Opinion

'Harry Potter' Is the Most Influential – and Dangerous – Literary Work of Our Time

The incredibly popular J.K. Rowling series, which first appeared in Hebrew two decades ago, is a paean to a generation that lacks imagination, sees the world in binary terms of good and bad, and is averse to change

Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe are shown in a scene from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2."
AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Jaap Buitendijk

Pottermania is still with us. The celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the first appearance of Harry Potter in Hebrew revealed that the latest generation of Potterites has vowed allegiance to the series as the greatest literary work of all time. Besides the de rigueur merchandising festivals, the festivities have included a large, protracted exhibition at Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv, where devotees viewed such magical and holy relics as Dumbledore’s wand and Harry Potter’s broomstick. Still, the entire event was less hysterical than might have been expected and may even have eluded amazed newspaper readers. The relatively long period that has elapsed – it’s been 12 years since the last book was published – allows for a critical gaze that will attempt to place Harry Potter in the cultural and political landscape of the past two decades both here and abroad.

I loved Harry Potter when I was young. They’re books for good kids, and after all, under the influence of the defective education we got from our parents, we all believe that we have to be good kids. J.K. Rowling’s series embodies a kind of realization of all the pedagogical truths that adults tell children, even if they themselves never believed in them or made an effort to live by them: that you have to be “good” and behave nicely; that you have to fight for what is right against all odds; that despite everything, the world is a good place and that over time good will triumph; and that there’s a good side in all of us that requires cultivation and reinforcement, which will remain uncorrupted if we repent and correct our dastardly deeds.

The Harry Potter series is generational literature – more specifically, the literature of Generation Y: the children of the 1980s and 1990s. They grew up with the books and experienced coming of age together with Harry Potter himself. Gen Y is the most significant factor in the current cultural climate. From identity politics to veganism and concern for the environment, from the choice to take part in the exploitative capitalist economy to an abstract concern for its consequences, from #MeToo to a loathing for Trump voters – every thought about the present political moment and about the cultural consciousness that makes it possible is, simultaneously, a thought about the generation that grew up with Harry Potter.

In this sense, Harry Potter is the 21st century’s most important literary work. A whole generation that forsook reading and adopted Facebook nevertheless read the series. In many senses, Harry Potter was the last book this generation read. If modernity was defined principally through the prism of the invention of the printing press and the popularization of education and knowledge, it would be right to say that Harry Potter marks the terminal moment of modernity: Together with publication of the last volume in the series, both the book and reading itself died. We can perhaps take this to an extreme and say that Harry Potter is the central book of political theory in the late capitalist age. Most millennials experience the world through the viewpoints they acquired from reading Harry Potter.

Understanding the theoretical foundations of Harry Potter is essential for analyzing what we term reality altogether. The series’ basic insight is that there is a clear and sharp division between good and bad, and that a person who is reasonable belongs to the side of the good. The good-bad dualism in the books is very pointed, and every “good” character or creature has a bad parallel. Gryffindor House is good, Slytherin House is bad; Harry Potter is good, Malfoy is bad (what is young Malfoy if not an evil version of Potter?); Dumbledore is good, Voldemort is bad. We are all convinced that at bottom we are on the side of the good. I’ve never met anyone who has read Harry Potter and found himself identifying with Voldemort.

The basic question that this situation raises, in light of the existence of so many good people, is where the bad things actually come from. An absolute majority of millennials will declare that they are not responsible for evil, which itself emanates from some Other: from far-right voters, from homophobes, from sexual harassers. It’s important to bear in mind that Harry Potter posits a very easy choice: If wickedness is capricious and vicious like Voldemort, it’s self-evident that we are all good fellows. But these low criteria of acceptance blur the fact that true evil is never like that. The “Prince of this World,” to adopt theologians’ term for Satan, controls human logic: All human actions, and especially our innocent actions, contain evil.

If a fantasy book dealing with bad and good presents such a feeble struggle between them, it’s not surprising that its utopian vision also lacks imagination. Harry Potter presented a quite somnolent, petty-bourgeois British world, which included an exaggerated engagement with pie, pajamas and cups of tea, and whose vision is one of latent sexuality and idealistic students who show up on time for exams. The world of the magicians is merely a copy of the world of the Muggles (ordinary people), perhaps in a more romantic mode, which adopts existing institutions in their entirety, and in particular government and capitalism.

The innocence that’s offered in the books is nothing but an ideological screen saver that transforms these institutions into “ours.” This is the true danger of Harry Potter: idolization of the familiar and total recoil from the unfamiliar, especially from the bewitched and the prohibited. It’s a kind of vision of communal capitalism, and it’s hardly surprising that the Israeli audience, with its fondness for Sabbath-eve family meals, has converted the book so enthusiastically. But familiarity is precisely the element that prevents any foray into adventurousness.

Harry Potter is the “Odyssey” of a generation bereft of imagination: adventure literature in which no changes occur. Praise accrues to Harry Potter for not changing in the face of the bad. He was alright – he was born perfectly alright! – and remained good the way he was. He will continue to fight to the death in defense of the familial and the familiar.

Kids pose for a Harry Potter-themed photo at a fair in Tel Aviv.
Meged Gozani

The “good” that Harry Potter himself represents is also anti-political. There is almost predestination in the decision about who “the boy who lived” is, and who the cursed, violent and trapped boy is: Voldemort. One is born a good boy and will remain so, even in old age. The actions of a problematic person like Dumbledore make no difference: They are always good, as they originate in a good person. We’re talking about a widespread tendency at the present moment, particularly among people on the left. They ask not how to make the world good, but who the good person is. Thus one can take part in the capitalist rat race, for example, as it’s not the deeds that count, it’s the basic tendency to good or bad; suffice it that the participant is “good.” This is a destructive inclination. Honestly, it’s better to be a bad person; that way, at least, you won’t be satisfied with the supposed goodness of your aberrant behavior.

The question of “who is a good person” is superbly narcissistic. We all identify with Harry Potter, hence we all belong to the side of the good. The narcissistic identification with the childish character – he is always “the boy who lived,” even in his maturity – is an expression of the basic individualism of Harry Potter. In a fundamental sense, we all suspect that we are special, and very surprisingly, our suspicion proves correct from time to time. The individualism of millennials, who suppose that they are alright and that the world will be alright if it’s under the control of good people like them, is only a symptom of the apotheosis of Harry Potter. From Barack Obama to Mark Zuckerberg, our world is the victim of people who thought that “good” is a useful political category.

“Harry Potter” is a romantic paean to the present moment, a moment before its collapse – a collapse that is as threatening as a shadow but is not represented in the books. The bad, too, becomes familiar and recognizable in the series (Tom Riddle). But true evil is never conceptualized in language. One possible way to deal with it is to think about a realm that is entirely absent in the books: Harry Potter, like the millennials who were influenced by him, has no history at all. We don’t know who the magicians of the Middle Ages were or what their viewpoint on church-state relations was. In fact, if there is one school subject that is not described throughout the series – Harry stresses his desire to sleep through it whenever he has the misfortune to encounter it – it’s the history lesson, which is taught not by a flesh-and-blood teacher but by a ghost.

History, though, is essential for critical thought. History places contemporary values under an enduring question mark. It teaches us about the limits of our perspective, and reveals that our “good” values are only an expression of a point in time in the present. Harry Potter, by contrast, lives in the ongoing present, which organizes the world into absolute categories of good and bad.

If Harry Potter or any other millennial were to ask me, I would recommend that they take an introductory course in medieval history. They will learn that the question “Am I a good person?” creates a mistaken equation between the self, the good and the world, and that future periods, if we’re fortunate enough to have any, will ridicule it.

Harry Potter is not a fantasy book. It’s more accurate to say that it’s a reality that our world is actualizing, even if only partially. The analysis of the foundations of the Potter moment in contemporary culture has yet to be carried out. What can be said is that since the series first appeared, our world has been under the destructive influence of a generation of Harry Potter devotees. The array of categories of the series, and notably the ahistorical division between good and bad, the passion to defend the familiar, and the politics of “good people” – all these represent the narrative of Gen Y in world politics. This narrative also has an impact on the response to the current order: The politics of “bad people,” from Trump to Putin, is yet another chapter in the saga of the Potterite struggle between good and evil.

With narratives like these, it’s no wonder our world is in crisis.

Harry Potter is considered a “good” literary work, and it can be assumed that it was written with good intentions. But the Potterites’ belief in the innocence of their viewpoints – a dangerous belief in itself, certainly in narcissistic hands – does not constitute a substitute for critical thinking about the existing order. Most people may not read bad books, such as “Torat Hamelech” (“The King’s Torah,” a contemporary rabbinical text which incites to violence against non-Jews, among other things), but they will likely give their children good books in the hope that they will arouse innocence and purity in them. For this reason, good books are the most influential and the most dangerous. Regrettably, the generation of Harry Potter devotees acquired such decisive critical influence that, once the series was declared the best of all time, it ruled out the possibility of the existence of any other book, as well as any other metaphysics.

There will be no other book after Harry Potter. Be careful when you let your children read it.