A few weeks ago, David Brooks remarked that the debt-ceiling kerfuffle in Washington, “is about many things, but one of them is our inability to face death — our willingness to spend our nation into bankruptcy to extend life for a few more sickly months.”

Is Brooks right? Are we really unable to “face death”?

Of course, it’s not as if death has disappeared from our landscape. We have no shortage of disease, bombings, shootings, car crashes, and the like. In fact, given the omnipresence of mass media, we have never been more encompassed by death—we hear about it daily via surround sound.

However, our attitudes towards death are schizophrenic. Despite the obvious fact that death persists, we refuse to acknowledge it as ineradicable. We desperately attempt to outmaneuver our mortality. The mindset to which Brooks alludes is that of a deeply frightened people. The examples are numerous and commonplace. Americans spend millions of dollars every year on procedures, diets, and services to make them look and feel more youthful. The preoccupations with healthcare, end-of-life care, and the war on disease—all reflect an unprecedented effort to resist death.

It is not unnatural to want to live. Hobbes tells us that the basic human instinct is to survive. In certain religious accounts death is the result of a curse. It is one thing, however, to view death as part of the human condition. It is entirely different to view death as a particularly pernicious disease to be mastered and conquered—or, if that fails, forgotten.

Our schizophrenia concerning death makes the success of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series somewhat curious. In Harry Potter, death is omnipresent. It is inseparable from Rowling’s other great themes of love and friendship. Indeed, the pathos of love and friendship intensifies with the preeminent position occupied by death and evil in The Deathly Hallows.

[Spoiler Alert] Consider the recently released film adaptation of Book 7 (Deathly Hallows, Pt. II). The evil Lord Voldemort, we learn, is obsessed by his desire to achieve mastery over death. His grand scheme is to become immortal, something he hopes to accomplish by splitting his soul into seven “horcruxes,” dark objects that require killing a living being. Perhaps not surprisingly, his drive to conquer death corresponds with an unquenchable sense of fear. The desire to keep living at all costs squeezes out any notion of living well.

Voldemort’s attempt to become the lord of death will never bring him what he seeks. The scheme of horcruxes cannot undo his mother’s abandonment of him, bring him friends, ensure his power, or ultimately even rescue him from death. His obsession with avoiding death merely breeds an obsession with death. Likewise, our attempts to control or obliterate death does not ultimately spring from a genuine love of life or other people. We inject Botox and demand medicine to cure all diseases because we fear death, not necessarily because we embrace life.

Harry Potter represents the opposite approach to death. His very life was granted him as a gift of his mother’s love. He bears, physically and emotionally, the scars and burdens of that sacrifice. His life is entwined with deaths: the death of his parents, the attempt on his life by Lord Voldemort, and Voldemort’s first “death.” Despite the pain inflicted on him by death, Harry does not become obsessed with obliterating it. He chooses to walk in the path of his mother’s sacrificial love.

Throughout the books, Harry comes to possess the three elements of the “Deathly Hallows”—a cloak of invisibility, the elder wand, and the resurrection stone. According to wizarding lore, the possession of these three pieces grants a wizard mastery over death. The mere existence of these items, ironically, has caused a multitude of murders over the years, as wizards vied for the ability to master death. Unlike the other wizards who gained these prizes, Harry never fought for them. When he does gain possession, he realizes that the “prize” of mastering death is no prize at all. One by one, he lets the elements of mastery slip out of his fingers, thus forfeiting his claim on immortality.

The series’ climax, in which Harry offers himself as a sort of scapegoat, is the most dramatic illustration of the difference between Harry and Voldemort’s attitudes towards death. Harry becomes convinced that his sacrificial death is necessary to save his friends and end Voldemort’s evil. He willingly opens himself to Voldemort’s killing spell. Harry’s surrendering of his claim not only to immortality, but to life itself, is in the end what allows Harry to live and causes Voldemort to die.

It is curious that Americans (and others) are so enamored with the Harry Potter books and movies. Our hero, Harry, demonstrates an attitude towards death that very few of us actually hold. Rowling depicts Harry’s life as a daily encounter with real death and evil—and as a demonstration of the notion of love as laying down one’s life for one’s friends. In contrast, of course, Voldemort is symbolic of the attitude of mastery over death, and the concomitant loss of life.

But perhaps our fascination with Harry Potter is not so very curious after all. In the deepest recesses of our hearts we know that we can’t really conquer death, and that we wouldn’t be happy even if we could. Harry Potter reminds us of a truth we always know but often forget—that a life of sacrificial love lets go of death, and thus has nothing to fear from it. In embracing the kind of love that does not attempt to overcome our curse, we are freed to live.

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  1. Great article! I never looked at “Harry Potter” that way, thanks for putting a new spin on it!

  2. I picked up the last book one morning while waiting for the house to wake up, was immediately struck by how dark the whole thing seemed to be, and put it down. I should try again, beginning with the first book.

  3. Fabulous article. Loved it and will share. The best part though is that there is a real life version of Harry Potter. Jesus Christ.

  4. Nicely done. A couple of quick thoughts.

    I wonder if contemporary attitudes towards death are not shaped by the antiseptic, cellophaned distance most of us have to it? We don’t kill our own food (most of us), we hand the sick over to the whitecoats for professional care.

    Seems to me that the honor the aged enjoyed in many traditional societies was a sort of compensation for the shortening of days.

  5. Hi Rachel,

    So, your discussion here is interesting, especially in that a friend of mine and I had a conversation that ran along very similar lines to the ones your discussion runs along. Though, I have to say, we came to a rather different conclusion – one that I wonder whether many FPRers would welcome too quickly.

    I think the only strong piece of counter-evidence to your analysis is the fact that final film (and, the books) don’t treat ‘the dead’ as having failed to be immortal. For as Neville says in his speech to Voldemort, and as Harry’s loved ones say to him before he faces Voldemort in the woods, the dead live on within the (minds of the) living, and in this way, achieve immortality. Why think that these sorts of existences constitute a sort of immortality? Because Dumbledore says so, in his final meeting with Harry. “Of course it’s all in your head – but why should that make it any less real?”

    In other words, the conquest of death amounts to immortality in the mind, in spite the apparent loss of the body. Voldemort’s ultimate flaw, then, is that he sees life as fundamentally embodied. This is why he divides his soul into seven separate physical bodies, and also why he is ‘reduced’ to something less than physical after his first encounter with Harry. The lesson here is driven home doubly in the series’ climactic scene. Not only is Voldemort killed in spite of having bound his life to so many bodies, but he’s killed in spite of physically possessing the Elder Wand. The point here is that physical possession of power is not an authentic possession of power; indeed, authentic possession of the wand proceeds from ‘mind’ of the wand, for the wand chooses the wizard.

    From this vantage point, it looks like Voldemort represents something more specific than the fear of death. Instead, he represents the fear that life ends when the body ends. The final contradiction to this is Harry, whose parents and loved ones are immortal within him, in spite of having ended physically. The way to immortality, then, is not the path of fear and domination – Voldemort’s path – but the way of love, which as we recall from Book 5, is the ultimate weapon that Harry has in abundance but that Voldemort lacks entirely.

    Anyway. I think the only disagreement I have with your analysis is in your conclusion, when you hypothesize that our fascination with Harry Potter emerges from the oft-repressed knowledge that death cannot be conquered. I think the Harry Potter series works actually to contradict this hypothesis, in depicting Harry’s life and the lives of those who ‘died’ protecting him as persisting in spite of their physical deaths. But that said, I think your point about the centrality of love is spot on. For no character is able to become immortal – at least, immortal as the series presents it – unless he has been loved and has returned it. Indeed, Harry’s final maturation occurs when he realizes this – when he drops the resurrection stone in the woods – and then we subsequently see the part of Voldemort that was bound to Harry as a dying fetus in Harry’s mind. The child-like view is the one that Voldemort never escaped: life is the body is all there is to life. Harry becomes an adult – surely, the point of nearly every children’s series – sees life as fundamentally en-minded, and the only path to this authentic sort of immortality is through love. Like you said, kind of.

    Ha, maybe I’m trying to be a little too agreeable here, but I really did find a lot of your analysis persuasive. And I concede, my response is a pretty sketchy one. You seem like you’ve attended to the books and to the films pretty closely, and I expect you’ll have a good take of your own on the examples I mentioned.

  6. Thanks for the responses, everyone.

    Aaron — I found your comment fascinating, and I’m not sure we disagree. The central point of my analysis is that the Harry Potter series can be read as demonstrating that mastery over death (as attempted by the character Voldemort) is undesirable and even pernicious. I think you’re correct that Voldemort views life completely as embodied living, and I suppose I could have made this more clear. Come to think of it, I think viewing life completely as physical/temporal, and the desire to master death often go hand in hand.

    Your analysis about immortality having something to do with the mind, remembrance, and love could be supported in various ways by the books. I don’t think the instance you cited all point to the same thing, though. The idea that immortality consists in being remembered (your Neville example) is something that the Ancient Greeks and others held to quite strongly. That immortality is a quality of the mind is interesting, but I’m not sure it’s a notion that offers very much comfort. I.e. if immortality is only being remembered, or holding the memory of someone in your mind, then maybe Voldemort’s position makes some sense.

    I think the position Rowling is really trying to communicate is that death can be transcended (or perhaps conquered?) only through sacrificial love, not just through recognizing that life is not embodied. I’m hesitant to use the word “immortality” to describe her position because immortality usually describes a way to not die (as contrasted with what she seems to be depicting with Harry and the deaths of his parents, Sirius, and others, which is that death is not the end of life to some extent).

    So … you raise interesting examples, and I think we agree on quite a bit. The only thing I’m uncomfortable with is saying that the series is in any way about how to become immortal. I don’t think Rowling is concerned at all with describing how not to die. I also don’t think the series is necessarily about a dichotomy between the body and the mind (although your point about Voldemort is well taken). Rather, the series seems to be a juxtaposition of attempted mastery over death and love. I’m not, with deference to the texts, prepared to take that claim any further, although I know to many the idea of sacrificial love may seem to be a parallel to ideas of atonement and eternal life.

    Thanks for your thoughtful response!

  7. You were honored for being old because so few people made it to 60 or 70, let alone 80 or 90. When living past 65 is almost a given, it’s not considered that much of an accomplishment and so nobody cares if you do it. It’s the lifespan version of grade inflation; a “B” used to be pretty good; now, it’s the new “C”.

  8. While I’ve never cared for the Harry Potter books and movies, I do think the “fear of death” theme is useful for discussing many of our national and personal issues. I’ve often used the metaphor of an aging, obese patient in the ICU to describe the US economy. We’ve fed and cared for our economy and made its continuous growth our primary goal. But now all the growth has clogged its arteries and saddled it with far too much adipose tissue. Now we find that the only “cure” for our morbidly obese patient is to keep it in the ICU, spending untold trillions in borrowed money from the grandkids to keep it alive another day, all because we fear its death and don’t have the heart to do what must be done.

  9. My elder relatives (80+) don’t seem to fear death. I think being very old for a long time drains a lot of the fun out of living.

    As for Harry Potter, “the chosen one” story lines always tend to rub me the wrong way. Hermine is the better wizard due to her persistent hard work. However, she was not chosen, so much for meritocracy. Ignoring that, the rest of the story is immenintly watchable. Also, why did Voldemort stop at seven?

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