Ink Black Heart: Anomie and the Veil – A Question of Connection and Isolation

‘Anomie and the Veil: A Question of Connection and Isolation’ is by Shakespeare scholar Kurt Schreyer. Professor Schreyer’s last post at HogwartsProfessor was one he co-wrote with Beatrice Groves,The Mystery of the Ink Black Heart.‘ His twitter posts about the Cormoran Strike novels at @Kasstl1 have been admired by Rowling-Galbraith on her twitter platform, albeit obliquely. What follows are his first thoughts about the mammoth Ink Black Heart, a brief essay that attempts to draw out the through line of Rowling’s ideas about death and life worse than death that runs through her Potter novels and Strike mysteries

‘Anomie and the Veil: A Question of Connection and Isolation’

L’enfer, c’est les autres.” – Sartre

“Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself.” – W. H. Auden

Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers for The Ink Black Heart.

Since finishing The Ink Black Heart, I’ve been trying to put into words why the figure of Anomie is so ominous to me apart from his obviously hateful, violent misogyny. I find Anomie perhaps more disturbing than any of the criminals, dark wizards and witches, monsters or all-around baddies that J. K. Rowling has created, and I think I have – partially – figured out why that is: the answer lies, of all places, in the Department of Mysteries. Anomie’s radical sociopathy extends beyond the grave and should remind Harry Potter readers of the opposing views of death held by Voldemort and Dumbledore.

Mariam’s stained-glass window at the North Grove Art Collective describes anomie in social terms as, in Robin’s words, “an absence…of normal ethical or social standards.” Robin’s first impression of the work is in fact spot-on: “At first glance Robin thought the window might depict a vision of paradise, but the many people depicted there bore no wings or halos. They were working cooperatively on different tasks: planting trees and picking fruit, tending a fire and cooking over it, building a house and decorating its front with garlands.”

Anomie utterly rejects this communal vision, but he goes much further by associating himself with Death – and, rather incredibly, envisioning himself as a being far worse than Death itself. When Robin and Strike visit Josh Blay in the hospital, he allows them to read the private messages that Anomie has been sending him over Twitter. Aiming to displace Edie as the cartoon’s artistic creator and director, Anomie also wishes to be included in its storyline. He therefore provides a description of the online persona he has adopted:

29 October 2014

Anomie: a being whom even Drek fears. Visual: see my appearance in game. Essentially a void-like creature into which all unsatisfactory characters disappear. (Ch. 63)

Anomie, not surprisingly, defines this state of malaise in the same way as he judges all things and people around him: solipsistically. That a murderous sociopath makes people “disappear” when he finds them “unsatisfactory” is clear enough, but this description of anomie to Josh takes a metaphysical turn when we recall who exactly Drek is. “The realisation came to Strike suddenly,” we’re told at the end of chapter 54, “what Drek was. The sinister scythe-like nose. The long black cape and hood, the cheerful insistence on playing games that ended in disaster: Drek, of course, was Death.”

But if Drek is Death, then a “void-like creature” that Death itself fears must be a nihilistic afterlife akin to the Dementor’s kiss, in which the soul is irretrievably lost. Barty Crouch Jr., we learn in GF, “was worse than dead” when the Dementors were finished with him. Someone who imagines that they can devours others, including Drek/Death, is of course also a death-eater. Anomie is frighteningly rapacious, both in the sense that he aggressively predatory and that, though involuntarily celebate or “incel,” he frequently threatens to rape women (the English words “rape” and “rapacious” both have their origins in the Latin verb rapere).

Anomie’s self-conception is one of radical alterity, an otherness and isolation that, despite his obsession with using women sexually, is completely devoid of any desire for meaningful relationships, let alone friendship, community, or intimacy with other people. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the French word ennui, phonetically very close to “anomie,” may have adjacent meanings, for “one who suffers from ‘bore’ or ennui” also “affects lack of interest in anything” or anyone. (OED, bore 1b). The French sociologist Émile Durkheim, who popularized the term “anomie” over a century ago, described it as “an insatiable will.” Durkheim also called it a mal de l’infini” or “illness of infinity” [ See Roger Cotterrell, Émile Durkheim: Law in a Moral Domain (1999).] “To put it in Anomie’s terms, ennui is a profound state of dissatisfaction such that the world of human social interaction holds no pleasure, “a void-like [condition] into which all unsatisfactory characters disappear” (emphasis added). When Robin enters Gus’s bedroom to look for something to staunch the blood from Strike’s wound, she enters “a place where nobody went, where nobody visited” (ch. 106).

Robert Galbraith was asked in a recent interview why the setting of Highgate Cemetery was chosen for this novel and he replied: “The Victorians, I think, had a very different – certainly a very different attitude to death. And in some way, I think a healthier attitude towards death… And I was also interested in the Victorian age as exemplified by the cemetery, in terms of connection and structure in life.”  A Victorian graveyard preserves a sense of connection and structure in the face of the infinite void of Death. Although it might seem that Anomie’s self-description and Mariam’s window are unrelated – one having to do with life and community, the other with death and loss – we can now see that they are profoundly related.

The verse etched into the window reads, “A state of anomie is impossible wherever organs in solidarity with one another are in sufficient contact, and in sufficiently lengthy contact.” It’s a beautiful sentiment for any art collective, though unfortunately the “organs” of North Grove are diseased. Preston Pierce’s crass parody of Mariam’s anomie verse in Edie and Josh’s old room is only the most obvious example of this communal illness.

Anomie’s message to Josh also provides a physical description for the character: “Visual: see my appearance in game.” Chapter 37 tells of Robin’s first experience with Anomie while playing Drek’s game:

A unique figure had appeared on the screen. It looked nothing like any of the other figures – the drifting imitation of pretty Paperwhite, the bobbing Harty-ish hearts or the wandering skeletons. This was an empty cloak, which rippled as though it stood in a wind. There was no face: the being inside the cloak was invisible. Though animated simply, it was odd how eerie it was. The legend Anomie MOD was suspended over its head.

Anomie’s cloak, like the mysterious veil in the Department of Mysteries, flutters in the wind yet, crucially, one leads to community – a community of the dead – and one to a terrifyingly empty void. When Harry first encounters the veil in the Death Chamber of the Ministry of Magic, he senses the presence of people on the other side though, after investigating it, “all that could be seen was the other side of the tattered black veil.” And yet, “Harry thought the archway had a kind of beauty about it, old though it was. The gently rippling veil intrigued him; he felt a very strong inclination to climb up on the dais and walk through it” (OP ch. 34). Neville, Luna, and Ginny can apparently hear the voices of deceased loved ones on the other side of the veil as well. In the following chapter, Harry will watch in horror as Sirius falls through this portal after being struck by Bellatrix’s Killing Curse, and yet Harry’s godfather cannot be said to have disappeared into a nihilistic void, for through the power of the Resurrection Stone he will reassure Harry that dying is “quicker and easier than falling asleep” (DH, ch. 34).

A violent sociopath with a symbolic name who creates a faux community of adoring sycophants and who thinks he can defeat death, Anomie also recalls Voldemort, though there are important differences. For one thing, the Dark Lord seeks to regain a body and preserve his physical existence while Anomie, a tall, skinny, awkward teenager with a bad case of hives, seeks out a disembodied online world. The nature and scope of their ambitions also vary greatly, yet both want total control of those people who come within their sphere of influence. And both define themselves in relation to death.

Perhaps because I didn’t read the Potter books until well into middle age, I’ve always considered them to be concerned primarily with the problem of death and the natural but mistaken desire to escape it. In addressing these complex questions, the reader is offered two starkly opposing views. According to Voldemort who, as he name suggests, seeks to flee, consume, or somehow defeat death, the afterlife is a void of nothingness into which he cannot imagine his supreme ego disappearing.

For Dumbledore, on the other hand, death is merely the next great adventure. More importantly, he unequivocally asserts that the dead remain in close proximity to the living in a community of love: “You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself plainly when you have need of him” (PA, ch 22).

Harry of course experiences this first hand on a number of occasions, most memorably at the end of The Deathly Hallows. Even material traces of Lily’s handwriting live on in Harry and join mother to son: “She had made her g’s the same way he did: he searched through the letter for every one of them, and each felt like a friendly little wave glimpsed from behind a veil” (DH, ch. 10). The orphan Tom Riddle despises such connections with the dead, and it is no surprise that he desecrates his father’s tomb in order to reclaim an adult human body.

In this and many other ways, the Potter novels make it clear how each wizard’s view of death and the afterlife is tied explicitly to the value each of them places (or fails to place) on relationships and community. Their antithetical views on death are foregrounded when the two characters face off at the end of The Order of the Phoenix:

“Merely taking your life would not satisfy me, I admit —”

“There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!” snarled Voldemort.

“You are quite wrong,” said Dumbledore, still closing in upon Voldemort and speaking as lightly as though they were discussing the matter over drinks. “Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.”

In The Ink Black Heart we are not only invited into the cemetery – which, after all, is a community of people who just so happen to be dead – but also provided a terrifying glimpse into a hellish void of utter loneliness and isolation. More disturbingly, perhaps, is that this glimpse comes with no subsequent reassurance, no encounter with a smiling Dumbledore in the Limbo of a dream-like “Kings Cross.”

There is plenty of humor and romance to be found in The Ink Black Heart, but as we close the book, we’re still haunted by the echoes of Bram’s relentless squawking: “Drek is lonelik and borkled. Drek is lonelik and borkled. Drek is lonelik and borkled.”

Sad, so very sad.


  1. I love the description of anomie as an “illness of infinity”. Although coined many years before the invention of the internet, it calls to mind the negative effects of social media/online life so well … a seemingly endless space with endless opportunities for connecting, that can nevertheless feel empty and lonely.

    I enjoyed reading this very much, thank-you for sharing it.

  2. Thank you Kurt – love the links you make here!
    And agreed – I suppose the ‘hopeful’ reading is that, as in Potter, the thing that it is most to be feared is not death (Drek) but the separation from others which sees itself as above death (and renders the deaths of others meaningless). It is a reminder that everyone else is not like this! Anomie thinks (hopes?) he might feel regret after murdering Edie, and discovers he doesn’t.
    I was partly hoping that Anomie would not be the murderer – in HP I think he wouldn’t have been, there would been some sympathy to have been found for him, a sense of how terribly his parents had parented him and some reason that Morehouse had once liked him….

  3. Yes, Beatrice. You’re right to underscore the hopeful reading and to remind us that Anomie did once experience love from Morehouse. I’m reminded of Purgatorio 30 of the Divine Comedy:

    He fell so far there were no other means
    to lead him to salvation, except this:
    to let him see the people who were lost.

    Perhaps there’s hope, then, that someday he’ll hit bottom and “salire a le stelle” (Purgatorio 33). That he’ll “try, TRY for remorse.”

  4. Thanks for such an interesting and thought-provoking description of how death and nothingness are significantly distinguished in HP and IBH! Your words recalled to my mind how Strike mused that Rochelle’s depression was a kind of “nill-ness.” I we take JKR’s instructions to “cross reference” her books for a key to what she “is getting at” SW Ch28), then all the evidence you’ve described here is an extremely compelling argument of the centrality these themes in HP & IBH.

  5. Oh, that’s brilliant, Kathleen. Yes, I agree. I had thought of Rochelle’s “nillness” but forgot to include it, so THANK YOU for calling it to our attention. And as you say, there’s much more work to be done on this topic. My suspicion is that The Casual Vacancy would be particularly illuminating and productive.

  6. Perhaps another reason Anomie is ominous is a total lack of humor that’s at the heart of the role of cartoons, especially laughing at oneself, which of course he can’t do while he’s taking himself so seriously. His notions of humor, “stabbing tourists in the cemetery,” or “Lord WG… looking for fresh bones to jump,” are shocking. And although Morehouse agrees he and Anomie used to have a laugh, he also notes “I feel like I don’t know you anymore..”

    Humor helps people deal with their worst fears, as Lupin taught Neville to picture his worst fear wearing his grandma’s clothes while shouting “Riddikulus!” Perhaps humor helped Edie and Josh deal with elitism as they employed words like “smuglik” and “mukfluk”(I can hear my mom talking about mucky-mucks), which they can’t define but which just saying caused them to break into hysterical laughter. This reminds me of the fool’s errands my dad got sent on as a young Boy Scout: being sent to hunt for snipe and skyhooks, only to have to admit sheepishly there’s no such thing and enjoy laughing at their own gullibility with their fellow scouts. They laughed at the ridiculous but also at themselves in the company of others who’d learned the same thing. I thought it was telling that at Comic Con Strike realized he was conspicuous not dressed as Darth Vader, but as a lone figure among “masks in flocks and shoals..”(epigraph for ch54 by Christina Rossetti)

    When Edie was isolated, she became an easy target, in need of something like a Patronus charm to banish the soul-sucking, cheerless dementer effect Anomie had over her. When she looks to the agency for help, she tried to tell Robin Anomie’s mission but “She suddenly laughed, a laugh totally without humor: she might as well have cried out in pain.”

    Ironically Flavia, though stuck in a Dursley-esque house devoid of humor, was able to chat IRL with Strike and Robin, suggesting Gus could be hypnotized so she could have a puppy. Which is genuinely funny if also sadly pathetic. Somehow she kept reaching out, not caring what others thought, and for me, that’s where a hopeful reading bore the most fruit, and ultimately was life-saving.

    I can’t help wondering if the gullible Yasmin will ever learn that connecting in an online chatroom is only a delusional mirage and not even close to “organs… in sufficiently lengthy contact.” She didn’t get the “in-jokes” even though she was in the same room, pretending she did.

    The world needs more Flavias!

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