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Harlequin Valentine, or Lustprinzip & Todestrieb

Recently I had a dream wherein I was repeatedly meet­ing a dark-haired woman, pre­dom­in­antly in my work­place and other day-to-day envir­on­ments. On a very lit­eral level - as far as any such thing exists in dreams - it was just someone who appeared to take pleas­ure in my com­pany and who came to see me often, me enjoy­ing her com­pany and the atten­tion it brought, but not desir­ing any rela­tions bey­ond friend­ship. My self-effa­cing side would say she was a pro­jec­tion of lat­ent nar­ciss­ism. How­ever, on an emo­tional and sym­bolic level, there was a deeper attrac­tion, but at the same time a mor­tal fear or sense of danger. This seem­ingly nor­mal woman was at some non-appar­ent level a femme fatale.

After wak­ing, this got me think­ing about that strange wed­ding of attrac­tion and repul­sion that is some­times sym­bol­ic­ally per­son­i­fied, be it in dreams or in fic­tion. It was­n’t the first time I had been con­fron­ted with these feel­ings on a sub­con­scious level. About five years ago, for example, I had writ­ten a short story in which the prot­ag­on­ist returns to his coun­tryside home from a long jour­ney. Upon his return, the sur­round­ings invig­or­ate him and he is filled with life, look­ing for­ward to spend­ing time in these old new rural sur­round­ings. How­ever, after a night and the begin­nings of morn­ing, he real­ises some­thing is wrong, and that his home has been viol­ated some­how. He steps out­side only to find the land­scape around it changed to some sur­real misty state. Upon invest­ig­at­ing, he spies a faint female fig­ure some­where in the fog the lies over his lands. They meet and speak briefly, and he is torn between the calm life he had just envi­sioned, and the strange myter­i­ous pull of this woman. Even­tu­ally, he joins her and they dis­ap­pear into the mist, becom­ing “a red stain on the grey hori­zon”. End of story.

This was in a period where I taken up any­way by the idea that many lit­er­ary works were focused on spir­itual cli­maxes where a char­ac­ter some­how achieved a sort of mys­tical union in death and/or with the divine, which might be the same depend­ing on your par­tic­u­lar view­point. To me, an unio mys­tica sug­gests the death of the self and a new life in the divine, so it’s both. Par­tic­u­larly cases where char­ac­ters can be said to exper­i­ence a tumul­tu­ous emo­tional state at the moment of death fit into this cat­egory, such as the end­ings of two of Hen­rik Ibsen’s late plays, The Mas­ter Builder and When We Dead Awaken. In both cases, the male prot­ag­on­ist of the play achieves a form of con­quest - life, cre­ation, love - and is lit­er­ally elev­ated to a high pos­i­tion - a tower, a moun­tain - only to fall to his death at the same time.

Though explor­ing a related con­nec­tion between cre­ation, life, and death, such action-filled scenes form a stark con­trast with more smoul­der­ing motifs like that in my own dream and story. Rather, I was reminded of another play by Ibsen, namely The Lady from the Sea, in which the female prot­ag­on­ist Ell­ida encoun­ters a mys­ter­i­ous man from her past. Tellingly, this man also seems to carry the double sym­bolic value of the lady from my dream. At a phys­ical level, he is just a sailor, and one with which Ell­ida has a romantic his­tory. At the same time, the fig­ure is ambigu­ous: in Ell­id­a’s emo­tional world, he sym­bol­ises not only past love, but also the unknown and fathom­less powers of the sea, or even death. In his per­son, love and mor­tal danger are united. In the end, Ell­ida chooses to stay with her hus­band, and a life on shore, but not before going through a major emo­tional struggle in which she battles her sub­con­scious desire or drive towards the sea, her past love, and the danger or death that might be rep­res­en­ted by them.

For more on this inter­pret­a­tion of The Lady from the Sea, the reader is referred to an art­icle by Ellen Hart­man, entitled “The Lady from the Sea in a Myth­o­lo­gic and Psy­cho­ana­lytic Per­spect­ive” [see the ref­er­ences at the end]. In it, she explores the pos­sible links of the play with the myth­ical sym­bol­ism of Persephone being abduc­ted by Hades into the under­world, as well as the pur­por­ted psy­cho­ana­lyt­ical archetye of the Har­le­quin.

So, a bit more about Har­le­quin. A basic inter­net invest­ig­a­tion will reveal that he is one of the stock char­ac­ters of the Com­media dell’arte, a lover, striv­ing to earn the love of his Colom­bina. His main aspects include agil­ity and grudging ser­vitude to a mas­ter, gen­er­ally the innam­or­ato of the play.

The Har­le­quin, by Ger­ald Brom

Apart from this Italian stage his­tory, and sub­sequent cul­tural adapt­a­tions such as the Brit­ish har­le­quinade, some trace a deeper his­tory for the char­ac­ter. Hart­mann, in her art­icle above, intro­duced to me the idea of Har­le­quin as a sym­bolic fig­ure sig­ni­fy­ing death as a lover. She, in turn, refers to a 1963 paper by psy­cho­ana­lyst James McCle­l­land, entitled “The Har­le­quin Com­plex”. In it, he explores the theme of (mostly) women not being afraid of death, but some­how look­ing for­ward to it with a form of excite­ment, and using love-related or erotic sym­bol­ism to express this. McCle­l­land picks the term har­le­quin com­plex for this psy­cho­lo­gical state on account of a rel­at­ively unknown his­tory of the Har­le­quin fig­ure. It is presen­ted in its fullest form, as far as I know, in Otto Driesen’s study from 1904, and briefly sum­mar­ising (I’ve yet to read the whole book), he argues that Har­le­quin goes back to a fam­ily of demonic fig­ures from French folkore named her­lekin, helle­quin, dat­ing back to around 1100.

More spec­u­lat­ively, McCle­l­land goes on to make the link from here to the Hades/Persephone myth, who can be said to form a primeval death/lover pair. As inform­at­ive as these links are to stu­dents of sym­bolic or fic­tional arche­types, McCle­l­land sadly con­tin­ues his art­icle with quite weakly argu­mented psy­cho­ana­lyt­ical con­jec­tures based on psy­cho­thera­peut­ical anec­dotes, ulti­mately link­ing the har­le­quin com­plex to schizo­phrenia in women.

I prefer to treat the concept more in the abstract, though per­haps a brief men­tion of Sig­mund Freud will be pardoned. A concept that also struck me quite soon after dream­ing the dream that formed the inspir­a­tion for this post, was that of Todestrieb or death drive. At one point, Freud pos­tu­lated two basic desires for human psy­cho­logy, one geared towards the other, towards life, and towards pro­cre­ation (Lust­prin­zip), and one towards the self, towards destruc­tion, and towards death (Todestrieb). On some level, Freud sought to explain a great many con­tra­dic­tions in human beha­viour through the inter­ac­tion of these two prin­ciples.

Though Freud’s prin­ciples have met with neg­at­ive crit­ical recep­tion as regards applic­a­tion in psy­cho­lo­gical prac­tice, to me they do seem to have some res­on­ance when it comes to lit­er­ary and oneiric themes such as those presen­ted above. On the one hand, if humans have a psy­cho­lo­gical drive towards death, this would explain why death is not always unam­bigu­ously seen as some­thing to fear and abhor, as seems to be the cul­tural stand­ard in mod­ern times. Instead, a cer­tain attrac­tion to death would then be nat­ural, as the com­ple­tion and eclipse of life.

We could take it one step fur­ther, though, and say that the sym­bol­ical motif of the Har­le­quin para­dox­ic­ally unites the two drives. He appears as a lover, and as such appeals to the pleas­ure prin­ciple, but he is at the same time death. If, in some mys­ter­i­ous way, as is pos­sible in dreams and fic­tion, we can some­how sense the true nature of the fig­ure, he sub­con­sciously appeals to our death drive at the same time. This seem­ingly para­dox­ical mix­ture of drives may also explain the ambig­ous­ness of feel­ing that accom­pan­ies such a fig­ure, as we’ve seen in the doubt­ing Ell­ida in Ibsen’s play, or indeed in my own short story and dream. There is a strong emo­tional battle between liv­ing mod­er­ate life by reject­ing Har­le­quin and per­haps a power­ful ful­fil­ment of both Freud’s drives on the one hand, and on the other hand to com­pletely give in to him, sat­is­fy­ing both drives at once, anni­hil­at­ing your­self in the pro­cess.

This is as much as I have to say on the topic at present, though I’d like to sign off with two fur­ther cul­tural ref­er­ences from recent times.

First, we find a musical link to the theme in Coil’s won­der­ful track “The Golden Sec­tion” from their sem­inal 1986 album Horse Rotor­vator. Apart from being a pre­cursor track to later mar­tial indus­trial music, on account of its march­ing snare drum rhythm and brass melod­ies, the track fea­tures a spoken word piece from a book by Hakim Bey [see this inter­view for more back­ground on the album and themes]:

The angel of death stands between heaven and earth, hold­ing a poison-drip­ping sword. Iden­ti­fied with Satan, he is full of eyes, a dili­gent reaper, an old fugit­ive and wan­derer like Cain, a beg­gar, a ped­lar, an Arab nomad, a skel­eton, caper­ing with sin­ners and misers in a jug­glers’ dance.

But the night­mar­ish angel presents a dif­fer­ent face to the one who has died before death, who has attained some meas­ure of the apathea of a saint.

We are told that Azrael, Death, appears to our spirit in a form determ­ined by our beliefs, actions, and dis­pos­i­tions dur­ing life. He may even mani­fest invis­ibly so the man may die of a rose, a rheum­atic pain, or of a rot­ting stench.

When the soul sees Azrael, it falls in love, and its gaze is thus with­drawn from the body as if by a seduc­tion. Great proph­ets and saints may even be politely invited by Death, who appears to them in cor­por­eal form. Thus it was with Moses and with Mohammed.

When the Per­sian poet Rumi lay on his deathbed, Azrael appeared as a beau­ti­ful youth and said, “I am come by divine com­mand to enquire what com­mis­sion the Mas­ter may have to entrust in you.”

In fact, a strange con­nec­tion becomes appar­ent between mors and amor, love and death. The moment of extinc­tion in the pleas­ure of love resembles that of death, and thus, that of the mys­tical. In mythic terms, Eros and Thanatos are almost twins, for in some cases Death appears as a lovely youth and Eros as a withered starveling.

Both love and death are gate­ways, hence their eternal adoles­cence and their fix­a­tion in the midst of the rite of pas­sage.

Here too, the con­nec­tion between death and love is made appar­ent, and at the same time the rel­at­ive unim­port­ance of gender in this respect. That death appears to Rumi as a young male fits per­fectly into Coil’s homo­sexual them­at­ics, and the import­ant part is prob­ably that death will appear in a form most attract­ive to the sub­ject. Har­le­quin may be a sex­less, more abstract sym­bol, per­haps invis­ible, who incarn­ates as a sexualy appeal­ing young man or woman.

Finally, there’s a short story by Neil Gai­man, one of those writers who emin­ently bridges the worlds of pop­u­lar lit­er­at­ure, myth, folkore, and fantasy fic­tion. His story “Har­le­quin Valentine” cen­ters around an invis­ible Har­le­quin who lit­er­ally pins his heart to the door of his Colom­bina, named Missy, on Valentine’s Day.

She is intrigued and dis­gus­ted at the same time by the strange gift, think­ing it a prac­tical joke at first. After tak­ing into a patho­lo­gist friend, and con­firm­ing it is a human heart, as well as not a joke from said doc­tor, she does­n’t know what to do with the strange ‘gift’. In the end, she decides to eat it with a hefty dol­lop of ketchup, and in the pro­cess, she becomes the Har­le­quin her­self, while the old Har­le­quin is trans­formed back into his old self.

This funny and wry story, which has ref­er­ences to a num­ber of com­media dell’arte char­ac­ters, can be found in Gaiman’s story col­lec­tion Fra­gile Things, as well as in the form of a stand-alone graphic novel, illus­trated by John Bolton.

All that’s left now is to wish you a happy Valentine’s Day!



  • Driesen, Otto. 1904. Der Ursprung des Har­lekin. Ein kul­turgeschicht­liches Prob­lem. Ber­lin: Alex­an­der Duncker.
  • Gai­man, Neil & Bolton, John. 2001. Har­le­quin Valentine. Mil­waukie, OR: Dark Horse Com­ics.
  • Gai­man, Neil. 2006. “Har­le­quin Valentine”. In: Fra­gile Things. Lon­don: Head­line Review. pp. 165-177.
  • Hart­mann, Ellen. 1997. “The Lady From The Sea in a Myth­o­lo­gic and Psy­cho­ana­lytic Per­spect­ive”. In: Con­tem­por­ary Approaches to Ibsen IX. pp. 133-146.
  • McCle­l­land, David. 1963. “The Har­le­quin Com­plex”. In: White, Robert W. (ed.). The Study of Lives. Essays on Per­son­al­ity in Honor of Henry A. Mur­ray. New York: Ather­ton. pp. 94-119.