The French don’t get Harry Potter

Spitbull and SCSU Scholars comment on a debate in France’s Le Monde over the meaning of the Harry Potter series.

A French literature professor at a teachers’ training institute thinks Harry “glorifies individualism, excessive competition and a cult of violence,” which he thinks is bad. A philosophy professor responds that Harry Potter is a socialist tract. The Star summarizes:

The five Harry Potter books – enormously successful in French translation – are stuffed with “neo-liberal stereotypes” which caricature approvingly the “excesses of the Anglo-Saxon social model,” (Ilias) Yocaris wrote.

Thus all representatives of the state (the Ministry of Magic) are lampooned as ridiculous, or incompetent or sinister. Harry goes to a “private” school, whose “micro-society” is a “pitiless jungle” that glorifies “individualism, excessive competition and a cult of violence”.

Public institutions are unable to protect individuals. Au contraire, Harry Potter and his friends find that they have to break the magical state-imposed rules to protect themselves from evil forces.

. . . Le Monde last week published an equally erudite reply to Yocaris. Far from being a capitalist lackey, Harry Potter is the first fictional hero of the anti-globalist, anti-free market, pro-Third World, “Seattle” generation, according to Isabelle Smadja.

. . . Harry and his friends show great concern for the “house elves”, the unpaid servants of the magical world. The fact that the elves are mostly content with their lot is, says Smadja, a “pertinent” critique of globalisation.

. . . Some French intellectuals have also complained that many of the wicked characters in the books have French names.

Actually, the Harry Potter books are about optimism and hope, argues King at SCSU Scholars, quoting Diane Durante of (shudder) Capitalism Magazine. Good can triumph over evil, if it’s got the guts to fight.

The Potter series is very popular in France, perhaps indicating that not everyone there is a left-wing intellectual.

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Comments

  1. theAmericanist says:

    No surprise French academics don’t get Harry Potter — “the excesses of the Anglo-Saxon social model’, oy gevalt.

    I mean, think about it: the great theme of wizard life in the Potter story is the aftermath of collaboration with a tyrant. Wizard society is divided into those who collaborated — and those who didn’t.

    Gee, why would the French understand THAT?

  2. Harry Potter is about the Platonic concept that life works in ways that are not apparent.

    The Weasleys are nice, the Dursleys are bad, Harry is neither. He is primarily angry that he has to grow up without his parents.

    True, there is magic in the world, but from an inside view, it’s all pretty mundane.

    Dumledore is good and wise, but so is Dr. Phil.

    I hope Harry marries and has a lot of good sex and has some sort of 401(K) plan that does better than mine.

    But even then, I doubt he’ll ever be happy.

    Magic exists, but is not the answer.

  3. If this is what French intellectuals are spending their time debating, then can the guys who debate whether Batman could beat up Spiderman affix “Doctor” to their names?

  4. French intellectual – now that’s an oxymoron in itself, isn’t it? 🙂

  5. Richard Nieporent says:

    What is the real meaning of Harry Potter? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar (and most of the time the French are fools).

  6. What? It’s making fun of ‘neo-liberals’? I thought the in-crowd was making fun of neo-cons. I guess my notification got lost in the mail again.

  7. lindenen says:

    Neoliberals are neocons who like the UN.

  8. stolypin says:

    “Wizard society is divided into those who collaborated — and those who didn’t.

    Gee, why would the French understand THAT?”

    That was good. That was very good. Might just steal that line if the opportunity arises.

  9. Bill Leonard says:

    Lemme see, now: France is a shitty little socialist country rapidly plummeting to second-world status, and its residents despise anything successful that is not French.

    Golly, what else is new?

  10. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Harry Potter is a work of fiction – just like the liberal version of history.

  11. greeneyeshade says:

    i suppose i’m joining the too-much-time-on-my-hands club, but the potter series’ politics look to me to be mildly left of center, at least in american terms.
    internal evidence: the snobbery about the suburban middle classes (the washington post’s stephen hunter noticed this about the 2nd movie) and the apparent fact that the normal career progression for a hogwarts student seems to be straight into the ministry of magic, i.e. the civil service. (fred and george weasley, with their joke shop, are hardly typical.) in fact, the only major institution the ministry doesn’t run seems to be gringotts bank _ and gringotts is run by goblins, not humans.
    in addition, rowling gave an interview (reprinted in scholastic’s ‘conversations with j.k. rowling’) in which she praised that old stalinist jessica mitford as a human rights activist, an eyebrow-raiser as ever was.
    otoh, the traits that bother me are, thank goodness, recessive. what’s a lot more important is that hogwarts is a coeducational, multi-ethnic meritocracy where nothing counts but whether you can do the magic. the only people who care about wealth or lineage are foolish, like cornelius fudge, or evil, like the malfoys. that, and the books’ exploration of courage, loyalty, kindness and their opposites, is something i can happily live with.

  12. John Fembup says:

    Dontcha just love the irony of the French always presenting their nose hair to the great unwashed of the globe?

  13. I love this sort of stuff. This post from “The Modulator” rounds up a whole bunch of links to political analyses of Harry Potter, including my own (sorry, can’t resist showing off) Harry Potter and the Libertarian Subtext.

  14. Anonymous says:

    The basic lesson here is that everybody sees their hobby in the ink blots. Me too. What I saw is the lack of “gun safety.” The magic Potter and friends deal with is a lot more dangerous than guns, and the students handle it with a lot less respect. (Same for Buffy’s Willow Rosenberg, who handled magic like cops handle guns.) Imagine a novel in which early teen students broke into the faculty gun cabinet, and it turned out for the best.

  15. Um, what does J.K. Rowling say? It’s bad enough that my old english teachers asserted what some literature was “about” when the author was no longer around to tell us…

    [Cris, in Europe, “liberal” means something closer to “libertarian”. The U.S. lefties hijacked the “liberal” label a while back, which is why you’ll sometimes see references to “classical liberal”, which is a very different political philosophy.]

  16. Mike Roemer says:

    IMO, folks who look to movies for some kind of universal message, or who see the problems of the world in a kids movie (or almost any movie for that matter), see to be missing something in their lives. Perhaps like a certain “Count”, they have destroyed all the mirrors in their life and are unable to see the actual “problem”.

  17. European academia is on the cutting edge of socio-economic philosophy 😉

  18. I feel foolish pointing this out, but the characterization of Harry Potter as an anti-globo misses the point entirely. Though Harry’s friend Hermione is deeply concerned about the plight of the House Elves, Harry and Ron both believe she is nuts, and do little more than humor her along in her delusions.

    The role of the Ministry of Magic (particularly in book 5, where it becomes quite nearly Orwellian) strikes me as an almost libertarian critique of such institutions…

    And clearly, Batman could beat up Spiderman…

  19. —-Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar (and most of the time the French are fools).

    Richard: Although I agree with the second part of you statement, I fell we had better get a ‘reading’ on the first part from Bill Clinton…

  20. theAmericanist says:

    I’ll admit to being sorta curious where Rowling is going with all this. (Speaking as an American who doesn’t much like the Anglophilia common to American conservatives, I’m delighted that a single mom who did refugee work — and, if memory serves, used to get welfare — is now wealthier than the queen. No wonder American conservatives act like the French, trying to read too much into her stories.)

    There are two things I’m curious about.

    The first is what she’s gonna do with the money — I swapped correspondence with her publicist a couple years ago, because I had sorta kinda made up the rumor that she was going to do a Barrie and give the copyright to some refugee organization, the way he gave Peter Pan to the Edinburgh Children’s Hospital. (Or, for that matter, the way Christopher Robin, God rest his soul, had Pooh pay for Save the Children all those years.)

    But I missed my guess, because while she didn’t (or hasn’t yet) given the copyright to Harry away, she DID write two supplemental books and give them to a British charity — for battered women, I think.

    So I remain curious about what she’s gonna do with the absolutely vast fortune she’s earned. I’m predicting refugee projects — and God bless her, if she does.

    The second is simply where the story itself is going. Hogwarts is a 7 year school, and each book is a year at Hogwarts. It’s likely that Harry will become the ultimate Defense against the Dark Arts teacher, I suppose (there’s a new one of those every year, too), but the overarching plot is the struggle against Evil, and all the subplots revolve around the collaborators.

    Clearly academic types will over-reach interpreting all this, but it seems sorta hard for her to finish the series without SOMEHOW resolving some Big Honking Themes.

    My own prediction (you heard it here first) is that Harry will wind up internalizing Voldemort, carrying him with him, not annihilated but sorta subsumed. That way, the books will end in that special unsatisfying way — and besides, it will give him a Dark Secret from whomever he marries. (whom, I further predict, we haven’t met yet.)

  21. Richard Aubrey says:

    So HP has hidden messages, huh? Anny of those look like the stuff that causes the books to be zillion-sellers?
    Potter was in the hands of what for all intents is an evil step family, having been taken by vile means from a good and loving family. Anybody remember considering that as an answer to one’s plight as a kid?
    Then the powerful come along and take him to a place of wonder and people like him, and away from the boring, awful world of the Muggles–or whatever we called our world back then, in the fourth grade.
    In addition, he’s not on another planet. He’s just….over there. He doesn’t get on a spaceship, he gets on the Hogwarts Express IN BETWEEN platforms nine and ten. His different and wonderful experiences have added thrills becuase they are so close–except in one dimension–to the nasty Muggle world.
    He gets to Diagon Alley by going into an undistinguished door in London off a street apparently populated by Muggles, from the Muggle World to another world, which is bigger on the inside than on the outside. We don’t know why Muggles don’t try that door, if only by accident. It would certainly mess things up. That we don’t know adds a bit of a thrill.
    And Hogwarts is Fat City, as opposed to the notably spartan public schools in Britain, with baronial common rooms and halls worthy of a queen. The tables in the dining room obvously groan.
    Whatever deep and profound messages this set of stories provides, it’s a kid’s wonderland. And I’m approaching sixty.

  22. Oblivious says:

    To the literature professor from France. I believe this describes it well.

    Too Much Time On My Hands
    by Styx

    Yeah I’m Sitting on this barstool talking like a damn fool
    Got the twelve o’clock news blues
    And I’ve given up hope for the afternoon soaps
    And a bottle of cold brew
    Is it any wonder I’m not crazy? Is it any wonder I’m sane at all?

    Well, I’m so tired of losing – I got nothin to do and all day to do it
    Well, I go out cruisin’ but I’ve no place to go and all night to get there
    Is it any wonder I’m not a criminal?
    Is it any wonder I’m not in jail?
    Is it any wonder I’ve got

    Too much time on my hands, it’s ticking away with my sanity
    I’ve got too much time on my hands, it’s hard to believe there can be such a calamity
    I’ve got too much time on my hands and it’s ticking away, ticking away from me
    Too much time on my hands, (it’s tick tick tick tick tickin away)
    too much time on my hands (Now I don’t know what to do, I say)
    Too much time on my hands

    Too much time on my hands,Too much time on my hands,Too much time on my hands

    Now, I’m a jet fuel genius – I can solve the world’s problems
    Without even tryin’
    I have dozens of friends and the fun never ends
    That is, as long as I’m buyin’
    Is it any wonder I’m not the president?
    Is it any wonder I’m null and void?
    Is it any wonder I’ve got

    Too much time on my hands, he’s ticking away with my sanity
    I’ve got too much time on my hands, it’s hard there can be such a calamity
    I’ve got too much time on my hands and he’s ticking away, ticking away from me
    Too much time on my hands, (tick tick tick tick tickin’ away)
    too much time on my hands (And I don’t know what to do with myself)
    Too much time on my hands (Mmmmm)
    Too much time on my hands (Tick tick tickin’ away)
    Too much time on my hands (Mmmmm)
    Too much time on my hands
    Too much time on my hands
    Too much time on my.

  23. Steve LaBonne says:

    “Some French intellectuals have also complained that many of the wicked characters in the books have French names” And this is supposed to be a surprise in a book written by an English person?? (Ward-off-the-pedants remark: I know she lives or lived in Edinborough but she is English.)

  24. Doesn’t ‘Voldemort’ sound french???? 🙂

  25. Eric Jablow says:

    I’m waiting for someone else to do to the HP series what George MacDonald Fraser did to Tom Brown’s Schooldays in his Flashman novels.

  26. lindenen says:

    What did George MacDonald Fraser do to Tom Brown’s Schooldays in his Flashman novels?

    Also, I thought there was a critique of the EU in the last book.

  27. Eric Jablow says:

    Harry Flashman was the villain of Tom Brown’s Schooldays [by Thomas Hughes, 1857]. Fraser [writing between 1969 and 1994] decided to write a set of novels based on that old character, putting Flashman into every imaginable historical situation of the 19th century, including both sides of the US Civil War.

    Since, in form at least, the HP novels are simply an update of Schooldays, I’m waiting for someone to give it the same treatment. Draco Malfoy and the War Against Al-Qeida, anyone? Of course, one might have to wait 100 years, given new copyright rules.

  28. theAmericanist says:

    I’m still mad we never got Flashman at the Battle of Gettysburg.

  29. In part, Harry Potter is a take-off on Tom Brown, Kipling’s Stalky, Bulldog Drummond and other English schoolboy books. (Orwell had an essay on the genre.)

    The Flashman books are brilliant.

  30. I find it interesting the article has so many details of the books wrong — and those errors are crucial to the academic interpretations described.

    For example, “all representatives of the state (the Ministry of Magic) are lampooned as ridiculous, or incompetent or sinister”

    What about Mr. Weasley (MoM staffer) and whichever son is researching dragons? Or the members of the Order of the Phoenix who work at the ministry? Some are kind of loony, but they’re generally portrayed positively.

    “Harry goes to a “private” school”

    No, it’s supervised ultimately by the Ministry of Magic. Dumbledore has a lot of leeway in running it, but is accountable to the Minister.

    “whose “micro-society” is a “pitiless jungle” that glorifies “individualism, excessive competition and a cult of violence””

    It’s really more like an exaggeration of any boarding school, but one in a world with more lethal politics.

    “Harry and his friends show great concern for the “house elves””

    As Scott notes above, only Hermione has this concern. Everyone else (except maybe Dumbledore)thinks she’s crazy.

    French “scholarship” takes another hit.

  31. Anyone who thinks individualism is a bad thing is an idiot not to be taken seriously. And anyone who tries to read left wing politics into Harry Potter is even worse. (For the record, I’ve read all five books, as have all my children, and we adore them.)

  32. Anonymous says:

    Oh, it’s just another sad fantasy about how great life would be if we and our special friends were really truly BETTER than the rest of the world.

  33. Oggie Ben Doggie says:

    Those French intellekchuls seem to have forgotten how in 1066 and all that, a tribe of Frenchmen from Normandy took over England and formed the noble class, and how several families in the English nobility still have those Norman names to them (Bellamy, Monsarrat, et al). For whatever reason, Rowling gives common Anglo Saxon names to the good characters and Norman names to the stuck up characters like the Malfoys. She clearly has a bee in her bonnet about something. That these intellekchuls missed on this shows something unflattering about their level of erudition.

  34. The French, who gave us the execrebal Madame Bovary, a novel which was designed by its writer to be without plot, don’t understand that IT’S THE STORY, STUPID!

  35. Madame Bovary has a plot.

  36. Oggie,

    The Normands were actually Danes {Rollo conquered Normandy (i.e. took it from the silly french persons) in 977 AD}