Harry Potter, Draco Malfoy, and two interpretations of Nietzsche’s Superman

29 Sep

Sometimes when I write stuff like this, I think, “God, I must really be on drugs.”

But good drugs, right?

“Good” guys and “bad” guys

As I finished Prisoner of Azkaban, I couldn’t help but be struck by the apparent black-and-whiteness of the Harry Potter world. Granted, we are inside the point of view of Harry, but there does seem to be a clear delineation of good guys and bad guys. Harry, despite his penchant for disobeying rules, is one of the good guys. And his rival Draco Malfoy is written clearly as one of the bad guys. Draco is a wizard, just as Harry is, and a student at Hogwarts, just as Harry is, and in that sense, they are both part of the same group. But there is an invisible line cutting through the Magic world, and as readers, we are just waiting for the day Draco and his family will clearly tip their hand on the side of Voldemort.

Now coming from the Buffy world that runs thick with shades of gray, you might think this good-evil dichotomy is a flaw in Rowling’s work. The real world isn’t so black and white. Not only is this a metaphysical fantasy full of magic and odd creatures, it’s a moral fantasy, like Star Wars–you are told who to root for and who to boo-hiss by the color of their hats, metaphorically speaking.

But is Malfoy really all that unrealistic?

Malfoy is depicted by Rowling as arrogant, self-involved, and spoiled–the sort of person who believes he’s entitled to things simply because he comes from a rich pure-blood family that has always been privileged. He also doesn’t believe he should suffer any consequences for his actions. Indeed, when he does things that have negative consequences, he blames others, as when he blamed the Hippogriff that attacked him when he was explicitly taught how to approach the animal and warned not to insult it, which of course he did immediately as if nothing would happen to him.

When they meet in Philosopher’s Stone, the wizard celebrity Harry Potter rejects Malfoy’s offer to become one of Malfoy’s select group of privileged friends and instead befriends a poor pure-blood and a “mudblood.” From that point on, Malfoy takes every opportunity to make Harry look bad, and to downplay any of Harry’s rewards or triumphs.

Malfoy does a great deal of what he does to Harry out of resentment–Harry has what he wants and thinks he deserves, but can’t quite seem to get.

Nietzsche’s Superman

And this is where we get to the Nietzsche bits, specifically, Nietzsche’s idea of the “Superman” or “Overman.” A Nietzschean Superman isn’t an invulnerable guy who flies around in tights and a cape. Think of him or her more as the ultimate self-actualized individual. The Nietzschean Superman is an individual who rejects the values of traditional Western society, with its veneration of weakness and frightened “herd” instincts. In the “herd morality” of Western tradition, “good” is whatever is good for the “herd”. The Superman, in contrast, is an individual who creates his or her own values. S/he is strong, proud, creative, self-defined. The Superman acts out of his/her own essence or nature, and has an instinct for freedom–the instinct to express that individuality in action, whatever form that action might take. Nietzsche calls this expression the “Will to Power.”

Draco as the false Superman

Draco Malfoy is an individual who fancies himself a Superman but who in actuality lacks the talent of and capacity for self-expression of the true Superman. This “false Superman” turns himself into a bully, staging cowardly attacks against the true Superman, the talented individual who the false Superman feels is beneath contempt for not being part of his “select group”.

The false Superman wants what the true Superman has because he believes himself to be the “true” Superman. He has ultimate faith in his own entitlement, not because he has the talent for it or the intelligence–he doesn’t–but because he is rich or of the “right race” or something else that is actually completely irrelevant to actual merit. The false Superman is part of a group that has always been privileged, and he expects those same privileges whether he truly deserves them or not. This is the sort of behavior you see in groups like the Klu Klux Klan, for example–a group of people who feel a sense of entitlement simply because they are White. When they see people of Color making strides–gaining power and advantages that were once theirs alone–they attack. It doesn’t matter that the person of Color got a job in favor of the White candidate because s/he was more qualified and deserving. The racist believes s/he is more deserving, and that the person of Color got what he or she got through manipulation, “discriminatory” affirmative action, or some other unmerited means.

Readers who know the history of Nietzsche’s philosophy might find my use of White supremacists as examples of “the false Superman” interesting because Nietzsche’s philosophy is often associated with Nazism (which he predated by about thirty years). The Nazis adopted Nietzsche’s philosophy of the Superman as their own and Nietzsche himself initially expressed some anti-Semitism and had dreams of a German state built on the shoulders of his Superman. But he eventually decided that the Germany he knew was really more characteristic of what I am calling “the false Superman.” The proto-Nazi ideas of his own time, he came to believe, were not how he envisioned the true Superman achieving success.

The false Superman is false, therefore, because s/he pretends to the characteristics of the true Superman, and in actuality shows many of the characteristics of the “herd.” The herd is a group that defines itself in relation to an external threat. In the “herd mentality,” good and evil are understood in terms of “us” vs. “them.” Individuals who see themselves falsely as the Superman believe they are trying to protect their “superiority” from “base” outsiders. But their behavior is herd behavior.

The Nazis were a herd who incorrectly saw themselves as the “truly deserving Master Race taking what they wanted from the undeserving”–but they were in fact themselves the undeserving, with more capacity for cruelty than talents of the truly “superior.” Likewise, Draco Malfoy comes from a group of Magic families that define themselves in relation to a “threatening” “other.” Wizards like the Malfoy family see Muggles as a threat. The majority of people in world are, after all, Muggles. And Muggles rule the world at the highest levels of power, while witches and wizards are forced into hiding to protect themselves from persecution at the hands of Muggles.

But you won’t see the Malfoys acting like a “self-pitying persecuted minority.” On the contrary: they see themselves as superior to Muggles, as the ones who should have power in the world. An expression of “the Will to Power”? Not really. It’s the herd mentality.

The false Superman craves power, but because s/he cannot get it through the expression of natural, inborn talents and capacities, s/he will use whatever other means is available to get it. The true Superman, in contrast, rises naturally to power and wealth (not just wealth in the financial sense, but wealth in the sense of quality of life) because of his or her talent.

The false Superman not only defines himself in opposition to the “other” (e.g., Muggles), but often in opposition to the true Superman (i.e., seeing the true Superman as part of the “other”–as when Malfoy feels compelled to point out that Harry’s mother was a mudblood). The false Superman is seething with resentment, and strives to take away the advantages, power, and wealth of the true Superman by any means necessary.

Two interpretations of Nietzsche

Those familiar with Nietzsche might notice that I’m giving Nietzsche a rather sympathetic interpretation, because the Nietzschean Superman is often depicted as an individual who is not only “strong and proud, creating his own values,” but “without pity and with no tolerance for the weak.” In other words, on one interpretation of Nietzsche, the Superman can look like a bully, picking on those weaker than him to his own advantage. You can see Draco Malfoy as the true Superman under this interpretation, struggling to get what he wants–privileges and power in the Wizard world–while Harry is the false Superman, taking pity on the weak and helpless and protecting members of his own little “herd” from people like Malfoy.

But remember what your father told you the day you came home with a bloody nose because the neighborhood bully beat you up. “Next time, hit him back. He’s more afraid of you than you are of him. That’s why he does the things he does. You have to stand up to him.” Deep down, Malfoy is weak. He’s been brought up in comfortable privilege, without having to work for the goodies he got, and without having to face the consequences of his actions. When he doesn’t get what he wants, he complains and acts out. He picks on those he perceives as weak (but who may actually be stronger than him, just not nearly as volatile and willing to pick fights with others).

Rowling put Crabbe and Goyle at Malfoy’s side from the moment Malfoy entered the first novel for a reason. They’re Malfoy’s bodyguards, his fists. He’s the bully who surrounds himself with protection and sends others to do his dirty work for him. And when that doesn’t work, Malfoy will stoop to whatever dirty tricks he can to unseat rival Harry (and that was literally “unseat”, when Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle dressed as fake Dementors at the Quidditch match). Malfoy is seething with resentment. Harry gets the attention, the accolades, while rejecting the inner circle of privileged Wizards that Malfoy belongs to.

And Draco Malfoy learned from the best, his father Lucius, who throws his weight around, threatens and manipulates behind the scenes, and sides with whomever he believes will give him power (Voldemort, who is arguably also a true Superman). But that willingness to do whatever it takes to gain power is what makes the Malfoys sheep, part of the herd. Where Voldemort leads, they follow, hoping to gain power through him or even at the expense of him. But since Voldemort outclasses them and probably doesn’t care about them except for they can give him, they will ultimately be fodder for Voldemort to use to his own ends.

Harry Potter as the true Superman

In the interpretation of Nietzsche that I am taking, the true expression of the Will to Power is not bullying, but allowing one’s inner talents to express themselves, and not letting individuals who would interfere with that succeed in doing so. Harry must not let Malfoy scare him off the Quidditch pitch, or in the classroom. He must not let Malfoy’s constant belittling make him think less of himself. He uses his talent at magic to find a way to fight the fake Dementors, and in the process, he wins the Quidditch match and beats Malfoy at his cowardly game. He finds a way to undermine Malfoy’s cowardly attempt to kill Buckbeat the Hippogriff in order to avoid responsibility for his actions.

Harry does whatever is required to express himself as wizard and hero and friend, even if that means bending and breaking the rules at Hogwarts.

Now you might argue that Harry himself is part of a “herd” because he surrounds himself with friends and allies. But the true Superman isn’t a self-defined individual because s/he eschews friendship and companionship; a true Superman is defined by the way in which s/he thinks of himself as part of a group. Harry, his friends, and the Weasley family don’t identify themselves by the “us vs. them” mentality of the Malfoys, at least not in a moral sense. Certainly, Harry will insist in a fight with Draco that “Hermione is a witch” (i.e., one of “us”). And he doesn’t consider himself a part of the Dursley family (who are herd thinkers themselves if ever there were any), but this isn’t because they are Muggles. What makes Harry and his friends different from the Malfoys is that they don’t consider themselves “better” than Muggles simply in virtue of being witches and wizards. That, and they don’t buy their way onto the Quidditch teams of life. As Hermione says, “they got in on pure talent.”

Obligatory Reference section:

Nietzsche, Frederich Thus Spake Zarathustra
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

24 Responses to “Harry Potter, Draco Malfoy, and two interpretations of Nietzsche’s Superman”

  1. deevalish September 29, 2003 at 2:35 pm #

    Of course, it the good stuff!
    The bad stuff is, you know, bad.

  2. neshaffer September 29, 2003 at 2:48 pm #

    Or maybe there has been a transvaluation of drug values
    The “good” stuff is actually bad, and the “bad” stuff is actually good.
    Or something.
    Is it Tuesday yet?

  3. angeyja September 29, 2003 at 3:15 pm #

    Re: Or maybe there has been a transvaluation of drug values
    It’s 6:15pm Monday night here, and I am headed home… I’ll stop back in on this later. Thanks for posting it. Sometimes bad/good aren’t relevant right?

  4. neshaffer September 29, 2003 at 3:17 pm #

    Re: Or maybe there has been a transvaluation of drug values
    Sometimes bad/good aren’t relevant right?
    Except in essay-writing. Tell me “This is good!” or tell me “This is crap!”
    Er… I guess that’s the good/crap dichotomy….

  5. deevalish September 29, 2003 at 3:44 pm #

    Re: Or maybe there has been a transvaluation of drug values
    Well, you know drugs are no good, “Kids, you stay away from them!”, in general but heck, it’s your livingroom.
    It’s good. It’s not crap. But I could use it as slang, “Hey, that’s some pretty good crap you got there.” ;o)

  6. deevalish September 29, 2003 at 3:45 pm #

    Don’t you mean Wednesday?

  7. neshaffer September 29, 2003 at 3:46 pm #

    Re: Or maybe there has been a transvaluation of drug values
    Hey, that’s some pretty good crap you got there.
    Which, relevantly, is common drug-user lingo. ; )

  8. neshaffer September 29, 2003 at 3:47 pm #

    Nope, I mean Tuesday
    As in “Is Monday over yet?”
    Masq, still in denial about Wednesday

  9. hankat September 29, 2003 at 4:40 pm #

    False Superman
    Ooooo are you ever going to like Angel this year.
    Now to the false Superman. The characteristics of the false Superman have another name and that is “bully”. Malfoy expects recognition and obedience from others, skipping the credentials or deeds to back that status up. The Superman may surround themselves with friends but they don’t use them, always ready to discard those they no longer see as useful.
    Ruf

  10. neshaffer September 29, 2003 at 4:47 pm #

    Oooh, 5 times!

  11. angeyja September 29, 2003 at 6:17 pm #

    Good beginning!
    It’s great to read this from your perspective Masq.
    I’m not up on philosophy but a couple of things from an essay on the Jung site: Harry is of mixed blood and embued with Voldemort’s power, so he is mixed in several ways.
    In the Anatomy of the Psyche, Edward Edinger wrote:
    Psychologically, the result of separatio by division into two is awareness of the opposites. This is a crucial feature of emerging consciousness….To the extent that the opposites remain unconscious and unseparated, one lives in a state of participation mystique, which means that one identifies with one side of a pair of opposites and projects its contrary as an enemy. Space for consciousness to exist appears between the opposites, which means that one becomes conscious as one is able to contain and endure the opposites within. p. 187)

    When you’re done with the fourth book, I’ll bring over more of the writing since that’s where this one stops. I know you’re not into Jung but it’s worth reading if only for the vampire refs. And you and the author have something in common:
    These tales were categorized by the publishing industry as children’s books. But as friends and colleagues began to talk about them, I became intrigued. Upon entry into the world of Harry Potter, I was soon enchanted, caught up like so many of us in the alive, visceral experience of reading. The real surprise for me, as an analytical psychotherapist, was the psychological and symbolic depth…
    You wrote: And this is where we get to the Nietzsche bits, specifically, Nietzsche’s idea of the “Superman” or “Overman”. A Nietzschean Superman isn’t an invulnerable guy who flies around in tights and a cape. Think of him or her more as the ultimate self-actualized individual.
    It might be sort of cool to compare the process of individuation or the progression of Harry’s story from difffering perspectives: philosophical and psychological.
    Rowling put Crabbe and Goyle at Malfoy’s side from the moment Malfoy entered the first novel for a reason. They’re Malfoy’s bodyguards, his fists.
    And then compare this with Harry’s friends: both of whom are freer to be themselves, and make Harry stronger in the process. They remind me a bit of the trios on Buffy too. And when looked at individually Hermoine is the mind and Ron the heart. Very interesting stuff. Sorry I’m pressed for time tonight.
    But thanks for posting this. All in all a great Monday.

  12. deevalish September 29, 2003 at 10:16 pm #

    Oh, I didn’t know that at all.
    No really. I don’t know about such things. (says I with the best look of innocence I can muster.)

  13. rahael September 30, 2003 at 3:31 am #

    Oooooh!
    I really really loved this, Masq!
    Excellent analysis! I’m really happy that you feel so inspired by the books, because this is the kind of end result that is the true reward – lots of yummy analysis!
    I can tell you were an educator because you do such a great balance of explicating and analysing!

  14. neshaffer September 30, 2003 at 9:07 am #

    Does that make Harry the hand?
    Then who is Spirit?
    Or maybe that’s the wrong analogy. Maybe Harry is Captain Kirk, and Hermione is Spock, and Ron is Dr. McCoy. They stand on either side of the Captain and give him advice from opposite poles. Then, while they argue whether knowledge or emotion is better, the Captain finds a way to do both.

  15. neshaffer September 30, 2003 at 9:09 am #

    The thing is…
    I was never this entertaining when I was a teacher. I work very hard in my ATPo website to add humor and explanations in plain English into what I say. When I was a prof, I would drone on for an hour in jargon and my class would fall asleep.
    For me, the pen (or the keyboard) will always be easier than knock-kneed public speaking.
    Thanks!

  16. rahael September 30, 2003 at 9:41 am #

    Re: The thing is…
    What about putting up a version of this on the board? Perhaps it’s just too close to the new ep…..of course, the new ep is a very long time away for me.
    I’m not nervous. I’m totally apathetic. I’m far more excited about purchasing the DVD for Season 4, and acquiring more seasons of Babylon 5. Maybe it’s just a phase…maybe I’ll get infected with everyone else’s enthusiasm when my pessimism gets dumbfounded and Season 5 turn out to be great.

  17. neshaffer September 30, 2003 at 9:52 am #

    Re: The thing is…
    I’m up to the end of season 3 in Bab 5 watching, because that’s all that’s out on DVD here. Sheesh, leaving me hanging!
    I’m sure season 5 will have it’s good points, maybe even brilliant points. But if there are serious plot holes left uncommented on by ME, it’ll mar my enjoyment like a rock in my shoe when I’m trying to enjoy a walk on a beautiful day.
    I almost posted a link to my LJ essay on the board to bring people over here for feedback, something along the lines of “OT for HP fans”, but I again thought I’d rather not advertise my LJ URL. Still, I wouldn’t mind some more feedback….

  18. neshaffer September 30, 2003 at 12:35 pm #

    I do have one complaint…
    I’m in the middle of book 4 and so far the closest thing we’ve come to any romance/smootchies is “Percy has a girlfriend”.
    I’m still waiting for that Ron&Hermione in the broom cupboard action. I mean, I made out when I was 14!

  19. ponygirl2000 September 30, 2003 at 4:40 pm #

    Re: I do have one complaint…
    I’ll wait until you’re finished, but I will have to try and dig up that list someone made of lines in book 5 that when taken out of context have interesting connotations. Hormones do kick in eventually. 14 huh? Sheesh! Precocious child. Or nerdly one in my case.

  20. neshaffer September 30, 2003 at 4:51 pm #

    Well…
    I went through a bold phase at 14 with a 12-year old boyfriend. Then at 15, I decided I didn’t want to kiss any more boys, and dipped into purity and nerdom until about age 22 when I finally got around to kissing girls.

  21. Jefferson December 31, 2012 at 1:59 pm #

    I really hope he has a wuoredfnl career following harry potter, because I am dying to see him our generation take over the leading roles. step aside, brad pitt!!!!

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