Of J.K. Rowling, Transphobia, Fantasy, and “The Heidegger Problem”
In the Washington Post on September 24, cultural critic Alyssa Rosenberg made a flawed but thought-provoking argument to the effect that, first, J.K. Rowling is indeed a transphobe and second, that this does not mean her works should be “cancelled” by those committed to justice for trans men and trans women. In a nutshell, she maintains that moral panic is obscuring sound judgment of her works, as opposed to her politics and her person. She compares the hand-wringing of those on the Left about the Harry Potter series to the pearl-clutching of those on the Right about Cuties, a movie that actually depicts the sexualizing of girls as abhorrent, but in doing so has to display this awful, profit-driven cultural trend as it is. Rosenberg maintains that, Rowling’s transphobic obtuseness notwithstanding, Harry Potter remains a key text for defending the dignity of misfits and the marginalized:
The reflex to dismiss instead of to explore is one of the more unfortunate aspects of many current cultural debates. If Rowling’s views on gender identity place her outside the bounds of polite — or at least liberal — society, the thinking goes that consuming her work becomes a suspect act. There might be an affirmative obligation not to buy her novels, or to see the forthcoming “Fantastic Beast” movies, because doing so would be to give her money, attention, and respectability . . . But boycotting Rowling’s new work or denying you ever liked Harry Potter doesn’t negate her power to persuade and entertain. And it’s far smarter and more strategic to dig into works by an author you consider both influential and dangerous to understand what makes them effective.
I have long maintained that once an artist drops a work to be read or viewed or heard, the work is no longer theirs but belongs to the world and the ages. It stands or falls on its own. A long time ago, a musically-astute friend told me that the Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska was once asked what she would say if the ghost of Bach were to appear and chastise her that her interpretation of the Goldberg Variations was all wrong. My friend said she replied “You’re dead. This is ours now.” This tale might be apocryphal, since Landowska was a stickler for sticking to the score: she also said “You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.” But even so, “Bach” for Landowska and us, now means the score and recordings and performances. What else matters? Whether Bach held vile political views, or was a complete jerk, is irrelevant. The ability of the Goldberg Variations to move us is what counts.
But there’s a gap in Rosenberg’s case for Rowling-tolerance that needs to be pointed out. While there is a distinction between the character of an artist and the worthiness of their works, the distinction is muddy and complicated if that character infiltrates the work. Sometimes understanding the life is a condition of really understanding and ultimately assessing the work — sometimes. We in the discipline of Philosophy know it well. Call it “The Heidegger Problem.”
Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) was a brilliant phenomenologist, told an interesting and often insightful tale about the trajectory and possible end of Western Philosophy, and wrote key, compelling critiques of the technological mindset and the culture of total control. He also was a rabid, Right-wing nationalist seething with resentment at the world powers that punished Germany after World War I. He longed for a global transformation where the true destiny of the German Volk would again be made manifest, a world-transforming spiritual movement that would reject technocracy and beckon the world back to a true appreciation of the mystery of Being and its presence in human life. He joined the Nazi Party in 1932 and, in 1933, was appointed rector of the University of Freiburg, whereupon he set himself the task of reforming education to align with the interests of the Volkisch state and trash the idea of academic freedom. He resigned his rectorate that year as well, detecting that the Nazi authorities did not deem him Nazi enough. Heidegger, rather astonishingly, believed “the inner strength” of the Nazi movement to be a confrontation with and taming of technology, instead of the Nazis’ own explicit agenda of seizing total control of the government, conquering the world for the sake of Lebensraum (living space), and exterminating the Jews and other “undesirables”. The Nazi authorities eventually removed him from his academic post, and he was digging ditches for them when the war ended.
Heidegger after World War II expressed some rather muted misgivings about his “greatest dummheit” and the destruction that the Nazi regime foisted on the world. (It is significant that he used the language of stupidity to describe his “error”, rather than the language of shame and guilt.) But he never recanted his commitment to the National Socialist cause, nor did he ever go public about how, or whether, his philosophical convictions led to or supported his erstwhile alliance with Right-wing, radical nationalist tyranny and the antisemitism that he casually shared with many others who came from the same Bavarian peasant stock. He evaded the issue as to whether his “dumb” politics negated some or all of his philosophy. In letters to his former friend and colleague Karl Jaspers, he expressed sadness and regret for the violence that the Nazi regime exacted on the Jews (Jaspers’s wife was Jewish), but did not offer Jaspers an apology of any kind, public or private. He was vain and self-satisfied throughout his life, a careerist through-and-through, narrow minded and duplicitous. Richard J. Bernstein, Vera List professor at The New School and a friend of Heidegger’s student Hannah Arendt, summed up Heidegger this way: he was a brilliant philosopher, a master teacher, and a moral bastard.
What does that mean for 21st century philosophers? Can we, as Richard Rorty suggested, sever Heidegger-the-thinker from Heidegger-the-“Schwarzwald redneck” and fervent advocate of the Nazification of the University? Is his work as utterly unaffected by, or rather a reflection of, the fact that he was on any honest account “a moral bastard” in the highest degree?
Maybe we could: it wouldn’t be impossible. After all, Gottlob Frege, the logician and founding father of Analytic Philosophy, a chief rival to Phenomenology, was a frothing-at-the-mouth anti-Semite and perhaps an even more rabid a Right-wing nationalist than Heidegger was. But Frege’s philosophical legacy was in mathematical logic and the Philosophy of Language. Pontification on the distinction between sense/connotation and reference/denotation, or on the nature of concepts as mathematical functions that correlate objects with truth-values, is not obviously linked to Fascist agitprop. One can easily cleave Frege’s odious personal politics from his groundbreaking philosophical work.
You cannot say the same of Heidegger. Not quite, at least: with him, the connection between person and work is stickier and complicated. He himself insisted on an intimate connection between his thought and his actions. Thus, unsurprisingly, an honest reading of Being and Time, the Heideggerian ur-text, especially its second division, will uncover a lot of Right-wing nationalist buzzwords in play: Volk, destiny, resoluteness, authenticity. While you could read them as politically neutral, it would be dishonest to assume that they are politically neutral, at least for Heidegger, given the “moral bastard” Heidegger was. To take up Rosenberg’s advice, we are indeed tasked with exploring rather than dismissing an author’s work. But we shouldn’t expect the exploration to be an easy stroll. In Heidegger’s case, it certainly isn’t.
Speaking for myself: one can, I think, put Heidegger to good use by determining which parts of Heidegger’s oeuvre are tainted and which are not, and then, if one can, re-configuring Heidegger’s genuine insights in a way that will be partly alien to him. With some effort do I think this can be done, and worth doing. One can profitably read Heidegger against Heidegger, performing a kind of radical surgery where the edifying and philosophically astute parts are separated from the scary and putrefying parts. But one should not expect Heidegger in the recovery-room to look much like Heidegger before he went under the knife. Heidegger de-Nazified is Heidegger enough, but it is hard to square this with Rorty’s view that Heidegger the Philosopher and Heidegger the “moral bastard” are completely different Fantastic Beasts. While you cannot reduce one to the other, it is more complicated than assuming a priori that they totally separate considerations.
Rosenberg is right when she says that “it’s far smarter and more strategic to dig into works by an author you consider both influential and dangerous to understand what makes them effective.” But what goes for Heidegger (and other notables like Pablo Picasso, Paul Gaugin, Roald Dahl, Bill Cosby, Chuck Berry, and Woody Allen), also, mutandis mutatis, should go for Rowling. One’s literary excavations could have different outcomes: the object of aesthetic examination may come out unscathed, or useful but flawed, or fatally compromised. When one does that to Rowling, her writing does emerge with quite a lot of dirt on it, some of it cleansable, some not.
I won’t delve into Rowling’s transphobic screeds at this point; much has been said about it, and Katy Montogomerie, here in Medium, has done a far better job than I ever could pointing out in meticulous detail the defects in Rowling’s position. Suffice it to say: Rowling’s explicit case against trans women relies on straw-person arguments and false generalizations to the effect that trans persons deny the reality of sex and construe gender as absolutely, 100% an arbitrary social construction. She maintains that the existence of trans women is, in some obscure way, an affront to “real” women (“persons who menstruate”!) everywhere, is certainly enough to reveal her as benighted at best, ignorant of up-to-date psychological and biological accounts of gender identity, and a petty bigot at worst, furiously trying to take back what she continually re-emphasizes. But are there actual grounds for complaint and rejection of her fiction, analogous to Heidegger’s rhetoric of “rootless cosmopolitans” (read: Jews) and Volkische destiny, present in Rowling’s work, in particular the beloved Harry Potter series? Do they compromise, in part or in full, her presumed message of compassion for “others”?
Perhaps, at least to some extent. For the categories with which Rowling describes “outsiders” are based pretty much on a literary myth about “muggles” (or ordinary folk) and “wizards” (or magical folk). The categories are baked into Rowling’s narratives, but really do not exist anywhere else, and there seems to be few other relevant grounds in the Potter series for fleshing out the categories of “us” and “them”.
To wizards like Voldemort and the Malfoys, the muggles are “the others”, beneath contempt; for Harry’s caretakers the Dursleys, wizards are the ones who are “othered.” But the qualitative distinction between Muggles and Wizards exists only in Rowling’s own fictional universe. Her chief dichotomy bears little resemblance to the conflict between those who dominate and those who are dominated in the real human universe. Her analogies limp. Yes, the overall message is that when Voldemort was defeated, an era of good feelings between Wizards and Muggles was dawning — to the extent that Muggles knew about them, which they did not. But there is little contact between the injustices done to misfits like Dobby the house elf and Neville Longbottom’s parents and, say, the injustices done to George Floyd or Matthew Shepard. And it should give us pause that J.K. Rowling has only hinted, post-publication, that Dumbledore might have been gay or that Hermoine might have been black. If real-world “othering” made a difference in the Potterverse, and had its analogs in the tensions between Muggles and Wizards, then why didn’t Rowling make these distinctions in the books themselves? Or is the Harry Potter series just a group of “ripping yarns” for teens and tweens and nothing more than that?
It could be argued that I am failing to give due diligence to the genre of the Potter series: fantasy fiction. It is not supposed to be tethered to the “real world” but rather is an escape from it. This is a point well taken but also, I think, false. It gives Rowling’s defenders a margin of safety: do not take this too seriously. But good fantasy invites us, to paraphrase all the Trump pundits, to take fantasy very seriously if not literally. It makes sense to compare Rowling’s plots and characters with those of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings trilogy and its prequel The Hobbit. Tolkien’s narrative is morally serious in a way that Potter is not.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo discovers that the One Ring was forged by Sauron in Mt. Doom to control all the other rings of power, and that the Evil One’s spirit dwells in the ring, he offers it to Gandalf, who refuses to take it. “Don’t tempt me!” Gandalf the Grey replies. For taking the ring would corrupt him, would tempt him to try to use its power for noble ends, which would be undercut and transformed into evil by the very exercise of that power. Frodo himself, at the climax of The Return of the King, does succumb to the pull of the ring, and he is saved only by Smeagol-Gollum’s theft of it and subsequent fall into Mt. Doom’s magma and fires.
For Tolkien, evil is a complicated thing. It is nothing in and of itself but lives on the corruption of the good and the noble. The Lord of the Rings is not populated by plaster saints and pasteboard villains. (With the clear exception of Sauron, who is indeed the summum malum). Evil’s power is seductive rather than compulsive. Boromir is a good example of this trope: a good and noble soul tainted, if not corrupted, by his desire to use the ring to do good and vanquish evil. He thought himself immune to the ring’s power, which is a sure way to fall victim to it. It is those who refuse the thirst for power, who control it when necessary and resist it when its pull is too strong, who emerge as moral (and political) heroes. But, again aside from Sauron, no Man, Dwarf, Elf, or Hobbit is pure good or pure evil. Aside from the Dark Lord, there are no true archetypes.
The parallels between Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings seem obvious, almost to the point that it’s fair game to call Rowling a plagiarist. (Consider the equivalencies: The One Ring = Horcruxes, Harry = Frodo, Hermione and Ron = Sam and Merry/Pippin, Dumbledore = Gandalf, the giant spiders and Shelob, etc, etc, etc.) But despite the blatant rip-off of Tolkien’s characterology and tropes, there is one big difference that makes all the difference. From the inception of the Potterverse, Good is good and evil is evil and never the twain shall meet. You know the bad guys and gals from the very start. Even Delores Umbridge, who fancies herself a good guardian of the magic world, falls, like Saruman, clearly into the clutches of evil. Harry is the Lamb of Good, Prof. McGonagall the Blessed Mother of Magic, Albus Dumbledore the Father Almighty. It is actually less Middle-Earth for tweens than a pastiche — a parody, actually, and a rather bad one at that — of someone’s half-baked literalist dream of the Gospels. It is Manichaean to the core.
(Severus Snape might seem an exception to this, with readers wondering “is he bad or is he good?” He might uncharacteristically be a mixture, but frankly, I saw through the ruse from the very start, in The Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone, when Snape was saving Harry’s butt during the Quidditch match by counteracting Quirrell’s curse. So, Snape was, indeed, always a “Good Guy” after all, although an emotionally tortured one.)
In Rowling’s Manichaean universe, the lines are already drawn before the battles start. The problem with Manichaeanism, as St. Augustine knew from personal experience, is that it leads to moral self-congratulation, a seductive power that rivals Sauron’s rings. It seduces one into thinking not so much that one can judge the actions and character of others — that’s unavoidable anyway — but into supposing that your judgments are pristine and incorrigible. This is human, all too human: we all fall victim to this kind of pride or, as Augustine would put it, superbia. But it’s deadly in two realms: in fiction and in politics.
In fiction it elevates fantasy above imagination. Iris Murdoch the philosopher-novelist, contrasted imagination and fantasy in the sharpest way. Imagination is the fundamentally ethical ability to understand the task of becoming oneself, while fantasy is an escape from one’s authentic self, a form of alienation. Imagination requires an attunement to the variety and mystery of the world; fantasy a willed oblivion to it. Fantasy, for Murdoch, kills the imagination. “We live in a fantasy world; the great task in life is to find reality.” And reality is messy and perplexing: “Anything that consoles is fake.”
But the Potterverse is consoling. Harry goes through the agon of the Hero a la Joseph Campbell, it is true; but the successful outcome of his quest is not only preordained but thoroughly consoling. It is pure fantasy in a way that Lord of the Rings, the Dune novels, Morte d’Arthur, or Beowulf are not. When Gilgamesh loses Enkidu, he falls into a despair he never gets over: he never achieves immortality, and things end ambiguously. No such fate can afflict the boy who lived. When Sirius Black dies, Harry mourns, and then goes on to win. The escapism is pure, and, if Murdoch is right, aesthetically and morally harmful.
In politics pure fantasy is even more harmful: it diverts us into seeing what we want to see rather than what is there, the phainomenon, that which shows itself as itself from itself, as Heidegger, in one of his non-self-deceived moments, understood. Heidegger did not follow his own advice on this score, clearly. But I don’t see Rowling even beginning to make the distinction between what she thinks is right belief and what actually is right belief, at least when it comes to transgender matters.
You can quibble about biology and culture until you are blue in the face (although it is wise to be humble enough to acquaint yourself with the important contemporary biological/anthropological/psychological material before you shoot your opinions all over Twitter). But what is at issue regarding trans rights is political, and not what one thinks constitutes a “real woman/man” according to your own untutored or unreviewed prejudices. Speaking for myself, I do not care whether J.K. Rowling thinks I am a “real” woman or not. Just because she is famous as a Young Adult novelist, I see no reason whatsoever to take her views on gender seriously. (The cult of celebrity has done untold damage to intellectual inquiry.) But I care very much whether she has used her celebrity to entice others to treat me, or any other trans person, or young people with trans identities and the parents who love them, with something ranging between ridicule and patronization at the one end and contempt at the other. One certainly can speak one’s mind, but one shouldn’t until one has done one’s homework, and then argue in good faith without assuming malice on the part of one’s interlocutors. You are entitled to express your opinion. You are not automatically entitled to assume it’s true. That’s fantasy, and the death of imagination, both literary and political.
Should one burn one’s Harry Potter books? No, no more than one should throw Being and Time in the garbage, throw paint at “Guernica”, or stop listening to “Sweet Little Sixteen” because their authors were all bastards, assholes, or creeps. All these works have their place, I think; some are aesthetically rich, some works of great artistic or philosophical merit, even genius. And anything that can entice the average US pre-teen to put aside their Xbox and actually read must have something going for it. The Potter series is a ripping yarn, and if you are in the market for one you could do far, far worse. Credit where credit is due. But Rosenberg is, I think, more perceptive than she realizes when she exhorts her readers to “dig into works by an author you consider both influential and dangerous to understand what makes them effective.” When you do that, what might seem innocuous, even banal, might take on a more ambiguous or questionable cast.
And beware when that ambiguity is obscured by the near-universal appeal of sheer fantasy. Escape is fine, now and then. It would be sheer sanctimony to think otherwise. But if escapism becomes habit, it morphs into the One Ring of Power that will suck out your soul, as efficiently as any dementor.