Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"Signature Event Context" and the Deathly Hallows

UPDATE: Welcome to those of you visiting from Easily Distracted via Russell's link to my post in his comment there.

This post could also have been titled J. K. Rowling's Lonely Hearts Club Band or, more tangentially, "Better Harry Potter than Paris Hilton."

Anyway. I promised a review, so I'll get that out of the way right now, seeing as that's not quite the point of this post. Mild spoilers contained therein; to reveal the review, you'll have to scroll to the bottom of the post and click on "Read More."

I liked it very much, overall. It didn't resolve as I had thought it might: I chose to believe that Dumbledore wasn't really dead and that, because I suspected Snape had some redeeming qualities, I thought he would have a greater, more dramatic role than he does. Something that doesn't get fully explained is why, in the scene in the Malfoy mansion, no one--not even Draco--seems able (or, significantly, willing) to positively identify Harry, Ron and Hermione when they're brought there. I at least thought that this was a sign that Draco had come to regret the evil his family had chosen to serve, and it certainly provides enough justification for Harry's saving him during the climactic battle. Yet in the immediate aftermath of that battle, the Malfoys sit apart from the other Hogwartsians. Perhaps that ambiguity is intentional, a sign that, though Voldemort has been vanquished, those evils that he represents--the lust for power, class prejudice--remain intact, these being human beings and not immortals, after all.

And that brings me to the question of whether the Potter books are "any good." Rowling is not the most elegant of writers, but she has a firm grasp of what the greatest children's books--and, for that matter, the greatest books--should do: address the very biggest themes (the realities of life, one of which is death; the inevitability of confronting and deciding what to do about evil; that few people are entirely good or entirely evil and that it can be very difficult to accept either of those truths; the nature of friendship and loyalty and courage and sacrifice) and present them in all their befuddling complexity without trying to tidy them up completely. For more--and a more subtle--consideration of the Potter books as "children's literature," you could do much worse than have a look at Russell Arben Fox's post--and the very thoughtful comments--on Deathly Hallows.

End of review.

Back on Friday, waiting for 12:01 to arrive, surrounded by perhaps 300 noisy and excited people, most of them in costume (one, extraordinarily, as a very plausible centaur!), some admittedly there less because of their love of Harry Potter than because, hey, it's a party!, it's Spectacle!, it's an Event!, I was reading Derrida's essay "Signature Event Context." Really. Long story as to why, but the upshot is that it turned out to be an appropriate choice for the evening.

Derrida's essay is about as straightforward a piece of writing as is available from him; those still puzzling over just what deconstruction is would, I think have many of their questions answered by it. This remark about a writer's intentions and its consequences for the idea of "context" struck me especially as I had a look around me that night: "By all rights, it belongs to the sign to be legible, even if the moment of its production is irremediably lost, and even if I do not know what its alleged author-scriptor meant consciously and intentionally at the moment he wrote it, that is abandoned it to its essential drifting."

Surely, I thought, that whatever-it-was I was sitting in the midst of has become as much a part of the context of the Potter books as the world those narratives create--so much so, in fact, that some commenters in Potter posts I've read contend that PotterMania! has become the context to be assessed, and not the books. That's a strange argument to be making--those who make it tend to identify themselves as lovers of classic literature and thus of good writing who would reject arguments that the assumed value of those great works has also been shaped in some measure by marketplaces of various sorts; yet the Potter books' value is slight at best; at worst, they've become famous for being famous, and not because of any intrinsic merits.

Well, fine. If you want to talk about spectacle, let's do. Let's just have a look around my Barnes & Noble and try for analogies to what I found myself in the midst of. Christmas? Halloween? Mardi Gras? Well, yes, sort of . . . but all those events repeat themselves. It wasn't until sometime Saturday, as I was about halfway through Deathly Hallows, that it really struck home that literally millions of people all over the world were or soon would be doing exactly the same thing. It was most akin, therefore, to the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, when radio stations would be allowed to play it beginning the Sunday at midnight a week in advance of its release in stores. The stations played it over and over again, competing with their rivals to see who could play it the most. Langdon Winner wrote of that time, as he happened to be travelling I-80 and hearing music from this album almost literally wherever he was, "The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. . . . For a brief while the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young." (from The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, p. 183)

Sounds familiar, no?

Setting aside the merits of the Potter books--and keeping in mind that there are some who don't regard Sgt. Pepper's the Beatles' best album, much less the greatest rock & roll album--I would argue that the Potter books' achievement in grabbing our collective attention as it has is an even greater one. We have far more media sources for our music-and-image-dominated society, yet it's a book (aren't those supposed to be dinosaurs?) that's causing all this fuss, that's holding all these kids, their parents, and, let's face it, even those of us who haven't read it and won't, in some way preoccupied by it. When put in those terms, merit is somewhat beside the point. What is astounding is that this moment is occurring at all. And merit, too, is to a certain extent in the eye of the beholder: in grad school one of my fellow students thought it absurd that our program required one to earn 3 hours of credit for reading the works of only one writer, some flash-in-the-pan named Shakespeare.

I am glad to have witnessed and been a part of this collective engagement with a single text, if only because it seems highly unlikely to me that its like will occur any time soon. Indeed, it may never occur again. Writing is iterable, says Derrida--it is that very quality that allows us to call it "writing." But this context that we're still in the midst of, this collective immersion in a text and its world and what that text's extraordinary success might say, for good or ill, about our world, that is uniterable. At least for this set of texts. But perhaps not for another, some time.


Russell Arben Fox said...

John, thanks for the kind words and link. As for your post, I think you're on to something brilliant here. I love your association between Derrida, the impact of Sgt. Pepper's, and what you call "this collective immersion in a text." I can think of a couple of other contexts that, to a lesser but still real degree, have made such collective immersions possible: perhaps it can be seen the desperation that apparently emerged in the certain American cities with large reading publics in the 19th century, as they waited for ships from England carrying the latest installments from Dickens's pen; or maybe, more prosaically, in the regular, once-a-year, Sunday evening showings of "The Wizard of Oz" on network television during the 60s and 70s, showings which transformed what had been an admired but mostly forgotten 1930s musical in an awesome cultural touchstone. But truly, never before could the public reception of and immersion in a book and a book alone have had this sort of reach and breadth; it is probably entirely sui generis, and thus worthy of some "deconstruction."

You might be interested in this post by Tim Burke on the Harry Potter phenomenon as a "complex system." I think I see some overlap between your discussion and his.

R. Sherman said...

The OD stood in line in Germany to get a copy of the British edition. Query whether the phenomenon is predicated upon a collective desire to a) escape and/or b) avoid the evil of our times, so evident to even the young, via a story of imaginary good v. evil.