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.
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.