66. Dracula, Part 3

‘Existentialism’ is a term that usually refers to philosophies that revolve around general and fundamental notions like authentic selfhood (or lack thereof), responsibility, choice, anxiety, death, commitment, and passion.  Existential philosophers usually avoid discussing impersonal issues and issues in an impersonal manner.  As a result, there is usually a personal tone in their writings that mixes traditional argumentation with literature, poetry, and rhetoric. This personal dimension carries over into their views of morality and the self: they tend to resist making morality a matter of detached empirical or rational calculation and they refuse to completely reduce the self to something manageable (whether matter or mind).  As a result, the human experience is typically seen as profoundly ambiguous, uncertain, and downright dangerous. In some inquiries these philosophical orientations can be a drawback.  But they can be illuminating when we are seeking a philosophical approach to Stoker’s Dracula. To see how, let’s first take a look at Adam Barrows’ essay “Heidegger the Vampire Slayer: The Undead and Fundamental Ontology”. I will then add some more religiously oriented insights about the soul to compliment this account.

Barrows argues that “Stoker’s greatest contribution to the Vampire legend is to focus our attention not only on the physical grotesqueries and violence of blood-sucking, but also on the far more troubling psychological fear of becoming “false,” of having one’s death, a fundamental part of one’s natural being, taken away, leaving the core of “true” humanity encased in a pallid deathless shell of skin and bone”.[1] Barrows connects this emphasis on death in Dracula to Martin Heidegger’s existential views of death in his work Being and Time.  Heidegger argued that the realization we are going to die is necessary if we are to avoid leading a life lost in the “they”: a life of thoughtless hustle and bustle without any authentic choice, direction, or individuality. For Heidegger, when we really grasp that our life is going to end then we can really grasp our life.  The present is not just another moment but a moment to act from the past into the future with integrity and passion. This meaningful integrity is what, according to Barrows, vampires lack: “The life of the vampire is an unpunctuated succession of feedings, denied the common human bond of death” (71). But why are they denied this bond of death?

Barrows notes that number four on Stoker’s list of Dracula’s important traits is that “he absolutely despises death and the dead” (74). So perhaps Dracula is denied—or denies himself—this bond out of fear of dying.  The denial entails fleeing the kind of life that can really die and knows it will: human life. And human life, in the Christian context of the novel and in many religious and philosophical traditions, gets its being from the soul. Thus to flee human life Dracula must avoid existing as a soul. This helps make some sense of why he has no reflection in the mirror. Recall that mirrors were traditionally held to reflect the soul.  Since Dracula can’t—or won’t—exist as a soul he has no reflection. And how could he?  He doesn’t have what the soul has traditionally been able to provide: substantial being. His lack of substantial being is underscored by his notorious ability to shape shift and take on a wide diversity of appearances. Moreover, this lack of reflection of soul is no doubt related to why he has no soul, namely, his inability or unwillingness to reflect on his own existential condition. Barrows puts it nicely when he says that Dracula’s lack of reflection is a symbol of his “inability to “reflect” on his true state of being” (75).  What follows from this lack of soul?  Many things, but I think we can briefly mention three regarding life, freedom, and love.

The soul is the principle of animation and purpose. It is, as Plato argued, self-moving and is present in all life.  So if Dracula lacks soul is he really alive? No.  But neither is he really dead.  He is undead. His existence, to be sure, exhibits a vestige of human life insofar as it has a purpose: to drink human blood, enslave human souls, and reduce humans to members of the undead.  Perhaps then he has just enough soul to act with one purpose as Van Helsing suggests: “Then, as he is criminal, he is selfish; and as his intellect is small, and his action is based on selfishness, he confines himself to one purpose. That purpose is remorseless.”[2] But this egoistic purpose, insofar as it is destructive of humanity both in himself and others, ends up excluding him from the multitude of purposes that have the capacity to forge loving relationships. Again, consider Van Helsing:

“Look at his persistence and endurance. With the child-brain that was to him he have long since conceive the idea of coming to a great city. What does he do? He find out the place of all the world most of promise for him. Then he deliberately set himself down to prepare for the task. He find in patience just how is his strength, and what are his powers. He study new tongues. He learn new social life, new environment of old ways, the politics, the law, the finance, the science, the habit of a new land and a new people who have come to be since he was. His glimpse that he have had, whet his appetite only and enkeen his desire. Nay, it help him to grow as to his brain. For it all prove to him how right he was at the first in his surmises. He have done this alone, all alone! From a ruin tomb in a forgotten land.” [3]

Dracula is a solitary tyrant who rules over his enslaved souls and has no authentic companionship with them. And he, in turn, is enslaved by his addiction to blood that is really a form of soul-sucking. His determined, repetitive, and predictable existence is really a vestige of a dead system of meaningless matter in motion. This is not surprising since the soul is typically understood to be the seat of free will.  Moreover, the soul’s freedom is spontaneous in sharp contrast to the boredom that marks a vampire’s existence.

So it seems like Dracula’s potential immortality has been gained a high price: the loss of soul and therefore life, love, and freedom. Of course, he seems to be pleased about all this. He speaks of his exalted past, his nobility, and his wide learning and experience. But we know such self-centered ruminations hide a true—perhaps mortal—fear when we see not only that he has no reflection in the mirror but also that he is horrified by this lack of reflection. His shape-shifting virtues can’t guard him from the existential realization that the nothingness of death he tried so hard to avoid exists at the very core of his being.

But now the question arises: how does one get a vampire to face death?  The novel suggests Dracula is in flight from something within him, perhaps some remnant of soul, that knows the good.  Dracula knows Christian symbols of communication and salvation and fears them.  The goodness of God’s grace, represented by the sun, can’t reach him: he casts no shadow.  But this is because he shuts himself up and doesn’t let the light in.  So we see he fears the nothingness of a soulless state and yet he wants to perpetuate himself in that state by denying freedom, love, and life.  Is there a way to save such a demonic being?

According to Barrows, to kill a vampire is to liberate someone from the monotony of the “they” to a new form of authentic life. He explains: ““Inauthentic” beings live forever in an endless succession of moments.  What better example of this “inauthentic” being is there than the vampire?  To kill the vampire is to teach him to understand his life as a bordered whole, to teach him to confront and accept his own death.  Vampire-hunting, in light of Being and Time, becomes a kind of philosophical task—making “true” dead humans out of “false” deathless vampires” (74). Vampire hunters are out to drive a stake of authenticity into the inauthentic: they will ground them and liberate their mortal selves (75-76). But what kind of “teaching” can we expect here?  Can we really liberate a trapped soul from the insubstantial, shape-shifting, and demonic forces of evil with reason and dialogue?  The answer we receive from the end of Stoker’s novel, if we read it literally, is no. After all, the foes of Dracula sterilize as many resting places as they can find; they chase him back to his homeland; they intercept him as he journeys; and they stab him to death with blades.  They corner him and drive the evil out by force to make room for redemption.  Evil, so it seems, cannot be saved through the Word.

Go here for my post on the moral and cognitive worth of Halloween.

Go here for my post on Medusa.

[1] Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy: New Life for the Undead, ed. Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad (Chicago: Open Court, 2006), p. 71.  Hereafter, page number. Barrows’ essay is chapter 6.

[2] Dracula (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003), p. 362.

[3] Ibid., 340.

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