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Matrioshka: Moby-Dick, Ahab, Queequeg, Daggoo, Tashtego, Queequeg’s coffin, Ishmael

April 5, 2011 Leave a comment

OK, I’ma put this out there again to get it out of my head: Harry/Voldemort is so obvious that in the book Voldemort’s always already inside Harry. But if you were to rewrite HP from Voldemort’s perspective, a la Wicked, the story would turn out to be Moby Dick, right down to Voldemort’s business, which involves killing people like Harry as a form of routine work.

So here’s the plot synopsis: Voldemort exploits and rends the world as is his wont until in a surprising and ill-fated moment the world resists, and he nearly dies. Years later he obsessively works to conquer this one wrinkle in his otherwise perfect rapacious record. He seeks intelligence of the enemy, he gathers his forces, girds up his body, and confronts again, but he has not adequately understood his place in the drama. Inexplicably again, from his perspective, he fails and dies, condemning all who are with him to endless perdition. Only latecomer Draco Malfoy, meanest of the crew and tutored in humble observation by the bluster of his father, is left to tell the tale. Which he does, with many side discourses on the refreshing vistas presented to young minds by obsessive destruction, the methods of totalitarianism, the majestic power of the werewolf death eaters, the strange and blurry lines between themselves and other monsters, muggles and muggle-friendly wizards, and the uncanny blank blackness of the dementors.

On the flipside, a young whale, marked twice by albinism and scars, is targeted by a strange reaver of the sea, scourge of all whale-kind. Unable to run, he turns and fights the tarred and bannered enemy and miraculously, bizarrely, survives, ingesting in the process the enemy’s leg, which speaks to him ever after of its owner’s hate. He knows from that moment he is marked, and that defense is unknown to his kind against such a foe. He avoids the society of other whales, since he has over him the revenge-genius of the thwarted man. Years later, and after many rumours of the man’s passage, he faces the revenant Ahab and is injured again, but this time he turns on the ship and destroys it, freeing all whale-kind from the tyranny of Ahab’s iron. Moby-Dick, the whale who lived.

Remembering the onion skin logic* of Sandy Petersen’s essay on Call of Cthulhu campaigns, I’m tempted to make a matrioshka of Shadows of Yog-Sothoth or Masks of Nyarlathotep. In each case the denouement scene is the outermost layer: the final mystery is the small beginning – a meeting with an old family friend IIRC.

* Update: from Wikipedia’s CoC page – Sandy Petersen introduced the concept of the Onion Skin: Interlocking layers of information and nested clues that lead the Player Characters from seemingly minor investigations into a missing person to discovering mind-numbingly awful, global conspiracies to destroy the world. …[In] Shadows of Yog-Sothoth… the characters come upon a secret society’s foul plot to destroy mankind, and pursue it first near to home and then in a series of exotic locations.
Sandy says (more or less) that the investigation should start with small occurrences and that each subsequent clue should reveal a larger and more awful mystery, so that at each point of successful resolution the PCs get a strong sense of also getting in deeper over their heads. So that with success comes dread, regarding the next revelation. 

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Speculations about Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

April 4, 2011 Leave a comment
It’s really very good, especially if you’ve read the originals, but even I think if you haven’t. Here

Now, my speculations: which are mostly not about the characters themselves, but about the world.

1. That whole business about magic draining out of the world just isn’t true. Instead it’s waiting to be revealed as an example of how bad we all are at assessing noisy systems (like, for instance, ecological change). I think this because: Harry accepted the idea from Malfoy as an a priori assumption; the total dataset for assessing loss of magic is nugatory; the argument in favour of loss of magic is “we can’t do what Merlin did and we can’t do stuff the founders of Hogwarts did,” which commits the fallacy of equating the high points of all time in a noisy system with the current moment, and/or discounting teamwork.

2. Harry’s idea, that magic came originally from Atlantis or similar, and that there’s some antediluvian technological source for it, will be shown to be false. Partly because it’s built on his false assumption above, partly because sinking status* systems suck, but are useful for maintaining rigid hierarchies based on lineage (note that the Malfoys are devotees of this worldview) and partly because it is established early on that people are still making up new magics. But mostly because magic phrases are mostly dog Latin, which suggests they were dreamed up some time after the fall of Rome, which would be a really cool moment for the fall of Atlantis but would likely break suspension of disbelief, unless some equally cool conspiracy theory could be concocted for how it might not have leaked into all our ancient literature.

3. At some stage there will be a vindication of Dumbledore, and some sort of idea of wisdom will creep into the narrative that is not merely a sophisticated modeling of probable outcomes. I have no real evidence to support this, except that every other author ever seems to have pulled this move at some point, and Dumbledore as a character cries out for it: if there is nothing non-computable to wisdom, there is no need for this enjoyable character.

4. If the political debate of the last couple of chapters is resolved in the narrative in any way (if harry becomes powerful in the wizarding world or makes some rational decision to eschew political power, for instance) the resolution will be anti-paternalistic, and probably either anarchistic or libertarian – at least superficially. Non-violent political action aimed at reform will be valorized (I’m not sure if that non-violence will extend to dementors and/or Death Eaters, BTW). The extreme difficulty of pulling this off after so many homilies on human nature makes me sceptical of any such resolution happening, however. Azkaban will probably be demolished, if only because it’s a wish that I don’t think our author can leave unfulfilled.

5. OK fine, character time: Bellatrix was rescued at least partly for the reason Dumbledore fears. Quirrell is not Voldemort, neither does he channel/carry Voldemort in any supernatural sense, but Voldemort is somehow working through him, perhaps simply by persuasion or manipulation. Malfoy will at some point prove a more rigourous scientist than Harry and will reject Voldemortism, possibly to his doom in classic antiheroic fashion. Unless it is revealed that the image we have all received of Voldemort has been a massive distortion all along and he’s either being evil to battle some further evil or merely a scapegoat for other, better-entrenched political players. Somehow the ways in which the canon HP series is haunted by WW2 will be explicitly explored.

* I am frankly astounded that a pervasive anthropological concept like “sinking status system” does not have its own Wikipedia page. How can this be? Oliver Wolters likewise languishes in wiki-obscurity, and is rather misleadingly identified as a historian. At least John Furnivall is not entirely missing, although I’d call his article a “stub.” For the curious, sinking status systems are common among “traditional” societies across SE Asia. Under them, a polity is imagined to have declined from some past, better state. This decline is measured in generations or similar of removal from that better time (often these generations are imagined as lineages – people on the direct line of succession are said to have declined less than people removed from that line). Very often, the origin of the polity is said to be elsewhere: decline began when the polity split off from the progenitor group and has continued without hope of improvement ever since. Where there is hope of a restoration of grandeur, it lies with those closest to the least-declined lineage or, even more typically, with some secret scion of the least-declined line, unsuspected by the powerful, who holds the true kernel of prowess.

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