Harry Potter and the return of the repressed

There is a moment in The Deathly Hallows, the final book and film duo of the Harry Potter series, when leading characters Harry and Hermione encounter a church. On this detail, the book and film versions differ. Author J. K. Rowling writes:

“Harry, I think it’s Christmas Eve!” said Hermione.

“Is it?”

He had lost track of the date; they had not seen a newspaper for weeks.

“I’m sure it is,” said Hermione, her eyes upon the church. “They… they’ll be in there, won’t they? Your mum and dad? I can see the graveyard behind it.”

Harry felt a thrill of something that was beyond excitement, more like fear.

The Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling.
Capitalism, behind Calvinism, behind ‘the decline of magic’ in early modernity (Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic — for which Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism is an inspiration). Both narratives have a heritage in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which echoes through modern science and fiction alike.

In the films, Harry asks Hermione more specifically about the Church:

“Do you think they’d be in there, Hermione? My Mum and Dad?”

“Yeah, I think they would.”

David Yates, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I.

This is a puzzling moment for a series sometimes compared with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, whose leading character Lyra (who shares the name of Harry Potter’s descendant in Rowling’s expanded universe) challenges the tyrannical ‘Magisterium’, a direct analogy to the Catholic Church.

But perhaps it is not so surprising, after all. In our world, Christendom fell with the Protestant challenge to Catholicism, but Christianity lived on. The Church of St. Jerome in Harry Potter plausibly represents an Anglican church, of the kind created after Henry VIII’s seizure of the Pope’s title as head of the church for himself. On the European continent, John Calvin in Geneva created an alternative Protestant denomination following Martin Luther’s declaration at the Diet of Worms in 1521:

Here I stand. I can do no other.

Martin Luther, to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and representatives of the Roman Catholic Church (whose Pope, Leo X, derived from the Medici family once served by diplomat and political and historical writer Nicolò Machiavelli), 1521.

Indeed, this individualist message echoes in the culture of many Protestant sects, down the ages to present popular culture. In the BBC’s Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi’s ‘Time Lord’ renegade declares:

This is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.

Steven Moffat, The Doctor Falls.

Christendom united all faithful peoples into an ideological collectivity, broken by the loss of faith in the Papal lineage from the followers of Jesus. The resulting Protestantism propelled the growth of individual denominations which became associated with emerging sciences and political ideas associated with liberal individualism. In Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the chemical idea of ‘elective affinity’ describes the association, or affinity, between Protestant ideas and protocapitalist practices. The Calvinist idea of predestination drove, Weber suggested, a ‘salvation anxiety’, that propelled believers into a frenzy of work to ‘confirm’ their status among the ‘elect’. If our destinies are foretold, we work to reassure ourselves that our fate is good, through conceding something to the bad — the Mephistopheles of the market.

Harry Potter can tell us something about how we have responded to the fall of Christendom; the figurative ‘death of God’, as Nietzsche put it. In the ‘Potterverse’, the world is alive with magical potential; objects themselves assume a kind of vital energy typical of people, with desires and intentions and hopes and fears and aspirations. ‘The wand chooses the wizard.’ God chooses his people.

Christianity itself required a kind of authorship to make systematic the beliefs and tenets of early followers of Jesus. As time went on, monasteries acted as vessels of knowledge from the pre-Christian age, including the thought of Aristotle, student of Plato. After Socrates challenged the tenets of the Homeric world, where gods and demons lurked in every corner, Plato projected the disparate faiths of his time onto an external ideal, ‘the Form of the Good’, through which all other forms, or true ideas, are enlightened. Rejecting the externality of the Good, Aristotle brought the forms down to Earth, remystifying the world with a science of causation, where everything has a purpose or ‘final cause’. Aristotle reanimated pre-Socratic ideas of flow and vital energy, encapsulated in the modern term ‘animism’, but in the language of Platonic philosophy. Aristotle gave mysticism, and belief in magical energies, the cloak of pseudoscientific credibility, in the shadow of Platonic philosophy.

Monastic Christianity fused Plato with Aristotle through the God of the Torah and the gospels. God was given all the abstract characteristics of Plato’s Good, while the world was given all the vital mysticism of Aristotelian physics. Christian Platonist Augustine and Christian Aristotelian Aquinas modelled Christendom in the image of Greek philosophy, in the shadow of the Roman Empire (towards the end of which Augustine lived, in modern-day Algeria). Christianity took Greek philosophy’s rejection of prehistoric magical beliefs and developed it into the magisterium of religion.

Once Christianity fragmented with the renewal of Greek philosophy and Roman politics in the Renaissance, a rediscovery of ancient ideas and practices, the prospect of a new classical age emerged. But such an age could not renew itself; modern times demand modern institutions. Instead of ancient philosophy, we have modern science. This science, following Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by random variation and natural selection, rejects Aristotelian teleology, where everything has a purpose or telos. The Papacy now resists much of modern science due to its claim that the world is fundamentally ‘irrational’, rather than compatible with the rationality of God.

This belief in irrationality has, paradoxically, restored the pre-Socratic magics that the philosophers tried to overthrow. Religion further suppressed this animism, but science restores the idea that the world is not as we see. It can be understood through abstract theories, not simply first-hand observation. We need instruments to understand the world, not just people to observe it. ‘The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter.’

In the modern study of the self, psychoanalysis, there is an idea that we ‘repress’ certain desires that remind us of traumatic experiences of loss. Such repressions in ideological terms include religion, but also the pre-religious and pre-philosophical ideas of magic and watery flow, especially in the first philosopher, Thales, who held the world was welded together by a liquid-like, plasmic substance. Preserved by Aristotle, this animism is brought to life in Harry Potter’s belief in the mystical energies of the world, conjurable by educated wizards. Harry Potter represents the return of what we repressed — and the remembrance of what we forgot. But the memory is faded; and our sight is imperfect, in any case. Perhaps it is better to let such memories slip away. The return can always be delayed. Or perhaps the time has come to confront what we repressed. Time, indeed, will tell.

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