July 12, 2011
Why Carmageddon won’t happen on Harry Potter’s watch
You can’t pass a billboard in Los Angeles without seeing the ubiquitous Harry Potter campaign pronouncing, “It All Ends”—- July 15.
How ironic then, that L.A.’s Westside will be subjected to its own apocalypse of sorts – popularized as “Carmageddon” – when a dense portion of the 405 Freeway is shut down for three days.
The concurrence of two such major events suggests a weekend of chaos. How ever will Potter fans make it to the Cineplex on time? But more importantly, how could the world end if Harry is a kind of literary messiah?
“And a little child shall lead them,” goes the famous verse in Isaiah that prophesies a peaceful world.
As The Telegraph’s Sarah Crompton pointed out in 2010, Harry, played by the Jewish Daniel Radcliffe is referred to in “Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part One” as the Chosen One. “No one else is going to die for me,” Harry says, alluding to a messianic intent, and an interesting turn of phrase, since it can be read as either an affirmation or repudiation of the Christ figure.
A mystical understanding of redemption posits a world in which death can be annihilated. In Potter’s world, if only Harry could find the Deathly Hallows, he could eliminate Death entirely. In that same film, a scene of Harry and Hermione evoking the Garden of Eden recalls the foundational curse of the biblical word: Eat from the Tree of Knowledge and paradise will be wrested from humanity, because the acquisition of knowledge equals the inescapable, ceaseless awareness of mortality.
In Aryeh Wineman’s 1997 book, “Mystic Tales from the Zohar” he speaks of the redemptive power of a child wonder or “yanuka”. In mystical literature, “the child figure is a kind of personification of Eden, a condition lacking blemish, defilement or moral complexity,” Wineman writes. The yanuka is a “wonder child capable of offering brilliant interpretations of Torah.” As it goes in prophecy, it goes in Potter: even a wonder does not work alone.
The zohar goes so far as to suggest the importance of ancillaries in the redemption of the world. As the Potter movies can attest, Harry needs his friends. There is a concept, Wineman explains, of “a collective yanuka,” in which “the child-archetype has shifted from a single child to an entire generation of such wonder children.”
No adult can save the world. In much of mythological literature (“Potter,” “The Lord of the Rings”) as well as in the bible, redemption comes through a child. Even Moses seals his destiny as an infant. There is a midrash that tells of a suspicious Pharoah, who tries to test whether Moses is a threat to him. He places his crown on the ground, and at another distance, hot coals. If Moses were to reach for the crown, it would reveal his kingly ambitions. Since an infant is naturally drawn to the glittery crown jewels, an angel descends and promptly pushes the child toward the coals. Moses burns his hand and then reaches for his mouth, burning his lips. This, the rabbis, say explains his speech impediment; a handicap that becomes seminal in his development as a leader, G-d’s aid in Israel’s redemption from Egyptian slavery.
There are things in the earthly world that resist the power of death. In Jewish mysticism, “the innocence of children, the wonder child, pleading to spare the innocent, the powerful prayer of the broken hearted, the willingness to die, and the sparing of a scholar in judgment” are the most essential forms of goodness, Wineman writes.
But in the world of Harry Potter, the magic that can save the world is inextricably linked with the dark arts that might destroy it. Good versus evil battle out, side by side, in luscious Hollywood imagery that suggests a world that never was, but somehow spiritually exists.
The richness of the “Harry Potter” fantasy cannot end, even if the tale concludes. Like the Bible, its lucid storytelling can be read in repetition. But as far as next weekend’s traffic is concerned, the best redemption from Carmageddon is to get lost in a dark theatre, where spiritual sustenance comes in the form of deeply satisfying entertainment, through the visceral talent of a Jewish actor and his alter-ego, the Chosen One.