Vampire for Our Times
The definition of cultural criticism, that it "is the point at which we take stock of all those elements of art that have traditionally been 'non-aesthetic' or outside of art, i.e. politics, social values, gender, class, religion, economics, psychology, history, etc." (my class notes), is remarkably like the marxist view of art as a product of complex political, economic, and social relations; a work of art must be considered within these contexts in which it is produced and experienced. Therefore, I have taken what can be considered both a marxist and cultural critical approach to The Vampire Lestat written by Anne Rice. Published in 1985, it is a successful and popular novel in the Gothic literary tradition in which a vampire, Lestat, relates the story of his life, both human and non-human. As part of the overall literary analysis, I also employ a psychoanalytic approach in examining how and in what ways this particular popular vampire character may reveal symbolic aspects of our cultural imagination.
The Vampire Lestat was published by Anne Rice in 1985. It is the first person account of the life of Lestat de Lioncourt, told from the present day. Lestat announces that he is writing his biography in order to repudiate the portrayal of him by his vampire companion Louis in Interview with the Vampire and to announce to the world the existence of real vampires. He also has a band in which he sings songs about being a vampire and announces his intention to stage a concert, which he does at the novel's end. Except for this present day frame story which comprises 18 pages at the beginning of the novel and 30 pages at the end, the narrative is primarily the tale of Lestat's life. Born the son of an 18th century French nobleman, Lestat runs away to Paris to become an actor. But at the age of twenty he is transformed into a vampire by Magnus who then destroys himself by fire, leaving Lestat to learn about his new vampiric life alone. Using the fortune Magnus left him, Lestat sends money home to his family and friends and begins to live the life of a wealthy gentleman. But unable to bear losing his beloved mother Gabrielle who is dying from consumption, Lestat then transforms her into a vampire also and soon does the same for his friend Nicholas. However, Nicholas goes mad and destroys himself and Gabrielle leaves him to explore the mysteries of nature. After doing battle with a vampire coven called The Children of Darkness led by the vampire Armand, Lestat goes into the earth out of despair and stays there until found by the powerful, 2000 year old vampire Marius. Marius tells Lestat all he knows about the origins of vampires and shows him the 3500 year old mother and father of all vampires who are now more statue than human and no longer need to drink blood. But Lestat drinks the mother Akasha's blood when Marius is away and this awakens her. Lestat soon learns she has dangerous intentions of making all out war against humans and he vows to stop her by trying to make mortals aware of the vampiric threat so that they can be prepared for her assault. She forestalls his intention by showing up at the concert and this is also where he is reunited with Louis and his mother. The book ends here and the battle with Akasha takes place in the third of the five novels in Rice's vampire series.
I first became interested in writing about Rice's vampire novels while reading them. Learning of their popularity and drawn especially to the figure of Lestat myself, I was struck by how philosophical the books were and how much they probed into the questions of human nature and human existence. There seemed to be more here than just a scary story and the way Rice weaved in mythic and historical themes only increased their complexity. Also, I never really got over the weirdness of a hero like Lestat who nevertheless seemed able to tap into something very deep in the cultural imagination. But not knowing much about the Gothic tradition in general, I felt ill-equipped to analyze Rice's novel without learning about the tradition itself. Therefore, this paper consists of an examination of the Gothic as a genre, a look at the historical significance of the vampire figure itself and how Rice elaborates on earlier representations in terms of history and religion, and an exploration of the metaphoric significance of Lestat as hero/protagonist; what does his popularity as a character reveal about our culture?
The Gothic Literary Tradition
My efforts to establish some kind of working definition of Gothic literature as a genre proved somewhat daunting as the conventions that may be termed "gothic" have changed and evolved over the 200+ years since Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto in 1764. Recent literary scholarship, what Bette B. Roberts calls "an explosion of critical interest in the Gothic beginning in the late 1970's" (14), has led to a reevaluation of Gothic literature based on a variety of approaches including feminist, marxist, psychoanalytical, reader-response, and cultural literary analyses. But as many of these critics attest, this wealth of new scholarship has only served to reveal how varied and complex the gothic tradition is, rendering a hard and fast definition even more elusive. Nevertheless, many of these same critics do eventually settle on a general notion of the gothic that, despite differing critical approaches, reveal remarkably similar themes. Elizabeth MacAndrew emphasizes the psychoanalytic in claiming that "Gothic fiction is a literature of nightmare...[which] gives shape to concepts of the place of evil in the human mind" (3). Anne Williams argues that the Gothic "systematically represents 'otherness,'" the center of which is "the female, the most powerful and persistent 'other' of Western culture" (18-9). Rosemary Jackson summarizes a marxist view of the Gothic as "a reaction to historical events, particularly to the spread of industrialization and urbanization. It is a complex form situated on the edges of bourgeois culture, functioning in a dialogical relation to that culture" (96). Finally David Punter, who also takes a marxist approach, lists characteristics of the genre as "a particular attitude towards the recapture of history; a particular kind of literary style; a version of self-conscious un-realism; a mode of revealing the unconscious; connexions with the primitive, the barbaric, the tabooed..." (5). The difficulty seems to be that the Gothic can be said to be all these things and more, yet the common theme of all these definitions, that the Gothic is a symbolic site of unconscious or repressed cultural fears and desires, provides a definitional foundation on which I will build my analysis of Anne Rice's popular Gothic novel, The Vampire Lestat.
Before proceeding with the analysis of the novel, I want to briefly discuss the conventions and history of Gothic literature. The Gothic conventions of setting, plot, and character have both retained a remarkable cultural resiliency while also evolving over time. The old house or haunted castle, central to early Gothic as a representation of the unconscious mind, and the landscape of the storming Nature of the pathetic fallacy that it stands in, can be represented in a variety of ways in modern Gothic as long as the setting is a closed world that possesses the same qualities of isolation, mystery, and claustrophobia (Williams, 39). Likewise the beleaguered heroines and brooding, tormented villains of early Gothic have evolved from stereotypical figures into a wide range of characters that nevertheless must confront and battle with either external or internalized representations of evil, the unknown, or the grotesque. In general, the themes of evil and chaos have moved from being represented as external and objective in the early Gothic of the 18th century to increasingly subjective and psychological representations throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries. However, the fact that representations of evil and the grotesque still take the supernatural forms of ghosts, phantoms, or monsters says much about the value these figures still have in the popular imagination.
Rice's novel continues in this tradition in that she sets her scenes in medieval castles and towers, in crypts and graveyards, as well as in public spaces and modern cities. The closed world of The Vampire Lestat centers around Lestat and his relationships with other vampires. And of course, once Lestat becomes a vampire, one of the prototypical Gothic monsters, the novel's remaining action takes place only at night, the sense of prevailing darkness serving to evoke an atmosphere centered around that which is mysterious and hidden. Besides being a monster Lestat is also the epitome of MacAndrew's idea of a classic Gothic villain: He has a "twisted nature...full of unnatural lusts and passions [but] suffers the torments of the damned while committing his nefarious deeds" (82). In addition, many Gothic classics are often mediated: The narrator of The Castle of Otranto claims to have found the manuscript of the tale he's relating, the character of Robert Walton mediates the story of Frankenstein, and Jonathan Harker mediates between the reader's world and the Gothic universe of Dracula. Although The Vampire Lestat utilizes this device in that there is a frame story situated in the present by which Lestat recounts his biography beginning in the 18th century to the present, Lestat simply mediates his own story for the reader, even though it is to repudiate Louis' prior mediated tale in Interview with the Vampire. But the ambiguity of Lestat's story is present from the outset since the reader must decide what kind of credence to give a 'realistic' account of Lestat's life related by a narrator whom the reader knows to be a creature of imagination. This is only one of the ways in which The Vampire Lestat both draws on traditional Gothic conventions while attempting to dissolve the barriers between the reader and fictional world and between the hero and the monster.
These Gothic conventions are employed to convey a number of themes. G. R. Thompson argues that in an age without religious faith Gothic themes represent "the drama of the mind engaged in the quest for metaphysical and moral absolutes in a world that offers shadowy semblances of an occult order but withholds final revelation and illumination" (6); he contends that both the gloomy settings and "preternatural machinery" of the Gothic help to stimulate a sense of the numinous in the reader, the sensation of which is not necessarily tied to the moral or religious (19). This idea is closely tied to the "sublime." MacAndrew explains that the sublime was an important aesthetic concept throughout the 18th century which proposed that "certain physical phenomena or human actions are the means of creating a sublime effect-tall cliffs, vast seas, dire chasms, noble deeds. Sight and sounds of great magnitude fill the mind with wonder and amazement. If an idea of danger is involved, the result will be a terror that is pleasing because the reader knows he is himself safe" (40). But Ann Radcliffe, one of the two best known Gothic writers of the 18th century, distinguished between terror and horror. Terror and the sublime correspond to the optimistic view that sees man as good and regards evil as the consequence of environment, whereas horror and the grotesque see man's evil as inherent and inexplicable (MacAndrew, 124-5). There's little doubt that The Vampire Lestat partakes of the second view. Lestat is a monster who survives by murdering humans, yet gains the reader's sympathies because he deplores what he is and agonizes over how to become a "good" vampire; he is a killer with a conscience. As already mentioned, Lestat's dilemma also evokes the theme of dualism or the double: He is both the hero and the monster, the demonic is generated from within. Finally, as many of the classic Gothic tales of the 1890's like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,Island of Dr. Moreau, and of course, Dracula also demonstrate, The Vampire Lestat is concerned in one way or another with the problem of degeneration, "and thus of the essence of the human" (Punter, 239). Death and decay and how one retains one's humanity in spite of them are dealt with throughout the novel, both in the sense that Lestat is himself no longer human but is still conscious, functional and capable of learning from his experiences, and in the sense that he is the instrument of death for his human victims. Yet despite a vampire's ability to survive for centuries, the reader learns that vampires can also be killed or the oldest ones will often commit suicide, chiefly out of the sheer weariness and despair of living too long.
A Marxist View of the Rise of the Gothic
A brief examination of the history of the Gothic also seems important in that the conditions that gave rise to its emergence might also shed light on the reasons for its continued popularity today. What conditions existed in 18th century England that might have helped precipitate the birth of the Gothic novel? Punter explains that during the course of the 18th century, a greater significance began to be placed on the historical and the term 'Gothic," (taken from the name of one of Europe's northern tribes, the Goths) became descriptive of things medieval, medieval architecture at first but in time referring to all things preceding the mid-1700's (5). Thus, it was used in opposition to the classical. The 'classical' concerns of the enlightenment were well ordered, rational, simple, pure and elegant; the Gothic was chaotic, ornate and convoluted, pagan, archaic, and barbaric. Yet at some point in the century, probably as part of the Romanticist movement, a huge cultural shift took place and the primitive and wild "became invested with positive value in and for itself" (Punter, 6).
The Gothic also emerges around the same time as the 'realistic' novel form itself which is generally viewed as a middle-class literary form that emphasizes individualism, reason, and progress. Such were the values espoused by Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and David Hume who believed that the passions and emotions must also be controlled by reason (Punter, 27). But the Gothic, like Romanticism, arose in direct opposition to these values and are twin revolts "against a mechanistic or atomistic view of the world and relations, in favour of recovering an earlier organic model" (Kilgour, 11). Indeed, many of the great Romantic writers like Blake, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron and Keats were both influenced by the Gothic and played a part in shaping it, especially in their uses of the three symbolic figures of "the wanderer, the vampire, and the seeker after forbidden knowledge" (Punter, 99). As I will explore later, the character of Lestat actually draws on all three of these figures. Yet whereas Romantic reactions to social conditions ranged from triumphant affirmation of organicism to bitter despair, Romanticism in general professed faith in humanity's ability to transcend or transform its conditions, either practically or imaginatively; the Gothic professed no such hopes and instead envisioned humanity trapped in darkness and misery, and doomed to explore ugliness, evil, and perversion (Thompson, 111-2). But the moral and emotional ambiguity and search for meaning that more strongly characterize the modern Gothic enable characters like Lestat to work through evil and darkness to arrive at a personal moral code that can help him attain some sort of victory.
From a marxist perspective, the rise of the Gothic has much to do with the economic conditions and class developments of the time. The Gothic emerges at a stage of class relations in which the bourgeoisie, having gained social power, began to try to understand the history of their own ascent. Thus, the bourgeoisie were interested in literature that recaptured history in patterns that helped explain present conditions (Punter, 127). In addition the patterns of labor and production were changing. The rise of industry and increased urbanization which heralded the emergence of "a middle-class-dominated capitalist economy" set up a world in which older patterns of labor, tied to the seasons and simple laws of exchange, became increasingly irrelevant. "The individual comes to see himself at the mercy of forces which in fundamental ways elude his understanding" (Punter, 128). Thus, the rise of a literature that emphasizes paranoia, mystery, anxiety, the inexplicable, the irrational and the taboo is hardly surprising. And given that these structures of labor and production have only intensified, indeed helped engender, the modern sense of cultural fragmentation and alienation, the continued popularity of the Gothic and its central symbols and themes is understandable.
Viewed in this way, Gothic literature would indeed seem to function as a public dream (or nightmare), as a process of cultural self-analysis, representing the real world in an inverted form, "or representing those areas of the world and of consciousness which are, for one reason or another, not available to the normal processes of representation" (Punter, 18). This definition seems to confirm Freud's theory of "the uncanny." In an essay in 1919 Freud explained that "the uncanny...is doubtless related to what is frightening-to what arouses dread and horror...it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general" (219). Rosemary Jackson elaborates that Freud also read "the uncanny as the effect of projecting unconscious desires and fears into the environment and on to other people. Frightening scenes of uncanny literature are produced by hidden anxieties concealed within the subject, who then interprets the world in terms of his or her apprehensions" (64-5). Freud's theory provides a basic framework for psychoanalytic readings of Gothic literature. The themes and plot devices of Gothic narrative, along with the terror and horror they stimulate, aim to inspire the experience of "the uncanny" in the reader by which he reconnects with his primary desires and primal fears and anxieties. The Vampire Lestat explores these universal and primal themes of death, desire, and community, and most importantly, the process by which one constructs meaning, by defamiliarizing the familiar through the figure of Lestat who is both mortal and immortal, sympathetic and horrific, specific and symbolic. Thus, Rice's novel, like all Gothic fiction, "symbolizes the unresolvable, shifting, but perpetual paradox of human nature" (MacAndrew, 250).
But Gothic narratives also often rely on the tension between the desire to prolong the pleasurable experience of suspense and a desire to unveil the plot's mysteries; the deferment of revelation becomes the focus. Thus, rather than providing a direct vision of cultural fears and aspirations, the Gothic often explores the modes of repression and the psychological distortions that result; it "seems to both represent and punish the imaginations' power to realize its own desires" (Kilgour, 8). Yet the continuous "oscillation between reassurance and threat" is what Punter calls "the central dialectic of Gothic fiction" (423) in that it represents the contradictions inherent to the bourgeoisie. The rational governance of the capitalist state based on an ideology of individual achievement is disrupted by the results of this selfsame state's structure: a prevailing inequality, injustice, and exploitation which stymies such achievement. Just as Lestat attempts to reconcile the contradictions between his 'human' need for love and his 'inhuman' need for blood, Gothic literature as a whole is a symbolic site where our culture wrestles with contradictions sometimes, as in the case of Rice's novel, in a rather rational and highly philosophical way.
The Vampire Lestat's place within the Gothic
As one can obviously glean from the title, Lestat de Lioncourt is a vampire. This alone is significant within the Gothic tradition since with the publication and subsequent popularity of Bram Stoker's Dracula, "the vampire moved from being a peripheral element within the genre to a place near the center, and capable of generating its own now massive tradition" (Williams, 21). A survey of popular literature and films bears out Williams' point that the vampire is indeed one of the most, if not the most, enduring and successful of the genre's grotesque creatures. Obviously, the vampire figure is an adaptable one and can function as a breaker of moral, social, and sexual taboos, but in keeping with a marxist approach, Punter speculates that the growing currency of the vampire in 18th and 19th century Gothic fiction that culminated in the extreme popularity of Dracula may also have been a symbolic expression of middle-class fears regarding the aristocracy (256-8). I think there is much in The Vampire Lestat that supports this idea. First of all, the central feature of the vampire myth is blood. Blood is not only the means by which the vampire sustains itself, but the medium through which new vampires are created. Through the blood, Dracula represents a dynasty as he is the descendant and bearer of a long aristocratic tradition. Punter contends that "The long historical progression of the bourgeoisie's attempts to understand the significance of noble 'blood' reaches a point of apotheosis in Dracula, for Dracula is the final aristocrat; he has rarefied his needs, and the needs of his house and line, to the point where he has no longer any need of any exchange system or life-support except blood...the aristocrat has paid the tragic price of social supersession, yet his doom perforce involves others" (Punter, 257). The reader of The Vampire Lestat learns at the outset that Lestat was born the seventh son of an impoverished French Marquis "in the last decades before the French Revolution" and his family castle and lands date back at least to the 12th century and the Crusades (23-4). Like Dracula, Lestat is portrayed as the last of an aristocratic line emphasized by the fact that Lestat is born at the cusp of a new era as the French Revolution heralds the secular, democratic, and modern capitalist world. The tension between an 'aristocratic' view of life and a 'bourgeois' one is established early in the novel. Lestat complains that he had to learn to hunt to help feed his parents and brothers or else they might go hungry but the "richest of the bourgeois didn't have to hunt...he had money" (23). Lestat's best friend Nicholas expresses his bitterness about the fact that Lestat did not share his new vampiric status with him in class terms: "Your kind...has always had access to great secrets." "My kind!" [Lestat exclaims.] "That you are an aristocrat, Monsieur" (144). After Lestat has become a vampire, he meets other, older vampires in his quest for knowledge about his vampire origins, and the most powerful of these are also from privileged ranks. Marius, a nearly 2000 year old vampire, was born the son of a Roman senator (400), and the 3500 year old King and Queen of all vampires, "those from whom all [vampires] descend," were formerly monarchs of ancient Egypt (428). Thus, the vampire line, which stretches back into antiquity and is determined by the shared "blood" that transforms a human into a vampire, becomes a Gothic double for the former feudal aristocracy, and while less numerous this line is also more deadly.
Other critics agree that the vampire legend in general may have originated in order to explain the connection between the aristocracy and immortality (Carter, 65). Gothic plots tend to revolve around wills, succession, and inheritance and though the lord in the castle may change through death and generational succession, the presence of a lord and his rights and title persisted through the centuries often at the expense of peasant blood. And, of course, the analogy between tyrannical exploitation and literal "blood-sucking" is clear enough. Lestat also "inherits" the accumulated wealth of the vampire who transforms him and his wealth only continues to grow, as does the material wealth of most of the novel's other vampire characters, due in part to their longevity and to the emerging capitalist system. As Lestat tells his mother, "You know where to reach me, the addresses of my banks in London and Rome. Those banks have lived as long as vampires already. They will always be there" (353). Thus, the novel explores the related idea of a secret elite that controls great wealth over generations, a fairly popular conspiracy theory today, or simply a matter of fact, depending on one's political viewpoint.
Yet, the question arises as to why Rice's depiction of a vampire dynasty of whom Lestat is a recent and most interesting member should so enthrall readers. One clue may be that even in the late 18th century when the Gothic emerged, there was "a remarkably clear urge of the middle classes to read about aristocrats" (Punter, 53). Certainly, as stated earlier, our increasingly narrow and alienating culture would lead us to idealize a feudal past culture (as did those readers of Gothic literature in the past and in which we, the readers, identify with the noble lords) yet since the present cannot replace the past "it is a nightmare version of it" (Kilgour, 30); the novel presents a 'class' of rich powerful creatures who are literally 'in' or 'non' human. In the case of Lestat and his community of wealthy, powerful, and immortal vampires, the attractions of such a lifestyle (besides the blood-drinking part which I'll address later) are obvious. Lestat doesn't punch a time-clock, or have to make house payments. He is not troubled by an aging body or mind. He can travel anywhere in the world and stay as long as he likes; he is privy to all that great wealth can buy without the physical or time constraints it may impose. Thus, the novel plays on the wishes for wealth natural to a working and middle-class audience. Indeed Anne Rice, in a 1993 Playboy interview, equates the middle-class outlook with a Protestant ethic and rejects the critical notion that "to be profound a book has to be about the middle class and about some specific domestic problem of the middle class" (Roberts, 23). Obviously Rice sees the portrayal of the grand lives of supernatural characters as synonymous with a wealthy "old-world," aristocratic lifestyle. In so doing, she reconstructs the past in The Vampire Lestat as the authors of early Gothic fiction did, in such a way that both the aspirations and the fears of middle-class readers are explored while many of its dominant values are rejected.
Lestat and Promotheus: Vampire as Symbol of Alienation
The novel also explores the related themes of secularization, a cultural "loss of faith," and the existential despair that can result. Lestat's quest is at its heart a philosophical and spiritual one. In a world where God does not exist yet good and evil still do and he is evil personified, Lestat finds that he "cannot live without some embracing philosophy" (288). In fact, Lestat's quest resonates well with Thompson's definition that a classic Gothic tale seems "the embodiment of a demonic quest-romance, in which a lonely, self-divided hero embarks on an insane pursuit of the Absolute. This...quest is metaphysical, mythic, and religious, defining the hero's dark or equivocal relationship to the universe" (2). The Vampire Lestat, like much Gothic fiction "may be seen as expressive of an existential terror generated by a schism between a triumphantly secularized philosophy of evolving good and an abiding obsession with the Medieval conception of guilt-laden, sin-ridden man" (Thompson, 5-6). So the novel, like all vampire myths, inverts Christian symbols and rituals throughout; after all, "as an institution the Church affirms and validates the supernatural" (Williams, 117). Just as Christ's blood is central to the Christian concepts of redemption and resurrection, vampiric blood also conveys immortality and when the vampire drinks, the blood "is transmuted into ecstacy" (295). When Magnus, the vampire who transforms Lestat, offers him his blood he tells him, "Ask and you shall receive" and "This is my Body, this is my Blood" (89). But the greatest systemization of Christian inversion occurs with The Children of Darkness, a vampire coven created during Europe's Black Plague. The Coven has 'religious' regulations like the Five Laws that govern the members' behavior in detail including the rituals surrounding how new vampires are created (300-2). They 'worship' Satan and obedience to His laws brings 'salvation' (213). Lestat and his mother Gabrielle are viewed as 'heretics.' Yet Lestat laughs at their superstitions and proves to them that 'God' is not in 'God's House' by going into several churches, including sleeping underneath the altar of one during the day (191-3). The vampiric inversions of Christianity define Lestat's negative relationship to God but more importantly, serve to highlight the irrelevance of God and religion in the modern world.
Indeed, the very existence of vampires disproves the Christian conceptions of God and Satan since vampires already possess the immortality that Christianity promises. Vampires are like gods themselves in that they can bring both death and eternal life to any human they choose. "This transcendental fusion of the divine and the diabolical is the essence of the vampire concept" (Carter, 5). The novel contains many instances in which vampires refer to each other as "angels" and as "gods and goddesses." In this respect, I think that Rice intends the vampire to recall the figure of Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humans and was punished with eternal torment for doing so, and in general represents a seeker of forbidden knowledge. The novel mentions Prometheus several times: Lestat imagines Magnus is "a dark Prometheus stealing a luminescent fire" (89), Marius tells his fledgling vampire Armand that his fate will be "to snatch from the distant stars as if you were Prometheus an endless illumination" (295), and Lestat envisions his upcoming battle with other vampires as one in which he "would bring them all into the light soon enough" (10). Thus, the vampire becomes an eternally tortured god who can convey everlasting life, who is both estranged from and loves humanity, and who must constantly discover new knowledge in order to adapt to a changing human world. Rice transforms the vampire figure from the earlier bloodthirsty predator to a fallen figure who is nevertheless engaged on a noble and defiant quest. And in referencing older mythic figures (Osiris, Typhon, and Dionysus are similarly mentioned), the novel also reconstructs a history in which vampires have a place in the mythical and archetypal realms of Western culture. And as such, the novel does a good job of properly placing the vampire figure among this rich mythic landscape of folk tales, ballads, and legends that the Gothic has always drawn on. In terms of history, the novel successfully addresses both the vampires' mythic significance and its specific historical significance to modern culture.
Even though Lestat loses faith in God he finds he is "still an immortal being who must find his own reasons to exist" (380). And as the reader follows his quest for meaning, one finds that his existential dilemma is the same for us all, the fact that he's a vampire only exaggerates his alienation and his need to establish his own significance. Lestat tells his friend Nicholas "I can live without God...But I do not think I could go on if I did not believe in the possibility of goodness" (72). Yet this idea of goodness is a personal one since Lestat has decided that good and evil are "merely concepts that man has made" (114). For Lestat, goodness is to love those mortals and other vampires that he becomes attached to and to value their love in return and to only prey on "thieves, killers, and evildoers" (121). Marius, Lestat's vampire teacher, describes him as an "innocent." He tells Lestat, "To be godless is probably the first step to innocence," "to lose the sense of sin and subordination, the false grief for things supposed to be lost"; innocence is the "absence of [the] need for illusions," it is a "love and respect for what is right before your eyes" (333). Lestat is thus a paradox; he is an "old-world" evil in a secular world that doesn't believe in him, and in fact he understands the mindset of the new age so well that he himself cannot account for his existence in the old terms of good and evil and is driven to develop his own philosophical theories. Thus, Lestat is representative of many of Rice's other fictional characters in that they "are all made anew by the battering of experience that exposes them to existential realities, frees them from false moralities, and teaches them to trust their own moral philosophies" (Roberts, 141). Lestat finds he must develop his own code, for even though he has dissolved the barrier between life and death, "the world closes tight around this miracle soon enough...you become accustomed to the new limits and the new limits define everything once again" (307). In struggling to develop this code, Lestat arrives at a philosophy based on aesthetic principles that he calls the Savage Garden. Beauty is a supreme Quality, only Beauty is consistent and verified by the natural world, and it is therefore transcendent over moral concepts of good and evil which are based on religious superstition. The Savage Garden is a primal world of predators and prey in which strength, creativity, and developing one's essential nature is emphasized. Mortals and other vampires are valued for their physical beauty and many vampires are artists; Marius is a gifted painter and Lestat has a talent for the stage. In fact, Lestat urges a group of fellow vampires to form The Theatre of the Vampires: "Think on it...There's a perfection in it that you can't deny. We are illusions of what is mortal, and the stage is an illusion of what is real" (312). The aesthetic ideal as a substitute for religious faith is not a new one, the last fin-de-siecle was witness to the battle cries of "Art for Art's sake." Yet Rice also seems to be getting at the deeper issue of representation. Vampires imitate life as art imitates life and both are aesthetic creations, symbolic and metaphoric reflections of US. By elevating the figure of the vampire in this way, Rice clearly feels it represents a central truth about our cultural imagination at this point in our history. I'll conclude with a brief exploration of what this might be and how, if at all, hers might differ from previous representations.
As already mentioned, the portrayal of the protagonist Lestat draws on the mythic figure Prometheus in his defiant refusal to consider his evil status as a vampire, doomed to perpetually wander the earth, as sufficient reason to deny himself the pleasures of the modern world and the comfort and love he may enjoy through relationships with human beings and other vampires. He is also a Wanderer figure of Romantic poetry and a picaresque hero who experiences a series of adventures. And he is a typical Gothic hero/villain (a blend of the 18th century hero of Sentimental novels and purely evil Gothic villain) in that he has both the resourcefulness, pride, and attractiveness of the Gothic villain and the pathos of a hero who is sensitive, emotional, and compassionate, albeit tormented by his own evil (Mac Andrew, 50-4). MacAndrew explains that as the moral outlook of Gothic fiction became increasingly relative and psychological, the merging of these two literary characters was inevitable. Finally, like Milton's Satan, Lestat can be said to be "the tragic individual, whose grandeur is increased by the fact that his quest is doomed by a predetermined fate" (Kilgour, 40). All of these influences make Lestat a fairly complex character whose experiences reference not only actual conditions and historical events for the reader but also narrative structures and techniques of various literary traditions. Thus, this is a highly intertextual work. However for my purposes, given the popularity of the Lestat character, the hero of five bestselling novels, the most significant aspect of Lestat's portrayal is how he symbolically represents the role of the cultural Other and what this may say about our culture in terms of alienation, our fears of death and of dissolving cultural taboos, and our paradoxical desires for ultimate sexual, moral , and creative freedoms.
Jacques Lacan, psychoanalyst, theoretician, and student of Freud, "sees literature and psychoanalysis as two systems which are part of the same project, that of at once seeking and affording glimpses into the hidden workings of human thought" (Meltzer, 156). For Lacan, as for Freud, the ego or Subject is always split "constituted by a conscious, accessible mind and an unconscious, inaccessible series of drives and forces. That which is unconscious for the Subject is that which is unknown, alien (although fundamental)...therefore the notion 'unconscious' lends itself at once, to the idea of otherness." (Meltzer, 157). Linked with this idea is the notion that "the Subject is constituted by something missing, which ...creates desire. Desire is experienced by the subject as a lack' which he/she will try to eradicate" (Ibid.) Therefore the Subject experiences the unconscious as other than himself and the "way the Subject views, and projects upon, an Other will yield a clue concerning the Subject's relationship to his unconscious wishes and desires" (Meltzer, 158). And since the unconscious is an abstraction and beyond consciousness, "it is then condemned to being represented concretely through analogies and extended metaphors" (Meltzer, (161-2), i.e., through literature. As stated at the outset, this view of the Gothic as functioning like a metaphoric screen on which is projected a culture's unconscious fears and desires, that which it claims as Other, is widely accepted and owes a great deal to Lacan's work. Freud also felt that what is "encountered in this uncanny realm, whether it is termed spirit, angel, devil, ghost, or monster, is nothing but an unconscious projection...which the subject refuses to recognize or rejects in himself and is expelled from the self and located in another person or thing" (Jackson, 66). But unlike much of early Gothic, the most striking thing about The Vampire Lestat is that it is related by the vampire himself, his story is told from his point of view. Therefore, the novel "displaces the human voice from its privileged position at the center of the text. Suddenly the outsider is on the inside and the voice of the Other...is heard in no uncertain terms" (Hollinger, 151). The effect of this is to break down the barriers between the human and imaginative worlds of the Other and the reader comes to identify with the Lestat, the vampire Other, in the closest terms. In sharing Lestat's adventures and feelings, the reader tends to suspend his/her moral judgments and comes to understand the potential for evil and the desire to do good that not only he faces but everyone faces. In giving imaginative assent to the vampire's account, the reader cannot then dismiss him.
Reader identification with Lestat is aided not only by his first-person account of his life but by the fact that he perceives of himself as both human and monster. When he first looks into a mirror as a vampire, though he knows he's a monster, he "becomes frantic to discover [him]self in it" (103), and "the human in [him] looked helplessly about" (104). Near the end of the novel, Lestat concludes that he is "somehow kin to every mortal man" instead of an "exotic outcast" (430). And even his vampire self has the instincts of a bestial predator like a wolf or large cat rather than a "monster," he has heightened senses and can smell the blood of human victims but he also sees beauty, "billions of colors and tiny configurations of movement" when he looks upon "a living creature" (133). Thus he is the universal divided self, trying to reconcile what he is and what he wants to be while retaining his ideal of being a good person. But he is continually rejected by humans, by his father and brothers when he was human, and by his human friend Nicholas when he's a vampire, as well as being rejected by other vampires like Armand and even his mother Gabrielle, made into a vampire by him, because they all perceive him as too different, too Other. This rejection ultimately leads him to "go into the ground" out of despair where Marius finds and resuscitates him years later (362). Thus, the reader is drawn to identify with Lestat not just because he is the narrator and has many human characteristics and dilemmas but because we identify with his sense of alienation, his sense of being the rejected Other.
Punter sees Gothic literature as a "literature of alienation" (417) and in defining Karl Marx's four specific types of alienation which are intertwined in the formation of capitalism, Man's alienation from his "species-being, from his sense of human-ness" and "Man's alienation from himself" stand out as being specifically applicable to the character of Lestat. Obviously Lestat is both estranged from his "human-ness" and in turn from part of himself; he is so alienated that he can never be integrated into society. And both the reader's imaginative identification with Lestat and his/her simultaneous recognition of Lestat's unreality helps to render Lestat a symbolic projection and representation of the reader's own unconscious sense of alienation. Modern bourgeois society emphasizes individualism rather than collectivism and Lestat's constant quest for connection and community mirrors the modern reader's. Experienced vicariously, Lestat's condition reflects the reader's in a modern alienated world and his quest suggests the fractured hope of recovering a lost sense of unity. Given the overwhelming conditions of dehumanization in the modern world, from lack of public space and the omnipotence of technology, to corporate ownership of all creative forms of expression and governmental disconnect with the citizenry, it becomes clear why an alienated figure like Lestat is seen as a creature the reader can identify with; though hopelessly alienated, Lestat and the reader have no option but to still strive for connection and meaning in a fragmented and meaningless world.
Lestat, like all vampire figures, also dissolves the barrier between life and death and is a symbol of taboo. He is dead but he lives forever. According to Freud, taboos are the strongest inhibitions which a culture imposes to guarantee its survival (Jackson, 70). The desire for immortality is seen as taboo, humans should not aspire to the condition of gods and as the vampire figure shows, the highest spiritual aspirations often bring with them the greatest evils. Death and the desire to touch or make contact with corpses is also taboo. Lestat breaks both of these. But Lestat learns to hate death while he is still living because he perceives it as the death of the soul, a vast nothingness that by contrast highlights the meaninglessness of life. He has a shattering existential experience and sees death everywhere around him, "Real death, total death, inevitable, irreversible, and resolving nothing!" (57) and he subsequently feels that "nothing natural seemed beautiful," a feeling he says he has never lost (58). So becoming a vampire is a Dark Gift for Lestat since it means his consciousness will continue indefinitely, "the cycle of birth and death is closed" to him (408). Indeed real death is for him not to feel anything, "not misery, not thirst, not ecstacy" (359). Besides the obvious attractions of immortality lived in a body that never decays, Lestat's situation may also resonate with readers because "death in a fragmented and individualized society is far more frightening and anxiety-laden than in a genuine community" (Jameson, 261). Our culture does not really confront death but rather focuses on various ways to deny it or keep it at bay. Following Lestat's adventures enables the reader to both vicariously experience what it might be like to be dead and yet also to live for centuries. In a culture obsessed with youth and immortality, Lestat is what we long to be. He becomes the reader's guide to the "undiscovered country."
Lestat is also a bringer of death and murder is another universal taboo, especially if one takes as much pleasure in it as Lestat does. Lestat confesses, "I think I was offended by death unless I was the cause of it!" (126) and the sensation of drinking blood is elaborately described in ecstatic terms. His first victim is "a writhing morsel of hot flesh and blood" and the blood itself is "lovely," "delicious," and "luscious" (111). He enjoys the role of predator, prolonging the chase and the struggle "for [his] own pleasure" (122). And he enjoys being "the thing that others fear" (189), "of the dark ilk that makes others cringe" (99); He is "Gentleman Death in silk and lace, come to put out the candles" (229). Though he initially hates being a creature who must kill to survive, once he decides to only hunt "evil-doers" he quickly accepts it and does it with style. Thus, Lestat also blurs the boundary between man and beast, he reminds the reader that humans are not completely rational creatures but also have a darker predatory nature that is often barely concealed beneath the veneer of civilization. He is "the monster who looks like everyone else" (228) because in this respect he is everyone else.
The Vampire and Desire
Lestat, again like all vampire figures, is also symbolic of unlimited desire and he breaks all taboos and blurs boundaries in pursuit of his desires. Because he never dies, his desire never dies, his very nature is desire. But all his sexual and physical desires are merged and satisfied in the one act of drinking blood. Lestat relates, "The taste of blood and the feel of blood, and what it meant for all passion, all greed, to be sharpened in that one desire, and that one desire to be satisfied over and over with the feeding and the death" (156). Yet when he is gazing on his young friend and fantasizing about what it would be like to drink his blood, Lestat describes the desire in sexual terms, he lusts after him because drinking blood conveys glorious sexual feelings. The making of another vampire also involves the mutual exchange of body fluids but in this case blood. Therefore, vampires represent unlimited sexual freedom, there is no fear of disease or pregnancy since they are dead. They can have safe sex anytime without guilt or repercussions and this is appealing in itself, even more so considering sex can be quite dangerous in a post-AIDS era.
Since vampires do not have genital sex, they also blur gender boundaries and Rice emphasizes the androgyny of her characters as well as having them love members of both sexes. Androgyny is explicit; though vampires penetrate their victims, they do so with an orifice, the mouth, and since the medium of sexual exchange is blood, both genitals and gender becomes irrelevant. Lestat has mostly male "lovers" both before and after he becomes a vampire. He confesses after transforming his former male lover into a vampire that "I knew that the last barrier between my appetite and the world had been dissolved" (143). Lestat's mother Gabriellew celebrates her freedom from rigid gender classification after being transformed by adopting the freer male mode of dress (187). In a 1983 Vogue article Rice emphasized the gender transcendence that characterizes her vampires: "if we can preserve that earlier complexity, that mingling of masculine and feminine...we can have the endless possibilities of it all" (Roberts, 51). Lestat takes his ability to have vampiric "sex" with anyone he wants to its limit by breaking another taboo when he transforms his mother Gabrielle into a vampire. They symbolically have sex when they exchange blood. The language describing the exchange is highly erotic as Lestat "drives his teeth into her neck" and "crushes her" to him (157). She had no name but was "simply she ...the one I had needed all of my life with all of my being. The only woman I had ever loved" (168). Lestat repeats the oedipal drama when he exchanges blood with Akasha, the mother of all vampires (486). In all these ways, the figure of Lestat expresses the repressed desires that the reader cannot in his/her everyday life and blurs the traditional binary boundaries we use to artificially order our lives. And "it is this tension between the need to express transgressive desires and the need to repress them that maintains the persistent confluence of desire and fear" which continues to make the vampire myth so compelling (Howes, 117-8).
Lestat's will to power expresses itself through the flaunting of all social and sexual rules including the vampiric rules that mandate vampires should never reveal themselves to humans; at the novel's beginning he announces that his biography is designed to do just that. He is thus an ultimate rule breaker. But the most obvious manifestation of Lestat's desire nature is his fierce passion for life which is ironically expressed in his passion to drink up other's lives. Lestat declares his "love" for mortals, "From the first nights when I held them close to me, I loved them. Drinking up their life, their death, I love them" (231). It is a desire that ultimately consumes the love object. Perhaps the sucking of blood as a form of sustenance is not as repugnant to the modern reader as it was to earlier ones because it seems our increasingly exploitive culture is trying to suck the life out of us! Therefore, Lestat may also represent the collective and insatiable desire that drives a capitalist system. We are taught to be consumers and this role has long superceded our roles as citizens. Lestat's driving desire mirrors our culture's relentless seeking after sensation as antidotes to despair. Whereas past representations of the vampire highlighted the conflict between individual desire and social duty, Lestat triumphantly marches through the novel's pages and is more powerful at the novel's end than ever. Though the nature of desire is that it is never extinguished, the ultimate source of Lestat's vampire desires springs from death and brings death. Lestat's individualized triumph spells disaster for the idea of community and represents the breakdown of the cultural checks that help forge community. There is no restoration of bourgeois values and order in The Vampire Lestat as at the conclusion of Dracula (although I would not argue for that either). Rice's portrayal of Lestat resonates in our cultural imagination because at a deep level we recognize that we are part of a vampiric system in which individuals are encouraged to ruthlessly "feed" on each other and the most successful predators are deemed cultural successes. And we sense that in the end such a system degrades life rather than enhances it. Lestat, a predator with a "disembodied' awareness, thus has a point when he declares, "It is a new age. It requires a new evil. And I am that new evil. I am the vampire for these times" (229).
The underlying reasons for the success of The Vampire Lestat, and indeed all of Rice's vampire novels seems clear. As we increasingly become a 'recycled' culture whose visions of the future are all nightmarish, the Gothic is more than ever a vital site of cultural imagination in which to express cultural fears and desires. The novel explores the modern reader's sense of alienation, his fears of death and decay, and his repressed desires that yet remain constantly inflamed by consumer culture. Lestat's paradoxical situation mirrors the tensions and contradictions inherent both in bourgeois capitalist culture and in human nature itself. But his extreme exaggerations of these tensions are a warning for us to not follow him too far down that 'Devil's Road.'
Carter, Margaret L. Shadow of a Shade: A Survey of Vampirism in Literature. New York, New York: Gordon Press, 1975.
Howes, Marjorie. "The Mediation of the Feminine: Bisexuality, Homoerotic Desire, and Self-Expression in Bram Stoker's Dracula." Texas Studies in Literature 30 (Spring, 1988):104-19.
Hollinger, Veronica. "The Vampire and the Alien: Variations on the Outsider." Science-Fiction Studies 16 (1989): 145-60.
Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. New York, New York: Methuen Inc., 1981.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Kilgour, Maggie. The Rise of the Gothic Novel. New York, New York: Routledge, 1995.
MacAndrew, Elizabeth. The Gothic Tradition in Fiction. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
Meltzer, Francoise. "Unconscious," 147-62. Critical Terms for Literary Study. Eds. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Punter, David. The Literature of Terror. New York, New York: Longman Inc., 1980.
Rice, Anne. The Vampire Lestat. New York, New York: Ballantine Books,1985.
Roberts, Bette B. Anne Rice. New York, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
Smith, Jennifer. Anne Rice: A Criticial Companion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Thompson, G. R. The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism. Pullman, Washington: Washington State University Press, 1974.
Williams, Anne. Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.
© 1997 Shirley Galloway
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