blessed are les miserables (and other lessons from song lyrics)

As you may know, if you’ve been reading my blog for long, I tend to listen to a lot of music that doesn’t have lyrics, particularly my workday quadrivium of classic, ambient, post-rock, and movie scores.  So when I do listen to music with lyrics, I make sure they’re good lyrics.  Here are some observations I’ve made recently on some great song lyrics.

  1. 2009 was the year I fell in love with both the Harry Potter series and Coldplay’s album (which I still maintain is their greatest) Viva La Vida.  I got really invested in Snape during my first reading of the series, so I often thought of him–and still do–when I hear these lyrics from the last song on Viva La Vida: “No, I don’t wanna battle from beginning to end; I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge; I don’t want to follow death and all of his friends.”  In those lyrics, I see Snape making the hard choice not to take revenge on James Potter’s child, and I see him turning his back on Voldemort and all of his Death-eaters.  Whatever you think about Snape, you have to admit those were brave things to do.
  2. Recently I’ve been listening to the song that goes “I’m no longer a slave to fear; I am a child of God.”  (Someone help me out here–is the artist I Am They or Bethel Music, or are those essentially the same thing?  I’m not hip enough to understand what’s going on with these “worship collectives” that are so popular these days.)  It’s the sort of song that I would generally say is a little too “on the nose.”  I admit it; I’m kind of a music snob, so I prefer subtlety in my lyrics.  But I’ve realized recently that sometimes a song that’s “on the nose” is exactly what I need.  Sometimes I just need someone to tell me that I’m a child of God.  I’m thankful for this song.
  3. And now, a thought for this Ash Wednesday from my favorite musical, Les Miserables.  I’ve been thinking about the title (which is also the title of Victor Hugo’s novel, the musical’s source text) and how we never translate it into English.  I think that’s because we don’t have a word in English that exactly captures the meaning.  “The Miserable (People”) isn’t quite right because we’re talking about a specific kind of misery.  There’s a phrase in one of the songs that captures the idea well: “the wretched of the earth.”  Les Miserables is mostly about the poor, prisoners, and prostitutes–the rejects of society.  But it gets really interesting if you think of every character in the story as les miserables, including the supposed antagonist, Javert, who is a tragic character because he can’t accept forgiveness or even his own life as a gift.  “Les miserables” are similar to the people Jesus was talking about when he said “blessed are the poor in spirit”–the people who don’t have it all together, to put it mildly.  These people are blessed if, like Jean Valjean, they acknowledge their poverty of spirit; they are doomed if, like Javert, they try to deny it.  And, if we’re honest, these people are all of us.  So take that thought into Lent with you.
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half-bloodedness in Harry Potter

This Wednesday, I am giving an informal talk about the concept of half-bloodedness in the Harry Potter series (not to be confused with the Percy Jackson series, in which being a half-blood means one of your parents is special.  In Harry Potter, it means one of your parents is NOT special–a perspectival difference only, but a crucial one).  My talk will be based on a paper I contributed to a collection a number of years ago, but since it’s been a while since I really engaged with that paper, I thought I’d use this post as a vehicle for updating my thoughts.

First things first: When I wrote that paper, I committed a major oversight.  I said that there are three characters in the series who we know to be true half-bloods (i.e. having one wizard/witch and one fully Muggle parent): Seamus Finnegan, Severus Snape, and Tom Riddle.  The character I forgot is, ironically, Penelope Clearwater.  One could argue that Penelope is not a major character–after all, she didn’t even make it into the movies–and that she never discusses her parents or her blood status, but it’s assumed that she was a deliberate object of a basilisk attack in Chamber of Secrets because of that very blood status, so I could have used her character to reinforce my point that wizarding world racism extends not only to the completely Other but also to those whose origins are less obvious.  I will probably put in a Penelope plug on Wednesday night.

I was just talking with a student today about how the fact that Harry Potter is a fantasy makes it a safe space to discuss “mature themes”–child abuse and neglect, slavery, political corruption, you name it–in the classroom.  The issues are no less real because they are present in a fantasy, but the fictional context provides a layer of detachment, allowing the difficult conversations to be less charged.  The concept of half-bloodedness creates a forum for discussing issues such as racism, racial performativity, and biracial identity, but it does so with a situation that’s not exactly like any situation in the real world.

In the paper, I use Seamus Finnegan to introduce the concept in a relatively light-hearted way (just like the books do), but my main argument contrasts Tom Riddle, whose attempt to erase his diverse racial history backfires, leading to a fragmented personality and a literally shattered soul, with Severus Snape, who, though he keeps his half-blood status largely private (like so much about himself), never denies that he is a half-blood, and therefore achieves an integrated identity and a character of integrity.  A lot of big words, but I’m basically arguing that Snape remains true to himself (even when his mission requires him to present a false front), whereas Riddle/Voldemort destroys himself through his own self-directed racism and denial.

If I were to rewrite the paper today, I would probably say more about my current Harry Potter interest, which has to do with the effect of the home and family of origin on how characters turn out.  Both Snape and Riddle grew up in loveless homes, but they were different kinds of loveless homes, and I think the differences in their situations contributed to the differences in how they handled their half-blood status.  I will think about this idea, try it out on Wednesday night, and perhaps blog about it next week.

my literary crushes

First of all, you’ll all be glad to know that I’ve completed the first draft of the body of my dissertation.  Still to go: revisions, introduction and conclusion, and defense.

I thought I’d write a quick post to address something I’ve been saying a good bit lately.  I’ve been telling people that I “have a crush” on several different fictional characters.  What makes this notable is that I’m not talking about characters in movies, who have the benefit of being played by a cute actor.  I’m talking about characters from books.  Some of them have been portrayed in movies, but not in a way that impressed me in the particular way that I’m talking about.  I’m just going to address three here–two classics and a newcomer–but I’m sure I could come up with more if I thought about it.

1. Hamlet.  I hate it when people reduce Hamlet to the adjectives dark, brooding, and indecisive.  (I don’t think that last one is fair, anyway.  He’s trying to make up his mind about things like whether to believe a ghost and whether to kill his uncle.  These are not decisions to be made quickly.)  He’s also very funny in a reckless sort of way, a devoted son with conflicted but deep feelings about his dead father and his living mother, and a pretty deft swordsman.  He’s got a razor-sharp intellect, but that’s not his defining characteristic.

By the way, the main reason I’m thinking about Hamlet right now is that a friend and I tried to figure out his Myers-Briggs type today.  We settled on INFP.  I would date that.

2. The Deathless Man from Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht.  My book club recently read this 2011 magical realist novel.  The deathless man is this guy who shows up from time to time and basically fulfills the function of Brad Pitt’s character in Meet Joe Black, without the social awkwardness.  I fell in love with him early in the novel, when he was described as having large eyes, a feature I find very attractive.  (For a visual, look up a picture of JJ Feild RIGHT NOW.)  He continued to win me with his polite, calm, and occasionally gently sardonic manner, and then he totally stole my heart near the end when he ordered this fantastically sumptuous meal at a hotel in order to make a dying waiter happy, but clearly enjoyed it for what it was, not just for the good deed angle.  I like a man who likes to eat good food.

3. Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities.  I guess it’s a cliché to fall in love with the guy who says, “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done.”  If so, I’m happy to be a cliché.  This is our current book club selection, and I’m about 100 pages in and remembering how much I love this man who sacrifices himself (in so many ways throughout the novel, not just at the end) without being an insufferable martyr, who is bitter without being cruel, and who loves long and hopelessly without being a sentimental sap.*  I’ve long noticed a similarity in stories between Sydney Carton and Severus Snape, but Carton is a more pleasant character because he doesn’t take himself so seriously.  (Note that this is a theme for me.)

While we’re on this topic: There hasn’t been a good Tale of Two Cities movie in a long time, so I’m taking suggestions for two actors who look similar enough to play Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay.  You can’t have the same actor play them, because then you’d have this weird fantasy doppelganger thing, which would take the focus off what’s really going on.  Please leave me your suggestions, along with your own literary crushes, in the comments.

*Which he could have easily become if Dickens hadn’t restrained himself.  I love Charles Dickens very much, but I’m willing to admit that he sometimes warms my heart so much I want to throw up.