Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Transylvanian Passion

(The following was posted in response to an article by Pastor Daniel Gabriel titled "Dracula, Christian Vampire")

Ok, but if you ask me, the vampire deserves the pathos he has been given in the 20th century. If Stoker’s Dracula is purely demonic, it is largely because he has aroused the latent potency of the women he comes into contact with, which spells ‘bad news’ for the imperialist patriarchy of the British Empire. As Robin Wood observes, “The ultimate horror of the novel is horror at the possibility of the arousal of female sexuality. The virtuous Victorian woman was, after all, supposed not to enjoy sex but to endure it, perhaps praying to pass the time and distract her mind from the inherent disgustingness of the operation. Sexuality is also energy, power, activity: sublimated, it is the source of all creativity, pleasurable work, achievement. If women become sexual beings, who knows where it might all end?” (Robin Wood, “Burying the Undead: The Use and Obsolescence of Count Dracula” in Barry Keith Grant, The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film p. 373) For Stoker, the only viable solution to this “problem” is ‘naughty vampires, we penetrate you now,’ just one more set of murders in the name of so-called “Christendom”. Well, I suppose there is Mina’s “redemption”, in which she is quarantined behind a circle of sanctified hosts, presumably to put away that typewriter of hers and take it cringing like a good girl once the brave, strong men dispatch the wicked vampire that captivated her so. So while it’s definitely rooted in a type of Christianity, I don’t think it reflects very nicely upon the gospel in this day and age.

Is it any wonder, then, that as attitudes toward gender roles, sexuality, the legitimacy of empire, and Western Christianity’s unfortunate tendency toward paternalism all change, the vampire becomes more humanized, the women become stronger and more determined, and the boys look rowdy and ridiculous? A lot of Christians like the characters in stories to be cut and dry good and evil because it implies the existence of absolute moral truths. I, however, like ambiguous characters, because it implies they are both made in the image of God and fallen to reflect that image to a greater or lesser extent. After all, with the exception of Jesus, are not the very prophets and saints of scripture deeply ambiguous? The reason the romantic vampire troubles us so is because he or she embodies precisely this ambiguity, forcing us to come to terms with the human condition. The vampire wants to be alone and away from fellowship, and cannot endure the power of holy things. But at the same time, he or she wants warm, deep connection with women and/or men through a sacred bond of blood, and so offers a one-sided communion of bread and wine of which the vampire themselves cannot partake. Not surprisingly, it was precisely this kind of warm sexual connection that Victorian society grew to fear even in the context of marriage, because it implied that woman should not be drained and dominated over, but regarded as a vital and spiritual thinking subject in her own right.

Of course, all this business about the vampire being unable to get in contact with his or her creator, and his or her tormented hell on earth opened vital questions about the relation of God to the vampire. Was it that the vampire had abandoned God, God had abandoned the vampire, or may God yet save the vampire after all? Applied more generally, it became a vital question about the relation of God to humanity. Has humanity abandoned God, has God abandoned humanity, does God even exist, or may God yet save humanity after all? Taking the vampire as a symbol of fallen man and fallen woman, if we are to answer “yes” to the fourth option in relation to humanity, then we must answer “yes” to the third option in relation to the vampire. In this respect, I rather like Bram Stoker’s Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola, in which Dracula rejects God, becomes a vampire, builds a small army of dangerously sexual women, leaves Jonathan with a few uncomfortable things to explain about his business trip in Transylvania, goes out dating with Mina while she’s engaged to be married, pinpricks the patriarchy but is cornered by it, cries out in his final moments “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, but is saved by brave Mina, and goes to heaven anyway. You see, that’s the kind of story that implies that divine grace might actually mean something, no matter how screwed up we are.

In this respect, I definitely prefer the rich and complex romanticized vampire to the flat demonized vampire Bram Stoker must keep proper Victorian distance from. If Kierkegaard could take Don Juan and his 1001 ladyloves as a symbol for wild but redeemable passions reaching out for meaning and salvation, I may certainly do so with Count Dracula and the figure of the vampire. Not so for the bland and bourgeois Jonathan, who would doom himself and Mina to an existence with neither passion nor redemption for mere money. He is like the man Kierkegaard describes when he writes:

In the end, therefore, money will be the only thing people will desire, which is moreover only representative, an abstraction. Nowadays a young man hardly envies anyone his gifts, his art, the love of a beautiful girl, or his fame; he only envies him his money. Give me money, he will say, and I am saved. But the young man will not run riot, he will not deserve what repentance repays. He would die with nothing to reproach himself with, and under the impression that if only he had had the money he might really have lived and might even have achieved something great. (Soren Kierkegaard, The Present Age p. 41)
So Anne Rice’s vampires are the passionately undead embodiment of existential despair reaching out for a God who may not be there? Anne Rice herself broke through this despair and became a Christian, and her dark phantoms light the path of how she got there. So Twilight’s roguishly handsome vampire is just a bit silly because he has been defanged for mass consumption? The fact that he affirms the power and potency of God-given female passions, and is a rather direct Christ figure means that I will not make fun of it, even if the cutting of the film was so bad that it took my eyes out of commission for three hours after fifteen minutes (ow!). And just when you think romantic vampires are losing their bite, along comes the underground hit movie Let the Right One In, which features a vampire girl named Eli who bites hard, kisses sweetly, and gives the bullies a right good thrashing. Being itself the product of a Christian novelist, Eli is a Christ figure in her own right, and at one point in the novel Jesus himself invites her to come home. So maybe if we Christians decided to put our woody stakes back in our pants and stopped wanting to literally or symbolically penetrate anyone who disagrees with us, we might actually realize that Hallelujah!, this is popular material addressing central concerns related to the message of Christ right out in the open, and in a significant way, and be real ministers of the gospel for a change. Or we can just go back to chasing our shadow to the ends of the earth, that’s always popular.