Thursday, August 02, 2007

Anselm vs. Albus, and other thoughts on The Deathly Hallows

I just finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The following passage reminded me of Anselm of Canterbury and his ontological argument for the existence of God:

"Tell me one last thing," said Harry. "Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?"

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry's ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?" (p723)

If you've taken an introductory philosophy class, you've probably learned St. Anselm's argument. Here's a brief version, courtesy of Wikipedia:

God is, by definition, a being greater than which nothing can be conceived (imagined).
Existence in reality is greater than existence in the mind.
God must exist in reality; if God did not, then God would not be that than which nothing greater can be conceived (imagined).

J.K. Rowling takes on Anselm's argument by denying the second premise: for Dumbledore, existence in the mind is also existence in reality. If Dumbledore is right, a God who exists in the mind also exists in reality. But then, so do a lot of other things.

A couple of other thoughts: I suspect everone who's read the Harry Potter books wonders which House he or she would be in if placed in that magical world. I knew I wasn't brave enough for Gryffindor or sly enough for Slytherin. But I was proud enough to believe that I'd be in Ravenclaw, where the really intelligent witches and wizards go. But then I read the following, in which Luna Lovegood (my favorite Potter series character, and a Ravenclaw) and Harry are trying to enter the Ravenclaw lounge:
Luna reached out a pale hand, which looked eerie floating in midair, unconnected to arm or body. She knocked once, and in the silence it sounded to Harry like a cannon blast. At once the beak of the eagle opened, but instead of a bird's call, a soft, musical voice said, "Which came first, the phoenix or the flame?"
"Hmm... What do you think, Harry?" said Luna, looking thoughtful.
"What? Isn't there just a password?"

"Oh no, you've got to answer a question," said Luna.

"What if you get it wrong?"

"Well, you have to wait for someone who gets it right," said Luna. "That way you learn, you see."

"Yeah... Trouble is, we can't really afford to wait for anyone else, Luna."

"No, I see what you mean," said Luna seriously. "Well then, I think the answer is that a circle has no beginning."

"Well reasoned," said the voice, and the door swung open. (pp. 586-587)

I suspect I'd be standing outside the door quite a bit. No, I wouldn't be in Ravenclaw, but in Hufflepuff, the House that takes anyone who doesn't fit into the three other houses. I take comfort in the fact that it's clearly the most democratic of the Houses, as has no litmus test, except for magical ability. Then again, in Rowling's world, desires are taken into account. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Philospher's [Sorcerer's] Stone, when Harry is Sorted, the Sorting Hat hears his thought, "Not Slytherin," and places him in Gryffindor. And Hermione, who seems to belong in Ravenclaw, but said on the Hogwarts Express that Gryffindor was her preference, was Sorted into Gryffindor. So I might still be in Ravenclaw. Just standing outside the door a lot.

Kurt Vonnegut, in his nonfiction book, A Man Without a Country, says, "Never use a semicolon." Rowling uses semicolons often, and she knows how to use them. She also has no problem with adjectives and adverbs. In other words, she is a British writer outside the tradition of Hemingway, Mailer, and Vonnegut. Kathleen (my wife) is even more emphatic about this distinction, and has also said that the current crop of excellent writers from the Indian subcontinent derive at least some of that excellence by having been brought up on the likes of Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope as opposed to the Hemingway school of writing.

As the son of a Hemingway scholar, I'm conflicted. Kathleen has read more Victorian British literature than I ever will. And I really like the Hemingway style. It's journalistic, for one thing. In fact, some of the best Hemingway I've read has been nonfiction, or semi-nonfiction, such as A Moveable Feast. As somone who "reads" a lot of books on tape and CD, I'll say that Duke Ellington's "If it sounds good, it is good" applies to literature as well as music. Both Rowling and Hemingway sound good. They're writing in two different genres, so other comparisons are shaky. They both sound good.

One last thing: it wouldn't be On the Slow Train if I didn't mention Rowling's trains, from the first Hogwarts Express journey to Harry's dream or vision of Heaven as King's Cross Station. Apparently Rowling conceived of the Harry Potter series on a train to Manchester, and her second husband proposed to her on a train. So if and when I write my time-travel novel featuring a mage in Chicago's Union Station, I'll be in good company


Amishlaw said...

This is a great post; very thoughtful and insightful. I'm not a Harry Potter fan, but my wife is so I printed it out for her and she has forwarded to fellow Harry Potter worshipers. I like the distinctions you draw between the spare Hemmingway writer and the more adverb-filled English writers. My wife said she, too, felt at times that Rowlings could have used a few less adverbs, but she's still a big fan.

steve said...

amish--Thank you for the compliment. One thing about the Harry Potter books, whether you're a fan or not, is that they do provoke thought.

Amber said...

I saw the movie a few days ago, and while I didn't catch it at the time of the book's release(to be fair, I hadn't taken philosophy yet) my first thought when I heard it during the movie was, "Was that an Anselm reference?"

This was the first place I found when I wondered if anyone else had made the connection, and was pleasantly surprised to find myself absorbed instead of skimming indifferently.

Great post, will forward.