Overthinking: Profound Nonsense

I need to talk about how much I hate this quote:



Ask a group of Harry Potter fans for their favourite quotes, and this one will turn up half a dozen times.

I really, really, REALLY hate it. Not just because I am a purist and it is not from the books. That would simply make me dismiss it, the way I do this quote:


I don’t think that’s a “real” Harry Potter quote either and therefore I dismiss it, but I don’t hate it.  That one is fine.

What bothers me about the “turn on the light” quote is the fact that it is COMPLETE NONSENSE. It concerns me that no one seems to notice that.

What does this quote mean?

It starts out sounding fine: “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times”. I’m fine with that part, because maybe that is true. I don’t know. I feel like you would have to ask a concentration camp survivor if happiness could be found in times THAT dark, but who am I to say what is or is not possible for the human spirit?

But then the quote takes a terrible turn – “if one only remembers to turn on the light.”



Oh, it sounds clever, because of the word “darkest” earlier in the sentence. But in that case we have a clear metaphorical understanding of what “dark times” are. Anyone hearing that knows that “the darkest of times” represents a time of unhappiness or misery, or possibly war or political upheaval. That’s fine.

But I just don’t understand. What does the light represent? How does one “turn on the light” when one is mired in the darkest of times? Where is this happiness switch and how to I flick it??

When I look at the context of the quote within the movie (Prisoner of Azkaban), I only have more questions. Here’s the context – Dumbledore is addressing the students of Hogwarts and he is telling them that Dementors are guarding Hogwarts against the escaped criminal Sirius Black.

*dramatic violin*

“A word of caution: dementors are vicious creatures. They will not distinguish between the one they hunt and the one who gets in their way. Therefore I must warn each and every one of you to give them no reason to harm you. It’s not in the nature of a dementor to be forgiving. But you know, happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, when one only remembers to turn on the light.”

*random wave of hand past a candle flame which doesn’t even flicker or anything*

Does the quote make more sense now?

No! It makes LESS sense!

You would expect that quote to be somehow related to dark times, or misery, or happiness, or CANDLES or SOMETHING. But no, it’s a random musing spoken with a weird intensity that crops up out of nowhere while a violin goes nuts in the background as if it were a Hitchcock film.

What does happiness have to do with the viciousness of dementors? What light could he be referring to? Dumbledore sounds like a drunken uncle at a wedding, spouting pithy phrases that are completely unrelated to anything that is happening right now.

I mean, it would have made a little sense if it had come up in the context of what Dementors do – if he had said “Dementors, by the way, make you feel really miserable if you get close, so do remember to turn on the metaphorical light if you suddenly find yourself from suffering their effects, okay?”

It still wouldn’t have been helpful, but at least it would have made some contextual sense.

I feel like he could have discussed Patronus spells, or advised them to carry chocolate around the way Professor Lupin does.


That’s advice I can get behind.

The more I ponder the “turn on the light” quote, the less helpful I find it and the more annoyed I become. For example, when taken in the context of Dementors in general, I think about the fact that Dementors were Rowling’s physical manifestation of depression: they suck all of your happy memories away, leaving you mired in the misery of your own darkest thoughts.

Dumbledore’s comment about how easy it is to find happiness in dark times if one “remembers” to flick on this unspecified light suddenly resembles the useless contrivances that people spout at depressives.


(aside: everyone should read this about depression)

He makes it sound so easy – oh, feeling unhappy? Did you remember to just turn on the light? But where is this light? Why would I have forgotten about it? How does one operate it? Does it need to be plugged in? Do I need to change a light bulb first?

I don’t have a problem with metaphorical language, either. I enjoy poetry. I just have a problem with bull shit, and the more I think about that damn quote, the more sure I become that it is, in fact, bull shit.

Did you know that they did a whole study on bull shit?

It was published in the journal Judgement And Decision Making in November, 2015. You should read it, it’s marvelous. The researchers, who use the word “bull shit” again and again with evident glee, discuss phrases which they call “pseudoprofound” – in other words, which SOUND profound until you think about them and realize that they are nonsense.

Although this statement may seem to convey some sort of potentially profound meaning, it is merely a collection of buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains syntactic structure.

They used a tweet by Deepak Chopra as an example of “pseudo profound” statements (aka bull sh*t):

(c) “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.”

[…]The vagueness of (c) indicates that it may have been constructed to impress upon the reader some sense of profundity at the expense of a clear exposition of meaning or truth.

I feel like this Dumbledore quote is exactly that – constructed to impress upon the audience some sense of profundity at the expense of a clear exposition of meaning or truth.

I want you to compare that to a REAL Dumbledore quote written by Rowling herself which I think is genuinely profound:

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” – JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

This is not nonsense. I know exactly what he is saying – he is saying that by spending all of your time dreaming about something, we will miss out on the reality of what is going on around us. I get that. It is pithy, but it also MEANS something.

Here’s another great one:

“It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more.” – JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Again, great quote, not nonsense. Dumbledore is saying that when we fear death and darkness, it is because we don’t know what lies ahead. We don’t know what happens after death, and so we feel afraid. We don’t know why danger might lie in the dark, and so we feel afraid.

…Maybe we should remember to turn on the effing light.

Whatever that means.


One thought on “Overthinking: Profound Nonsense

  1. Hahaha I’m totally on your boat! I cringe at that quote used in the context of the movie because it’s so desperate to be profound. My friends ate it all up, but being the critic I am, I just scratched my head and rolled my eyes. (Come to think of it, that entire 3rd movie had way too many gimmicks like that in general…) Now if this was an isolated quote I was hearing for the first time, I might think that it’s telling me to get too hung up in depression and remember to stay positive–it’s not as easy as it sounds, but it’s still sensical advice imo. But as you say, it’s complete bullcrap in the context of the movie, probably stuck in there by some romantic scriptwriter lol.


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