Friday, October 23, 2009

An Unlikely Trio: Harry Potter, House, and Mother Night

Here's a riddle for you on this lovely Friday morning:  What do Harry Potter, the TV show House, and Mother Night have in common?

Instead of simply providing an answer, I'll provide scenarios from each and then talk about the common thread through the scenarios.

First up is Harry Potter.

In J.K. Rowling's first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry goes through his first year at Hogwarts, a school for wizards.  On his first night at Hogwarts, all the first-year students have to go through a ceremony, in which the Sorting Hat is placed on each student's head; the Sorting Hat reads the student's character and then tells the student which of the four houses within the school he or she will belong to.  When the Sorting Hat is placed on Harry's head, it sees inherent qualities in Harry that would allow him to do well in Slitherin, the house that every bad wizard in the history of Hogwarts have belonged to ('bad' in the sense of 'evil').  Harry begs the hat to put him anywhere but Slitherin, and so he ends up in Gryffindor, a house whose wizards are known for courage.  In short, Harry chooses to not be a part of Slitherin.

Later on in the series, Harry worries about the fact that the Sorting Hat originally wanted to place him in Slitherin because he thought that meant he was a Slitherin simply posing as a Gryffindor.  His mentor (so to speak), Dumbledore, tells Harry that what he has on the inside doesn't define him; rather he is the sum of his choices.  And he chose Gryffindor.

Keep that in mind as I move on to the second part of the riddle: the TV show House.

House follows the main character, Dr. Gregory House (center character in the above picture), and his team as they diagnose difficult medical cases.  In one episode last season, a patient is brought in who is exhibiting signs of disinhibition.  In other words, he is saying anything that pops into his mind without being able to first monitor what he is about to say.  He sees a pretty girl and out pops, "I'd do her."  His wife asks him what he thinks of her job as an organizer for charities, and he replies, "Those who can't do organize events for those who can do."  He also tells his young daughter not to worry about not being too smart because her "mom isn't the brightest crayon in the box, either."  You get the idea.  A debate begins between House and his team as to who the man actually is: the man thinking the not-so-nice thoughts or the man choosing to suppress those thoughts.  House, being the cynic he is, argues that the man is a hypocrite because he is really the person thinking his typically inhibited thoughts but chooses to present a fake persona to the world.  One of his team members, Kutner (on the far right in the above picture), then brings up the Harry Potter example, saying that what we choose is who we are.

And, finally, comes the third part of the riddle:

In the preface to Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut writes that this is his only book for which he can provide a moral.  The moral, he writes, is this:

We are who we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Are you seeing the theme now?  The main character of Mother Night, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., is an American living in Berlin when World War II begins.  As a famous playwright in Germany (he writes his plays in German) who is married to a beautiful German actress, Campbell chooses to stay in Germany even as the war breaks out.  He becomes a spy for the Americans by sending out messages through radio broadcasts with secret signals in them (the signals are so secret that Campbell himself has no clue what information he is passing on); his radio broadcasts are pro-Nazi.  The world sees him as a Nazi because he is "pretending" to be a Nazi.  He questions his own motives for what he did during the war:

Those orders I carried out in Germany were ... ignorant and insane .... I knew it.  God help me, I carried out their instructions anyway.

Campbell lived his life hiding who he really thought he was; in the end, his true self was so hidden that even he wasn't sure who he was.  In my own words, the moral of Mother Night is this: If we don't actively choose who we are, someone else will choose for us; then, when they're finished with us, nothing will be left of us.

Putting all that information together leaves us with an answer to my original riddle: Harry Potter, House, and Mother Night explore the notion that our choices are what make us us, regardless of what we start with.

I can't quite end the post here even though I've answered the riddle I posed because there are other quotes I want to share from Mother Night that struck me:

We are never as modern, as far ahead of the past as we like to think we are.

History often goes hand-in-hand with sports.

All people are insane ... God help anybody who looks for reasons.

"Headache?" he asked me.
"Yes," I said.
"Take a aspirin," he said.
"Thank you for the advice," I said.
"Most things in this world don't work--" he said, "but aspirin do."

"This day will go down in history," said Jones.
"Every day goes down in history," said the boss.

I had previously said that Vonnegut's books make me think, and Mother Night was no exception.  The above quotes are just some of what I underlined (metaphorically, as the underlining was done on a Kindle).  It's a book that still has me questioning my own ideals and motivations, more than a week after I finished it.

As a final note, I watched the movie Mother Night yesterday (a side note worth mentioning because of my post from last week).  While I prefer the book to the movie, the movie did a nice job of providing a visual representation of a complex book.  It is the only movie I know that could have "White Christmas" playing in the background as a prisoner is marched to his jail cell in the opening scenes.  Another artistic highlight is when Campbell (played by Nick Nolte) is watching a recording of himself that had been taken fifteen years earlier--during the war--speak about pro-Nazi sentiments.  You see Campbell's horrified face covered by the projection of his righteously angry face.  If that sentence didn't make sense, all I can say is you might just have to see the movie to understand.

Happy reading ... and choosing who you are.


Billy Longino said...

It's interesting because in every one of those situations it isn't the person's choices that are really deciding who they are but the situations in which they find themselves determining for them the choices they can make that will lead to the interpretation by others of how they are. Despite how we see ourselves and how we choose to act we can never really know how we are perceived by others because of our actions whether or not those actions were direct results of our conscious choices or simply reactions to situations in which we find ourselves.
Very interesting stuff. Now I must absolutely read Mother Night.

Jessie Sams said...

And yet, aren't all the situations we find ourselves in consequences (whether good or bad) of previous choices that we made? Harry wouldn't have been at Hogwarts if he had not chosen to go; Campbell wouldn't have been in the situation to become an American spy had he chosen to move back to America. The only exception is the medical patient--I'm not sure his life choices led to his medical condition.

It is interesting, though, that how others define us is largely due to others' perception, and I'm not sure we can do a single thing to make them see us more clearly (i.e., the way we see ourselves). Then again, is their perception of us a better ruler for measuring who we are than our own perception? Oh, what complicated webs of philosophy we spin.

Billy Longino said...

This comes to my belief that nearly every modern Western fiction has an Existentialist basis, whether the creators' know it or not.

And it was not only their own choices that led them to those circumstances but the choices of others. The medical patient for example, if his condition was caused by genetic reasons, was in his condition because of the choice of his parents (or grandparents, or all of them) to breed.

I love complex systems. When you think about them, whether it is causality, language, genetics, social change, or the spread of ideas, it is almost like you almost get to the verge of discovering some overwhelming truth and all that you uncover is a new level of complexity, almost a mirror to the previous, like fractals.

r4i software said...

I like this article but..
last night i went to the midnight premiere of harry potter and the half blood prince! I was honestly so disappointed! was it just me or did it seem very choppy and for some reason didn't feel like it was a harry potter movie. Don't get me wrong some of the parts in it were either really funny or somewhat scary but i really was not satisfied. I don't know, what did you think?? Am i wrong? Give me your opinions..

Jessie Sams said...

I'm glad you liked the article. Was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince re-released in theaters? I saw the movie over the summer, so the details are a bit fuzzy for me, but I rather liked the film. It was different from all the other Harry Potter movies, but the sixth book was also different from the other books. I think the director did a good job with what was a very complicated book, but that doesn't mean everyone has to agree with me. I just happen to like the fifth and sixth movies of the Harry Potter franchise, and I am excited to see how they make the last book into two movies.

As a side note, if you weren't satisfied with the movie, that doesn't mean you're wrong at all. It just means you have different movie tastes than I do. :)

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