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Harry Potter could teach adults how to grow up, too

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In last Saturday’s Times I saw one of the most dispiriting headlines I have seen in a long while: “I’m single, I’m sexy, and I’m only 13.” It told the latest story in a saga that has been running since at least 1963, when, according to the poet Philip Larkin, “sexual intercourse began”. Western culture continues its experiment of trading love for sex, happiness for pleasure, commitment for serial relationships, and eliminating the word “no” from the vocabulary of desire.

The story was as sad as the headline. Young girls have been persuaded by Big Brother, glamour models and the hypersexualisation of everyday life to dress alluringly long before they reach emotional maturity. They do so to make themselves popular and because they fear rejection if they don’t.

The result, say psychologists, has been a rise in symptoms of emotional distress, eating disorders and depressive illness. The more young girls become obsessed with their appearance, the less well they do at academic work. They develop strange ambitions — 63 per cent of girls said they wanted to be supermodels rather than doctors or teachers, and a quarter thought that lapdancing was a good profession.

There is something deeply regressive here. To seek popularity through your appearance is to see yourself as an object rather than a subject. It is what feminists quite rightly fought against in the name of personal dignity and self-worth. It is also part of the inexorable death of childhood and the loss of its protected space. How quickly we have lost the gains for which the reformers of an earlier age fought. In those days their target was the exploitation of children as producers. Today children are exploited as consumers, a milder form of slavery, but servitude nonetheless.

The irony is that it was done in the name of freedom. But the freedom to be has become the freedom to buy, which has become in turn the tyranny of fashion. So the advertisers win, innocence loses, and children are offered up as sacrifices to the latest idolatry.

Libido, the sexual drive, always was one of the most powerful determinants of behaviour, which is why most civilisations have tried, with greater or lesser success, to channel it into constructive forms such as marriage. One of the greatest of these had its roots in the Hebrew Bible. What is striking about the Hebrew Bible is the way it candidly acknowledges the beauty and power of physical desire, nowhere more so than in the Song of Songs. But it expresses it in the form of a pledge of mutual commitment, turning desire into love, and love into a moral bond of fidelity and loyalty. The heroes and heroines of the Hebrew Bible — Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah, Ruth and Boaz — are people made extraordinary by their devotion to one another.

In a daring religious gesture, the biblical prophets saw the ideal relationship between God and us in terms of the relationship between husband and wife. “I will betroth you to me for ever, I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice, love and compassion, I will betroth you to me in faithfulness and you will know the Lord,” says God through the prophet Hosea.

Civilisation is the taming of nature by culture. Freud defined it as the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct. Judaism, less puritanically, saw it as the sanctification of desire through its sublimation into the great ideal of families, homes and communities built on love, trust, kinship and responsibility. By any of these standards, contemporary culture is a regression to a form of barbarism, bland to be sure, but no less corrosive of the soul.

The result, as Theodore Dalrymple puts it, is a society in which adolescents are precociously adult, and adults are permanently adolescent. Thank heavens, therefore, for J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter, who between them have reclaimed the kingdom of childhood, proving that you don’t have to betray to enchant.

(First published in The Times)