Fantastic Beasts and How Obliviate is Tantamount to Murder
Alright, here we go. Let’s try and write something. I’m pretty sure I remember how to do this. Knowledge is a fickle thing, it’s something you memorize and compartmentalize in a useable form. I’ve gotten really good at doing the reverse of those two things lately. Sort of expunging the information from my brain, if you will. It’s really a convenient problem to have given the existential crises I was having watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. For those that are uninitiated or really just don’t care, Obliviate is a spell that erases (or perhaps alters) the memory of the victim. It looks like it is generally used to erase specific memories but when overused or just incorrectly used it can basically wipe your brain. Gilderoy Lockhart comes to mind from the Harry Potter novels.
This to me is mortifying, and the frequency with which it is used in the books and Fantastic Beasts is absolutely horrifying. Every kind of negative fying you can think of, this spell is it. I’m going to spoil a single big event from Fantastic Beasts involving a single character and a tiny bit of dialogue, if that bothers you I suppose come back after you’ve seen it. Overall the film is pretty good and I think you’ll enjoy it well enough. I won’t be spoiling it yet, but prepare yourself.
First we’ll start with a thought experiment. Imagine if you could completely wipe all the memories of a person all the way back to their birth. Knowledge, as I mentioned previously, are memories. Is memories? Hmmm, anyways, I’ll think about the grammar for that later. The things you learn in life are memories and when you apply them we call that learning/knowledge. Perhaps Wisdom, I was never really good with the difference between Intelligence and Wisdom, I just knew that the latter let me have more skill points in Lensmoor. If you can agree that head trauma could cause you to forget how to speak, or do math, or other things you’ve learned before I suppose we both agree to my point well enough to move on.
If I could wipe everything from a person would that person be dead? What do we consider a person? Is it merely our body? A brain dead body living on (or perhaps somehow off of) life support is not a person, is it? I don’t know what your answer is, so I’ll simply answer with my own feelings. I believe that we are fundamentally our memories. All the things we learn and apply are who we are. Our bodies are the vessels for containing those thoughts. Our physical selves are basically the jars that contain all the matter that makes us. Almost ethereal combinations of many different small bits of data. Any alteration to that data changes who we are.
Emptying that jar usually comes via physical death. But imagine if you could do it merely by wiping out the brain. There are many different ways you could do this in the real world, but in the world of Harry Potter they do it via a spell. You might think that a small loss of memory isn’t really killing someone and that is where we move next. If you can accept that wiping out all memories of someone is the same as killing that person, I’m going to argue that when you wipe out any memories of someone you kill somebody. It’s less obvious, deviously subtle even, but a murder has taken place.
This relies on the concept of the butterfly effect. Some changes are almost imperceptibly small but the outcome of their happening can be profoundly large. The most obvious is the fission reaction in a nuclear bomb, the initial change is relatively small but it causes an incredible chain reaction that makes entire cities vanish in an instant. We tend to value the large, incidents like losing a limb or getting a degree. We see these massive events as the things that shape who we are. But I argue that every little thing we do changes who we are in ways that we might not even realize. Every bump, every sniffle, these things all subtly shift our personality in one new direction or another. What is being murdered in many of these instances is not the you that exists in the present, but instead the you that would have existed in the future. Imagine if you had a single event of watching a basketball game. You’d never watched it before. You don’t realize it in that moment but for the next few months you’ll be thinking about that event over, and over, and eventually you’ll take up the sport. You might not become a professional, or maybe you will, but regardless you’ve become that new person. Basketball is a part of you.
Now imagine the moment you finish watching that game someone slips in and erases it from your memory entirely. That branch in the multiverse has been eternally shifted. That event had lead to so many more and all of them are now gone. That person that once would have existed has now been murdered without anyone realizing it. Or perhaps they did and they just didn’t care. Just about every major event in my life was sparked by an incredibly small event that was obvious, and perhaps many more that were not. If I could go back and pull out a single brick from that building I can’t imagine the entire structure that is now me would remain standing.
Each time a wizard uses this spell in the stories they are killing someone. Which brings me to the most obvious and horrifying example of this that I’ve seen, and prepare yourself we are moving into spoiler territory. Here it comes, are you still here? Ok, just know that if you haven’t seen the movie this is going to make it a lot harder to watch. Because you’ll know what is coming and I won’t be able to obliviate it for you. The protagonist of this film becomes friends with a man by the name of Kowalski. Already we know that he’s gonna be a great guy, with a name like that. He’s a muggle, which in Harry Potter is what the British call non-magical people. In the US, we are inherently more creative, so we call them non-mages. If you are shaking your head and rubbing your temples, I’m right there with you.
He spends the entirety of this movie meeting other wizards. He wanders into magical places and sees fantastic beasts beyond belief. It reshapes his understanding of what can and cannot be. It is a magical adventure in both the literal and metaphorical sense. He experiences the kind of moments that millions of people have killed themselves hoping to experience. His was an adventure that fuels the guiding principles of most of the modern world. He felt that there was more to the world than what we think is real. And unlike you or I, he saw the reality of this feeling with his own two eyes. There is a moment where he says “I’m not dreaming.” and Newt (the protagonist) asks him. “How do you know this?” Kowalski replies. “I’m don’t have the brain to think this stuff up.”
We watch him evolve throughout the film. He becomes happier, arguably healthier, and his will to live explodes into something magical. If he isn’t my favorite character in that film, he’s damn close. A close second to Newt and Newt alone, I believe. And so we reach the end of the film and the US Ministry of Magic explains to the main characters that Americans are assholes and we must obliviate any non-mages that see magic. I don’t think they use the word “asshole” but you get the impression that’s their guiding principle as you watch the film. And in this moment you realize that you’ve been there for a life.
The birth of Kowalski happened at the start of this film for all intents and purposes. We followed this life as it grew and learned and became more than what it had been before. Kowalski changes in profound ways and experiences things that would destroy some people by how extremely earth shattering they’d be. The movie has us watch him have his memory stripped from him. This entire film, all those moments that made him who he now was, who he would be forever forward. In an instant we watched this person be killed and replaced with a different person. Very similar, mind, and in some other multiverse they are who would have been. But this falls into the teleporter paradox of Star Trek in my opinion. He appears to be the same person to us because he looks the same and he acts roughly the same. But I would argue that he no longer is. That man we met, that man that some audience members (like myself) came to like, is officially dead.
Someone similar could rise up if he sees magic again. Someone similar could be in future films. But ultimately the character from Fantastic Beasts was executed like it was nothing.
What I found most haunting about this moment was that it was almost immediately followed by happy go lucky music and the conclusion of the film. Where they tried to reassure us that everything was peachy keen and that nothing horrifying hadn’t just unfolded. But I was mostly just left haunted. I enjoyed the film, I really like Newt, and I liked Kowalski. But I’ll be damned if Wizards aren’t kind of monsters in the Harry Potter universe. They take lives without a second thought, leaving behind doppelgangers that are close enough that the average viewer is accepting of it. (Also yeah, Hermione totes murdered her parents.)