Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Harry Potter and Conversion

At the heart of Lonergan's discussion of subjectivity and objectivity is the notion of conversion. He identifies three crucial conversions that a subject must ordinarily undergo on the path to objectivity: religious, moral, and intellectual. The first is the conversion to love: in religious conversion (which does not necessarily entail any conversion to a different religion, or to any), I learn to love and be loved. The second is the conversion to value: in moral conversion, I learn to place value over satisfaction. The third is to truth: in intellectual conversion, I learn how to properly apprehend reality as that which I can infer from the data of experience. I have tended in my own thinking to focus upon intellectual conversion, but the other two are crucial and typically indispensable for the subject's ascent to objectivity: love drives out fear and its libidinal investment in paranoid fantasies; value drives out myopic self-interest; truth drives out naivete, allowing for the final transcendence that permits the individual to robustly apprehend reality.

Conversion does not just happen. It requires resources. Typically, one does not learn what it means to love, value, or seek truth unless one sees these exemplified in others. Among the resources most valuable for moral conversion are literature and film. I was part of the Star Wars generation. My moral imagination was shaped by its story of the light battling against the dark. But a generation later a more profound story of good and evil came along, that of Harry Potter and his friends. Millennials get a bad rap, but they are among the most engaged generations in history. What others call whining or being a snowflake or whatever, I call having an instinctive compassion for the vulnerable. That, I suspect, is not a little due to the impact of Harry Potter.

At its core, the story of Harry Potter is a story of love and value. The Boy Who Lived lived because his mother loved him so much that she gave her own life to save his. From Voldemort's perspective, her sacrifice was incomprehensible. Her decision to stand between Harry and Voldemort was, from his self-centred perspective, entirely in vain. She had no capacity to stop him, and at best she bought Harry a few more seconds of life. But that incomprehension was due to Voldemort's lack of conversion to either love or value. He could not understand that love is such that Lily Potter could not have done anything but stand between Harry and Voldemort, and that she was operating from something that transcends self-interest. He cannot comprehend that the same was true of James Potter, who gave his life to buy his wife a few extra moments to escape with their son. But if it was his lack of conversion to love and value that tripped up Voldemort, it was the opposite with Harry. His first triumph over Voldemort came because Harry wanted to find the philosopher's stone but not to use. He was interested in it not for his own self, but rather to keep it from Voldemort. His final triumph came because he was willing to die to save the family he had found at Hogwarts, just as his parents died to save him. It was Harry's love for them, and the fact that he acted entirely out of values that transcended self-interest, that undid Voldemort, who still could not comprehend such power.

This is what millennials learned to aspire towards, when as young children they read and watched Harry Potter. They learned that one stands up to those whose craven pursuit of power destroys and takes lives. Is it any surprise then that in a western world where misogyny, racism, and other vile ills are blatantly attacking decency and goodness in a way that we haven't seen in generations, the Harry Potter generation stands up to the darkness?

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