The practicality of the Patronus

Expecto Patronum is a spell for everyone

For a so-called series of children’s books, Harry Potter can get rather dark. This begins in Prisoner of Azkaban, where JK Rowling touches graver and grimmer topics than in Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s previous two adventures. The story explores animal cruelty and criminal injustice and introduces the wickedest of the wizarding world’s creatures: Dementors.

The book succeeds because Rowling balances this badness with friendship and courage. In Azkaban this is manifest in myriad ways—Hermione slugging Malfoy is perhaps the most satisfying—but the standout occurs in the penultimate chapter when Harry climactically conjures a Patronus.

We learn earlier in Azkaban that the Patronus charm is an “anti-Dementor.” It can only be understood in the context of what Dementors do to humans, which is to drain all of our “peace, hope, and happiness” and to perform a “kiss” that is, quite literally, soul-sucking. To cast a Patronus and vanquish these villains, one must concentrate “with all [their] might…on a single, very happy memory.” If done right, the ensuing swish-and-flick will dispel any proximate Dementors.

Yet Rowling’s Patronus is more than a plot device or an artifact of her world-building. A ritual that combats despair by focusing on a happy memory is the real deal, an idea not limited to witches and wizards. We might not have to cope with Dementors, but we do battle dejection, depression, and despondency—every day, for some stretches—and unlike Harry and company, we do not live in a world with prewritten happy endings. We need practical strategies to handle with our personal crises. Cue the Patronus, a strategy of memory-remedy coded into the pages of Potter. 

In our world it is tempting to rely on technology as a substitute for memory, but, as Harry learns, for a Patronus to work it must be summoned with a great, inward focus. The same goes for us. Swiping through old photos and videos is more a reminiscent indulgence than it is emotionally restoring and, usually, is buoying only for a moment or two. It is a passive kind of recollection, and falls far short of the requisite “with all [our] might” concentration. Because of the prevalence of phone-cameras and online autobiography, this habit of scrolling-as-remembering feels normal. Taking pictures for pictures’ sakes is routine, and making memories for memory’s sake seems an afterthought. But pixels do not make Patronuses: there must be more.

There is an essential, practical difference between viewing memories and sincerely remembering them, and their restorative potential is better unlocked with the latter, even if it is only a few minutes spent visualizing a past triumph in a quiet room. Such an unhurried, earnest effort at remembrance can have a powerful, healing effect—almost like magic.

Meursault’s indifference in The Stranger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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