Horcrux hunting

Not just for wizards and witches

In the third act of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince J.K. Rowling delivers a critical flashback to Voldemort’s past, in which he learns about horcruxes, a dark magic used to prevent death by storing a piece of soul in something outside the body. But the catch is twofold: to fragment their soul a wizard or witch has to commit murder, and life with a split spirit becomes painfully worse than it would be with a whole one.

Voldemort’s experience with horcruxes earns zero stars: he spends time living in a turban, a diary, and as a shriveled infant; his lone confidant is a snake; and he suffers from intense paranoia. But still he treasures his treasures – they keep him alive, even if the result, as he says, is feeling “ripped from his body” and “less than [a] spirit”. Readers shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’s misery as fiction: wizards, witches, and muggles share the ability to make horcruxes and suffer their consequences. Rowling’s tale contains a powerful lesson for consumers in today’s modern, material world.

Nonfictional horcruxes abound. Shoes, cars, and television are only a few examples of possessions to which excessive time, money, and care are allotted and with which identity is confused. This overvaluation of belongings siphon the self into something external. Marketing campaigns exacerbate the conflation: by advertising to narrow demographics they mix up what they’re selling with who their customers are. In swearing fealty to Nike or Adidas, iPhones or Androids, or Netflix series, consumers dangerously entangle themselves with what they buy, wear, or watch.

Social media is a type of horcrux, too. Part of their raison d’être is to let users carefully filter themselves online, but it is perilous to confuse what gets displayed with what is real. Tweets and Instagram photos may attract popularity or influence, but they are far too shallow of a medium to convey intimate personal truths like memory or virtue. Limiting expression to overly simplistic online profiles precludes the complexity inherent to human nature. Users who exist primarily inside the internet risk losing the growth afforded by offline introspection, the personality developed by in-person interaction, and the sympathy and understanding gained in conversation. A digital existence makes users miss out on the richer, more complicated parts of life.

Unfortunately, the nuance lost on social media is recovered by click-collecting algorithms. With user data, sale-hungry advertisers predict preferences from news to music, limiting autonomous searching, watching, and reading. An invisible information cage replaces the thoughtful wandering done in a neighborhood bookstore or park and, as a result, prevents eye-opening exploration. Willing and unwilling online sharing confines users, splitting them from the complexity and serendipity crucial to self-knowledge and growth.

Culture should examine itself in Rowling’s stories. Harry has prized possessions – his wand, cloak, and broomstick – but over them he ultimately values his relationships. He relies on virtues to solve problems, finds fulfillment in his actions and friends, and, spoiler alert, defeats Voldemort’s soul-splitting materialism. Rowling’s heroes have identities built from educations, experiences, and mistakes. Their adventures force them to question who they are without their stuff or reputations, and their hunt for the answers – for hidden horcruxes – is the same as any muggle’s.

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The inexorable disaster of L’avenir

Disaster connotes terrible, tragic, and ill-timed events. This expectation makes Mia Hansen-Løve’s 2016 film L’avenir (Things to Come) moving and insightful. For her, disaster is instead the predictable milestones of human life.

Nathalie Chazeaux is a middle-aged philosophy professor working in Paris, mired in an intellectually fulfilling but routine life. When young protesters bar entrance to her school, she pushes through their shouts and quotes Rousseau to her class. Centuries have tested his ideas and still they govern; protesters bicker over details of policy. Nathalie, like Rousseau, is stability.

Until disaster strikes. Barraged by crises – the decline and death of her mother, her children’s departure from home, a cheating husband – Nathalie’s life shatters into unfamiliar territory that is both freeing and depressing. She turns to Fabien, a clever former student, for support. He is an radical intellectual willing to sleep on the Parisian streets to protest, but trades city life to live on a farm nestled below the Alps. Nathalie decides to spend her summer vacation there, and is welcomed by Fabien and a cohort of anarchist writers eager for revolution.

Nathalie’s response to her troubles is unspectacular: she cries frequently, takes solace in a cat, and buries herself in books; however, it is this mundanity that proves her strength. Unlike most midlife-crisis stories, she does nothing drastic like quitting her job or making a splashy purchase. Her coping mechanisms are simple, benign, and harmless. When asked by Fabien if she is going to shake up her life, she replies that her intellectual life is plenty fulfilling.

On the farm Nathalie learns more about her prized student. His friends are working to destroy the notion of authorship; stowed on a bookshelf is a copy of the Unabomber manifesto. The group claims they are committed to revolution, but live contentedly in an Alpine paradise. Fabien and his pals get high, play in mountain streams, and write about changing the world. When asked why she does not want revolution, Nathalie responds that she is too old; not that she is incapable, but that she no longer thinks it the best option. She admits to being a communist for several years in her youth, but is long past that. Fabien is disappointed.

Nathalie and Fabien’s contrasting conceptions of and responses to disaster are barometers for their wisdom and maturity. Nathalie never expounds her personal beliefs, but her philosophy bleeds through her actions. Faced with disaster she prioritizes her children and students, steadily beats away sadness with time and reading, and never lashes out. Fabien’s situation is superb – in addition to the beautiful farm, he has a charming girlfriend and a book deal – yet he is bitter at the world for its flaws. He sees disaster in everything and champions a philosophy of radical revolt, but his life is pleasant and self-centered. Spurred by Nathalie’s rejection of the idea that the cost of radical progress might be human life, Fabien claims she is a hypocrite because she thinks grandly about change but does not act. Nathalie rebuts that her philosophy does not preclude a comfortable lifestyle, and she acts by teaching her students to think for themselves. She refrains from accusing Fabien of anything, although he seems the bigger hypocrite.

Nathalie returns from the mountains to Paris and reenters the grind. She accepts and moves past her disasters and continues teaching what she cares about. The film ends with a demonstration of Nathalie’s strength: her husband’s girlfriend has left him alone on Christmas and he pines to spend it with her and their kids, but she shoos him out of her apartment. She does not need him; she does not sympathize; she is confident in her decisions and her independence.

The film’s brilliance is its simplicity (and its acting). Personal disaster is inevitable and brought on by the steady creep of time. Though it culminates in a single event like death or divorce, it is never truly sudden. Nathalie’s wisdom and strength do not shield her from disaster, but they do not break under its pressure, either. She is a strong character because she allows herself to be sad and suffer, but remains confident about her outlook and her choices. She maintains perspective despite the emotional turmoil, and lets time soothe her wounds.

Through Nathalie and Fabien, Hansen-Løve says that youth is angry when it should be relishing the gifts of health and freedom, and that age and experience are humble, resolved, and a little boring. Changing the world is an everyday process, done by teaching, caring for a sick relative, and raising children. Fabien’s altruism is an illusion: moving to the mountains to plan revolution helps no one. You cannot save up time and energy to make change all at once: you have to make it every day. Disaster will one day strike Fabien like it will everyone, and no grandiose or complex philosophy will guard against the pain. The better option is to keep pushing forward, manifesting benevolence through a consistent, generous, intellectual, and practical life.

Dostoevsky, loneliness, and the internet: a connectivity error

Below are two excerpts from Book VI of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, published in Russia in 1880.

“Why, the isolation that prevails everywhere, above all in our age—it has not fully developed, it has not reached its limit yet. For every one strives to keep his individuality as apart as possible, wishes to secure the greatest possible fullness of life for himself; but meantime all his efforts result not in attaining fullness of life but self-destruction, for instead of self-realization he ends by arriving at complete solitude. All mankind in our age have split up into units, they all keep apart, each in his own groove; each one holds aloof, hides himself and hides what he has, from the rest, and he ends by being repelled by others and repelling them. He heaps up riches by himself and thinks, ‘How strong I am now and how secure,’ and in his madness he does not understand that the more he heaps up, the more he sinks into self-destructive impotence. For he is accustomed to rely upon himself alone and to cut himself off from the whole; he has trained himself not to believe in the help of others, in men and in humanity, and only trembles for fear he should lose his money and the privileges that he has won for himself. Everywhere in these days men have, in their mockery, ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. But this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another. It will be the spirit of the time, and people will marvel that they have sat so long in darkness without seeing the light. And then the sign of the Son of Man will be seen in the heavens…. But, until then, we must keep the banner flying. Sometimes even if he has to do it alone, and his conduct seems to be crazy, a man must set an example, and so draw men’s souls out of their solitude, and spur them to some act of brotherly love, that the great idea may not die.”

The world says: “You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don’t be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires.” That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, envy and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants. They maintain that the world is getting more and more united, more and more bound together in brotherly community, as it overcomes distance and sets thoughts flying through the air…

…And it’s no wonder that instead of gaining freedom they have sunk into slavery, and instead of serving the cause of brotherly love and the union of humanity have fallen, on the contrary, into dissension and isolation, as my mysterious visitor and teacher said to me in my youth. And therefore the idea of the service of humanity, of brotherly love and the solidarity of mankind, is more and more dying out in the world, and indeed this idea is sometimes treated with derision. For how can a man shake off his habits? What can become of him if he is in such bondage to the habit of satisfying the innumerable desires he has created for himself? He is isolated, and what concern has he with the rest of humanity? They have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less.

In the story these two passages are separated by a chapter and spoken by different characters, but they explore the same idea and are better examined as a pair. They are also valuable because they do not require context about the plot: they (ironically) can stand alone.

The ideas Dostoevsky presents in these passages are strikingly relevant. We live in an age of rampant and ramped-up loneliness. A recent survey in America categorized half of its citizens as feeling lonely. This year Britain appointed its first minister for loneliness. The Gods of the internet know it, too: they presented me with an advertisement for Facebook as I was reading a New York Times article about loneliness.

The social changes that Dostoevsky observed were partially due to the growth of capitalism in Europe in the 19th century. Competition divided people; wealth was equated with success, security and happiness; and the result was that “mankind… split up into units”. Yet even as he watched his world separate itself for money, Dostoevsky claimed that “the isolation that prevails everywhere… has not fully developed”; and while he never saw the birth of the internet or Facebook, he foresaw and pre-paraphrased the Zuckerbergish claims that “the world is getting more and more united… as it overcomes distance and sends thoughts flying through the air.”

In our era of firmly entrenched economic capitalism, physical and monetary separation seems natural: picket fences divide our homes, cars divide the roads and, for the rich, gates and guards protect modern palaces. Some of Dostoevsky’s observations have even become cliché via the tragedy of the sad or lonely celebrity or billionaire. Many of capitalism’s social effects have sunk into “it is what it is” territory. But the internet – social media in particular – has created a new brand of capitalism and competition: social capitalism. In addition to caring about the number of zeroes appended to our bank account, our count of followers, likes, views, and friends now contributes to our image of self-worth. In 2018 this is a trite observation, but our changing ideas of solidarity and independence may have something to learn from The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoevsky says that “they have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less.” He is speaking in material terms, but for us this could translate to a myriad of social-capital goods. Thanks to Instagram there has never been a greater mass of beautiful pictures; thanks to Twitter there have never been so many comic observations; thanks to Facebook we have never had so many friends. Having a post go viral is equated with winning the lottery. What is the result of this accumulation? Online words and images shower us with stimulation, but not with connection; the internet provides an excellent medium for communication, but how often is that communication meaningful? Like a refrigerator our phones are checked before bed and after waking, hardly ever containing anything but a reminder that we are hungry. Even while physically together the desire for social capital can separate us.

The issue of internet usage is complicated and cannot be proclaimed the singular cause of contemporary isolation, but it deserves more attention at the individual level. Artists, scientists, and journalists are all exploring its effects on society; the common person needs to join them. Evaluate how much time and energy is spent daily on social media, and ask yourself why you count the number of likes on a picture or tweet. What do you gain from it? Would the time filtering a photo be better spent talking on the phone with a friend or relative? How could you instead use your social media to really connect?

“Sometimes even if he has to do it alone, and his conduct seems to be crazy, a man must set an example, and so draw men’s souls out of their solitude.” The next time you are with friends and all are silent because all are on their phones, don’t succumb – even if it makes you feel like a pariah. Keep the internet in your pocket and try to pull the others back to reality and each other with a question or observation. (Find some good ones here).

The internet is and will remain an implacable part of our lives, but finding ways to circumvent or employ it to foster friendship and solidarity is crucial. We need to learn to navigate it for the purpose of making and maintaining connections in the same way Dostoevsky’s world had to adapt to the splintering effects of capitalism. Learning from his experience is a fine place to start.

Meursault’s indifference in The Stranger

“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” These words, when uttered before reading the text, reflected of their orator a different character than displayed throughout the remainder of The Stranger. Monsieur Meursault is strange, yes, but Mr. Indifferent would perhaps be a more fitting title for his story.

The frankness and directness of part one brings an immediacy to his character. It is indicative of his observatory powers, and the sensory absurdity and backwardness with which the world affects him. The bus rattles loudly, he is induced to sleep. The lights are blindingly white, he is induced to sleep. He is given coffee, he is induced to sleep. Again and again Meursault’s environment elicits the reverse of the reaction one might normally expect; the same could be said of the story’s events. His mother dies, and it troubles him only for the logistical reasons: it’s a long trip to her home, he has to pay bus fare, he needs to borrow a suit from a friend. What he does and does not feel are more representative of a trip to the county clerk than a funeral. The reader must admire his authenticity, however, because he does not feign grief where he has none. He does not pretend to know his mother’s age, desire to see her before the burial, or shed a tear at her vigil. The whole affair is a trifle – a bother he apologizes to his boss for missing work over.

Meursault’s indifference is not quite apathy: it is more like extreme clarity. The objectivity of everything is apparent to him, and he treats it as such – including his own thoughts and feelings. If something is agreeable, he agrees. If he has something to say, he speaks, and if not, he is silent. Several characters – Salamano, Celeste, Maria, Raymond – admire his demonstrated simplicity. To them it is manly, mysterious, or calming. Unusual, perhaps, but only by comparison to their emotional amplitudes. It is almost a virtue.

Camus exhibits human absurdity and impossibility with the polar stories of Raymond and Salamano, both centered about Meursault’s own. Raymond tells Meursault he had a lady for a while, gave her more than enough money to live on, treated her well, and was in return asked for more money and less companionship. Upon deciding that she was cheating on him, he beats her senseless and throws her out. Old man Salamano has a diseased dog that he bludgeons and curses daily. He constantly complains about the dog, but when it runs away from him one afternoon he is struck with a deep depression. He mourns over the loss of the dog, wonders where he might find it, and laments the loneliness to which he is condemned. The dog was all he had, and he was a great dog, just old, that’s all. Between these two tales is Meursault’s wooing of Marie, a former colleague. He goes to the beach because he wants to, talks to Marie because he feels like it, sleeps with her because it is desirable, and continues to see her because she appeals to him. But in each interaction he has with Marie, he acts objectively and indifferently. The cause of his want is clear to him, and so he follows it. Marie’s affectionate gestures are almost dismissed: he responds to her confession of love, “it [doesn’t] mean anything but I [don’t] think [I love you].” Again, like his defense about the inconvenience of his mother’s death to his boss, Meursault feels the need to qualify his indifference. He understands that he is not like others, and expresses it not with remorse, but objectivity. And he wins: Raymond treats his girl with surfeit and she cheats on him, Salamano treats his dog with contempt and he runs away, but Meursault treats Maria, the loveliest of all three mates, with indifference, and wins her heart. It is the absurdity of human connection in Goldilocks form, and Meursault’s treatment is just right.

Meursault’s indifferent agreeability leads him to trouble. Raymond, who delights in calling Meursault his “pal”, involves him in a scheme to lure his ex-girl back to his apartment so that he can beat her senseless again. Meursault sees no reason to object, and participates. When the girl arrives and is beaten, he abstains from intervening in the violence. Meursault does not turn himself into a moral arbiter, as we might think we would do. We might do nothing and feel bad about it, or do something and feel good about it; Meursault does what is asked of him because he cannot see why not, and feels nothing about it. His action and then inaction might compare with ours, but it his indifference that marks the contrast. This idea is touched upon several times: the result of an decision may be the same as if a “normally” emotional person did as Meursault, but it is the lack of inner conflict that separates them.

Meursault’s overwhelming objectivity may be representative of his creator’s existential philosophy: things in themselves have no predetermined essence, but are bestowed one by humanity. Meursault strips people and events to the bare – even the warmest of interactions. When he kisses Marie, it does not mean anything, he does it merely because he can and wants to. To her it might mean that he loves her, or that she is the one – all of the things a kiss symbolizes, or its essence.

When Meursault kills a man, it is not an accident, but the reader cannot help feel that is not entirely his fault. He is afflicted with the same sun-induced haze that he experienced during his mother’s funeral. The reader knows it swells his head and makes him fuzzy because of his previous description earlier in the story. The Arab he shoots is dangerous to him, he knows it, and in tandem with the imposing sun causes him to commit the crime. It does not seem to be, as the prosecuting attorney will later state, premeditated. It seems as accidental and unfortunate as a homicide can be. At the same time, the reader can acknowledge that no murder is truly accidental or unlucky; it takes a person a great deal of gall to shoot someone, and the act almost universally demands passion either before or after in the form anger or remorse. Meursault the murderer is neither angry nor remorseful, and it condemns him.

The legal proceedings in part two are written in a different style than the blunt conciseness of part one. Here Camus allows Meursault to muse in addition to observe. The writing is at points lyrical, though what this indicates about Meursault’s altered or non-altered character is unclear. Physically he is in a jail; this gives him more time to think than act, and perhaps that is all the reader should observe. In a life of acting, objectivity is best. When time becomes a burden, so too does thought, and the brain responds by entertaining itself.

Meursault’s indifference is at first met with hostility. The attending magistrate and his lawyer both are somewhat appalled and disgusted at his lack of remorse. Soon, however, they move on. Meursault acknowledges that his routine questionings become quite pleasant; the magistrate even pats him on the back as he exits. Here again Meursault’s agreeability, even as a committed criminal, endears him to others.

He notes that while his loss of freedom is painful, it is not unendurable. A guard who takes to Meursault’s personality converses with him on the purpose of jail. The stripping of choice and freedom – that is the punishment. Jail would mean nothing if its inhabitants could act freely, but it would also mean nothing if they did not desire to do so. The reader may dwell on Meursault’s previous life – one of habit and demand – and compare it to his jailed existence, or to their own, habitual lives. Camus asks that we examine our daily lives and how insignificant they truly are. What is a day, really? Meursault’s experience is the vehicle in which we might find objective truth. There is no meaning to what we eat for breakfast, who we speak with, what we learn; WE give all of these things meaning, and WE provide life a meaning. It may be constructed consciously or subconsciously, but it is constructed all the same.

An absurd exchange occurs when Marie visits Meursault in jail. All around the visiting room inmates are conversing. Many of them are shouting so that their interlocutor can hear, but he notes that some Arabs are squatting low to the ground and speaking in hushed voices, and that they can hear each other fine. In one conversation stall beside Meursault, a boy and his mother do not talk at all: they instead stare at each other. In the other stall next to Meursault, a man and woman shout at each other at the top of their lungs about groceries and other trifles. Camus again displays the absurdity of humanity: to be heard one need not shout, to shout does not mean to speak, and the most meaningful of all interaction may be plain silence.

Meursault’s murder trial is a spectacle that gets worked up by the press because of a lack of other headlines. He admits guilt outright, and the battle between defense and prosecution becomes over his character. The prosecution excessively delves into Meursault’s apathy while at his mother’s funeral, calls his frivolous activity with Marie the day after the funeral inhuman, and says his involvement in Raymond’s beating of the girl was malicious. His defense rebukes each event with the opposite sentiment, and remarks about the prosecutor’s argument that “everything is true and nothing is true.” Meursault thinks to himself several times that the whole ordeal seems no longer to be about him, the murderer; it is instead a battle between two men to instill a different meaning into reality.

The prosecution rests his case by asserting that Meursault is an unfeeling monster who deserves decapitation because he is a threat to society. The defense rebuts that he is as unlucky as a murderer can be given the circumstances, and that all the talk of his soullessness is rubbish. Meursault is committed to the guillotine by the judges and jury. Camus shows the weakness of the human mind in this indictment. Meursault is monstrous and foreign because he is, in a way, superior. He is indifferent and objective; he does not lump meaning into every detail of life. He goes about his business as he sees fit and judges nothing to be this or that if it is not. By condemning Meursault to death, the people have shown they are susceptible to spectacle, to fear, and to unreality. They are weak – we are weak – and are willing to be given meaning by the most convincing orator in the vicinity.

Meursault’s knowledge of his impending death inspires a final surge of emotion in him. His previous indifference and objectivity gives way to longing. He acknowledges his happiness outside jail, his joy on the beach, and Marie’s loveliness. He allows certainty and hope to alternate in his mind: first that his appeal will be denied and that he will die, then that he will be granted a second chance. There is no reality in these thoughts – he is imbuing it – but still it affects him. His new sentimentality ruptures in a confrontation with a chaplain. The chaplain condescends to him about the existence of God and heaven, but Meursault does not budge. He defends his nonbelief, and asserts in exasperation that death will come to all, that nothing matters, and that “everybody is privileged.” Camus’s word choice – privilege – is powerful. We are condemned not to live but to die; and life, while it lasts, is a privilege. Despite the final condemnation, despite the meaninglessness of it all, life is a privilege.

The chaplain leaves with tears in his eyes; perhaps he believes Meursault has found God. In a way, he has. Meursault casts aside his hope and surrenders to the “gentle indifference” of the world. Life is not vengeful, lucky, cruel, sacred, or wondrous: it is indifferent. Emotions and feelings come indiscriminately, or we conjure them ourselves. Meursault finishes his story with an objective and absurd observation: for him not to feel lonely at the execution he need only hope there are people there crying out at him in hate.

Names and numbers in Schindler’s List

“You shouldn’t get stuck on names…It creates a lot of paperwork.”

Schindler's List

The Nazi Soldier Hoss says this as he is being bribed into sending Schindler’s Jews to Czechoslovakia. The scene cuts, and then we are on Auschwitz grounds, watching a Nazi read aloud the names of the Jews who will board the train bound for Schindler’s factory. The camera shows his list: the lens focuses on the Jews’ assigned numbers, but they are left unsaid.

Throughout the film Jews are dehumanized by the Nazis: the most cruel instance perhaps being when the Nazi Captain Goeth, as he is contemplating raping her, refers to his Jewish housemaid as “not a person in the strictest sense of the word” to her face. She is something less than a person, and it justifies his crimes. In a way, Schindler’s list – the significance given to the names, rather than the numbers – is the counterattack to dehumanization; it symbolizes rehumanization. The list, when read aloud at Auschwitz, links their names with their survival.

To have meaning and worth is to have a name. That is why the Nazis dispose of names on their quest to extinguish the Jews while Schindler, as his love for his workers increases, records them. For a Nazi soldier committing crimes against humanity, victims’ namelessness was an asset. Schindler’s List is a poignant and harrowing reminder that discarding individuals’ names is equivalent to removing their humanity, and a precursor to stripping them of their lives.