Saturday, October 20, 2007

So what?

So J. K. Rowling thinks Dumbledore is gay. As it's being reported, she "outed him" Friday night at Carnegie Hall in New York.

But what difference does this make? None whatsoever. First, because Dumbledore's homosexuality remained in the author's mind and never shows up in the text itself. You can go back and read the novels and look for signs, but you'll find nothing even close to explicit. It's not part of the story line.

Second, as a friend of mine has noted, why not also out Neville Longbottom? Or Snape? Or MadEye Moody? Or Dobby? Or anyone else for that matter who doesn't have a girlfriend or a wife in the novels? Whatever thoughts Rowling may have had in her mind about a character, what the reader must pay attention to is the text of the story. Rowling may reveal one day that all the magical powers possessed by the witches and wizards of her novels' world were actually gifts given to certain humans by extraterrestrials when they visited to help the Egyptians build the pyramids. But this never shows up in the texts of her novels, so it is irrelevant. It makes no difference whatsoever in the actual story line.

Authorial intent is overrated. The text has it's own life.


barlow said...

In addition, so what if she had written Dumbledore to be gay? There are gay people in the world; telling a story about the world would involve talking about gay characters. Also, even from a conservative Christian point of view, what makes Dumbledore so great is that he learned early that he could not trust himself to great power - he recognized his own tendencies and suppressed them. Christians with homosexual leanings have to do the same things - they are forced to ignore their impulses in order to behave morally. That's commendable! Who is the bigger hero, the one who gives in to societally non-scandalous sin or the one who puts to death his own tendencies to *not* give into societally scandalous sin?

Lori Shaffer said...

Actually, Jeff, you got it all wrong...Snape is a pedophile, Neville is a transvestite and Mad-Eye is into S&M. There is as much evidence in the story for these allegations as there is for her own revelation about Dumbledore.

Under Rowling's explanation, I am an adultress too. I was once attracted to a man who was not my husband. Bottom line is, none of these characters PRACTICED these behaviors, just as I did not practice adultery. I agree with are what you LIVE, not what your inclinations might be. All of us live with "secret" sins whose temptations we daily resist (or not).

At the same time, it ticks me off that she would even think it necessary to declare this now and to that particular almost seems that she has some desire to intentionally stir up controversy around herself. It it wasn't important enough to bring it out in the books, why bring it out now?

Lori Shaffer said...

BTW, I'm not sure that I can agree with your "authorial intent is overrated" comment. Seems to me that all kinds of bogus literary interpretations take place when authorial intent is ignored.

Jeff Meyers said...

Yeah, I wonder about her motivations.

Oh, and the authorial intent comment was meant to be provocative. In most cases, we don't have the author around to tell us what he meant. We have his or her text. And texts do have a life of their own.

And even if an author "tells" us what he meant, that "meaning" is still given to us in language that must be interpreted. ;-)

BTW, Umberto Eco has some fascinating comments on this in his Postcript to the Name of the Rose.

Jeff Meyers said...

Excellent points, Jonathan! Thanks for contributing.

I will only add this: not only are there gay people in the world, but there are also very gifted gay people in the world. For Rowling to conceive of Dumbledore as exceedingly gifted actually fits with what we know about many homosexuals. And honestly acknowledging that does not interfere with our Christian critique of their sexual behavior.

Principium unitatis said...


you are what you LIVE, not what your inclinations might be.

But here's something to consider. There is a very important difference between a continent person and a virtuous person, even though they both *do* the same thing. The continent person struggles against his inclinations in order to do what is right. By contrast, the virtuous person, by "training in righteous", does what is right *without* a struggle with his inclinations. That is because his inclinations, dispositions and appetites are, through training, conformed to the truth.

Furthermore, a person's habits and dispositions constitute his character. And his character is surely part of his identity. The characterless notion of self-identity in which the self is treated as an utterly simple and mysterious Will (with habits, appetites abstracted away), owes its origins to Kant and Descartes. It lays aside our animality and thus our materiality. Walker Percy said that 'angelism', i.e. the denial of our bodily nature, is the defining heresy of modernism. And I think he may very well have been right.

And there is a difference in the degree of dispositional disorder between lust toward the opposite sex, and lust toward the same sex, just as lust toward a member of a different species is even more dispositionally disordered. Lust by a man for a woman is ordered with respect to the matter (man to woman), but disordered with respect to the context (i.e. she is not his wife, or it is not the appropriate occasion, etc.). But lust by a man for man is disordered at a more fundamental level, i.e. with respect to the matter of the sexual act, insofar as the sex act is by its nature a union of male and female. And lust by a man for an animal is even more disordered (again at the level of matter), because the sex act is by its nature a intra-species union. So a character in a story who lusts for a member of the opposite sex is, all other things being equal, not as disordered as a character who lusts for a member of the same sex.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jeff Cagle said...

Perhaps Dumbledore is just trying to imitate Ian McKellen...

Sherry Peyton said...

I thought your ending comment priceless and quite true. Talk to any number of sola scriptura proponents and you can see just how much a writing takes on a life of its own, well independent of what we are learning or have learned of the author's intent.

In fiction that's not of much import it seems, unless you are the author and feel misuderstood. When it deals with scripture it's a big deal.

Jeff Meyers said...

It escapes me why an author can not write something and then say it’s just as if she wrote it. And by all accounts, she didn’t merely overlook writing it — she made a deliberate choice not to write it. So the most you can say about what the books actually say is that it was written in a way to make Dumbledore sexually ambiguous. Since she deliberately chose to eschew writing that Dumbledore is gay, then the Dumbledore of the book is most emphatically NOT positively gay. The Dumbledore of Rowling’s imagination is what he is, but she presumably imagined a LOT of things that she didn’t include in the book. Why would this be different?

Jeff Meyers said...

The comment I pasted above from Mark's blog is spot on. Rowling is essentially saying, "I imagine Dumbledor as being gay." We all gasp. Really? But then we think about it some more and remember the details of the story. Hmm. There's nothing at all in the text that demands that I imagine him gay. In the world created by the narrative itself--the only world that exists for Dumbledore--he need not be gay. In fact, his sexuality doesn't matter. It's not relevant to the story. And remember, Dumbledor has no real existence apart from the text. There's no secret life for anyone to expose. There's nothing at all behind the text. He's only who he is as he is presented in the text.

lori shaffer said...

Bryan -

Thanks for your response. I agree with most, if not all of what you said. (I'm not sure about the comment which says the virtuous person does what is right without a struggle...I think the struggle may itself be part of the "training in righteousness." Anyway, you've given me some food for thought.)

I only meant to highlight the absurdity of Rowling's statement, based on the evidence in the book. (I'm afraid I was a bit careless in the way I went about it.) There exists as much evidence in her story to substantiate her claim about Dumbledore, as there exists outward evidence that I am an adultress. It's simply not there! How can Dumbledore "be gay" if he didn't practice homosexuality? My point is that "being gay" is not a state of being, but a action. The story is absent of the slightest hint that there is any inclination, temptation, past struggle, or action on D's part from which her statement can be defended.

Anyway...I will probably be posting at length about this soon; hopefully in clearer and more eloquent fashion! But thanks.

Principium unitatis said...


I understand your claim about parity of evidence. But your question: "How can Dumbledore be gay if he didn't practice homosexuality?" assumes that to 'be gay', one must do homosexual acts. And so it suggests that inclinations and appetites are not sufficient to constitute 'being gay'. Whether or not that assumption is true depends in part on how the term 'gay' is being used. And I don't know enough about the present use of that term to say anything about that. But it seems to me (for the reason I mentioned above) that a person's inclinations and appetites are part of his character and identity.

Let's say (for the sake of argument) that having homosexual inclinations and appetites is sufficient to count as being 'gay', even if one does not act upon those inclinations and appetites. In that case, is Dumbledore gay? Quite possibly. We cannot see in the texts all his inclinations and appetites. And just because we cannot see them, it does not follow that they are not there. Where? In the concept of Dumbledore that exists in the mind of JKR, and from which the text comes. The text (in its parts concerning Dumbledore) is just a printed description of that very complex concept, but the text does not necessarily exhaust that concept. The way to test this is to ask yourself this question: If JKR now wrote a sequel on the life of Dumbledore, and in it she made explicit his homosexuality, would this necessarily be a different character with the same name (i.e. 'Dumbledore'), or could it be the same character but with more properties revealed than before?

If it couldn't be the same character, then how would one make that case? That would imply that character development *within* a novel would be impossible. And that can't be right. It is just as possible to learn more about a character in a later book as it is to learn more about a character in a later chapter.

But if it could be the same character, then it is possible that Dumbledore has been gay (in the sense of dispositions and appetites) all along, and we didn't realize it because it had not yet been explicitly revealed.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jeff Meyers said...

But the point now is that there is absolutely no textual evidence of any homosexual inclinations or appetite in Dumbledore's character. And so whatever distinctions we wish to discuss about homosexuality in general here in the comments section of this blog, the fact remains that Dumbledore's gayness remains something in JKR's head. There's not shred of textual evidence that it's in Dumbledore's head or heart or wherever.

Principium unitatis said...


I agree with that. The concern my wife and I had with the books (even from the first book) was not with the magic, but with the implicit philosophy regarding authority. That philosophy was not entirely hidden in the texts, and is now starting to become more explicit. The "outing" of Dumbledore should be understood as part of JKR's overall philosophy, expressed openly here:

Rowling, finishing a brief "Open Book Tour" of the United States, her first tour here since 2000, also said that she regarded her Potter books as a "prolonged argument for tolerance" and urged her fans to "question authority."

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

lori shaffer said...

Tolerance, as understood Christianly, is not a bad thing. When used to mean that all ideas are equally valid and true, it's bogus. When used to disqualify all absolute statements, it is dangerous. When used to define our obligation to live peacefully beside those with whom we disagree, then it remains a Christian virtue.

"Questioning authority" can be much more problematic (and actually concerned me early in the Potter books; however, I would contend that Harry learns to trust authority as he matures). I must say I'm glad Martin Luther did not unquestioningly accept his authorities.

And "ditto" to Meyers comments.
I don't know what I'll do if JKR writes a sequel about the Dumbledore of her imagination...but right now that does not exist.

srhoyle said...

Dumbledore is NOT gay

John Mark Reynolds Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Biola University has some very good comments here:

Lori Shaffer said...

Thanks...that's a pretty good article.