Friday, September 24, 2021

Modernity's Monsters

 From Church Life Journal:

In the nineteenth century, novels such as Frankenstein and Dracula grappled with the challenges born from the rise of scientific materialism and its seeming obverse, Romantic expressionism. But the obsession with vampires began earlier, and it figures as an especially modern example of the ways in which blood, William Harvey’s research topic, served as a multivalent sign.

Blood was from ancient times regarded as the confluence of two necessary elements for life, fire and water, and the use of blood (human as well as animal) in medicine is well-testified by Marsilio Ficino in the sixteenth century, who continued rather than invented a therapeutic tradition.[1] But the new rationality of the mechanistic circulatory system proposed by Harvey was shadowed by an increasingly occult use of blood, sometimes combined with semen (believed to be the distilled essence of blood). For example, in the last half of the seventeenth century, some alchemists proposed the use of a mixture of blood and semen, both obtained clandestinely in a church to aid their magical powers, as an elixir of youth.[2] In a similar way, vampires functioned as the shadow cast by the clarity of Enlightenment science, in which the self-constituting life that is blood was drained and repurposed in orphic ways.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is especially important for our analysis because of its blood-symbolism. The novel meditates on the strange mobility of our literal life-blood and its vulnerability to loss through the violation of our seemingly solid contours. Further, the modern context, evoked memorably a few decades before by Charles Dickens, of anonymity amidst industrialization made for new horrors; Stoker acknowledged that Jack the Ripper was a source for the novel.[3] In grappling with such new realities, the book also casts a glance backward at a vanishing age in which blood meant solid class boundaries. The novel, therefore, presents blood as straddling solid and liquid modernity.

The solid force of modern scientific progress is presented by the author as both powerful and helpless. The vampire-fighting professor Abraham Van Helsing is introduced with all his degrees, “MD, D.Ph., D.Lit., etc., etc.”[4] One of the “etc.” must be a J.D. or an LL.B., given that Van Helsing tells a friend, “You forget that I am a lawyer as well as a doctor” (182). Professor-doctor-lawyer-philosopher Van Helsing combines rationalistic omniscience with supernatural faith: “He is a philosopher and a metaphysician and one of the most advanced scientists of his day,” a colleague describes him, “and he has, I believe, an absolutely open mind” (126).

Van Helsing is the cause of many of the novel’s moments of inadvertent hilarity. When Van Helsing creates a seal around the newly vampiric Lucy’s tomb using a consecrated Host, his companions express shock. He reassures them by saying solemnly, “I have an Indulgence” (233). Irish Anglican Stoker must have thought indulgences meant that the Catholic hierarchy would indulge the (mis-)use of the Eucharist for good causes.[5] But Stoker, perhaps unintentionally, highlights the contrast between the vampire and the consumption of the Eucharist: the former, who drinks blood to dominate and to survive bodily, versus the latter, which is the reception of a divine self-gift for eternal life.

In any case, Van Helsing’s religiosity combined with his scientific omniscience is necessary for a plot in which evil is defeated not only through consecrated hosts and crucifixes but also through such up-to-date tech as shorthand and steam engines. The character of Van Helsing personifies the meeting of Enlightenment science with Eastern European myth that Nick Groom has argued is the “strikingly modern” context of the European fascination with the vampire, beginning about 150 years before Stoker’s novel. As Groom puts it in The Vampire: A New History, “In the early eighteenth century, the traditional bloodsuckers of Eastern European folklore came face to face with empirical science and became vampires” (4).

An example of European science is Count de Cabreras, who in 1730 slayed no fewer than three vampires, whose corpses flowed with fresh blood as he alternately beheaded, cremated, or nailed the skull of each. According to Groom, the Emperor Charles VI did not simply dismiss de Cabreras’s actions but instead sent a retinue of “officers, lawyers, physicians, chirurgeons, and some divines” to investigate, according to a contemporary clergyman, Dom Augustin Calmet (29-30). A scholarly French Benedictine, Calmet wavered in his judgment whether vampires were an example of God’s posthumous punishment of the dead or a mere fantasy. The latter judgment was rendered during Calmet’s lifetime by Pope Benedict XIV in 1757, who argued his point in a document on canonization, in a section entitled De vanitate Vampyrorum (“On the Vanity of Vampires” [V 76-81]). It appears that Benedict XIV would not have indulged Van Helsing’s extra-ecclesial appropriation of sacraments and sacramentals.

Around the same time, military surgeon Johann Flückinger investigated a vampiric outbreak in Serbia, performing an autopsy on one victim, whose body Flückinger stated had fresh blood and growing nailbeds. He wrote a report that was read across Europe, and medical journals and dissertations were dedicated to the topic of vampirism, although a healthy contingent of skeptics emerged in reaction.

Vampires were everywhere; Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in their psychedelic concoction of philosophy, history, and science, A Thousand Plateaus, accurately state of 1730: “From 1730 to 1735, all we hear about are vampires.”[6] Perhaps singularly in his lifetime, on this matter Voltaire showed himself on the side of the pope, expostulating, “What! is it in our eighteenth century that vampires exist? Is it after the reigns of Locke, Shaftesbury, Trenchard, and Collins? Is it under those of D’Alembert, Diderot, St. Lambert, and Duclos, that we believe in vampires?”[7] Nevertheless, Groom recounts how accounts of bloodsucking revenants were treated seriously and methodologically, with permissions being needed to exhume corpses (and presumably frequently denied, when sought at all). Prescribed courses of action were offered in manuals. Thus did the realm of the vampiric dead bleed into that of science.

According to Dracula, all this scientific advantage was necessary but not sufficient to combat the supernatural evil of the vampire. In many ways, the novel seems to fly in the face of the nineteenth century’s atheist humanism, given how often the characters invoke God and his omnipotent providence. Yet the ambient skepticism comes through in the religiosity that the novel portrays, a religiosity that is quite literally other-worldly. In ordinary situations, the novel implies, modern science has everything under control.

The vampire and his minions are not ordinary, of course, and their very extraordinariness aligns with the purely fantastic nature of the religious talismans combating them. The perhaps unintended result is that Dracula portrays religion, and Catholicism in particular, as operating at the level of the grotesque but otherwise wholly irrelevant to everyday life. God is exoticized and hence made optional (until, at least, you have a vampire or two to dispose of), despite the religious nostalgia that saturates the book. (Read more.)

From Chronicles:

For some among the chattering classes, the electoral defeat of Donald Trump in November must have been a mixed blessing, though they doubtless could not admit it publicly. After all, the fall of political figures who have been relentlessly and lewdly painted in the press with Hitler makeup for the entirety of their time in office must be enthusiastically and wholly embraced by the morally righteous.

Yet the professorial Chicken Littles who busied themselves during Trump’s presidency producing a whole library of monotonous books announcing the end of democracy in America must certainly be wondering, now that the Queens bogeyman is gone, who will buy the follow-up to their New York Times bestseller enumerating all the ways in which the past four years in America echoed the early 1930s in Germany.

I confess this dismal literature provides me an illicit pleasure. To be sure, good books are the reason readers, and book reviewers, exist. But let us acknowledge that bad books have their place too. For one, they do us the salutary service of teaching us how not to think about a topic. Awful books written by pedigreed intellectuals celebrated among the cultural elite provide us a perhaps even greater good: they can reveal the abject emptiness on which the status claims of those elites are based.

In keeping with the rules for writing apocalyptic prophecies for the Trump-era, Anne Applebaum and Ruth Ben-Ghiat have studiously avoided applying any objective social scientific or historical analysis to the question of what’s happening politically in the West today.

It is indicative of the ideological predispositions of Ben-Ghiat’s book that the anecdote with which she opens, intended to illustrate the most monstrous characteristics of the political strongman, concerns not an episode of egregious political authoritarianism, but rather the prelude to a sexual encounter between a man and a woman. Ben-Ghiat devotes an entire prurient chapter to the strongman’s interest in having sexual relations with women. Virility, she is eager to inform us, is a dangerous thing in political leaders.

As a professor of Italian Studies, she is particularly affascinata by the amorous pursuits of Mussolini and Silvio Berlusconi, but we are of course also treated to banal commentary on the “Access Hollywood” tape from Trump’s 2016 campaign, the porn star Stormy Daniels, and even a tweet in which Trump jokingly pasted his own head on the muscular body of the fictional boxer Rocky. The book’s subtitle might more accurately be rendered “Mussolini to Trump,” as Trump-related topics are the single most numerous entries in the index.

A common academic feminist compulsion is to prattle constantly, in contradiction of all the empirical evidence, about how immersed we are in patriarchal domination, and Ben-Ghiat vigorously asserts that we are now living in an Age of the Strongman. Yet, traditionally assertive masculine figures in politics are less visible now than at any point in history, and women and men who share Ben-Ghiat’s disdain of such masculinity are in positions of political power in many states in the West.

Applebaum’s conceit is not the fatuous feminism of Strongmen, but her argument proceeds from the same subjectivist, emotive logic. She begins with a New Year’s Eve 1999 party at her home, with a group of “free market liberal” intellectual friends, celebrating their cultural power.

Alas, some of those friends have since given in to “the seductive lure of authoritarianism” referenced in her subtitle, and the triumphalist liberal consensus of those heady days is no more. Why and how did it happen? Applebaum has nothing more substantive to offer than the risible psychologizing established in the Frankfurt School of authoritarian studies: her former friends are, for the most part, resentment-filled liars, anti-Semites (she invokes the Dreyfus Affair as a parallel to the present moment), and greedy careerists who realized that, lacking the requisite talents, they would not be able to rise in a meritocracy and have therefore hitched their professional wagons to authoritarian patrons in a tawdry effort to get “rich and famous.” (Read more.)


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