Approaching Voldemort: The Abject in Harry Potter
This is an academic paper. You DO NOT have permission to reprint/reproduce this material. Copyright 2011 Megan Karius.
What does it mean to speak of abjection? According to Kristeva, the abject is neither subject nor object (1); it is that which cannot be assimilated into meaning. It has “only one quality of the object – that of being opposed to I” (Kristeva 1). Thus, the abject is that which I must expel in order to become a bound subject. The abject – what I am not – allows me to draw a border around myself. Kristeva’s writing is opaque at best, so it can be difficult to understand what she is trying to communicate. For this reason, an example or analogy can be useful for deciphering Kristeva’s meaning. This response paper is my attempt to use the relationship between Harry Potter and Voldemort as an allegory for Kristeva’s concept of the abject.
Throughout the entire Harry Potter series, Voldemort is the foil for Harry, the series’ main character and boy hero. While on the surface the books are written for children, they are enjoyed by kids and adults alike; upon closer analysis, the stories are filled with metaphors for the struggles and experiences we all face. That being said, we can use the relationship between Harry Potter and Voldemort to further explore Kristeva’s notion of the abject. For instance, abjection can said to be represented by Voldemort himself. Throughout the series, he is referred to as either “You-Know-Who” or “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”; the fear and disgust associated with Voldemort is so great that he cannot be recognized or spoken about. The abject – Voldemort – threatens life and must be radically excluded (Kristeva, qtd. in Creed 9). In addition, Voldemort’s crimes are abject as well. Kristeva says that “any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject” (4). Voldemort would not pose such a threat or incite such fear if people had complete faith in their system of law and the Ministry of Magic. Indeed, Voldemort disturbs identity, system and order, and has no respect for borders, positions, or rules (Kristeva 4). Voldemort is the “hatred that smiles” (Kristeva 4); he is the border between good and evil, between “I” and “Not I”.
It is also important to understand the extent to which the abject is a part of the subject. Kristeva says that “what is abject . . . the jettisoned object, is radically excluded” (2). The reason we must exclude the abject is because it is always there inside us, but we cannot recognize it; we must disavow it. Perhaps Kristeva illustrates this point best when she discusses waste and corpses. She argues that “refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death” (Kristeva 3). The by-products of life and the makings of a corpse are always within us, so we physically expel them in order to live. Similarly, Voldemort is a part of Harry and vice versa. Voldemort is resurrected using Harry’s blood, their wands are ‘twins’, made from the same Phoenix feather, and they share a psychic connection. Not only are their destinies intertwined, but they are physically and mentally connected. While Voldemort functions as Harry’s abject, he is also always a part of Harry, the part Harry must constantly repulse in order to live. Harry actively chooses not to be in Slytherin House (Voledmort’s old school House) and he is frightened by his ability to speak to snakes, an ability he shares with Voldemort. Indeed, Harry’s entire life is defined by expelling what he is not. Voldemort’s abjection allows Harry to define himself as a subject.
There is a pivotal scene at the end of the last novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Having surrendered to Voldemort, Harry is killed and wakes up in a sort of limbo. One of the first things he notices is a small, squalling creature under a chair. It is described as naked, deformed and mewling, and seems to represent Voldemort (Rowling 566). This scene provides convincing evidence for arguing that Voldemort is Harry’s abject. As we already know, Harry and Voldemort are a part of each other; they are inextricably linked, and Harry is forever trying to rid himself of Voldemort. When he reaches the limbo scene, Harry is confronted with the creature that represents Voldemort. The description of their encounter follows: [Harry] was afraid of it . . . he did not want to approach it . . . Soon he stood near enough to touch it, yet he could not bring himself to do it. He felt like a coward . . . it repulsed him” (Rowling 566). Harry is drawn to the creature, yet disgusted by it at the same time. He cannot force himself to face it. For Harry, the creature and therefore Voldemort are “not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A ‘something’ that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me” (Kristeva 2).
There is a particular section in which Kristeva alludes to the Holocaust. Reading about Nazi crimes, I inevitably begin to think about Hitler, and since I am relating Kristeva’s essay to Harry Potter, it is not a far leap to think about Voldemort. I am not saying J.K. Rowling wrote Voldemort’s character to symbolize Hitler; in fact, Rowling herself has described Voldemort as a self-hating bully, rather than being based on any real historical character (Wikipedia). That being said, similarities can still be drawn. Hitler, the ultimate advocate of the ‘Aryan race’, was dark haired and suffered rumours that his maternal grandfather was Jewish (Wikipedia); Voldemort, working towards a similar goal of eliminating all non-wizard blood from the magical community, was fathered by a human. One could, arguably, describe Hitler the same way Rowling described Voldemort – as a self hating bully. While history now looks upon Hitler as some sort of monster, because Voldemort exists in a fantasy world, Rowling is able to make him become literally inhuman. To better understand this comparison, I’d like to look more closely at a quote from Kristeva: “The abjection of Nazi crime reaches its apex when death, which, in any case, kills me, interferes with what, in my living universe, is supposed to save me from death: childhood, science, among other things” (4). The spectre of death interfering with childhood and scientific ‘progress’ being used to slaughter millions cause an instance of abjection. We can see parallels in the Harry Potter series; Voldemort was a wizard prodigy who excelled at magic, but used that skill in the service of evil. The apex of Voldemort’s abjection is perhaps reached at the moment he tries to murder the baby Harry. Again, I think Kristeva is trying to argue that what is abject cannot be understood; it “interferes” (4) with those boundaries that I think keep me safe and whole. Abjection exposes the fragility of my subjective ontology.
Another important feature of the abject is ambiguity. Kristeva says, “We may call it a border; abjection is above all ambiguity. Because, while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it – on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger” (9). There is much to unpack in this quote. First is the notion of a border. Kristeva says that what we refer to as a border is actually a function of abjection. Expelling the abject allows me to draw a border around myself, to become a subject. The abject is ambiguous though, which means the border is not stable. Kristeva then says that facing the abject forces the subject to acknowledge that it is always in danger of being undone. This is the reason the abject must be constantly rejected, repulsed, repelled. The abject is paradoxically “I” and “Not I” at the same time. We always discard it because it is always there, always a part of us. The fact of having to reject something in order to be understood as a subject means it may be a part of me. Once again, this is a difficult topic to broach, but Harry Potter may help to illuminate some of the details.
What is Voldemort, if not ambiguous? He is characterized as a monster, not just because of his evil deeds, but also his physical appearance. He used to be human, but upon resurrection he has also become part snake; he was never quite dead, but he is not fully alive. For much of the series, he lingers almost on the threshold between life and death, a life force without a body. Voldemort is the physical manifestation, and therefore symbolic representation, of the abject. This is precisely why Voldemort is so scary: the abject is what allows us to be bound as subjects. Abjection allows us to define our borders. Kristeva asks, “How can I be without border?” (4). Without borders, “I” do not exist. Thus, I repulse the abject, which is always there. Voldemort, on the other hand, has actually become un-bound; his very soul is split into seven pieces. He is without border, ambiguous, and therefore, what Harry is not.
The significance of these observations are not to argue that J.K. Rowling studied Kristeva or that Harry Potter is meant to be read as a study in abjection. On the contrary, the point I am trying to make is that in writing “Approaching Abjection”, Kristeva articulated the presence of some thing previously un-recognizable. The fact that an abject can be located in Harry Potter merely adds support to Kristeva’s argument. My intent has been to use the relationship between Harry Potter and Voldemort as a tool for further understanding Kristeva’s concept of abjection. Because they are literary characters that exist in a fantasy world, they provide an excellent metaphor for the more abstract conditions of abjection. Voldemort is literally without border; Harry can magically expel Voldemort from seeing his thoughts. The abject becomes visible through Voldemort. Keeping the relationship between Voldemort and Harry in mind, I am reminded of a quote from Kristeva: it is a burden both repellent and repelled, a deep well of memory that is unapproachable and intimate: the abject (6). Unapproachable, yet intimate, repellent and repelled – that sentiment could refer to Voldemort and Harry Potter; it could refer to Kristeva and the abject. My argument is that it refers to both, and that is the most productive way of understanding abjection.
Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Print. Trans. of Pouvoirs de l’horreur. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1980.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Vancouver, BC: Raincoast Books, 2007. Web.
Wikipedia. Adolph Hitler. 6 December 2010. Web. 5 December 2010.
—. Lord Voldemort. 5 December 2010. Web. 4 December 2010.