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Harry Agius and the Numb Rubber Golem

25th of November, 2020

This piece was first left as a review on the website RateYourMusic. I was reviewing Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the Chris Columbus film. I've always been more interested in the Harry Potter films than the books. I could have made most of these observations about the book, especially the political ones, but I find reading those things distressing, it's like reading the Telegraph or something. The films are actually genuinely enjoyable as horror movies, except the subject of the Horror is the banal evil of a Middle England TERF as interpreted by a team of thoroughly conventional artists who manage somehow to produce something that feels like outsider art.

Lord Voldemort, an abused orphan, comes by his darkness in his teenage years. He is corrupted, becoming some symbolic oddity between Bela Lugosi's campy evil and an agent of historical atrocity analogous to wizard Hitler. Harry, an abused orphan, is saved by his Hogwarts letter. The boundless surfeit of positive reinforcement and spirit nurturing whimsy turn him into, what? Harry Potter, the character, is quite disturbing. He has the ability to remind one of the callous centrism which, by cosmic injustice, still manages to befall those who ought know better. In reality, marginalised and abused figures still turn with some regularity toward evil, and the natural tendency in fiction is to represent this evil as an overt villainy, like in the case of Lord Voldemort. In fact, it often looks more like a tragically deterministic drift towards status quo bias, breeding apologism and complacency in the face of injustice.

In this early stage of his character's development, Harry is an empty vessel that is topped up periodically with new things to learn about the Wizarding World. When Harry is put in the hospital wing after an accident leaves him without any bones in his arm, he is visited by the house elf Dobby. Dobby reveals that he is a slave, bound in service to the father of Harry's worst enemy. Harry doesn't react at all—this information is not of interest to him. His useless floppy arm allows us to feel via the filmic language afforded by the CGI the extent that, in these moments of exposition, Harry is a numb rubber golem entirely without character or moral skeleton. The extent that Harry is an agent in the world he inhabits is in his capacity to advance the plot of whatever mystery is happening. He is cunning, resourceful, and courageous when it comes to uncovering where the Chamber of Secrets is, but totally inert as an agent when it comes to learning more about chattel slavery, and in exploring the nature and history of Lord Voldemort.

Voldemort should by all accounts fascinate Harry to the extent of obsession—not did Voldemort kill Harry's parents, but he radically altered the course of history in the Wizarding World. Harry's inexplicable disinterest in Voldemort is especially unusual. His inert acceptance of Voldemort as an incontrevertible and inevitable thing that happened once, long ago, is unanswered contradiction of Harry's basic humanity that presses in us as we read him. In The Philosopher's Stone Harry serves as an audience surrogate: we see him introduced to this novel world and watch as he is fed information in dribs and drabs by Hermione as a form of world building. Voldemort appears in that first film in person: as a creepy homunculus who sowed his dread indirectly by the suggestion of his capacity for transformation into an unstoppable monster. In this second film he is physically absent, and what remains instead is a memory of his younger self.

The power vacuum left by Voldemort's physical absence is filled by the altogether more sinister influence of Hogwarts patriarch Salazar Slytherin. Slytherin's influence is palpable and familiar: an ancient enmity literally coursing through the veins of the castle, in the form of the basilisk running through the pipes. Without the benefit of hindsight, a contemporary reader of Chamber of Secrets might have seen this ancient precussor to Voldemort as the a sower of seeds. Harry is whisked away from normality and abuse and introduced to this wonderful world, but as he grows older the ecstasy of his new magical escapist fantasy gives way to a rotten sickness at the heart of the Wizarding World. While hinted at obliquely in the first book, we see in Slytherin's legacy the first sign of this sickness. Harry comes to the grim realisation that this world is just as veined with evil as the one he left.

Of course, a decade after the conclusion of the series we find that Rowling's strangled imagination was never up to the task of addressing this evil in a satisfactory way. She has no understanding of history or evil: she is ignorant of the former and complicit in the latter. In an oversight that feels so much more vital after the toppling of the statues of the slavers by Black Lives Matter protesters, the text never addresses that the genocidal aristocrat who left hideous monsters to murder children in his school remains revered and commemorated as a founding father of Hogwarts: the institution that the text unambiguously tells us represents moral good in this world.

Next to Salazar Slytherin, Voldemort is relegated into a sort of secondary villain: a slippery anachronism that seems at odds with every possible context one can imagine him in. Some time in the 1990s, Harry comes across a book containing the partially corrupted memory of a school boy born some time in the 1930s. This boy would later adopt a bigotry older than years and become a sort of fascist mass murderer some time in the 1970s. Harry's own lens by which he is to understand this young boy is that which is offered to him by the Wizarding World: a kind of 19th century theme park ensemble which is so terrified of its own history that its people dare not even speak their tyrant's name. This society, at this point in Harry's life, has been known to him for two years.

The relationship between the apparition and the real Voldemort is tenuous and vague, which is thematically appropriate when the film takes place in Hogwarts castle: a rotting carcass of architecture. In fact, it is Harry's own fundamental lack of curiosity that produces this vagueness—his inaccessibility to us as a character also serves to sabotage his capacity as a set of eyes by which we might understand his world. Radcliffe's disturbing dismal stares and the digital hollowness of the halls of the castle are just bleak, and they turn what felt like a lifeless wasteland of a book into a piece of art—art that forces us to reckon with the empty mythology of the liberal escapist fantasy. Where normally the main characters of these stories act as audience surrogates, Harry's own lack of capability for meaningful action inverts the pregnancy metaphor of surrogacy. Harry is offered to us as a stillborn.