Dracula: it might seem odd to spend a sunny afternoon by the lake plowing through its last hundred pages, but that’s exactly how I came to the end of a tale that’s somehow managed to maintain its place in many a cultural imaginary for the last hundred-plus years. And overall, it was a good beach read (though perhaps better suited to a colder, cloudier time of year), made even more satisfying by the fact that it didn’t reach its climax on Halloween, as I’d feared it would. The only other surprise was the story’s extremely abrupt ending, largely free of the suspense-prolonging mishaps and false turns that populate a lot of horror literature and film.
What the book did make me consider, though, was just how much it had to say in mostly covert fashion about class and wealth, and what the latter especially can make possible. For instance, this group of friends– two doctors, a lawyer and his wife, a nobleman, and an adventurer– don’t even have to think about getting time off from work or making their excuses to employers et al to go on an international chase after the undead and solve what amounts to an unconventional healthcare situation– nor do they have to worry about the ridiculous outlay of cash the whole thing entails. Admittedly, the threatened Mina does mention in one diary entry, “it made me think of the wonderful power of money!… I felt so thankful that Lord Godalming is rich, and that both he and Mr Morris, who also has plenty of money, are willing to spend it so freely. For if they did not, our little expedition could not start…”(1) But the recognition ends there, and we’re plunged right back into the action.
I’d love to see a story where it’s the poor who have to fight off evil(2) – but my guess is, if it had to entail all the travel and vacation hours required in Stoker’s tale, the search for funds would be pretty brief and futile, and instead of being left with a thrilling adventure with which the protagonists could regale their friends after dinner, everyone would quickly end up dead or damned, with not much of a plot worthy of the name.(3)
But that admonition about necessary wealth also applies to the villain himself; in spite of his super strength and cunning, our man had to shell out quite a bit of coin to get all his boxes of earth, as well as himself, shipped back and forth and housed in multiple properties. Had he been some poor street urchin whose transformation into a vampire hadn’t also elevated his financial or social position in the world, I’m guessing an army of villagers or urban block captains could’ve made pretty short work of someone unable to dismiss fears and/or crimes via bribes, much less afford a room for the night.
And the count’s prosperity is important here in another way. We learn that Dracula originally made his name fighting the Turks and going out in battle for territory, both securing and expanding his realm of control. So sure, he had plenty of funds stashed up over the centuries. But all that money and influence weren’t amassed in order to secure a very long and comfortable retirement feeding off forgettable villagers and waifs; nope, Dracula is a weird part of the colonial project, sailing off to London to plant a flag and propagate his own kind from there. The heart of British imperialism finds itself prey to its own practices, to an entirely different sort of colonizing endeavor– a subplot and/or critique I’m not sure Stoker saw or intended. But if we want to look at how empire is built by sucking resources (and hence, life) from others, vampire tales provide a pretty good analogy.
Of course, there’s the question of Christianity as the (one) force able to defend against this sort of evil, a topic or theme that’s been so hashed and rehashed, it’s not really worth talking about– except for some brilliant comedic queries I’ve witnessed over the years. Probably my favorite was dropped into a Mexican vampire spoof, one of those eye-rollingly bad b-movies you somehow find yourself watching on a Saturday afternoon and wondering what you’re doing with your life. But on this occasion, right before total despair set in, the hero, convinced of his victory, shoved a ridiculously large crucifix into the vampire’s face– to which the latter responded in triumph, “Ha ha! I am Jewish!” and advanced without a hiccup. The hour of my life I’d wasted up until then was suddenly redeemed.(4)
Whether in its pulp varieties or not, after dwelling for 400-plus pages in the world of horror, I’m ready to move on to– I’ll say it– more elevated matter. If the couple of wonderfully weird Elizabeth Bishop poems I read last night are an indication of what’s to come, things are about to take a more authentically poetic turn.
(1) Bram Stoker, Dracula, Barnes & Noble Classics (New York: Fine Creative Media, Inc., 2003), 418.
(2) I’m talking authentically poor– not (upper) middle class, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Lost Boys. Those settings of suburban comfort may not have been able to draw upon ridiculous wealth, but their locally based struggles were staged within healthy financial situations.
(3) I have a feeling that, had he wanted to treat less urgent subjects, Gil Scott-Heron might’ve done an amazing job with both the question of wealth and race in tales of horror and adventure. Someone needs to take Blacula one step further, under the guidance of “Whitey on the Moon.” But the mere suggestion is sounding offensively frivolous; we’ve got much more pressing matters to address, after all, than fictional creatures’ social arrangements.
(4) It doesn’t have to do with vampires, but in The Muslims Are Coming, Dean Obeidallah’s fantastic skit on ghost-hunting shows is apropos enough to include in a footnote to this piece. A fellow fan of this TV genre, Obeidallah wonders why families burdened by some supernatural presence are always Catholic. After asking why ghosts apparently don’t enjoy dropping in on Jews and Muslims, he goes on to ponder how his own co-religionists would probably have just gone on and welcomed the specter right in.
Based on the second-hand accounts of, commentaries on, and uses of Martin Buber’s I and Thou that I’ve read through the years, I was expecting a much cheesier, feel-good spirituality that, instead of saying anything new, would present a dumbed-down version of Levinasian thought and help to bolster the self-congratulatory spread of Oprah-esque platitudes. (It’s that general sort of unfounded assumption that, in addition to essentially letting others make my decision for me about Buber, kept me from reading his work.)
Well, it’s always good to have a solid reminder not to be such a tool. This little book is not only jam-packed with arguments against such easy spirituality (1); it’s also written with a dense sort of poeticism that refuses to let laziness or possible intimidation off the hook, respecting the reader enough to hold him/her to high standards by unapologetically laying down weighty ideas while also refraining from making those ideas purposefully inaccessible via labyrinthine language or big vocab words. I can’t think of any other scholar or academic theologian who employs such a style– and am additionally convinced that Anne Michaels must have read and absorbed the man’s writing at some point in her life– and if not, that she’s benefited from otherworldly input from the dude when crafting her prose.
I loved what could only badly be described as Buber’s non-fluffy, not-easy mysticism; his anti-dogmatism and assertion that encapsulating the Thou or telling anyone how to respond to it is impossible and misguided; and his valuation of real dialogue and relationship. But the book spoke to me most sympathetically via what felt like anachronistic support for what troubles me about the constantly networked nature of these here times. The philosopher might as well have been addressing the topic of grown adults obsessively checking in on Foursquare, and trying desperately to find some meaning and companionship in inarticulate texts while being too lazy or scared to actually talk to each other, when he wrote,
The self-willed man does not believe and does not meet. He does not know
solidarity of connexion, but only the feverish world outside and his feverish
desire to use it… When this man says Thou, he means ‘O my ability to use,’
and what he terms his destiny is only the equipping and sanctioning of his
ability to use. He has in truth no destiny, but only a being that is defined by
things and instincts… He intervenes continually, and that for the purpose of
‘letting things happen.’ Why should destiny, he says to you, not be given a
helping hand? Why should the attainable means required by such a purpose
not be utilised?… Without sacrifice and without grace, without meeting and
without presentness, he has as his world a mediated world cluttered with
purposes… Thus with all his sovereignty he is wholly and inextricably
entangled in the unreal… he directs the best part of his spirituality to averting
or at least to veiling his thoughts. (2)
The book was written in 1923, and Buber was talking about much more than human interaction with any technology– and so it would be dishonest of me to seize upon passages such as the lengthy one just cited and say, “See? See?! Take that, technophiles!” But methinks one of the hallmarks of any enduring examination of the human condition (whether that involves something transcendent or not) is its ability to relate, from beyond its author’s grave, to changing times. And so, like Greek drama speaking to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, or the story of Macbeth still offering frighteningly relevant insights into the desire for power and what it entails, “the feverish world outside and [one’s] feverish desire to use it” to which Buber pointed almost a century ago continues to be able to take on new faces and characteristics while the way these things are described stay put in print.
(I would also be disingenuous in condemning tout court contemporary information technology; this is a blog, after all, and I’m giddily thankful for the interaction that ensues here, even if I’d rather be talking live, in the same geographical location, with the people who pop in. But I so often get the sense that all this information hoarding has spun wildly out of control, and you end up having to get out of the way of Borg-like people wearing Google Glass because reality as-is just doesn’t offer up enough thrills.)
Anyway, to summarize, Buber: better than imagined. Making judgments about something before checking it out yourself: folly. Finding disembodied support, when one often seems to be existing in a world unintentionally apart: priceless.
(1) For example, there’s the person, Buber says, whose “spiritual” leanings are essentially another form of self-involvement that engages in what Kant would call using things and people as means– whose approach to being in the world “lays bare the shame of the world-spirit which has degraded to spirituality.” Martin Buber, I and Thou, 2nd ed., transl. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), 66.
(3) If you’ve never come across someone wearing a pair of these things, it might be difficult to a) erase from your memory his/her undead stare that never seems to meet your eyes; b) wonder if you were being recorded, and for what purpose; and c) get Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” out of your head.