Paint and Memory, or Should That Be Pixels? Chatting with the Dead Via Magic and Technology.

One of the more fascinating, and mysterious, constructs in the Harry Potter series is the moving, talking painting, and what that means for the possibility of communicating with loved ones after death.

On the one hand, Cursed Child reminds us that the portraits are “paint and memory” …  somethind far different and far less than actually speaking with the portrait subject. This view seems consistent with one that Rowling herself opined in 2004. 

Q: All the paintings we have seen at Hogwarts are of dead people. They seem to be living through their portraits. How is this so? If there was a painting of Harry’s parents, would he be able to obtain advice from them?

JKR: That is a very good question. They are all of dead people; they are not as fully realised as ghosts, as you have probably noticed. The place where you see them really talk is in Dumbledore’s office, primarily; the idea is that the previous headmasters and headmistresses leave behind a faint imprint of themselves. They leave their aura, almost, in the office and they can give some counsel to the present occupant, but it is not like being a ghost. They repeat catchphrases, almost. The portrait of Sirius’ mother is not a very 3D personality; she is not very fully realised. She repeats catchphrases that she had when she was alive. If Harry had a portrait of his parents it would not help him a great deal. If he could meet them as ghosts, that would be a much more meaningful interaction, but as Nick explained at the end of Phoenix—I am straying into dangerous territory, but I think you probably know what he explained—there are some people who would not come back as ghosts because they are unafraid, or less afraid, of death.

source from Accio quote, Edinburgh Book Festival, 2004

On the other hand, there are certainly times when the portraits seem to do far more than repeat catchphrases. Dumbledore’s painting, for instance, was able to generate original ideas for Order members in the fight against Voldemort. For instance, he seems to have come up with the idea of the Seven Potters, which, according to Mad-Eye, was a response to the Ministry outlawing apparition from Privet Drive. He suggested to Snape that he implant the idea of the plan by confounding Mundungus Fletcher. Later, he advises Snape to give Harry the Sword of Gryffindor, reminding him that the sword must be recovered under conditions of bravery.  This seems to be more original thinking than a “faint imprint” could impart.

I was reminded of this curiosity after reading this story about a grief-stricken man who created an AI version of his deceased girlfriend, with whom he could converse by text chat. It is a fascinating read, and delves into both the potential for healing, and the dangers, of clinging to a created “imprint” as a way of coping with loss.  Reading the article made me think of Dumbledore’s advice to Harry regarding the Mirror of Erised:

“However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible…It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that. “

I hope our Hogpro readers will look into the AI story, and comment here on the similarities to magical paintings. 

Comments

  1. MuggleMaestra says

    What an amazing article! It’s scary, touching and downright strange. I hope Joshua found peace from his encounters with Jessica. I wonder what would have happened if he was able to continue to keep “in touch” with her, would he have wanted, like Harry and the Mirror, to live his life seeking the life and love they once had? Thanks so much for the link to the article. Ironically, my iPad was connecting to me – as I was typing that last sentence, it provided the word “article”, anticipating what I would write with “link”.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Not having read the linked story, I find the rest fascinating. Is there a general ‘development’ of JKR’s thought and practice, or a variety of possibilities depending on whom is portrayed? For example, can paintings of – some of – the living intercommunicate more easily than of others? And can paintings of some of the people who would not come back as ghosts, be nonetheless more intercommunicative than of others? Do those who would come back as ghosts have the option of using a painting rather than apprearing in ghostly form – and, if not, why not?

    Would it be a good – or ghastly – idea to attempt a comparison and contrast between wizarding-world painting and the theology of the ikon?

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