Harry.  It all comes to a climax in the last book as Voldemort attempts to take advantage of these underlying feelings to turn Ron against Harry. At this point in the story, Harry and Hermione had been traveling together and Ron has just rejoined them. Through a magical object, a piece of Voldemort’s spirit attempts to turn Ron, 

‘I have seen your dreams, Ronald Weasley, and I have seen your fears. All you desire is possible, but all that you dread is also possible ...’ 

‘Least loved, always, by the mother who craved a daughter ... least loved, now, by the girl who prefers your friend ... second best, always, eternally overshadowed ...’ 

Why return? We were better without you, happier without you, glad of your absence ... we laughed at your stupidity, your cowardice, your presumption –’ 
Who could look at you, who would ever look at you, beside Harry Potter? What have you ever done, compared with the Chosen One? What are you, compared with the Boy Who Lived?’ 

Your mother confessed,’ sneered Riddle-Harry, while Riddle- Hermione jeered, ‘that she would have preferred me as a son, would be glad to exchange ...’ 
‘Who wouldn’t prefer him, what woman would take you? You are nothing, nothing, nothing to him, 

After all this, Ron overcomes his jealousy and insecurity and strikes out at Voldemort. However, in the above examples, Rowling successfully explores how specialness can lead to jealousy and resentment.  I find that these points and counterpoint about specialness and bullying work very well together throughout the series.

My reading of the Harry Potter Series is complete. I found the series to be well worth it. As noted above, I had a good time reading these books. I have read a fair amount of fantasy over the years and I feel that these books stand up well to even the great books of the past. Though late to the party, I am glad that I eventually attended.  

My post on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stoneis here

My post on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secretsis here

My post on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabanis here

My post on Harry Potter and The Gobletof Fire is here

My post on Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix is here

My post on Harry Potter and the Half – Blood Princeis here

My post on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollowsis here

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows by J.K. Rowling is the seventh and final book in the series.  I found it to be a fitting end to the Harry Potter saga. This entry is an exciting climax to the story. Rowling continues to weave a strong and exciting plot and entertaining characters into some interesting themes. It all wraps up very nicely. 

This book breaks the plot pattern that was established in previous entries. In the earlier books we had the inevitable summer adventures of Harry and his friends, followed by a trip to Hogwarts followed by the day to day occurrences at the magical school. Instead, in the early pages of this book, the evil Lord Voldemort has taken over the Ministry of Magic and most of the power in the wizarding world. Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron, do not go to back school. Instead, they set off on a quest-like mission to destroy Voldemort’s power by finding and destroying dark magical objects know as Horcruxes. The trio travel the forests and towns of England, encountering friends and enemies along the way, as they fight evil wizards and creatures.

The last fifth of the book involves both Harry and his allies fighting Voldemort and his Death Eaters at Hogwarts itself in a final, spectacular and violent magical battle. The author puts all sorts of interesting elements into the finale. Rowling also shows that she is indeed an author who is a cut above the average fantasy writer.

 A tendency that has been building up throughout the series is that the magical violence and combat is very real and that it involves death, maiming and real brutality.  As mentioned above, Rowling’s attention to detail is impressive.  For instance, even brave characters often experience realistic fear before battle. They are often depicted as trembling. They are often traumatized after magical combat. 

Well established characters die or are physically scarred for life. Ron Weasley’s large family has been close to Harry throughout the books. They all are devastated as one son, Fred, a popular character, is killed in the midst of the Battle of Hogwarts. Other allies, including the married couple Tonks and Lupin, are also killed in the battle. 

At one point, Harry, Hermione and Ron survey the physical and emotional devastation and casualties,

Ron led the way to the Great Hall. Harry stopped in the doorway. The house tables were gone and the room was crowded. The survivors stood in groups, their arms around each other’s necks. The injured were being treated up on the raised platform by Madam Pomfrey and a group of helpers. Firenze was amongst the injured; his flank poured blood and he shook where he lay, unable to stand. 

The dead lay in a row in the middle of the hall. Harry could not see Fred’s body, because his family surrounded him. George was kneeling at his head; Mrs Weasley was lying across Fred’s chest, her body shaking, Mr Weasley stroking her hair while tears cascaded down his cheeks…. 

Harry had a clear view of the bodies lying next to Fred: Remus and Tonks, pale and still and peaceful-looking, apparently asleep beneath the dark, enchanted ceiling. 
The Great Hall seemed to fly away, become smaller, shrink, as Harry reeled backwards from the doorway. He could not draw breath. He could not bear to look at any of the other bodies, to see who else had died for him. He could not bear to join the Weasleys, could not look into their eyes…

He turned away and ran up the marble staircase. Lupin, Tonks ... he yearned not to feel ... he wished he could rip out his heart, his innards, everything that was screaming inside him. 

Rowling has managed to weave together exciting magical battle passages with effective descriptions of the aftermath of violence. Other fantasy writers, such as J.R.R.  Tolkien, have done this before, but Rowling’s technique seems different. I find it effective and believable. 

The character of Severus Snape is also brought to an interesting conclusion here. Throughout the series, the Hogwarts teacher has bullied and even verbally abused Harry. He was known to be a former servant of Voldemort who had switched sides and was allied to Dumbledore in the fight against Voldemort. In the previous book, Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince, Snape seemed to switch sides again and join Voldemort. In this book it is revealed that he has stayed loyal to the anti-Voldemort cause. His entire story is also revealed to Harry. He had grown up with Harry’s mother Lilly. Years ago, the two attended Hogwarts together. As Snape was drawn to the side of the growing power of Voldemort, Lilly and he became estranged despite the fact that Snape was in love with her. Lilly eventually marries Harry’s father James, who Snape hated. Though Snape tried to prevent it, Voldemort murdered Lilly along with James. At that point, Snape began working with Dumbledore against Voldemort to honor Lilly’s memory. He also pledged to protect Harry as he grew up. Despite the fact that he never waivered in his fight against Dumbledore and that he showed great bravery, Snape stayed an angry bitter bully who still did not like Harry. He still harbored a rancorous resentment aimed at Harry’s deceased father James. All of this adds up to him being a complex character. He was on the side of virtue while being a thoroughly dislikeable person.  His motivation for opposing Voldemort was almost entirely motivated for his love of the deceased Lilly and not inspired by other altruistic reasons. 

I quibble that the book is a little too long. The middle part seems to meander. I think that Rowling could have used a more effective editor.

I would not read this book without reading what has happened before. It does not work as a standalone. This series works best as a whole. 

This book is an excellent conclusion to the series. It ties the plot, character and themes that Rowling had previously developed to great effect. This is a satisfying wrap up of the series. My favorite book of the bunch was the first, this one being my second or third.  In the end, I am glad that I finally gave this series a go. 

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism by Russell Blackford

The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism by Russell Blackford is an examination and critical assessment of what many are labeling as call-out culture and public shaming that has been prevalent over recent years. Though Blackford covers a lot of ground here, the main point of the book is how non - government pressure has led to censorship and damaging personal attacks on individuals relating to all manner of speech, expression and art. I found the book to be both engrossing and important. I very much agree with most of the author’s assessments.

Blackford is an Australian philosopher, legal scholar and literary critic. He has written numerous books and articles on such topics as religion, atheism, ethics and morality, science fiction and more. I am a fan of his Twitter activity, which tends to reflect a lot of what this book is about. 

I think that it is important to understand where the author starts from in regards to political and social issues. Blackford holds ideas that are mostly characteristic of the political and social left. He has previously written articles and books where he has vigorously criticized the right and, in particular, right-wing extremism. Nevertheless, most, but not all, of what Blackford is talking about here is coming from the left. 

On the issue of challenging behavior in the current atmosphere that is mostly coming from his own side, Blackford writes, 

I’m afraid. Like many people, I’m afraid to speak up and say exactly what I think. I’m afraid to contribute to public debate with total frankness. I’m more afraid of allies than I am of opponents, since the latter can do me less harm (though if they’re so minded they can probably do enough!). I’m not afraid of my closest friends, the people who love me, who have my back and will keep my secrets, but it gets more frightening as soon as I step out into wider circles of colleagues and acquaintances.

He goes on to say,

I’m afraid, as a matter of fact, that this very book will lose me friends (no, not my closest friends; but still … ) and get me ostracized in some circles, but I’ve taken a deep breath and started writing.
In the first half of the book, Blackford covers a lot of philosophy as well as social science relating to freedom of speech, conformity, the definition of liberalism, etc. He relies heavily of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. He also refers to many other philosophers and social scientists who were active in the past as well as in our current times. He covers areas such as the difference between government versus non-government censorship. He examines the concept that some speech may indeed be harmful and rightly banned. He talks about the difference between traditional liberalism and what he calls revisionist liberalism or identity liberalism. What Blackford refers to as identity liberalism is roughly analogous to what I have called the postmodern left in some of my previous writings.  The two terms are not entirely congruous, but more less overlap on many issues. I should mention, however, that when I have discussed this issue previously on this blog, I was referring to people who engaged in civil disagreements and differences of opinions.   Much of the behavior that is referenced in this book is unethical and has been harmful to individuals and to the general concept of free expression. Blackford describes identity liberalism as valuing the fight against oppression over values such as freedom of speech, due process, democracy, etc. 

Throughout this first part of the work the author sprinkles in his own opinions. He is more or less a moderate on these issues and, in a few cases, even goes further than I do in terms of being receptive to the government and other platforms banning some forms of hate speech. Blackford also lays out a strong case that censorship by non-government actors, such as employers, academic institutions, social media mobs, etc., is harmful to individuals and to society. 

Later in the book Blackford describes many individual cases that illustrate the problem that he is talking about. He cites multiple examples where scientists who have shown results that run counter to identity liberal ideology have been exposed to personal attack and slander. Unfair charges of racism and bigotry abound.  These scientist sometimes come under fire for theorizing that negative aspects of human behavior, such as rape and other forms of violence,f have an evolutionary biological origin. Next, he looks at several college campuses where students have harassed and threatened professors to the point of resignation. The case of Erica Christakis is a perfect example. Christakis was professor at Yale. She wrote an email directed at students relating to the issue of Halloween customs that might be offensive. The text of the email can be found  here. It clearly was a moderate and reasoned couple of paragraphs that was an attempt to find common ground. It sparked a firestorm. In ensuing weeks both Erika Erica Christakis and her husband Nicolas Christakis, who was also a Yale professor, were subject to a torrent of outrage, misrepresentation of their positions, physical intimidation and harassment. They both ended up resigning from their positions, citing a hostile work environment. This is just one example of many. Once again, ludicrous accusations of racism sparked the fury. 

The book turns its attention to the Young Adult book industry and online community where several authors have been harassed, slandered and exposed to actual and attempted censorship prior to or following the publication of books. The authors, who are themselves usually very liberal, are often attacked because they do not share the same nationality, race or sexual preference as the characters that they have created. Some now consider this an act of bigotry in and of itself. Other times the authors draw the ire of the social media mob because they do not portray the issues in line with certain identity left dogma. Social media mobbing relates to many of the cases that Blackford discusses. This is especially true when authors have been attacked as  writers tend to have a large social media presence.

Though obviously not covered in this book, over the past two weeks or so, two writers, Zoe Marriott and John Boyne, had social media mobs come after them. Marriott's fault has been to depict an Asian character in her new book, The Hand, The Eye and the Heart. The fact that Marriott is not Asian in generating the fury at her.  Boyne's upcoming book, My Brother’s Name is Jessica was intended to be a sympathetic portrait of a transgender person. However, several readers of advanced copies as well as many people who have admitted to not read the book, have taken exception to parts of the novel. Boyne has pulled all his social media accounts due to threats originating from this controversy. 

One common thread to most of these cases is that the targets were usually liberals who were expressing traditional liberal views. These views are described by Blackford as enlightenment values but that conflicted with identity liberalism. Usually, charges of racism are made. The charges spiral into a whirlpool of outrage. Blackford writes, 

In its current form, what passes as the political Left eats its own, or if not exactly its own…at least people who could be helpful in the Left’s contemporary social struggles.

The author also talks about a right-wing outrage machine that has also mobbed people on social media and engaged in campaigns of slander and attempts to get their targets fired from their jobs.  As mentioned above, Blackford has been very critical of bad behavior on the right in other writings. He does take certain elements of the right to task here. However, the particular problem that the author highlights in this book seems, at least at the moment, more pronounced and growing on the left. He also tends to mostly focus on cases where liberals have been targeted by the identify left. I think that it is important that we not ignore cases where conservatives, and even some folks on ideological fringes, have been the subject of censorship, slander and harassment. I wish that Blackford had devoted more pages to discussing these cases. However, illustrating how so many folks on the left have been attacked highlights how the problem has become so extreme. Also, and this is based on personal observation, when one is attacked by one’s own “side,” it is often worse. Support from like-minded people is less likely to come. Targets are often bewildered and are at a loss as to how to respond. 

What harm has all of this done? Blackford details people who have lost jobs, reputations and more.  Justine Sacco is just one egregious example.  She was a non-public figure who had less than 200 Twitter followers. She Tweeted a joke that was slightly controversial, Blackford describes the incident and result,

The tweet that she sent…said, ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’ She was then subjected to a viral Twitter attack. It evidently began when Gawker journalist Sam Biddle retweeted the Sacco tweet to his 15,000 followers at the time, after it was sent to him by one person among Sacco’s much smaller group of followers. From there it spiraled out of control into an orgy of spite and glee. Justine Sacco’s name was googled 1,220,000 times from that day until the end of December. She lost her job and became an international laughing stock.

The book details so many other examples. 

Books, particularly in the young adult genre, have been pulled before publication. There has been a stifling of speech and thought. The fear that the author talks about is pervasive. I have heard many people, particularly in academia, who have expressed a hesitancy to express opinions or write articles and books for fear of a backlash.  This is a known and growing issue that is affecting people and free discourse on a large scale. Throughout social media, people are also fearful to express opinions. 

Since I have been interested in this subject for awhile, I was familiar with many of the cases cited. I have read articles and opinion pieces in reference to these issues.  I have witnessed the Twitter mobbing that is described here and even had online debates and discussions with people in the midst of the some of these attacks. I have had online discussions with some of the targets.  I have been putting together a post focusing on the topic of the social media backlash aimed at young adult writer Laura Moriarty and her novel American Heart.

As readers of this blog probably know, like Blackford I identify as a liberal. Also like Blackford, I have observed what he describes as call out culture and I am appalled by it. I see it as part of a something bigger  that has been growing on the left. I, along with some others, have been calling it this trend postmodernist leftism. It relates to a rejection of ideals such as a belief in freedom of speech, defense of science and reason, treating people of all ethnicities equally, opposition to oppression even when the oppressors are not white men, etc. As I continue to read books on related subjects, I will have more to say about all this. 

Blackford is extremely balanced and tries to at least understand all sides. He presents the arguments of many people and groups that he criticizes and is often at least partially sympathetic to them. Many other critics of the phenomena described here have become fierce opponents of social justice movements and the left in general. That is not the direction that Blackford takes. In fact, in many ways he is more liberal and sympathetic to social justice causes than I am. 

Blackford offers possible solutions. He makes some suggestion as to what social media platforms and even government can do. More importantly, he calls for people of all political and social beliefs to stand together to resist this nastiness and suppression of speech. He provides a list and commentary on other books that discuss this topic as well as a list of worthy books that have been the subject of these suppression campaigns.

I tend to shy away from books such as this that are very tied to very current events. As I have written in other posts, I usually read books that I consider to have universal appeal and that will be relevant far into the future. I made an exception here for various reasons.  It is a topic that I am very interested in. It relates in all sorts of ways to other issues that I delve into in this blog. In terms of the book, I found that the first half was a universal examination of various issues, such as free speech, conformity, liberalism, etc. The second part did focus upon current events however. 

It seems to me that this is an important book. I think that anyone interested in the general discourse on politics, social issues, art, etc. will find a lot of value here. No matter where one falls on these issues, the future of discussion communication affects us all. Even those who might disagree with Blackford will likely find him a nuanced thinker who makes a real effort to at least understand those who he disagrees with. I highly recommend this work to anyone interested in these topics.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev was first published in 1862.  I found this to be a compelling philosophical novel populated with well crafted and complex characters. I read the Constance Garnett translation. 

This is the story of two young men, Yevgeny Bazarov and his friend Arkady Kirsanov. Bazarov is a nihilist. Arkady is a follower who has embraced Bazarov’s beliefs.  Nihilism, which was a thought system spreading through Russia at the time, is a key concept explored in this book. It is described by Arkady as follows, 

A nihilist is a man who does not bow down before any authority, who does not take any principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in. 

As such, Bazarov is critical of most societal conventions, government, tradition and conceptions of beauty and art, among other things. 

The narrative follows the travels of Bazarov and Arkady as they visit several households in Russia. First, they visit Arkady’s father Nikolai Kirsanov. Nikolai is a liberal landowner which, at the time, made him someone who favored moderate reform in Russia. His political and social beliefs are at odds with the radical nihilism of Bazárov and Arkady. Nikolai’s brother, Pavel, is also on hand. Pavel is also a liberal who spends some time debating Bazarov. 

Next, the pair visit a widowed noblewoman, Anna Odintsova, and her sister, Katya.  Anna’s psyche is delved into by Turgenev in some depth. She is a woman who is somewhat obsessed with order and not rocking the boat. She is an interesting character in her own right. Bazarov begins to fall in love with her. These feelings cause his nihilistic beliefs to fray a bit. Arkady is likewise attracted to Katya. The young men's attractions to these women make up a major thread in the narrative through the end of the book. 

The pair also visit Bazarov’s parents. Bazarov’s father, Vassily, is also a liberal Russian. These political and social differences, as well as other issues, also put a strain on the relationship between Bazarov and his parents. This all plays into a major theme of the book as Turgenev explains the tensions between different generations. 

The two young men bounce back and forth between the three households throughout the story. Eventually, Bazarov’s tearing down of everything that Pavel values leads to Pavel calling out Bazarov to a duel.  This ends with Pavel being wounded, but also with the two more or less reconciling. In what I thought was some of the best writing in the book, Pavel comments on Bazárov’s degeneration of art and nature,

Nikolai Petrovitch’s head sank despondently, and he passed his hand over his face. “But to renounce poetry?” he thought again; “to have no feeling for art, for nature ...” And he looked round, as though trying to understand how it was possible to have no feeling for nature. It was already evening; the sun was hidden behind a small copse of aspens which lay a quarter of a mile from the garden; its shadow stretched indefinitely across the still fields. A peasant on a white nag went at a trot along the dark, narrow path close beside the copse; his whole figure was clearly visible even to the patch on his shoulder, in spite of his being in the shade; the horse’s hoofs flew along bravely. The sun’s rays from the farther side fell full on the copse, and piercing through its thickets, threw such a warm light on the aspen trunks that they looked liswallows flew high; the wind had quite died away, belated bees hummed slowly and drowsily among the lilac blossom; a swarm of midges hung like a cloud over a solitary branch which stood out against the sky. “How beautiful, my God!” thought Nikolai Petrovitch, and his favourite verses were almost on his lips;

I like the way, in the above passage, that Turgenev transitions from Pavel’s objection to Bazarov’s beliefs to his own musings upon the beauty of nature, to his own love of poetry and thus ends with  

his favourite verses were almost on his lips.

Turgenev was himself a moderate who rejected both the far-right reactionaries and the radical nihilists.  Both of these extremes were gaining popularity in Russia at the time that this was written. Bazarov’s character, however, was tame and moderate compared to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s psychotic and malevolent nihilistic characters, such as Verkhovensky in The PossessedDostoevsky’s nihilists also tend to gather around them a cult like following. Instead, Bazarov is somewhat likable and sympathetic. He has persuaded Arkady to embrace his cause, but he does not end up convincing anyone else. For his part, Arkady easily breaks free of Bazarov’s influence when he falls in love and becomes engaged to Katya. 

Though there was apparently some controversy at the time when this was published as to Turgenev’s view of nihilism, a little online searching makes it clear from Turgenev’s other writings and statements that he meant to be very critical of nihilism in this book. Bazarov is, however, a complex character.  He has flaws but he also has appealing traits. His philosophy is portrayed as terrible. At the same time, he is shown to be both charming and brave as he conducts himself with courage and honor in his duel with Pavel.  I would have liked it if there was more of Bazarov’s philosophizing included in the text. What there was of it, I found it to be interesting. At one point, he muses,

I think; here I lie under a haystack.... The tiny space I occupy is so infinitely small in comparison with the rest of space, in which I am not, and which has nothing to do with me; and the period of time in which it is my lot to live is so petty beside the eternity in which I have not been, and shall not be.... And in this atom, this mathematical point, the blood is circulating, the brain is working and wanting something.... Isn’t it loathsome? Isn’t it petty?

As the above illustrates, Bazarov thinks about the big issues. With that, his ultimate outlook is incredibly negative. 

I found this to be very good book.   The characters are well drawn. If they are not brilliant they do posses a lot of subtlety and nuance. The themes, particularly that of differences between generations, are well presented and interesting  I liked the political and social moderate change that Turgenev espoused here. The Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy works that I have read seemed to tell bigger stories about bigger characters. Nonetheless, this book worked well in its own way. The plot and characters are very well crafted and are likely to hold the attention of readers who like such stories. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys philosophical and character based novels. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Harry Potter and the Half – Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling

This post contains major spoilers. 

Harry Potter and the Half – Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling is the sixth book in the series. I found this to be one of the most entertaining entries of the bunch. Rowling also throws in some particularly interesting elements into the mix here. 

Harry and his friends are back for their sixth year at the magical school of Hogwarts. In this installment, war has broken out between the law-abiding wizarding community and the evil Lord Voldemort and his allies. People are dying.  Voldemort has also hatched a plot to kill Hogwarts headmaster and great wizard Dumbledore. 

Harry also comes into position of an old textbook that someone owned years earlier. The person called himself the half-blood prince and had written all kinds of helpful spells and tips in the book. Harry uses this information to excel in his classes and conjure up some unique spells. Harry’s friend Hermione suspects that the Half Blood Prince might have been evil and that Harry is looking for trouble by using the book. 

The climax of the story arrives when Voldemort’s allies, known as the Death Eaters, invade Hogwarts in an attempt to kill Dumbledore, and an all-out magical battle erupts.

There is a something of a pattern contained within these books. The first two -thirds or so involve Harry’s day to day activities over the summer and then at Hogwarts. Rumors and hints that the evil Lord Voldemort is engaging in nefarious activities abound. The last third of the books usually advance the plot and develop the characters and sometimes reveal some neat surprises. This book more or less follows that pattern but throws in some distinctive touches early on. In what I found to be some of Rowling’s best writing, Voldemort’s origins and his young life are illuminated. Dumbledore has a magical memory device called a pensieve, on which he can replay people’s memories. The great wizard has been digging into Voldemort’s origins and past. He uses his pensieve to show Harry Voldemort’s story through other people’s memories. We see how Voldemort’s parents met when his mother bewitched his father with a love potion. When his mother died, Voldemort, originally named Tom Riddle, was abandoned and left in an orphanage. A few years later, a young Dumbledore, who had discovered that Riddle had magical powers, brought the young Riddle to Hogwarts. Riddle is depicted as a cold, narcissistic and cruel boy who develops a cult-like following. Passages in which Harry views his various life stages are chilling. At one point, Harry watches a young Dumbledore come for Tom top take him to Hogwarts, 

It was a small bare room with nothing in it except an old wardrobe and an iron bedstead. A boy was sitting on top of the gray blankets, his legs stretched out in front of him, holding a book. 

… He was his handsome father in miniature, tall for eleven years old, dark-haired, and pale. His eyes narrowed slightly as he took in Dumbledore’s eccentric appearance. There was a moment’s silence....

“I am Professor Dumbledore.” 

“‘Professor’?” repeated Riddle. He looked wary. “Is that like ‘doctor’? What are you here for? Did she get you in to have a look at me?” 

He was pointing at the door through which Mrs. Cole had just left.

“No, no,” said Dumbledore, smiling.

“I don’t believe you,” said Riddle. “She wants me looked at, doesn’t she? Tell the truth!” 

He spoke the last three words with a ringing force that was almost shocking. It was a command, and it sounded as though he had given it many times before. His eyes had widened and he was glaring at Dumbledore, who made no response except to continue smiling pleasantly. After a few seconds Riddle stopped glaring, though he looked, if anything, warier still. 

“Who are you?” 

“I have told you. My name is Professor Dumbledore and I work at a school called Hogwarts. I have come to offer you a place at my school — your new school, if you would like to come.” 

Riddle’s reaction to this was most surprising. He leapt from the bed and backed away from Dumbledore, looking furious. 

“You can’t kid me! The asylum, that’s where you’re from, isn’t it? ‘Professor,’ yes, of course — well, I’m not going, see? That old cat’s the one who should be in the asylum. I never did anything to little Amy Benson or Dennis Bishop, and you can ask them, they’ll tell you!” 

“I am not from the asylum,” said Dumbledore patiently. “I am a teacher and, if you will sit down calmly, I shall tell you about Hogwarts. Of course, if you would rather not come to the school, nobody will force you —” 

“I’d like to see them try,” sneered Riddle. 

“Hogwarts,” Dumbledore went on, as though he had not heard Riddle’s last words, “is a school for people with special abilities —” 
“I’m not mad!”

“I know that you are not mad. Hogwarts is not a school for mad people. It is a school of magic.” 

There was silence. Riddle had frozen, his face expressionless, but his eyes were flickering back and forth between each of Dumbledore’s, as though trying to catch one of them lying. 

“Magic?” he repeated in a whisper. “That’s right,” said Dumbledore. “It’s... it’s magic, what I can do?” “What is it that you can do?” 

“All sorts,” breathed Riddle. A flush of excitement was rising up his neck into his hollow cheeks; he looked fevered. “I can make filings move without touching them. I can make animals do what I want them to do, without training them. I can make bad things happen to people who annoy me. I can make them hurt if I want to.” 

His legs were trembling. He stumbled forward and sat down on the bed again, staring at his hands, his head bowed as though in prayer. 

“I knew I was different,” he whispered to his own quivering fingers. “I knew I was special. Always, I knew there was something.” 

“Well, you were quite right,” said Dumbledore, who was no longer smiling, but watching Riddle intently. “You are a wizard.” 

Riddle lifted his head. His face was transfigured: There was a wild happiness upon it, yet for some reason it did not make him better looking; on the contrary, his finely carved features seemed somehow rougher, his expression almost bestial. 

“Are you a wizard too?” “Yes, I am.” 

“Prove it,” said Riddle at once, in the same commanding tone he had used when he had said, “Tell the truth.” 

Dumbledore raised his eyebrows. “If, as I take it, you are accepting your place at Hogwarts —” 
“Of course I am!” 

“Then you will address me as ‘Professor’ or ‘sir.’“ 
Riddle’s expression hardened for the most fleeting moment before he said, in an unrecognizably polite voice, “I’m sorry, sir. I meant — please, Professor, could you show me —?” 

I find the above to be well written. Many aspects of Riddle’s character are illustrated here. Riddle is a psychopath. Rowling depicts a young man who is inwardly seething with malice. There is a reference to the fact that Riddle has hurt people before, how he is angry at those around him, how he craves more power, and how he is able to change his behavior in an attempt to fool those around him. 

Within the story Rowling has begun to weave in the contrast and compare theme between Voldemort and Harry. There are many similarities, both are orphans, both are special children surrounded by people who have trouble understanding them etc. The two are connected psychiclly. However, unlike some other fantasy series however, Harry is not tempted by the dark side. He does at times show imperfections as he becomes understandable angry at people who try to torment him or who he thinks are manipulating him. It is not in his nature to succumb to malice.  

Several people have pointed online that Riddle was conceived via an act of deception as his mother used a love potion on his father. Thus, he was the product of “fake love.” This idea rings true to me. It seems to ease very well into the personality that Riddle and Harry each developed. 

The book also ends strongly. The magical battle within Hogwarts is very well written. Furthermore, Dumbledore has been killed in the battle and as the result of events in other books, many of Harry’s other strong adult protectors are dead. Harry’s realization that he must now take on Voldemort’s without them is powerful and effective. 

And Harry saw very clearly as he sat there under the hot sun how people who cared about him had stood in front of him one by one, his mother, his father, his godfather, and finally Dumbledore, all determined to protect him; but now that was over. He could not let anybody else stand between him and Voldemort; he must abandon forever the illusion he ought to have lost at the age of one: that the shelter of a parent’s arms meant that nothing could hurt him. There was no waking from his nightmare, no comforting whisper in the dark that he was safe really, that it was all in his imagination; the last and greatest of his protectors had died and he was more alone than he had ever been before. 

I find that the above is another well written passage. In light of everything that has happened in the series before, it is dramatic,  stark and effective. The books have obviously turned more serious. It seems to me that Rowling has managed the transition in a believable and effective way. 

I liked this book a lot. Because of the above strengths, it may be my second favorite book after the first in the series. It is an enjoyable read, it is full of cleverness and engrossing developments.  The characters, while not all that complex, continue to be fun to read about. There were some serious and interesting aspects woven into it all. I have one more book to go in the series.