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March 24, 2002 - March 30, 2002

RE: Do people like SYCOPHANTS?

Dicentra wrote:

Dicentra_spectabilis_alba looks at her name and over to the SYCOPHANTS charter, then over to her name again and realizes that she chose as an alias a freaking bleeding heart, which she is not.

Oh, and a lily-white bleeding heart, at that!

The first time that I saw your handle, actually, I figured that you must be poking some fun at your own political leanings -- much as I'm doing, in fact, whenever I cheerfully declare myself to be a Bleeding Heart. But then I reconsidered because, really, you're one of the less bleeding heartish people around here, aren't you?

Not that I'm saying that you're mean or sociopathic or unkind or anything, you understand. Just that, like Cindy, you're pretty Tough.

So would you rather be a pair of Dutchman's breeches, then?

Just out of curiosity, Elkins, does this pity you feel for SYCOPHANTS like Peter extend to Mercy?

Hmmm.

I've been pondering this question for some time now, trying to decide how to respond. Part of the problem here is that I'm not quite sure what you mean by "mercy." If what you mean is "do you find yourself wanting Pettigrew to be spared further pain?" then I guess the answer would have to be yes. I think that he's a pretty piss-poor excuse for a human being, but I can't take pleasure in his suffering.

But of course, there's a line to be drawn between wishing to spare people unnecessary pain and allowing them exploit you. I don't think for a minute, for example, that the proper response to Shrieking Shack ought to have been: "Aw, look. Poor Peter's really miserable. It just wouldn't be nice to send him to prison when he's already so desperately unhappy. So why don't we just let him go?"

Even if that is, um. Sort of what ended up happening. In the end. But of course, no one could have predicted that.

Well. Except for Trelawney, that is.

If by "mercy" you mean "forgiveness," though, or "rapproachment," as in: do I find myself, while reading that scene, desperately wishing that Sirius or Remus would cut the poor guy a break already, give his shoulder a gentle compassionate squeeze, tell him that they understand, reassure him that it's all going to be okay, commiserate with him over what a rotten time he must have had these past thirteen years, and then hand him a nice cool glass of water, 'cause he must be really thirsty after all of those hysterics?

No. Of course not. Peter has, after all, just spent pages and pages continuing to try to pin the blame on Sirius. He's in no position to ask for either their forgiveness or their friendship.

And for what it's worth, he never does. Even Pettigrew doesn't do that. He does try to enlist their sympathies, but only for the purpose of swaying them to mercy, which isn't at all the same thing as forgiveness.

In past discussions, Cindy has cited this as a big black mark against Peter in her books. "He never once apologizes!" she is wont to cry. But you know, I gotta say that to my mind, that's probably the only thing to Peter's credit in the entire scene. He may tell terrible lies. He may try to rationalize his behavior. He may shamelessly seek to exploit the childrens' youth and innocence. He may beg, and he may weep; he may whine and wheedle and grovel and cajole. But at least he never once tries to apologize.

Because really, offering an apology under those circumstances would have been simply obscene.

When you see Peter writhing on the floor, crying, do you want to comfort him, or are you content, though sad, to see him get his just desserts?

—Dicentra, who probably shouldn't have mentioned dessert...

Oh, no. You really shouldn't have mentioned dessert. ;-)

Because now you've set me off on this subject. I've always had some genuine difficulties in comprehending the notion of "just desserts." I honestly just don't get how that's supposed to work. People have told me that I have an underdeveloped sense of justice, and perhaps that's true—perhaps I do have some sort of moral blind spot where that's concerned—because I can't say that I've really ever understood the concept at all.

In Shrieking Shack, for example, what precisely are the just deserts that one might feel "content, though sad" to witness? A grown man grovelling on the floor, sobbing in helpless terror as he waits for the ex-friends he has betrayed to avenge themselves on him by committing an act of murder?

I'm really not trying to be argumentative here, but I honestly just don't get it. No matter how hard I look, I can't seem to find anything the slightest bit contentment-inspiring about that. Not only is it unspeakably ugly, it also...well, it just doesn't do any good. It doesn't right any wrongs; it doesn't cause anyone to behave any better; it doesn't ensure anyone's safety; it brings no one any closer to redemption or virtue or even simple happiness. It doesn't make the world a better place in any way, shape or form. There's just nothing there to make me feel content.

I mean, I'm not a saint, by any means. I understand anger, and I understand vengeance. I understand the phenomenon of taking vindictive pleasure in someone else's suffering, especially if they've wronged you terribly. But for me, that type of pleasure has nothing to do with justice, and everything to do with anger. And it isn't anything like "contentment" either. Gratification, perhaps, or satisfaction, but not contentment. And it can't exist side by side with sadness, either—at least, not for me. Vindictiveness isn't a sad emotion. It can be gleeful, it can be grim, but it can't really be sad.

I can even understand why one might feel "content, though sad" to witness the suffering of a certain type of smug, complacent, self-satisfied evil-doer. There's often that sense (completely incorrect, IMO, but nonetheless common) that perhaps people like that only behave so badly because they just don't understand suffering—they don't know what it is, they don't know what it's like—and that therefore a bit of personal suffering might somehow enoble them, or at least encourage them to think twice before inflicting it on others. Personally, I think that's utter nonsense—suffering generally makes people worse, not better—but I can at least understand the emotional logic behind it.

But a miserable wretch like Pettigrew? Why would witnessing his suffering make me feel sad-but-content? It's not as if he's been happy for the thirteen years prior to PoA. He's been in hiding, and from his behavior as a rat, I get the impression that he's been pretty depressed and miserable as well. So there's not even that sense of "There. Now you see what it's like?" to provide any sense of emotional satisfaction.

Nor does being unhappy cause Peter to behave any better. His fear and his misery are part and parcel of his wickedness: they don't make him better; they make him much much worse. So there's no contentment to be found there, either.

No, from my perspective, Peter's terror in the Shack was just yet another big load o' misery heaped on top of the already-stuffed-to-bursting baggage of human suffering that was that entire situation. It's just more pain. I think that in order to think of it as "just deserts," you must have to view there as being some sort of equilibrium effect: there's some central fulcrum somewhere, and pain on one side balances out pain on the other, making it all come out even in some strange way. But I don't tend to view things that way. If there's a fulcrum, then I tend to view Pettigrew's misery as sitting on exactly the same side of it as the Potters' deaths, and Cedric's murder, and the Crouch family tragedy, and the Longbottoms' madness, and Karkaroff's predicament, and Sirius' wrongful imprisonment, and the fate of all of the DEs in the graveyard, and all of the other horrors of the entire conflict.

If there's anything on the other side of that fulcrum, then it's certainly not more suffering. Not IMO, anyway.

One of my favorite parts of GoF is the scene in which Harry, contemplating what he has just learned about the Longbottoms, finds himself identifying strongly with that jeering mob at Crouch's trial, and then pulls himself out of it by remembering Crouch's terror as he was led away by the dementors, as well as the fact that he was dead one year later. He then comes to the realization that all of that misery—the Longbottoms', Crouch's—really derives from exactly the same source.

It's highly ironic, of course, because what Harry doesn't know is that not only did Crouch Jr. not really die, but that he is also acting as Harry's hidden adversary. But for me, that irony in no way weakens the power of the passage. It strengthens it tremendously.

All that said, though, I did find Pettigrew's utter breakdown at the end of Shrieking Shack emotionally satisfying on one level. I found it satisfying because it came across as (finally!) his acknowledgement of having actually done something wrong, which was a particular relief after all of those pages of pathetic denials and lies and excuses. I don't really understand the "just deserts" thing, but I suppose that I do at least have enough of an innate sense of justice to find gratification—a feeling of satisfactory resolution—in admissions of culpability. So yes, on that level I did feel some satisfaction at the man's collapse into tears.

Um...so does that answer your question at all?


About reader sympathy, Cindy wrote:

Where I have trouble, though, is the idea that there is plenty of sympathy, empathy and pity to go around. Take the Shack, for instance. When it is the Trio versus Sirius, we're all routing for the Trio and no one feels sympathy or empathy with Sirius. (Right?) Even when Harry is standing over him threatening to blast Sirius. (Right?)

Rooting for Harry? Are you kidding? When Harry was standing over Sirius considering blasting him, I wanted to grab the dumb kid from behind and pin his arms.

But then, that wasn't so much sympathy for Sirius as it was comprehension that the situation wasn't at all what Harry thought it was. And also...

Well, how to say this without it coming across as either droolingly self-evident or insufferably self-righteous?

I hate murder. I really do: I just hate it. I'm not crazy about killing at all, to tell you the truth, but murder is something that I simply and purely and absolutely detest. And to my mind, once someone is lying on his back staring at you while you're holding a weapon on him, it's no longer self-defense if you kill him. It's murder.

So there was that. But there was also some sympathy for Sirius there as well: I didn't know quite what was up with him yet, true, but at that point, I was willing to extend my sympathy to anyone fresh from thirteen years in Azkaban. And like I've said, the person in the scene who's staring death in the face always gets first dibs on my sympathies.

Then it becomes Lupin, Sirius and the Trio versus Pettigrew. Although Elkins makes a mighty fine case for Pettigrew needing some sympathy and all, the problem I have is that I have a limited reservoir of sympathy and empathy. It's a zero sum game for me.

Hmmmm. Well, in real life, things can sometimes seem this way to me, because real life so often demands that you take some form of action when a conflict arises, and taking action in a time of conflict usually necessitates choosing sides. Extending ones sympathies equally to all sides of a conflict would make it extremely difficult, psychologically speaking, to take any form of action at all—although of course, if you go too far in the other direction, then you fall into the trap of demonizing your enemies, which I really do think is a dangerous habit. And of course, pouring out ones sympathy and empathy to all and sundry in the real world leads directly to burn-out, if not to exploitation or nervous collapse. So I can sort of see what Cindy means here.

But as a reader, I just don't have that problem. Since as a reader I can't actually do anything to affect the course of events, I don't find myself at all tempted to withdraw my sympathies from one side or the other of any given conflict. I feel for each and every character in Shrieking Shack. It doesn't feel particularly strange or confusing to me; it feels perfectly natural.

Perhaps this is part of the reason that I usually fail to appreciate "just deserts" humor? Or think it kind of weird that so many people consider it "impossible" to feel equal affection for characters who hate each other within canon?

Now the graveyard is completely different. Cedric has just been killed. Harry is tied to a gravestone with a filthy rag in his mouth, but compared to what happened to Cedric, that isn't so bad. Pettigrew, though. Pettigrew is cutting off his hand. And we know how difficult this must be for him. . . . So there's some sympathy to be had for little Peter there.

::blink::

Are you really claiming that your heart was bleeding for poor widdle Peter in the graveyard, Cindy? I mean, you weren't really feeling great sympathy for him there, were you? Really? 'Cause I gotta say, that seems kind of...um, out of character.

Then, I guess the hand-lopping did show some Toughness, didn't it.

I wrote:

...for me, if there's one person in the scene in fear for his life, then that's the person who always gets the first claim on my sympathy.

Cindy said:

Interesting. Then does this mean that Crouch Jr. had your sympathy when the dementor sucked out his soul?

::shudder::

Oh, Cindy, did you have to?

You know, I try really hard to avoid envisioning that scene at all? It makes me sick just to contemplate it. I've a lot of feeling for young Crouch, you know, and dementors really do freak me out.

But since you've forced me to go there, oh yeah. You bet he had my sympathy. In fact, I tried desperately to convince myself that he was unconscious at the time. But I didn't really manage to believe it for a moment.

(Interesting note: just last night, my housemate brought up—independently, I swear it!—that very scene. And you know what he said? He said, "I keep trying to convince myself that Crouch was unconscious by the time the dementor got to him, because otherwise I can't stand to think about it." And then he was utterly bewildered—and until I explained it to him, a little bit hurt as well—when I burst into laughter.)

I also felt a tremendous degree of sympathy for Crouch during his veritaserum confession. Sympathy, pity, empathy, identification...the whole package.

How about Buckbeak, and by extension, Hagrid?

Hagrid, certainly. I felt for Hagrid. I never felt too much sympathy for Buckbeak, though, because in spite of being an apparently intelligent creature—he could understand when he was being insulted, for example—he showed no signs of having any comprehension of what was going on during that whole plotline. He doesn't even respond with any signs of sympathetic distress to Hagrid's grief — unlike, say, Fang in CoS. If I'd believed for a moment that Buckbeak had the slightest understanding of what was about to happen to him, I probably would have felt some sympathy for him, too, but as it was, I didn't.

On Sirius' "die to protect your friends" comment:

True, Sirius risks his life repeatedly for his friends. But then again, we haven't seen Sirius knowingly walk into a situation where he is facing a substantial risk of death.

Haven't we? Or at least, if not seen it, then heard about it?

I always figured that by insisting upon the Secret Keeper bluff, Sirius was actually volunteering to risk a fate possibly even worse than death. I mean, just look at what happened to the Longbottoms!

No, I'm with Dicentra on this one. I've got no doubt that Sirius would die to protect his friends. But that line still makes me uncomfortabld, mainly because I'm not altogether certain that I would — although of course I would like to believe that I would. And also because...well, he's just been ranting on and on about what a coward Peter is, right? What a coward he's always been, and what a weakling, and what a fundamentally opportunistic personality, and how the entire point of the bluff in the first place was that no one would ever suspect that they'd choose such a person to serve as their Secret Keeper, and...

And, well, it just annoys me a bit, is all. I always find myself thinking: "Well, really now, Sirius! If you always knew that he was like that, then what the hell else did you expect?"

Of course, I don't really believe for a moment that Sirius always believed Peter to be all of those things. He has, after all, had thirteen years with little else to do but to revise his opinion of Peter's character, and most of what he says in the Shack is not only spoken in anger, but also designed to wound. But even knowing that, there's always some strange Hermionesque part of my brain that wants to step in at that moment and say: "Er, excuse me. Mr. Black? Sirius?"


—Elkins

Posted March 24, 2002 at 12:57 am
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RE: Arthur Weasley, With Imperius Curse


Debbie wrote, about the Weasleys:

There certainly doesn't appear to be anything "weaselly" about them. Quite the contrary. I think the Weasleys are among the most straightforward characters in HP, and quite comfortable in their own commoner shoes. (Now, is there an English town called "Weasley"?)

Debbie, waiting for someone to prove her wrong by posting the sinister Weasley backstory (no, I don't think Molly's sandwich crimes will do)

<Elkins, alerted by the words "Weasley" and "backstory" appearing in the same sentence, comes running around the corner, gasping for breath, clutching at her side, and waving a platter of Arthur-Weasley-With-Imperius-Curse teacakes madly about in the air.>

Weasley backstory? Did somebody request a Weasley backstory?

You don't want your Weasleys straightforward, eh? You want someone to suggest something that will make you lie awake nights, worrying about them? You want something a bit more dire than Molly's culinary amnesia to make you feel paranoid and unsettled about the dear old Weasley clan? You asked for an improbable backstory speculation?

<Elkins bows>

At your service, Debbie. I don't know if this is quite what you hoped for—it's not really so much sinister as it is sad—but would you care for a bite of Arthur Weasley With Imperius Curse?

::wheedling tone::

Aw, come on. Just a nibble? Can't I get anyone to swallow one of these? They may be only half-baked, but I did make them myself, and with real canon!

Here. I'll show you.

------------------

Okay. Presumably, there were indeed at least a few wizards who really were placed under the Imperius Curse against their will during Voldemort's first rise, rather than just claiming that they had been to escape punishment for their crimes. In the Pensieve chapter of GoF, Karkaroff names Mulciber: "he specialized in the Imperius Curse, forced countless people to do horrific things!" In Chapter Four of PS, Hagrid tells Harry that after Voldemort's disappearance: "People who was on his side came back ter ours. Some of 'em came outta kinda trances. Don' reckon they could've done if he was coming back." Nor do I think that Hagrid is talking about the likes of Lucius Malfoy; Hagrid seems steadfastly unimpressed with the Malfoys and their claims of innocence. And when talking to Harry about the dark days of Voldemort's rise, both Hagrid and Sirius emphasize the difficulties of knowing who could really be trusted. So although everyone we have yet seen who claims to have been a victim of the Imperius Curse in canon has been lying, I nonetheless do believe that there were a number of genuine victims of the curse as well.

I believe that Arthur Weasley might have been one of them. For one thing, at the time he would have been a relatively young and likely low-ranked ministry official: precisely the sort of person most likely to be targetted by the Death Eaters for exploitation. From Ludo Bagman's trial, we already know that the organization sought to make use of the ministry's younger and more vulnerable workers. It seems quite likely to me that they would have done so not only by deceiving the gullible (as with Bagman), but also through judicious use of the Imperius Curse. In fact, Crouch/Moody implies as much in Chapter 14 of GoF, when he says: "Gave the Ministry a lot of trouble at one time, the Imperius Curse."

And then there is Ron's knowledge of the precise details of Lucius Malfoy's acquittal. At the beginning of PS/SS, he tells Harry:

'I've heard of his family,' said Ron darkly. 'They were some of the first to come back to our side after You-Know-Who disappeared. Said they'd been bewitched. My dad doesn't believe it. He says Malfoy's father didn't need an excuse to go over to the Dark Side.'

This is very specific knowledge for a kid who was raised in a culture that displays a pathological aversion to the idea of ever talking—or even of thinking—about those days. The Weasley parents do not seem to make a practice of speaking to their children about such matters. Ron doesn't give the impression of knowing about the Longbottoms, for example. He doesn't recognize the Dark Mark when he sees it, either. For that matter, he doesn't even know what the Dark Mark is! And yet he happens to know the specific grounds on which Lucius Malfoy was acquitted ten years ago?

Why would Arthur have told Ron about Lucius Malfoy's acquittal, when he's never even explained to the kid what the Dark Mark was?

Well, if he really had sincerely been placed under the Imperius Curse at some point during Voldemort's reign, then the fact that Lucius Malfoy got off on the same claim must have really rankled. It might even have rankled badly enough for him to have told his younger children about it, in spite of the evident reluctance of wizarding culture—the Weasley family included—to speak of such matters.

Primarily, though, I find the "The Unforgivable Curses" chapter of GoF strongly suggestive of the possibility that Arthur Weasley was one of Voldemort's Imperius victims.

Although "several hands rose tentatively into the air" when Crouch, as Moody, invites his students to name the Unforgivables for him, he chooses to call upon Ron. He has already, at the very beginning of the DADA class, identified Ron as Arthur Weasley's son. Ron names the Imperius Curse, adding that he knows of it because his father has mentioned it to him. This seems to please Crouch immensely.

'Ah, yes,' said Moody appreciatively. 'Your father would know that one. Gave the Ministry a lot of trouble at one time, the Imperius Curse.'

Now, we all know what Crouch is, right? He's both a sadist and a show-off; and he's sly. He just loves to entertain himself by making double-edged statements with malicious secondary meanings. Just about everything he says throughout the novel has some nasty message lurking beneath it. So is it possible that there could have been a second meaning underlying that "your father would know that one," as well as some reason for him to be so "appreciative" of Ron's answer?

Oh, yes. I think that's possible. I think that's definitely possible.

I also see a certain symmetry emerging in this chapter if we accept as our hypothesis that Ron's father was indeed, at one time, a victim of the Imperius Curse. Crouch calls on Ron to volunteer the name of the Imperius. He calls on Neville to volunteer the name of the Cruciatus. I feel absolutely certain that he was just dying for Harry to raise his hand, so that he could force him to speak the name of the Avada Kedavra. Alas for Crouch, though, Harry was an ignoramus, and so he was forced to call on Hermione instead; all the same, he did go out of his way to draw the class' attention to Harry after his demonstration of the curse. Crouch is just like that. He's a sadist, and he has some...well, let's just say some parental issues.

And finally, in defense of my Imperio'd Arthur Weasley theory, I would point out that Ron seems to find fighting off the Imperius Curse unusually difficult. Nowhere else in canon is Ron depicted as a poor student. He does have some difficulties in CoS, but only because of his broken wand; he doesn't take Divination at all seriously, but then, neither do any of the other male Gryffindor students. Ordinarily, Ron is canonically depicted as a perfectly average student. So why the trouble with the Imperius Curse? He's not a weak-willed person at all, really.

Well, could it be a family trait? Riddle's diary did quite the job on Ginny too.

Of course, if poor Arthur Weasley really had spent some time under the Imperius Curse back in the bad old days, then clearly no one has ever told Ron or the Twins about it. While Ron doesn't care at all for those spiders, Crouch's Imperius demonstration doesn't otherwise seem to bother him at all—he thinks that it's cool—and he has no negative reaction to Crouch's comment about his father. Similarly, the Twins show no signs of distress over Crouch/Moody's DADA class; on the contrary, they are overflowing with enthusiasm about it.

No, if Arthur Weasley ever had a little Imperius problem, then that's been kept a secret from the children — or at least from the younger ones. Bill and Charlie might know about it, but Ron, Ginny and the Twins certainly don't. Percy...

Well, Percy might, or he might not. Hard to say, really.

At any rate, if it's true, then it's a rather large secret, don't you think? Rather a nasty secret. Rather an ugly secret. A Deep Dark secret. A Skeleton In the Weasley Family Closet sort of secret.

So I'm hoping that it's true. Because not only do I think that the it would be interesting for the Weasleys to have one of those; I also think that the Weasleys act as if they have one of those. There's something festering away somewhere in that family dynamic, and I don't think that it's just a matter of financial stress. I think that there's something swept under the carpet somewhere in that household. Something secret, and sad.

Further speculations about missing Weasley children, Arthur's particular demeanor when telling the children about the significance of the Dark Mark at the end of Chapter 9 of GoF, Bill's contributions to that particular conversation, literary parallels between Percy Weasley and Barty Crouch, and how any of that might intersect with the series' thematic emphasis on damaged families, secrets, the effects of the past upon the present, and father-son relationships, I will leave to the cruel and ruthlessly bloody minds of my fellow FEATHERBOAS.

—Elkins, who really does adore Arthur Weasley.

Posted March 24, 2002 at 6:07 pm
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