The Discomforts Of Pop Culture Politics

Dobby the House Elf.

As sometimes happens when pieces from this blog make their way into the wider universe, some folks got verklempt about the idea that there could possibly be political meaning in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. This is sort of entertaining, given that Rowling has talked explicitly about the impact of working at Amnesty International on her fiction, written scathingly about class and Tory policies, and, as Zack Stentz points out, modeled the Black sisters on the Mitford sisters and Dobby the House Elf on the friend of Jessica Mitford’s who recruited her into the Communist Party. But I think there’s a larger issue here, the fact that some people are quite uncomfortable with the idea that art is political.

Andy Daglas, with whom I was discussing this, said he thinks that’s in part because “I think some don’t like the idea of politics having a moral dimension, which storytelling brings to forefront.” And the AV Club’s Rowan Kaiser agreed, saying, “I think a not insignificant number of people view politics as sports, and either are on one team or hate both.” There’s an extent to which that’s true, but I also think with works like the Potter series, or the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books, which draw an explicit line between capitalism and violence against women, folks who don’t share the politics of those authors have a choice between acknowledging those works’ politics and as a result enjoying the works less, or rejecting the idea that a specific piece of art or all art is political. Of course, that’s something that works in multiple directions. I love Gone With the Wind, even though its racial politics are awful*, but I can’t deny what’s in front of me for the sake of my own comfort. I find China Mieville’s nihilism in Perdido Street Station profoundly disturbing, in that I think it becomes an argument against struggling for justice, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate his world-building, and that frustration made me feel the climax of the novel intensely, even if it meant I was angry.

As Rowan put it later in the conversation, “I’m fascinated by the potential motivations of people who deliberately reject concepts of interconnectedness.” And that’s something Rowling herself addressed in her Harvard Commencement address when she said, “Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.” She was speaking about politics and empathy, but I think it’s true of fiction. If you pretend the scenes of torture in the Harry Potter novels are abstract, or that J.K. Rowling may dislike poverty but has no opinions on its actual effects and the policies that would ameliorate it, you may delay a reckoning with your own beliefs and the impact they have in the real world. But you’re also denying yourself the great moral and emotional force of the novel. Art isn’t grown in a vat to wander neutral into the world and retreat from it untouched and untouching.

*I think there is an argument to be made that the entire novel is a juxtaposition between slaveholders and people who do their own labor in the capitalist system, with Mitchell ultimately arguing that the latter are more suited to a modern era, making the novel a rejection of Confederate nostalgia. After all, Melanie Wilkes dies, and Scarlett ends up disgusted with Ashley and in love with Rhett, while her Cause-crazed Atlanta neighbors end up becoming more flexible, tough people when they start their own businesses. But I digress.