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.
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