16 July 2007

The Loneliness of Muggles

As you ought to have expected, the pending release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has finally started to elicit the "Harry Potter's killing literature" laments.  Here's one example.  I think, as usual, such rueful assessments diagnose the symptoms rather than the disease.  So what is this disease?  Glibly put, autophobia.  Western culture has become profoundly terrified of solitude; people have become so deeply afraid of being alone with themselves that they do everything they can to salve that loneliness, as MySpace, Facebook and other such systems attest all too well.  Reading, however, is a solitary activity (at least most of the time).  It demands concentration, patience and the willingness to be alone with just a book and oneself.  That's why reading and literature have suffered so much in this age in which technology means we never have to be totally alone. 

So why is the Harry Potter series such an exception?  Because it has become a kind of cultural juggernaut that familiarity with it enjoys one into a huge company of others with conversational currency.  It is, after all, the same thing we've seen time and time again over the years-- with Star Wars, E.T., The Lord of the Rings and even specious phenomena like Survivor and The Apprentice.  The Rowling books really offer very little insight about literature or about reading and encouraging people to do so; they're symptomatic of a different cultural loneliness that I'm beginning to believe may now be beyond treatment.  (Just think of the books' overarching premise: the maturation of a lonely, unappreciated boy into a powerful, destined wizard.)  To read the Potter novels at this point is to participate in a collective activity rather than an individual one, and that I think makes all the difference.  To read them means to remain current, to engage in a cultural process with others, and, in a curiously utilitarian way, to keep from being on the outside of something deemed to be culturally significant.  I'm sure many out there are genuinely interested in what will happen in the last book, but the "must-read" status it has acquired seems to confirm the autophobic anxiety.  And yes, it's ironic that the Global Village of networks, connections and "friends" has exacerbated this endemic loneliness, but-- as Henry James, that great defender of loneliness, would say-- There we are.   

We'd do well, however, to remember James' caveat in this regard:  "Deep experience is never peaceful."  There's precious little more genuinely turbulent than solitude, and until we embrace solitude-- to cherish it, to appreciate it-- literature will continue to suffer.  And it'll have nothing to do with Harry Potter whatsoever.


John Mutford said...

I agree with most of your comments. But, I don't necessarily agree that autophobia is a new development, or that it has now hit epidemic proportions. I think the internet has simply exposed it by providing people with a supposed cure. Couldn't blogs, such as this one or mine, be considered further symptoms of the same phobia?

I do agree that we should value solitude more, despite our inherent identity as a social species.

sylvia said...

My reaction to Mr Charles's article is, I'm afraid, an instinctive annoyance. I seem to be the reader in whose existence he doesn't believe: the one who has Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on order from Indigo.com and The Law of Dreams on hold at the library (226 other people have it on hold, too, by the way, and the Toronto Public Library owns 71 copies. It's a Canadian book, published by Anansi Press, who are probably thrilled that it's sold 8000 copies in the US), the one who has read Harry Potter and Susannah Clarke and Philip Pullman, and enjoyed each on its own terms, the one who likes the Harry Potters without considering them TEH BEST BOOKS EVAH. I'm also a wired-up, Web-addicted individual who at the same time cherishes her moments alone with books.

I do find it depressing that most people in North America don't read fiction regularly. The problem is, I also find it completely, unfathomably inexplicable; I'm too much of a reader, too attached to my books (as physical objects whose presence helps signal to my brain that the place where they are is home, and also as building-blocks of my personal history), too much of a grazer in the fields of fiction, to make any headway in understanding why anyone who can read doesn't. It's also true, however, that there have always (even since the widespread availability of books) been people who don't read; it's just that the things the non-readers do instead of reading have evolved over the decades. Take what seems to be a movement toward mass illiteracy on the Web: does it mean that nobody is being taught how to read and write anymore (very possible, alas), or does it instead (or, perhaps, also) mean that a lot of indifferently literate people are putting their writing out in public, the same category of people who in the 1950s, say, would never voluntarily have written anything more public than grocery lists and Christmas cards?

I do agree with your basic premise, I think, that as a society we are afraid of being alone. But I don't think that's new (Little Dorrit mania, anyone?), and, as you say, Harry Potter is a symptom, not a cause.

j said...

mebbe people don't want to read because so much of good literature seems to be plagued with loneliness, from a dimunitive ulysses to an incoherent finnegans' wake, do we really need smart people to explore the loneliness of life?

reading requires a certain tolerance of solitude but so does addiction to weblife

dr j, never read david copperfield? ironically daniel radcliffe starred as a young david in a production of the novel by the bbc

sylvia said...

In further support of my contention that neither autophobia nor mass hysteria about particular literary works is a new phenomenon, I give you these words from the introduction to the 1984 Penguin edition of Trollope's Framley Parsonage, quoted from the Saturday Review of 4 May 1861:

At the beginning of every month the new number of [Trollope's] book has ranked almost as one of the delicacies of the season; and no London belle dared to pretend to consider herself literary, who did not know the very latest intelligence about the state of Lucy Robarts' heart, and of Griselda Grantley's [sic] flounces ... It seems a kind of breach of hospitality to criticise Framley Parsonage at all. It has been an inmate of the drawing-room - it has travelled with us in the train - it has lain on the breakfast-table. [...]

Sound familiar? ;^)

Roger said...

OK, I introduce myself at the outset as an Outsider. I have read ONE HP book, the first, and as an Old Fart it reminded me agreeably of such minor classics as Enid Blyton's Famous Five (for a more XBoxy age). In other words, it's pleasant reading for a certain age-group but you wouldn't want to live there.
DrJ, I do love your sentence, 'To read the Potter novels at this point is to participate in a collective activity rather than an individual one'. That is genuinely intelligent -- up to a point. My then 9-year-old granddaughter swam into HP's ken last year, and it was her first serious reading experience. She devoured (and I mean devoured: during her family's entire 12-day stay with us in France we saw her only, and reluctantly, for meals) the books, one after another. Now: did she do that because of what her 3 best friends said, or because it hit a hitherto untouched nerve of reading? I remember my stepson going through exactly the same experience at the same age, roughly, with Tolkien (a far, far better writer than JKR). These books are, perhaps, an initiatory reading experience for non-readers, and that is not to be sniffed at. This said, the media circus is a pain, and the worst likelihood is that -- as happened with James Bond and Tolkien -- a whole generation may eventually grow up to believe that 'Harry Potter' designates a series of films, rather than books. I do believe that, if one is fed a certain number of seriously good books at an early age, one can then go on to read detective novels and spy stories for the rest of one's life, but one will have acquired a taste for good ones: Margery Allingham, John LeCarré (model A: model B is a preacher), Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler, and (yes) Dick Francis. And the crap will bore one. So yes, Sylvia, let's give the little buggers Trollope, but **with media hype**. Can we invent a Wii game based on 'Barchester Towers', which can be accessed only after they have read the book?

Roger said...

Oh, PS to DrJ on loneliness etc. There are, I know, a number of experienced readers who no longer, or only rarely, read contemporary 'literary' novels, for the simple reason that they are naive enough to like a novel to tell a story that is not about the staring at the navel. I recently finished C.C. Humphreys' "The French Executioner" and though it may go a little overboard in the other direction, it is historically pretty solid and boy, is it a page-turner. It reminds me of why I no longer (with rare exceptions) go to the theatre: if you grew up on Shakespeare, and taught him for years (with DrJ), all those angst-ridden and expense-determined modern plays (2 actors on stage, sitting on chairs and alternately reading love-letters) or looking at determinedly comic physical shows by people who keep wanting to go back to medieval street theatre, do not thrill you. You might be able to take Chekhov, you say; so you go to a new production (as I did in Montreal last year) of The Three Sisters, only to find that it has been produced by a mad Lebanese who says that Chekhov is the greatest Lebanese playwright ever, and who has transposed the entire misty grey cantilena of Nordic decadence into a hectic, manic, screaming charivari of Near-Eastern craziness. So you stay home and read. What I should like is to give the very young the mental and moral equipment to operate that escape whenever the world pushes them towards it. Raymond Chandler: if you're stuck for a twist in the plot, have someone come through the door with a gun. Or Borges' garden of twisting paths, or "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius". Or LeCarré's Smiley trilogy. Or (I'm rereading it right now), Margery Allingham's flawed but fascinating WWII divertimento "Pearls Before Swine". Enough! (Slaps wrist.) Shut up! (grunts and hits Send.)

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