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.