By SARAH STONE, core faculty in the Department of Writing, Consciousness, and Creative Inquiry
I asked a writer-friend (okay, full disclosure, the writer friend with whom I’ve spent dozens of hours watching "Buffy" and "Angel," though, unlike me, he never surrendered a precious, never-to-be-recovered week of life to all four of the "Twilight" books), “Why vampires? Why right now?”
He said, “It’s because we think we’re already dead, that we believe it’s over for us as a species. It makes us feel hopeful to see the dead live on with verve and purpose.”
Well, that’s cheery. And he might be right, but there might be more to it, and I don’t just mean sex, all that utter and final surrender, the permanent cocktail of bodily fluids, the possibility that a puritanical society has to punish or sublimate open sexuality by pushing it into the realm of death. Though I’m not counting that out as a reason, even a main reason, for the attraction of all things vampire. Those black capes, those daytime sleepers, those ravenous appetites.
But what about the culture of narcissism, and the way that vampires, like full-out narcissists, drain everyone around them? Or, conversely, the narcissistic feeling of being so special that no ordinary rules of life, death, morality, or fashion apply to you? Who is more splendidly performative than the vampire Lestat? How narcissistic is it to imagine that you smell more delicious than any other girl in the world, so that passing vampires can hardly keep their teeth out of you? Or that you are the one woman ever loved by a 200+ year old deadly vampire (as opposed, say, to the fourth wife of your current spouse…)? Or maybe that you are the one vampire with a soul—or one of two vampires with souls as the field gets slightly more crowded—who will be the champion of the world and stop the next apocalypse? That kind of thing.
Another possible reason for our ongoing national/international vampire obsession is that these stories serve as an expression of queer culture, with vampires as the ultimate outsiders. That seems possible too (though most mainstream vampires perform their own genders to an almost comical degree: the men in drag as men, the women in drag as women).
I’m not against any of these theories, but I do have another one. It occurs to me that when I was 13, about the time I first became fascinated by vampires, I also began to obsess about the idea of sex (the actuality was some distance away), and also, conversely, about wars, and about our family stories about the Holocaust and those family members—Polish Jews—who died at Birkenau. That was also the age at which I first became a vegetarian (the first but not the only time). Maybe none of these things are connected, of course. But I wonder, how do we manage our rising unease, as a culture, with the idea of living from the blood and flesh of beings who live in families and communities, who have awarenesses of the world that we’re only just beginning to understand? What do we know, or refuse to know, about the 49 billion animals killed a year for their meat, the documentaries that show what happens on factory farms, the pervasive arguments and counter-arguments? I see evidence all the time that the issue is becoming part of the conversation, one way or another. There’s a whole range of responses to that growing awareness, including quite a bit of rage on all sides.
So I wonder if it’s an accident that we’re finding vampires so very glamorous right now. The connection between eating animals and vampirism shows up explicitly from time-to-time in the vampire books and shows. For example, Stephanie Meyer’s Cullen family, who hunt animals instead of people, call themselves vegetarian vampires. And Joss Whedon’s Angel—in his good guy moments, when he’s not the terrible humanity-destroying demonic soulless Angelus—drinks pig’s blood. And, when he becomes CEO of the most evil law firm in the world, a little otter’s blood as well: a running joke. You see, we think, it’s okay to live from blood, as long as it’s not human blood. It could seriously be worse.
This brings me to the novel I’ve just finished reading, J.M. Coetzee’s "Elizabeth Costello." Coetzee, obsessed in complicated ways with various forms of war, cruelty, rationalization, denial, and the abuses of power, is one of the writers I love most, even when he makes me very, very uncomfortable. So, I’m reading through his work very slowly. (It was a horrible day when I realized I had read all of Iris Murdoch and there would never be any more…I try to minimize those moments.) The book is about the agonized moral wrestlings of a famous novelist at the protracted end of her life; told through different points of view—mostly her own—it’s structured around a series of speeches she gives, always raising controversy, never able or willing to give her listeners the bland and acceptable topics they were hoping for, sometimes doubting herself and her own stubborn integrity. The novel is brilliant, dryly intellectual, formed by argument and counter-argument, but it is also a page-turner, one of the most disturbing and exhilarating novels I’ve read in a long time.
Here is the scene that ends two gripping chapters in which Elizabeth Costello enrages and offends a variety of people by talking about the institutionalized slaughter of animals. She makes explicit comparisons to the Nazi death camps, and to the people in the countryside around Treblinka who “said that they did not know what was going on in the camp; said that, while in a general way they might have guessed what was going on, they did not know for sure; said that, while in a sense they might have known, in another sense they did not know, could not afford to know, for their own sake.” This comparison of human to animal lives, of slaughterhouses to camps leads, of course, to an uproar. The arguments from both sides are long and complex; I won’t attempt to summarize them here, even though I want to include the end of the chapter, and even though I think it’s risky to put down any part of these chapters without the exhaustive arguments and scenes that have led up to them. But it is a risky book in any case.
And the reason for bringing all this up is that these are the chapters that make me think of Elizabeth Costello as the ur-unvampire. Coetzee has made the extremely wise decision to show the scenes through the point of view of her son, who is baffled and irritated by this passion of hers and caught between her and his wife, Norma, who says to him, “It’s nothing but food faddism, and food faddism is always an exercise in power.” At last, the son is driving his mother to the airport.
“I’m sorry about Norma,” he says. “She has been under a lot of strain. I don’t think she is in a position to sympathize. Perhaps one could say the same for me. It’s been such a short visit, I haven’t had time to make sense of why you have become so intense about the animal business.”
She watches the wipers wagging back and forth. “A better explanation,” she says, “is that I have not told you why, or dare not tell you. When I think of the words, they seem so outrageous that they are best spoken into a pillow or into a hole in the ground, like King Midas.”
“I don’t follow. What is it you can’t say?”
“It’s that I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money.
“It is as if I were to visit friends, and to make some polite remark about the lamp in their living room, and they were to say, ‘Yes, it’s nice, isn’t it? Polish-Jewish skin it’s made of, we find that’s best, the skins of young Polish-Jewish virgins.’ And then I go to the bathroom and the soap wrapper says, ‘Treblinka – 100% human stereate.’ Am I dreaming, I say to myself? What kind of house is this?
“Yet I’m not dreaming. I look in your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?”
She turns on him a tearful face. What does she want, he thinks? Does she want me to answer her question for her?
They are not yet on the expressway. He pulls the car over, switches off the engine, takes his mother in his arms. He inhales the smell of cold cream, of old flesh. “There, there,” he whispers in her ear. “There, there. It will soon be over.”
I find it interesting that Elizabeth Costello is so determined, in so many ways, to renounce any role in humanity’s collective self-delusions and acts of cruelty. It does make me think about humans and vampires, about subterranean guilt, and about our fascination with all things to do with the hunger for flesh and blood.