Harpoons and Horcruxes

A young girl is swimming underwater when her hand is harpooned firmly to the seabed. The friend with her, thinking quickly if brutally, cuts her hand off at the wrist, allowing her to float to the surface and to live. This image comes from a Lawrence Durrell novel and was used in a psychoanalytic book I was reading lately to illustrate how the mind splits to cut us off from hopeless attachments, leaving them behind as lost limbs while we struggle back up to the surface of life, damaged and reduced but still breathing. For some reason, I found the image hypnotic; I couldn’t get my head around it, or figure out why I kept returning to it obsessively. It was being used as metaphor for a particular sort of situation in the book I was reading – one in which the love a child gives to its mother is rebuffed or unrecognised. No child can figure out the reasons behind a mother’s behaviour, nor can it simply convince itself that the love given need not be reciprocated. Instead the whole sorry mess has to be cut away, left behind. The therapist offered two types of people who might result from such circumstances: the emotionally distant individual who treats people (probably politely, even charmingly) as interchangeable, and the person who dedicates their life to a cause or an abstract ideal. In either case, belief in a fulfilling, mutual, real human relationship is missing.

I’m sure there are all kinds of other possible outcomes given that the original problem here is described as the experience of  ‘emotional trauma’ and there are all sorts of other ways of undergoing that than with mothers in childhood. I was wondering how many bits of ourselves we leave pinioned to other failed relationships, with siblings, or admired teachers, or former best friends? How much gets impaled on the barren rock of failed dreams and ambitions, when the love we want to give to ourselves gets turned away by awkward, humiliating circumstances? Rather than undertake the hard, tedious work of sorting it out, thinking it all through or just feeling the negative emotions such situations cause, it often seems so much easier to chop it all away, leave it behind, even if something useful and necessary is left behind with it.

This line of thought led me to thinking about the way that Voldemort, in the final Harry Potter novels, turns out to have siphoned parts of his evil vitality off into horcruxes, which have been hidden about the country. This is why Voldemort is so weak in the earlier instalments of the series – he has put parts of himself in safe keeping, locked away in the magical equivalent of mini storage units. I think the real originality of the Harry Potter novels is the brilliant psychological symbols that J. K. Rowling dreamed up: the dementors as the embodiments of depression, the Boggarts, irrational fears that need to be banished by a spell that renders them ridiculous, the ‘howlers’, angry letters from parents that screech and blow up in a puff of flame, startling all the witnesses. The horcrux is another pertinent symbol, of the way in which we lock away parts of the self that we think of as ‘bad’ or ‘ugly’ (it’s no coincidence that Voldemort is composed out of their contents). We fear that if we let them out then they may just run rampage – their dark power seems too great to be controlled. Better to put them under house arrest, confined to a small, well-armoured space. And yet without them we are weaker, lacking energy, vitality, resilience.

How easy it is to end up with only a fragment of our former selves available to us! Between the bits that get harpooned and the bits that get locked up in horcruxes, we may find we are left with only a small amount of psychic and emotional space in which and with which to do battle. How easy it is to lose access to all sorts of things that might be essential, good things like confidence, self-esteem, belief in loveability, that are skewered on some old lost cause, and the bad-good things like self-protective anger, stubborn resistance, the sort of guilt that makes us work towards reparation, all imprisoned in a personal Pandora’s box. There is, after all, no quality, no emotion, that is not extremely useful to us; it is fear of not being able to use them properly, or a radical lack of trust in their effectiveness that means we block off the exit routes to them.

But why, I wondered, was I so caught up by these images? And finally the answer came to me: I have always loved the idea of spiritual freedom (the goal towards which we may all covertly be headed) as a beautiful term which, rather like the Adirondacks, sounds wonderful but fails to unite with any clear mental picture in my mind. What harpoons and horcruxes offered me were images of the direct opposite – the forms of psychic imprisonment that hold us away from spiritual freedom. Freedom is the feeling of having our right hands returned to us, of unlocking the contents of those internal safe boxes, letting in the air and the light. We all tend towards integration; we want those bits back, never mind that we try to convince ourselves that it’s hopeless over and over. And all the psychoanalytic theory promises us that we can and do heal, quite easily. It’s pulling the harpoon out, all rusty with age and covered over with barnacles, it’s finding the key to the padlock, thrown carelessly away, that takes the time and the effort. This is freedom, I think, no more and no less than having access to all the parts of ourselves, which sounds easy enough but is incredibly difficult to achieve. It has to be an ideal, which we can at best approximate, but all forms of freedom are so essential, so vital, that it’s worth any amount of effort.

On a slightly different note, the Amnesty International bookstore where I work is holding its own little prize award for the best book about freedom. We’re trying to compile a list of books that our customers can vote on. Problem is, I can think of hardly any books about freedom, other than a) Jonathan Franzen’s novel of the same name, b) Roots, by Alex Haley and c) John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty. Oh I suppose a possible d) could be Mary Wollstonecraft and her Vindication of the Rights of Women. Surely there must be lots of others! Suggestions most welcome, please.

18 thoughts on “Harpoons and Horcruxes

  1. Hmmmm…books about freedom. Just a couple ideas: The Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King. The Awakening by Kate Chopin. The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass.

    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.

    Think I’m out for the moment.

  2. I’ve always thought Voldemort had split himself into horcruxes to reach immortality (some sort of spare parts in case of emergency) but your vision of it is fascinating.

    Books about freedom :
    Jonathan Livinsgtone Seagull?
    There must be something among Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, d’Alembert…
    Something in Sartre / Camus?
    Liberté by Paul Eluard
    Les Racines du Ciel (Romain Gary)

  3. ‘A Wish After Midnight’ by Zetta Elliot (end of slavery in North America). ‘Dooley Takes the Fall’ – Ryan Dooley (young criminal whose sentence ends). But both those are YA and I don’t know how helpful they’ll be to you.

    Adult books: ‘The Children of Freedom’ by Marc Levy (about the resistance). ‘Motherlines’ Suzy Mckee Charnas (escaped woman in a world where men control women). ‘The Carhullan Army’ – Sarah Hall (woman escapes dystopian world, where again men control women, to join an all female community). ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ – Alexander Dumas.

    I can think of a lot of novels where characters spend most of the book time in prison, then escape, but that’s probably not what you’re looking for.

  4. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is all about that fragmentation of the self you so beautifully describe.

    And although it is a piece of code rather than words, I would nominate the program “freedom” (just google “freedom application”) for a major award for its efforts on behalf of all those who want to get work done, free of their internet obsession.

  5. Wonderful post, Litlove…and I agree with you re: Rowling…although some of her writing/characterizations are crude in a way that makes me wince, she also provides symbols in a way rarely seen in children’s fiction since the good old fairy tale days. The Horcrux is a fascinating device, interesting to me for reasons I’m sure you readily grasp — and most interesting of all to me is that Harry himself is one, but he is able to successfully manage that piece of himself, which was implanted completely against his will during a terrible trauma. That, to me, is even more intriguing than how they work for Voldemort.

    Re: freedom…depending upon how it’s being defined…I’d throw in The Naked Civil Servant , Quentin Crisp’s amazing memoir about being openly gay when it was still illegal in England.

  6. This is a really beautiful entry. It always pains me a bit that at the end of Deathly Hallows Dumbledore is so serene about the fact that there’s no possible way to help Voldemort’s grotesque and severed soul-fragment (in Harry’s vision). Something about that scene strikes me as quite disturbing, the way Dumbledore encourages Harry to ignore his feelings of compassion for Voldemort. Of course Harry can’t force Voldemort into doing the kind of remorse/psychoanalytic work you’re talking about, and which the books indicate is the only way he could reintegrate himself. But still, it seems bizarrely out of character.

    Sartre’s Les mouches is all about spiritual freedom. And a rousing read for sure.

  7. Wonderful post. I suppose those who do attain complete spiritual freedom are few and far between and we tend to turn them into religious figures. Books about freedom, I’ll have to think more but the first one that comes to mind is Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

  8. How closely do they have to be related to freedom? Because I always think The Color Purple is about finding spiritual freedom. Oh gosh I love that book. I need to reread it.

  9. Excellent post! It was simply superb.
    Now, true freedom for an individual comes only through spiritual realization. This age-old belief is strongly instilled in many. And according to me, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, is the only book that is all about freedom in many ways people would have never imagined. I highly recommend the book.

  10. Jiddu Krishnamurti’s Freedom from the Known is THE book on freedom.
    I say it is the only one anyone will ever need. (Ha! I’m a preacher). It is the only book I have ever bought several times to give it away. There are a few similar ones by other authors but he is quite the thing and more accessible for Westerners than Ramana Maharshi or Nisargadatta. The question however is whether you were looking only for novels? If so… I’m less sure.

  11. Emma – I had forgotten all about the immortality angle – thank you for reminding me! That’s equally fascinating in its way, and wonderful suggestions for books about freedom!

    Jodie – that’s fantastic. I can always guarantee you will come up with a load of books I haven’t heard of and it will give me great pleasure now to seek them out!

    Bloglily – we have a saying around here when Mister Litlove disappears – we describe him as ‘taken hostage by the computer’, and clearly we really need that programme! Toni Morrison; how long have I been meaning to read her work? Must, must, must. Thank you for that suggestion.

    David – I was hoping you might see this post – I very much wanted to hear your perspective on it. I had forgotten also that Harry carries part of Voldemort inside him, which strikes me as fascinating and I wish I’d thought about it before. The thought of it being implanted during a trauma…. wow, isn’t that just so evocative? And thank you also for the suggestion which sounds extremely apt.

    Emily – and thank you for that fascinating take on the end of Harry Potter. I had forgotten about the part of Voldemort that’s inside of Harry – now I will have to go back and read the ending again because it seems just so intriguing to me. I think I mentioned that I hadn’t read Les Mouches – time to get that one off the shelf!

    JB – I’d got as far as thinking about Iron In The Soul, the less-well-known Sartre novel that’s more about freedom than Nausea. Sartre’s main protagonist, Mathieu, cannot commit to any of the various action plans available to him – he can’t marry his partner, nor go and fight in Spain because any of these would mean choices that compromise his freedom. And of course as a result he drifts about doing nothing, achieving nothing and allowing bad things to happen around him. I’ll definitely add Tropic of Cancer to the list – thank you!

    Stefanie – yes, now isn’t that intriguing, to think that spiritual freedom becomes associated so frequently with the religious attitude. Hmm, that’s an evocative remark in itself. I’m sure I’ve heard of that le Guin novel cropping up somewhere… oh I have it, I think it’s going to be the next book for the reading group at Cornflower’s. I haven’t read it so perhaps I’ll join in. Thank you for the suggestion!

    Jenny – another book I haven’t read! Thank you, I will definitely check it out.

    Dovereader – thank you so much! I’ve heard a good friend of mine praise Eckhart Tolle’s book very highly indeed. It’s clearly one I need to read for myself – thank you for the suggestion!

    Caroline – non-fiction is good too! I think I may have that book by Krishnamurti around somewhere, or at least I have one of his. I read up about his life a while back and found it very interesting.

    Lokesh – bless you! And 1984 is an excellent suggestion.

    Lilian – thank you so much, my friend. Now why should it be so hard to achieve that self-knowledge? Ach and yet it is.

  12. I always find your insight into things to be profound. I have never read Harry Potter that deeply and now I realized so many layers of richness. At some point I do plan to reread and you have given me a thought about my son and I doing rereads together and having much to discuss!

  13. Actually a lot of science fiction books are about freedom. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. Embassytown by China Miéville.

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