Katie Lawrence is going into her final year of an Honours degree in European Studies, with minors in Contemporary Studies and German. In addition to rereading Harry Potter, Katie spent this summer working as a research assistant for a SSHRC grant in memory activism, genocide/Holocaust studies, and counter-memorialization. Countless hours spent researching the Holocaust and a reawakened Harry Potter obsession have informed this piece, which she hopes will inspire readers to love.
“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”
– Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
As my undergraduate degree comes to a close, I am increasingly dodging anxious inquiries from relatives and friends. What was it all for? What now? What will you do with your ambiguous multi-disciplinary liberal arts degree? Unexpectedly, or maybe not, three years of university haven’t changed my interests, but rather affirmed and deepened them. These days, as I prepare for my final year, it feels like I’m returning to an earlier version of myself, before I got sidetracked with high school, adolescence, and all the messiness of growing up.
When I was eight, I read the adventures of Harry Potter and his friends in a fit of breathless enthusiasm. At the time I was a lonely nonconformist; Harry became my best friend and hero. He encouraged me to think critically, question authority, act with courage, and champion love. Shortly after, I read Hana’s Suitcase, the true story of a young Jewish girl’s brief life, her untimely murder at Auschwitz, and the discovery of her suitcase many years later by a Japanese educator. It was completely shocking: I hadn’t realized that the hatred, bigotry, and genocidal violence of the wizarding world was actually an imitation of real life. Tragically, in Hana’s story justice came more than half a century later in the form of remembrance and education. I was outraged. Commemoration seemed hardly satisfactory, especially considering the magnitude of Hana and her people’s suffering. My heart broke for this girl, so much like myself in age and interests, yet doomed to an impossibly unfair fate that no magic could rectify. Where was Hana’s happy ending?
My prepubescent preoccupations persist into the present day. At university I’ve gravitated towards justice. My favourite courses have confronted the Holocaust, genocide, and the limitations of modernity. I’m captivated by the philosopher Hannah Arendt who seeks to problematize evil, deconstruct totalitarianism, and—most importantly—work with us to love the world again. Meanwhile, my relatives are perplexed and horrified. The persecution of innocents? Why on earth would you want to learn about that? I must say, I don’t know. Only that, from Harry to Hana to Hannah to Today, what continues to arrest me—whether it is banal, radical, or another variation of dark magic—is evil: bearing witness to its devastating consequences and raging against unjust suffering.
Recently, I’ve returned to Harry Potter’s adventures. As an adult I’m enchanted not by the wonders of the wizarding world, but an old and ordinary magic called love. Love occupies a surprisingly significant role in the story: despite the numerous trials and tribulations Harry must face, nothing he encounters is stronger or more reliable than love. Harry is the Boy Who Lived because of love: the entire series is one fantastical case study of love’s enduring and superior power. Thirteen years later, love is also what connects me to these books; it’s what I continue to experience for Harry and the other victims of Voldemort’s wrath. Indeed, love is what binds me to Hana, trapped in the wrong time with her girlhood and suitcase, and what I feel toward the deconstructed ruins of humanity examined in Hannah’s writings. In both of these real life cases, to love is the only option left: I can’t avenge the dead; it’s challenging enough to prosecute or protect the living. Love allows me to listen and remember, across time, space, and experience, even and especially when the truth fails comprehension. It’s the only thing I can offer retroactively to the victims of human history taken in innocence, fear, and confusion—taken cruelly and too soon. I will always mourn for Hana, for the victims of political terror and institutional hatred, for those tasked with the burden of bearing witness, and for those who live on with the trauma of survival. Love is the only magic that all beings share; it transcends worlds and turns back time. Harry impressed upon me love’s importance, but it was Hana and Hannah who demonstrated its urgency.
To conclude my nostalgic reverie, I have some possible answers to the next bout of questioning I’ll receive about my post-graduate future: I think that a liberal arts education teaches students to be willing observers of the human condition, which requires an open heart, courage, and a critical mind. We aren’t taught how to measure the world, or fix it, or even alter it at all. We are simply presented with the world in all its fractured beauty and terror, and forced to arrange the pieces before us into some kind of truth. This requires tenacious patience and an expansive imagination—both are born of a primordial love for humankind that we can’t seem to shake, even after acts of unspeakable brutality and unforgivable hatred. Looking deeply at the world demands courage: the courage to acknowledge evil, to stare it squarely in the face, and to fight for its eradication. My degree in the Humanities does not prepare me to cure diseases, design roads, trade stocks, or do anything useful with my hands, but it has helped me to hold all of this—all that seems wrong, different, or frightening—and embrace it with a love that is willing to listen, to remember, and to act. Until the time comes when I figure out what I should be doing, I’m going to keep rereading Harry, Hana, and Hannah, demanding justice, bearing witness to evil, and working for reconciliation. Alas, evil continues to be alarmingly omnipresent. It doesn’t pause for childhood or fantasy fiction; it will persist even after I finish my studies, always lurking just out of sight and threatening to tear us apart. Sometimes it feels like we have forgotten that love is an extraordinarily precious magic and our best defense against the dark arts of self-destruction. Faced with the future evil humankind might complete (which any liberal arts student knows it likely will) we should all make an effort to remember.