Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Literary Vampires and the Monstrous Will to Power

It’s probably because of what I’ve been teaching — Frankenstein; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; P.B. Shelley’s Alastor; The Rime of the Ancient Mariner — that I’ve been thinking about monsters lately. All those works are haunted by demonic forces, evil spirits, or by straight-up shambling monstrosities. Or maybe it’s television that has me thinking about monstrosity: I still watch True Blood, the vampire series based on the mega-popular novels of Charlaine Harris, although the only thing about the show that still does anything for me is the opening credit sequence, which is a great, sexy bit of southern gothic steaminess.

Anyway. The thing that I’ve been coming back to is this: I think there’s a yet-to-be exploited element of vampire iconography, one that could add an extra dimension to the already rich tradition of that particular kind of monster.

As monsters go, the vampire is pretty glamorous, or has been in much of the literary tradition for the past two centuries. In part, this has to do with the transferring of Byronic traits to the folkloric monster by John Polidori, who famously began to think about a vampiric tale while holed up in Switzerland with the Shelleys and Lord Byron himself. The ghost-story contest they held to while away the time eventually resulted in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and (in a roundabout way) Percy’s long narrative poem Alastor. It also led to Polidori’s The Vampyre, published in 1819. The book was, among other things, a shameless attempt to cash in on Byron’s glamour. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage had made Byron a sensation (“I awoke and found myself famous,” he’d said). Polidori, always envious and always looking on the world with an opportunist’s eye, took advantage of the situation, and when his tale appeared in journal form, it bore the subtitle “A Tale by Lord Byron,” and the protagonist was “Lord Ruthven” — the name Lady Caroline Lamb had used for her pseudo-Byron character in Glenarvon (Lamb was a piece of work herself — she coined Byron’s epithet “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” but one really feels the phrase more properly belongs to her).

Of course it was Bram Stoker who gave us the version of vampires we still have today. In Dracula the count is glamorous, vaguely perverse (with hints of bisexuality), sophisticated, and pre-modern. A lot of people read that novel as a kind of bourgeois fantasy, in which the blood-sucking medieval aristocrat is destroyed by a coalition of representatives from all the middle-class professions. Franco Moretti makes a subtler case, saying that the behaviors of Dracula are really more like a Ponzi-scheme version of capitalism (he becomes the master of the vampires he creates, and through them of their progeny, etc.), and that the real conflict isn’t modern bourgeoisie vs. medieval aristocrat, but a matter of the professional classes vs. the capitalists. It’s worth considering.

Lately, though, Stoker’s version of the vampire seems to be losing ground to a slightly earlier version, with its origins in Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla. Le Fanu’s story is about a female vampire is really a way of examining same-sex desire, and it seems to me to be the main precursor of both Anne Rice and Charlaine Harris (or at least the version of Charlaine Harris that makes it into the True Blood television series based on her work). Anne Rice almost always associates her vampires with some kind of alternative to hetero-normative vanilla sexuality, and uses the vampire as a figure of the sexual outsider, with whom she sympathizes (you want to know the how’s and why’s of this sympathy? Have a look at the “Sleeping Beauty” novels she wrote under a pen name. It’s a real window into the particulars of Anne Rice’s erotic imagination). From what I’m told, Charlaine Harris’ novels have a lot to do with female sexual coming of age — but True Blood often takes the vampire as a kind of polymorphously perverse figure, trying to find a place in a world freaked out by such forms of the erotic.

I kind of like what our culture’s done with the vampire figure, mostly because we’re now urged to feel sympathy for the vampires — and, as Mary Shelley knew, the most interesting monsters are the ones for which we care, feel, and empathize. But I can’t help thinking that we’ve let one of the great iconographic traits of the vampire lie fallow. I mean, Stoker used the medievalism and blood-lust; Rice and the producers of True Blood use the connection of blood with the body (and therefore sexuality) and the parallel of blood-lust and lust per se. But what about the notion of vampires not appearing in mirrors? It’s a central part of the poetics of vampirism, but nobody seems to make much of it, even though it has the potential to open a whole new perspective on the nature of monstrosity.

Think about it: in many ways, the classic vampire is not just a Byronic figure, but a Nietzschean one: the vampire see mankind as a herd over which he towers in superiority, like the Nietzschean ubermensch. Furthermore, the classic vampire acts on his own desires and self-interests without regard for any standards of morality but those he creates for himself — he is a figure of appetite and self-justification, a kind of pure will-to-power, who sees the good only as that which is good for himself alone. I think it’s fascinating that such creatures don’t appear in mirrors — because it implies that they are unselfconscious, or incapable of reflection, and are either unwilling or unable to look on themselves as others might see them. This has always seemed to me to be a necessary condition of the will to power: those who exercise it can’t possibly have empathy, or see themselves from the outside, or they wouldn’t be able to instrumentalize others and use them as mere things. There’s a bit of insight, there, inherent in the trappings of vampire iconography, and a kind of criticism of self-interestedness and instrumentalization. But as far as I know, no one has really touched it. And as much as I admire the current version of the vampire myth, as a defense of outsider sexuality, I think we’re at a point in our history where a critique of the hooray-for-me-and-screw-you strain of American politics — the politics of the will to power — is in order. I’d like to see a version of monstrosity that took our political moment into account. Until that comes about, though, I’ll keep watching True Blood and reading Bram Stoker.