2. Harry Potter and the Demagogue
 
Again and again in Huckleberry Finn, the plot radically changes and new characters appear. It's one of the most striking features of the novel. Two characters in particular, though, have always fascinated me: the Duke and the King. On the one hand, their unusual presence (they really do come from nowhere, for almost no reason) seem to really epitomize the increasingly fraught and fraying plot line; on the other, they are unbelievably funny.

They're not actually aristocracy; they're grifters, pretending to be actors. Indeed, they love to perform "Shakespeare". For instance, take a look at their version of Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" soliloquy:


To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
But that the fear of something after death Murders the innocent sleep,
Great nature’s second course,
And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of.
There’s the respect must give us pause:
Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The law’s delay, and the quietus which his pangs might take.
In the dead waste and middle of the night, when churchyards yawn
In customary suits of solemn black,
But that the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns,
Breathes forth contagion on the world,
And thus the native hue of resolution, like the poor cat i’ the adage,
Is sicklied o’er with care.
And all the clouds that lowered o’er our housetops,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
But soft you, the fair Ophelia:
Ope not thy ponderous and marble jaws.
But get thee to a nunnery—go!

In some ways, what is most astonishing about these lines is how much attention Twain had to have gone to in order to create such a wonderful imitation of abject buffoonery. I can't make it through the first line without laughing, and by the time Macbeth's influence arrives, I'm dying.

I was reminded of the two grifters tonight when I attended a two-man show, Potted Potter, attempting to represent the seven books of Harry Potter in seventy minutes. I hadn't known, when my girlfriend invited me, that there would only be two people on stage, and I was sufficiently surprised when I read the program and found out that, somehow, two men were going to do a series of books with literally hundreds of named characters. (Imagine, if you're familiar, the Reduced Shakespeare Company, and apply that to Harry Potter.)

As it turned out, they weren't representing Harry Potter--they were engaging with it. They were recounting the plot, sure, but only as a venue for their humor. Their jokes, from giving Hermione an impossibly deep voice to deadpanning Dobby's ultimate sacrifice, required a previous knowledge of the books--and of the movies--to properly appreciate their point.  Unlike the grifters, however, these two were excited to acknowledge their own limitations, from laughing about accidentally having Hagrid dance Bollywood-style, to a painful moment when the snitch (one of the actors) was knocked to the ground by an audience participant seeker (a little boy representing Slytherin). Like any exciting piece of live theatre, the actors were looking for ways to bring their show to life, and part of that meant improvisation--something the grifters, too, must have been familiar with.

In a segment in which one of the actors (who supposedly has not read the books) tries to figure out what dark lord is the anagram of Tom Marvolo Riddle, the third answer he provided brought the house down: "Donald Trump." Sensing the moment, the actor began to warn the audience that soon there would be Americans fleeing across the border, and that they should erect a wall in order to keep them out. And, hey, why not make America pay for it?

You see, I'm in Canada currently, and in Canada, Donald Trump brought almost the entire audience to laughter. The jokes went on and on, and I could feel the audience only wistfully accept when we returned to Harry Potter. Some of that, no doubt, arouse out of anxiety--Canadians can appreciate more than most how much a nuclear winter would suck--but much of it, I think, comes from confusion.

Canadians literally do not understand how a smart and capable, if sketchy, politician is losing to a reality TV star. At restaurants, I've overheard Canadians asking their American friends about Donald Trump and what they think about him. Heck, I've been that American friend at a restaurant, trying to explain to people outside my nation how a man like that could be nominated, let alone seriously considered by nearly half the country to be electable. It's not easy.

And it's not because of the politics either. It's difficult for them to imagine someone who flaunts his disrespect of women and his contempt for minorities capable of getting this far in an election. Their own prime minister appointed equal numbers of men and women to his Cabinet, in order to make a point of undoing structural sexism. Like, usually no matter how radical you are, you at least have to pretend to care about every voting block (women, minorities, etc.), you usually at least have to pretend that your policies will help them.

I've been spending a lot of time recently listening to a podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, in which two divinity students attempt to read the Harry Potter series as though it were a sacred text, as though it has lessons for us to follow. And tonight, as I'm thinking about the power of texts to drive thought and to flood emotions, I can't help but think of Donald J. Trump through the lens of Harry Potter.

I see the statues from the seventh book at the entrance to the Ministry of Magic. I see the wizards standing above and atop the broken backs of the muggles, of the house elves, of the goblins, of the supposed beasts. And I see the allure such an image might hold for some, people who want their nation to be best of all, their nation to be most powerful of all, their nation to be chosen by God himself to be sacred above all.

I also see families torn apart because some can prove their lineage and others can't. 

And I wonder, who among us rooted for Voldemort and his ilk? Who rooted to see statues of wizards rise above us, the muggles? Who rooted for violence and second class citizenship?

And I wonder, how many of us will be voting for that come November?

Finally, though, I think of Fred and George, broadcasting over the radio mocking messages undermining Voldemort's hegemony over the UK. Even as we work to subvert the forces that be, trying to bring into the world a more tolerant and loving society, making it a more giving and respectful place, we must somehow retain our sanity. That, more than any other feature, was what the audience was looking for tonight as they laughed and cheered the satire of Donald Trump. After all, as the grifters know:


There’s the respect must give us pause:
Wake Duncan with thy knocking!

When we run out of tears, when our heart is bursting to break, all that's left is to laugh and to carry on regardless. It doesn't have to be at Donald Trump, or even in the same world as Donald Trump. Lord knows, there's not much to laugh about there, and for many, what he represents is hardly worth laughing about. But laugh and carry on regardless.

Thank you for those who have already donated, I appreciate it immensely, and I hope you and everyone else enjoys this second installment. Good luck!