In early July, nauseated by the state of the world, I experienced an overwhelming urge to read a 600-page book: Being and Nothingness. Searching to define “freedom,” Jean-Paul Sartre published his epochal work of philosophy while France was occupied by Nazi invaders in 1943.
The local bookstore did not have a copy or even a philosophy section. What it did have was a 100-foot-long signup sheet to purchase Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Declining to toss $29.95 at billionaire J.K. Rowling, I ordered up a dose of truth instead. A few weeks later, around midnight, I heard a lamp click off upstairs. Waiting until my partner, Stacey, was fast asleep, I crept into our bedroom and slipped a different 600-page book from her hands. I began to read, impelled by the anguish of knowing that Harry Potter once again would thwart the unspeakable Voldemort, my existential hero.
The Potter tales, you see, are explicated by Being and Nothingness. Indeed, the two books should be read simultaneously for maximum effect. Consider, if you will, the ethically thin universe in which Potter resides. Composed primarily of middle-class English wizards, it is a bleak reflection of our Muggle world. A Hobbesian landscape in which magical technique has failed to triumph over poverty, illness or capitalism, it is, to lean upon Sartre, an Apparition of our Being—a Being-in-itself consciously experienced by the Reader as Being-for-itself. That is to say, Potter’s unnamed alternative universe finds meaningful existence for us because it does not exist. As Sartre notes, Nothing defines Being.
It is only through the ministries of the “nihilating” Lord Voldemort that meaning can accrue to the universe-that-must-not-be-named, which we instinctively recognize as a pale shade of our own. The Sartrean Voldemort embodies Nothingness; i.e., he concretizes Potter and his pals by being the negation of Hogwarts and by seeking to destroy Potter. Sans the struggle with Voldemort, the wizards would, of course, be nothing but hopeless dilettantes practicing parlor tricks.
It is the Dark One, not Potter, who chooses the true path to freedom. Voldemort does not rely upon hoary Hogwartian dogmas for courage. He smashes tradition’s chains and liberates himself and his followers by freely choosing to “nihilate” the self-deception at the core of Potter’s decadent society: a belief in the goodness of magic.
The proof of the nonexistence of the Hogwartian universe is ipso facto its magical character and the resultant Bad Faith of the socially fractured wizards who claim free will where they possess none. Critiquing psychoanalysis in Being and Nothingness, Sartre notes that magic is a poor substitute for Freedom: “By rejecting the conscious unity of the psyche, Freud is obliged to imply everywhere a magic unity linking distant phenomena across all obstacles. … [But] magic does not avoid the coexistence … of two contradictory complementary structures which reciprocally imply and destroy each other.” No, says Sartre, magic denies reality and, in doing so, affirms it.
Make no mistake: Rowling’s phenomenological success is based upon her unconscious ability to shamelessly manipulate our Freudian and Jungian archetypes. But the Oedipally confused Potter is, in Sartre’s analysis, guilty of nothing less than Bad Faith; i.e., he lies to himself by unquestioningly accepting the magical determinism spoon-fed him at Hogwarts. Only the abused child, Tom Riddle, sees through Dumbledorian lies. And in doing so, he becomes a free Being.
The only way for the Dark Lord to be defeated forever is for Harry Potter to stop lying to himself. If he—and we—abjure magical explanations, then true Negation can be recognized and abolished in the nonmagical place: our world.