Monday, July 25, 2005

Of Horror and Harry

This weekend I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. It is excellently done, which is to say it is terrifying: that such madness and inhumanity could grip an entire country for a decade and a half makes one doubt the concept of humanity altogether. There were charts showing “acceptable” hair color, eye color, and nose width as opposed to those that displayed signs of “racial impurity”; there were Nazi children’s books depicting Jews as rapacious, hook-nosed unnatural monsters; there were accounts and pictures of life in the ghettos, of the Nazis’ deliberate fostering of disease and starvation . . . and that was all before you reached the main second-floor exhibit on the concentration camps themselves, where I walked under a cast of the gate of Auschwitz (emblazoned with the famous ARBEIT MACHT FREI) and felt as if I were passing through the very gate of hell. While I had read much about the camps before, thanks to Night and Fragments of Isabella and The Hiding Place and QB VII, the gate, the cattle car, the bunks, the scale model of the gas chambers and crematoria, the heaped-up mass of shoes and human hair made it all as real as the bed on which I sit and the computer on which I type.

So did this: When you arrive at the museum, you are given a card with a name, number, picture and short biography of a real person who experienced the Holocaust, and invited to track his or her life through the course of the atrocity by entering the number into computers set up throughout the exhibit. This is a brilliant move on the museum’s part, as it transforms the too-vast-to-comprehend ten million Jews and others who perished in the Holocaust into the one you hold in your hand and identify with. Mine died at Auschwitz. Her name was Hannah. She was 53.


Afterward my thoughts went back—and I hope this will not sound horribly trivial or disrespectful, as I certainly don’t mean it so—to Harry Potter. Partly this was because Melissa was once asked what the series was about and she said “ethnic cleansing,” and I think she's right. Lord Voldemort’s desire to wipe out any “impurities” in the wizarding world is an echo of the Nazis’ obsession with bloodlines, and the series’ entirely casual multiculturalism (where Harry likes Cho, Ginny likes Dean, werewolves and giants can be good guys, and wizard-Muggle unions are praised) is in every way a rebuke to that and a celebration of diversity. (Though my mere use of the words “diversity” and “multiculturalism” makes this sound more didactic, cheesy, and heavy than it actually is in the books, where it’s just life.)

But more I was thinking about the use of such a museum and the painful emotional experience I had going through it, and likewise the use of the deaths in HP4, 5, and 6—what purpose those painful emotional experiences can serve for readers. We received a letter this week from a woman whose child had been deeply upset by the death in HBP, and she vehemently objected to the fact that her child had been made to experience such trauma. I had little sympathy with this, partly because, as an editor, I love emotion, I love trauma—while one part of me is cowering at my desk with my hands over my head, as I was the first time I read the ending of HBP, the analytic part of me thrills to the fact that I’m being made to experience such emotions and positively rubs its hands in glee at the effect that it’s going to have on readers.

And then I disagreed with it because I believe in reading as an act of emotional normalization: It rescues you from solipsism, prepares you for the occurrence of certain emotions in real life, equips you to deal with them, and, in ideal cases, engenders sympathy and compassion for others. While this is not fiction's primary purpose and never should be (for pleasure is), in every intense emotional situation of my life, I have sought comfort in the experiences of the fictional people who have been there before me; during a break-up this past year, I pulled out Middlemarch, Sense and Sensibility, Bleak House, and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason for the comfort of the authors putting words to my feelings and the reassurance that Dorothea, Marianne, Elinor, Esther, and Bridget had survived—and so would I. With HBP, this child will at some point in the course of real life lose someone he loves (however much his mother may deny it): and how much better to know that Harry has too, and come through just fine, with those who remain bound even closer to him and his will to survive and defeat Voldemort stronger than ever. The Holocaust Memorial Museum offers no comfort—there isn’t any—but from its depiction of depravities and the horror they cause in the viewer, it creates a resolution that’s stronger still: Never again.

And that is worth a little trauma.


  1. Hey Cheryl,

    Re: Hitler=Voldemort & multiculturalism etc. of HP ... read my thesis! :)

    hope all's well!!

  2. Good point about the HP series. I don't, however, think of JKR has being a particularly orthodox liberal (in the American sense). For example, think about how much glee she gets in making fun of Hermione and SPEW.

    I wonder, on the other hand, whether books sometimes set people up with false expectations. Maybe I've just become too cold blooded in my old age (or maybe I've always been this cold blooded), but I've found many of the emotions described in books to have been over-exaggerated. In other words, kids end up expecting too much....

  3. I was blown away by the Holocaust Museum when I visited Washington back in December of 1993, and they hadn't yet even started with the handing-out-cards procedure you describe. When I got to the end of the tour I spent about ten minutes crying, but I will never regret going there and I would definitely do so again.

    The Children's Memorial at Yad Vashem is equally devastating, in a simpler yet just as visceral way. It took me a good few minutes of tears and prayer to get over that one too.

    Shifting over to HP, as you did, I read an essay today in which the person suggested that we've all been reading too much into JKR's work and expecting more weighty themes and ideas than she really has to offer -- that many of us are bound to be let down by Book Seven just the way that Harry/Hermione shippers have been let down by this book, because we're just as guilty as they were of reading lofty themes and ideas into HP that weren't actually there. I know what she's trying to say, but I think she's wrong -- not that I believe all the elaborate fan theories and ideas will be borne out by Book 7 (how could they be, when so many of them contradict each other?) but that JKR does have some pretty heavy themes and ideas woven throughout these books, and I think it's absurd to imagine she's just going to drop the ball in the last book and write something predictable and superficial.