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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Is Dumbledore Gay? A case of (retroactive?) authorial intention

Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/30/07 at 03:28 AM

Wrting in the New York Times, Edward Rothstein wonders whether or not, despite J. K. Rowling’s assertion, Dumbledore is gay:

But it is possible that Ms. Rowling may be mistaken about her own character. She may have invented Hogwarts and all the wizards within it, she may have created the most influential fantasy books since J. R. R. Tolkien, and she may have woven her spell over thousands of pages and seven novels, but there seems to be no compelling reason within the books for her after-the-fact assertion. Of course it would not be inconsistent for Dumbledore to be gay, but the books’ accounts certainly don’t make it necessary. The question is distracting, which is why it never really emerges in the books themselves. Ms. Rowling may think of Dumbledore as gay, but there is no reason why anyone else should.

Yadda yadda, and then:

The master wizard is not a sexual being; he has shelved personal cares and embraced a higher mission. And if he indulges in sex, it marks his downfall, as it did, so legend tells us, with Merlin, the tradition’s first wizard, who is seduced by one of the Lady of the Lake’s minions. Tolkien’s wizards — both good and evil — are so focused on their cosmic tasks that sexuality seems a petty matter. Gandalf eventually transcends the physical realm altogether.

Ms. Rowling quite consciously makes Dumbledore a flawed, more human wizard than these models, but now goes too far. There is something alien about the idea of a mature Dumbledore being called gay or, for that matter, being in love at all. He may have his earthly difficulties and desires, but in most ways he remains the genre wizard, superior to the world around him.

I’ve not read any of the books and I’ve seen, perhaps, a movie and a half. So I don’t have an opinion on the matter.


Comments

Tomemos did a good job of discussing the bemusement he felt after Rowling’s announcement here. This is a great example of the problems with literary intentionalism.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/30/07 at 03:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t understand tomemos’s argument.  Imagine the following conversation:

A:  Bob, do you remember when we met at Chris’s funeral?
B:  Of course.
A:  You told me that he was gay?
B: That’s right.
A: Well Bob I went back over Chris’s life following your revelation, and I have to say, it just ain’t there … there’s no indication that there was anything between Chris and his many male friends besides intellectual admiration.
B: He never had sex, it’s true.  But, Alan I have to tell you, I knew Chris really really well, better than you did, and I can tell you he was gay.
A: Well, I don’t believe you.

Gay-ness surely isn’t like having freckles.  It’s an orientation, a parsing of one’s desires, not a brute fact of being.  The word ‘homosexual’ describes a set of acts, not an individual’s essence (individuals don’t have essences).  In the absense of those acts—in the case of a man who elects not to have the sex with other men he desires to have, for whatever reason—there’s nothing integral to indicate gayness.  Gay men and women come in all imaginable flavours and varieties.  It seems to me essentialist to say otherwise.  I mean: what would you say to somebody who declared ‘I can always tell who’s a homosexual, just by looking at them …’?  (Apart from ‘how? Are you carrying Gaydar?’)

By Adam Roberts on 10/30/07 at 04:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve not read any of the books and I’ve seen, perhaps, a movie and a half. So I don’t have an opinion on the matter.

Do you need to have read the books to have an opinion? Hasn’t The Author been dead for decades now?

By David Moles on 10/30/07 at 05:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

We have covered this at Unfogged. Someone was claiming that Rowland’s pronouncements about the characters have no more authority than any other reader’s pronouncements. The books exist independently of her. Others were claiming that the characters in the Harry Potter books are not real, but fictional. My theory is that Potterphiles are honky crack babies.

By John Emerson on 10/30/07 at 07:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The master wizard is not a sexual being; he has shelved personal cares and embraced a higher mission.

WTF? He extrapolates from a data set of...three? And having sexual desires (let alone being sexed) = “flawed”? Thanks for the glimpse into your psyche, Rothstein. (screws on his medievalist cap) He might have cited, oh, some of the work of Philippe Walter (e.g., Walter, Philippe. “Merlin, le loup et saint Blaise.” Mediaevistik 11 (1998): 97-111), where we can see Merlin, if not sexual, then at least terrifying and queer. And, if he wants a so-called master wizard motivated by sexual desires, he could have turned to the excellent Roman de Perceforest, where we have masterwizard Zephir play a standard medieval wizard role--the go-between--and where Lydoire, certainly a sexually desiring being, transforms one of her enemies into a bear (for discussion, see Sylvia Hout, Postcolonial Fictions in the Roman de Perceforest: Cultural Identities and Hybridities, D. S. Brewer, 2007).

For example.

(I won’t get into the novels. I read the first two and found they didn’t rise much above the school fiction described by Orwell in one of his essays, and have never seen the movies)

By Karl Steel on 10/30/07 at 07:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Gay men and women come in all imaginable flavours and varieties.  It seems to me essentialist to say otherwise.

Isn’t it essentialist to say that there are gay men and women? Didn’t Foucault argue that “gayness”, however defined, was an unnecessary category, like “warty people” or “cabbage eaters” or “people with large feet”?

That is to say, some people have warts and some don’t, but “warty people” is a useless category unless you’re a dermatologist, or if you’re trying to stigmatize that group for some reason.  So “gay” would just mean “anyone who has ever participated in any of a broad category of same-sex sex acts and/or romantic relationships, or who has wanted to do so”.

By John Emerson on 10/30/07 at 07:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that this is a good example of the problems with denying a certain degree of literary intentionalism, actually.  If a living author gives an interview about their book, I think that it in some sense can be regarded as an unofficial appendix to that book.  After all, it is completely within Rowling’s capabilities to issue a second, revised edition of the last book in the series, if she wanted to, to make Dumbledore’s gayness more obvious.

You can say that Rowling was a bad writer for not making it more apparent within the books themselves, but I don’t see why she should have.  Dumbledore being gay is the kind of character point that authors often think about when creating their characters but that don’t make it explicitly into the book.  It came up when Rowling was asked to approve a script for a movie that would have conflicted with it.  I think that McGonagall, say, could very well be a closeted gay character, but there’s nothing in the structure of the book that would cause her to admit this to the other characters.

Perhaps Rowling should have made it more obvious as a sort of politicocultural statement—but I think that this one may actually be a wash, in terms of increasing public acceptance of homosexuality.  Dumbledore is gay, sure, but he’s had a horrible romantic and sexual life, falling in love with one guy who turns out to be wrong for him, and who he later has to fight, and apparently not having any other involvement with sexuality in his life.  It’s the equivalent of how in many fictions the gay character is always the first one to die, or is otherwise martyred, given authorial permission to be gay only if they make sure not to enjoy it too much or for too long a time.

And the Rothstein article is all wrong, and has a mildly homophobic tone.  Dumbledore isn’t some wizard who needs to remain celebate through life resolutely not having fun in order to concentrate on the great fight against Voldemort, etc., etc.  I mean, this is not a person depicted as never having fun, or as being against it in the way that some of the other characters are.

By on 10/30/07 at 08:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, Adam, the difference is that, in your example Chris is a real person, while Dumbledore is a fictional character.  So while Chris exists outside of Alan’s memories, Dumbledore does not exist outside of the Harry Potter books.  (Or, if he does, then Rowling’s assertion that he was gay is no more authoritative than a fanfic saying that Harry and Draco slept together.)

Furthermore, this:

“there’s no indication that there was anything between Chris and his many male friends besides intellectual admiration”

...is not a parallel case.  Rowling specifically stated that Dumbledore was in love with Grindelwald.  So it isn’t just a matter of looking at his male friendships; it’s a matter of seeing if there was something romantic or sexual hinted about that friendship.

Of course, your example is itself a fiction, in which Alan, Bob, and Chris are equally real or fictional.  Rowling is real, and she didn’t just “know Dumbledore a lot better than [you/we] did,” she created him on the page.  That’s what we look at to determine who and what he was.

By tomemos on 10/30/07 at 04:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I found an interesting survey that discusses Rowling outing Dumbledore, it’s definitely worth a look.

http://blog.globaltestmarket.com/2007/10/26/fun-online-survey-is-albus-dumbledore-gay/

By Jensen on 10/30/07 at 04:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve only read the first HP novel, so I don’t know how plausible Rowling’s claim is on the basis of the textual evidence.  But I think I am, at least tentatively, in some sympathy with Rich’s suggestion that, now that she has provided this back story, it stands as a kind of appendix that has to affect (though not limit) how the novels are interpreted.  Don’t we often, in teaching fiction, provide contextual material, including, in some cases, information about authorial ideas or intentions, that then gives interpretive significance or life to details of the text that otherwise might have been inert?  I’m thinking, for instance, of the information I give my own classes about George Eliot’s philosophical interests and theory of fiction.  Once you are aware of her “intention” to instantiate these ideas in her novels, plenty of relevant things “emerge from the books themselves” that might not be explicitly evident--we read the books differently as a result, even if we don’t assume her intentions limit what’s in them, or even that she realized those intentions.  And we might even consider it a failure of scholarship not to know about them, and a misinterpretation not to consider them, in some way, as shaping ideas in the books. I suppose this is a more diffuse effect than pointing to a particular character and making claims about his or her life off-stage, or in the planning stages, but I’m not sure it’s altogether different--so I don’t quite buy Rothstein’s assertion that “Ms. Rowling may think of Dumbledore as gay, but there is no reason why anyone else should.” Now, about Mr. Brooke and Ladislaw…

By Rohan Maitzen on 10/30/07 at 06:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan Maitzen clarifies something that I haven’t really understood about this issue as brought up.  Isn’t it routine in literary studies to consider what authors have said about their works?  Death of the author aside, I can’t in practise really imagine an interpretation of Eliot, Joyce, or Nabokov (to pick three of the first examples I thought of) that doesn’t rely at all on anything that they wrote about their works rather than within their works.  They shaped the formation of the interpretive communities around their works from the beginning, didn’t they?  It seems like Rowling should get the same chance, in an admittedly pop art vs high art way.

By on 10/30/07 at 07:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, no one is saying that authors don’t actually have intentions, or that they are to remain quiet between canonical writings.  Speaking personally, I don’t have any problem with Rowling, or Joyce, or anybody saying whatever they like about their work.  Sometimes it’s interesting to read, sometimes not, and sometimes it’s a strong reading of their work and sometimes not, but it’s certainly their right, and it very often adds an interesting element to the discussion.

The problem is that way too many people will use authorial statements to end discussion: the author has said it, and lo, it is so.  Joseph can attest that he and I were once locked in a very frustrating conversation with an earnest young man who believed that, since Joyce supposedly said that he had written Ulysses just to confound scholars for generations and thus cement his immortality (I’ve seen this quote, I just can’t find it with Google right now), it was fallacious to read any “real” meaning in the book.  But why should Joyce’s statement be taken as, pardon the pun, authoritative, any more than the book itself is?  Did Joyce put on the “now I am telling the truth” hat when he said that?  Are Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land to be taken with a totally straight face, just after we finished reading the poem with the properly modernist ironic detachment?

The other problem is that sometimes apocryphal statements become used in this same way.  I had someone tell me once that R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” is meant to be taken as a joke, and that Michael Stipe said so himself.  I don’t think he did, maybe I’m wrong, but does it matter?  To my mind he either wrote an effective, moving song about pain, or he wrote an extremely ineffective parody song about it.  Obviously anyone would prefer the first interpretation.

By tomemos on 10/30/07 at 08:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

tomemos: “The problem is that way too many people will use authorial statements to end discussion: the author has said it, and lo, it is so.”

I don’t think that are really too many people who now defend either extreme (authorial statements mean everything, or authorial statements mean nothing).  If you eliminate both of those, of course you’re still left with a large range of ideas about how they work.

The problem with the earnest young man in question appears to me that he’s earnest in the sense that he’s not reading Joyce within the primary Joyce-interpreting community, which does not seem to believe that Ulysses has no real meaning.  Instead, he’s picked on one particular factoid of uncertain truthfulness, and used that as the key to Joyce.  That pretty much seems like a guaranteed to be poor interpretive practise whatever your attitude towards authorial statements is.  So I’m left wondering whether the problem is with the authorial statement as itself, or the presumed quality of the interpretive practises that will be used on it.

That said, I have a strong supposition that if an author asserts a matter of fact or basic characterization about their book (i.e. “Dumbledore is gay") and there isn’t good reason to think that they’re joking, being flippant, etc., that it should be presumed to be part of any good / educated interpretation of that work.  To be argued against, possibly, of course.

By on 10/30/07 at 08:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I have a strong supposition that if an author asserts a matter of fact or basic characterization about their book (i.e. “Dumbledore is gay") and there isn’t good reason to think that they’re joking, being flippant, etc., that it should be presumed to be part of any good / educated interpretation of that work.”

I guess I’d say that the standard for an author’s reading should be the same as the standard for any other reading: a foundation in the text.  I would never suggest that Rowling is being untruthful when she says that she “thought of” Dumbledore as gay, but no one has convinced me that just the statement--as opposed to the special Dumbledore Pride edition you mentioned--makes Dumbledore into a gay character, or even amounts to an argument that he is gay.  When Leslie Fiedler argued that there is homoeroticism between Huck and Jim, he based his argument on Huckleberry Finn. It is unreasonable to hold Rowling to a weaker standard, one which amounts to no standard at all.

By tomemos on 10/30/07 at 08:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t got any idea how many millions of people have read at least one of the books or seen one of the movies; it’s likely 100s of millions. That is to say, it’s alot.

Until Rowling’s statement, how many of them thought that Dumbledore was gay? Does that piece of information alter their pleasure in the books & movies, or, as the case may be, their dislike or mere boredom? The material has been out there for about a decade and made its way in the world without this information. I’d like to know how & why that happened. It’s not at all clear to me this one assertion has much bearing on that question.

By Bill Benzon on 10/30/07 at 09:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"When Leslie Fiedler argued that there is homoeroticism between Huck and Jim, he based his argument on Huckleberry Finn. It is unreasonable to hold Rowling to a weaker standard, one which amounts to no standard at all.”

That doesn’t really make sense to me.  If Twain had written that there was homoeroticism between Huck and Jim (using whatever terminology of his day needed to express this idea, presumably), then I’d pretty much assume that there was.  I completely don’t get the idea that it’s unreasonable to hold Rowling to a weaker standard—she created the characters.  You can disagree with her about what the work means, or what being gay means, or whether the assertion was apaprent in or necessary to the work, but I don’t see the magical distinction between words that Rowling writes down that later become part of a text labelled Deathly Hallows and words that Rowling writes down that later become part of a text labelled “authorial commentary on Deathly Hallows“.  I mean, I do see some distinctions, of course, but not those that are important in terms of the author asserting supposed facts about the characters.

By on 10/31/07 at 12:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

”...but I don’t see the magical distinction between words that Rowling writes down that later become part of a text labelled Deathly Hallows and words that Rowling writes down that later become part of a text labelled ‘authorial commentary on Deathly Hallows‘.”

Well, mainly it’s that one of them isn’t Deathly Hallows, I think.

If twenty years from now Rowling becomes born again and says Dumbledore wasn’t actually gay, and by the way all the good magic performed by her witches and wizards was through the miraculous intercession of God, and all the bad magic through the power of the Devil, what happens to the “facts” then?

I would argue: nothing. What Rowling says about the characters, external to the text, is nondisprovable. It may change some readers’ interpretations and may not change others (as you can see happening anywhere Potter fans are arguing about this), but it can’t change the text. And even if she revises the text, that just produces a different text.

Now personally I’m a big “Pierre Menard, author of ‘Don Quixote’” fan, so I enjoy reading a text in terms of what I know about the author, but I don’t think that makes the author’s preferred interpretation anything more than the author’s preferred interpretation.

By David Moles on 10/31/07 at 01:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, when you say “I’d like to know how and why that happened,” do you mean how and why this statement of Rowling’s altered various readers’ pleasure (or lack of it) in the books?

By David Moles on 10/31/07 at 01:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich--

I don’t know if this is a point in its favor, but I feel like my argument opens the fewest worm-cans.  You write:

You can disagree with her about what the work means…

Well, how, by your standard?  At any time she could come out and say something about that, too; plenty of authors do that all the time, sometimes contradicting themselves.  What if she definitively says that a character isn’t gay, or that the work definitely doesn’t mean something--are those readings disqualified, or does the equation only go one way?  What if her interviews say one thing, but her diary (discovered years after her death) says another--do the penalties offset, or is the diary taken to be what she really thought?

Also, the “she created the characters” argument is simple now, but won’t be if someone writes a new Harry Potter adventure generations from now.  “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” gives us a character who is definitely Sherlock Holmes, but definitely wasn’t written by Arthur Conan Doyle.  So, did Holmes use cocaine, or not?  Did he use it in Doyle’s novels, or just in the later book?

By tomemos on 10/31/07 at 03:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

David: I mean (sardonically, ironicly): “How ever on earth did people get on with HP without knowing that Dumbledore was gay?” It is by no means obvious to me that HP has become sufficiently embedded in our literary culture that any or all of the books-movies will survive to become “classics,” but they’re certainly meant a great deal to a good many people, and they accomplished that without an explicit assertion of or denial of Dumbledore being gay.

I rather imagine that someone has already made the argument that Hamlet was gay. But, what if we found a diary page or some such thing in Shakespeare’s hand (not that we’d actually recognize his hand, but let’s just suppose) saying that Hamlet was gay. How would that alter literary history?

By Bill Benzon on 10/31/07 at 05:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

tomemos (about what the work means): “At any time she could come out and say something about that, too; plenty of authors do that all the time, sometimes contradicting themselves.”

I’m not saying that any single authorial statement is the key to all interpretation—that’s the error of the earnest young man who wrote about earlier.  People are perfectly free to ignore authorial statements more and more the more they contradict themselves, or the text.

David Moles: “If twenty years from now Rowling becomes born again [...]”

But for that example you appear to be using authorial biography to impeach authorial statements.  Which seems to me to be common, and accepted, among people who put any weight on authorial statements in the first place.

Let me go from negative argument to a positive idea of how this works.  Essentially, I think that an author has a window of time after publication in which to affect the interpretive community that grows up around their work (if their work is sufficiently important / popular enough to have one, of course).  It’s still soon enough after publication for Rowling to say “Dumbledore was gay” and have it stick.  But after the interpretive community has itself had time to write, it becomes progressively more difficult to modify the interpretation of the text through authorial statements or even rewrites—to stick to pop culture, try Greedo shot first

I think that answers why the 20-years-later religious conversion or the diary or letter found in the authors posthumous papers or the later addition to the “universe” by another author aren’t really as large a challenge as they seem.  These things can affect the primary reading of the work, but usually only if they improve on or match the existing reading (for instance, Holmes was written to have been a cocaine and morphine user in the original books, so thinking of him as suffering from addiction at some time isn’t much of a stretch.)

As for Bill Benzon’s deprecation of why this matters, I don’t understand that either.  Certainly it doesn’t “matter” in any formal sense.  But if you’re interested in response of a community to a text, then of course it matters.  I would guess that if you plotted, Moretti-style, instances of <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slash_fiction">slash</a> fanfic involving Dumbledore, you’d see a big upswing now that it’s arguably canon.

By on 10/31/07 at 09:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, the Greedo example is interesting because it corresponds, not to Rowling’s statements, but to the notional revised edition--We’re Here, We’re Queer, We’re Gryffindor--that you mentioned earlier.  It’s essentially a crasser version of the revisions a writer like Henry James made in his early work.

…Holmes was written to have been a cocaine and morphine user in the original books…

I worried that that would be the case.  Whoops.  You get my point, in any event.

By tomemos on 10/31/07 at 11:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich – We can make whatever arguments we want to make about the relevance of Rowling’s remark. Unless there’s a way to amplify our remarks, and hers, so it has a substantial effect on millions of readers and movie-goers, those arguments are irrelevant to the process by which HP works its way through the culture. That process is what interests me.

I kind of doubt that it will have much effect on the attitudes of people who’ve already read the books, seen the movies. Maybe a flurry of consternation and wonder here and there. And then it will die down. We’ll see.

Don’t know much about slash fanfic, but I didn’t think that the actual gayness of the characters mattered much. For example, I don’t believe there’s evidence within canon that either Spock or Kirk are gay, but that hasn’t prevented Spock/Kirk fanfic from flourishing. Etc.

By Bill Benzon on 10/31/07 at 04:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think what’s necessary is to make a distinction between J. K. Rowling’s intentions when she wrote the HP books, and the HP books themselves, which are a product of (among other things) those intentions, but not identical to those intentions.

The reason it’s necessary to do this, in this among other instances, is to acknowledge that there can be a gap between intentions and results - in other words, you can fail sometimes.  Samuel R. Delaney on this:

SRD: No. As in Triton, in Dhalgren you’re not supposed to identify. There too, you’re supposed to look at the protagonist from the outside. It’s amazing, of course, how many such books backfire. Flaubert thought Emma was a pretty, immoral fool—and wrote Madame Bovary to expose her. And Tolstoy did not want his readers to identify with Natasha or Anna: he felt they were charming, but fundamentally immoral women, who destroyed the people around them until they destroyed, or all but destroyed, themselves; once his books were published, he was horrified when people were “taken in” by that charm and fell in love with his leading ladies! Well, a few people—both men and women, incidentally—have come up to me and confided: “Bron Helstrom—c’est moi” [shrugs].

(from http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/interviews/delany52interview.htm)

In this particular case, I believe Rowling when she says she thought of Dumbledore as gay - that is, I think it’s a true statement about her intentions, not a joke or a mystification.  That doesn’t mean Dumbledore “shows up” as gay, according to the practices of the relevant interpretive communities, in the text.  Which is to say that Rowling unsuccessfully carried off her intentions.  (Unless her intentions, in a more nuanced account than the one she gives, were to write Dumbledore as so subtly gay that you need an extra hint to see that.)

Speaking of, now that one has the hint, one goes back over everything in the books and sees everything Dumbledore does or says as gay.  Such is the discursive power of the regime of sexual identity.

By on 10/31/07 at 06:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

David Moles: “If twenty years from now Rowling becomes born again [...]”

But for that example you appear to be using authorial biography to impeach authorial statements.

Not at all; I was just trying to come up with a plausible scenario for her making such a statement.

By David Moles on 11/01/07 at 02:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, there isn’t really a plausible scenario for her making such a statement other than the kind of life-changing biographical event that tends to make people think that further statements from the author are no longer really from the same person who wrote the earlier works.  Alternatively, I suppose, some kind of Christofascist regime could force her to recant.  But I think that people generally don’t have a problem distinguishing between the era in an author’s life when they wrote something and their opinions after some important intervening event.

By on 11/01/07 at 06:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This revelation was actually previewed in this video.

Dumbledore is in there- Can you find him?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAeT4Il7V2U

By on 11/03/07 at 05:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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