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THE CAT WHO

READS THE MAP


Posthumanism and
Animality in Harry Potter

José Rodolfo da Silva


UNIVERSIDADE FEDERAL DE SANTA CATARINA
Florianópolis
2009
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The text presented here was written as an


undergraduate end-of-course thesis by
José Rodolfo da Silva as a requirement to
graduate in English Language and
Literature at Universidade Federal de
Santa Catarina, Brazil, in June 2009.
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AGRADECIMENTOS

ao meu namorado e companheiro Fernando Pabst, cuja influência e


inspiração foram as motrizes principais deste trabalho e sem o qual eu
nunca o teria escrito, tanto por ele ter me iluminado o caminho da
reflexão artística, quanto por me oferecer a única possibilidade de se
comungar totalmente com o Outro;

aos meus pais Jane e José por terem acreditado em mim e me apoiado
durante vários anos em minhas escolhas pessoais e profissionais,
enfatizando uma confiança apoiada no auto-conhecimento, muita
leitura e sonhos, me ajudando a construir o estofo pessoal que nos
acompanha pela vida;

ao meu orientador Sérgio Medeiros, que me fisgou há vários anos com


suas reflexões acerca do inumano e que abraçou minhas divagações
sobre Harry Potter, ampliando meu escopo e acreditando nos meus
planos para o futuro;

à minha professora Eliana Ávila, que me ensinou muito do que entendo


por literatura;

às minhas colegas de faculdade Nuara Lira e Isabel Witt Lunardi, por


estarem ao meu lado ao longo do curso;

ao meu primo Nino Piskorski, primeiro a partilhar pensamentos e


planos e a paixão pela Polônia;

à minha amiga Eloisa Fuchs, que o tempo distancia mas cuja aspiração
em comum pelos significados permanece;

e à gata Frida, que me oferece o olhar abissal do Outro diariamente.


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Little Fly,
Thy summer's play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

William Blake (1757-1827)


Songs of Experience
“The Fly” (1795)
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ABSTRACT

The analysis undertaken here was carried out with the intent of identifying how non-human animals
are represented in the Harry Potter series of seven novels by author J. K. Rowling in order to try to
prove that such representations outline posthumanist conceptions of animality and, consequently, of
humanity. As theoretical ground for this reading, writings from thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben,
Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Lévinas, Michel Foucault and J. M. Coetzee were selected in order to try to
map a range of possibile understandings of what has been called “the question of the animal” — which
also includes reflections on ethics and compassion towards this animal Other. The Harry Potter series
was analysed by means of identifying literary moments crucial to the narrative that also resonate with
the posthumanist theory highlighted from such authors. It was concluded that the novels present us to
a posthumanist pespective of human/animal relations, which enables a Lévinasian ethics which would
welcome any Other, be it human or animal.

Keywords: Posthumanism, Animality, Harry Potter, Otherness


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RESUMO

A análise aqui apresentada teve como objetivo identificar como animais não-humanos são representados
na série Harry Potter de sete romances de autoria de J. K. Rowling, com intuito de provar que tais
representações propõem concepções pós-humanistas de animalidade e, consequentemente, de
humanidade. Como fundamentação teórica para esta leitura, escritos de autores como Giorgio Agamben,
Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Lévinas, Michel Foucault e J. M. Coetzee foram selecionados na tentativa
de mapear uma gama de possibilidades de pensar o que se tem chamado de “a questão do animal” — o
que também inclui reflexões sobre ética e compaixão para com este Outro animal. A série Harry Potter
foi analisada por meio da identificação de momentos literários cruciais para a narrativa que também se
articulem com as teorias pós-humanistas de tais autores. Concluiu-se que os romances nos apresentam
a uma perspectiva pós-humanista das relações humano/animal, a qual possibilita uma ética
Lévinasiana inclusiva do Outro humano e/ou animal.

Keywords: Pós-humanismo, Animalidade, Harry Potter, Alteridade


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TABLE OF CONTENTS

1 INTRODUCTION 9
Statement of the Problem and Hypothesis 9
The Question of the Animal 11

2 THE CLEF 27
Animal Otherness and Humanist Anxiety 27
Anthropogenesis 30
The enfant sauvage 32
Encounter with the Animal 33

3 HOGWARTS 39
The Quirky Animal 39
On the Edge of the Forest 41
The Forest 42

4 MAGIC IS MIGHT 45
Voldemort 53

5 THE STALKING ANIMAL 55


The Hippogriff 59
The Dementor 60
The Revealed Truth 62

6 MUGGLE MAGIC 68

7 DEATH AND MORTALITY 71

8 CONCLUSION 82

WORKS CITED 84
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1 INTRODUCTION

Statement of the Problem and Hypothesis

The objective of this thesis is to explore the ways in which the Harry Potter novels depict non-
human animals in their in-universe culture and narrative fabric, aiming to prove that these animal
representations outline a posthumanist understanding of the human being, of animals themselves, of
humanism, and of humanity, which would make possible a true posthumanist ethics.
Posthumanism, as explained by Cary Wolfe (Posthumanities par. 1), editor of Zoontologies: The
Question of the Animal, can indicate different trends of critical thought within the humanities. On one
hand, it "names an impending crisis in which the fundamental 'human nature' that grounds our
concepts of justice and morality […] is under assault, and can only be protected by a sovereign power".
This discussion, which rather flourishes in science fiction literature, will not be the subject matter here.
Nor will the notion of transhumanism, which is often also associated with posthumanism and that
focuses on uplifting humankind into higher beings by the means of technology.
According to Wolfe (Posthumanities, par. 5), another manifestation of critical theory that
answers by the same name is one "which would insist that the 'post-' of 'posthumanism' indicates a
particular philosophical orientation toward the question of the human itself, one that would insist […]
that we have never been only or wholly human, if by 'human' we mean that creature familiar to us from
the Enlightenment and its legacy." The human’s problematization, which lies in the prefix “post”, is the
theme here.
In this process of questioning the human, we must venture into what is sometimes called
animal studies, animal philosophy, or the animal question, because the very understanding of our
humanity has always been philosophically tied to how we conceptualize animals. Classically in Western
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culture, "man has always been thought of as the articulation and conjunction of a body and a soul, of a
living thing and a lógos, of a natural (or animal) element and a supernatural or social or divine
element" (Agamben, The Open 16). This notion is what has traditionally been called animal rationale,
in a way to describe humanity as nothing but an animal that owns an extra layer of something else
when compared to animals, which may be reasoning ("lógos"), language ("social"), or a soul.
Henceforth, in this introduction, I will try to string together a discussion of the many
understandings of animality that have pervaded Western philosophy and how they collaborate to a
deeper comprehension of the concept of humanity inasmuch as it is always produced closely related to
animality. I will refer to humans and animals by the terms humanity and animality, aware that any
conception of human or animal will be discursively constructed. It is also important to note the
difference between humanity and humankind. The latter may be used as a synonym or a collective of
human being, while humanity is related to what humanism claims to be the values and marks of what
being a human is. The distinction between animal and animality is still more imperative, especially
when the former is used with the definite article or as an adjective for life. The fact that animal
encompasses an absurdly wide range of different beings makes the use of animality preferable, since it
betrays that they are grouped by discursive frameworks.
The remainder of this thesis will focus on the analysis of the seven Harry Potter novels (namely,
in reading order, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the
Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Harry Potter and the Deathly
Hallows, which will mostly be referred to by the letters HP followed by their respective number in the
series), all penned by author J. K. Rowling. The objective will be to look closely on how the books
understand animality and, based on that, humanity, also in order to understand what kind of ethics is
being devised in such understanding of humanity and “humane values”. This analysis will focus both on
narrative and structure but also on in-universe concepts presented by characters or portrayed by
cultural depictions. I will try to prove that the books depict animality in a way that enables
posthumanism, that is, a question of the human, not trying to dethrone the human and its values, but
to update it onto new bases.
My goal is not, however, to list all occasions in which a non-human animal is presented in a
good, favorable light, or all instances of human and non-human characters interacting as equals. I will
try to tackle what I would like to call literary moments within the novels, which can be considered as
episodes that are crucial for the plot and/or characterization within the novels, but also the episodes
whose many overtones resonate with the posthumanist theory presented in this introduction. Also, the
rich bestiary contained in the series will not just be listed, followed by their “status” in the plot, but
rather I will also try to find literary moments where each creature presents itself more fully, while
clearly integrating the plot and characterization of the rest of the narrative fabric, and at the same time
strongly relating to the theories presented here.
As will be clear later on, most of the literary moments being discussed are to be found in the
beginning of each novel, since they serve to establish the elements which will be taken up in more
detailed dramatization within the plot of each book, culminating at a coda which will shed light on the
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literary moment itself and its unfoldings over the course of the plot. Also, the whole series presents a
similar structure, the first three novels containing many such literary moments which will mark the
main elements for the comprehension of the whole series. Just as inside one novel the middle section of
the book will be mostly devoted to the unfoldings of the plot, the books lying at the center of the series
will be of little analytical interest here, since the discussion will try to account for the theme-setting
literary moments and their consequences to the coda of the series as a whole, which would be the final
books.

The Question of the Animal

The animal rationale mentioned above is the legacy that we have received from the
Enlightenment, or more specifically Descartes. In his understanding, animals are nothing but automata
mechanica (Agamben, The Open 23), since they were, in his view, merely biological machines animated
by instinct. Actually, not until very recently, most of Western philosophical tradition have joined their
voices in not granting any subjectivity to animals, as the ethical philosopher Peter Singer summarizes
in his preface to Animal Philosophy:
Aristotle thought that animals exist for the sake of more rational humans, to provide
them with food and clothing. St. Paul asked "Doth God care for oxen?" but it was a
rhetorical question — he assumed that the answer was obviously no. Later Christian
thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas reinforced this view, denying that the suffering of
animals is any reason, in itself, for not harming them. (The only reason they offered for
not being cruel to animals was that it may lead to cruelty to humans.) […] Descartes
even denies that animals can suffer. (xi)
In spite of that, alternative views on the animal question have existed as early as the Middle
Ages. Michel Foucault, in his account of the changing understanding of madness throughout history in
Madness and Civilization, gives us a discussion on animality as perceived in Europe from the Middle
Ages to the Enlightenment, since notions of madness and animality are closely related in Foucault’s
depiction (Palmer 75). In the Middle Ages, animals were understood to have been named by Adam and,
as such, they were nothing but symbols for human values and traits (Foucault, Animality 66).
But in the Renaissance this perspective changes, along with a shift in the constructions of
madness. According to Foucault, the Renaissance brought a kind of madness that can be called cosmic
madness. This madness “was regarded as giving access to an inner human truth not available to
Reason, and was also thought of as being in constant dialogue with Reason, questioning it and exposing
it to scrutiny” (Palmer 74). This cosmic madness is represented in Renaissance art as strongly linked
with animality, with hybrid human and animal creatures. Therefore, unlike in the Middle Ages,
Renaissance animality has freed itself from Adam’s names, and it is now the animal “that will stalk
man, capture him, and reveal him to his own truth. […] Animals become the secret nature of man”
(Foucault, Animality 66).
However, when we reach the Classical Age, a view more similar to Descartes’s settles in. Still
according to Foucault, a mad person was considered someone who had lost his or her capability to
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reason, which set apart humans from animals, and, as such, had become an animal him- or herself
(Palmer 76). Because of the certainty that these people were animals, no kindness or care were shown
towards them and they were normally displayed like animals in a zoo (Palmer 78). Actually, to go see
the mad was advisable, as “it served as a warning to those who might be tempted to cross the moral
chasm and plunge into madness themselves” (Palmer 79). It is important to note that, while in the
Renaissance madness was an access into another (animal) world or truth, in the Classical Age it was
considered a moral flaw, within human responsibility (Palmer 78). If in the Renaissance there was the
notion that the Other — that is, that who is not me —, in the form of the animal, had something
relevant to say about the Ego, that it had a different vantage point that could bring different truths, we
can say that in the Classical Age a self-absorbed posture protected the Ego from criticism. Reason was
the only voice that could be listened to and the possibility of human fallibility was left in the
Renaissance.
The animal rationale notion suffered much criticism, especially after the Second World War, as
if the extremes of cruelty witnessed in the 1940s made philosophers rethink the fundamentals of
humanism. One of the main thinkers of the 20th century to oppose the animal rationale equation was
Martin Heidegger. He was suspicious of the “thinking animal” status for the fact that he considered
humans to be ontologically different from animals (Sloterdijk 25), and that viewing the human on a
biological basis, no matter the amount of extra layers of reason or language, was to not value humans
highly enough (Sloterdijk 24).
For Heidegger, the main ontological difference between humans and animals is that humans
have world (Welt), while also being in the world, whereas animals are only attached to their
environment (Umwelten) (Sloterdijk 25-26). This means that “animals can never gain access to other
entities it [sic] encounters in its environment as entities. The animal is incapable of grasping the
ontological difference — which is to say, it has access to other beings, but not to other beings as such”
(Calarco, Heidegger 22). The animal is said to be “poor in world”, as in deprived of world, because while
it can relate to beings in its environment, it cannot grasp them as entities. The human, gifted with
language, is capable of understanding those beings, the world itself, and Being as such.
It is very important to point out that these capabilities and shortcomings are also extended to
the experience of death. Because humans have language, they can “experience death as death”, while
animals cannot (qtd. in Calarco, Heidegger 18). This is crucial because mortality, and a fear of death
and a wish to live, are said to be a common feature among all living beings by animal rights activists,
and the question whether animals fear death or not (if they imagine death beforehand and dread the
idea of dying) is highly relevant. According to Heidegger, they do not. This rather metaphysical
distinction between animals and humans has drawn criticism, mainly due to the fact that animals are
mostly thought of in order to find instances where the human is comparatively unique, and because
Heidegger’s ideas seem to be the traditional dogmatic anthropocentrism of Western philosophy
reformulated (Calarco, Heidegger 18).
A very subtle critic of Heidegger’s ideas is the Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector. In her 1964
novel The Passion According to G.H., she describes the intense transformation of a woman who goes
into an existential and internal journey after an encounter with a cockroach. In the novel, there is a
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strong (yet veiled) criticism to language as providing the best access into life or being, starting with her
name, of which we only know the initials, because she only describes herself by the letters engraved in
her suitcase. Her mystical experience with the cockroach opens to her the “truth”, as she calls it, a
difficult truth that shows that language takes us farther from reality, life, and being. The naked
cockroach is closer to life than G.H. and the realization of this truth takes her into a journey to the
edges of language. The cockroach, and not the woman, is the one able to enter in direct contact with life
and Being, while human understanding is mediated by language. Unlike Heidegger, Lispector seems to
be saying that language actually creates an obstacle to fully experience the world, which other beings
can do directly and more truly. A more detailed discussion of the relation between death, language and
the role of this discussion for thinking animality will be taken up in my last chapter, where I look upon
the theme of death as one of the main themes of the Harry Potter novels.
Going back in time in my discussion on animality and humanity, one of the first thinkers to
further problematize the question of the animal was the father of scientific taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus.
He admired apes and he did not believe that humans were set apart from the great apes simply because
the latter did not have souls. He, too, refused Descartes’s idea of the automata mechanica stating:
“Surely Descartes never saw an ape” (Agamben, The Open 23). For Linnaeus, from a purely biological
stance, there was nothing that separated the human from the apes, “save for the fact that the latter
have an empty space between their canines and their other teeth” (qtd. in Agamben, The Open 24). Of
course, that did not mean that Linnaeus thought that humans were identical to apes, for the fact that
humans had been chosen by God to be His favorite (Agamben, The Open 23).
Even if we take aside this theological explanation, the similarity with the apes was not a source
of anxiety for Linnaeus: not only did he firmly place humans among the primates in his classifications,
but he also did not highlight in the taxonomical name for the human any distinguishing characteristic.
After the word for the primate genus Homo, where a Latin word for a trait would identify the species,
Linnaeus only included the Latin expression nosce te ipsum (know yourself) (Agamben, The Open 25).
The fact that the defining term is not a description, but an imperative, is crucial to Linnaeus’s
understanding of the human being. Even when, in a later edition, the term was changed to Homo
sapiens (knowing man), we can say that the new name is only a simplification of the imperative
expression (Agamben, The Open 25).
It is clear that, for Linnaeus, “man has no specific identity other than the ability to recognize
himself, […] [he] is the animal that must recognize itself as human to be human” (Agamben, The Open
26). He points to the fact that, after birth, the human is left bare, “unable to know, speak, walk, or feed
himself” (Agamben, The Open 26), therefore this bareness, this lack, this nakedness, can only be
overcome by the process of recognizing oneself as human, and divine attachments, such as a soul or the
love of God, are only a consequence of this.
In the name Homo sapiens lies an irony forged by Linnaeus, in which “those who […] do not
recognize themselves in [this] position […] should apply the nosce te ipsum to themselves; in not
knowing how to recognize themselves as man, they have placed themselves among the apes.” (Agamben,
The Open 26). According to Agamben, Homo sapiens is neither species nor distinguishing trait, but a
process, a machine. This machine works by “producing the recognition of the human” (Agamben, The
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Open 26). It is an “optical machine”, because it functions as a mirror, betraying the similarities we
share with apes, and impressing upon us the need to produce our discursive difference, our identity.
Here the unbreakable connection between animality and humanity is clearest, because it is only by
recognizing ourselves in a non-human that we can reach humanity.
It is curious that the ape, being our closest relative in the animal kingdom, is the bringer of the
anxiety which will put the machine that creates humanity into motion. When looking at an ape, one
could see a humanized animal, a member of the “other” side who reaches out for us in its similarities,
and one could embrace it as an endorsement of humanity. But, according to Linnaeus, the human who
sees an ape does not see a humanized animal, but an animalized human, and is reminded of his or her
own animality, of his or her fragile humanity, and must rise above it by the means of this discursive
machine.
The same machine is developed further in Giorgio Agamben’s The Open, in the sections he
devotes to Alexandre Kojéve’s interpretation of Hegel. Kojéve is interested in Hegel’s discussion of the
End of History. This posthistory would signify the end of all historical tasks, of “Religion, Morals, or
Politics in the ‘European’ or ‘historical’ sense of these words” (qtd. in Agamben, The Open 11). The end
of history would then be the end of discourse, of all humanist enterprises. And humanity (and the
human), being discursive constructions, would also come to an end. Not in a cataclysmic event, but
“what disappears is Man properly so called, […] the Subject opposed to the Object” (qtd. in Agamben,
The Open 6). Here we can determine that Kojéve shares Linnaeus’s view that humanity is construed in
opposition to some other concept — animality (which he calls anthropophorous animality, “animality
which produces the human”) — and Kojéve adds that the abyss between human life and animal life that
Western philosophy and science have been trying to determine and to shape exists not in nature, but
within man. For Agamben, in Kojéve’s reading of Hegel
man is a field of dialectical tensions always already cut by internal caesurae that every
time separate — at least virtually — “anthropophorous” animality and the humanity
which takes bodily form in it. Man exists historically only in this tension; he can be
human only to the degree that he transcends and transforms the anthropophorous
animal which supports him, and only because, through the action of negation, he is
capable of mastering and, eventually, destroying his own animality. (Agamben, The
Open 12)
This “action of negation” is what Kojéve determines as the engine of History. In the
posthistorical world there will be cessation of all action (qtd. in Agamben, The Open 6), because History
itself is the evolutionary process of humanity’s performance of actions of negations — creating splits
and binaries, where one side will be banished in the name of the other. The very notion of humanity,
thus, is an action of negation (because it rises above animality and expels it) and is at the core of
History, viewed as a continuum of tasks.
According to Hegel, Kojéve, Georges Bataille, and Agamben, at the end of history, due to the end
of “man-properly-so-called”, a reunion between animality and humanity will occur, “the relations
between animals and men will take on a new form, and […] man himself will be reconciled with his
animal nature” (Agamben, The Open 3), as if resembling the continuity that existed before the Fall, in
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Eden, and that had been extinguished by the process of negation. In Eden, according to Thomas
Aquinas, Adam and Eve did not need the animals for the reasons we do, since their bodies were perfect,
but God placed animals in the Garden so that the first couple could draw a “cognitive experiment” from
animal life, and this was carried out when the animals were placed before Adam and he was
commanded to name them and, at the same time, to determine his nature (qtd. in Agamben, The Open
22). Posthistory would, then, need to take humanity to a stage before this “cognitive experiment”.
Exploring further the “anthropological machine” proposed by Agamben, we can attest that he
sees it as an “ironic apparatus that verifies the absence of a nature proper to a Homo, holding him
suspended between a celestial and a terrestrial nature, between animal and human” (Agamben, The
Open 29). In what would later be called a “manifesto of humanism” of the Renaissance, thinker
Giovanni Pico believed that the human, “having been molded when the models of creation were all used
up, can have neither archetype nor proper place nor specific rank. Moreover, since he was created
without a definite model, he does not even have a face of his own and must shape it at his own
discretion in either bestial or divine form” (Agamben, The Open 29). The lack of distinguishing
characteristics for the human attested by Linnaeus is again brought to attention here. And again it is
responsible for putting into motion the optical, or anthropological, or anthropophorous, machine that
will produce humanity, which will have to be designed after animality or divinity. “The humanist
discovery of man is the discovery that he lacks himself” (Agamben, The Open 30).
At last, we can say that Kojéve establishes humanity in even more precarious terms than
Linnaeus. If the human was the one that could recognize itself as such when faced with the non-human,
now the human is the very product of the tension between humanity and animality, a tense caesura
that exists within the human, and without which no division of existence into vegetal, animal, human,
and divine would be thinkable (Agamben, The Open 15). Agamben and Kojéve invite us to conceive
humanity “as what results from the incongruity of the [human and animal] elements [within man]”
(Agamben, The Open 16). Thus, we can focus not on the “metaphysical mystery of conjunction, but
rather [on] the practical and political mystery of separation” (Agamben, The Open 16). According to
Agamben, “great issues” depend upon the political understanding of this internal caesura, such as
human and animal rights, humanist values, and the nature of divinity.
Jacques Derrida explored many of these themes in his lecture The Animal that Therefore I Am.
Instead of delivering a very didactical account of the implications of animality on humanity and vice-
versa (as, for example, Agamben did in The Open), Derrida uses a literary voice to talk about animality,
and the uncountable connections he makes among different issues are so many, and sometimes so
poetic, that it would be foolish to try to organize them all within some sort of logical order. Spatial
constraints and respect for the multiple meanings of his lecture prevent me from doing so. I will try,
therefore, to discuss what I see as his main point and how his considerations collaborate to enrich the
discussion I have carried out so far.
The title of the event in which Derrida gave such lecture was “The Autobiographic Animal” and
he takes the title as a guide for his discussion. For Derrida, an autobiography is where one establishes
one’s own nature and where one would possibly make a confession, acknowledge some kind of fault
(Derrida 22). And in the human autobiography, the confessed fault is the recognition of our lack, or the
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lack itself — that same lack (or bareness, or nakedness) that Linnaeus, Giovanni Pico, and Agamben
have pointed out as crucial for establishing humanity’s identity. He evokes a powerful dramatization of
the recognition of this fault when he describes a (supposedly real) event where, after showering, he is
“caught naked, in silence, by the gaze of an animal, […] the eyes of a cat” (Derrida 4).
He tells us that he feels an uncontrollable shame of being looked upon by his cat while naked,
ashamed of his own nakedness being discovered. And, not only that, he is also ashamed of such shame;
embarrassed that his cat’s glimpsing his nakedness can make him feel so ashamed (Derrida 4). It is this
scene that becomes an articulation point, upon which Derrida will balance most of his discussion.
His shame of being naked before a cat can be viewed, thus, as the same anxiety acknowledged
by Linnaeus and Agamben, where the non-human betrays to the human the fact that the latter is bare
in the world, bereft of any property or distinguishing trait. Derrida’s next layer of shame is exactly the
recognition of the precariousness of human identity, again as exposed by Linnaeus, Kojéve, and
Agamben: “The gaze called animal offers to my sight the abyssal limit of the human: the inhuman or
the ahuman, the ends of man, that is to say the bordercrossing from which vantage man dares to
announce himself to himself, thereby calling himself by the name that he believes he gives himself”
(Derrida 13).
As if to bring more resonance to such a primeval encounter between animal and human,
Derrida sets out to connect his experience of nakedness with mythological accounts of the origin of man
(which Agamben calls “anthropogenic”). He selects first the Bereshit, the first book of the Torah, which
is similar to the Genesis of the Bible. In it, Isch (man), before the creation of the woman and before he
realizes he is naked, is commanded to name all the animals. Although he does not yet know he is naked,
God is watching the act of naming of the animals, and He knows that man is naked: “the public
announcing of names remains at one and the same time free and overseen. […] God observes: Adam is
observed, within sight, he names under observation” (Derrida 17). This watchful God assures that this
process of naming is, in fact, a process of creating an identity. By standing before animals and
determining their nature, the human establishes its own identity as the one who must rise above
animals — and, of course, “subject, tame, dominate, train, [and] domesticate” (Derrida 18) them — in
order to be human. If Isch still does not know he is naked and bare, God is there as a witness of such
process (and let us not forget that it is eventually an animal who will make Adam and Eve realize that
they are naked).
That God is watchful of human bareness, attentive to the process of naming, is something that,
according to Derrida, “always made [him] dizzy” (Derrida 19). He wonders if this unknowable stare
under which God submitted man when he was defining his fragile identity is the “bottomless gaze” the
cat offers him when looking upon his nakedness:
I often wonder whether this vertigo before the abyss […] deep in the eyes of God is not
the same as that which takes hold of me when I feel so naked in front of a cat, facing it,
and when, meeting its gaze I hear the cat or God ask itself, ask me: is he going to call
me, is he going to address me? What is he going to call me, this naked man? […] It is as
if the cat had been recalling itself and recalling that, recalling me and reminding me of
this awful tale of Genesis, without breathing a word. Who was born first, before the
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names? […] Who [will have been] the subject? (Derrida 19)
Only now would I like to bring into the discussion the wordplay lying in the title The Animal
that Therefore I Am. The French for “I am” — je suis — can also mean the first person of the verb suivre,
“to follow”, glossing it “The Animal that Therefore I Follow”. Derrida plays with the many meanings of
the word “follow”, but for us now it is important that it also means “to be after”, as humans came to the
world after the animals, and “to hunt”, as when humanity is constructed when the human captures the
(internal) animal, when humanity can say: “I am [or ‘I follow’], I pursue, I track, overcome, and tame
the animal” (Derrida 42). Thus, if the human is what is produced by separating the animal within, by
taming it, by following it, Derrida seems to be saying that being human is to follow animality, then
humanity is (follows) animality.
The biblical account being the most important for my discussion here, I would then like to go
briefly over another anthropogenic account Derrida mentions, relevant for dealing with the meaning of
following. He brings forth the mythical figure Bellerophon, a hunter who killed the Chimaera, since “he
represents […] the figure of the hunter. He follows […] and persecutes the beast” (Derrida 42). After
that, Derrida tells of the myth regarding the winged horse Pegasus, who was Bellerophon’s half-
brother, and who was also captured and tamed, a capture that is again linked to self-definition due to
the possibilities of meanings of je suis:
Pegasus, archetypal horse, son of Poseidon and the Gorgon is therefore the half-brother
of Bellerophon himself who, descending thus from the same god as Pegasus, ends up
following and taming a sort of brother, an other self: I am half (following) my brother, it
is as if he says, I am (following) my other and I have the better of him, I hold him by the
bit. (Derrida 42)
Returning to the issue of the animal gaze, what is important to point out is that the focus of
Derrida’s experience with his cat is “not […] his own awareness of the cat, but […] the experience of
being seen by his […] cat” (Wood 130). This is crucial because Derrida has doubts concerning the
tradition of animal philosophy: “Isn't that history the one that man tells himself, the history of the
philosophical animal, of the animal for the man-philosopher?” (Derrida 23). Up to now, my discussion
can be a target to the same criticism as Heidegger’s, in which the animal was only ever thought of in
order to think the human. It is both mine and Derrida’s wish to avoid that, and to grant the animal real
space, real attention, and real subjectivity. But before venturing into a rather ethical discussion of the
position of the animal (and its subjectivity), I would like to add Derrida’s warning against
anthropomorphizing animals: “Above all, it would be necessary to avoid fables. We know the history of
fabulation and how it remains an anthropomorphic taming, a moralizing subjection, a domestication.
Always a discourse of man, on man, indeed on the animality of man, but for and as man” (Derrida 37).
When Derrida recounts the biblical naming of the animal, he questions: who is subject and who
is object? If humans came after the animals, if God alongside the animals could bestow an objectifying
look upon man, who has subjectivity? For this reason, he states that the animal has a point of view over
the human, which has traditionally been ignored in Western philosophy (Derrida 12). This point of view
is absolutely other (Derrida 12) in that it cannot be captured; it is a “bottomless gaze”. Being taken by
surprise naked is the extreme passivity of being “captured” by the subjectivity of an Other, in this case
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a cat:
At that strange moment when, before the event, before even wanting it or knowing it
myself, I am passively presented to [the cat] as naked, seen and seen naked, before even
seeing myself seen by a cat. Before even seeing myself or knowing myself seen naked. I
am presented to it before even introducing myself. Nudity is nothing other than that
passivity, the involuntary exhibition of the self. (Derrida 12)
Derrida goes a long way to explain that the cat who stares at him is a real cat, not standing in
for any other cats, symbols of cats, or animals in general (Derrida 10). And he refers to the cat as “the
wholly other that they call animal, for example, a cat”, a phrase he repeats many times. It is crucial for
Derrida to establish that his cat is a unique individual, a being in its own, a living organism with a
subjectivity and that he is not, as my discussion has been doing so far, dealing with the animal in
abstract or linguistic terms, as animality. He is fully aware of the fact that animality is only ever
understood and produced discursively and that the gigantic variety of individuals that we call “animal
life” does not fit into one word. He writes:
Beyond the edge of the so-called human, beyond it but by no means on a single opposing
side, rather than "the Animal" or "Animal Life," there is already a heterogeneous
multiplicity of the living, […] a multiplicity of organizations of relations between living
and dead [which] can never be totally objectified. […] It follows from that that one will
never have the right to take animals to be the species of a kind that would be named the
Animal, or animal in general. Whenever "one" says, "the Animal," each time a
philosopher, or anyone else says, "the Animal" in the singular […], claiming thus to
designate every living thing that is held not to be man (man as rational animal, man as
political animal, speaking animal, zoon logon ekhon, man who says "I" and takes himself
to be the subject of a statement that he proffers on the subject of the said animal, and so
on), each time the subject of that statement, this "one," this "I" does that, he utters an
asinanity. [And he confirms] not only the animality that he is disavowing but his
complicit, continued and organized involvement in a veritable war of the species.
(Derrida 32)
The word “animal” works the same way as the names Adam gave the creatures of Eden — it is a
violence that creates man, creates the being that will have the right to use that word (Derrida 32). Due
to that, Derrida proposes a new term, one who will remind us that calling animals collectively is always
already a violent discourse about humanity: animot, formed by the French word mot, which means
“word”, and which is pronounced the same as animaux, meaning “animals”. This way, we can have the
“plural of animals heard in the singular. […] [This] plurality cannot be assembled within the single
figure of an animality that is simply opposed to humanity” (Derrida 47) Thus, we are aware of the fact
that the huge array of living things we claim to live on the other side of the anthropogenic line can only
be referred to in a word, an abstraction, a linguistic item. When we say “animals”, we are not talking
about birds or mammals (which are also violent words), but essentially only about a word.
Derrida then criticizes most of the canon of Western philosophy by saying that no philosopher
as a “theoretical, philosophical, or juridical man, or even as citizen” (Derrida 15) has ever been seen by
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an animal in the way it happens in his account. Or that, if they were, this is not visible in their writings
and ideas. Even if they have written about the animal, if they have “seen, observed, analyzed, reflected”
about the animal, they
have never been seen seen by the animal. Their gaze has never intersected with that of
an animal directed at them […]. If, indeed, they did happen to be seen seen furtively by
the animal one day, they took no (thematic, theoretical, or philosophical) account of it.
They neither wanted nor had the capacity to draw any systematic consequence from the
fact that an animal could, facing them, look at them, clothed or naked, and in a word,
without a word, address them […] from down there, from a wholly other origin. (Derrida
14)
This resonates strongly with the writings of another thinker of the gaze, John Berger. For
Berger, before industrialization and capitalism, humans had close contact with real animals, and this
relationship was meaningful because it conveyed to humans some kind of knowledge (Baker 11). He
states that the history of pre-urban to modern society is a “history of a loss”, because “the look between
animal and men, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with
which […] all men had always lived until less than a century ago, has been extinguished” (qtd. in
Coetzee 34). This is connected to Foucault’s accounts on the popular view on animals in the
Renaissance, where it was thought that animals (and the Other in general) had a special insight, a
different vantage point into humanity and reason. According to Berger, “no animal confirms man” (qtd.
in Baker 13) and he seems to think that this possible challenge to human subjectivity in the form of the
animal gaze is a valuable experience, from which a different knowledge could be drawn, but that is now
lost. Derrida, too, speaks of a decadent history for human/animal relations:
It is all too evident that in the course of the last two centuries these traditional forms of
treatment of the animal, [hunting, fishing, domestication, training, or traditional
exploitation of animal energy], have been turned upside down by the joint developments
of zoological, ethological, biological, and genetic forms of knowledge and the always
inseparable techniques of intervention with respect to their object, the transformation of
the actual object, its milieu, its world, namely, the living animal. (Derrida 26)
Derrida is referring to the growing use of technology to abuse animals more and more in the
name of human benefits, in the form of genetic engineering, mass production of livestock, cloning,
hormone intervention, etc. He calls attention to the immense effort of denial that is involved in these
processes, which are in some level widely known, so that “the forgetting and misunderstanding of this
violence” may be carefully organized in a global scale (Derrida 26). Derrida believes that a realist
account of all this violence would be pathetically disturbing; “pathetic” because it would be an easy and
endless task, but also because they open the question of the páthos, of compassion (Derrida 27). He
believes we have been experiencing, for the past two centuries, a “war over pity”, fought in one side in
the attempt to arrest compassion and establish denial, a war “between those who violate not only
animal life but even and also this sentiment of compassion and, on the other hand, those who appeal to
an irrefutable testimony to this pity” (Derrida 29).
Also around two centuries ago, Derrida tells us, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed to
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change the foundations on which we deal with the philosophical issue of the animal (not of animality, in
this case). Bentham wished to remove the question from the realm of the capabilities of the animal,
where it had been seated for so long: “The question is not to know whether the animal can think,
reason, or talk, something we still pretend to be asking ourselves” (Derrida 27). This strand of
philosophical inquiry of the animal condition has pervaded Western thought “from Aristotle to
Descartes, from Descartes, especially, to Heidegger, Lévinas, and Lacan” (Derrida 27). These questions
were usually tautologies centered on perceived human universals, such as “being able, having the power
to give, to die, to bury one's dead, to dress, to work, to invent a technique, and so on, a power that
consists in having such and such a faculty, thus such and such a power, as an essential attribute”
(Derrida 27). All items in this list have once been said to be universal for the human species, and also
exclusive to it, therefore it is fitting that Bentham and Derrida point out that testing if animals present
traits that are human-exclusive in the first place does not amount to much.
The question, then, would not be to ask if animals can reason, if they have the lógos, or if they
can have the lógos (or language, or soul). “The first and decisive question will rather be to know whether
animals can suffer. ‘Can they suffer?’ […] asks Bentham simply yet so profoundly” (Derrida 28). This
reformulation changes everything, because now the question does not depend on any faculty, or manner
of being, of any “can-have”, or any power (power to reason, or to speak). Now the question is linked to a
passivity, it is a real interrogation, whose answer assumes an openness to a “sufferance, a passion, a
not-being-able” (Derrida 28). The word can loses its meanings of “power” or “capability” and becomes a
non-power, a non-possibility: “Can they not be able?” (Derrida 28).
The question of the animal now works differently and based upon a more affective consideration
of the animal, both in the sense of “affection” and in the sense of “being affected” by the animal, as in
being looked upon, as sharing the look that Berger mourns, as hearing its criticisms to Reason spoken
ever since the Renaissance. By no means would that be an error-proof formulation of the problem,
stable in certainty. But this issue is, according to Derrida, undeniable. The answer to the question “Can
they suffer?” is always invariably “yes”. In one of the most emotional passages of the lecture, Derrida
states:
Mortality resides there, as the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we
share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of life, to the
experience of compassion, to the possibility of sharing the possibility of this nonpower,
the possibility of this impossibility, the anguish of this vulnerability and the
vulnerability of this anguish. (Derrida 28)
Earlier in my discussion, Derrida had tried to conceptualize the side opposite to the one on
which we are standing, and he concluded that it hosts “a multiplicity of organizations of relations
between living and dead”. This understanding of animal life (or of life simply put), together with the
reformulation of the animal question, enables a different form of interrelations between humanity and
animality, where they would be connected by sharing and articulating human and animal mortality.
However, Derrida explicitly states that he is “suspicious of continuity theses, but his affirmation of
discontinuity (an abyssal rupture) is one that holds between ‘we men’ and ‘what we call animals’” (Wood
134). He says that the existence of the abyss is also undeniable, and what is open for questioning is the
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shape and history of this abyss. However, it is possible that the abyss does not exist between humans
and animals, but between humanity and animality, separating the self-called human and the animot,
which is, as was discussed above, a concept born out of the existence of an abyss in the first place.
Therefore, by inviting Bentham approvingly into his text, Derrida seems to be trying to reach a
continuity between humans and animals based on new grounds. And, as his insistence on his cat’s being
a real cat and on not calling animals in the plural vouches for, the specific relations between a specific
human and a specific animal are very relevant. According to a famous quote by Wittgenstein, if the lion
could speak, we would not understand him (Wood 137), but that actually would depend on the life the
specific lion is living, and the relationship it has established to the given person. According to Derrida
scholar David Wood, “the question of the abyss is inseparable from the question of the kind of
relationship that obtains between a man and an animal” (137).
Another writer to put special emphasis on the life of individual animals is J. M. Coetzee, in his
book The Lives of Animals. In this lecture strangely posing as a fictional account (or a story posing as a
lecture), we are presented to the character of a novelist named Elizabeth Costello, who is invited to give
a speech at a university about any chosen topic, and chooses to talk about animals. Most of the lecture
itself is an attack on reason as a yardstick for moral decisions concerning animals, something Bentham
had pointed out already. The very genre of the book (which was originally read by Coetzee in a lecture),
a fictional story with characters and plot, brings forth the importance of emotion, which tends to be
secondary in a rational lecture. The character Elizabeth Costello, at the beginning of her lecture, says
that she could use a philosophical language and discourse to talk about her subject matter of animals,
but that she feels embarrassed to stand alongside the people who have used such language (Coetzee 23).
And then she proceeds to her attack on reason.
One of the proponents of such philosophical language, Saint Thomas, says that the being of God
is reason and thus so is the being of the universe and of man. Logically from that follows that one
should consider reason as the primary focus when testing the moral status of animals. Costello,
however, believes that reason may be only the being of the human brain, of human thought, or even of
one specific trend in human thought and that searching for reason in animals is to not respect animal
nature (Coetzee 23). According to her, “seen from the outside, from a being who is alien to it, reason is
simply a vast tautology. Of course reason will validate reason as the first principle of the universe —
what else should it do? Dethrone itself? Reasoning systems, as systems of totality, do not have that
power” (Coetzee 23). Echoing Berger and Derrida, Costello accounts for the loss of connection between
animal and man, and that such engagement with animality in the past was able to shake reason from
its tautological throne. “In the olden days the voice of man, raised in reason, was confronted by the roar
of the lion, the bellow of the bull. Man went to war with the lion and the bull, and after many
generations won that war definitively” (Coetzee 25).
After establishing her distrust on reason as any sort of basis for moral considerations, Costello
turns to criticize a specific scientific experiment carried out with great apes in the 1910s by psychologist
Wolfgang Köhler. His subject, an ape named Sultan, was challenged, by means of complicating his
access to food, to reason always differently and in more complex terms regarding the best way to reach
for the bananas. For instance, after being starved for a while, the bananas were hung on a wire three
22

meters above ground, inside his pen. Three wooden crates were dragged into the pen as well. Costello
then reveals what she believes are the underpinnings of such experiment, criticizing it with her
considerations on Sultan’s feelings:
Sultan knows: Now one is supposed to think. That is what the bananas up there are
about. […] One thinks: Why is he starving me? One thinks: Why does he not want these
crates any more? But none of these is the right thought. Even a more complicated
thought — for instance: What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of
me, that leads him to believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire
than to pick up a banana from the floor? — is wrong. The right thought to think is: How
does one use the crates to reach the bananas? […] As long as Sultan continues to think
wrong thoughts, he is starved, […] so that he is forced to think the right thought,
namely how to go about getting the bananas. At every [new experiment] Sultan is
driven to think the less interesting thought, […] [propelled] towards acceptance of
himself as primarily an organism with an appetite that needs to be satisfied. (Coetzee
28-29)
The point is not whether Sultan did or did not feel and think such complex things, but the fact is
that Köhler’s experiment was seriously limited in that it was capable of identifying only one kind of
thought, which was not even the most interesting and complex one. Costello then wonders if any
established ability to reason, if any supposed proximity to God, is only fruit of recognition and
acknowledgement, of a disposition to listen (Coetzee 24). If all our experiments with animals are based
upon assumptions which are themselves limited, how will animals overcome them? And what does it
matter, if according to Costello reasoning only happens to be the being of the human brain, and not of
God and of all beings who deserve moral concern?
Costello believes that the being of animals is not reason, since reason, and the cogito, ergo sum,
implies that supposedly non-thinking beings are inferior. To this kind of reasoning, Costello opposes
fullness, embodiedness, the sensation of being — not a consciousness of yourself as a
kind of ghostly reasoning machine thinking thoughts, but on the contrary the sensation
— a heavily affective sensation — of being a body with limbs that have extension in
space, of being alive to the world. This fullness contrasts starkly with Descartes’s key
state, which has […] the feel of a pea rattling around in a shell. […] [And] fullness of
being is hard to sustain in confinement. (Coetzee 33)
Reasoning scientists believe that confining an animal to study will not affect any intellectual
powers it may have, but this is because confinement, to a kind of reason which feels like a pea in a shell,
is irrelevant, it is only “further imprisonment” (Coetzee 34). If the being of an animal is embodiedness,
if reasoning is irrelevant to the moral status of animals as Derrida and Bentham put it, how can we
really understand animals by confining them and their bodies? For Costello, Köhler was a good man,
but should he have been a poet, he would have made more of the incident when the apes seemingly
started marching in circles around the pen draped in cords and strips of cloths. He concedes that they
were not marching, because that would entail them the ability to see themselves from the outside, from
an objective, disembodied point of view. Köhler describes that they were doing it for the kinetic effect of
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the feel of the fabric and of the walking themselves, but were he a poet Costello believes that here is
where he would start, “with a feel for the ape’s experience” (Coetzee 30).
Costello then brings us back to the compassionate grounds of Derrida and Bentham.
Understanding animals takes an affective approach, based on an openness to be affected by them and
feeling affection for them, not necessarily in the sense of care and concern, but most importantly
empathy and compassion. To be able to see myself in an other’s place is, according to Costello, one of the
true human faculties (Coetzee 34).
To pursue this notion further, she makes the inevitable connection between animals and the
extermination of Jewish people and other minorities in the Holocaust, since “denunciation of the camps
reverberates […] with the language of the slaughterhouse […] [as in] ‘They died like animals.’ ‘They
went like sheep to the slaughter.’” (Coetzee 20). But even though it was the victims who were treated
like animals, it is the Nazi killers we believe to be almost outside humanity. “The crime of the Third
Reich, says the voice of accusation, was to treat people like animals. […] [But], by treating their fellow
human beings […] like beasts, they [have] themselves become beasts” (Coetzee 20). But Costello also
says that this notion of Nazi barbarity is not limited to Nazi officers. A whole generation of Germans
and Poles, civilians, who were in some level aware of the extermination camp atrocities are, in some
way, in our eyes less than human (Coetzee 20). This is due to the fact that, for most people, the horror
that comes from the extermination camps is the numbing effect of the numbers — no one can
understand millions of lives, we can only come to terms to one death at a time, humanity cannot be
collectivized. However, according to Costello, “Germans of a particular generation are still regarded as
standing a little outside humanity, […] not because they waged an expansionist war, […] [but] because
of a certain willed ignorance on their part” (Coetzee 20). In our eyes, those who in some level knew what
was being done in the camps are guilty for being able to count human lives in the abstract, collectively,
as we only do with animal lives.
Therefore, in Costello’s opinion, the worst crime in Nazi Germany was not treating people like
animals, especially because Germans and Poles who certainly were not involved in the camps are also
despised and considered to be inhuman (Coetzee 21). “The horror is that the killers refused to think
themselves into the place of their victims, as did everyone else. […] They said, ‘It must be the dead that
are being burnt today, […] falling in ash in my cabbages.’ They did not say, ‘How would it be if I were
burning?’ They did not say, ‘I am burning, I am falling in ash’” (Coetzee 34). According to Costello, one
of the most human faculties (along with the faculty of reason, language, etc.) is sympathy. Their crime
was that they did not exercise such faculty, “they closed their hearts” (Coetzee 34).
Likewise, Köhler’s sin, according to Costello, was to not try to feel what the ape felt, to not try to
imagine what it is like to be an ape, with no reason, but as embodiedness in space. She contends that
sympathy has nothing to do with the object, but with the subject, since there are people who cannot
imagine themselves as someone else. Therefore, to imagine oneself as an animal is just a matter of
exercising a human faculty, and putting oneself in an animal’s place is the first step towards
understanding otherness as something connectable to the Ego, and to understand animals in their own
terms, without anthropomorphization, and without excluding them for not sharing reason with us.
This takes us to another philosopher who dealt with the notion of Otherness, sympathy, and
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ethics — Emmanuel Lévinas. He, too, writes about humanism in the time of the Holocaust, having been
himself a Jewish prisoner of a work camp. Again, the prisoners were deprived of their humanity by the
ones who confined them, and by the means of a policy of racial exclusion deeply rooted in a traditional
trend of humanism. Once more, not only the prisoners are to blame for their suffering, since civilians —
villagers, also women and children — were aware of their imprisonment. Lévinas tells us: “[these
civilians] stripped us of our human skill. We were subhuman, a gang of apes” (The Name of a Dog 48).
The prisoners were “signifiers without a signified”, whose entire subjectivity, lógos, and humanity
occurred in a “parenthesis” that was ignored by those who surrounded them (Lévinas, The Name of a
Dog 48). Lévinas exposes the impossibility of conveying their true human nature to the other people
around them, due to the latter’s established belief that Lévinas and his fellow prisoners were
subhuman. Thus, he says, “how [could] we deliver a message about our humanity which, from behind
the bars of quotation marks, [would] come across as anything other than monkey talk?” The quotation
marks of imprisonment are the same preconception pointed out by Costello that made impossible for
Köhler and other scientists after him to study animals in their own terms. Since nothing short of an
impossible (pre-established) form of human discourse would be considered a true mark of humanity,
animals (and Jewish prisoners) would never be looked at directly and sympathetically.
This is especially important if we consider anthropologist Mary Douglas’s opinions concerning
animal otherness, for whom “in each constructed world of nature, the contrast between man and not-
man provides an analogy for the contrast between the member of the human community and the
outsider” (qtd. in Baker 80). The unsympathetic model of morality criticized by Costello that we so
readily apply to non-humans is the pattern that every culture will apply to ignore and to not empathize
with the community considered as Other, such as Jewish citizens in Nazi Germany. So that is why it is
so important when Lévinas tells us about the only friend they had, for a few weeks, in that work camp
— a dog they named Bobby.
Bobby befriended the prisoners and waited to greet them enthusiastically after morning
assembly. While the guards and the villagers looked down on them as less than human and unworthy of
moral attention, “for [Bobby], there was no doubt [they] were men” (Lévinas, The Name of a Dog 49).
This is crucial because, for Lévinas, the true mark of humanity is not reason, or lógos — it is the ethical
dimension of the relationship with the Other (Atterton 54). Lévinas’s “humanism of the other”
establishes that a concern for its own being, which is the characteristic of Heidegger’s version of the
human, is not true human nature. For Lévinas, this is very close to animal life, which is a struggle for
life, without ethics (Lévinas, interview 50). The true mark of humanity is the “capacity to break with
reason by putting the needs of the Other first” (Atterton 60), and along this line Lévinas calls humans
the animal irrationale, the unreasonable animal (Lévinas, interview 50).
Therefore, following Costello, Lévinas, too, believes that not recognizing reason and humanity in
others is a mark of inhumanity. But according to his account of his time as a prisoner, this uniquely
human ethics (or, as Costello would put it, this human sympathetic faculty) was best performed by a
dog. Lévinas seldom wrote about animals in his philosophy (Atterton 51), but he seems to be granting
the possibility of human values to this dog, at least according to his strand of humanism, which is
concerned with ethics.
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His philosophy is deeply concerned with the notion of the Face, by the means of which a person
may “impose oneself […] without the intermediary of any image, in one’s nudity, that is, in one’s
destitution and hunger” (qtd. in Wood 130). It is by the means of the Face, of the recognition and
welcoming of the face of the Other, that ethics takes place. Therefore, according to his retelling of his
encounters with Bobby, we may say that he establishes the possibility that an animal may fulfill what
he believes to be the mark of humanity — to recognize the being (or the suffering) of Others.
The question is now to establish whether the animal has a face, in the sense that Lévinas
grants to it, as the call to the responsibility of the Self. When asked this question in an interview,
Lévinas answered that “one cannot entirely refuse the face of an animal” (Lévinas, interview 49). I
believe the key word in this sentence is entirely, since Lévinas seems to be saying that one may ignore
(the face, or the presence, of) the animal, but certainly not entirely. One still knows one is in the
presence of an animal, even if one tries to ignore it. We may perhaps understand his answer as a moral
prescription, as if he were saying “one must not entirely refuse the face of an animal”. However, he
believes that we understand the face of an animal via the human face, in analogy with the human. But
Lévinas confesses that he is not certain if an animal has a face or not, in the sense of an unmistakable
cry for responsibility: “I don’t know if the snake has a face. I can’t answer that question. A more specific
analysis is needed” (Lévinas, interview 49).
The Face is important because, according to Lévinas, it is also the revelation of the
commandment “Thou shall not kill”, where the Other’s face addresses the Self with the message “Do not
kill me”. Here one can see that, although Lévinas has moved the focus of his humanism from lógos to
ethics, language is still central to the definition of the human. It is through the means of the most
primitive expression of language — the addressing face — that the Other may command responsibility
from the Self. For Lévinas, this ability for expression is exclusively human, even if we may understand
the face of the animal by analogy with the human face.
Therefore, it is especially relevant that Derrida will speak of the cat as addressing him (Wood
132). For him, there is no doubt that animals may address us and, by doing so, convey some kind of
knowledge not present to reason, if we will just not consider their expression as always confined within
the “quotation marks” of their ignorable animality. He “could be said to be taking the leap that Lévinas
was unable to take when he doubted that the snake had a face. Derrida’s reference to being addressed
‘from down there’ seems an obvious response to Lévinas’s seemingly theologically impregnated
reference to the Other, as ‘the most high’” (Wood 135). Derrida’s certainty that all philosophy which
ignores such animal address is in some way limited corroborates to this reading.
Also, Lévinas’s opinion that the face of the animal is only understandable through the means of
the human face must not necessarily equate with an inferior moral standing for an animal. According to
Coetzee’s character Costello, sympathy does not depend on the object with which one is asked to
sympathize. It depends on whether the subject possesses such faculty and if he or she is willing to act
on it. Because human lógos makes us capable of contemplation, through the contemplation of our own
suffering, and by identifying an Other’s right to moral concern, we may imagine ourselves in the Other’s
place and sympathize with him or her or it. That some people cannot or will not do it, Costello tells us,
reveals more about the subject than the supposedly unreachable otherness of the Other. To see the
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animal face as a projection of the human’s is part of the common process of compassion towards all
beings.
Philosophers are still wondering why animals were such a secondary part in Lévinas’s
philosophy and why he was so uncomfortable addressing the animal question (Atterton 51). It has been
supposed that he hesitated to elaborate on animal philosophical issues so as not to threaten the
importance of human ethics and the human face. However, “his ethical theory was perhaps the best
equipped of all theories — with the exception of [Bentham’s] utilitarianism — to accommodate the
inclusion of the other animal, and thereby truly go beyond the very humanism […] that has served as a
philosophical justification for the mistreatment of animals for over two millennia” (Atterton 61), as well
as, I would add, for a narrow conception of humanism and humanity.
After this journey through some aspects of animal philosophy, I believe we are ready to
establish a posthumanist ethics and philosophy which I deem to be fit to enlighten any philosophical
reading of the Harry Potter novels. The posthumanism — which we may also call postanthropocentrism
or perhaps even neohumanism — that unites Bentham, Derrida, Coetzee, and Lévinas is the one that I
will try to prove that pervades the pages of Rowling’s novels in their depiction of animals and humans,
and it is this very neohumanism that I believe is seeping from philosophical discourse into mainstream
culture, perhaps due to artistic and cultural products such as the Harry Potter novels.
27

2 THE CLEF

Animal Otherness and Humanist Anxiety

As already highlighted in the introduction, “animal life” is never really discussed as such, since
the perception of animals as a unified entity is linguistic and discursive. Animality, then, is a staple
concept for the construction of both humanity and divinity. However, since what we call “animal” may
derive from a more abstract caesura, one that takes place inside the human, animality may be the form
attributed to any configuration of elements we elect to chop away from us during the process of that
caesura. Thus, I will argue that the animality presented in the Harry Potter novels — or at least in the
first of them — is the form that the inhuman takes in the narrative; the inhuman, according to
Agamben, being that which we have severed internally from what we choose to call our essence. So, in
this chapter, animality will be an instrumental concept used to understand that which remains on the
other side of that line — a line which is drawn by humans, both internally (in the realms of psychology
and psychoanalysis, philosophy, and literature) and externally, in the whole world of ethics, politics and
animal rights.
As stated in the introduction, the analysis undertaken here will focus on such concept of
animality mainly in literary and philosophical dimensions. If sometimes psychoanalytic jargon is used,
it is more a consequence of the terms in which Giorgio Agamben chose to explain his "anthropological
machine" and due to the fact that much of the discussion of animality in the novels is centered on a
family environment, namely that of the Dursleys.
In this first chapter of the analysis, I will focus on the starting point for many of the elements
present in the Harry Potter novels: Harry Potter's step family. The importance of the Dursleys is not to
be overlooked. They are the point from where many of the threads of the novels originate.
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Chronologically, the story starts with them, from Vernon Dursley's point of view. The fantastic setting
to which we are presented in the novels appears gradually, but the pace of the appearance is related to
how much we get farther away from the Dursleys' setting, the “realistic” frame where the narrative
starts. And, most importantly for my analysis of animality, it is by leaving their classical view of
animality and humanity that we venture into the post- or neohumanism I claim that blooms in the
novels. So my analysis will consider the Dursleys as the key to understanding the framework in which
the in-universe neohumanism is constructed in these novels.
In the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (from now on referenced as
HP1), we are presented to the Dursley family, the main non-magical characters in the series. The
normality in which they have chosen to live is stressed right from the start: “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of
number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much”
(Rowling, HP1 7). If we consider normality as the product of an act of splitting concepts and
establishing them in a hierarchy, it is not clear what “normal” really means at this point, without a
framing context to be defined against. But as will be clear further on, "Dursley normality" in the novels
is always coded as the kind of discourse that produces the internal splitting of man and animal.
Albeit being described as "normal", the Dursleys are described by the narrator to have a secret
and their greatest fear is that someone might discover it. We understand, then, that their normality is
threatened by a part of their own life — a small part, but a part that they must repress in their own
thoughts:
The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest
fear was that somebody would discover it. They didn't think they could bear it if anyone
found out about the Potters. Mrs Potter was Mrs Dursley's sister, but they hadn't met
for several years; in fact, Mrs Dursley pretended she didn't have a sister, because her
sister and her good-for-nothing husband were as unDursleyish as it was possible to be.
(Rowling, HP1 7)
In the first chapter of HP1, we are presented to Vernon Dursley’s point of view of a normal
weekday where abnormal things start to disrupt his notion of reality. Most of these abnormal elements
are indeed coded as related to animality, starting with the cat that reads the map from which I titled
this study. When he is leaving his home to go to work, Vernon spots a cat reading a map, but right after
he registers such detail, he has to look again.
It was on the corner of the street that he noticed the first sign of something peculiar — a
cat reading a map. For a second, Mr Dursley didn't realise what he had seen — then he
jerked his head around to look again. There was a tabby cat standing on the corner of
Privet Drive, but there wasn't a map in sight. What could he have been thinking of? It
must have been a trick of the light. (Rowling, HP1 8)
Over the course of the chapter, we are presented to Vernon's humanist anxiety. This anxiety can
be understood as the stress and anguish felt by a person or character when he or she perceives his or
her humanistic construction of that dividing line being eroded, thus feeling anxious to restore it. We
witness his anxiety as his stress level rises and especially as we see him struggling to repress the
evidences of threatening animalities. Right after he glances back at the cat to reassure himself that
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there was no map,


Mr Dursley blinked and stared at the cat. It stared back. As Mr Dursley drove around
the corner and up the road, he watched the cat in his mirror. It was now reading the
sign that said Privet Drive — no, looking at the sign; cats couldn't read maps or signs.
Mr Dursley gave himself a little shake and put the cat out of his mind. (Rowling, HP1 8)
Another instance of threatening animality in Vernon’s day are the owls that are flying around
the country during the day. Many times the Dursleys are not aware of them, but the omniscient
narrator points out to us the owls that keep flying past them. This selective construction of setting
stresses the (perhaps in some level intentional) failure of perception the Dursleys are endowed with.
Vernon only learns about the owls when he gets home and watches the news: "And finally, bird-
watchers everywhere have reported that the nation's owls have been behaving very unusually today.
Although owls normally hunt at night and are hardly ever seen in daylight, there have been hundreds
of sightings of these birds flying in every direction since sunrise” (Rowling, HP1 10).
The humanist anxiety felt by the Dursleys is not only related to animals that behave as they
shouldn't. This anxiety is related to a deep need to ignore and expel such animal elements to the other
side of the dividing line. So, the threat poised by the cat lies in the fact that it is quietly betraying the
line's artificiality and discursive nature. When animalities are brought to his attention, he must repress
or rationalize them, at the risk of experiencing some kind of humanist hysteria. But not all animalities
are threatening. If encountered with a common dog, Vernon would at most shoo him away. That is so
because animals are easy to ignore in the classical humanist view which contends that they are barren
of subjectivity, as Lévinas established. It is animality presented differently that triggers his anxiety, as
with the cat who reads the map.
However, it is not only animals that bring forth this anxiety of border-crossing. Humans also do,
as when Vernon spots some people in the street wearing cloaks — wizards celebrating the fall of
Voldemort and who have forgotten to hide their customary attire.
As he sat in the usual morning traffic jam, he couldn't help noticing that there
seemed to be a lot of strangely dressed people about. People in cloaks. Mr Dursley
couldn't bear people who dressed in funny clothes — the get-ups you saw on young
people! […] They were whispering excitedly together. […]
He'd forgotten all about the people in cloaks until he passed a group of them
next to the baker's. He eyed them angrily as he passed. He didn't know why, but they
made him uneasy. This lot were whispering excitedly, too. […] It was on his way back
past them, clutching a large doughnut in a bag, that he caught a few words of what they
were saying.
‘The Potters, that's right, that's what I heard –’
‘– yes, their son, Harry –’
Mr Dursley stopped dead. Fear flooded him. (Rowling, HP1 8-9)
Vernon knows the Potters have a son named Harry, and instantly links the strange happenings
to his dangerous relatives, only to rationalize afterwards that he does not really know if the boy's name
is Harry anyway. The parallelism between Vernon's discomfort at seeing the cat and his unease both
30

when thinking about the Potters and at spotting the wizards in cloaks is telling: wizards are being
coded strictly related to animality. While the cat is unsettling because it is supposedly acting as a
person, so are the wizards because they are "behaving like animals". This parallelism is made stronger
by the way the first encounter with the cat is introduced — "It was on the corner of the street that he
noticed the first sign of something peculiar — a cat reading a map" (Rowling, HP1 8, my emphasis) —
and in the way the setting is presented in the beginning of the first paragraph of the chapter: “When Mr
and Mrs Dursley woke up on the dull, grey Tuesday our story starts, there was nothing about the
cloudy sky outside to suggest that strange and mysterious things would soon be happening all over the
country” (Rowling, HP1 7).
Wearing cloaks is by no means a sign of animal behavior, and that is not my point. Since
animality is, as Derrida shows, just a word that we give to that which is the absolute Other, anything
that was expelled in the process of defining that which "Vernon" is will have the same effect on him as
animality has. Thus, animals are just what, historically and in the Harry Potter novels, have been most
often the bearer of "animality", here understood simply as Otherness.
Therefore, these descriptions highlight the connection underlining all the "mysterious things"
that happened on that Tuesday, which include the cat, the owls and the strange people in cloaks. The
parallelism between animality and wizardry is made even clearer when we learn later on that those
owls were being used by wizards to deliver letters and that the cat was not a regular cat at all: it was
Minerva McGonagall, a witch in her cat form, who was watching Harry Potter's relatives all day.

Anthropogenesis

The first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is highly unusual within the series
in that, although the narration is in the third person, it is not told from Harry's perspective in third
person sympathetic, as in the rest of the novels. It is my belief that this chapter presents us to the clef
in which the novels are supposed to be read, at least in terms of posthumanist concerns: that a
humanist view of humanity is clearly a construction against a threatening animality born out of an
anxiety related to the lack of property of human beings, as is suggested by Linnaeus, Derrida, Kojéve,
and Agamben. It will be shown later that this is even further problematized in the way the wizards also
present a need to be conceptualized separately from Muggles (non-magical people) because the latter
have no magic.
I would like to link the first chapters of HP1 to some passages from the seventh and last book of
the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (further on referenced as HP7) to support my opinions
related to the Dursleys' anxiety, since it is my opinion that the Dursleys are the starting point not only
because they initiate the novels chronologically, but because it is starting from them that we can
understand the rest of the series. In HP1, it is revealed to Harry that he is a wizard and that his
parents did not die in a car accident, but were killed by Voldemort. Harry then confronts his aunt
Petunia Dursley about why she kept him unaware of that.
‘You knew?’ said Harry. ‘You knew I'm a — a wizard?’
‘Knew!’ shrieked Aunt Petunia suddenly. ‘Knew! Of course we knew! How could
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you not be, my dratted sister being what she was? Oh, she got a letter just like that and
disappeared off to that — that school — and came home every holiday with her pockets
full of frog-spawn, turning teacups into rats. I was the only one who saw her for what
she was — a freak! But for my mother and father, oh no, it was Lily this and Lily that,
they were proud of having a witch in the family!’
She stopped to draw a deep breath and then went ranting on. It seemed she had
been wanting to say all this for years.
‘Then she met that Potter at school and they left and got married and had you,
and of course I knew you'd be just the same, just as strange, just as — as — abnormal —
and then, if you please, she went and got herself blown up and we got landed with you!’
(Rowling, HP1 44)
We can see in her rant that she was jealous of Lily for being a witch and for getting more
attention from their parents. But this fascination with magic quickly became repressed envy, which she
turned into the same humanist anxiety used to keep herself "normal" and distanced from what she
considers "abnormal", having to resort to an "anthropological machine", like the one Agamben says
divides humans and animals. The fact that she had to house Harry under her roof just keeps her
anxiety even more acute and she has to pretend he is not a wizard (which includes lying to him) to keep
her construction of reality whole.
In HP7, we learn more details about Petunia's childhood and teenage years. It is revealed that,
as a child, she was always both fascinated and scared of Lily's increasing magical abilities, until Lily
receives the letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry at the age of eleven saying she,
Lily, is a witch and therefore has a place in the school. Petunia is devastated with the realization that
she will never be a witch like her sister and even writes to the Headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, to
try to convince him to accept her in Hogwarts. But, not being a witch, she can't. From that moment on,
she assumes a self-righteous attitude towards Lily and starts priding herself in her Muggle "normality",
culminating on the day Lily is parting for school, when Petunia calls her a "freak" to her face for the
first time, as is presented in flashback in HP7, strongly echoing the dialogue from HP1 quoted above.
I want to stress how Petunia's journey from fascination with Otherness to humanist anxiety
mirrors the outline Derrida gives us of humanist discourse, or what Agamben calls anthropogenesis.
Derrida says that human superiority over animals is paradoxically built over a natural, original lack (in
this case, the inability to do magic) when compared to nature or the animal. Over this lack — which is
totally different from the lack of intelligence, lack of language or lack of soul that humans lend to
animals — humans erect their property, which is to have no property, and their superiority over animal
life. Using the terms with which Derrida opens his speech, we can say that Petunia finds herself naked
(non-magical) under the gaze of her witch sister (non-naked, not lacking), triggering a shame, a defect
that pushes humans (and Petunia) into developing a humanist discourse of superiority over animality.
These stages also reflect the path philosophical thought took from eighteenth century discourse on
animality, which, as Agamben describes it, bordered almost on the mystical and accepted the possibility
of continuity with animals, to the anthropological machine that was established in philosophical and
scientific discourse in later centuries. It is also interesting to reflect on the recurrent motif of the pair of
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siblings in such anthropogenic stories — such as Bellerophon and Pegasus, Cain and Abel (whose
account Derrida also analyzes) and Petunia and Lily. Like Bellerophon, Petunia also tamed her sister’s
magic (at least discursively) in order to establish her, Petunia’s, identity. In the motif of the conflicting
siblings is a perfect family metaphor for the two halves of an identity that will require one half to be
sacrificed.
Similarly, the life Petunia led from that moment on can also be understood as a metaphor for
Agamben’s anthropological machine. We can assume she married Vernon because of his utmost disgust
of "abnormal" things and set out to raise the most "human" child she could, Dudley. Her son is
presented over the course of the seven books as a spoiled, self-centered materialist boy, only to be
always flattered and endorsed by his parents. Even his name points out the fact that he is just a
necessary appendix for the Dursleys to feel naturalized and endorsed in their discourse: his first name
is just a slight modification of their last name.

The enfant sauvage

The second chapter takes us ten years in the future, when we get a glimpse of Harry's life under
the Dursleys' roof, now told in third person sympathetic from his point of view. Harry and Dudley are
both almost eleven years old and Vernon and Petunia now house Harry, but the fact that their life has
been the same for the past ten years is readily pointed out.
Nearly ten years had passed since the Dursleys had woken up to find their nephew on
the front step, but Privet Drive had hardly changed at all. The sun rose on the same tidy
front gardens and […] crept into their living room, which was almost exactly the same
as it had been on the night when Mr Dursley had seen that fateful news report about
the owls. (Rowling, HP1 19)
Harry Potter lives and sleeps in the cupboard under the stairs, the most convenient place for the
Dursleys to keep something they need to repress at all times, and a place also connected to animality
through the fact that it is full of spiders. It is clear that Harry's presence is uncomfortable to the
Dursleys especially in the way his hair and "that horrible scar" on his forehead bother them:
About once a week, Uncle Vernon looked over the top of his newspaper and shouted that
Harry needed a haircut. Harry must have had more haircuts than the rest of the boys in
his class put together, but it made no difference, his hair simply grew that way — all
over the place.
(Rowling, HP1 20-21)
Once, Aunt Petunia […] had taken a pair of kitchen scissors and cut his hair so short he
was almost bald except for his bangs, which she left "to hide that horrible scar." […]
Next morning, however, he had gotten up to find his hair exactly as it had been before
Aunt Petunia had sheared it off.
(Rowling, HP1 23)
The wildness in which Harry's hair grows (and then magically regrows) stresses the
uncontrollability the Dursleys feel present in Harry, the presence of too much hair being a common trait
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of animality. His ever-growing hair is, then, a perfect symbol for their attempt to control their own
animality (represented in the house by Harry) and their frequent failure to do so. Also, Harry's scar
works as a reminder of his magical origin, since the Dursleys know he got it when Voldemort tried to
kill Harry after murdering his parents, even though they tell him the scar was caused by the car
accident that they claim to have killed the Potters.
Actually, not only are the Dursleys always lying to Harry, but they seem to treat him as the
theoretical Homo ferus, a human variant that Carl Linnaeus hypothesized that would be a sort of
present-day missing link between humans and animals, a Homo that was not sapiens, but mutus (with
no language), tetrapus (walking on all fours), and hirsutus (covered with hair). “The Dursleys often
spoke about Harry […] as though he wasn't there — or rather, as though he was something very nasty
that couldn't understand them, like a slug” (Rowling, HP1 22).
For Linnaeus, the Homo ferus of his time were the enfants sauvages, children who lived wildly
in the outskirts of European villages, among animals, and who, according to Agamben, served as "the
messengers of man's inhumanity, the witness of his fragile identity and his lack of a face of his own"
(Agamben, The Open 30). Agamben also stresses that the fact that the men of the Ancien Régime tried
to humanize these children and to see them as humans betrays the precariousness of human nature. If
we consider both Petunia's caesura of animality and humanity and her attempt to raise Dudley to
validate her anxiety as her humanist project, we can view Harry as the animal presence, the enfant
sauvage that brings instability in its uncontrollability, revealing the precariousness of her project.
Petunia clearly wishes to construct herself as superior in her normality, when compared to the
animality of her sister, and she strives to ingrain this construction in her son. Her attempt shows in the
following description of Dudley: “He had a large pink face, not much neck, small, watery blue eyes, and
thick blond hair that lay smoothly on his thick, fat head. Aunt Petunia often said that Dudley looked
like a baby angel — Harry often said that Dudley looked like a pig in a wig” (Rowling, HP1 21).
As already stated, Agamben considers this anthropological project to be "an ironic apparatus
that verifies the absence of a nature proper to Homo, holding him suspended between a celestial and
terrestrial nature" (Agamben, The Open 29), inside the classical separation of the world in beasts,
humans and gods, and following Giovanni Pico’s quote that states that man “must shape [his face] at
his own discretion in either bestial or divine form" (Agamben, The Open 29). Not only does this excerpt
reveal Petunia's attempt towards divinity, but it also shows the ever-present possibility of animality
within the human, something which Harry in all his threatening animality insists in pointing out. It is
interesting that Harry does not only think of Dudley as a pig, but "a pig in a wig", as if he sees the
attempt of creating a layer of humanity over shameful animality.

Encounter with the Animal

Most of the action of the second chapter of HP1 takes place in one day, Dudley's birthday. Harry
is woken abruptly by Petunia with violent knocks on the cupboard door and then, while he fries bacon
for the family, Dudley complains that he got fewer presents when compared to the previous year (thirty-
seven to thirty-eight), to which Petunia promises him they will buy two more and Vernon salutes
34

Dudley for his ambition.


We learn that every year in Dudley's birthday the Dursleys take him and some friends out for
the day, while Harry stays with a neighbor, Mrs Figg, "a mad old lady who lived two streets away, [and
who] made him look at photographs of all the cats she'd ever owned" (Rowling, HP1 22). This instance of
peripheral animality is further encoded as wizardry when we learn in Harry Potter and the Order of the
Phoenix (later referenced as HP5) that Mrs Figg is in fact a witch.
Unfortunately for the Dursleys, a phone call tells them Mrs Figg has broken her leg, and Harry
will have to join them in their birthday plans. The Dursleys fear that something odd that they deep
down know is of magical origin, like the incident with Harry's hair, will happen if they take him out of
the house. This fear of the unknown and of the 'abnormal' is further illustrated when Harry tells the
family he had a dream about a flying motorbike, after which Vernon almost crashes the car with shouts
of "Motorbikes don't fly!" (Rowling, HP1 24). It is not clear if the Dursleys know that such a flying
motorbike does exist and that it used to belong to Harry's godfather (and that Harry was flown to their
house for the first time in it), but, if they do, it is probably the reason why they find the idea of it so
threatening.
It is decided, then, that Harry will go with them, and they head to a zoo. It is important to stress
now that this by no means signifies that they desire for some connection with animal life. In fact, as
Steve Baker puts it, “since the publication of John Berger's ‘Why look at animals?’ in 1980, at least, it
has become something of a commonplace to say that the spectacle of the zoo animal must be understood
historically as a spectacle of colonial and imperial power” (Baker 67).
Harriet Ritvo also points out that zoos in nineteenth century England worked as "simultaneous
emblems of human mastery over the natural world and of English dominion over remote territories"
(qtd. in Baker 67). In fact, John Berger himself said that "the zoo to which people go to meet animals, to
observe them, to see them, is, in fact, a monument to the impossibility of such encounters" (qtd. in
Baker 14). He believes this impossibility is due to the fact that, in contemporary modern society, we no
longer have any kind of meaningful relationship with animality as when we lived in the countryside.
Then, it must be clear that the Dursleys are not looking for Otherness when they visit a zoo, but
for a validation of their human discourse. As Elizabeth Costello puts it, "when zoos were first opened to
the public, […] the keepers had to protect the animals against attack by spectators. The spectators felt
the animals were there to be insulted and abused, like prisoners in a triumph" (Coetzee 58-59).
As soon as they get to the zoo, "they watched a gorilla scratching its head who looked
remarkably like Dudley, except that it wasn't blond" (Rowling, HP1 24). Again, Harry can see a
continuity between humanity and animality the Dursleys try so hard to repress. And, if we remember
Linnaeus, the resemblance between humans and apes is a source of a long-dated literary and scientific
anxiety in the discursive construction of the human being. Agamben characterizes the anthropological
machine as an optical one, "constructed of a series of mirrors in which man, looking at himself, sees his
own image always already deformed in the features of an ape" (Agamben, The Open 26-27).
As will be clearer later on in my analysis, Harry's kind of neohumanism (or posthumanism) is
not due to a discursive project and precisely because of that he is not so sure that the gorilla and Dudley
are all that different, apart from his blond hair. The Dursleys, as true humans in the school of
35

Linnaeus, deem the resemblance to be irrelevant, since their humanity is internally constructed.
The family then moves on to the reptile house, where "Dudley and [his friend] wanted to see
huge, poisonous cobras and thick, man-crushing pythons" (Rowling, HP1 25), most probably because of
the pleasure they get to see such powerful animals under human domination. When Dudley finds the
largest snake in the zoo, he insists that his father wake it by tapping on the glass. Vernon tries many
times, but the snake does not budge. Dudley gets bored, and that leaves Harry watching the snake
alone, lost in thought. He quickly links the tapping on the glass to wake the snake to Petunia's
knocking on his cupboard door in the morning every day. The snake wakes up, looks up at Harry, and
winks at him. Harry is surprised, but winks back. Setting aside the snake's behavior for now, here the
difference between the Dursleys and Harry is evident. They, following Berger's diagnosis of modern life,
"[treat] animals […] always as the observed. The fact that [animals] can observe [them] has lost all
significance" (qtd. in Baker 15).
Even more important is the fact that only Harry feels compassion towards the snake. Elizabeth
Costello, the character giving the speech inside Coetzee's speech, agrees with Bentham and Derrida
when they say compassion is the most important thing in our relationship with animals. Harry does
sympathize. He imagines what it must feel like to be the snake:
He wouldn't have been surprised if [the snake] had died of boredom itself — no company
except stupid people drumming their fingers on the glass trying to disturb it all day
long. It was worse than having a cupboard as a bedroom, where the only visitor was
Aunt Petunia hammering on the door to wake you up — at least he got to visit the rest
of the house. (Rowling, HP1 25)
Harry knows that sympathy depends very little on the object of such sympathy, and more on the
subject, as Costello says it does. She contends that this sympathy, whose seat in the body is the heart
and not the mind, is even more important when we deal with animals, because their Being is not a
being of reason, like ours supposedly is.
Despite all the animal overtones attributed to Harry, the obvious animality of the snake and the
fact that the Dursleys pride themselves in their humanity, Harry becomes, in his compassion for the
snake, the most human of them all, through a humanity not founded upon discourse and
anthropological projects, but on the humanism of the Other defended by Lévinas.
Let us here remember the importance Lévinas places on the face, and his suspicion of an animal
face (especially a snake’s) that would demand moral responsibility. And here, it is the face of the snake
when it stares at him that makes Harry feel compassion. For the Dursleys, visiting the zoo and looking
at the snake is only the reenactment of the anthropogenic internal division, even if just a validation
with no reflection. But Harry, in his neohumanism, does not see the snake so, and really tries to bridge
the glass dividing him and the snake. Not only that, after winking at the snake, they seem to carry on a
sort of dialogue.
The snake jerked its head toward Uncle Vernon and Dudley, then raised its eyes
to the ceiling. It gave Harry a look that said quite plainly: ‘I get that all the time.’
‘I know,’ Harry murmured through the glass, though he wasn't sure the snake
could hear him. ‘It must be really annoying.’
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The snake nodded vigorously.


‘Where do you come from, anyway?’ Harry asked.
The snake jabbed its tail at a little sign next to the glass. Harry peered at it.
Boa Constrictor, Brazil.
‘Was it nice there?’
The boa constrictor jabbed its tail at the sign again and Harry read on: This
specimen was bred in the zoo. ‘Oh, I see — so you've never been to Brazil?’ (Rowling,
HP1 25-26)
After this enigmatic exchange, Dudley and his friend see the snake moving and run back to the
front of the tank, knocking Harry to the floor. In his anger, Harry accidentally makes the glass vanish
magically and the two boys step back screaming. The snake escapes, not after thanking Harry: "‘Brazil,
here I come […] Thanksss, amigo’" (Rowling, HP1 26).
The fact that Harry can talk to snakes is explained in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
(later referenced as HP2) as a rare magical gift some wizards and witches possess. Unlike most of
children's literature, here it is not the animal who speaks a human language, but a human who speaks
an 'animal language'. When other people overhear Harry speaking in snake language, they can only
hear him hissing.
It can also be thought that the snake’s behavior is a clear case of anthropomorphism, something
Derrida warns us against and which I did not set out to analyze. But I would like to present two
arguments to back up my opinion that this is not anthropocentric. The first is related to literary form.
The narrator that gives us the account of the event is not objective and, as such, is not to be entirely
trusted. Harry’s perception is fairly limited in HP1, especially in its beginning. As a Bildungsroman, it
is my belief that the series follows Harry’s growth from child to man, and that the form and narrative
mirror his transformation. The tone and complexity of the prose changes with each novel and not
uncommonly the narration of similar phenomena seem to be contradictory over the books, probably
because of Harry’s change in perception over the years. If it seems that the snake is able to read the
sign next to its tank, it is wiser to ask why Harry perceived the snake to do this rather than to think
whether the snake is being presented as literate.
I would also like to bring Elizabeth Costello’s retelling of the psychological experiments
Wolfgang Köhler did with apes. According to her, Köhler was making his subject ape, Sultan, think the
wrong questions. It is my belief that Harry opened up to the different thoughts snakes may have,
thoughts that the Dursleys would not allow to be perceived.
Finally, I would like to point out how the glass that separates the snake and the spectators is a
symbol for the line that is drawn in the caesura between human and animal. Both the title of the
chapter, which is "The Vanishing Glass", and the way the characters relate to the glass — how the
Dursleys use it as a means of safety or to keep the snake imprisoned as it validates their world views
and how Harry is able to see through it and to finally make it vanish — point out to the importance of
the glass to the chapter and of the human/animal division to the whole series.
Now I would like to present two other instances of the encounter between Dudley and animality,
ones that really left marks. For even though he was scared, in no way did his experience with the Boa
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constrictor makes Dudley rethink his relationship with animality. The first encounter, chronologically,
happens in the third chapter of HP1, right after the Dursleys reach a deserted rocky island while trying
to escape from the letters someone was trying to send Harry and that kept coming in the hundreds.
The letters were from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry informing Harry that he had
a place there now that he was almost eleven years old, but the Dursleys did not let him read it. At
midnight on the day Harry turned eleven, in their first night in a hut in the middle of the island, a
giant man knocks down the door. “A giant of a man was standing in the doorway. His face was almost
completely hidden by a long, shaggy mane of hair and a wild, tangled beard, but you could make out his
eyes, glinting like black beetles under all the hair” (Rowling, HP1 39). This man, Rubeus Hagrid, works
in Hogwarts and comes personally to bring Harry his letter and tell him he has a place in Hogwarts.
But Harry does not know he is a wizard, and this fact raises the hostility between Hagrid and Vernon to
high levels.
Hagrid tells Harry everything about his parents’ being famous wizards and part of the
resistance against the dark wizard Voldemort and who were eventually killed by him. For some reason,
when Voldemort tried to kill Harry when he was one year old, he was unable to, and after that he was
destroyed. He disappeared, some saying he was dead, but no one knew the truth. It is interesting that
the title of the chapter is “The Keeper of the Keys”, after Hagrid’s job in Hogwarts, since Hagrid comes
to reveal the truth to Harry, turning this persecuted skinny “abnormal” boy into a famous wizard who
managed to somehow vanquish the most powerful one that ever existed. This is the beginning of the
reinterpretation of Harry’s animality as something good due to his magic, something I will focus on in
the next chapter.
Here I am interested in what happens to Dudley. He is, like the rest of the Dursleys, frightened
of Hagrid due to his visible closeness to animality, being in a place between human and animal in his
dimensions and hairiness. Actually, it is later revealed that he is in fact a hybrid of wizard and giant.
Therefore, Hagrid’s animality is more difficult than Harry’s or the snake’s to be repressed or ignored,
and the Dursleys’ anxiety becomes sheer horror. In a moment of rage in the heated discussion between
Hagrid and Vernon, Hagrid magically gives Dudley a pig’s tail. He howls in disgust, but Hagrid calmly
says that “‘it didn't work […]. Meant ter turn him into a pig, but I suppose he was so much like a pig
anyway there wasn't much left ter do’" (Rowling 48).
Hagrid, then, brings truth not only to Harry, but also to the Dursleys, when he points out
Dudley’s animality present in a vulnerable place such as the backside. Hagrid is the first appearance of
a self-announced wizard in the series and, just as the cat in the very beginning, magic and the
wizarding culture come to destabilize the Dursleys’ concept of humanity. We learn later on that it took a
surgery for Dudley to be rid of the pig’s tail and, after that, whenever he has an encounter with another
wizard or witch he clutches his buttocks with his hands, trying to protect himself and his human self-
image.
However, Dudley goes through a life-changing experience in HP5, with another encounter with
animality: he is attacked by a Dementor. A Dementor is a creature that feeds off hope and joy, so its
mere presence drains a person of any positive feelings, forcing him or her to face the most painful truths
hidden in the past or the psyche. Interestingly, it is also an encounter with the inhuman that gives
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access to deep truths about oneself in Derrida's speech, in the very beginning, when he explains how he
sees the dimensions of his humanity when faced with his cat's animality.
Actually, there could be few things more inhuman than a Dementor. It is not really alive and
not really present — it is a creature that grows like fungus, expanding in numbers, and whose lack of
solidity will make it dissolve when encountered with a resilient feeling of hope it cannot devour. If
granted way, the Dementor will apply its final blow, which is called the Dementor's Kiss, which is when
it applies its oral hole onto a person's mouth to suck out the soul, leaving the person clinically alive, but
totally bare and empty.
The threatening inhumanity of the Dementor will be explored further on chapter 5. Right now I
am interested in what Dudley was forced to see when he was almost kissed by a Dementor. After the
attack, he is left almost catatonic, only able to mumble that he felt utterly sad, and this leaves Harry
wondering what Dudley could have possibly seen. This answer was given by Rowling in an interview.
He gets a glimpse of himself "as he really is", as a spoiled, self-centered infantile boy, but I believe we
can expand that quote to say he sees himself as a tool used to reinforce humanist discourse for his
parents. Sure enough, in HP7, when Harry and Dudley have to part ways apparently forever, Dudley
thanks Harry for saving him from the Dementor and shows a surprising level of compassion. If we
consider Harry's presence in their house to be a metaphor for the Dursley's displaced and repressed
animality, we can say that the encounter with the Dementor made Dudley reconsider his relationship
with animality.
As will be clearer further on, the Dursley family, and especially Petunia, are the key to
understanding most of the model of neohumanism presented in the magical part of the narrative, and I
will get back to her when it is time to invert the dichotomy and see how the wizards (in the human
position of superior beings with superior skill) look upon Muggles, and the part that magical ability
plays in these understandings of humanity and animality.
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3 HOGWARTS

The Quirky Animal

As retold in the last chapter, the coming of Hagrid marks the beginning of Harry’s journey into
the previously unknown wizarding world, where he will discover the Otherness of this parallel culture
and himself as a wizard. However, the tone and setting of most of the first novel of the series point
towards my belief that the Dursleys and their views on animality must be taken as the frame to
everything that Harry will encounter in this new world. Even though Harry plays the part of repressed
animality in the Dursleys’ dwelling place, he is culturally — although not philosophically — a Muggle;
he is not a wizard yet. Therefore, most of Harry’s responses to new strange things and phenomena in
the wizarding world carry a very strong Muggle overtone, even if not tinged by Dursley paranoia and
anxiety. This is probably due to the fact that Harry must work as a sort of bridge between the reader —
who is obviously a Muggle — and the strange new environment he is getting to know. By allowing
Harry to feel mesmerized and estranged by what he sees and learns, Rowling permits readers who are
also beginning to come to terms with the wizarding world to empathize with Harry and share his
selfsame view of new things, creating the strong bond between the reader and Harry that will be so
important later on in the series.
Nowhere in the first novel is this better portrayed than in the chapter “Diagon Alley”, named
after the street in London inaccessible to Muggles which is lined with wizards’ shops. As is common in
Rowling’s names in the series, Diagon Alley is also supposed to be read as something close to
“diagonally”, as if to stress how the wizarding world exists alongside the Muggle world, not really
parallel to it, but crossing it diagonally.
In his visit to Diagon Alley, Harry is blown away by the novelty and bizarreness of the place,
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with its magical stores and shoppers. Again, most of the Otherness presented is linked to animality,
from the owl that comes to deliver the newspaper, which opens the chapter; passing through owl shops;
overheard conversations about dragon liver, vampires and hags; windows displaying bat spleens and
eels’ eyes; and all the way to Harry’s amazement towards the goblins who run Gringotts, the wizarding
bank, which is especially incredible due to the rumors that dragons guard the high-security vaults.
These references to animality are quirky in the way they are supposed to brings elements from
childhood in a rather funny and naïve fashion, but one which also has strong overtones of Otherness.
An important facet of this animality presented as bizarre to Harry is the traditional association in
folklore of witchcraft to animality or inhumanity. Actually, most of the quirkiness associated with the
Ministry of Magic — the rather colorful yet bureaucratic wizarding political body — is fruit of the
interface between the seriousness and complexity of its down-to-earth laws and the obviously
otherworldly witchcraft it is supposed to represent.
This can be glimpsed in the serious tone in which Harry’s letter from school details the material
students are required to have. Under “Other Equipment”, the letters lists, among other items, “1
cauldron (pewter, standard size 2)” (Rowling, HP1 53), while the book list includes “The Standard Book
of Spells (Grade 1) by Miranda Goshawk” (Rowling, HP1 52). And, at the end of the list, students are
reminded that “[they] may also bring an owl OR a cat OR a toad” (Rowling, HP1 53). The presence of
animals in Hogwarts school, and of these particular animals, is an essential part of the quirky
animality which is shown to permeate the new world Harry encounters in his school, and it builds
strongly on traditional images of witches and their uses of such animals in magic.
Harry’s most surprised state in Diagon Alley aptly comes when it is time for him to buy a
magical wand, which binds magic and animality inexorably for the rest of the series. When he enters
the ancient narrow shop, his sense of estrangement is strongest yet: “Harry felt strangely as though he
had entered a very strict library. […] For some reason, the back of his neck prickled. The very dust and
silence in here seemed to tingle with some secret magic” (Rowling, HP1 63). The wandmaker, Mr
Ollivander, a sort of wand luthier cultivated in what is represented as a very ancient knowledge,
explains to Harry that wands are made of specific woods and carry a magical core, which may be a
unicorn tail hair, a phoenix tail feather, or the heartstring of a dragon (Rowling, HP1 64). Not only that,
but Ollivander explains that “it’s really the wand that chooses the wizard”. Sure enough, Ollivander
brings dozens of wands for Harry to wave around, until one produces a warmth in his hand and golden
and red sparks (Rowling, HP1 65). Ollivander is glad he could find a wand that chose Harry, but then
grimly informs Harry that the phoenix whose feather was used to make Harry’s wand gave the feather
that was inside Lord Voldemort’s wand — the wand that almost killed Harry. Here I would like to call
attention to the first link between Harry and Voldemort which is based on instances of animality, as
other coming links will also be.
Thus, most of the rest of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is dedicated to Harry’s
exploring of Hogwarts, its secrets, stories, inhabitants, and knowledge, all the while being surrounded
by this quirky animality that seems to stress the Otherness which Harry still perceives in the wizarding
world. These animalities include the many pets kept by Hogwarts students, which the school
admittance letter made clear to be accepted (or even encouraged). This contact with animals in a daily
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— and even official — basis in school is crucial for wizards’ welcoming of animality. According to
anthropologist Richard Tapper, “in every society, children have to learn how to distinguish Self from
Other; and ‘people like me’ (kin and friends) from ‘people not like me’ (strangers, enemies and witches);
and ‘people’ from ‘not people’ (usually animals)” (qtd. in Baker 80). Therefore, it is especially important
that in a school environment such as Hogwarts, students will have a close contact to animality which is
not regulated and controlled by scientific distinctions between humans and animals. Not only that,
these animal presences again explore the folkloric link between witchcraft and animality, and the
prominence of these two dimensions — of cultural reference and of in-universe logic — are common in
Rowling’s writing.
Other instances of surrounding animality include janitor Filch’s almost telepathic bond to his
cat Mrs Norris, the half-goblin, half-human Charms teacher Professor Flitwick, the troll which breaks
into the school during Halloween and that almost kills Harry’s friend Hermione Granger, and other
animal manifestations on which I intend to focus more closely in coming chapters.

On the Edge of the Forest

The first more meaningful contact with animality experienced by Harry comes in the form of
Hagrid. As was already pointed out, Hagrid’s animal overtones are clear in his appearance and,
although most characters are fond of him and his sweet nature, he is far from being universally
accepted. This can be best seen in the chapter “Diagon Alley”, where he is effusively greeted by a pub
full of witches and wizards who know him well, only to be later described to Harry as a “savage […]
servant” by the blue-blooded Draco Malfoy when they first meet in Diagon Alley (Rowling, HP1 60).
Actually, a society’s views on animality tend to be contradictory. Not always is it possible to
establish a coherent system that represents the thoughts of a group concerning humans and animals.
According to Baker, the commonsensical beliefs regarding animals and animality tend to be hard to
map, and discourses containing animal elements will very often have them contradict each other (177).
Either that, or the animality present in discourse, if regarded with attention, will seem to go against the
broader point in which it is inscribed (Baker 177). Baker contends that this is due to the fact that “the
animal is the sign of all that is taken not-very-seriously in contemporary culture; the sign of that which
doesn’t really matter” (174). Considering that common sense does not take animals and animal issues
seriously, its discourse will very rarely tend to work its animal meanings thoroughly or in a coherent
and unified system.
Thus, I believe that when trying to establish a group’s understanding of animality and
humanity, one must be prepared to find contradictions, just for the fact that these understandings do
not pay much attention to animal issues, since animality seems to be always that which one has severed
from what matters. Therefore, in the in-universe culture of the Harry Potter novels, it is crucial to
remember that not always all characters will be in harmony in their views of animality. Actually, that
seems to point towards the existence of different posthumanisms standing alongside each other inside
the in-universe of the books, more often than not in conflict among themselves. The different reactions
to Hagrid’s undeniable animality is a mark of that.
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It is important stating that Hagrid lives in a hut “on the edge of the Forbidden Forest” (Rowling,
HP1 104), this forest being a large woods next to Hogwarts castle called forbidden because students are
not allowed in it, and that they fear because it is said to be full of werewolves. Working on the
traditional representation of the forest as a symbol for the unconscious or the unknown, Rowling places
Hagrid at the margins of what is considered absolutely Other, unknowable, and segregated from the
Self — a model much like the working of Agamben’s anthropological machine. Characterized as such,
Hagrid functions as a ground for different constructions of humanity and animality in the way he
presents opportunities for characters to align to different posthumanist stances: embracing his
animality, tolerating him, or excluding him from their midst.
This can be seen in many moments throughout the novels. In HP1, Hagrid confesses to Harry
that he always wanted to own a dragon and he does manage to buy a dragon egg by chapter seventeen.
Despite Harry’s sympathy towards Hagrid and his animality, he and his friends cannot deal with the
dragon, only being able to accept the fact that Hagrid has a “strange” fascination for deadly animals,
agreeing that he has “lost his marbles” (Rowling, HP1 172). It is important that, despite the obviously
threatening appearance of Hagrid’s animality, Harry, his friends and others who are fond of Hagrid
(including the wise headmaster Professor Dumbledore) know better that his animal ways betray at the
most a closer contact with nature, and, ironically, an inclination to childlikeness. Rowling’s portrayal of
Hagrid as both animalized and infantilized corroborates to Baker’s point regarding the irrelevant status
of animal issues and animal representation in popular culture. The fact that both childhood and contact
with animals are regarded as silly or devoid of significance — and that they are usually considered to be
related — is a case in point for Baker.
However, it is interesting that Hagrid’s attitude towards pet-keeping is underlined by his usual
choice of the most untamable and lethal creatures. Other than the dragon, that would include a vicious
three-headed dog he names Fluffy. This brings many shades of grey to the characters’ postures
concerning posthumanism, since they object not to pet-keeping, but to Harry’s strange taste in animal
companions. But Hagrid, with his closer contact to nature and to the “forest”, questions the logic on
which only certain animals are supposed to be seen as lovable.
Hagrid’s constant connections to animality are renewed almost in every novel. In HP2, we learn
that he was expelled from Hogwarts when he was in his third year, accused of killing another student
by making use of a deadly animal. Harry learns, however, that he was innocent, but that the true
murderer exploited Hagrid’s affinity to animals to frame him for a crime he did not commit. It is in
moments like this, when Hagrid is exposed to scrutiny to a large group of people, that many anxieties
related to animality arise. Other public confrontations Hagrid has to face will surface in the coming
novels, into which I plan to look more closely further on.

The Forest

It is only by the end of HP1 that Harry will experience an encounter with animality that will
mark him forever, and which is meaningful beyond the quirky presence of animals in the school and
Hagrid’s childlike proximity to nature. And that encounter will happen inside the Forest, at the realm
43

of the unknown, or of the Other.


Harry, his friends Neville and Hermione, and his school rival Draco Malfoy are to serve
detention with Hagrid for breaking a school rule — wandering around the Hogwarts castle after curfew.
They are supposed to enter the Forest with Hagrid to try to find a unicorn he believes to be hurt. They
find streaks of a silvery substance which Hagrid determines to be unicorn blood. When venturing into
the Forest, Harry comes into contact with two instances of animality which are definitely different from
the quirkiness he is used to, and which arrest his subjectivity much like Lévinas contends the Face of
the Other is supposed to do.
Harry is the one who finds the unicorn, lying dead in a clearing of the forest. Harry’s
approaching the clearing resonates strongly with Heidegger’s account of Man’s coming into Being and
language — and therefore becoming human — a process which he associates with the image of one’s
approaching a clearing in a forest. However, in this clearing Harry is not to meet Being or language, but
a dead unicorn. The sight of the killed animal has a strong emotional impact on Harry, and this
primeval reenactment of a coming-of-age for humanity is deeply seated on an understanding of
humanness closer to Derrida’s and Lévinas’s views on sympathy and compassion:
Harry could see a clearing ahead, through the tangled branches of an ancient oak. […]
Something bright white was gleaming on the ground. They inched closer. It was the
unicorn all right, and it was dead. Harry had never seen anything so beautiful and sad.
Its long slender legs were stuck out in odd angles where it had fallen and its mane was
spread pearly white on the dark leaves.
(Rowling, HP1 186-187)
This image is interrupted by the arrival of a “hooded figure” (Rowling, HP1 187), which
“slithers” towards the unicorn, lowers its head, and starts to drink its silver blood. This figure, which we
learn later to be Voldemort possessing one of the Hogwarts teachers, attempts to attack Harry, but he is
saved by a centaur.
Harry and Hagrid met two centaurs on the way into the forest, and they seemed to refuse to
answer questions directly regarding the unicorn and who killed it. They are portrayed as a very proud
community dwelling inside the forest, which Hagrid deeply respects and whose members, according to
him, are wise and prone to star-gazing in order to foresee the future. The centaur that saves Harry,
Firenze, seems to know Harry’s fame for stopping Voldemort in the past, and advises Harry to ride on
his back so they can gallop to safety. When they reach a safe spot, Firenze decides to explain to Harry
the seriousness of what has just happened. He tells to Harry that
it is a monstrous thing, to slay a unicorn. […] Only one who has nothing to lose, and
everything to gain, would commit such a crime. The blood of a unicorn will keep you
alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain
something pure and defenceless to save yourself and you will have but a half life, a
cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips.1 (Rowling, HP1 188)

1 It is interesting to note that the purity and sacred overtones given to the unicorn draw heavily on the image the

horse has in popular culture, as a symbol for spiritual, noble nature and animality, an image which also supports
the noble self-image of the centaurs.
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Firenze leads Harry to conclude correctly that the only person who could want such a cursed
life, and who had plans of acquiring the Philosopher’s Stone in order to make Elixir of Life to live
forever, is Voldemort, who, according to Hagrid, did not have “enough human left in him to die”
(Rowling, HP1 189). This coming into the clearing, thus, stands as one of the many staple moment in
the novels when moral alignments are set, and again they are connected to different stances towards
animality. Voldemort, similar to the description of Nazi guards in Lévinas’s account, has his contempt
towards animals (or lesser forms of being) and his own inhumanity strongly linked. While Harry, in his
reaction to the scene in the clearing, and in the way it is highlighted by the most emotional writing so
far in the novels, is nearing a posthumanist understanding of animality and of himself. This is stressed
by the anger the other centaur Harry meets, Bane, shows towards the fact that Harry was riding a
centaur: “‘Firenze! […] What are you doing? You have a human on your back! Have you no shame? Are
you a common mule?’”. As very proud beings, centaurs consider themselves superior to humans, and
know too well human presumption towards these half-horse beings. Already familiar with the role of
hated and feared animal in the Dursleys’ house, Harry has again plenty of opportunity to see the
consequences of clashing constructions of humanity and animality — in the way the centaurs feel
offended when treated as animals, how they animalize humans, and how Voldemort chooses to overlook
the almost religious pureness associated with the unicorn.
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4 MAGIC IS MIGHT

So far we have seen animality and the discourses constructed around it in the way they are
related mostly to wizards’ and witches’ characters, as in the way Harry is treated in his aunt and
uncle’s house, the way the animality of wizards and witches is stressed by the presence of animals in
Hogwarts, how Hagrid is portrayed as a childlike beast, how the centaurs disdain wizards as inferior,
and how the “hooded figure” we learn to be Voldemort is portrayed as so inhuman to the point of being
undying. However, it should be clear that these two last instances of wizard animality bring different
shades to the issue, and they will take us towards a deeper discussion of these constructions of
animality.
The centaurs disdain wizards in a different way Vernon Dursley hates wizarding folk, since the
centaurs make it clear that their contempt is towards humans in general. And they certainly are not
prejudiced against wizards because of the latter’s supposed animality, since centaurs themselves are
half-animals. Despite their discomfort of being seen as horses, they do not shy away from their animal
status. And Voldemort’s inhumanity is connected to a wizard’s disdain towards other creatures, as
when he slays the sacred unicorn, a disdain that so far we have seen directed towards wizards, but not
ensuing from them.
In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (HP2), we are introduced to the concept — which is
crucial for the novels — of wizarding prejudice towards Muggles and other supposedly lesser creatures.
As will be common in coming novels, HP2 opens with a literary moment which will present most of the
posthumanist issues of the rest of the book. In the first chapter, we are presented to the common
mistreatment of Harry by his aunt and uncle, which has reached new levels now that Harry is officially
a wizard in training. Harry’s pet owl, Hedwig, is a constant source of stress for Vernon, who sees it as a
reminder of his nephew’s animality. Words like “abnormality” (Rowling, HP2 8) are common Vernon
46

vocabulary to refer to Harry. Despite being used to having his magical origin as reason for repression
and abuse, Harry, when he is supposed to be pretending not to exist while the Dursleys entertain some
guests, sees a new dimension to these relations when he comes to find a house-elf sitting in his bed.
“The little creature on the bed had large, bat-like ears and bulging green eyes the size of tennis
balls. […] The creature slipped off the bed and bowed so low that the end of its long thin nose touched
the carpet. Harry noticed that it was wearing what looked like an old pillowcase, with rips for arm and
leg holes” (Rowling, HP2 15). Harry never saw and does not know what a house-elf is, and he
suppresses his urge to ask the creature “What are you?” to ask “Who are you?”, to which the creature
answers that he is Dobby the house-elf. Harry’s ignorance towards house-elves shows again when he
asks Dobby to sit down and the elf bursts into tears, saying he was never invited to sit down by a
wizard, “like an equal” (Rowling, HP2 16).
Dobby explains to Harry that house-elves are bound to serve a wizarding family forever and
that this relation of servitude is seated firmly upon magical bindings. When suddenly overcome by an
urge to “speak ill” of his masters, Dobby is forced to punish himself by the magic that forces him to be a
servant of wizards (Rowling, HP2 16). House-elves may not leave or disobey an order knowingly — they
will either be incapable of doing so or they will have to punish themselves severely afterwards. Dobby
seems to be deeply loyal to Harry and warns him that he must not go back to Hogwarts, because there
is a dangerous plot that might target him. Harry, of course, refuses not to go back to where he thinks he
belongs.
The implications of house-elf servitude and magic will be explored further on in this chapter.
What I would like to point out now is that Dobby’s presence reveals an extra stratum of abuse and
repression of which Harry was not aware up to now. At the same time that the Dursleys are forcing
Harry to hide from the guests in his bedroom and keeping him from his school books, Harry is coming in
contact with another being who also suffers abuse, but this time by the hands of wizards like himself. If
wizards are being repressed due to their animality, they, in turn, do the same to other beings.
This book will take us slowly to its main topic of discussion which will be Muggle-hate on the
part of wizards, little by little presenting us to the notion of the prejudiced wizard. After fleeing from
the Dursleys’ oppression to spend the rest of the summer in his friend Ron’s house, he learns that
house-elves are not common in any kind of wizard dwelling, but “come with big old manors and castles”
(Rowling, HP2 28). He also gets to know Ron’s father, Mr Weasley, who is a Muggle fanatic who likes to
collect Muggle artifacts, a fact that most other characters, including his family, find funny or
inappropriate, not unlike what Baker claims to be the standard stance towards all things related to
animality and/or childhood in popular culture. Slowly, then, we are led to think of wizards and Muggles
as separate communities which are mutually pushing themselves apart.
Wizard prejudice towards Muggles is reinforced when the Weasleys and Harry go to Diagon
Alley to buy their books for the new school term. Harry accidentally overhears a conversation between
Draco Malfoy and his father Lucius Malfoy, who are portrayed as a proud decaying aristocracy, while
they are visiting a suspicious section of Diagon Alley devoted to dark magic. Mr Malfoy shows
disappointment towards the declining status of pure-blood wizards like himself, agreeing that “wizard
blood is counting for less everywhere” (Rowling, HP2 44). He is also ashamed — and intent on instilling
47

the same shame in his son — that Hermione Granger, who has Muggle parents and therefore is not a
pure-blood witch, could have been better than Draco in every school exam.
The Malfoys’ pride in pure-blood ancestry and contempt towards Muggle reaches a climax when
Lucius meets Mr Weasley in a bookshop, where the latter is accompanied by Hermione’s parents, who
are visibly Muggles. Their animosity breaks into a fist fight when they argue over wizard pride, which
Malfoy clearly sees as related to purity of blood and avoidance of Muggles, and that Mr Weasley
understands as rooted in more compassionate grounds (Rowling, HP2 51). Another fight breaks out
later in the novel when Draco calls Hermione “Mudblood” to her face, after which Ron tries to jinx him
(Rowling, HP2 87).
Hagrid and Ron explain to Harry and Hermione, who were both brought up by Muggles and are
therefore less familiar with wizards’ prejudice, that
‘Mudblood’s a really foul name for someone who was Muggle-born — you know, non-
magic parents. There are some wizards — like Malfoy’s family — who think they’re
better than everyone else because they’re what people call pure-blood. […] I mean, the
rest of us know it doesn’t make any difference at all. […] It’s a disgusting thing to call
someone. […] Dirty blood, see. Common blood. It’s mad. Most wizards these days are
half-blood anyway. If we hadn’t married Muggles we’d’ve died out.’ (Rowling, HP2 89)
Thus, as I have demonstrated, this conflict between Muggles and wizards is gradually presented
to us over the course of the novel. Of course, not all members of said groups view their communities as
enemies, but the ones who do, like the Malfoys, consider half-blood wizards — like Harry — or Muggle-
borns, that is, witches or wizards who are born to Muggle parents — such as Hermione or Harry’s
mother — as a Muggle presence inside their community. The animosity between Muggle-born and pure-
blood reaches a climax when a wall in a corridor in Hogwarts receives some writing that ominously
says: “THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS HAS BEEN OPENED. ENEMIES OF THE HEIR, BEWARE”
(Rowling, HP2 106). After much rumor related to what the Chamber of Secrets might be, Hermione
Granger decides to ask Professor Binns, the History of Magic teacher, to tell the story surrounding the
mythical chamber. He explains:
‘[…] Hogwarts was founded over a thousand years ago […] by the four greatest witches
and wizards of the age: […] Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw and
Salazar Slytherin. They built this castle together, far from prying Muggle eyes, for it
was an age when magic was feared by common people, and witches and wizards suffered
much persecution. […] For a few years, the founders worked in harmony together,
seeking out youngsters who showed signs of magic and bringing them to the castle to be
educated. But then disagreements sprang up between them. […] Slytherin wanted to be
more selective about the students admitted to Hogwarts. He believed that magical
learning should be kept within all-magic families. He disliked taking students of Muggle
parentage, believing them to be untrustworthy. After a while, there was a serious
argument on the subject between Slytherin and Gryffindor, and Slytherin left the
school. […] According to the [legend of the Chamber of Secrets], Slytherin had built a
hidden chamber in the castle, [and he] sealed the Chamber of Secrets so that none
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would be able to open it until his own true heir arrived at the school, [who] would be
able to unseal the [chamber], unleash the horror within, and use it to purge the school of
all who were untrustworthy to study magic. […] [The ‘horror within’] is believed to be a
monster, which the heir of Slytherin alone can control.’
These accounts of the origins of Hogwarts outline for us a kind of wizarding anthropogenesis,
which, if analyzed in detail, might help understand better the wizards’ and witches’ conceptions of
humanity and animality, which strongly underline Muggle-hate. We can see by this account that the
pattern of caesurae, of splits, division and sectioning continues to be what establishes identity, as
Agamben defined when outlining the internally divided nature of humanity. Here we learn that the
wizards, fearful of Muggle persecution, created their identity by separating themselves from the ones
they considered to be Others. Salazar, in his turn, split the wizarding community, and by doing so
created another concept of humanity.
The humanism we know from the Enlightenment is manifest here in this account of wizard
segregation. The horror Muggles felt towards wizards was based, as happens to the Dursleys, in their
anxiety related to humanity’s original lack of property, which demands that humans repel animality in
order to establish humanness, and wizardkind will be expelled in the same movement. Wizards and
witches, however, regard humans the same way rationalist humanism views animals — as inferior
beings due to their not possessing lógos. Because Muggles do not have magic, wizards see themselves as
above them, and they will segregate from non-magical humans also as an identity-forming process.
Salazar’s departure from the school is only an echo of wizards’ segregation from Muggles, as he breaks
from what he sees as a still overtly Muggle community.
The many tensions in play here are all embedded with animal overtones, and all the discourses
of animality involved are taken to different levels of complexity. Salazar seems to wish to be truly as
Muggles see wizards — an animal Other — since for him this is what being superior to Muggles is. In a
way, embracing animality is what Salazar defends as a way to rightfully pose wizardkind over
humankind. Magic shakes the human/animal divide at its bases, and now we are dealing with a
humanist animality in Salazar and his pure-blood peers, as opposed to an animal-like humanity in
Muggles.
This severing movement — Salazar’s departure from the school — is reinforced by other details
in the novel. Salazar’s connections to animality are many, and they are seen as threatening by those
who oppose his views. The house he founded in Hogwarts — Slytherin — has a green snake as its
symbol. All other houses have animals as symbols, but they are an eagle, a badger, and a lion. The
inevitable otherness of the snake is not deconstructed in the in-universe fabric of posthumanist thought,
mainly due to the fact that the protagonist and his allies all oppose Salazar Slytherin’s segregational
leanings and hold his views with suspicion. Actually, almost the entirety of the characters who are
considered to be evil were once members of the Slytherin house while students at Hogwarts and hold
anti-Muggle biases. Voldemort himself, the great villain of the series, was a Slytherin student in his
school days and his most dear ambition is — as is his followers’ — to undo the break from Muggles
carried out by the founders of Hogwarts, and have wizards rule over the Muggles, since he believes
magical ability gives wizards the right to rule.
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As stated before, the snake symbol is seen by most main characters as strongly related to Dark
magic and to racist alignments preaching wizard superiority. The green color found in the Slytherin
coat-of-arms is repeatedly connected to evil, since it appears in the Slytherin uniform (of which most of
Harry’s bigoted and hateful enemies are members), in the decoration of the houses of old pure-blood
wizard families that Harry visits (along with snake-shaped knockers, doorknobs, etc.), and finally in the
color of the killing curse, which is described as a jet of green light. This is opposed to the color red,
which is present in the Gryffindor coat-of-arms, the house to which Harry and most of the main
characters belong (which has the lion as a symbol), and in the color of the spell used to disarm enemies,
a favorite of Harry, which is described as a burst of red light.
The Slytherin connection to animality is finally reinforced when Harry learns that Salazar
Slytherin was famous for being able to talk to snakes and that this is the reason why the Slytherin
house has a snake for symbol. Not only that, the common image that we have of Voldemort, when he is
described to us, is that of him accompanied by his pet snake Nagini, with whom he is also able to
converse. We can also add to this list of Slytherin animality the monster that is believed to dwell in the
Chamber of Secrets, Salazar’s own face, which is described as “monkey-like” (Rowling, HP2 226), and
the fact that his name sounds like slithering, a verb usually used to describe a snake’s movement.
The glaring question of why the mostly pro-Muggle wizarding community permits that such a
sub-group of prejudiced wizards is allowed to exist within their midst, and even as a house inside their
school, is voiced by a Gryffindor student in HP2, when the monster within the supposedly mythical
Chamber of Secrets does start attacking people at Hogwarts:
‘That’s two Gryffindors down, not counting a Gryffindor ghost, one Ravenclaw and one
Hufflepuff. […] Haven’t any of the teachers noticed that the Slytherins are all safe? Isn’t
it obvious all this stuff’s coming from Slytherin? The heir of Slytherin, the monster of
Slytherin — why don’t they just chuck all the Slytherins out?
The answer is far from obvious, and since the main characters — and especially Harry, who
provides us with a limited point-of-view — are mostly Gryffindors, it is not to be found spelled out for
us. However, I believe we can infer a lot about wizarding history and anthropogenesis from the accounts
that are presented to us over the course of the novels.
As we saw, Muggles in the Middle Ages knew of the existence of wizards and witches, which led
the latter to go into hiding, culminating in the founding of secluded Hogwarts around 1000 A.D. and the
passing of the Statute of Secrecy in 1692, according to which the International Confederation of
Wizards decided that all wizards would go into hiding and that exposing oneself as magical would be a
breach of the law. Therefore, taking a historical approach to the Muggle/wizard animosity, we may see
that Salazar’s stance was the originally widespread one in the early years of the formation of the
wizarding community. We may read Salazar’s embrace of animality — and of the snake symbol — as an
act of challenge towards a medieval Muggle society suspicious of the connections between magic and
demonic horrors. If we consider that wizards and Muggles lived side by side — at least legally, even if
on bad terms — until 1692, the Christian symbology of the snake was easily available to wizards and it
is possible that Salazar embraced the snake as his symbol because of the role it had in Christian
iconology as ‘the enemy’. Slytherin may have thought that accepting the symbol would empower and
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boost wizards’ communal pride, since it celebrates the animality wizards see as superior to Muggleness.
It is as if these segregational wizards could detect the human anxiety that establishes humanity, and
thus could see animality through a different perspective: of the wizard or witch who is not originally
bare, of the one who, like animals, is endowed by nature with a property — in their case, magic. This
stance would make wizards philosophically posthumanist in the way they rethink the human/animal
divide.
However, if we take the term “animality” as functional, as Derrida puts it, wizards may still be
humanist. According to Derrida, “animality” is not an absolute concept, nor is it the trait that would be
supposedly shared by all animals and that makes them animals, but the result of a process by the
means of which humans arrive at a place where they can call themselves human and draw a line
dividing themselves from Others. This division, according to Agamben, takes place internally, within
humanity, and not in nature — “animality” is everything which is shut out of humanness, it is the
functional Other which establishes the nature of the Self. Thus, despite the fact that early wizards, and
especially Salazar, embrace what we could call obvious animal elements, they are still opposing
“animality” in the way they see it — in the form of Muggles. Therefore, however posthumanist their
stance may be in their embrace of animals, wizards still defend an anthropocentric humanism, even if
established on other bases.
Considering it from this angle, the presence of the Slytherin house — and of the prejudice that
seems to go along with it — makes sense within wizarding community, even if it is anachronic. A
completely pro-Muggle wizard society would undermine the humanist system defining wizardkind, in
the same lines that embracing Harry’s animality is a threat to the Dursleys in the way that it would
unravel their self-image as humans.
Thus, a true posthumanist view of the animal/human divide, as we saw in the introduction,
would have to be erected on other foundations, ones which would not be of metaphysical or ontological
origin, and that would not draw dividing lines between the Self and the Other. The posthumanism I
outlined by bringing together the views of Kojéve, Agamben, Berger, Coetzee, Bentham, Lévinas, and
Derrida, which is based on compassion and sympathy, is the key to the present dilemma, and it was
staged in HP1 in the moment Harry comes into the clearing to find a dead unicorn, as I described in the
previous chapter.
Based on that, I would like to point out that this proves that different posthumanisms coexist
inside the in-universe culture of the novels. Some of these stances play with the diverse meanings of
animality and humanity in complex ways, as is common in discourses that deal with such elements:
pure-blood racist wizards such as Salazar, Voldemort or the Malfoys have long embraced the animality
that goes along with being a wizard, but they voice, in their turn, a classically humanistic and
segregational view of Muggles as inferior due to lack of magic. At the same time, most of the main
characters exhibit a more brotherly posthumanist stance, being pro-Muggle or half-blood themselves,
and being acceptant of other beings, even though they feel threatened by the symbology of the snake.
Actually, the conflict between these two versions of posthumanism is the key theme of the
second novel. After the warning which was written on the wall, attacks do start to happen, and there is
growing tension in the school when students are convinced that the heir of Slytherin is among them and
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that he or she is carrying out a racist cleansing of the school by the means of Slytherin’s monster. The
implications of Salazar’s embraced enemy’s symbol coming back to take back wizards’ supposedly
usurped place within Hogwarts must not be overlooked. Salazar is bringing back the Christian symbol
of the enemy to cleanse the school of Muggle presence, who in his view are nothing but the descendants
of Christian persecutors.
The half-blood and Muggle-born students seem especially anxious about the possibility of the
monster lurking around the school ready to attack them; ironically, for their supposed animality when
compared to the all-magical pure-bloods. Again, this points towards an understanding of animality
based on its functional value in processes of humanization. Despite the fact that most of the wizard
population inside and outside Hogwarts has a reasonably strong compassion-based strand of
posthumanism, they nevertheless feel anxiety when being stalked and targeted by Slytherin’s monster,
whose objective is to clean the school of “animal” Muggles simply because of their supposed lack of
magic. The fact that the weapon of such attack is an animal — the giant snake — just underlines even
more strongly the idea that the shadow of animality is haunting the characters and triggering their
anxiety.
The connection between anti-Muggle prejudice and lack of magic is reinforced when we learn
that shy, forgetful and magically incompetent Neville Longbottom, one of Harry’s classmates, is
especially nervous, even though he is pure-blood. His anxiety is endorsed by the fact that the first one to
be attacked was not half-blood — it was not even a wizard, it was janitor Filch’s cat Mrs Norris. She
was petrified by the unknown monster by unknown means. We learn in HP2 that Filch is not really a
wizard, but a Squib. A Squib is the opposite of a Muggle-born — both his parents are magical, but he
was born without any magic, as a Muggle. When Neville’s friends tell him he should not worry about
the monster due to his pure-blood status, he defends his point by saying: “‘They went for Filch first, […]
and everyone knows I’m almost a Squib’” (Rowling, HP2 139). Therefore, we can see that the
persecution of Muggle-borns and half-bloods is not a case of ethnical persecution, it is ontological in
nature. Even pure-blood characters feel panic when they can see in themselves a lack of magic which is
being targeted as animal.
This anxiety related to a self-perceived animality spreads quickly in Hogwarts, and includes
Harry. He feels worried about the fact that the Sorting Hat, a magical hat new students try on when
they arrive at Hogwarts and that sorts them into the four houses, considered sorting him in Slytherin
when he put it on. This anxiety reaches new levels when the entire school witnesses him talking to a
snake for the second time ever since his encounter with one in the zoo (Rowling, HP2 145). Harry was
trying to tell the snake not to attack another student, but since others who do not speak Parseltongue
(the language of snakes) only hear hissing when someone speaks it, Harry was believed to be egging the
snake on the student. Harry does not understand Ron and Hermione’s unease with the fact that he can
talk to snakes, since he believes it is a common ability, but, as they point out to him, “‘it’s not a very
common gift, […] being able to talk to snakes was what Salazar Slytherin was famous for. […] And now
the whole school’s going to think you’re his great-great-great-great-grandson or something’” (Rowling,
HP2 146-147). Harry cannot even convince himself he is not the heir of Slytherin, since Salazar lived so
far in the past, and his anxiety related to his connection to Slytherin, snakes and the monster is highest
52

yet, as other students are attacked and petrified.


Despite the suspenseful atmosphere created in the school — and in the novel — due to the
anxiety inspired by the monster, the revelation of who was behind the attacks is not relevant for us
here, since it was no one who was actually present in the school. By the end of the novel we learn that
the heir of Slytherin was Voldemort himself and that he opened the Chamber of Secrets when he was at
Hogwarts fifty years before Harry, and that he was acting in Harry’s time through a magical diary that
preserved his seventeen-year-old self. Therefore, the real conflict of the novel, the one between the two
posthumanist stances, is to be resolved in other elements, namely the one that started the
posthumanist discussion in HP2 — Dobby and the house-elf condition.
Dobby appears to Harry at Hogwarts and the reason for his loyalty to Potter is revealed:
‘If [Harry Potter] only knew what he means to us, to the lowly, the enslaved, us dregs of
the magical world! Dobby remembers how it was when He Who Must Not Be Named
was at the height of his powers, sir! We house-elves were treated like vermin, sir! Of
course, Dobby is still treated like that, sir. […] But mostly, sir, life has improved for my
kind since you triumphed over He Who Must Not Be Named.’ (Rowling, HP2 134)
We can see that Potter is a symbol to Dobby for the kind of posthumanism which is not based on
ontological difference between wizards and Muggles or between rational humans and irrational
animals. Actually, the reason why the likes of Dobby are prejudiced against does not fit within
Slytherin posthumanism since house-elves are both magical and intelligent. We then learn that an
artificial animality is constructed within wizarding culture and fed to house-elves:
‘Why do you wear that thing, Dobby?’ [Harry] asked curiously.
‘This, sir?’ said Dobby, plucking at the pillowcase. ‘’Tis a mark of the house-elf’s
enslavement, sir. Dobby can only be freed if his masters present him with clothes, sir.
The family is careful not to pass Dobby even a sock, sir, for then he would be free to
leave their house for ever.’ (Rowling, HP2 133)
If we are to consider Derrida’s description of humanity as strongly related to the need of shame
over an original lack, we may see the wizards’ refusal to grant house-elves the right to clothes as a way
of barring them from a kind of anthropogenesis that would give them freedom as “beings”. As we can
determine by the fact that Dobby does wear something, they are not naked as an animal — that is, they
can get naked and therefore do need to dress. But by being denied clothes, they are left in an ethical
limbo as non-human, and can be enslaved by wizards. Their status of slaves is so deeply seated that it
has become a magical binding, as we could see in the beginning of the novel.
Actually, this status has become so canonical and traditional in the in-universe culture that
most elves are proud of being servants and abhor the idea of being freed, since they see it as a disgrace
to their race. Hermione Granger tries to start a campaign for elf liberation in Harry Potter and the
Goblet of Fire (HP4) when she learns that house-elves do the cooking at Hogwarts, but she receives
strong resistance, especially from elves. It is not clear why Dobby is the only elf in the novels to wish for
freedom, but I believe that their acceptance towards servitude and especially the magical bond between
master and elf are a metaphor for a tradition and a prejudice which have deep roots in culture.
Thus, the alignments of the characters can be tested at the end of HP2 in how they relate to
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Dobby. After Harry kills the monster of Slytherin, he confesses to Headmaster Dumbledore, his mentor
and wisest character in the series, his discomfort with the proximity to Slytherin: the fact that the
Sorting Hat wanted to put him in Salazar’s house, the fact that he can talk to snakes and that he, like
Voldemort himself, is a half-blood orphan wizard who was persecuted as a child because of his magic.
Dumbledore then assures Harry that it is not his abilities or his nature that defines him, but his
choices. The fact that Harry chose to ask the Sorting Hat to not be placed in Slytherin is what made all
the difference. Thus, Dumbledore is siding with the posthumanist stance that Harry was already
leaning to, which is the one based on compassion and on shared suffering with animals. By stressing
Choice over Ability or Qualities, Dumbledore is refuting any modes of humanism based on ontology, and
embracing the posthumanist stance entrenched in a Lévinasian compassion for the Other.
At the last chapter of the novel, Lucius Malfoy visits Hogwarts with Dobby, and we learn that
Dobby is a servant of the Malfoy family. Harry, then, tricks Lucius into giving Dobby a sock, thus
freeing him. Lucius’s anger towards Harry is repelled by Dobby, who is finally able to confront and
attack his master. Thus, the discussion concerning the conflicting strands of posthumanism is (at least
temporarily) resolved in this literary moment where notions of humanity, animality, humanist anxiety,
caesurae, and ability for magic or reason are left aside to give way to the importance of choice and
compassion. Because Harry can feel compassion towards Dobby’s condition, he overcomes the
problematic animalization of himself as speaker of Parseltongue, of Dobby as a dehumanized servant,
and finally sets his strain of posthumanism over Malfoy’s alignment with Salazar’s ideas, which despite
being posthumanist to an extent, part with Lévinasian ethics, failing to recognize humanity in house-
elves in order to establish their own.

Voldemort

With the resurgence of Voldemort, by the end of the fourth novel (Harry Potter and the Goblet of
Fire), together with the details we learn about him in the sixth novel (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood
Prince), and his actions in the seventh and last novel (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), we will
see explored many of the threads related to wizards’ sense of superiority. We learn in HP6 that he was
born to a witch, Merope, who had resorted to a love potion to bind to her a Muggle man, Tom Riddle,
whom she loved. After getting pregnant, believing he would remain with her for the baby’s sake, she
stopped bewitching him, and he left her. She started wishing she were not a witch, and stopped using
magic. So, starving and poor, she gave birth to Tom Riddle Jr. in a Muggle orphanage, hours before
dying. Tom Riddle Jr., Voldemort’s real name, was raised in this orphanage, and he would only shed his
father’s name for “Lord Voldemort” after discovering that his father was never magical. Tom Riddle
Senior’s abandoning Merope is again another instance of a movement of caesura, by the means of which
he chose to sever his connections with her magical nature.
Voldemort always felt he was in some way special, since he was aware of his own magic even as
a child in the orphanage, and guessed that his father must have been a wizard, since he did not believe
that his mother, who he learned to have “succumbed to the shameful human weakness of death”
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(Rowling, HP6 339), could ever have been a witch. Like his father, who had chosen to act by expelling
the magical element in his process of self-defining caesura, Voldemort decided to repel the human
weakness and ordinariness he associated with his mother. However, when he discovered that he was a
wizard and that his father was not, Voldemort started despising the father he never met and valuing
Merope. He was proud of the fact that she descended from Salazar, but he was ashamed of her too
human descent into poverty and death after being abandoned. This tension is crucial for Voldemort’s
psyche, since it is the foundation of much of Voldemort’s philosophy — he vouches for Salazar’s ideas,
but he sees it as natural that, at the same time that he must see himself as superior to Muggles due to
his magic, he must work to overcome the human limitation of mortality. When he was in Hogwarts,
after realizing his father was never a wizard and that he would have to be proud of his weak mother, he
decided to intertwine his wizard pride with his quest for immortality in his newly invented name —
Voldemort. Vol de mort, in French, means “escape from death”.
Voldemort then grows to be a sort of fascist leader around whom other wizards and witches who
share his pure-blood mania and Salazar’s pseudo-posthumanist ideas can rally. His group of faithful
followers call themselves Death Eaters, in an echo of Voldemort’s own opinion that conquering death is
a natural step for wizards to take in order to rightfully stand above Muggles. His goal is to undo the
Statute of Secrecy and to have wizards rule over Muggles, based on his opinion that might makes right.
And his belief that magic makes might is expressed on the Atrium of the Ministry of Magic when he
takes over it in HP7 — two huge statues of a wizard and a witch sitting upon thrones styled out of
Muggles’ bodies display an engraving that says “Magic is Might” (Rowling, HP7 199). Thus, Voldemort’s
radicalization of Salazar’s ideas clearly expose the humanist core under their thin layer of
posthumanist acceptance of animal symbols. His goals were only thwarted by the one-year-old Harry
when Voldemort attempted to kill him and his killing curse rebounded to snatch him of his body.
I will take a closer look at the consequences of Voldemort’s obsession with immortality in a later
chapter devoted to discussing death. In the next chapter I would like to focus on another important
issue which is raised in the third novel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
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5 THE STALKING ANIMAL

In the second chapter, I discussed animality and humanity in mostly ontological terms, and I
drew heavily on Agamben’s writings on the discourse of human identity formation to establish the
grounds on which we are to read the instances of humanity and animality in the Harry Potter novels.
On the fourth chapter, which focuses mostly on the second novel of the series, we saw mainly the social
consequences of those ontological understandings of animality and humanity for the wizarding
community. In the present chapter, thus, I would like to bring our discussion on the human/animal
interface to a more personal, intimate and perhaps even mystical sphere.
The third book (further on referenced as HP3) is perhaps the most animal-populated novel of
the series, and almost every chapter has animality at a central spot in its plot. If we are to consider the
novels taken together to be a Bildungsroman of sorts, in my analysis we are dealing with Harry’s
experiences as the staging of a process of acquiring a true posthumanist ethics. In the first novel, we
find Harry already rather familiar with the dynamics between discourses of animality and humanity,
and in his journey to Hogwarts, he is immersed in an environment where conceptions of animality are a
little more problematic. By the end of the novel, Harry engages with animality more deeply when he
comes into the clearing and is overcome by emotion by the sight of the wounded unicorn. In the second
novel, Harry is ready to learn more about the problematization of animality within wizarding culture
and history. He has a chance to feel humanist anxiety himself and, by the end of the book, to
understand the necessary leap out of metaphysical and ontological concepts that a true posthumanist
ethics requires. Therefore, in the third book, which roughly coincides with Harry’s puberty, he is faced
with the question of the animal in more personal terms, and he is ready to consider what weight animal
presence — inside and outside of the human — will have for human personal truth.
The main motif of this novel is the stalking animal, that is, an animal which will haunt a
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character, many times literally following him or her. This is again presented to us slowly, and again
starting within the Dursley environment. The Dursleys have Vernon’s sister, Marge, as a guest for a
week. She is a large woman who breeds bulldogs and who likes to verbally abuse Harry whenever she
can. Despite her obsession with dogs, and the fact that she lets her dog sip tea from her saucer, it is
important to stress that she does not encounter animality meaningfully, just as the Dursleys do not
commune with the animals they exploit in the zoo.
Our first example of the stalking animal comes with Marge’s insistence that Harry’s supposedly
degenerate nature is not the Dursley’s fault, rather it is related to his bad blood. The animal is present
in the recurrent analogies that she makes between Harry and the dogs she breeds:
‘You mustn’t blame yourself for the way the boy’s turned out, Vernon. […] If there’s
something rotten on the inside, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. […] It’s one of
the basic rules of breeding. […] You see it all the time with dogs. If there’s something
wrong with the bitch, there’ll be something wrong with the pup.’ (Rowling, HP3 24)
Harry responds to that by accidentally causing the wine glass Marge was holding to explode in
her hand. On another occasion, she proceeds to criticize Harry in the jargon of animal breeding: “‘Bad
blood will out. Now, I’m saying nothing against your family, Petunia, […] but your sister was a bad egg’”
(Rowling, HP3 26). Harry reacts by yelling at her, and he has his emotions carry his magic into inflating
her to the point that she floats away from the dining room.
Again, this opening literary moment will establish many of the points that I will follow
throughout the novel. Marge was making use of animal overtones to persecute Harry and to supposedly
reveal an inner personal truth about him that animality alone could uncover. This is roughly what the
stalking animal stands for, and I will look more closely at the theoretical basis for that concept later on.
For now, I would like to call attention to the fact that, although Marge’s literary moment serves to set
the motif of the novel, it departs in a way from the pattern: there is no real animal present in her
challenging of Harry.
Therefore, Harry protests against Marge’s supposed truth and he is fierce in refusing to be
described by her breeding jargon. It remains to be seen closely if Harry will again protest against other
truths exposed by the means of more real haunting animals, but Harry is sure that there is no truth in
Marge’s mere idea of the animal (which is domesticized) and in her remarks regarding his parents’
supposed death at a car accident. We can see that, unlike Harry’s discomfort in HP2 with the proximity
of animality in the shape of Slytherin’s monster, here he is not feeling threatened by the animality
tossed at him by Marge. In HP2, animality brought no personal enlightenment, only a kind of
impersonal truth about the nature of humanity. In confronting Marge, Harry seems to be protesting
against such a pathetic Muggle attempt at reconciling animality and humanity in such bad terms, or at
using the animal to reveal the truth about the human. Marge’s characterization as a bizarre and
comical character and her ignorance towards Harry’s magical background both attest to the fact that
the discomfort Harry feels is more related to the clumsy, uninformed Muggle constructions of animality
than to the remarks comparing him with dogs.
However, Harry has an encounter with a real dog right after that. Being the confrontation with
Marge a breaking point for Harry, he decides to leave the Dursleys’ house. He wanders the streets
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alone, still breathing hard with teenage anger, and it takes a while to sink in for him that he does not
know what to do and has nowhere to go. His self-righteous certainty is finally invaded by panic when “a
funny pricking on the back of his neck had made Harry feel he was being watched” (Rowling, HP3 30).
He lights up his wand to take a closer look, and he sees, “quite distinctly, the hulking outline of
something very big, with wide, gleaming eyes” (Rowling, HP3 30), which he describes later as “a big
black thing. […] Like a dog, but massive” (Rowling, HP3 31). He does not have a chance to take a second
look at the dog, but, to his terror, he sees it again on the cover of a book named Death Omens (Rowling,
HP3 45), and learns in a Divination class that the Grim, as is called “the giant, spectral dog that haunts
churchyards”, is an omen of death. Harry is, then, terrified by the fact that he keeps encountering the
Grim many times over the course of the school year, distressed by the constant reminder that he might
die, to the point where he wonders: “Was the Grim going to haunt him until he actually died? Was he
going to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder for the beast?” (Rowling, HP3 137). I would
like to consider the Grim, in the way it arrives at the beginning of the book to be a subtle yet strong
presence throughout, as a line underlying the whole idea of the stalking animal in this book. The Grim
may bring little knowledge other than that Harry might die, but I would like to select it as the point of
articulation to all other encounters with stalking animals because it is the Grim which opens the
precedent for the destabilization of the human subject in HP3. By setting out from this point, we can
understand the impact that the other instances of stalking animals will have on Harry in Harry Potter
and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
We are dealing here with the concepts taken up by Foucault when he analyzed the status of
madness in the Renaissance. As pointed out in the introduction, madness was considered an access to
another truth, one that took the shape of the animal that haunts man in order to reveal his truth.
Animals were not considered necessarily inferior, but in some way alien, in that they could challenge
and relativize human truth, knowledge and subjectivity (Palmer 74). Nietzsche wrote that the possible
dimensions of such relativization of knowledge are so vast that “we are seized by a great shudder” (qtd.
in Calarco, Zoographies 41). This shudder is related to the “perspectival character of human knowledge”
and to the awareness of the limitations of the human (Calarco, Zoographies 41). Despite such shudder,
Nietzsche viewed this process of “overcoming of the human” as “the most promising means of contesting
the network of [humanist, anthropocentric, and nihilist] concepts and institutions” (Calarco,
Zoographies 41). And, according to thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, such overcoming of the
human necessarily passes through “encountering and thinking from other-than-human perspectives,
[…] being transformed by an encounter with nonhuman perspectives, [since theses encounters] […]
displace dominant modes of human subjectivity and open the human to hybrid modes of existence”
(Calarco, Zoographies 41-42).
This is what Deleuze and Guattari call becoming-animal, which could be “understood in terms
of symbiosis, affect, alliance, and contagion between beings that are usually identified as distinctly
‘human’ and ‘animal’” (Calarco, Zoographies 42). Thus, by allowing ourselves to be affected by animals,
we may have access to another kind of knowledge which is not inscribed by a humanist discourse of
monopoly of truth. It is important to stress the difference between the “cognitive experiment” about
one’s humanity one may have when faced by an animal and the kind of knowledge that may be
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glimpsed in this kind of encounter with the stalking animal. If we take the unsettling animal presence
of HP2 as an example, the monster of Slytherin that could kill only by staring into one’s eyes, we may
see that it brings a message about the limits of human, the edges of humanity, but not about the
limitations of the human. The challenging stare of the Grim does not tell Harry anything about his
human nature, or about the precariousness of his discursive humanity. Its challenge is focused on
knowledge itself and on Harry himself; he defies a specific truth and brings forth another. With this in
mind, we can see more clearly the differences between the second and third novels, in that the former
was concerned with how animals betrayed the limited nature of the human, while the latter focuses on
how animals bring truths that help reveal the natural limitations of the human, shortcomings that
make humans know only so much, and that grant a special perspectival value to the encounter with the
animal.
This openness towards Otherness and this willingness to accept the Self’s limitations are
related to Lévinasian ethics, which is built upon an encounter with the Other’s Face which empties the
Self of its subjectivity. That is the reason why the truth brought by the stalking animal is a personal
truth, because it does not concern all humans. It is a challenge to one’s specific subjectivity and its
personal dimension is stressed by the fact that, while all subjectivity is drained in the encounter with
the Other, no one else but the one captured by the Face may respond to it. According to Lévinas, “the
responsibility [triggered by the encounter with the Other and] that empties the Ego of its imperialism
and egoism […] does not transform [the encounter] into a moment of the universal order; it confirms the
uniqueness of the Ego. The uniqueness of the Ego is the fact that no on can answer in my stead”
(Humanism of the Other 33).
Lévinas was very concerned with this “multiplicity of cultural significations” (Humanism of the
Other 26). So much that he feared that respect towards multivocality would erase any kind of sense that
would push humans towards Otherness. Although he acknowledged that multivocality was a
fundamental consequence of language and expression, he also remarked that plurality of expression
threatened the existence of a center, an orientation which would not only permit “men, in the
penetrability of cultures, [to] understand one another”, but something that would actually lead people
towards such communion with the Other, a sense that would “indicate a thrust, an outside of self
towards the other than self” (Humanism of the Other 25). The other alternative, to protect univocality
for the sake of a centering orientation, could only be achieved at the expense of freedom (Humanism of
the Other 26). He then questions: “Is it not possible to conceive an orientation […] that would reunite
univocality and freedom?” (Humanism of the Other 26). His answer to the dilemma is the encounter
with the Other, where the responsibility demanded from the Self is so infinite that it borders the divine,
and this infinity would be the necessary transcendence for an orientation to exist (Humanism of the
Other 29). To the problem of freedom, Lévinas answered that it is the absolute irreplaceability of the
challenged Self in its moment of reply that preserves personal uniqueness. That is why I gave special
importance to Harry’s reaction to Marge’s stalking animal, and that is why it is crucial that we consider
carefully how Harry eventually reacts to the Grim and to the other instances of stalking animals in the
novel.
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The Hippogriff

An important point of articulation for many of the plot threads in this novel is the hippogriff
Buckbeak. The students are presented to hippogriffs in a Care of Magical Creatures class, and these
animals are described as having “the bodies, hind legs and tails of horses, but the front legs, wings and
heads of what seemed to be giant eagles, with cruel, steel-coloured beaks and large, brilliantly orange
eyes” (Rowling, HP3 87). Harry is invited by Hagrid, the teacher, to approach one of the hippogriffs,
Buckbeak, but Harry is warned that hippogriffs are proud creatures, who are easily offended, and that
one must approach it, bow, and wait for it to bow back, always keeping eye contact to show that one is
to be trusted (Rowling, HP3 88-89). Harry is scared of the hippogriff, and when told to keep eye contact,
his “eyes immediately began to water, but he didn’t shut them. […] Buckbeak was staring at Harry with
one fierce orange eye” (Rowling, HP3 89). And after Harry bows, “the Hippogriff was still staring
haughtily at him” (Rowling, HP3 89).
I would like to recall now the discussion taken up by Derrida on animal subjectivity and animal
gaze. The hippogriff’s presence is, to use a word employed by Derrida, “undeniable”, and it is best
depicted by the fierceness of his stare. According to Sartre’s analysis, the encounter with the Other
which is able to challenge one’s subjectivity is strongly related to the gaze, since “the look of the other
affects an intentional reversal in which I experience myself objectioned, even ‘devoured’ by the other’s
gaze. […] I experience my own subjectivity and freedom withering in the presence of the other” (Wood
131). And, again recalling my discussion on Derrida, the ethical dimension of the encounter with the
animal is especially experienced at the moment one accepts that the animal may address one’s self, of
which Buckbeak’s staring fiercely and bowing back are clear examples. Also, according to Foucault’s
account of the Renaissance, the hybrid, impossible animal (such as the hippogriff) was the image most
commonly used to convey the kind of cosmic madness that was considered to convey knowledge.
Besides the subject/object reversal Harry experiences, the hippogriff continues to be a key
element in the chapter and in the rest of the novel. Buckbeak allows Harry to mount him, and they fly
around the paddock. Despite being used to flying on a broomstick, flying on a hippogriff is
uncomfortable and Harry feels he might be thrown off (Rowling, HP3 90). Harry feels more at ease with
Buckbeak after they land, but at this moment Draco Malfoy wishes to demonstrate that he can also
tame Buckbeak (clearly misinterpreting that it was most likely Harry that was tamed by the
hippogriff). He bows, but afterwards insults the animal — “‘I bet you’re not dangerous at all, are you,
[…] you ugly great brute?’” (Rowling, HP3 90) — and Buckbeak attacks him.
This leads the rivalry between Harry and Draco to reach a high point, because due to his injury
and his father’s political influence, Draco arranges that Buckbeak be called to a hearing before the
Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures (Rowling, HP3 162). Once more, “good” and “evil”
characters will align themselves in accordance to where they stand related to a posthumanist ethics
which embraces the challenge posited by stalking animals. The tension between Harry (sided with his
friends Ron and Hermione) and Draco lasts for the entire book. While this conflict is slowly played out
over the course of the novel, many other instances of personal encounters with animals are happening
around it.
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Mainly, we see the main characters all underlined by specific animals, mostly their pets. The
sexual tension between Ron and Hermione, for instance, which has been successfully kept at minor
bickering before, starts gathering force in HP3 from the moment Hermione buys an enormous ginger
pet cat, Crookshanks (Rowling, HP3 50). The steady attempts by Crookshanks at eating Ron’s pet rat
Scabbers exposes the fragile dynamics of their relationship, up to the point where Scabbers disappears
and Ron finds his bed sheets tainted red with what he believes is his rat’s blood, stressing even more
strongly the puberty overtones that the animal presence is betraying in their relationship. Ron shakes
the sheet in Hermione’s face and they seem to be irremediably estranged, and they do not reconcile
until the moment they hear that Buckbeak is going to be executed, when the three of them reunite to
comfort Hagrid, who was the hippogriff’s owner (Rowling, HP3 215).
Thus, with the Grim, and now with the hippogriff and Ron and Hermione’s pets, we are slowly
getting familiar with the notion of the animal that will “reveal [what] is in men’s hearts” (Foucault,
Animality 76), a concept which will play a major role at the climax of the novel, when most of the plot
and thematic threads will be tied and resolved. I would like to take a look at another important instance
of challenging animality — one that also helps a great deal to establish the stalking animal motif of the
novel — before I take up many of the stalking animal examples again in order to show how they, by the
end of the novel, will surprise both the characters and the readers with an Other’s insight.

The Dementor

The Dementor will definitely be the strongest inhuman presence in the configuration of
instances of stalking animality in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, inasmuch as it is a
creation of the author which seems to perfectly incorporate the qualities of the stalking animal, or, to
use a phrase by Lévinas, of the “Other [that] challenges me [and] empties me of myself”, even if perhaps
in fantastical terms.
In the second chapter of my analysis, the Dementor was mentioned briefly, regarding the
consequences for Dudley of an encounter with one, in HP5. But Harry’s first experience with a
Dementor is at the beginning of the third novel, when a Dementor invades the Hogwarts train to search
for the escaped prisoner of the title:
Standing in the doorway […] was a cloaked figure that towered to the ceiling. Its
face was completely hidden beneath its hood. Harry’s eyes darted downwards, and what
he saw made his stomach contract. There was a hand protruding from the cloak and it
was glistening, greyish, slimy-looking and scabbed, like something dead that had
decayed in water. […]
And then the thing beneath the hood, whatever it was, drew a long, slow rattling
breath, as though it was trying to suck something more than air from its surroundings.
An intense cold swept over them all. Harry felt his own breath catch in his chest.
The cold went deeper than his skin. It was inside his chest, it was inside his very heart.
[…]
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Harry’s eyes rolled up into his head. He couldn’t see. He was drowning in cold.
There was a rushing in his ears as though of water. He was being dragged downwards,
the roaring growing louder. (Rowling, HP3 66)
It seems redundant to highlight the connections between the Dementor and the description of
an encounter with the stalking animal or with Lévinas’s Other, so strong are the similarities in wording
and ideas. The description sounds like a narrative of an unraveling of human consciousness, slowly
being emptied by an absolute Other which stalks man.
Harry learns later on that Dementors are the guards of Azkaban, the wizard prison, and that
they force one to relive one’s worst memories, as Harry could experience when the Dementor
approached him in the train. He could hear his mother and father trying to protect him and finally
being murdered, when he was only one year old. His teacher Remus Lupin explains to him that
‘[Dementors] infest in the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they
drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles can feel
their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a Dementor and every good
feeling, every happy memory, will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed
on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself — soulless and evil. […]
[Azkaban] is set on a tiny island, way out to sea, but they don’t need walls and water to
keep the prisoners in, not when they’re all trapped inside their own heads, incapable of
a single cheerful thought. Most of them go mad within weeks.’ (Rowling, HP3 140, my
emphasis)
Harry voiced something he’d been wondering for a while.
‘What’s under a Dementor’s hood?’ […]
‘The Dementor only lowers its hood to use its last and worst weapon. […] They
call it the Dementors’ Kiss. […] It’s what Dementors do to those they wish to destroy
utterly. I suppose there must be some kind of mouth under there, because they clamp
their jaws upon the mouth of the victim and — and suck out his soul. […] You can exist
without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But
you’ll have no sense of self any more, no memory, no … anything. There’s no chance at
all of recovery. You’ll just — exist. As an empty shell. And your soul is gone for ever …
lost.’ (Rowling, HP3 182-183, my emphasis)
The description of the effects of the Dementors on the prisoners — and especially the use of the
expressions “trapped inside their own heads” and “empty shell” — is reminiscent of Coetzee’s discussion
on animal incarceration on The Lives of Animals. In it, his character Elizabeth Costello describes
Descartes’s idea of the human soul, or human lógos, which she believed had “the feel of a pea rattling
around in a shell” as opposed to the nature of animals as embodiedness in space (Coetzee 30). According
to her, that is why Westerns believe imprisonment to be the most accepted form of punishment, because
for Descartes’s animal rationale jail is nothing but “further imprisonment” (Coetzee 34), and this is
precisely why the cage harms the animal in its nature, which is its body.
Thus, in the Harry Potter novels, the Dementors function as a reminder of the limitations of
human lógos inasmuch as it is only a small “pea rattling in a shell”. These creatures betray the fact that
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human “nature” — reason and self-consciousness — is fragile and that a human deserted by his or her
soul — the lógos — would not be able to count with his or her body and would be closer to a vegetable.
They also point out the fragility of human embodiment, by ironically harming bodily perception — in
the way victims feel cold, dizzy, blind and unable to breathe — which is where humans lack the most, at
the same time that Dementors empty the victim of their human consciousness. Azkaban is a very
different prison from the cages where animals are incarcerated. It is a prison designed by the inhuman
to degrade the human — an island infested by hundreds of creatures that suck a ghost-like humanity
out of their human prisoners.

The Revealed Truth

Now I would like to demonstrate how the many instances of stalking animality in the third
novel do indeed reveal some personal truth to the characters involved. To accomplish that, I will need to
bring details of the plot in order to portray this coming-to-know that many characters experience in
response to an encounter with an animal that challenges them. Not only that, but the adolescent
coming-of-age storyline inserted in the plot of HP3 is important to my analysis in two ways: it stresses,
supports and is fed by the motif of the coming-to-know or of revealed truth which comes from animality;
and it is a crucial node in the Bildungsroman thread, where we can understand better the formation of
Harry’s posthumanist ethics.
As we saw by the beginning of the novel, we know Harry is being stalked by at least one animal
— the Grim. However, we also learn that there is a person stalking him, the prisoner from the title,
Sirius Black. Little by little a suspenseful atmosphere is created by the gradual insertion of information
on Sirius Black. We first meet him at the Dursley’s living room, being broadcasted on TV as a Muggle
convict on the loose (Rowling, HP3 18). Later, right after his unsettling first encounter with the Grim,
Harry learns by glancing at the cover of the wizarding newspaper The Daily Prophet that Sirius Black
is actually a wizard killer escaped from Azkaban, from where no one ever managed to escape before
(Rowling, HP3 33). He is told that Sirius Black was on the Muggle news because of his imminent
danger to Muggles, due to which the Minister for Magic warns the Muggle Prime Minister. Harry is
explained that Black was one of the main supporters of Voldemort when the latter was in his full
powers, and that he went to prison for killing thirteen people in the middle of a street, in broad
daylight, with a single curse (Rowling, HP3 34).
We finally learn that Sirius is after Harry when he overhears a conversation between his friend
Ron’s parents. In it, they express their belief that Sirius is stalking Harry because he sees Harry as the
one who stopped Voldemort and lost Black everything. Harry overhears that Sirius was reported to
moan in his sleep in Azkaban before escaping, repeatedly saying “He’s at Hogwarts … he’s at Hogwarts”
(Rowling, HP3 54). Ron’s father, Mr Weasley, decides after all that Harry should know the truth, but
when he learns that Harry is already in the know about Black, Mr Weasley urges him to not go looking
for Black (Rowling, HP3 59). He does not understand why he would want to go looking for someone who
wants to kill him, and he becomes very suspicious of the whole story.
At this point, more attentive readers may have connected Sirius Black to the Grim due to his
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name. Sirius is the name of the brightest star in the sky, the main star of the constellation of Canis
Major, the Great Dog. Then, even though we only learn about it much later in the novel, I would like to
point out already that the Grim is in fact Sirius Black transformed into a big black dog, stalking Harry
in both human and dog form. Now, the fact that Mr Weasley and other allies of Harry constantly advise
him to not look for Black, even if Harry still sees no reason for it, is very interesting if we read it under
the light of Derrida. As already discussed, he saw the fact that humans come after animals both
chronologically and in a stalking sense to be one of the main traits of humanity. However, in this case,
the Grim/Black is the one who is stalking the human. Stalking him back would, in a way, be a form of
engaging with the animal in almost equal terms, it would be a “fascination for something ‘outside’ or
other than the human” (Calarco, Zoographies 43), as Deleuze and Guattari define becoming-animal, and
also an acceptance of the role of the animal in establishing human identity.
The Grim and Sirius Black do indeed become a sort of obsession for Harry. When he learns the
Grim is an omen of death, and he confesses to Ron and Hermione that he has seen one, they both urge
him to get away from the dog. Ron, as a wizard brought up by wizards, believes the Grim is an omen
and surely wants Harry to have nothing to do with it. Hermione, as a skeptical witch born to Muggle
parents, sees it as mere folklore and advises Harry to forget about it. But Harry is still unsettled by his
encounters with the dog, especially when he sees Hermione’s cat Crookshanks with the Grim and
becomes very suspicious that someone else — in this case, the cat — would be able to see his death
omen.
His obsession leaks towards Black when he overhears another conversation where he learns
that Black was Harry’s father James’s best friend when they were young, and that, when Harry was
born, Sirius was made his godfather (Rowling, HP3 152). He also hears that, when the Potters went into
hiding for knowing that Voldemort was after them, few people knew their whereabouts and that it was
Sirius who tipped them off to Voldemort (Rowling, HP3 153). Harry learns that Black was cornered by
another of James’s friend, Peter Pettigrew, right after the Potters were killed, and that Peter was one of
the thirteen people who were killed in the crime that sent Sirius to prison — an explosion in the middle
of a street that left no larger bit of Peter than his index finger (Rowling, HP3 154-155, 160). Thus, even
though we may not know at this point of the Grim/Black connection, we can say that it is by going after
the dog/Sirius that Harry reveals the truth about his past and himself. And, as we shall see, his refusal
to stop going after them will reveal even deeper truths.
Harry is overcome with rage and indignation when learning his parents were betrayed by their
best friend and he feels the need to do something, despite the constant pleas from Ron and Hermione
that Harry should not do anything. It is also around this time that they learn that Buckbeak is expected
to be in the hearing that will decide about its execution. When they go comfort Hagrid the day
Buckbeak is to be killed, they find the rat Scabbers, whose disappearance triggered Hermione and Ron’s
fight, hiding in Hagrid’s hut.
So these are the elements that we take to be true until the end of the novel, when a torrent of
revelations issue indeed from different animal presences, in a chapter rightfully called “Cat, Rat and
Dog”, which starts right after Buckbeak is executed. Scabbers runs away from Ron’s grip on their way
back to the school castle, and they run after it, approaching the Forbidden Forest. At this moment, the
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Grim (who is actually Sirius Black) reappears and drags Ron, who is holding Scabbers again, to a hole
in the ground (Rowling, HP3 246).
Harry and Hermione, in the heat of the moment, decide to follow the stalking animal, and this
will lead to a sequence of revelations. When they find Ron, the Grim has turned into Sirius Black, and
shortly after they are joined by Professor Lupin, who reveals he was also friends with James (Harry’s
father), Sirius and Peter Pettigrew. Hermione then reveals that she discovered months ago that Remus
Lupin, as his name suggests, is a werewolf, based on the fact that he did not teach classes once every
month.
The fact that Lupin is a werewolf is related to the fact that Sirius can turn into a dog. Human-
animal transformation is explained to be an incredibly difficult skill to achieve, and true Animagi
(wizards or witches who can turn into animals) are really rare — Professor McGonagall being one of
them, a witch who can turn into the cat that stares at Vernon Dursley in the first page of the first novel.
Because Lupin became an animal once a month, his friends decided to become Animagi to turn into
animals along with him, James turning into a stag, Sirius into a dog, and Peter into a rat. Then, Sirius
reveals that Peter is not dead as everybody believes, and that he has been living as Scabbers ever since
the Potters died. Sirius claims to be innocent, saying that the traitor was Peter, not himself, and that it
was Peter who exploded the street, cut his own finger, and faked his death. And Scabbers has indeed
always missed a toe.
This explains why Sirius muttered “He’s at Hogwarts” in his sleep — he was referring to Ron’s
rat, whom he realized was in Hogwarts, with full access to Harry. He escaped from Azkaban by turning
into a dog, which made him able to walk through the bars and rather invulnerable to the effect of
Dementors, which, as we saw, affect humans much worse than animals.
Therefore, in these revelations we can see a pattern of coming-to-know related to animality. It is
only by paying special attention to the animal presences and elements in the story that the plot and the
connections between the events may be turned inside out and clearly understood. The Grim, who was
Sirius in disguise, is the bearer of the truth related to Harry’s personal past, and only by stalking him
back is that Harry uncovers the truth. Also, Scabbers is not the rat it was believed to be, but the
missing piece of the puzzle whose absence framed Sirius for a crime he did not commit. By finding Peter
in Scabbers, they have the possibility of proving Sirius’s innocence and providing a father figure for
Harry. And the trigger to all that is the fact that Remus Lupin’s friends decided to follow him and
discovered that, as both his names suggest, he was a werewolf (Rowling, HP3 259). As Remus rightfully
puts it, “‘That’s where all of this starts — with my becoming a werewolf. None of this could have
happened if I hadn’t been bitten …’” (Rowling, HP3 258).
We can also see that different characters have to deal with the personal truth of animality in
different terms, since it is not a universal experience which is at stake when one is stalked by an
animal. Lupin has to deal with his animality within, which, as Deleuze and Guattari describe, can also
be the source of an encounter with an animal: “[the] fascination for something ‘outside’ [might] well lie
within human beings, for example, in an inhuman space at the very heart of what we call human”
(Calarco, Zoographies 43). His painful transformation into an uncontrolled animal, which we witness
later on, is also a metaphor for an acknowledgment of animal presence which is at play in this coming-
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of-age towards posthumanist ethics, which is related to the adolescent coming-of-age in the novel (that
also finds a metaphor in the bodily transformation of the werewolf). Also, we learn that an Animagus
cannot choose the animal into which he or she transforms — it is only after the first transformation
that he or she knows it. Again, it is inside the human that may lie an alien truth only accessible by the
means of an animal perspective.
Thus, the werewolf transformation that happens later on is the trigger for the climax of such
truth-bearing animal stalkings. When they are taking a chained Peter back to the castle, Lupin sees the
full moon and transforms. Sirius has to turn into the dog in order to keep the werewolf from hurting the
children, and Peter finds an opportunity to transform into the rat and escape. Sirius is then hurt by the
werewolf and limps towards the edge of the lake next to Hogwarts and collapses. Harry and Hermione
hurry after him, only to see the shore swarming with hundreds of Dementors (Rowling, HP3 280).
The discussion related to the limitations of the human exploited by the Dementors is concluded
here, when Harry tries to defend himself, Sirius and Hermione from the Dementor’s Kiss. Harry was
taught by Professor Lupin how to defend against Dementors by using the Patronus Charm, which
Lupin describes as a charm that conjures a Patronus. The Patronus is “a kind of positive force, a
projection of the very things that the Dementor feeds upon — hope, happiness, the desire to survive —
but it cannot feel despair, as real humans can, so the Dementors can’t hurt it” (Rowling, HP3 176). And,
indeed, the shape the Patronus takes when done properly is that of an animal made of silvery light.
Each person has a different Patronus, again an animal form which he or she cannot predict until
conjured for the first time.
Therefore, we see that the only way of resisting the emptying power of the Dementor is to find
the animal which resides in “the very heart of what we call human” (Calarco, Zoographies 43), a fact
which is highlighted by the Latin incantation for the charm, expecto patronum, which can mean both “I
await for a protector” or “out of (my) chest a protector” (Encyclopedia of Spells). It is only by identifying
in the self a bit of animal nature that one is capable of existing beyond the “pea in the shell” mode of
being. This “animal nature” found within is conjured up by the means of emotions, happy feelings that,
although normally devoured by Dementors, cannot be feasted upon if grounded on an embodied, animal-
like state of being.
Interestingly, this “end of Man” was explored in depth by Kojéve in his discussion on the end of
History, which he identified with the end of the discursive Man. He wrote:
This disappearance of Man at the end of History is not a cosmic […], [nor a] biological
catastrophe: Man remains alive as animal in harmony with Nature or given Being.
What disappears is Man properly so called, […] the Subject opposed to the Object. […]
But all the rest can be preserved indefinitely; art, love, play, etc., etc.; in short,
everything that makes Man happy.
(qtd. in Agamben, The Open 6)
This definition of the human beyond humanist and anthropocentric concepts, which grounds
humanity on emotional and compassionate bases, fits harmoniously with the posthumanist ethics at
which I arrived by the end of the first chapter and also, when considering the Patronus, with the post-
metaphysical understanding of humanity and animality that magic entails. Actually, the full role of
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emotions, compassion, and especially of love, in magic will be a key concept to the formation of Harry’s
posthumanism and I will look into it in detail shortly. Firstly, however, I would like to call attention to
the important role that the embrace of animality and the movement beyond metaphysics has in Harry’s
adolescent coming-of-age in the third book of the series.
Actually, this coming-of-age will be much clearer in the unfolding of the Dementors scene.
Harry tries to produce a Patronus, but the presence of hundreds of those creatures make it impossible
for him to think any happy thoughts. Harry faints, but not before he sees a blinding silvery light in the
shape of an animal cross the lake and save him and his friends. Before he loses his senses, he tries to
see who conjured the Patronus and can only see someone who he believes to look like his father on the
other shore of the lake, welcoming the Patronus back and patting it on the head (Rowling, HP3 282).
When he regains consciousness, Sirius has been arrested and chained in a Hogwarts tower,
Peter’s whereabouts are unknown, and he cannot understand how he could have seen his father, but he
feels elated even though he cannot explain it. No one but the headmaster Albus Dumbledore believes in
Harry and Hermione’s story about the resurgence of Peter as a rat. As Baker has pointed out, the
refusal to take both animality and childhood seriously are strongly connected and, as will be common in
other Harry Potter novels, it is only by not denying these peripheral dimensions that a character may
understand events correctly and achieve wisdom. The mystery of James’s reappearance is only
explained when Dumbledore offers them an opportunity to do things over differently and “to save more
than one innocent life” that night (Rowling, HP3 288). Again it is important to stress that kindness and
wisdom, qualities at which Dumbledore is described as excelling, are again being equated as an
acceptance of animality, in the way the Headmaster does not consider Harry’s account on Scabbers and
Peter as not worthy of attention, and the way the he equals Sirius’s and Buckbeak’s lives, regarding
them both as “innocent”.
Using a time-travel magic which I will not detail here, Harry and Hermione then go back to
around the time Buckbeak was executed. They are supposed to stop him from being beheaded, fly him
to the window where Sirius is being kept at Hogwarts and arrange for the two of them to escape
together. They manage to smuggle the hippogriff into the forest before the execution, and they have to
wait until those hours are played out again to be able to fetch Sirius from the room in Hogwarts where
he will be chained.
While waiting, however, they witness themselves being surrounded by the Dementors on the
other side of the lake when trying to protect Sirius. They see Hermione faint, and then Harry trying to
conjure his Patronus and fail. At the moment that his father is supposed to appear to conjure the
Patronus Harry saw, he realizes that the person he saw was nobody but himself from the future, and
then he is able to conjure the Patronus that saved him in the past. The Patronus marches back to him
across the surface of the lake and he recognizes that it is the shape of a stag, just like his father in
Animagus form.
The coming-of-age overtones here are strong, especially in the way Harry sees himself and
believes to be seeing his father, only to step into this role later on. Rather than viewing this moment as
an Oedipal epiphany that uses the Patronus as a tool for Harry to identify with James, I propose a
reversed interpretation. It is my belief that this scene is the enactment of above all a posthumanist
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coming-of-age of embracing animality and acknowledging the limits and limitations of the human. The
fact that Harry saw someone save him and assumed it was his father reveals that he thought of himself
as a child, and that his savior could only be an adult. Because he thought the savior looked like himself,
he assumed it was his father. And when he is able to play the savior, he already sees himself as an
adult. I believe it is this process of maturity which is the tool for Rowling to stage the acquisition of
deeper human knowledge, when conveyed by animals, as a step towards an ethical adulthood. Thus, I
believe the adolescent coming-of-age is nothing but a metaphor for the maturity being analyzed here,
which is the posthumanist acceptance that it is only by identifying the animal within oneself, by the
means of emotion and compassion, that one is able to overcome the limitations of a lógos-bound
humanity. This acceptance finds a good representation in the process of conjuring the Patronus.
When the time comes, Harry and Hermione fly with the hippogriff and release Sirius from the
room where he was locked. Sirius and the hippogriff fly away together. This coda is strong in the way
the image of Sirius and Buckbeak — the “two innocent lives” — flying off, escaping, being set free
reinforces the ideas discussed in this chapter. Firstly, the concept of the animal within that must be set
free, or that will set itself free, in order to reveal the truth that will enable true posthumanist ethics.
And finally, this image also reinforces the idea that I invoked by bringing Foucault and Deleuze and
Guattari into the discussion on stalking animals, specially on their description of “hybrid modes of
existence”. Foucault’s account of Renaissance madness as cosmic is usually connected with hybrid and
fantastical animals, “impossible, [delirious] animals, issuing from a demented imagination, [which]
become the secret nature of man” (Foucault, Animality 66), and Buckbeak is such an impossible animal,
to whom Sirius is indefinitely connected in the next novels, “open[ing] the human to hybrid modes of
existence” (Calarco, Zoographies 41-42).
Thus, I have discussed in this chapter a crucial point for my analysis of the Harry Potter novels,
which is the first provisory definition of the posthumanist ethics which a new understanding of
animality, as is represented in the books, enables.
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6 MUGGLE MAGIC

Magic, and the ability to perform magic, plays a crucial role in the construction of posthumanist
ethics as it is depicted in the novels. Firstly, being donned with magical ability permits wizards and
witches to skip the kind of humanist anxiety that plagues Muggles when they see themselves bare of
something proper to human. It is true that the mere fact that a wizard or witch can do magic does not
necessarily entail that he or she will be ethically posthumanist — and Salazar, Voldemort and the
Death Eaters are examples of that — but the possibility for posthumanism is clearly there, as many
other characters can prove us. Not only that, magical processes and entities, such as the Patronus
Charms, the Animagi and magical creatures, bring a message of decentering of the human self. Also, we
may infer that magic is one of the main elements of English wizards’ culture, and if their social and
technological systems have stopped at a stage before Muggle industrialization — which according to
Berger and Coetzee brought a distancing from animals and a reinforcement of human superiority — we
may guess that magic played an important role in wizards’ closer contact with animals. In the whole, it
is clear that almost all — if not perhaps all — the posthumanist stances depicted in the novels that
have been analyzed so far are grounded on magic.
This leaves us in a problematic place. If the novels present, as I believe they do, a
Bildungsroman of a young man coming to terms with a model of ethics which is truly posthumanist and
postmetaphysical and that can be of use to us, are we to suppose that all of it is irrelevant since we are
not able to do magic? How relevant to us are the conclusions extracted from characters who can do what
we cannot? I suggest that we take a closer look at magic itself in the novels, especially the one kind
which is considered to be the most powerful of all.
We learn that there are many kinds of magic — the most basic distinction being between the
Dark Arts and what we may call benign magic. Many characters disagree which magical processes are
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more powerful or important, but I choose to take Albus Dumbledore’s opinion as my yardstick, mainly
because he is the figure of wisdom for the main characters, and also because he is inclined to value that
which other characters would consider to be unimportant, similar to how Baker argues to happen in our
culture related to animals and childhood, among other things. For instance, Dumbledore explains to
Harry that “that which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves
and children’s tales, of love, loyalty and innocence, Voldemort knows and understand nothing. Nothing.
That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has
never grasped” (Rowling, HP7 568). Dumbledore is making the case against a very familiar prejudice
which devalue childhood and the knowledge that comes from it for the sake of an adulthood, which
supposedly brings a more “realistic” truth to counter that of the child. Actually, this selfsame prejudice
may be the source of the contention that the Harry Potter books are not “real literature”, but “only”
children’s books. Or vice-versa — they are considered by some to be infantile reading because they see it
as lacking a sort of literary status. The same may be true about the animal presence in the books —
perhaps it is the constant concern towards animals, animality and animal perspectives in the book that
makes it “children-oriented” in the view of many critics, since these two dimensions seem to be jointly
treated unceremoniously in our culture. The wizarding world may be familiar with this prejudice, but
even to the most bigoted characters an automatic depreciation of things associated with children, the
elderly and the animal world is not usually at hand. To our discussion on animality and posthumanist
ethics, Dumbledore’s and other characters’ embracing of overlooked values is especially important.
According to him, the most powerful kind of magic in existence is love, and he is such an
outspoken champion of this idea that in one occasion Voldemort said to Dumbledore: “[…] Nothing I
have seen in the world has supported your famous pronouncement that love is more powerful than my
kind of magic, Dumbledore” (Rowling, HP6 415). To which Dumbledore replied: “Perhaps you have been
looking in the wrong places” (Rowling, HP6 415). As we could also gather from what he said about what
Voldemort ignores, in his opinion, it is love, and friendship, and compassion towards Others, which
protects someone like Harry from the temptation of power that Voldemort and his discourse of
superiority offer. Not only that, but almost every merciful and compassionate act carried out by Harry
is demonstrated to us over the course of the plot to result in advantages for him and his allies. It is true
that, as Voldemort believes, the “weak who love”, as he calls them, are vulnerable in the way they may
be lured and dominated by the means of threatening their loved ones. And Harry and other characters
are prey to that many times. But it also happens that Harry gains much from being compassionate.
However, what is interesting to my discussion here is a concrete example of love as powerful
magic. Love explains why Harry did not die when Voldemort tried to kill him as a child. Because his
mother Lily died trying to protect him, he was granted an enduring magical protection that keeps
Voldemort from harming him. His mother’s love sacrifice is explained to be an example of “ancient
magic”, which apparently cannot be consciously conjured, nor destroyed. Voldemort cannot even touch
Harry’s skin without feeling acute pain. This is only undone when Voldemort uses Harry’s blood in the
potion to recover his body, in HP4.
However, what is important here is that this protection explains why Harry had to live with the
Dursleys after his parents were killed, even though he could live a happier life in almost any other
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wizard house. Dumbledore left Harry at the Dursley’s doorstep with a letter, and the fact that Petunia
took him protected him against Voldemort, because the sacrifice Lily did for Harry lived in his and
Petunia’s blood, her only living relative. Dumbledore explains to Harry:
‘[Petunia] may have taken you grudgingly, furiously, unwillingly, bitterly, yet still she
took you, and in doing so, she sealed the charm I placed upon you. Your mother’s
sacrifice made the bond of blood the strongest shield I could give you. […] While you can
still call home the place where your mother’s blood dwells, there you cannot be touched
or harmed by Voldemort. He shed her blood, but it lives on in you and her sister. Her
blood became your refuge. You need return there only once a year, but as long as you can
still call it home, whilst you are there he cannot hurt you. Your aunt knows this. […]
She knows that allowing you houseroom may well have kept you alive for the past
fifteen years.’
Therefore, the most noble and powerful example of magic given in the books, the protection
Harry got from Lily’s love and sacrifice, could only be completed by the means of the loving act of a
Muggle. And it was exactly by acting upon love, upon a compassion towards the baby wizard that was
left on her doorstep that Petunia performed the magic she was bitter for never being able to do. Harry
was for her an Other, a threat from the animality she perceived in wizards and in her sister, an
animality which was, just as Agamben contends to happen in any humanist identity, identified within
her and later expelled. But by acting upon an openness towards the face of the Other, by identifying the
mortality and finitude to which that baby was vulnerable, in other words, by ascribing to a Lévinasian
ethics of answering the call for responsibility ingrained in the Face and to a Derridean ethics of
directing compassion to any being which exhibits mortality, Petunia carried out the most powerful kind
of magic, and provides the key for us to relate to the ethical code present in the Harry Potter novels.
Petunia and her action work as a metaphor for the relevance of the ethics depicted in the series,
stressing the fact that, although magic does not exist, an ethical stance similar to Harry’s is possible for
us based on compassion.
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7 DEATH AND MORTALITY

“My books are largely about death,” has said J. K. Rowling once in an interview. And indeed,
most of the novels in the Harry Potter series are steeped in discussions related to the nature of death,
fear or acceptance of it, and its understanding. Therefore, death, which may be said to be the grand
theme of the novels, will play a crucial role in knotting the final threads of many of the discussions
taken up in this analysis.
As we saw before, Heidegger made a strong point about the connection among death, language
and humanity, stating that “mortals are they who can experience death as death. The animal cannot do
so. But the animal cannot speak either” (qtd. in Calarco, Heidegger 18). According to him, animals, who
are deprived of language, would be unable of being open to the true nature of beings as such, since such
ability would require a mastery of language, and that would include an impossibility of understanding
death. This seems to be the most problematic node in the discussion of the human/animal divide.
Heidegger did not use the connection between death and language only to discredit animals — he also
employed such connection when establishing the essence of human Dasein. According to him — and
unlike popular belief, which holds death as alien to everyone and everything —, Dasein would find its
most basic foundation on death itself. It is in death, and in its relation with death, that Dasein
establishes itself as a being with language, since he believes that it is only through language that one
may understand or conceive death as such. Because death is the end of consciousness, a linguistic
comprehension of it, as well as a linguistic projection of a consciousness to the other side of death, is
necessary for taking death as such. As Agamben puts it, “it is only in this purely negative way of being-
for-death, in which Dasein experiences the most radical impossibility [of existence], that it can achieve
its most authentic dimensions and understand itself as a whole” (Agamben, A Linguagem e a Morte 14,
my translation).
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Thus, in this relation with death, the meaning of the word Dasein can be better understood.
According to Heidegger, the common translation of Dasein as “being (Sein) there (Da)” is inaccurate,
and a better one would be “being the there”, or as Heidegger worded in French in a letter, “être-le-là” —
in Portuguese, “ser o lá” or “ser o aqui” (Agamben, A Linguagem e a Morte 17). In its formulation, the
Dasein requires a place (the Da) to exist, but such a place also requires a being, human Dasein, to be,
since any place can only be Da if opened in its spatiality by a being (Heidegger, qtd. in Agamben, A
Linguagem e a Morte 17). His famous image of a person entering a clearing in a forest is the best
example for such a process, in which a person finds something in the forest (the clearing) that can be
called a “place”, a Da, but, at the same time, by means of the process of recognizing the place as a place
(i.e., of seeing the clearing as such), it will identify itself as Dasein, as a being with language, a being
capable of seeing the clearing as Da. And that perhaps is why the coming into the clearing is called the
process of the human’s coming into language. Dasein’s feature of being-in-the-world would also be
derived from this relationship towards the place, the Da, and it is, at the same time, strongly related to
Dasein’s relation with death, with temporality, with the possibility of the end of consciousness. It is in
the Da that human Dasein will ultimately establish itself in its relation with death (Agamben, A
Linguagem e a Morte 17).
We have also seen, however, some criticism on Heidegger’s idea of humans’ exclusive connection
with death. The writer Clarice Lispector, for one, argued in many of her texts that language, more than
opening us to things as such, only hinders our perception of the “neuter” being of things. A similar point
emerges in Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, through the lips of his character Elizabeth Costello. In the
book, O’Hearne, a professor of philosophy, while debating Costello, expresses an idea close to
Heidegger’s: that the lives of animals matter less to them than ours to us. He says:
“I do not believe that life is as important to animals as it is to us. There is certainly in
animals an instinctive struggle against death, which they share with us. But they do not
understand death as we do, or rather, as we fail to do. There is, in the human mind, a
collapse of the imagination before death, and that collapse of imagination […] is the
basis of our fear of death.” (Coetzee 63)
His point is similar to Heidegger’s, and perhaps even more interesting. He glimpses the
possibility that our supposed unique relation with death is not in our understanding of it, but in our
failure of really capturing it. Our “imagination”, or our linguistic mode of being, collapses before death,
since death implies the absence of a subject, of a linguistic consciousness. As Georges Bataille puts it,
“we can never imagine things without consciousness, [and, if mine has disappeared], [they are] never
conceivable except in a consciousness taking the place of my consciousness” (34). O’Hearne’s contention
is perhaps more interesting than Heidegger’s because it almost presents some layers of posthumanism,
as when he identifies human linguistic ability as a possible shortcoming — and it is exactly this seed of
posthumanist thinking that Costello will extract in her response:
“Anyone who says that life matters less to animals than it does to us has not held in his
hands an animal fighting for its life. The whole of the being of the animal is thrown into
that fight, without reserve. When you say that the fight lacks a dimension of intellectual
or imaginative horror, I agree. It is not the mode of being of animals to have an
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intellectual horror: their whole being is in the living flesh.” (Coetzee 65)
For someone familiar with Costello’s previous remarks earlier in the book, her reply is expected
— she is again making the point that it is at the very least anthropocentric, not to say chauvinistic, to
imply that the human “mode of being”, which is language, should be used as a yardstick when
considering other kinds of living beings. If, as she defended before, animals are characterized by having
their being entirely based on their embodiment, it is inconsequent to try to find any kind of “intellectual
horror” in their relation with death. That would be a human problem, based on human characteristics.
Again, Bataille’s ideas reinforce her opinion, as when he identifies our impossibility of imagining things
without a consciousness with our similar inability of thinking a world where only the animal gaze
existed. Animals do not live in a meaningless world, such as a stone, but they also do not inhabit a
meaningful environment such as we do. According to him, imagining a world viewed only by an animal’s
eyes is impossible to us, since any such account would already slip towards poetry, since “poetry
describes nothing that does not slip towards the unknowable”. The reason for that, Costello seems to be
answering him, is that the being of the human is in language, while the being of animals is in the body.
While it is possible for us to relate to animals by the means of such embodiment, since we, too, have
bodies — and, as her examples show us, many people have done so exactly through poetry — we may
only achieve such connection through empathy, sympathy and compassion, faculties which are not
related to the exclusively human intellectual nature and can take us towards an identification with the
animal, in its embodiedness.
An even more rewarding idea seems to be dimly present in this elaboration, only not worded:
that what we understand as death, as Lispector would probably say, is not death as such at all, but our
linguistic perception of it and — why not say it? — perhaps nothing but a linguistic sign, a word. We see
death in our own linguistic way — as the deactivation of linguistic and discursive production. This is
not the same thing that an animal experiences when it dies. It would be just by the means of a
coincidence that we call our understanding of death and an animal’s ceasing to live by the same word.
An understanding of language as a problematic obstacle towards understanding beings as such is
exactly the kind of idea we may call posthumanist — or postanthropocentric — and it is exactly the
point which is being made about death in the Harry Potter novels.
In the books, Harry is ceaselessly surrounded by the subject of death. He has to live first with
the fact that his parents died in a car accident, and then, after he learns the truth, that his parents
were killed by a racist wizard in a quest for immortality. In the first novel, he helps thwart Voldemort
from his goal of procuring the Philosopher’s Stone, which would make the owner immortal, and has to
deal with the possibility of death when facing Voldemort for the first time. Harry’s brushes with death,
and the ever-present shadow of it around Hogwarts, are common through the novels, culminating at the
end of HP4, when Harry witnesses another Hogwarts student, Cedric Diggory, being murdered.
It is, however, in HP5 that death is given new dimensions in the fabric of the series. In the first
day of school of his fifth year at Hogwarts, Harry is surprised to see that the carriages that take the
students from the train station to the school, which normally would move by themselves, are being
pulled by horrible creatures he has never seen before:
If he had had to give them a name, he supposed he would have called them horses,
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though there was something reptilian about them, too. They were completely fleshless,
their black coats clinging to their skeletons, of which every bone was visible. Their heads
were dragonish, and their pupil-less eyes white and staring. Wings sprouted from each
wither — vast, black leathery wings that looked as though they ought to belong to giant
bats. Standing still and quiet in the gathering gloom, the creatures looked eerie and
sinister. (Rowling, HP5 178)
To his further disquiet, Harry learns that no one else but him can see the creatures — according
to the others, they still saw the carriages as pulling themselves. In an echo of his encounters with the
Grim, Harry keeps seeing the reptilian horses in many places, and he cannot understand what they are,
and why the others cannot see them. He finally understands about them when Hagrid, his Care of
Magical Creatures teacher, brings some of these creatures to class.
He learns that they are called Thestrals and that they can only be seen by people who have
witnessed death, i.e. people who have seen someone die (Rowling, HP5 394). In spite of Harry’s dark
past, he did not see his parents being killed, since he was inside his crib, and the first time he witnessed
someone’s death was the previous year, when he saw Cedric being killed. At the end of his fourth year,
he went back to the train station in the same carriages, and as per normal he did not see the Thestrals,
even though it was after Cedric’s death. That is because he still had not processed the meaning of
Cedric’s death, the irreversibility of it. It is only after the summer holidays, after his experience with
death has a time to “sink in”, that he sees the Thestrals.
This places the comprehension of death in very different terms from Heidegger’s. What the
Thestrals say about the understanding of death is that, in spite of Harry’s constant dealing with death
in the past, his intellectual grasping of it was equal to nothing. In the Harry Potter novels,
understanding death is not related to thinking about it or being surrounded by it, but to experiencing it
first hand, and acquiring it in the flesh. The Thestrals seem to make my point that what we call death
is nothing but a concept, and that the end of life is something which can only be grasped by being
exposed to its own process.
This is further stressed by the appearance of the Thestrals, where there is a materialization of
Costello’s insistence on a focus on the body. The Thestral’s exposed bones seem to remind us of the
necessity of embodying our feelings related to death in order to truly understand it. Not only that, but
they represent this corporification of understandings of death especially well in the way that one
experiences the visible Thestral — whose presence is the signal for the comprehension of death — as an
animal body which suddenly appears where previously there was nothing. Therefore, in the Thestrals is
the first strong connection between death and animality in the series, and this relation will be ever
clearer as we get closer to its end and nearer its main theme, which is death itself.
As we have seen, mortality and death are also staple concepts in Derrida’s conception of an
ethics which would include animals both as objects and as subjects. In his discussion on the historical
refusal to take an animal’s gaze seriously, he insists on the importance of not stressing what animals
supposedly cannot do, or what they should be able to do in order to be worthy of ethical attention. By
stressing the question of “can they suffer?”, Derrida is establishing mortality at a central place within
his ethics. As he puts it, “mortality resides there, as the most radical means of thinking the finitude
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that we share with animals” (Derrida 28). It is by identifying mortality and finitude in oneself, in one’s
flesh, that one may find a point of articulation to think what one shares with animals. And an attention
to an animal’s — or to any Other’s — mortality is the crucial step for granting it ethical status, because
one’s ability to suffer, or to die, or to end makes up for the fact that one needs such ethical
consideration.
Lévinas makes a similar point in his discussions on the Face of the Other, and we can articulate
them with Derrida’s ethics to arrive at a posthumanist thinking of death. For Lévinas, when faced by
the Other, the Self must answer its call to responsibility. This call, which is an address, finds expression
by the means of the Face, which says “don’t kill me” (Wood 131). Again, by identifying the Other’s
mortality, and allowing it to unravel our subjectivity (when it finds resonance in my mortality), one can
ascend to Lévinasian ethics.
I have discussed this before, but what is strikingly important here is that, in order to be
“humane” in a posthumanist sense, one is required to acknowledge one’s own mortality, since it is the
only way of sharing the finitude of life with Other humans and animals. And, in a posthumanist ethics,
the line which in humanism is usually drawn between humans and animals (or between the saved and
the damned, the clean and the impure, my race from another’s race, us and them), will be drawn
between those who can resonate their mortality with the Other’s and the ones who cannot — or refuse
to. To be a posthuman “humane” person, one must be compassionate towards Others by the means of
mortality, but — and this is the strongest feature of posthumanist ethics — even those who are not
considered humane for refusing to acknowledge the mortality within and in Others will still be
protected by such ethical posthumanism for being themselves people who can die, who are mortals.
This, too, is one of the main points being made in the Harry Potter series. Accepting death is not
only coded as wise, but also as crucial for being morally posthumanist. From the very beginning of the
first novel, there is something intrinsically good in Lily’s refusal to stand aside for Voldemort when he
intended to kill Harry and in her accepting to die for her son. At the same time, one of the first
terrifying features of Voldemort is that he did not die when the killing curse rebounded upon him, and
this finds resonance, for instance, in the Minister for Magic’s disquiet when talking about Voldemort to
the Muggle Prime Minister: “‘Is a man alive if he can’t be killed?’”(Rowling, HP6 16). In the first novel,
after the Philosopher’s Stone from the title has been destroyed, Harry is distressed that its owner and
inventor, Nicolas Flamel, who is hundred years old, will have to die.
‘But that means he and his wife will die, won’t they?’
‘[…] Yes, they will die.’
Dumbledore smiled at the look of amazement on Harry’s face.
‘To one as young as you, I’m sure it seems incredible, but to Nicolas and
Perenelle, it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day. After all, to the well-
organised mind, death is but the next great adventure.’ (Rowling, HP1 215)
Harry seems to put into practice the notion that death is not the worst sentence in HP3, when
he decides to stop Sirius and Lupin from killing the traitor Peter Pettigrew. He hates the fact that his
father’s two best friends would become killers for him, and he sees it as much more rewarding to hand
Peter to the Dementors as he deserves. Peter, as we saw, escapes, and Harry later regrets privately to
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Dumbledore having saved his life.


‘But if he helps Voldemort back to power —!’
‘Pettigrew owes his life to you. You have sent Voldemort a deputy who is in your
debt. When a wizard saves another wizard’s life, it creates a certain bond between them.
[…] This is magic at its deepest, its most impenetrable, Harry. But trust me … the time
may come when you will be very glad you saved Pettigrew’s life.’ (Rowling, HP3 311)
And Harry does reap the consequences of such an act in HP7. Peter had to sever his own hand
to make the potion that restored Voldemort’s body in HP4, and in return he was given a silver hand by
his master. In a critical moment in HP7, when the wandless Harry and Ron try to overpower Peter, his
silver hand closes around Harry’s throat. Potter manages to mutter that Peter owes him after Harry
saved his life, and Pettigrew’s hand wavers in an instant of hesitation, of a possible compassion for
Harry’s mortality, the same compassion Peter himself was shown once by Harry. And the hand he got
from Voldemort, possibly magicked to detect such a hesitation, turns to Peter’s own neck and kills him.
We can say that Harry was saved by the very compassion that he deposited once in Peter.
Similarly, the model of an undesirable stance towards death is given to us by the end of HP5,
when Dumbledore and Voldemort duel for the only time in the series. Voldemort realizes that
Dumbledore does not wish to kill him.
‘You do not seek to kill me, Dumbledore? […] Above such brutality, are you?’
‘We both know that there are other ways of destroying a man, Tom.’ […]
‘There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!’
‘You are quite wrong. […] Indeed, your failure to understand that there are
things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.’ (Rowling, HP5
718)
As was already discussed related to Voldemort, he considers death to be an unacceptable human
weakness. In his attempt to distance himself from everything he considered to be ordinary and inferior
to his magical nature, he set out to go, as he puts it himself, “further than anybody along the path that
leads to immortality” (Rowling, HP4 653). We learn exactly what that entails in the sixth novel, Harry
Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In order to never really die, Voldemort managed to produce a
Horcrux, which we come to understand is “the word used for an object in which a person has concealed
part of their soul” (Rowling, HP6 464). Harry witnesses a memory of a teenage Voldemort being
explained by a teacher how a Horcrux works:
‘[…] You split your soul, you see, […] and hide part of it in an object outside the body.
Then, even if one’s body is attacked or destroyed, one cannot die, for part of the soul
remains earthbound and undamaged. […] You must understand that the soul is
supposed to remain intact and whole. Splitting it is an act of violation, it is against
nature. […] [You split your soul] by an act of evil — the supreme act of evil. By
committing murder. Killing rips the soul apart. The wizard intent upon creating a
Horcrux would use the damage to his advantage: he would encase the torn portion [in an
object].’ (Rowling, HP6 464-465)
Dumbledore informs Harry that not only Voldemort has, ever since the memory they witness,
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managed to create a Horcrux, but also that he decided to make six Horcruxes, and not just one, to make
sure that he would truly be immortal, believing seven (six Horcruxes plus the piece of soul still within
him) to be the most magically powerful number. We learn that it was because of his Horcruxes that
Voldemort did not die when the killing curse intended to kill Harry rebounded towards him. He lost his
body, he was only the fragment of a soul, but he did not die because he was still connected to life by the
pieces of his soul encased in such objects. Dumbledore tells Harry that, over the course of the years he
took to create those objects, Voldemort’s appearance changed gradually, becoming slightly less human
with time, as if “his features had been burned and blurred” (Rowling, HP6 413).
Voldemort’s refusal or inability to embrace his own mortality is strongly coded as one of his
main flaws of character, and it is construed tightly related to his contempt towards the lives — and the
mortality — of others. In the process of creating a Horcrux, the murder of another is the trigger for
further distance from one’s own mortality — at the same time that refusing one’s finitude is the impulse
towards killing others. In the posthumanist philosophy of the series, not accepting one’s death is
extremely dangerous and leads to tragedy or maybe even evil.
The element of the Horcrux in this philosophical configuration is only a point of condensation,
but we have been greeted with the same signification ever since the first novel, when Harry encounters
a mirror in a hidden room that shows him his parents. The Mirror of Erised (“desire” spelt backwards),
as it is called, bears around its frame the words: “Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi” (Rowling,
HP1 152), which, written backwards and dividing the words differently, read “I show not your face but
your heart’s desire”. Harry is transfixed by the possibility of seeing his dead parents alive, and starts
frequenting the deserted room for long periods of time just to stare at them. Dumbledore appears to him
one night, though, and warns him: “‘[…] This mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have
wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it
shows is real or even possible’” (Rowling, HP1 157). Again, being too absorbed by the desire to overcome
death is considered dangerous, since it will foster a denial on recognizing mortality in others.
The seventh and last novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which brings death even in
its title, will focus especially in this crucial issue to bring to a close many of the death-related threads
running throughout the books. So far, Harry’s experience with death is already vast. He has already
lost not only his mother and father, but his close friend, godfather and father figure Sirius Black in
HP5, and Dumbledore himself, who died at the end of HP6. In this novel, Harry and his friends Ron and
Hermione are aware that they must set out to find Voldemort’s Horcruxes and destroy them, in order to
make Voldemort mortal again, and hopefully be able to defeat him, since now that Dumbledore is dead
they are the only ones who know of the existence of the Horcruxes. In their quest, they learn about
another set of objects which are tied to an overcoming of death — the Deathly Hallows. Their first
contact with them was with a children’s story included in a book that Dumbledore left to Hermione in
his will. The story, called The Tale of the Three Brothers, bore a symbol on top of it, which they did not
recognize. Later they are told by their friend Luna Lovegood’s father, Xenophilius Lovegood, that it is
the symbol of the Deathly Hallows.
This story is a cautionary tale for children about death. In it, three brothers are traveling when
they come to a river too wide and too deep to cross. They magically produce a bridge, but when crossing,
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they are stopped by Death, who usually trusted the river to deliver the souls of those who tried to cross
it. But Death decides on a plan to claim the lives of the three brothers in another way — he says he will
grant each brother one gift for having been able to elude him. The oldest brother, “a combative man”,
asked for the most powerful wand possible, and Death fashioned him a wand from an elder tree nearby
that would indeed be such a wand. The second brother, who wished to humiliate Death even more,
asked for a way to bring people back from the dead. Death then gave him a stone which, when turned,
would do just so. The third brother, the wisest and humblest, did not trust Death, and asked for a way
to leave that place without being followed by Death. So Death gave him the Cloak of Invisibility, the one
Death uses to approach people he wishes to kill unawares.
And just as Death planned, the first brother used his wand to seek battle with other wizards,
and he was murdered in his sleep for possessing such a coveted weapon as the Elder Wand. And so
Death took him. The second brother resurrected his long deceased lover, but he could not touch her,
since she did not really belong to this world, and so he killed himself to rejoin her. And so Death took
the second brother as well. But the third brother remained hidden from Death, and when he reached an
old age, he gave the Cloak to his son, and “greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly,
and, equals, they departed this life” (Rowling, HP7 330-332).
The three objects present in the story — the Elder Wand, the Stone of Resurrection, and the
Invisibility Cloak — are said to be the Deathly Hallows, objects which, if owned by the same person,
would make the owner master of death. The symbol Hermione saw in the book on top of the title of the
story is the superposition of three geometrical shapes that represent the objects: a vertical line, a circle
and a triangle.
Hermione is especially unwilling to take the Deathly Hallows as real. She rightfully says that
no magic can bring back the dead, and that the true historical accounts of unbeatable wands have only
been due to wizards’ boasting about their wands (Rowling, HP7 336-337). Hermione does not question
the existence of the Cloak, since, although other people do not know, Harry owns an Invisibility Cloak
which belonged once to his father, given to him by Dumbledore. Xenophilius tells them, though, that all
Cloaks of Invisibility ever heard of do not cover their wearer completely, wearing off with time and
being subject to rips and decay. The three realize that the Cloak described in the story they believe to be
mythical does exist, and this opens the possibility for Harry and Ron that the other two Hallows may
also exist.
Hermione, however, believes the Hallows cannot be true, and that the story is only a morality
tale, supposed to determine which of the three gifts is best. At this moment, the three of them each say
the name of a different Hallow at the same time (Rowling, HP7 336). Ron says that you are supposed to
say the Cloak, that it is the choice assumed safe in the story, but that an unbeatable wand would make
being invisible pointless. Hermione would choose the Cloak, stressing how much use it has been for
them. Harry, stating they already have the Cloak, would choose the Stone, obviously because he is the
one with most personal loss in his life.
Despite Hermione’s disbelief, Harry is certain that Dumbledore meant them to find out about
the Hallows and to find them in order to defeat Voldemort, and that this was the reason why he
bequeathed the book to Hermione. She, however, is convinced that Xenophilius is wrong for believing in
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such folklore and urges Harry and Ron to return their attention to the Horcruxes they were instructed
by Dumbledore to destroy (Rowling, HP7 348-349). And for the entire length of this chapter, Harry will
be slowly consumed by his obsession of acquiring the other two Hallows, since he believes to be already
in the possession of the Cloak. Especially after he learns that Voldemort is, too, after the Elder Wand —
even though Voldemort does not know it is part of a trio — Harry starts to obsess with the idea of being
master of death, of owning an invincible wand that would protect from and destroy Voldemort, and of
having a stone that could bring his parents back to life (Rowling, HP7 352).
Here we get the first glimpse of the reason why Dumbledore never told Harry about the
Hallows, since he is slowly falling prey to Voldemort’s weakness of overcoming death. Unable to sleep in
the middle of the night, “the idea of the Deathly Hallows [having] taken possession of him”, his
delusions of power are only broken when he remembers that they heard their friend Luna Lovegood had
been taken to Azkaban: “It was nearly dawn when he remembered Luna, alone in a cell in Azkaban,
surrounded by Dementors, and he suddenly felt ashamed of himself” (Rowling, HP7 352). Harry’s slow
descent into an obsession with immortality numbed momentarily his compassionate feelings, and we
can see again the dangers of wishing to overcome death, and Dumbledore’s reasons for his silence
regarding the Hallows.
Harry’s moment of maturity, his ethical coming-of-age onto a dismissal of ideas of immortality
come by the end of the chapter. He, Ron and Hermione are captured and taken to the Death Eaters,
where they are to be joined by a murderous Voldemort shortly. However, they are saved by Dobby, the
house-elf, who manages to take them to a safe place at the last minute, along with Luna and Mr
Ollivander, the wandmaker, who were prisoners of the Death Eaters. But Dobby is stabbed in the chest
right before succeeding to smuggle them out of danger, and dies in Harry’s arms just after they arrive
at their safe haven, the house of Ron’s older brother Bill.
Harry’s horror before Dobby’s death washes the Hallows and his closeness to Voldemort from
his mind. He insists on digging a grave for the elf without magic, using a shovel, and he relishes in his
effort, feeling the emotional and physical pain quietening his urges for the Hallows and reawakening
his posthumanist openness towards mortality and suffering. Harry knows by now that the Elder Wand
is real, that it belonged to Dumbledore when he was alive, and that it is now buried in his grave in the
Hogwarts grounds. He also knows that, while he is digging, Voldemort is on his way to Hogwarts to
fetch the wand from the grave, and he must decide that night whether he will try to beat Voldemort to
the Elder Wand — that is, try to unite the Hallows — or persevere on his quest only for the Horcruxes.
Shaken by Dobby’s death and washed by a new understanding of mortality, he decides against the
Hallows and, therefore, sets himself again above Voldemort because of his posthumanist ethics.
We understand later that Dumbledore himself had to struggle with the temptation of mastery
over death when he was young, and the knowledge of how he almost was corrupted shaped his decision
of not telling Harry about the Hallows, in the hope that having to learn about them slowly would make
Harry realize that the Hallows were not to be had. Right after leaving Hogwarts, Dumbledore lost his
mother, and having to support his family did not suit the bright young man, who was better fit for
academic life. With a dead father, a younger sister with frail health, and a brother of rude manners,
Dumbledore was struggling with his unwillingness to take responsibility for the family when he met
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Gellert Grindelwald. Gellert was a young man that equaled his brilliance, and the two boys bonded over
plans of uniting the three Hallows and of overturning the Statute of Secrecy, placing wizards over
Muggles, not like Voldemort intends, but supposedly for “the greater good” (Rowling, HP7 573). The
Deathly Hallows were at the center of their plans, the Wand as the weapon that would give them power
to rule, and the Stone that would be able to bring Dumbledore’s parents from the dead.
Then, Dumbledore fell in love with Gellert, who would grow to become a terrible wizard with
horrible deeds to his name equal to those of Voldemort, and this disastrous infatuation marked
Dumbledore forever in his understanding of the power of love — both as a destructive and an edifying
force — and the dangers that lie in the pursuit and the seduction of power. Dumbledore had to be the
one, decades later, to stop Gellert in his path of destruction, snatching from him the Elder Wand that
Grindelwald did indeed manage to acquire. Aware of his greatest weakness, Dumbledore aged to be a
docile old man who sought to put obstacles between himself and the possibility of power, and tried to
keep Harry away from it as well. We learn later that he came to realize that the most powerful of the
Hallows was indeed the Cloak and its magic was in the fact that it could be used to shield others as well
as oneself. Again wisdom is inextricably linked to an attention to Others and an attempt to be as far as
possible from the possibility of falling back into the logic of included and excluded based on the “can”, on
ability, and losing sight of the true important question, which would be “can they suffer?”.
The last literary moment of the novel is about the only truly ethical possibility of overcoming
death, which is present in The Tale of the Three Brothers. The youngest brother chose the Cloak,
knowing that his encounter with death was only postponable, but never avoidable, and also counting on
the fact that the Cloak was not a weapon, but a way of protection for him and others. By the end of the
story, he dies, just like the others who tried to cheat death, but, even though he did not seek
immortality, it is implied that he did overcome death. By accepting his irrevocable mortality, he could
find Death again as an equal, and set alongside him from this world, presumably to a kind of
transcendence of the end of life. This same idea is resonated by the epitaph Harry finds in his parents’
grave — “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death”. After reading it, though, he is immediately
surprised by the possible connections with Voldemort’s ideals.
‘Isn’t that a Death Eater idea? Why is that there?’
‘It doesn’t mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry,’
said Hermione, her voice gentle. ‘It means … you know … living beyond death. Living
after death.’ (Rowling, HP7 269)
By the end of HP7, Harry learns that he was accidentally turned into a Horcrux when
Voldemort tried to kill him. When Voldemort’s killing curse almost killed its caster, it split his already
very unstable soul. The severed part of his soul found the only living being in the room — the baby
Harry — and latched itself onto him. Harry then understands that he himself must die in order to
eliminate all Voldemort’s Horcruxes from existence, and that Voldemort himself must be the one to kill
him, or at least that is what Dumbledore believed.
At the end of the seventh novel, Hogwarts is being attacked by Voldemort and the Death Eaters,
who are trying to capture Harry, while the teachers and the students protect the school. However,
Harry decides that he must sacrifice himself in order to destroy all Horcruxes, and he goes to Voldemort
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in the place the Death Eaters are stationed — in a clearing in the Forbidden Forest. In a chapter named
“The Forest Again”, we see the ritual of Harry’s coming into a clearing for the second time. If, in the
first time, he entered the clearing to realize an unicorn’s mortality, now he is stepping into one to
realize his own. In more than one way, these two realizations are intertwined.
Voldemort uses the killing curse on him but, because he sacrificed himself, Dumbledore’s plans
work: Voldemort’s killing curse kills the piece of his soul which was living inside Harry and they both
become unconscious for some minutes. Harry finds himself in what could be described as limbo, in a
place he finds resembling an eerie version of King’s Cross train station. There he finds Dumbledore,
who explains to him about his past, the Hallows and Harry’s sacrifice. Also in this place is a being
which is described as “a small, naked child, curled on the ground, its skin raw and rough, flayed-
looking, and it lay shuddering under a seat where it had been left, unwanted, stuffed out of sight,
struggling for breath” (Rowling, HP7 566). Sure enough, Harry feels that he must go and comfort it, but
he feels repulsed. The Dumbledore that Harry sees there explains that there is no help for the thing,
which we learn to be the maimed and flawed soul that inhabits Voldemort’s body. Harry returns from
the “dead”, even though he did not really die — his self-sacrifice echoed his mother’s and protected
himself, based on Harry’s blood that Voldemort had used to recover his body — and that flowed in
Voldemort’s veins — and which tethered Harry to life, not unlike the Horcruxes did to Voldemort. After
both Harry and Voldemort awake back from limbo, when they are to face each other at last, Harry’s
disarming spell collides with Voldemort’s killing curse. The killing curse turns itself against Voldemort
and he bends over, dead — but not killed by Harry.
Therefore, Harry’s fate turns out to be similar to that of the youngest brother of the tale, but in
Harry’s case an embracement of death did make it possible for him to overcome it. It is not a matter of
simply life after death, because no one in the wizard world knows either what happens when one dies.
As the Dumbledore in the limbo (which may be imaginary) puts it, Harry is in a station; he may decide
to “go on” towards complete death, but this continuation may be total nothingness, not necessarily a
Christian heaven. The living after death defended by some characters does not seem to mean actual
resurrection or entrance into heaven, but rather that if death is the capture of human possibility, if
death is complete finitude, accepting this finitude would enable one to capture death in his or her turn,
and to achieve a certain kind of divine infinity in the moral consideration of the Other — not at all
unlike what Lévinas described as the infinite dimension of the encounter with the Face, that in the
books is called the most powerful magic of all, which is compassion, or love.
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8 CONCLUSION

I believe I have shown that within the Harry Potter novels we may find the dramatization in the
form of a Bildungsroman of the acquisition of a posthumanist ethics which is not based on a supposedly
exclusive feature of human beings over animals and that tries to dethrone human reason and
characteristics as any form of yardstick for philosophical or moral conclusions. Crucial for that, as we
have seen, is the understanding that animality is a discourse produced by the philosophical machine
that designs humanity, and that such construed animality has always been instrumental to uphold both
human power over animals and oppression over other undesirable humans. Not only that, I believe I
have proved that the Harry Potter novels have made the point that the best way to “jam the
anthropological machine”, as Agamben would put it, and move towards the postanthropocentric
consideration of life is by the means of exercising the faculty of sympathy or compassion. Also, I hope
the image of “the cat who reads the map”, with the insistence on the relative pronoun who, may help to
bring home the notion of the animal with subjectivity, taken in its specificity by the individualizing
possibilities of the relative pronoun (not any cat, but the cat which or who does something), and of the
Other’s Face that sets the precedent, from the very first moments of the novel, of the emptying of
human consciousness that may trigger compassion.
I hope to have shown that the books propose many kinds of animal interactions in order to
achieve said compassion, such as identifying the animal within, welcoming the Face of the stalking
animal, and finally accepting one’s own mortality as the ground on which one may share something
with animals. This last goal is important precisely because it touches what seems to be the main theme
of the series — death.
The characters we know to try to accept death and mortality as human features do so in an
attempt to overcome death, to transcend death in more posthumanist terms than Voldemort’s. However,
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this desire for transcendence should not be thought necessarily as a form of Christian redemption.
“Living after death” is the Christian phrasing which remained in wizarding culture used to refer to a
transcendence in love. The desire to transcend death seems like a genuine human urge to achieve some
kind of sense which would bring meaning to the lives of characters. The transcendence of death would
be a way of finding an “infinity” in the Lévinasian sense, which can be understood as some kind of
orientation, such as the one that he believes to exist in the contact with the Other.
In the ethical dimension of the encounter with the Face, one is called to responsibility in an
infinite outward movement from the self, and this infinity, the divine-like dimension of such encounter,
would be the kind of transcendental sense that Lévinas believes is crucial for understanding among
humans to be possible. And it is exactly this transcendental sense which I believe is sought by wizards
who have found in the acceptance of death a way of “living” after death. We may rephrase it by saying
that posthumanist wizards and witches know that the only transcendental sense that still preserves
truth and freedom is the infinity of the responsibility for the Other, and in order to be emptied by the
vulnerability of the Face, one’s sympathy must be grounded on the understanding of one’s own
vulnerability and mortality.
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