Monday, July 17, 2006

J.K. Rowling, the marketing-savvy creator of Harry Potter, recently set off a firestorm by hinting in a television interview that the eponymous hero of the books might not survive the last of them. Fans are gnawing their knuckles at the very thought of it. Overweening parents are wondering how their children can possibly cope. Rowling says she wrote the final chapter of the last book before she started writing the first one. She says she doesn’t want to reveal who dies because she doesn’t want the hate mail. But this Überauthor isn’t a billionaire for nothing. She knows how to work it.

Rumors of Harry’s untimely demise have brought to the fore the question of how and when children should be exposed to the reality of death. But the truth is it’s the adults who can’t handle it. The Me Generation is having a tough time with turning sixty, do you think they’re ready to deal with their own mortality? The conventional wisdom on death these days is “out of sight, out of mind.” Death is the great equalizer, and we have become increasing hostile, in our world of competing entitlements, to any suggestion of rules that apply to all, without exception. We all think of ourselves as more or less exempt. Unfortunately, Death does not.

There is actually mounting evidence that the conventional wisdom on the Hollywood ending is just dead wrong, anyway. Tragedy, as a genre of literature and drama, remains vital and vitally appealing, even in Happyland. As British playwright Howard Barker wrote in his “Arguments for a Theatre”: “You emerge from tragedy equipped against lies. After the musical, you're anybody's fool.” Confronting the reality of death—particularly the eventuality of your own—equips you for life, not least by lending perspective to it.

Even science is starting to refute the wisdom of denial. Findings in the burgeoning field of “Terror Management” seem to point to the arts as a valuable resource for coping with fear of death by deepening our experience of life. “The Appeal of Tragedy: A Terror Management Perspective,” a study whose findings were published recently in “Media Psychology,” found that “vicarious experience of tragedy, such as through film and literature, provides a safe way of approaching the fear associated with one's own mortality.”

The irony of parental concern about the death of Harry Potter is that violent death is everywhere in the media, and we hardly notice it. Our media environment is actually awash in violence and death, but it lacks the context and linearity of narrative. Random and disconnected, on an incomprehensible, inhuman scale, it offers no catharsis. It doesn’t have the impact of tragedy. That’s one reason Neurologist Richard Restak, in “The New Brain: How The Modern Age is Rewiring Your Mind,” urges us to read. Should Rowling decide to kill off her young hero, there may be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst the tweenies, but in the end they’ll survive, and be the wiser for it.

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