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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, November 1, 2008

A MOVEABLE FEASTER, PART 2

Back in my essay "Archetypal Library" I was groping for a basic example that "could distinguish the mythopoeic literary function from other functions in literary works." I had thought of comparing figures from WATCHMEN and SQUADRON SUPREME since I'd just done a compare/contrast on both of them, but I lost interest in that particular opposition. But as I started doing my Halloween post on the "sacred earth" element in Stoker's DRACULA., it occured to me that this might serve as a better example of the mythopoeic function I'm talking about. After all, what's more "basic" than the earth beneath our feet?

It should be said that just because an element has mythopoeic associations does not mean it's something airy-fairy in its complex symbolism; that it's divorced from any function within the narrative. On the contrary, the more complex it is, the more integrally the story-element works within the narrative, both to communicate plot-events and symbolic discourse.

For instance, at base Stoker's idea of "sacred earth" is a device that liberates Dracula from his burial earth but also gives him a weakness that the vampire hunters can exploit. Both of those are functions integral to the plot, and as base functions they're no different from a similar element in Polidori's "The Vampire," where Lord Ruthven, apparently struck dead, is revived by moonlight. Polidori's moonlight and Stoker's sacred earth both function to advance the plot. However, though Polidori's moonlight may carry some potential symbolic associations, the author doesn't do anything to enlarge upon those associations, and so that element remains what I call a "null-myth."

In contrast, Stoker takes this particular element-- which is, of course, just one isolated element in his elaborate vampiric cosmology-- and invests it with a wide variety of symbolic values that go beyond ONLY fulfilling what the plot requires.

For instance, one should give a little extra thought to this odd turn of Van Helsing phraseology:

"There have been from the loins of this very one [Dracula] great men and good women, and their graves make sacred the earth where alone this foulness can dwell"

Prior to this Dracula only spoke of the earth being saturated with the blood and memories of the heroic dead, which includes even women and children. He doesn't speak as explicitly as Van Helsing does later of his need for sanctified soil but he does comment to Harker that he wants an old house in England because "to live in a new house would kill me." But Van Helsing puts an extra twist on Dracula's celebration of his heroic ancestors, for the professor speaks as if the sacredness from the soil comes from the very "great men and good women" who have sprung from Dracula's own "loins," which is to say, not his ancestors, but his children.

The novel is ambivalent about Dracula's specific past. To Harker the vampire naturally disassociates himself from the historical figure we now call Vlad Tepes, since that ruler would have been long dead by the time of the novel, but Stoker clearly counts on the reader not to believe Dracula, who rages bitterly against a "brother" of that long-dead ruler who betrayed his people to the Turks. So Dracula is Tepes, perhaps raised to undead life by a bargain with Satan himself, or maybe from some strange electrochemical phenomenon (Van Helsing seriously proposes both origins at different sections of the novel). But for all his talk of the glory of the Sekely family, Dracula makes no allusions to either mother nor father. He seems the embodiment of a domineering paternal principle that owes nothing to earlier forbears, though this would of course be impossible if he were indeed a historical figure. Still, though Van Helsing sees him as vampirizing the "holy memories" of the soil where his children lie, it's certainly possible to see the reverse as well. If the soil also holds the sanctity of all those who preceded the historicized Dracula, then he is drawing vitality from both his ancestors and his descendents. It's possible to see in him an incest-happy myth-figure like Zeus, pretty much "vamping" any old relative-- mother, sister, daughter-- though in DRACULA only the figurative "daughters" matter to the story, since they're the only ones among the living.

Side-note: Stoker gives us few clues about the origins of two of his three vampire brides, who unlike the third one are said to resemble the king-vampire with his "aquiline nose." They could be daughters, one supposes, if one takes as gospel Van Helsing's assertion that many "great men and good women" have sprung from the vampire's loins at some time in the past, but it's broadly implied that Dracula no longer has the power to spawn as living things do, and can only create symbolic offspring through vampirism. Like Dracula, all three vampire brides apparently have existed in the undead state for centuries, since all of them dissolve into dust once staked-- a fate which is in marked contrast to Lucy, who, getting staked after having been a vampire for only a few weeks, returns to being a not-long-dead corpse. Thus, for neatness of timing if nothing else, I would think that the two brides with the physical resemblances are more likely sisters than daughters, though the identity of one with the mother of Dracula is not impossible, since Stoker's vamps can temporarily turn younger with the imbibing of stolen blood.

Again I feel compelled to harp upon how much complexity of association Stoker has imbued into what *could* have been treated as a simple weakness for the vampire hunters to exploit, along the level of such comic-book analogues as the Martian Manhunter (weakness to fire) and Green Lantern (weakness to the color yellow). I don't include the better-known example of Superman and his radioactive rock-nemesis here, for kryptonite did accrue a fair amount of mythicity over the years-- though Stoker's treatment of the associations of "sacred earth" is on the whole more complex.

In fact, I'm moved to reflect that only recently have academics begun to appreciate the deep symbolic discourse in DRACULA. When I was growing up in the 1960s, there were no scholarly treatises on DRACULA, though there were quite a few on that other half of horror's "diabolical duo," FRANKENSTEIN. I believe that this was because Shelley's work, despite all of the novel's flaws and despite the popular iterations of the story, carried the associations of "high art" because it seemed to be "about something important"-- a hallmark attitude one encounters with works that follow the pattern of thematic realism. In contrast, DRACULA must have looked more like a pure thrill-ride, which is the hallmark of works that follow the pattern of thematic escapism. Yet though both the Shelley novel and the Stoker work possess considerable mythicity, I tend to favor the discourse of DRACULA a bit more. Intellectually, FRANKENSTEIN is easier to take more seriously, with its guilt-haunted protagonist unconsciously using his doppleganger to slaughter just about everyone he ever loves or even knows, while DRACULA's theme, such as it is, doesn't bear a lot of close analysis. Yet it may be that the very absence of a "serious theme" allowed Stoker's imagination greater free play, and allowed him, a la William Blake, "to see heaven in a grain of sand--"

Or memories of ancient blood-sheddings in a handful of earth.

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