Tuesday, October 06, 2009
‘Dracula’ Is Really Very Good. It’s Also Very Bad.
As previously mentioned, the lively bunch at InfiniteSummer are cleansing their palates with Dracula (before, apparently, moving on to 2666 after Christmas, in case anyone just can’t get enough of online group readings). I’m on schedule with them, through Chapter 7 and heading into Chapter 8.
I have read the novel once before, fully a decade ago. I read it for myself, not for work, and never returned to it. I have never taken a personal interest in vampire literature or horror novels, and even professionally, I have given only perfunctory attention to Gothic fiction. I’ve included Matthew Lewis’s The Monk in courses on the history of the British novel, but that’s about it. As mystery and detective fiction is also a teaching area for me, I have a historical interest in permutations of the Gothic, and I often teach examples of mid-Victorian ‘sensation’ fiction, which is essentially a form of domesticated Gothic (just this week, it’s Lady Audley’s Secret, for instance). When I confess that I sometimes mutter to myself, when preparing for these classes, “This is as low as I’m willing to go,” you may be prepared for my (admittedly preliminary) response to rereading Dracula: It’s a well-written, cleverly conceived--even artful--novel, but I can’t help thinking at the turn of every page that this book represents energy (from both writer and reader) expended in a dubious cause. My objection, in other words, is not literary, but ethical.
I know: how stereotypically Victorian is that, and uncool in every possible way. But here’s the issue, as I see it. Suppose you are a good enough novelist to craft the material in this novel, which is intensely descriptive, full of sensual, often explicitly erotic, detail or innuendo, as in the description of the three voluptuous women Jonathan Harker finds hovering around him when he wakes up from an ill-placed nap. Though the sentences have a slightly archaic cast by modern standards--indeed, I think Stoker’s tone is, probably deliberately, more reminiscent of his Gothic forebears than of his own contemporaries--they seem to me well-paced, and the results are certainly atmospheric and suspenseful, especially during moments of high tension, such as the arrival of the ghost ship:
The wind roared like thunder, and blew with such force that it was with difficulty that even strong men kept their feet, or clung with grim clasp to the iron stanchions. It was found necessary to clear the entire pier from the mass of onlookers, or else the fatalities of the night would have increased manifold. To add to the difficulties and dangers of the time, masses of sea-fog came drifting inland. White, wet clouds, which swept by in ghostly fashion, so dank and damp and cold that it needed but little effort of imagination to think that the spirits of those lost at sea were touching their living brethren with the clammy hands of death, and many a one shuddered as the wreaths of sea-mist swept by....
Between her and the port lay the great flat reef on which so many good ships have from time to time suffered, and, with the wind blowing from its present quarter, it would be quite impossible that she should fetch the entrance of the harbour.
It was now nearly the hour of high tide, but the waves were so great that in their troughs the shallows of the shore were almost visible, and the schooner, with all sails set, was rushing with such speed that, in the words of one old salt, “she must fetch up somewhere, if it was only in hell”. Then came another rush of sea-fog, greater than any hitherto, a mass of dank mist, which seemed to close on all things like a gray pall, and left available to men only the organ of hearing, for the roar of the tempest, and the crash of the thunder, and the booming of the mighty billows came through the damp oblivion even louder than before. The rays of the searchlight were kept fixed on the harbour mouth across the East Pier, where the shock was expected, and men waited breathless.
The wind suddenly shifted to the northeast, and the remnant of the sea fog melted in the blast. And then, mirabile dictu, between the piers, leaping from wave to wave as it rushed at headlong speed, swept the strange schooner before the blast, with all sail set, and gained the safety of the harbour. The searchlight followed her, and a shudder ran through all who saw her, for lashed to the helm was a corpse, with drooping head, which swung horribly to and fro at each motion of the ship. No other form could be seen on the deck at all.
A great awe came on all as they realised that the ship, as if by a miracle, had found the harbour, unsteered save by the hand of a dead man!
Suppose you’re smart enough to do the interesting things (well, I find them interesting) with different kinds of writing and narrators that Stoker does in Dracula. Suppose you are imaginative enough, and with a wide enough range of reference, to take (as I gather Stoker has done) a wide array of literary references, myths, and so on and tell your own story so that it becomes (as, without a doubt, Stoker’s Dracula has become) a major cultural reference point. Isn’t it a shame to take this ability and use it in the service of something as prurient as this novel, as dedicated as this novel is (so far) to the cheap thrill of waiting to see how bad things will get? If Dracula himself were a more ambiguous character--if we didn’t follow Mina’s account of Lucy’s sleepwalking with such a complete expectation that we know what (who) she will run into, out there by herself at night, and how to interpret those two “pin prick” marks on her neck--if we could wonder how far the threat is real and how far it is a projection of anxieties and prejudices--if this were not a horror novel, in other words, I might like it better. Might. But so far it seems to me a lesser kind of art because it appeals to the worst in us. It treats us like the kind of people who take pleasure in imagining young children thrown to wolves and women preyed upon. It treats us this way because if we are reading it and enjoying it, that’s the kind of people we are. I’m reminded of the section in Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep about reading Jaws:
If I choose to go on, I shall do so because I want more of this threat described in this special style. . . . On page 2 I receive a further generous promise of horror ahead, along with related titillations, as a man and woman ‘fumbled with each other’s clothing, twined limbs around limbs, and thrashed with urgent ardor on the cold sand.’
‘Now, how about that swim?’ she said.
‘You go ahead,’ he said. ‘I’ll wait for you here.’
Already I can hardly wait for the promised bloody encounter between such a primitive brain and such a sexy thrasher. But if I move on to enjoy that . . . . I am both fearing spectacular bloodshed and desiring it, enjoying the prospect of bloody death for those who don’t matter, hoping for (and fully expecting) final safety for the good guys (who don’t matter much more) and learning--learning all the while--both that happiness for these characters is defined as escape from danger and that happiness from me is watching people fall into danger and then, sometimes, miraculously, fall out of it. . . .
I am to become, if I enter this world, that kind of desirer, with precisely the kinds of strengths and weaknesses that the author has built into his structure. I am to do so, that is, unless I impose, as I am doing, some sort of ethical criticism. (202-4)
Now, Booth has plenty to say also about what he considers the low literary level of Jaws, so I’ll reiterate that I don’t fault Dracula for its style. I also concede that it is an extremely interesting novel: it gives us all plenty to talk and think about, as the unfolding comment threads at InfiniteSummer indicate. I just don’t like it. I think it’s bad.
So the way around this - as in Booth’s discussion of Emma - is that the writer turns out to be aware of the ethical issue and undermines it some way, or builds a path away from it. You’re don’t think you’re going to get that from Stoker?
Yeah, neither do I.
Of course, I’m reminded of Wilde’s famous dictum. I wonder, though, if Dracula gives you an opportunity to enjoy descriptive language, to enjoy the suspense and the story’s internal logic, as well as to engage in humorous self-reflection, i.e., “I know: how stereotypically Victorian is that, and uncool in every possible way,” etc., how “unethical” can it really be? Anyhow, for a truly delightful romp, give McCarthy’s Child of God a gander. You’ll never look at homicidal necrophilia the same way again!
Hmm, I don’t know. Child of God really presents an argument about what the world is like. I’ll be shocked if Dracula goes that far, or anywhere close.
But I may not be McCarthy’s ideal reader. I looked at homicidal necrophilia the same way after I read the novel as before.
Nice observations, but I wonder—couldn’t a similar accusation of ethical dubiousness be levied at just about any horror book or movie? In other words does the criticism apply more to the genre than to this particular book? Or turn it around—what would be an example of an “ethical” horror story? I can’t think of any of the top of my head, but I’m probably not trying hard enough.
couldn’t a similar accusation of ethical dubiousness be levied at just about any horror book or movie?
I’d say, yes, probably, unless, as AR suggests above, “the writer turns out to be aware of the ethical issue and undermines it some way, or builds a path away from it.” Because I don’t really read much in these genres, I can’t think of any examples of writers who do this, though I suppose a place to start might be with Poe, who relies (I’d say) on the ironic distance between us and his (usually crazy) narrators. Is this enough? Every time I teach “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Black Cat,” I wonder about that.
Stephen King’s “Why We Crave Horror Movies” is the only defense of the horror genre as a genre that I know; his argument is basically that they allow us vicarious release from our demons:
The mythic horror movie, like the sick joke, has a dirty job to do. It deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us. It is morbidity unchained, our most base instincts let free, our nastiest fantasies realized . . . and it all happens, fittingly enough, in the dark. For those reasons, good liberals often shy away from horror films. For myself, I like to see the most aggressive of them . . . as lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath.
I’ve never been convinced by this essay, though, and not just because it is self-serving: there are a lot of psychological assumptions built into it. And there’s that disingenuous “we” in the title (and argument). “We” don’t all crave them! And maybe “feeding the alligators” is not what is best for “us” anyway. Why not let them die of attrition?
Fancy you being so cold about a genre novelist. James Lee Burke has the best sunsets ever committed to paper, and Martin Cruz Smith is sentence for sentence a better writer than the Booker winners of the last 30 years. Still just genre hacks, probably because they so choose. There’s the old-fashioned entertainer’s ethic that the paying public deserves your best, which might appeal to a man who’d been Henry Irving’s bitch for much of his working life. If people want their worst instincts appealed to, and it seems they do, then ‘twere better ‘twere done well, surely. But yes, no point making extravagant claims for it, nor did he.
That aside, you either ‘get’ vampires or you don’t, and if not you have to take the word of those who do that there’s worse things than being bitten by one. Oh, far, far worse than the unspeakable swooning ecstasy of having the blood sucked out of you, drop by ruby drop, etc. Which is the same point again, really, all about half-willing surrender, to the manipulative novelist or the hairy count.
Couple of points:
enjoying the prospect of bloody death for those who don’t matter, hoping for (and fully expecting) final safety for the good guys (who don’t matter much more)
This is a bit of an odd interpretation of Jaws: of the three ‘good guy’ main characters, two (Hooper and Quint) actually die during the book’s finale. Not much final safety there. Minor point.
If Dracula himself were a more ambiguous character--if we didn’t follow Mina’s account of Lucy’s sleepwalking with such a complete expectation that we know what (who) she will run into, out there by herself at night, and how to interpret those two “pin prick” marks on her neck--if we could wonder how far the threat is real and how far it is a projection of anxieties and prejudices
I don’t disagree with this point, but isn’t this, to a large extent, the complaint of a 21st-century reader? When Dracula was first published, after all, no one picked up the book knowing that the Count was a vampire - but it’s as difficult now to read it in that way as it would be, say, to watch Hamlet without being continually aware that the prince dies at the end. But the original audiences wouldn’t have known!
To the naive reader, it’s not obvious at first who and what the Count is. At first he might be just a generic Central European noble. Later, he’s certainly cruel; later still it becomes apparent that he’s in some way supernatural. But ‘vampire’ isn’t obvious for a long time - for most of the first book, ‘warlock’ might be equally possible. And even by the sleepwalking stage, it’s still not clear exactly what ‘vampire’ means and what his abilities are.
Fancy you being so cold about a genre novelist.
I’m not quite sure how to take this comment: is it genuinely surprised (because you, sartoresartus, are aware of how much interest I take in genre fiction), or ironic (because you assume, wrongly, that I am routinely dismissive of genre fiction)?
I’m never very happy with the conclusion that you either ‘get’ something or you don’t. Perhaps, arguably, you either like something or you don’t (though as recent discussions have gone over in some detail, there are some among us, myself included, who believe taste evolves). But you can ‘get’ something, in the sense of understanding a lot about its strategies, conventions, effects, place in literary history, what have you--and still not like it in that personal “if I were just picking something to read for no other reason, I’d pick this” way. That’s how I feel about Dracula. I’m pretty sure I ‘get’ quite a bit about it (and could ‘get’ even more if I kept putting in the time), but I don’t really like what I find there, for the reasons I explained in my post.
@ajay, I’m not sure whether you are right that my complaints are because we already know too much about Dracula. My understanding is that Stoker was drawing on a pretty thick tradition of this kind of story and that all the stuff about blood and small holes in people’s necks would have been a dead give-away (pun intended?) for late 19thC readers too. Can’t take up the Jaws issue: never read it, never saw it, and don’t plan to do either.
Nice observations, but I wonder—couldn’t a similar accusation of ethical dubiousness be levied at just about any horror book or movie? In other words does the criticism apply more to the genre than to this particular book? Or turn it around—what would be an example of an “ethical” horror story? I can’t think of any of the top of my head, but I’m probably not trying hard enough
This brings up an issue that I think about from time to time, Rohan: the difference between the general undergraduate study of literature (lower division courses) and the specialized study of undergraduate majors, graduate students, and professional academics. It seems to me that there is an ethical aspect to the requirement that students undertake some study of literature in order to earn their degree (if, indeed, such distribution requirements still exist). We are asking them to read the world’s great literature in order to enrich their character. Thus, one might regard Dracula as unsuitable for that purpose and so not include it in such courses.
The specialized study of literature, by contrast, has other purposes in addition to the ethical – if, indeed, the ethical is part of the regime at all. Here one studies literature, not so much for the ethical benefit one gains from such study, but in order to learn how literature works in minds and societies. In that context, Dracula is a perfectly reasonable object of study. What pleasures does the text afford individual readers? How do they come into prominence when and where they do? And so forth.
If the premise is that that the technical excellence of the novel demonstrates Bram Stoker was in full control of his talent, and therefore we may object to its slack misuse in the creation of a pedestrian plot ... one must ask what else he wrote that was nearly as powerful. And if the answer is “nothing”, then shouldn’t we say that in writing “Dracula” Stoker accidentally punched above his weight? (As in the case of the first Matrix movie, or the first Star Wars movie, or ... whose authors deserve immortal fame nonetheless, I hasten to add.)
Isn’t it simpler to say that the simple accumulation of increasingly-heightened peril, as the main vector of the plot, can hardly be separated from the reader’s experience, from paragraph to paragraph, of the creation of mood? These two aspects of the construction/execution of this work are synergetic.
If OTOH the discussion is really about the propriety of artificially-mediated dread ...
Opens a question I think from time to time, Rohan: The difference between the general BA in literature (lower-division courses) and a cum lauded in large companies, students and academic professionals. There seems to be a moral, the requirement that students undertake some study of literature to get a degree (if applicable, the requirements of this distribution yet). We urge them to read the great literature of the world to enrich character. Dracula would be unsuitable for this purpose and therefore does not require such courses.
The study of literature, unlike other than for moral, if, indeed, morality is part of the system at all. Here is a study of literature, not so much on the benefits of morality take such a study, but to learn how to mind literature and society. In this context, Dracula is a story much sense to study. What does the text for you to individual units, how come clear when and where to do? And so on.
Hmm, I don’t know. Child of God really presents an argument about what the world is like. I’ll be shocked if Dracula goes that far, or anywhere close.