As we’re all battered by a storm, huddled up by our stockpiled supplies, our minds return to the most important questions like: Does Hermione love learning for it’s own sake? That became a point of contention in the conversation that followed my jeremiad against Hermione and Ron’s relationship.
Hermione is clearly a nerd type. She’s bookish, bossy, has messy hair, and the glasses are silent, I guess. But Hermione is a lot more active and ruthless than we might expect her to be if she were just Harry’s exposition pipe. The means she chooses to identify and punish Marietta Edgecombe for betraying Dumbledore’s Army is cruel (acne spelling out the word ‘SNEAK’) and excessive (presumably she could have just turned Marietta’s face green for a week or something like that, if the goal was to identify the leak). The curse was strong enough that Marietta was still scarred and hiding her face the next year. Hermione expressed no regrets.
I had hoped that the later books might do more to explore the cost of Hermione’s cleverness. Especially because I suspected she might be dangerously similar to Severus Snape. I was bitterly disappointed to find out that he fell because of a frustrated romantic love, when that story has been told so many times, and there are plenty of other loves that can lead us astray if we mistake them for the highest good. I was hoping to have a cautionary tale about a less saccharine kind of temptation.
One scholarly temptation I tend to need to watch out for is the love of data as a means to mastery. It’s easy for me to slide from loving learning the way things work and seeing how all the pieces of physics/a friendship/a security system fit together and feeling and loving the rush of power that comes with knowing where all the levers are, even if I’m not going to manipulate them yet.
Wanting mastery doesn’t have to be for the purpose of subjugation; a less obviously malign strain of this temptation is the desire to be of use, to be indispensable. (I stand pretty well indited by Lewis’s treatment of this tendency in The Great Divorce). The check here is whether Hermione would be delighted if Harry and Ron ever got around to reading Hogwarts, A History or if she’d feel a little threatened, less secure in a friendship where the other two weren’t so obviously dependent on her.
When I read the article on psychopathy and TMS yesterday, I had a flash of envy for the hyperfocused, calloused Special Forces soldier. I like being someone my friends know to turn to in a crisis and the person that can fix your broken whatsit or help you script an email to someone you like. People trust me to have the necessary distance to diagnose and repair the problem. But I have to remind myself that if distance is a strength, it can’t be my only strength.
When we saw a lonely, teenaged Severus Snape through the memory Harry glimpsed I thought he could be tempted by knowledge as mastery, but he might also have fallen through a too-abstracted intelligence. Think of the scientist who doesn’t flinch at vivisection, driven on by curiosity. This would be a kind of knowing that would necessarily have drawn Snape on into the Dark Arts and would set him apart from the more passionate evil of Bellatrix and others in the Death Eaters.
Here, the error mode seems to be knowledge without enlightenment. This Snape would be contemplating truth unaccompanied by the other two big transcendentals, beauty and goodness. In Christian thought, these three transcendentals are ontologically one — you cannot experience any of them in isolation.
Now, wouldn’t this quasi-Faustian struggle have been more interesting than a boy who didn’t get over a teenaged crush?