Harry Potter is a survivor, maybe, but no hero

Jul 14 2011 Published by under Creative Process, Science Fiction, Writing

Like most of the country, sometime in the next week I’ll shuffle up to a ticket booth, shovel out 40-ish dollars and see the second half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I want to see if the movie adaptation can save that train wreck of a narrative in the last book.

I’m not really sure at what point during the evolution of the series that this essay started to come together. Maybe the bumbling luck in the Goblet of Fire. Maybe the null result of Dumbledore’s Army. Perhaps it was the trip with Dumbledore to the seacave and the ensuing helplessness in the event of his death. As I read more about Harry Potter, the less I thought of him as a hero. He is rarely cognizant of his circumstances, and even when he’s presented with ample clues, he (she?) relies on the heavy-handed power of deus ex machina to force a conclusion. It gets to the point where you wonder who is more inept: Harry Potter or J.K Rowling.

Harry Potter is like a modern-day Candide, a hapless victim, a thrall of inherited circumstance, an unwilling, unwilled window to Rowling’s world. The biggest difference, of course, was Candide was Voltaire’s rhetorical pawn and I’m not really sure what – if any – point Rowling is trying to make. I think she’s trying to tell us a story for its own sake. I think she started writing it for the kids. It’s since developed into an unintended mirror of culture and identity.

Antonia Susan Duffy wrote a piece in the NY Times in 2003 discussing the strange world of HP:

The important thing about this particular secondary world is that it is symbiotic with the real modern world. Magic, in myth and fairy tales, is about contacts with the inhuman -- trees and creatures, unseen forces. Most fairy story writers hate and fear machines. Ms. Rowling's wizards shun them and use magic instead, but their world is a caricature of the real world and has trains, hospitals, newspapers and competitive sport. Much of the real evil in the later books is caused by newspaper gossip columnists who make Harry into a dubious celebrity, which is the modern word for the chosen hero. Most of the rest of the evil (apart from Voldemort) is caused by bureaucratic interference in educational affairs.

Ms. Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, ''only personal.'' Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.

Now, I don’t completely agree with her assessment of Rowling’s fans – that’s habitual among the scornful – but the idea of Rowling’s secondary world as trivial and shallow resonates with my impressions of the series.
Like most modern fantasy, the wizarding world of HP is a place of trite, amalgamated whimsy. No doubt, for centuries stories and myths morphed over time, massaged by their tellers, shaped by conquering cultures and wanderers. But until recently, the extent of the myth salad we now endure was not nearly as confused. By the time stories of vampires, dragons, knights, wizards and goblins were being incorporated into video games, the motifs were becoming woefully overused. Rowlings world is a mashup of a mashup of a mashup with no binding principle, no underlying metaphysical unity. Voldemort strikes fear into the hearts of the most powerful wizards, but he can only kill one person at a time. He and his black broom band scare a few people in London. The most horrible spells are nothing more than a knife in the dark, a beating in a small alley. But if the world is truly “only personal”, Armageddon comes with a flick of the wrist.

Should we expect anything else in this age? I don’t think so. It fits the times. Harry is the perfect man-child: ineffectual, entitled, spineless, lost, confused and utterly reliant on a decisive father figure and the life-filling drama from his friends. Even in the end he cannot rise above his circumstance – Rowling won’t let him. He must be nannied beyond the grave to rise up – truly undead now – and actualize the “we had it all along” narrative deception. In the wake of his resurrection, the victory of the good guys is like all the stories we spoon-feed to our kids in America: loud, inconsistent, sugary and indulgent. As I read it, I could only think of Heather’s eight-year-old nephew going on in detail to me about how he’d like to buy a pool so he could fill it with sharks and blow up the sharks with a rocket launcher.

The story really isn’t about Harry at all. The protagonist is Dumbledore as far as I can gather; he’s the only one that really knows what’s going on at any time. So why make the mistake of an amateur novelist? Passive characters can be excellent narrators of a story and still play a big part or turn out to be the most important piece. It’s hardly fulfilling to follow someone so empty.

Heroes sacrifice themselves for the sake of something bigger. In a place where the end of you is the end of the world, is it possible to be a hero? Perhaps it’s better to call Harry Potter a survivor rather than a hero, and the frame of that story is a very different shape than the one Rowling forced this story into.

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I don't write about science anymore

Jun 20 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

...but I want to.

For the past four years, we've been bouncing around the eastern seaboard, and toward the end there, I just wanted to be home. Heather and I have had a recent tragedy that brought us back, and this time, we're staying. I love my home, I love DC, love Maryland. Hopefully we're here to stay.

It's been tough to keep working beyond my dayjob at times. This impermanence, I think, has fostered some interesting ideas for fiction, for telling stories about people, but hasn't given me the stability I had in college for studying, for absorbing more technical ideas and writing. It's something I've grown to miss.

There's a wonderful groundedness that comes from taking new research, pulling from old and spinning it into a clean essay. It's a sharp contrast to the tepid apathy of this age, where ideas have become a kind of currency, assigned a material weight, proposed for acceptance as something that can be measured and held. We want to pin them to our lapel with a flourish, a great red feather, this idea of self, identity defined by this concept or our perception of it. It is with the utmost importance that this idea - the defining idea - is handled with care; only apt fingers - knowing hands - can draw from it the will to stand in a courtroom and demand respect.

But a demand for respect is always inherently a request. The affirmation is sought from an established entity, which adds a fascinating undercurrent to these interactions: if we were truly defined by an idea, would we seek such an approval? A demand is not a request; we demand things by actions, not words. Demands are not things that are sanctioned by others, they are done. Art demands attention and acceptance by its existence. The greatest artists do not request approval to create, they do so with courage to cut deep into themselves and smear the inner beauty, love, anger, hatred, disgust, selfishness, despair over their canvas. The demand to see, to hear, is made by the boldness or subtlety of the piece itself, the skill of the artist to manipulate our senses. It's an argument that seeks no response.

To see ideas treated without such regard is puzzling. We continue to spiral deeper into splintered subculture, siphoning down into tiny minorities seemingly only compelled by the shared acknowledgement of contrast, a shade of a hue. By starting with a wide cultural category, one can trickle down into outlying areas where the subcategory defies its super-category and crosses over into another camp entirely. What a grand star chart you could create with the categorization of identity-defining ideas.

Willingly, we walk fields of post-modernist apathy in These Uncertain Times. I marvel at the depth of despair in some, the depth of ignorance in others and those tiny, peripheral flickers of hope. Blink and they're gone. We're headed somewhere, but I don't think anyone knows where it is. The internet is rife with accusations of intellectual dishonesty and calls for reason, rationality, but the reality is that even most fervently demonstrative of these virtuous human beings is as deeply hypocritical as those they demonize. There are some things in life that are only worth a smile and a shrug. The point is, you have to keep walking.

To find stability again, enough stability to delve into something tangible will be a relief from the ether of creativity. I never said it was a heavy ether, mind you, but enough to compel me to continue writing about people, about ideas, about feelings and irrationality and hands and slips of memory, of sense. To write creatively is a compulsion; to write about nature, about reality - that is work. My saving work.

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Day in, day out

Mar 06 2011 Published by under Writing, [Humanities&Social Science]

It's been tough finding the time and place to write with any consistency over the last few weeks. I've been making up for spare evenings during the week of a few snippets of dialog or a .txt of notes from a paper I'd like to discuss with a weekend glut at the library. Yesterday I wrote with urgency, some 4000 words in less than three hours, perhaps trying to make up the lost time during the week.

Sometimes it feels like a psychological disorder. I was recently asked where my passion for writing comes from and I was stumped. It's an easy question, I just wonder if it's actually a passion. It feels like a compulsion. I mentally break down my day into units of consumed and free time, judge my actual use of off hours against the planned use and then silently endure the appropriate level of guilt. A remnant of my Catholic upbringing I'm sure.

I've become fixated on what I perceive as hindrances. I don't work well at home on a computer, so for a time I was dragging my heavy Lenovo laptop to the library to write, but it's still very easy to get distracted when there's a Wifi connection. I bought an Alphasmart NEO, the best writing tool I've ever purchased probably, and that has solved my distractions problems, but I still write better when I'm out of the house, so the library has become a regular element in my process. (In a future post, I'm hoping to take everything I've learned over the past year or so about useful tools for writers and pass it on. Maybe it'll help cut through some of the trial and error for others.)

It sounds like an excuse. Saying that I can't write in certain circumstances sounds prissy, high maintenance, but in assembling a daily routine, the repetition of activities, the grind of day in and day out, process becomes ritual. We'll spend 30, 40 years of our lives doing the same thing five days a week. We shake our heads at our parents for their complacency, but many find peace in predictable events, in consistency, especially when much of the rest of their lives is chaotic. Apathy, disease, finance, relationships, identity, addiction: these are all issues that routine can ameliorate. When you find that kernel of focus and can wrap it in tangible elements - proper place, tools, sensory inputs - it can become a sanctuary, a refuge for clear thought and implementation. Ultimately it's probably more of an eternal aspiration than a reality.

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True stories

Nov 29 2010 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science]

I recently had a discussion with an acquaintance of mine, another writer – a very successful one, I might add – that I think pertains to this split of disciplines I've become exposed to and interested in. It started with a post regarding the medical benefits of prayer. I was surprised when he linked a paper claiming scientific support for the linked article without referencing the many studies that have been published that have negative or inconclusive results.

When I went ahead and referenced some of these papers (which I'm too lazy to link, I'm sorry), for the sake of those reading who may have taken his word at face value, I received a lambasting of science in reply, a 500 word essay describing every little annoyance he felt with science, its practitioners and proponents.

I'll try to condense it, because I don't want this to turn into a post that tackles an issue so much as gives a brief overview. His main problem, I think, is with the idea that science can solve everything, that science can divine anything, but it was a little convoluted. He made some claims of personal religious experiences (which is eye-rolling, but fine) and criticized the lack of “wise” descriptive power (love, understanding of emotion, relationships, etc.). He sneered at the idea that the human animal was just that, and tossed away the dismal fatalism of a materialistic view of the world. Again, this is all fine. There are many that share his opinion.

What really struck me was his profound distaste coupled with an equally profound lack of understanding of what science is, how it's done and why it's not “wise” and shouldn't be criticized for it. Don't get this wrong: This post is not a defense of science. There are enough of those out there. This is an expression of irritation from a writer that hopes to find some level of truth through art, not craft contorted expressions of religious fantasy to support and perpetuate an indulgence. Potential truths are very important here; I think that's all we really have to work with.

Tim O'Brien wrote a wonderful book back in the 90's called The Things They Carried. It dealt with creative and personal truths, the process of taking what is true and converting it into what sounds true:

You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let's say, and afterward you ask, "Is it true?" and if the answer matters, you've got your answer.

For example, we've all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true?

The answer matters.

You'd feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it's just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen - and maybe it did, anything's possible even then you know it can't be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it's a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, "The fuck you do that for?" and the jumper says, "Story of my life, man," and the other guy starts to smile but he's dead.

That's a true story that never happened.

O'Brien does this in the book. He rewrites several parts of the book with himself in and out of the circumstances and making different choices. It's a play on the discretion of the author, holding him or herself to lingering, potential truths about the characters – about themselves – and finding ways to explore some of them.

Every writer is different and every artist has the ultimate say in their work. If they say it happens, it does. Period. But we come back around and ask, what choices lead up to this moment? Could this have been handled better, differently?

We know how the earth and how life has evolved over billions of years of this planet's history. There is mountains of evidence to support these ideas and string them together into a relatively coherent narrative of existence and development. If we know this, as a society, even if it is not effectively communicated to the masses, I feel a responsibility as a writer to contend and wrestle with this knowledge. It's a tragic potential truth about human beings. It sounds true, even if it isn't entirely, if the smaller details are bound to change, to become woven into the larger story, fractionally nudging the hue instead of spinning the color wheel.

So how do we write in reference to this knowledge? I don't think it changes the craft of fiction at all, actually, but it can give books like Sinclair's Babbit much more significance, the distracted, integrated, domesticated person of (self) importance that is nibbled by daydreams of a more carnal nature. This doesn't mean evolutionary theory is a valid mode of literary criticism (God help us). All I'm saying is that the potential truth of materialism, the potential truth that we human beings are “just” animals rings true from a literary perspective. The confusion and broken perspectives, the constant writhing under the thumb of propriety, the rebellion of lovers, the unbearable draw from one relationship to another, the celebration of coincidence as providence, even the escapist's creation of a world of hope, of good and evil, light and dark sides and the simplicity of choice evoked in these worlds – all of these aspects of fiction sound like a species coming to grips with thousands of years of cultural indulgence – our own creation in denial – to hide our more base, “animalistic” inclinations.

To flat out deny a materialistic worldview particularly for reasons as superfluous as “it's dismal” seems a disingenuous and misled, even for someone who's job it is to make the imaginary come to life.

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From lit to bio and back (I'm back)

Nov 23 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Like Mike, I have a hard time determining exactly what this blog is about anymore. I don't work in or formally study ecology anymore, even peripherally, so science and policy has become more of a hobby than anything else. I still like to keep up, however, and it will be fun to still do mini-essays on the research I find interesting. Helps tremendously with retention as well. Science will always be a big part of my life. It's impacted my thinking and my writing, and how could it not? It was my main focus in college.

I remember when I switched majors from English Lit to Biology and had a long discussion about it with my lit advisor at the time, this monolith of a English professor who somehow was able to mute her presence and her insight to the extent that made you welcome to ask silly questions. She joked about me going to the "dark side." It wasn't a guilt trip.

At that point I was ready to pursue not only a degree in biology, but to become a scientist, and she was a bit crestfallen by the news. She told me to keep it up, to never leave writing behind, that there would always be an opportunity to stretch those muscles and stretch them often. She was right. I ended up sticking with writing as a focus because of her.

There's this line that I'm currently fascinated with, the one I've been riding for most of my adult life, between the humanities and science, between subjective truth and objective, however you want to put it. I believe it's the same impulse that drives my interest, looking for a kind of clarity. It's something I've wanted to address for a while and I don't think I was ready. Perhaps now I can find a way to put it in words, because the more I read and write fiction, indiscretionary and often personal, the more I wonder how scientific conclusions about human beings, the closest to objective truth we'll ever get about our natural development, feed the great tragedy in my mind of human struggles in this world. I'll expand on this later.

The reality is my life as a writer has changed despite my philosophical leanings. It's been more about fiction and narrative of late than anything else. I'm a tech writer by trade, which I happen to enjoy, despite the warnings and lamentations of my professors in college, and most of my evenings are spent at the library hammering out whatever I happen to be working through. At the moment it's short stories.

So I sit and I mull over what this first post will be, I'm writing it now, and remembering how very much I hate the constant apologizing from certain bloggers over not updating, keeping their loyal readers happy and well-fed. I'm convinced that between the move over here and the general lack of content for month-long stretches, my readership – if I had any to begin with – is mostly gone. It's cool. I understand.

This blog is going to get the writer strong arm and become a bit more personal. I debated – like others have – about starting a new one or having a site that's just me, but I will still write about science and appreciate the others who do and occasionally will still be able to comment here and there with pinpoint relevance. There's other stuff milling around in my brain that needs a good kick, however, and I think I'd rather risk a clusterfuck of a blog rather than see it completely die.

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New illustrations gallery

Aug 25 2010 Published by under Etc

I finally got around to publishing an image gallery tab for the blog collecting all of the artwork Heather has done for TVG over the years. I've put links to the posts they were draw for and dug up some raw scans where I could. I'll continue to update it as images are added.

For those interested in her other work (painting, sculpting, other illustration projects), you can visit her other blog and peruse.

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The walk from dreamed inspiration to story

Aug 08 2010 Published by under [Brain&Behavior], [Humanities&Social Science]

For the past two months in Atlanta the forecast has been more or less the same every day: low to mid nineties during the day with scattered or isolated thunderstorms in the evenings, usually little more than a five minute shower and few mumbles of distant thunder. During one of these episodic storms, I fell asleep early the other night, which has been an unfortunate rarity in recent weeks. I've been slow of late to give in to sleep, mulling over the constantly updated to-do list in my head which I imagine locks up and crashes eventually, tossing me into sleep. The early night, however, I laid down with explicit intentions, and in moments, I fell in.

I had an incredible dream. The sensations were palpable; there were only two players in the dream, me and another, but we had insight into other minds and feelings through a certain agent. There was an roiling intimacy in these connections that was thrilling, creating a layered experience threaded with a narrative that actually made sense. I'm being vague for a reason: the narrative was usable.

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The Shins live @ Crystal Ballroom

Aug 05 2010 Published by under Etc

Here's The Shins playing favorite tune from Wincing the Night Away, "A Comet Appears" (posted this past April via Sub Pop). These guys have an uncanny ability to take simplicity of instrumentation and expand the dimensions of songs like this one and "New Slang" in particular through chord progression and lyrical metaphor.

It's a song about the dread and emptiness that result from the facades we create. When we strip them away ("Let's carve my aging face off. Fetch us a knife, start with my eyes. Down so the lines form a grimacing smile."), are we able to find ourselves or just "the lonely"?

Full lyrics below the fold.

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The next incarnation

Aug 02 2010 Published by under [Et Al], [Science in Society]

Hello and welcome! Thrilled to be a part of Scientopia. It's been a hell of a lot of work for the folks working behind the scenes to get us set up here, especially Mark, who has done an outstanding job with the architecture of the site. I haven't played with WordPress in some time, so it'll be a nice switch from Blogger. The fact that the Android WP app is so awesome that I'm disappointed that I didn't switch before.

Below the fold, what this site is about and some musings on ecology, art and rhetorically, where we go from here.

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A look at how scientific ideas can inspire art

Jun 04 2010 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science]

Yesterday, Heather received word that one of her recent drawings, Remediation I would be included in the Metro Montage at the Marietta-Cobb Museum of Art. Obviously, big congrats are in order.

The piece is the first of a series of similar compositions that picture animals on floating islands of habitats yanked from the earth that are connected to one another via human structures. Despite its name, however, Remediation I had a predecessor at TVG.

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