J. K. Rowling, Very Good Lives

23731881It is a speech – just published in English – by the author of Harry Potter. It has winked at me from the window of a bookshop near an Asian restaurant guarded by a gigantic Buddha. I entered to have a look: it was a tiny hardcover book, an edition with poetic illustrations. Buddha was still smiling at me with indulgence, so after an exchange with the bookseller – Is it a present? Yes… for me!” – I went to sit near him. I ordered a dish of boiled rice in tamarind sauce and started reading.

“President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates…”. The text opened this way, with the voice of J. K. Rowling Dumbledore filling the Great Hall at Hogwarts. It was the 2008 Harvard commencement speech, that still remains famous in the history of the prestigious university: “The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you’. […] I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion”.

J. K. Rowling had decided to start from the day of her own graduation. The fact that now she couldn’t remember a word of philosopher Mary Warnock’s speech reassured her about the risk of diverting some young minds from luminous careers in business. But it was pure rhetoric. In fact, it was already clear that the purpose of this lecture was the same of Albus Silente: to motivate her army. Do you remember that famous scene in the third movie when the Headmaster speaks to the students in the Great Hall? He extinguishes a candle with a gentle gesture of the hand and says: “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers… ” – and here another spell lights the candle – “… to turn on the light”.

Here you are, I think that J. K. Rowling wants to explain this very magic in her speech. Let’s see how. Thinking of her past choices – a compromise between her personal ambition and her parents’ fears – the writer asks herself what she would have liked to know the day of her graduation. Two key points of the speech originate from this question: the fringe benefits of failure and the importance of imagination.

Concerning the first point, J. K. Rowling gives us flashes of a sore autobiography, generally reported by the press in a sentimental way: “A mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible in modern Britain without being homeless”. But failure isn’t funny, she adds, so why talking about its benefits? “Simply because failure meant stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was […]. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way”. Thus failure is a testing ground, she says, an experience to avoid that – if happens – leads us to know ourselves and our relationships.

But we could achieve these depths by ourselves, so where’s the magic? Well, Potter lovers surely know what is needed to generate a Patronus, the most powerful of all spells: imagination. In fact, J. K. Rowling reaches the core of her speech on this very second point: “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation; in its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we never shared”. An awareness, this last one, that the writer has acquired in her youth, during a period in the headquarter of Amnesty International in London. In that office she heard a scream that lacerated her soul: a young man in the adjacent room had just been told that his mother had been executed because of his political declarations. “The power of human empathy”, she writes, lies in these “ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured” who “join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know and will never meet”. Because “unlike any other creature on this planet, human beings can learn and understand without having experienced”.

And here the lecture reaches its climax. Those of you who have read Harry Potter know that one of the leitmotivs is the possibility to “choose”. Indeed imagination is a choice: “One might use such an ability to manipulate or control just as much as to understand or sympathise”. But “choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terror. I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid. What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters”.

Thus a speech about failure and imagination in a place like Harvard – a place where failure hardly finds its usual expression and it is not necessary to be very imaginative to have a salary guaranteed – assumes a particular connotation: “The great majority of you belong to the worlds’ only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden. […] If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful but with the powerless; […] then it will be not only your proud families who celebrate your existence but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change”.

At this point I couldn’t help thinking at the lecture that writer Azar Nafisi – the author of Reading Lolita in Teheran – gave in Rome in 2004. It was titled “Suspicious attitude: the subversive power of imagination” (you can find it here in Italian but I think it has never been translated). “No sermon”, wrote Nafisi, “no form of political correctness can substitute the deep empathy that flows from imagination when it opens our eyes on ideas and points of view whose existence we ignored. The creation and protection of democracy”, even wrote Nafisi, “depends on what we call a democratic imagination” *.

So this is the magic, the secret that Albus Dumbledore leaves to Ron in the form of a “deluminator”. It is the light that allows you to find your road again, the capacity to imagine and thus to choose. And it is the path that J. K. Rowling – quoting Seneca – wishes to the young Harvard élite now ready to hold powerful positions in the society: “As it is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters. I wish you all very good lives”.

 *Personal translation of both title and text by Azar Nafisi.

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