THE DEMENTOR’S KISS: WHAT IS A SOUL AND CAN YOU LOSE IT?
By David Russell Mosley
Word Count: 881
Rating: G (suitable for all audiences)
Summary: A discussion of J.K. Rowling’s portrayal of the soul in the Harry Potter Series.
I normally do my annual re-read of Harry Potter during Christmastide (maybe this coming Christmas I’ll do a post surveying the place of Christmas in the Wizarding World), but I didn’t get to it this past Christmas, so I started it this summer. I’ve just finished re-reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and thought I would do a short post about the soul.
For those unfamiliar, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban deals with Harry’s third year at Hogwarts where he learns a man called Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban prison and is seeking revenge.
Of course, Harry later finds out this man doesn’t want to kill him, but wants revenge on the man who led to the death of Black’s best friend and he best friend’s wife, Harry’s parents. In the course of the story we learn about the prison guards at Azkaban, floating, cloaked, evil creatures called Dementors. Dementors have the ability to suck the happiness right out of you. Even worse, these despicable creatures, should they feel so inclined, can lower their hoods and suck out your soul.
When we first learn about this it is suggested that the dementors kill you, but we’re told no. It is much worse than that. In Rowling’s wizarding world, a human can “survive” without their soul. Their body will continue to function, but they will no longer be who they are.
In a sense, their personhood and their personality are lost. And this is where I take umbrage. Rowling seems to take on Descartes’ understanding of the soul as the ghost in the machine. The body is simply a mechanism where the organs, even the brain, can continue to function but the person is gone. Now, Rowling will go on to do even more interesting things with the soul, and perhaps I’ll write about that when I get to horcruxs in book 7. However, I want to tackle this problem now.
Rowling, who often shows a subtle understanding of medieval philosophy and theology, seems stuck in the Renaissance when it comes to the soul. Let me try to explain. For the medievals, following on the work of Plato, Aristotle, and of course the Church Fathers (amongst others), the soul was the animating force of the body.
The very word for soul in Latin is animus and many Greek translators of the New Testament suggest that psyche should be translated as life––since they don’t want to associate with Platonic or Aristotelian notions of the soul (I think they’re wrong about that, but that’s a conversation for another day). So, the soul is the animating force of the body. This means that the reason I can type on this keyboard right now is not simply because I have muscles and tendons and blood vessels and bones; but I can type on this keyboard because I have a soul. Death, with this understanding of the soul, occurs when the soul leaves the body. Now, the soul isn’t just the animating force that separates us from corpses.
For humans it also includes the rational soul, the sensitive, and even the vegetative soul (bodily functions such as digestion). The latter two being most akin to the animating force aspect of the soul. So, for a person of a medieval mindset, a dementor, should it suck out your soul, would kill you.
The problem, as I see it, is that Rowling treats of the soul as a material object. The soul is a material thing that can be sucked out of you, that can be destroyed by consumption (in the digestive tract of a dementor, presumably, although what precisely the dementor does with the sucked out soul is not discussed), that can be split into pieces and stored in other, primarily inanimate (see what I did there), bodies. While Rowling writes a convincing world, it is difficult for me to understand this view of the soul.
It is particularly difficult since as the story progresses beyond book 3, we begin to learn something about the wizarding world’s understanding of death and the afterlife (especially after Sirius dies in book 5 and Harry asks Sir Nicholas de Mimsy Porpington about becoming a ghost). This understanding of death and the afterlife, teased at the end of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone seems to include a conscious existence that transcends this life. There is on to which one can move; a veil that separates this world from the next. This seems incongruent with the understanding of the soul laid out here in Prisoner of Azkaban. Even the quotation from Scripture or Harry’s parent’s tomb loses some of its force, for what is it to defeat death, if death does not include the separation of body and soul?
So, while I will continue to re-read Ms. Rowling’s excellent books on an annual basis––and look forward to introducing them to my children––this problem of the soul and the way it can be “lost” will continue to plague me.