These Things of Darkness – Part 1
Dismembered Bits and Pieces of an Introduction;
A Fingerpost Pointing in Various Directions, Some Wiser to Travel Than Others
It would be obvious and banal to repeat the observation, employed by every hack journalist tasked with writing some bit of Dracula fluff, that “the Count will never lie down”. Similarly, it would be obvious and banal to liken the spread of Dracula around the world and throughout culture to the exponential, viral expansion of vampirism that would ensue if vampires were actually real. It would be no more than stating the fact that Dracula is a successful commodity or brand. That is what successful commodities or brands do. They reproduce. Seemingly without human input and out of human control, to the point of threatening people. They seem to do this despite the fact that their reproduction is actually a result of human production. As with vampires, commodities are reproduced by the parasitism upon, and negation of, the human subject. Capital is the vampire battening on us, as Marx saw. Commodity production hollows people out. Capital expands as humanity shrinks. The similarity between the viral commodity and Dracula is a tautology, since it has been so successful precisely because it expresses the underlying mechanism of its own success.
Dracula and Frankenstein are inextricably linked. Mutually dependant. But like many things that are inextricably linked and mutually dependant they are also irresolvably separate and antagonistic. About the only thing they have in common is their moment of conception. As David McNally pointed out, both were conceived in the course of a single night in 1816, during which Mary Shelley became heavy with Frankenstein and Lord Byron with Dracula. It is tempting to look at the evening as a copulation between these two, from which both came away pregnant. Dracula, it is true, gestated longer than Frankenstein. He was born almost immediately (in authorial time) whereas Dracula took longer. He was transplanted from Byron into Polidori, and then into Stoker, with much genetic material contributed along the way by Le Fanu and others. Ironically, it was Dracula who had to be assembled from the bits and pieces of other characters.
Franco Moretti – great Marxist critic and himself, it transpires, predatory monster – wrote a famous essay, ‘The Dialectic of Fear’, interpreting Dracula and Frankenstein as representing – to describe his argument crudely – bourgeoisie and proletariat.
Frankenstein assembles his creature from many human parts, the parts of the dismembered poor, as the proletariat was constructed in the era of primitive accumulation during which the book was written. The creature is corporate, its individuality and selfhood the subjects of contestation. It is now called ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ in the same way that a worker is said to be ‘a Ford worker’ (Moretti’s analogy). Its creator draws back from it in horror, recognising his future gravedigger in his own creation. It is feared that the creature will be the progenitor of a ‘new race’, a ‘race of devils’, much as the new global proletariat was constructed using new racial categories, and seen as a new and terrifying phenomenon that threatened to override the world by breeding too much, or by more consciously political means. As with the proletariat, and the subjugated racial categories contained within it, the monster is seen as both inferior and overwhelmingly powerful. (I won’t go into this in detail because I wrote a little about Moretti’s treatment of Frankenstein in this post from a few years back.)
Frankenstein is about the terrifying new creative forces unleashed by modernity. Says Shelley: the Enlightenment, if it is to ‘succeed’, must find a way to say of its new Calibans ‘these things of darkness we acknowledge ours’, and to mean it. Anything else will bring only common ruination. Shelley’s plea is for the Enlightenment project to embrace responsibility, even for its own awful products, be they machine or human, or both, or somewhere in between. Even as she makes her plea, she is pessimistic owing to the monstrous incommensurability of the products of modernity. To that extent, and to that extent only, the vulgar mainstream account of the book – that it is a cautionary tale of the dangers of scientific overreach – is correct. The book is about that new modern intersection between products (material and social) and producers, the line along which the two merge, with humans becoming commodities and commodities coming alive. The developed form of this would one day be described by Marx using the concept of ‘commodity fetishism’. Commodity fetishism, avant la lettre, is at the heart of the book’s pioneering version of what could be called the Dark Sublime. The awesome problem isn’t that Frankenstein plays God; it’s that the productive capacities of the modern world have rendered God obsolete.
Dracula, by contrast, is capital – as Marx anticipated when he repeatedly referred to capital as a vampire. Dracula, of course, lives – or rather exists, self-perpetuates – by just this kind of sucking, this exploitation of the living. Moreover, Dracula – according to Moretti – is not really an aristocrat. He lacks almost all markers of aristocracy (we shall come back to this in future essays), and instead seems far more like a bourgeois, or even like money itself – of which he has much lying around in hoarded piles. He is all about pragmatic exploitation rather than enjoyment. His immortality is a curse of eternal competition. He is driven to assimilate, use, expand, compete. He enjoys nothing. He ‘lives’ by an unholy version of the pragmatic ‘protestant ethic’ that – as we’ve seen in other essays – is crucial to capitalism as an expression of itself, an ideology, an organising logic.
But Dracula, according to Moretti, is also a particular type of capital: monopoly capital. This is shown in the threats he represents: the threat of exponential expansion leading to total control, total conversion and global domination. No more ‘fixed contracts’, ‘free trade’, ‘economic liberty’, etc. Instead, slavery to one pole of unchallengeable power. He is an emerging and rising form of global capitalism as seen from the petty bourgeois middle. He is opposed by van Helsing, a Dutchman, a man from the (supposed) home of free trade. He is opposed by the supposedly moral people of libertarian capitalism, who understand that money must be used freely and virtuously, like Dickensian bourgeois benefactors of humanity. Individualism – and thus the bourgeois world – must be tempered with altruism, true religion, etc. It is the ultimate expression of bourgeois Victorian moralistic self-delusion; stemming – as every drop in the tidal wave of such stuff did – from anxiety.
In line with his essentially petty bourgeois anxiety about modernity, Stoker constructs Dracula from stereotypes about foreigners, Eastern Europeans, even Jews. Stoker’s rational English, American, and Dutch (i.e. Western) heroes – the jolly fine chaps whose camaraderie is what Stoker imagines to be the moral heart of the book – diagnose, categorize, typologize, and racially-profile Dracula. They employ prototypical social darwinism, and something like phrenology. The shape and size of Dracula’s skull is gone into (always a bad sign). He is, they decide, essentially a criminal type, with a child’s brain. Primitive. Atavistic. Impertinent. Out of his proper time and place. An upstart savage. For all his noble heritage, it is only the noble heritage of the East.
It is very telling that the skull is a central emblem not only of the Gothic but also of scientific racism, and then of fascism. There is a sense in which these three are – to be schematic – in a line of progression, with each less healthy than the last. The Gothic is the anxious expression of ambivalence; an attempt to sublimate via an artistic expression of the failure of sublimation. Scientific racism is the attempt to sublimate the anxiety rationally. Fascism is the darkly joyous and wantonly irrational celebration of the failure of sublimation, coupled with an impudently dogmatic refusal to admit of the failure; modern civilisation engaging in a paradoxically puritanical dirty protest.
Dracula and Frankenstein have one very large element in common: paranoia about the rise of new races. One of the essential discourse of white supremacy is worry – panicked, resigned, whatever the inflection – about the idea that the white race is in decline, or its moment has passed, and it is about to be displaced by the other races. Formally resembling a morbid symptom of the decline of white supremacy, the anxiety is actually foundational to it. White supremacy was built on the idea that white supremacy was under threat. This was one of the key ideological narratives which helped bourgeois civilization build racial categories and hierarchies – much as reactionary politics is always based on a kind of salutary pessimism about the old ways being too weak and decadent to protect themselves. Race is a socially and historically constructed idea, and this had to be achieved ideologically in order to make capitalism work economically. Races had to be invented in order that they be placed on a hierarchy.
Like many people, Stoker’s anxiety about modernity is, at base, an anxiety about capitalism; not because he is against capitalism, but because capitalism is – unbeknown to him – the basis of the modernity he is anxious about. He is anxious about it because of the energies it releases rather than the energies it stifles. His is the anti-capitalism of fools, and also neurotics. At a base level, capitalism is the repressed that returns in his writing. This is precisely because, at a superstructural level, what he frets over are the opportunities for others, and even more worryingly for himself, that it opens. The opportunities we’re talking about are fundamentally sexual (as indeed is so much fascist discourse). But sex, as we are increasingly understanding, is not some primal force at the root of our nature. It does not determine our social being, any more than any other instinct that most people share. It is social, something we produce socially. Thus it is something which emanates from society, or rather from us in society, if only because it is very difficult for us to be anywhere else.
Dracula, the novel, has one thing in common with Frankenstein, the novel: it is unfilmable. The books are unfilmable for different reasons. It boils down to this: Dracula is too bad to film, and Frankenstein is too good.
There is a longer and less glib way of putting it. Dracula is based on feelings that are unexpressed and inexpressible without ruining the power of the book, which lies precisely in the non-expression of the feelings in question. Frankenstein is also based on such unexpressed and inexpressible feelings, but is a record of such feelings being intellectually and emotionally grappled with, fused with ideas, and turned into a complex set of interactions between the unconscious and the conscious, the emotional and the intellectual, the personal and the political, etc. That is the book’s power. That is why, in order to be turned into a 20th century legend – i.e. a film – it had to be simplified down to base components, and thus rewritten into a different shape. Dracula’s power, by contrast, lies in its very lack of such complex interplay, any such attempt to comprehend and intellectualise, or even to consciously express, the emotions it is based on. Its power lies in its very artlessness. That is why, when turned into a 20th century myth – i.e. a film – it was rewritten into various versions of the same shape. Dracula, in the movies, for all that it is usually replotted and de-charactered (of necessity, given its flabbiness), retains the basic shape of the novel: an immortal, undead, blood-drinking nobleman from Somewhere Else encroaches on the middle class stability of Civilised Here, bring all manner of threatening implications and changes with him. Frankenstein is far more radically changed in the movies. The big and essential Frankenstein adaptations are not actually adaptations of Frankenstein, at least not in any normal sense; rather they are new stories with the names from the old book stuck on them. They bear only slightly more relationship to the novel Frankenstein than The Day The Earth Stood Still does to the Gospels.
The two books lie at opposite ends of the Romantic project. Frankenstein at the opening, when Romanticism was still a phenomenon of the Enlightenment; Dracula at its close, when Romanticism was decaying deliciously into the Gothic, and thus into Modernism – which is profoundly decadent and insane, despite its telling insistence on the new and the clean. As such, Frankenstein – while utterly irrational – is constructed as a rational attempt to contain, utilise, comprehend, even tame the irrational. That is is unsuccessful is simply a testimony to the intensity of its irrationality. That it still fascinates is simply a testimony to the near-triumph of the attempt. The brilliancy of the book lies in this utter incompatibility at its heart, in the strength of its internal contradictions. It is the spirit of its age. Dracula is a product of the end of this age. It makes no attempt to rationally contain any of its irrationality, because it is so profoundly irrational that it cannot even begin to conceptualise the extent of its irrationality, or even that it is irrational at all. To be crude: Frankenstein is irrationality rationally trying to rationalise itself; Dracula is irrationality so irrational it thinks itself rational. Thus, for all Frankenstein’s superiority, it is Dracula that speaks most directly and profoundly to the Modernity that followed it. Frankenstein is a Modern book – it even has the word ‘Modern’ in its subtitle – yet it is an emanation of that early part of Modernity which still, because of its closeness to the pre-Modern, and thus its position at a point of unfixedness, held out hope for versions of the Modern which never came to pass. Indeed, Shelly would spend much of the rest of her career as a writer documenting the closure of the open futures she still believed in in Frankenstein. The conscious message of the book is that the Modern lies open before us and we fail it at our peril. Dracula is from a point after this failure has taken place. It is, consequently, far more optimistic about the Modern than Frankenstein. In Dracula, the Modern will save itself from its only enemies, which can come only from the past. Dracula is profoundly unconscious of the despair it truly feels at the Modern, which it secretly knows – without understanding – to be rotten from within.
As the reader will probably know, both these unfilmable novels have been filmed. A lot. Indeed, they are possibly the two most filmed novels ever written. (If I had to guess at other contenders the one that would immediately spring to mind would be Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is hardly unrelated to Dracula and Frankenstein, with its gothic commentary on capital and social responsibility.)
At the same time, however, neither has actually been filmed at all – at least not in the sense of being faithfully represented. Of course, both books have had at least one adaptation that is reasonably close to the source material in terms of structure, events, and characters. (Famous as a story always drastically altered in adaptation, Dracula has three – arguably four – fairly close adaptations; Frankenstein has one.) Yet neither book has ever been filmed in the sense of having its actual themes – which is another way of saying ‘its ideology’ – put on screen. Form and content being as entangled at they are, it is open to dispute whether it is actually possible to adapt any novel in that sense, or indeed at all. Even so, we tend to see – rightly or wrongly – most adaptations as having the themes of their source material transmitted into them by default, simply by virtue of the fact that retelling the story replicates the themes. This is nonsense, of course, what with the medium being the message and all that. (Frankenstein’s monster, already a cyborg in the films, has an equally mechanical bride.) And Dracula and Frankenstein illustrate this very well. They might even be the quintessential examples – apart from the Bible, or the The Communist Manifesto.
It is widely assumed that the films all express something essential in the books, yet this is barely true of any of them. There is a strange circular effect wherein the prevalence of adaptations convinces millions that they have read books they haven’t read, and that they therefore understand the themes of those books, and that therefore when the themes of the adaptations match the themes they know about, this proves the faithfulness of the adaptations. But the knowledge against which we tend to measure adaptations is of adaptations, not of their source. So we gauging the faithfulness of adaptations to one another, not to their source. We are lost in s system of copies. It is even possible that the writers and directors of the adaptations sometimes work from inside this circle. Mind you, it is arguable that original novels are themselves, in a sense, adaptations. We know about Barthes. (It’s worth remembering, when we bring up barthes, that the ‘Death of the Author’ is a leftist idea, and also an inherently gothic one.) We’ve already noted how much genetic material from disparate sources ended up in Dracula as it was assembled from disparate parts. There is a case for saying that every ‘original’ is the latest covert adaptation of various previous ‘originals’, themselves adaptations by extension. This is a notion which goes beyond the ‘anxiety of influence’ to question the very idea, not of influence (which is easily questionable), but of anxiety. In what sense can it meaningfully be anxiety at all when it is an integral, inherent, structural aspect of the process?
All this to one side… We tend to imagine, because Dracula films are about certain things, that the novel Dracula is about the same things. The same happens with Frankenstein/Frankenstein. The common conception of the themes of Frankenstein is something about the dangers of ‘playing god’ or, to put it less moralistically, the perils inherent in science. Yet this is not what the book is about at all. But we won’t linger over Frankenstein, though it is by far the finer book. We’re here to talk about Dracula. Or, more particularly, about Dracula. And the dissonance between the themes of the book and the themes of the films is to be our subject.
Suffice to say at the moment: most Dracula movies are not adaptations of the book at all but rather adaptations of adaptations, or of the cultural idea generated by the adaptations. This is not to discount them. Indeed, in a larger sense, what could be a more profound adaptation of a book than an adaptation of a culture’s idea of that book, regardless of its content. A text is one thing; a book is another. A text is a more-or-less discrete blob of words with a material history. A ‘book’ is a cultural phenomenon. The two are obviously intimately related, but they are not the same thing. But nor can it be said that the text can ever be just itself. In order to be ‘active’, to have meaning, it must be socially activated. It must be read. And as soon as it is read, it is understood, conceptualised, interpreted. It is adapted. The process of filming it is just the process of its social activation, literalised, reified… commodified, in other words. That is not a reduction. Commodification, and thus reification, is how things are socially active in capitalist society. There is no meaningful sense in which a ‘book’ can exist outside its social, public existence. Its having-been-read-ness. Its adaptedness. And thus, in capitalism, its reification. This cuts to the core of any Marxist understanding of art, since it both focuses on and, in the same moment, extends, the moment and circumstances of production.
The process of adapting it into a film is thus not an artificial thing ‘on top of’ or outside the text. It is a literalisation, a crystallisation of its social activation and circulation. It is, for those texts to which it happens, an integral and inextricable part of it as a phenomenon. After the adaptation, the book is not what it was before. It becomes part of a system of itself which now includes the adaptation or adaptations, and all the ‘distortions’ of the original which these include. The ideological meaning of the adaptation becomes part of the ideological meaning of the original text by a kind of retroactive causation. Dracula, the book, therefore is about all the things the films are about, all the things we think it is about – even when those things are not in the text. Or, to put it another way, they are in the text now – because we have put them there.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is, amongst other things, a story about the unsustainability of pure moral categories. Hollywood turned it into a story about their viability, and the inherent superiority of some – those it associates with the white middle class, and thus with civilization and progress – over others. In doing so, Hollywood is not so much travestying the book as faithfully adapting the adaptation of the book created by the society which embraced it. Initially treated as something akin to toxic waste, the book was soon adopted by Victorian Britain after her ideological managers had transformed it into a moral homily about the need for private middle class virtue to match public middle class virtue. It had to be virtue all the way down. The book was adapted by the society it was released into. It was made fit for pulpits. This was how Victorian British society assimilated and processed stories which made it uneasy, including real stories. (And we haven’t changed that much – indeed, part of why we’re still fascinated by Victoriana is because it looks like a heightened, distilled version of us, of modernity.)
‘Jack the Ripper’ – another fictional story, in this case one written by newspapers which were ‘adapting’ a real series of murders – was so processed. Indeed, in being processed, these two stories became inextricably linked. (And, with Dracula too.) People imagined the Whitechapel Murderer as a respectable gentleman by day, a killer by night. They may not even have been that far wrong, going by what we know of psychopaths. But the killer was probably a (very) petty bourgeois from the East End rather than a grande bourgeois from the West End. The opposition between the two Ends is key to the social processing of the story of the five murders which occured in the Autumn of 1888. Both the right and the left made it a story about this opposition in their different ways, whether they imagined it as a story about villainous and penurious East End (((foreigners))) or villainous and plutocratic West End swells. Either way, it became a story about something alien and predatory. Capital is viewable this way, but it ultimately has to be a metaphor about a system rather than a literal idea about actual people. To make it the latter rather than the former is to fatally misconstrue, and to lapse into the the anti-capitalism of fools, or the anti-capitalism of pro-capitalists.
The instability of our conception of the real duality in capitalism is reflected in the gothic, which in its main narratives is intensely concerned with duality. Duality comes to be at the heart of the gothic. General social duality becomes privatised; individualised, gendered duality. At is easy to see where duality of self plays a role in the Werewolf and Jekyll/Hyde stories, but it is also deeply present in Dracula, and even Frankenstein. Dracula is both a ravening monster and an aristocrat with whom one can converse. Frankenstein can be seen as a story of a divided self, with creator and creation as the two halves of one individual, the ‘monster’ being an attempt (as with Hyde) of creating a better self which becomes instead a dumping site for the self’s disavowed aspects. Hence the ambiguity about who the name ‘Frankenstein’ refers to. This ambiguity is not present in the book, but it arises naturally from it. This is the genre the book is in, and the ‘adapted’ version of the same genre it remains in today.
For our purposes here, the political orientations are not finally the point. They merely reflect the battle lines already drawn. The point here is the processing itself. The storification. The assimilation into a safely comprehensible pattern. The emptying of the ‘story’ of its actual content… which is to do with how Victorian capitalism both relied upon and generated savage class inequality, sharpened along lines of gender and race. This content transcends even the mainstream left commentary, which made the murders into the story of a moral failure to adequately address correctable imbalances. The ideological management is the point.
It is, however, also true that the adaptation contains the original instabilities that made the book work (the gothic function being dysfunction). It contains those instabilities in two senses: the sense of having them within, and the sense of having them locked away. As much as the adaptations of these gothic fever dreams might want to rid themselves of the instabilities at the heart of the gothic, they cannot do so, because the entire point of their existence is to contain those instabilities. They must contain them in order to contain them – or attempt them. As a result, they must replicate, transmit, and perpetuate them in the course/cause of stopping their spread. The gothic re-performs its own nightmare. It comes back from the dead. It infects those who try to stake it down. The gothic performs the gothic.
As we go on, it will be interesting to note the way in which the ways in which the Dracula story has been adapted mirror the content of the adaptations themselves. One of the occasional but significant themes in adaptations is reincarnation. We’ll go into this in future installments. But, for now, we can simply note that Dracula is wrapped up in reincarnation in various ways. He is reincarnated in different versions in different films. The Christopher Lee Dracula enjoys an eventful afterlife of perpetually cycling through destruction, reconstitution, brief periods of wreaking havoc, and then being destroyed again. In several adaptations, Dracula is after Mina (or Lucy, or whoever… the female names in the adaptations are generally interchangeable) because she is the reincarnation of his lost love. Dracula, as with all vampires, is arguably the reincarnation – in the literal sense of being put back into meat – of an evil spirit. The exact relationship of the person Dracula to the spirit of the vampire Dracula is one of the things the various adaptations will force us to consider. And that literal use of the word ‘reincarnation’ reminds us that Dracula is a story about bodies, about the supposed casing of spirits, souls, consciousnesses, and/or vital sparks, inside cases of blood, flesh, and bone. It is a deeply Cartesian story. And this is seen in the difficulty we have categorizing Dracula, or vampires generally. They fit into the gothic as much by tradition (i.e. habit) as much as by any other logic. It is true that they are constituted partly of some quintessentially gothic themes: the re-irruption of the dead and buried, literally or metaphorically, etc. And yet they are only partly ghostly in the same of being spectral or phantasmic. They can inhabit the non-physical realm, but apparently only briefly, for pragmatic purposes. Their essential nature is embodiment. Their essential activity is physical. They do not pass through us. They puncture us. The vampire stories of early-to-mid 20th century are often seen as exemplars of the older tradition that was rejected by late 20th century Horror when it turned to the physical, the material, the idea of humans as meat. But they are at least as much the presagers of this. Hammer was making Texas Chainsaw and Evil Dead possible when it opened its first Dracula film with too-bright, too-red liquid dripping onto a tomb. We must disentangle the gothic from the hauntological. In so doing we will see that the hauntological has a complex relationship with the spectral. Even the traditional ghost – and that creature is very much an outlier once we reach modernity – is imagined wearing its shroud, rattling chains, etc. The ghost of Hamlet’s father must flee the crowing of the cock to rejoin the physical torments of Purgatory.
As Moretti puts it – as usual, getting at something important and true, and also getting it slightly but crucially wrong in the process – Dracula “in fact he has no body — or rather, he has no shadow. His body admittedly exists, but it is ‘incorporeal’ — ‘sensibly supersensible’ — as Marx wrote of the commodity, ‘impossible as a physical fact’”
Prospero’s line from The Tempest, spoken about Caliban – “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” – is an acceptance both of responsibility and ownership. It is fatally ambiguous because it takes on social responsibility, but the social responsibility it takes on is the responsibility of an owner, a master. Post-colonial criticism of The Tempest makes Caliban a prefiguration of the colonial subject, etc. He is also a prefiguration of the monsters of modernity, of the gothic. He is Shakespeare’s first ‘monster’ in the true modern sense, appearing in one of Shakespeare’s last plays. He is thus an ancestor of Dracula and Frankenstein, and all the rest. And his role in the play is to represent that which is disavowed but also claimed and owned, subjugated but also threatening. Modernity, and thus inherently also colonialism, will depend upon this ambivalent feeling of ‘ownership’ over Caliban, over millions of Calibans, the ‘half devils and half children’ of Kipling, the “race of devils” Victor Frankenstein imagines spawning from his creation and its bride. Modernity, and thus inherently also capitalism, will depend upon this ambivalent feeling of ‘ownership’ over all these creations, these products, these living commodities. It is why we mass-produce stories about the things we make turning against us, the things we own destroying us. The mass-produced cultural myth of the monster strikes at the conflicted heart of modernity. It is the central narrative of modernity because it is the dramatisation of the nightmare world of the fetishised commodity. The proof is that it is endlessly adapted into commodity after commodity, spawning anew, reincarnating, biting and infecting anew, transmitting, invading, colonising, assimilating, radiating outward in an exponential expansion. This is the secret, accidental truth lurking within the hack’s phrase “the Count will never lie down”.
Austin G Loomis
November 3, 2018 @ 2:06 am
Post-colonial criticism of The Tempest makes Caliban a prefiguration of the colonial subject, etc.
And Aime Cesaire’s post-colonial reimagining A Tempest makes him specifically a colonial subject, of course. (Oh, Eshu is a merry elf…)
November 3, 2018 @ 10:33 pm
This is excellent!! Bravo!
November 5, 2018 @ 10:47 pm
You ARE the brave hero these times need, Jack! Well done. Please follow through with more of this project: I’ll pre-order the book!
And yes – I am aware that the above exhortation is a direct encouragement to let yourself to be vampirised by your own Monster.