Tuesday, July 24, 2007

In Defense of Harry Potter

(While this isn't technically a post about grammar, books, we all agree, hold a starring place in how we employ language. In Harry Potter, I'm not interested in how JK Rowling uses syntax--although I find her creativity and exposition delightful--but what she has chosen to give us through her use of language.)

So the last Harry Potter has finally come out, and, as was predictable, scads of critics and reviewers have attempted to pretend that they enjoy these (holding them delicately with two fingers far away from Dostoevsky so they don't infect 'real literature') "children's books," and ended up proving, once again, that they have no idea what the story is about.

The Salon reviewer complained that the books are "boarding school" books, so why didn't the last one take place at Hogwarts? That argument doesn't even deserve a reply. And, as many critics have, she relates the books to The Lord of the Rings, thinking she's giving a compliment but once again showing ignorance by looking simply at plot mechanics rather than at the underlying themes of the fantasy genre. The NPR reviewer tried not to say the same thing regarding boarding schools, but whined that the first 400 pages was like a whirlwind trip around the English countryside and he wondered if Rowling knew what she was doing.

After listening to that last review on Monday morning, I switched off the radio and vowed not to read or listen to a single review about Harry Potter again. The ignorance of these people just served to annoy me, and their failure to appreciate the importance of the epic ruined my enjoyment of it. So I now stick to only discussing the books with my over-educated sister and mother.

The three of us delighted in the fact that Rowling made the last book live up to, and exceed, the expectations of the previous six. It would have been all too easy to fail, but at almost every turn she chose to make the story live a little more rather than plugging in easy, loose-end-tying plot developments.

What interested us, though, was not the explanation of Snape or Harry's final actions or even the exciting plot twist of the Deathly Hallows. No, what we talked about was the same thing that is keeping millions of readers hooked to these books, whether they know it or not. It's not just about the magic, as many critics and snooty "these are just children's books" readers would like to claim. Do you know how many books about magic and other worlds and good vs. evil have been published in the last fifty years? Do some research. There are thousands, and huge numbers of them, surprise, are actually very good, such as Susan Cooper's 'The Dark is Rising' series.

But none of them, not even The Lord of the Rings, which I have read and loved and lived in once a year since I was eight years old, addresses the question of personal choice in that good-vs.-evil struggle. That is the power that Rowling has brought to her excellent series. Amid all the humor and the whimsy, the incredible creativity and imagination brought to bear on creating the Potter world, and lovely character developments, what gives these book come-back-and-stay power is the fierce internal struggle each character, but especially Harry, has to make in the fight against evil in the form of Voldemort. What makes these books important is their emphasis on personal choices.

The fantasy genre has always had as its paramount theme these question of right vs. wrong embedded in the struggle of good over evil. But very few books address the personal choices the heroes have to make when they face a decision between, as Dumbledore put it, "what is right and what is easy."

My older sister pointed out that most of 20th-century literature has dropped any discussion of these questions, which is perhaps why we're both so much more attracted to 19th-century British and Russian novels. For some reason, the last century has been fascinated with the sordid, despairing details of modern life. It insists that, not only is "truth" found only in the minute, but that the truth so found is never something that uplifts us.

It is, somehow, left to children's literature to address questions of real importance: morality, goodness, evil, hope, right, wrong. What are adults so frightened of? Being thought sappy for caring? Being judged? Finding that they will choose wrong over right because it's expedient or beneficial for them? Or maybe they're scared of these questions because they don't want any messy moral truths screwing up their acceptance of a dominant paradigm that claims right and wrong don't exist.

This paradigm likes to complicate questions of morality, couching them in the languages of economics and balances and religions and "greater good." But these questions are never complicated: there is a right and there is a wrong, and your intuition, if you block out the surrounding social-political noise and listen to it, will always tell you which choice to make.

It is the focus on personal choice that makes the Harry Potter books so powerful. Harry, and his friends and cohorts, always have the choice to turn back or turn away. They have to face these decisions, large and small, all the time. What JK Rowling has given us is a way back to our internal guides, the realization that, every day at every moment, we too have choices to make, whether we will serve good or evil and how. It's not an easy choice, not a smooth path. Harry's story--a metaphor for finding and defining your character through childhood and adolescence--is littered with life-threatening obstacles. Our paths aren't easy, either, but, as there is no all-powerful Dark Lord waiting to murder us if our courage falters, we have less of an excuse for failing to face that question: when given the choice between what is right and what is easy, do we look it in the face, or do we run away?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Passion at the End of the Age of Reason

It all started here
in a corner of Salon during a discussion of sycophancy and selling in the kaliyuge of the days of Bush the Younger. Frustration turned to dreams of the coming of the meteor by Svensker, and I replied by giving a brief overview of Medieval history as it is learned by high school students. At issue is whether the Age is going Dark. In the course of history, a spouse and four bloggers was related to a possibly previous spouse and four drunken philosophers. Wonderful what an inflamed mind can do if it studied too much of Li Po embracing the moon, and never really understood the Fall of Rome.

Svensker felt that the problem was reading -- how ironic in the days of the internet, when people do so much communication by reading, ironic in the days of the cell phone, when text messaging is the lingua franca of the technological beast, ironic in the days when there are more pages of journal publication and book print than ever before in the History of Man -- that Man's eyes should grow dim not from reading to much, but from reading too little: that words of ancient texts, the New Testament in Greek, grow lost, that science numbs itself and cowers before the passion of a new theory, unable to make business sense out of taking the chance of ridicule, unable to spread its wings lest they turn out to be made of wax.

William wonders if the language can change the feel once the culture in which the language grew has been lost -- does the language need its Age and its Place to hold the meanings, and do those meanings grow approximate with time? What is it that the language imparts, what the culture? Is it so very bad to have approximations define the past? Approximations are the staple of the healthy mind, embellished with details or not, but King James seems authoritative after so much time has passed.

For that matter, Karen muses, what of the Visigoths, those latter day nomads from the land of the big bad guys in the East? Lingua franca indeed, they settled in the lands of Languedoc, the cradle of the Great Heresy come west. Ambassadors of destruction bringing with them the end of the Golden Age when Caligula partied and Nero practiced his ├ętudes. Vandals and Huns, Goths and Visgoths, Bulgars and Bogomils lampshades on the light of the Classical world.

Svensker sees the New Testament drifting as it is cut from its roots, and holds out hope that China and the Mystic Subcontinent will keep the light burning a little further, keep us seeing in the night of perusing without reading of slipping into the existence that isn't quite life. I don't know my scriptural religions, a Puritan turned to the bosom of the Heart Sutra, but culture is important, and text perhaps drifts as much as language does when cut off from its written roots?

Cycles, endless cycles, a thought gets dislodged from its moorings low down on the tree and pushed like a kite to where it can mingle with other branches -- it is in our blood this drift, it takes all memory and finds new patterns, new ways to express. It hates to be tied down, and flares with haunting images of a nightmarish past. Could our fixation with destruction and empire that pulls us closer into the maelstrom that neoconservatism brings be the social cyst of fixation, the post-traumatic stress of failure to allow a culture to evolve? I go off topic even for chocobang.

How does the Age grow dark just as authorship reaches the masses?
How does the loss of language become the loss of meaning?
How do social pressures lead us downward when so many can see so clearly?
How do you spend your time, as you see a world go gray but do not act?
Where has all the passion gone? (gone to young girls, every one...)

Note: Due to a privacy problem with blogspot, I had to delete and repost this entry. When I did that the comments disappeared.
Note Update: Karen M was able to resurrect the comments to the original post and append them as one comment. Thanks!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The State of English in Africa

Despite my utter delight in the absurdity of the weekly offers I get to be paid a stocky percentage for rescuing millions of dollars from the bank accounts of people who've died in plane crashes over the last five years (and my tiny, plaintive wish that I really could walk away with five million or so clear, because I could really use it), the most recent plea brought to my attention the fact that these scammers could really use some help.

"I have an obscured business suggestion for you," says Mr. Johnson Mutambara. Oh, how true. The copy editor in me itches to correct every little spelling and grammatical mistake, tighten up the logical flow of his argument, and tidy up his lines, paragraphs, and fonts as if tapping stacks of paper together.

Information from the National Immigration stated that he was also
single on entry into South Africa.

I have secretly discussed this
matter with some of the bank officials and we agreed to find a reliable
foreign partner to deal with."

Tidiness! my mind cries. I assume you mean this German citizen who died in the Concorde crash wasn't married. Clarity! Do you mean you would like me to marry him? Does that mean I have to join that obscure branch of Mormonism that practices posthumous marriage?

But maybe there's something further to be read in the avowed obscurity of these letters. Something deep and existential, something James Joyce-ian about the way they redefine our understanding of mundane words, something ...

Nah. What you really need, Mr. Mutambara (or is it Rahim Attah, the name on the return email address?), is to sack your editor and get a new one. I'll do it for one percent of the loot, a bargain compared to the forty percent you were going to pay just for my bank account details. If you can diagram the first sentence of this post, I'll do it for half that.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Apparently, a love of language can be a barrier

...to finding true love in one's daily life.

Jaimie Epstein, writing for the Sentence Sensibility blog at the New York Times, reveals her dilemma: whether to ignore the egregious errors that make a person who loves working with words inwardly cringe... or to stiffen her upper lip, and, stoicly, go forward.

An especially sticky dilemma... if one considers that either of those choices could mean losing a significant portion of what a language lover might consider to be foreplay.


No easy answers for this one... but if anyone has any survival tactics (or better) to suggest, please consider adding them to the comments.

Perhaps Jaimie will visit, but if not, I'll send her this link.

The bottom line: can't she at least expect potential partners to spell her name correctly? Or is that being unreasonable?

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Open Thread - Happy Fourth!!!!

Things proceed in the world and in my brain, and they seem slow enough over here at the choco' bang. Day off on Wednesday? I will help wash the baby - she cracked her little ankle last week, pointing at something outside with the hand that should have been helping hold up that leg. Whole-leg cast for little ones who can't stay still, and she can't go in the tub . . . . I will also play computer games - the barbarians had better be looking out - I have trebuchets now. My mental boat drifts farther from planned projects as I read Guy Davenport, Italo Calvino, and Montaigne, and think to myself what a good job these folks have done who thought about these things way before I did.

I will also check back here. How are you all? What is going on? And, if you ask why I selected a picture of dinosaur skeletons for a Fourth of July post, I will answer that my enthusiasm is something that the USA and dinosaurs have in common.