Saturday, May 06, 2006

the ontological status of painted beings

Magical portraits in JK Rowing's Harry Potter series have been known to get drunk. They've also run out of their own frames and into other portraits to avoid being hit by spells. If beings of paint still retain survival impulses (thirst, threat avoidance), should we assume they also urinate, defecate, and have sex?

I've never been able to figure out what's so special about a portrait that can move between two paintings of itself. The witch and wizard, Dilys and Everard, do this in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and so does Phineas Nigellus. But Everard said, at one point in Phoenix, that he had moved into a different person's portrait to get a better look at the injured Arthur Weasley. By the same token, the insane knight Sir Cadogan, who makes an appearance in earlier Potter books, also moved from painting to painting with ease. Other portraits have done this as well: the Fat Lady sometimes leaves her frame to party down with the painting of Violet the Witch, and Violet herself has flitted between portraits with no problem, whispering her rumors. It seems as though all "paintizens" can move through any magical painting they please.

I'm trying to figure out what life as a portrait must be like, and whether the paintizens, which in many ways act no differently from normal living beings, can be said to be "persons" in their own right. What is Rowling's vision of them? Are they magical versions of interactive computer programs, with no more life or will than a CGI image of a computerized desktop helper? If so, why do they act so much like people? Phineas Nigellus and other ex-headmaster portraits have spoken of the days when they presided over Hogwarts; are we to assume that paintizens retain memories, and that they can learn (as Phineas does when he hears the news that Sirius Black is dead)?

These are the questions that hound my pounding, heaving brain on a cool and rainy Saturday.


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