The Wall Street Journal, where Bloom published this essay, is a conservative newspaper. The majority of his original audience would be more interested in the marketing of the Harry Potter stories than in their literary clichés and would not be offended by Bloom’s complaints about various authors and texts. They probably appreciate his designating more the liberal New York Times as “The official newspaper of our dominant counter-culture.” Most of the businessmen who read this in its original context would not have taken the time to read any of the Harry Potter books themselves, so Bloom summarizes the circumstances of Harry’s life and the England he inhabits for his readers. Bloom also takes a swipe at English culture, claiming that Rowling must invent a mystical England because the actual Britain is so entirely “conventional.” Essentially, Bloom hopes to hand a learned opinion about the cultural phenomenon of Pottermania to his readers who have little or no first-hand knowledge of the subject.
There is always the chance, however, that Bloom’s article will back-fire, that readers of The Wall Street Journal will be encouraged by what they learn about Harry Potter from this article and join the 35 million book buyers who are reading it for themselves. Doubtlessly, some of those businessmen are former Middle Earth trilogy readers who will find Bloom’s comparisons between Rowling and Tolkien’s work intriguing. Certainly some readers would believe that whatever the curmudgeonly Bloom finds “tiresome and grotesque” or “bizarre” actually might be refreshingly light and entertaining. By creating controversy over what otherwise appears to be an unanimous approbation of Harry Potter, Bloom is probably inviting some readers who would otherwise ignore the craze to investigate it further.
Harold Bloom is a respected literary critic, but he must establish his credentials to critique the Harry Potter books by admitting that he “read[s] new children’s literature when [he] can find some of any value.” His summary of life at the Rugby school in Tom Brown’s School Days seems to prove the legitimacy of that claim. Bloom further proves his awareness of popular culture by alluding to the rock-opera Tommy by the British pop band The Who. A former professor at Yale, Cornell, Harvard, and NYU, Bloom does not want to embrace popular culture. J. K. Rowland’s audience who accords her the “importance akin to rock stars, movie idols, TV anchors, and successful politicians” does not persuade him otherwise. Essentially, the essay sets up a dichotomy between the good taste and popular culture.
Bloom does concede that there is some value in the Harry Potter books: “a host . . . who simply will not read superior fare” reads them. Furthermore, he admits that readers of Harry Potter may appreciate Rowling’s “wistful sincerity,” they may want to “join her world, imaginary or not,” they may be distracted for a while from the worse evil of television, or they may simply be reminded how it feels to turn the pages of “a book, any book.” He expresses the hope that those readers will “advance from Rowling to more difficult pleasures.” In reality, Bloom’s “dire” prediction at the end of his essay has already come true: Harry Potter books are being taught in some colleges—it is being discussed in this class right now.
Francine Prose ,“Genocide Without Apology”
Exodus, the chapter of the Old Testament that is filled with the stories of the plagues, the enslavement of the Hebrews, and the biography of Moses, including his leading the Jews out of Egypt and his receiving the Ten Commandments, is the basis for Francine Prose’s essay. She tells about her first exposure to it, in the basement of her great-aunt’s house in Brooklyn, where she celebrated Passover while growing up Jewish in New York. Then she reads Exodus for herself with the sensibilities of an adult writer, and finds that it is not only shocking, but realistic. It with apparent pleasure, she says, that “the writer of Exodus takes in the gruesome details.” She retells the miracle performed by Moses when he cured leprosy on his own hand and remarks, “Anyone would listen to a guy who could do that.” Describing the plague of blood, she compares that with our modern-day horror when rust issues from a faucet. The themes in Exodus, she says, “could hardly be more stirring or more beautiful: Oppression and liberation, courage, self-determination: nothing less than the human spirit yearning to break free” as well as “people screwing up, suffering, [and] wandering.” She is convincing her audience to read Exodus again for themselves, or at least to attend closely to her retelling of the tale. She wants her audience to see that the suffering described therein is human, and therefore it is real.
Prose recounts the story of Exodus from a uniquely contemporary point of view. She starts her summary of it by explaining “the Exodus narrative begins by striking an ominous note of political anxiety that will echo until the last chapters,” and she demonstrates that the same kinds of strife, violence, and revenge enacted in Exodus continue in the world today. She compares the discovery of Moses in the bulrushes with the modern practice of choosing the next Dalai Lama or the “back-and-forth let my people go” between Moses and the pharaoh to contemporary “end-stage diplomacy.” The narrative of Moses’ youth is the universal “story of how a hero is chosen and trained.” Prose finds the genocide that God brings down on Egypt when he slays all of their first born in the night (“from the first-born of the Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the first-born of the maid-servant that is behind the mill; and all the first born of beasts”) echoed in present-day ethnic cleansing issued against the Palestinians, Afghans, Hutu, and the Kurds. There are lessons to be learned in Exodus, such as Prose’s observation that “there’s always trouble when one population begins to worry about the birthrate of another.” She confronts her readers with the facts and tells them, “One would have to be totally unconscious not to realize that all this is as true now as it was when Moses was in Egypt.” Once she has established that the story in Exodus is really about “the dark side of human nature,” she understands that, not only does it go on, but also that it was going on even before the events recorded in the Bible transpired.
Among Prose’s readers in The American Scholar, where this was first printed will be people of various religious backgrounds with differing degrees of familiarity with the Bible and the Jewish observance of Passover. Prose explains for some of her readers that part of the Seder, or Jewish Passover feast, includes dipping a finger in wine and placing a drop of it on a plate for each of the plagues over Egypt. She describes the woodcuts in the Haggadah, the book or script for the Passover service, for readers who have never seen the most popular edition of it in America. She lists the ten plagues: “frogs, locusts, boils” as well as lice, flies, blood, hail, fire, the disease of animals, and the deaths of the first-born. The story of Moses’ being spared from the scourge against Hebrew babies is deftly summarized: “Baby Moses is found in the bulrushes and . . . is adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, who knows exactly what she’s doing and hands him off to his mother to nurse and raise.” When Prose tells of the plague upon the Hebrew first-born, one need not be familiar with the Bible at all to grasp the horror of the quotation she twice repeats, “For there was not a house where there was not one dead.” Her point, that the story in Exodus is universal, suggests that it will be of interest to a wide variety of readers.
The audience for this essay, unfortunately, will be well-acquainted with the word “genocide.” It is a commonly used term in international news. From the atrocities of the Indian wars to those of Hitler and Saddam Hussein, genocide continues into the twenty-first century. Prose uses the story in Exodus to demonstrate what is at stake in acts of genocide, namely, “other people’s children.” She says, “It hardly matters who they are, as long as they are not our own.” Harrowingly, she realizes that the slaughter of the first born, “just as easily could have been me.” Knowing readers will realize that is true, not only in Biblical Egypt, but in modern Europe, the Middle East, even North America. Prose argues that Exodus teaches useful lessons about the suffering in the world her readers inhabit.
Prose contrasts her experiences with the story of Exodus, as celebrated during Seder through the text of the Haggadah, and with her later reading of the Bible herself. She describes the ritual evocation of the sacred meal’s details, during which, she says,” Never once, during all those years, during all those Seders, did I think—nor was it pointed out to me—that those plagues had human victims.” Her reading of the Bible, however, teaches her that “Exodus involves a series of bloodbaths—outbreaks of state sponsored and divinely ordained carnage directed principally at children.” Most of the human victims in Exodus, she adds, are civilians. She finds in Exodus the sentence issued by God that forever separates the Israelites from “other nations and tribes,” along with the “detailed protocols” that underlie the Haggadah and the Seder ritual. And finally, she discovers that the story of Exodus contains “genocide without apology,” the most gruesome detail from all of the plagues is the truth about human cruelty toward others.
The narrator traces her experience from the deliciously adult experience of getting “fairly hammered” along with her cousins on Passover wine to her adult response to Exodus. She says, “As a child, I adored the ten plagues,” because during the Seder they are “lovingly listed. . . . And what a glorious list it was! . . . mysterious and thrilling!” The woodcuts in the Haggadah seemed “like watching certain horror films: forbidden and disturbing, therefore sexy and alluring.” However, at the end of her essay, Prose says, she finds the book of Exodus “disturbing and depressing.” The deep nostalgia that the author reveals for her family and the Seders they celebrated together makes it shocking and bittersweet when she proclaims that she will no longer celebrate Passover, will not “dip my fingers in my wine glass and extract sweet drops for the time when my group, my nation, triumphed at terrible cost.” She also says that she does not have to “thank God for . . . killing the Egyptian children, just as God first, presumably, had inspired the Egyptians to attempt to kill the Jews.” Her actions are even more persuasive than her words.
Natalie Angier, “Of Altruism, Heroism, and Evolution’s Gifts”
Written immediately after the 9/11 tragedies, Natalie Angier’s essay begins with the now familiar litany of heroic acts performed by emergency personnel, passengers on the planes that were used as fire bombs, and inhabitants of the buildings impacted. Amid the horror of the day’s occurrences, many people around the world clung to the stories of extraordinary heroism exacted from ordinary citizens to reassure themselves that civilization, as they knew it, had not ended. The stories of heroes also implied something about determinism: the fire-fighters had run up the stairs to death, laden with 70-100 pounds of equipment willingly; the flight attendants used their training to fight attackers armed with box cutters and made contact with ground control, the men on the plane that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania had chosen action and resistance over fear; even those around the country who scrambled to give blood for the injured survivors of the attacks felt the need to respond, to take control of the situation as best they possibly could. The profound sense of helplessness that swept the world in the wake of the 9/11 attacks could only be mitigated by the oft-repeated deliberate acts that countered the unthinkable premeditated and calculated actions of the terrorists. Perhaps that is why Angier’s essay, which originally appeared in The New York Times just a week after the tragedies, was widely circulated on the Internet. It celebrates not just the actions of the day’s heroes, but the impulse toward altruism and heroism of which people needed to be assured still existed.
Although Angier’s essay is written in response to the 9/11 events, it is also about the good and evil in human nature and nature itself that is enduring and unchanging. She cites studies of anthropologists who have examined the behavior of tribes and civilizations where people have consistently behaved toward one another in a manner that is “better than good.” She recounts the work of biologists since Charles Darwin who have recorded evidence of altruism within groups and observed how it can be “turned off toward members of other groups.” The insect and animal world also provide solid evidence of altruistic tendencies; from ants and bees to monkeys, chimpanzees, baboons, and impalas, these innate traits can clearly be seen. Computer simulation studies of herbivores, which have a disturbing tendency to “selfishly consume all of the good in a given patch before moving on,” predict that “symbiotic arrangements, even among different species” are likely to form in successive generations. Thus, cooperation and conflict are inbred; benevolent traits may be part of the genetic material of all living things. Angier’s essay explains, not only the altruistic, heroic behavior the world witnessed on 11 September 2001, but also the previously unimagined atrocious behavior of the attackers; they were a group lashing out at another that they perceived threatened them.
The 9/11 attacks rocked the world. Anyone reading this essay, particularly the “postcards” that Angier uses to preface it, will recall how he or she felt in the immediate aftermath of the most shocking terrorist act in modern history. This essay was published while the streets of New York were still adorned with posters seeking information about missing loved ones, while candles still burned in Washington Square, while survivors still camped outside the charred wall of the Pentagon, and while the skies above North America were eerily clear blue and devoid of jet trails. There was no comedy that week; the late-night talk shows and most of prime-time television was swept off the air by coverage of the attacks and the ensuing rescue efforts. People everywhere were trying to make sense of what they had experienced personally and vicariously, and some had doubts that life could ever return to “normal.” Angier’s essay, like the work of many reporters and journalists during that time, was targeted at a confused and hopeless audience. By telling them that goodness, as well as the tendency of groups to direct evil at others, was inborn in humanity, she could begin to explain what had transpired and offer people hope that the altruistic impulse would prevail.
Angier notes that politicians were quick to attribute the spirit of cooperation here in the United States to the “indomitable spirit of rock-solid America,” while pastors credited “a more celestial source.” Although she admits that “nothing and nobody can fully explain the source of emotional genius that has been everywhere on display,” Angier seems to find comfort in biology, in the evidence that the altruistic impulse is “the birthright and defining characteristic of the human species.” Her essay demonstrates that altruism does not only emerge in a crisis, but that it is necessary for ordinary survival. Evidence of this abounds in nature. Sterile worker bees, for example, labor unstintingly for their queen, their relatives, and their sister worker bees. Even though those selfless bees do not reproduce, the impulse to work and even sacrifice one’s life for the survival of the group perseveres. That, and other examples demonstrate that selflessness naturally triumphs over greed, envy, sloth, and hatred. In fact, evolutionary patterns suggest that integrity is a persistent trait in many species. In this way, Angier explains, not only the actions of the firefighters, passengers on fated planes, and rescue workers, but she also predicts that humanity will soon right itself and all will see that goodness is germane to human character in general.
Like any scientist, Angier calls upon objective research and the opinions of leading authorities to prove her thesis that “Altruism and heroism” are “twin radiant badges of our humanity.” She first describes the work of anthropologists because they study human beings. Language, researchers note, gives humans the unique ability to empathize with people they have never met and to “emulate . . . heroic deeds” known only through stories. It also, of course, allows them to “talk about and ostracize” those who are not one with the group. Humans, animals, and even insects, it turns out, are fiercely loyal and protective of their family members. The family structure of various cultures in the natural world promotes cooperation and survival. Angier presents examples from many insect and animal colonies to prove this point. The cooperation of various species to create “’a mutually beneficial environment’” is, in the words of Dr. Barbara Smuts, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, a “win-win principle.”
Although much of her evidence comes from non-human populations, the essay speaks most highly of the human capacity for altruism. “’There’s a grandness in the human species that is so striking, and so profoundly different from what we see in other animals,’” says Dr. Craig Packer, a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Minnesota. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Dr. James J. Moore, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at San Diego, predicted that “For every 50 people making bomb threats . . . to mosques . . . there are 500,000 people around the world behaving just they way we hoped they would.” Humans, he says, “are amazingly civilized.” In fact, according to Dr. Moore, “We’re the nicest species.”
KURT VONNEGUT, JR., “Harrison Bergeron”
As is often the case with science fiction, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s story “Harrison Bergeron” is a comment on contemporary society, although it is set 140 years in the future from the time it was published. Vonnegut creates a scenario in which the constitutional dictum, “All men are created equal” is carried to its extreme, and gifted or beautiful people are literally disabled by being forced to carry weighted bags to reduce their strength, wear grotesque masks to conceal their beauty, and suffer implants in their brains to disrupt their thinking. The leveling of society reduces its achievements to clumsy dancing, unintelligible television announcers, and inane conversations, such as that between George and Hazel Bergeron, whose dialogue makes up most of the story’s text. The Bergeron’s impassive witnessing of their son’s murder suggests that social interaction would be meaningless, were it not for the differences between human beings.
Harrison Bergeron, whose strength and attractiveness are said to rival those of “Thor, the god of thunder,” is imprisoned when the story begins, but he escapes and takes over the television station. He tears the 300 pounds of disabling implements from his seven-foot frame and challenges a ballerina to do the same and dance with him. When the couple is free of their fetters, they defy more than the equalizing law of the land; they defy gravity, leaping high enough to kiss the thirty foot ceiling in the television studio, and they manage to hang suspended in air through a prolonged kiss. Their superhuman agility and athleticism seems to signify their moral superiority; they alone are wise and brave enough to defy the inhuman proscriptions of their government. However, they are permanently brought down by shotgun blasts. Birdshot, like that which is hung about the necks of their physically able counterparts to slow them down, proves to be the death of the self-declared Emperor and Empress of the society.
As the comment in the textbook points out, this story was published after the repressive Stalinist regime that wiped out thousands of leaders and intellectuals in Russia. Similarly, the Nazis exterminated intellectuals and liberals in concentration camps during World War II, of which Vonnegut himself was a veteran. Vonnegut’s fictive attempts to warn the world of the destructive consequences of attempts to level society, seem to have gone unheeded in the world. Since this story was published, the disastrous era of Mao’s Red Guards in China has passed, when hundreds of thousands of intellectuals and artists were killed or imprisoned in the name of equality.
The story has significance, not only regarding wartime atrocities which annihilate targeted groups. It is also a comment on social conformity on a much more innocuous scale. Vonnegut’s story warns individual readers that their contribution to society is valuable. Nearly everyone in the story has differing talents and gifts, which must be leveled by mechanical means, enforced by Dianna Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General. The enormous waste of such a ridiculous policy and the immeasurable loss to the society described in the story reminds readers to make use of the skills and talents they have.
Dialogue, interrupted by frequent discordant blasts generated by the implant in George’s brain to scramble the thoughts of his superior intellect, comprises much of the story. Hazel’s “average” intelligence is easily assessed by her lack of empathy for George’s suffering with the implant, the simplicity of her thoughts, and the non-standard dialect she uses. Neither of the Bergerons is able to keep a thought in mind long enough to react to it. Even the death of their son is quickly forgotten, and Hazel cannot explain the tears on her cheeks minutes after it has happened. By disrupting communication between people, the government has shut down their functioning. Fittingly, the story ends with Hazel repeating a phrase she has uttered often in the story, “I could tell that one was a doozy.”
Vonnegut’s singular, satiric style is well-known now, even more so than it was in 1961 when this story was first published. He is a master at social criticism conveyed through entertaining fiction, and this story is no exception to that. The specter of ballerinas performing while burdened by sashweights, birdshot, and cumbersome masks is hilarious to imagine. Only a government with too much power and a misguided sense of justice could command such a thing. The romantic imagery used to describe Harrison Bergeron’s gravity-defying dance with his ballerina Empress is exaggerated for humor, and as a contrast with the tragic deaths both suffer for their insubordination. With outlandish humor, Vonnegut conveys serious criticism about governmental policies and actions that seek to limit the aspirations and activities of intellectuals under their rule.