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Fox Expresses Solidarity With Wolf, Is Pronounced ‘Racist’

November 30, 2009

Over at Slate‘s Double X blog, Lauren Bans writes to let us know she has seen Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and calls it delightful. However, there is one Very Disturbing Problem with the movie: Racism! Bans writes about Mr. Fox’s “phobia of wolves” which “makes perfect sense strictly in the animal world” but which “takes on a blatantly racial tone when Mr. Fox actually confronts a wholly black-furred wolf” near the end of the movie:

The wolf looks on blankly, big and majestic at the top of a wooded hill. Then Mr. Fox raises his hand into the black power sign—arm straight, fist closed– and the wolf is finally responsive, raising his black arm into the black power sign in return. Then he runs off into the forest a wild creature, while a clothed Mr. Fox resumes his drive back to his furnished home euphoric after confronting his phobia. Hooray!

This sounds fucked-up, right? Why is Wes Anderson making his yuppy forest creatures give black power salutes? What an asshole this guy is.

Then I actually watched the movie.

To put this scene in context, throughout the movie Fox is portrayed of having a fear of wolves. Anderson also plays with a duality between Fox’s “wild animal” side (he wants to run around and raid chicken coops; he literally eats his food like a wild animal) and his “domesticated” side (he plays house with Meryl Streep). And so at the end of the film, Fox is riding back home from his latest exploit and he sees this wolf at the top of the hill. Anderson treats this as a moment of introspection and revelation for Mr. Fox: he is both afraid of his wild nature, as symbolized by the wolf, but he must also acknowledge the wild beast within. At this moment, this tension is resolved when Mr. Fox raises his hand to the wolf in the spirit of solidarity — he finds peace with the wild on his way back to domestic bliss. I can’t fucking believe I have to spell this out, but there you have it.

Yes, the goddamned wolf is black. But black as in the color, not the race — the wolf is literally just a black silhouette with two blazing yellow eyes, outlined against the majestic mountains. There is absolutely zero racial subtext here — the scene is simply a gentle pastiche of the majestic splendor of the wild or some such Thoreauvian shit. Unlike the latest Transformers movie, which featured two jive-talking robots, there isn’t any racial coding going on at all.

And since when is a raised fist automatically a “black power sign?” A quick trip to wikipedia will tell you that a raised fist is a symbol of solidarity that’s been co-opted by everyone from tea baggers to peace activists, including, yes, both black panthers and “white power” groups.

Look, I’m sure Lauren Bans is a great person who I’d like a lot if I actually met them in the real world. I don’t know if she was on an intentional feather-ruffling mission when she wrote her post or what, but it is quite possibly the dumbest liberal addition to the discourse on race since Crash.*

* But wait, what’s wrong with Crash? Well, for starters it’s easy to imagine a more nuanced take on American race relations — for instance, you could lock a black person, a white person and a Hispanic person in a room and have them all scream “RACIST” at one another for two straight hours.


Toward a Unified Theory of Philip Roth Novels, 2000-2009

November 2, 2009

I. Abstract

Philip Roth, famous chronicler of geriatric libido, published his 30th novel, The Humbling, this fall. The Humbling closely adheres to the novelist structure of four other Roth novels published since 2000*. Hence, we may safely say that The Human Stain, The Dying Animal, Everyman, Exit Ghost, and The Humbling are not five separate novels; rather, they are the same novel written five times.

II. Synoptic Survey

The Human Stain, 2000: Aged professor Coleman Silk has slummy sex with working-class woman 30 years his younger; everyone learns Important Lessons.

The Dying Animal, 2001: Aged professor David Kapesh has riotous sex with Hispanic woman 30 years his younger; everyone learns Important Lessons.

Everyman, 2006: Nameless aged protagonist has Nordic sex with Scandinavian woman 30 years his younger; everyone learns Important Lessons.

Exit Ghost, 2007: Aged writer Nathaniel Zuckerman has incontinent sex with sensitive upper middle-class woman 30 years his younger; everyone learns Important Lessons.

The Humbling, 2009: Aged actor Simon Axler has kinky sex with former lesbian woman 30 years his younger; everyone learns Important Lessons.

III. Conclusion

Philip Roth should no longer be considered a writer of literary fiction. Rather, it appears that since the year 2000, Roth has re-branded himself as the peddler of a unique form of genre fiction: Wish-Fulfillment for Old Men Who Want to Bang Young Women. Therefore, the authors of this study recommend shelving Roth’s works alongside those of other noted genre writers, such as David Baldacci and RL Stine.

* The authors have purposefully omitted two works from this study: The Plot Against America of 2004 and Indignation of 2008. These works stray far enough from Roth’s established template that we may safely assume they were ghostwritten by Norman Podhoretz and Bob Clark, respectively.

A Childrens’ Treasury of Hilarious Dracula Fan Fiction

October 29, 2009

So I finished Dracula yesterday. Meh. That ending: I mean seriously. Fifty-some-odd goddamn pages of shipping manifests and the adventures of a peripatetic box of dirt?? Are you fucking kidding me, Bram?

But! The wise and all-knowing editors of my Norton Critical Edition thought they should end things on a lighter note, so they appended a selection of The Best Academic Essays Ever at the end of the book. Most of these were written in the 70s and 80s, which as you know were the halcyon days of Literary Theory in American English departments, when professors were contractually obligated to snort 20 mgs of pure pharmaceutical-grade Bolivian cocaine from the open pages of Derrida’s Of Grammatology before writing anything for peer review. I’ve waded through 70 pages of turgid academic prose to bring you the “best of” selections below. You will not be disappointed: this is why they invented blogging.

Important Note #1: Most English professors, due to the high demands of obtaining tenure and the solitary nature of their work, have little to no experience with sexual intercourse as performed by two live human beings. They are confused and frightened by the idea of coitus, but also fascinated by it. Knowing this may help you approach the excerpts below in a spirit of charity.

Important Note #2: This is not parody. Everything below was written by actual professors, who were probably awarded tenure for their efforts.

Maurice Richardson:

[Dracula is] a quite blatant demonstration of the Oedipus complex… a kind of incestuous, necrophilous, oral-anal-sadistic all-in wrestling match.

Maurice Richardson, again:

[Dracula is] a vast polymorph perverse bisexual oral-anal-genital sadomasochistic timeless orgy.

Oral-anal-sadistic wrestling match or oral-anal-genital orgy? Maurice Richardson reports, you decide.

Phyllis A. Roth:

The fantasy of incest and matricide evokes the mythic image of the vagina dentata evident in so many folk tales in which the mouth and the vagina are identified with one another by the primitive mind and pose the threat of castration to all men until the teeth are extracted by the hero. The conclusion of Dracula, the “salvation” of Mina, is equivalent to such an “extraction”: Mina will not remain the vagina dentata to threaten them all.

Holy fucking shit.

Franco Moretti:

If the vampire is a metaphor for capital, then Stoker’s vampire, who is of 1897, must be the capital of 1897. The capital which, after lying ‘buried’ for twenty long years of recession, rises again to set out on the irreversible road of concentration and monopoly. And Dracula is a true monopolist: solitary and despotic, he will not brook competition. Like monopoly capital, his ambition is to subjugate the last vestiges of the liberal era and destroy all forms of economic independence.

Franco Moretti, again:

In killing Dracula, Quincy P. Morris, the American who has been helping his British friends to save their nation, dies too, almost by accident. The occurrence seems inexplicable, extraneous to the logic of the narrative, yet it fits perfectly into Stoker’s sociological design. The American, Morris, must die, because Morris is a vampire.

Really? Which page was that on, again?

Marie Bonaparte:

We know that babes which, while toothless, are content to suck the breast, no sooner cut their first teeth then they use them to bite the same breast. This, in each of us, is the first manifestation of the aggressive instinct.

Toothless Predator: Breast-Feeding as Sexual Assault, anyone?

Christopher Craft:

With its soft flesh barred by hard bone, its red crossed by white, this mouth compels opposites and contrasts into a frightening unity, and it asks some disturbing questions. Are we male or are we female? Do we have penetrators or orifices? And if both, what does that mean? And what about our bodily fluids, the red and the white? What are the relations between blood and semen, milk and blood?

This is Christopher Craft’s thesis statement. I am not kidding.

Christopher Craft:

This rather pathetic hunt for the penis-in-absentia denotes a double anxiety: first, that the penis shall not be erased, and if it is erased, that it shall be reinscribed in a perverse simulacrum; and second, that all desire repeat, under duress of deformity, the heterosexual norm that the metaphor of inversion always assumes. Medical professionals had in fact no need to pursue this fantasized amazon of the clitoris, this ‘unnatural’ predator, so vigorously, since Stoker, whose imagination was at least deft enough to displace that dangerous simulacrum to an isomorphic orifice, had by the 1890s already invented her. His sexualized women are men too.

Ellis Hanson:

The chapel has become the anal orifice of castration and death, littered as it is with Dracula’s fecal/phallic coffins.

Well, duh. Thank you, Professor Obvious.

Talia Schaffer:

Stoker’s Dracula is a kind of basin in which images of [Oscar] Wilde-as-monster float, and it makes sense that a vision of Wilde’s body as repulsive, which Harris claims to be universal, would be one fluid in the Dracula solution.

Talia Schaffer:

Dracula undresses Harker and folds his clothes yet somehow overlooks the prize in Harker’s trousers. (Similarly, Harker magically feels all over Dracula’s body without finding Dracula’s key.)

In conclusion: Dracula is Oedipus, but he is also that guy from the Monopoly game. He is like a baby with confusing orifices. Somebody’s penis is about to be erased by a clitoris Amazon. Dracula is Oscar Wilde, too, and he shits coffins, which are also his dick(s). Quincy Morris is a vampire, Mina has teeth in her cooter, and the prize, in case you were wondering, is in Jonathan Harker’s pants.

Q.E. to-tha-mothafuckin D.

Well Chop Off My Head and Shove Garlic Down My Throat

October 16, 2009

Kul‘s Aaron asks if I’m finding the novel as ridiculous as he does. Not ‘ridiculous,’ per se. But I’m finding that good ol’ Van Helsing has sucked a lot of the life out of the story with his putatively Dutch tortured syntax. A couple lines of this stuff is cute, but now Stoker’s treating us to paragraph after paragraph of exposition in this style and it makes me want to drive a sharp wooden stake into my own heart. I was in the Netherlands recently and can say with 100% certainty that Dutch people do not, in fact, talk this way. Even when they’re speaking English.

Plus I’m finding all the tragic deaths and subsequent outpourings of love and goodwill and declarations of eternal love, trust and friendship between the surviving characters to be a bit much. My feelings on this are best summed up by a quote from our own dear departed David Foster Wallace:

Let’s not all sit around and give each other handjobs.

I think half the problem is that Stoker drags out the Big Reveal About Lucy for about a million chapters, with Van Helsing hand-feeding Seward from his little Dutch Pez-dispenser of clues every step of the goddamn way. This is particularly irksome because I know the story, and usually when you know the story you can try to find interest in the style or whatever, but since we’re getting most of this section in Van Helsing’s words as recorded by Seward, and Van Helsing and Seward aren’t exactly the Johnson and Boswell of the Victorian era, the going is a bit rough.

But let’s keep our chins up — Van Helsing keeps abruptly asking people for permission to chop Lucy’s head off and stuff her mouth with garlic, and that’s gotta lead to something interesting, right?

The Coming Irish Plague

October 14, 2009

Add to the prominence of newspapers and journals in disseminating information [about Dracula] the importance of personal letters.  People were prolific letter writers at the time.
Infinite Zombies’ jrlsberro

Letter, Miss Beatrix Honeysuckle Purefoy to Miss Melinda Constance Warwickhamfordshire

October 14, 1897

Dearest Melinda,

Forgive my long delay in writing, but as of late I’ve found myself enraptured by a quite singular book, at once appalling and titillating. It is called Dracula, by a Mr. Stoker, an Irishman, if I’m not mistaken. Have you heard of it? It concerns the devious machinations of a Romanian nobleman who feeds on the blood of infants! The horror!

Oh dear Melinda, do forgive me for cutting this off thus quickly. Even the mere thought of the terrible contents of this book is too much. I must to my fainting couch at once for I am all a-swoon.


Letter, Miss Melinda Constance Warwickhamfordshire to Miss Beatrix Honeysuckle Purefoy

October 15, 1897

Cherished Beatrix,

Unfortunately I know all too well of what you speak — I am reading that self-same book. Considering the infanticide of Mr. Stoker’s novel alongside Mr. Swift’s Modest Proposal of some years ago, I do wonder: What is this strange Irish preoccupation with eating babies?

And no apologies necessary, dear — I have worn out the springs of three fainting couches myself from the constant swooning. And I have only made it as far as Chapter VI! Oh, would that I too were engaged to some worthy man, and soon to be wearing out the springs of a more noble piece of furniture!

That Lucy is such a trollop. I do hate her so.


Letter, Miss B.H.P. to Miss M.C.W.

October 16, 1897

Beloved Melinda,

One must consider, too, the unfortunate indecency case of that other son of Erin, Mr. Wilde. It would seem that Ireland is quite overrun with infantophages and homosexuals. No doubt a direct consequence of Popish idolatry.

Yes, Miss Westenra is unquestionably a wicked little tart to be attracting the eye of the male species as she does. However I reserve my ire for the character of Miss Murray, with all her talk of ‘The New Woman’ and other such nonsense. To think that she aspires to operate as barbaric a piece of machinery as a typewriter! How appallingly masculine! Next thing you know she’ll be donning britches and running off to join the tribe of Sappho.


Letter, Miss M.C.W to Miss B.H.P

October 17, 1897


You may be more accurate in your assessment than you know, for it does seem to me that Miss Murray does harbor a rather indelicate fondness for Miss Westenra. Such perversions could only spring from the mind of an Irishman.

In fact, do you recall the pornographic scene early on the book, where poor Mr. Harker is nearly overcome by the three lascivious vampiresses? I’m beginning to suspect that this is the type of disgusting book of which it is said that it is meant to be read with one hand…


Letter, Miss B.H.P. to Miss M.C.W.

October 18, 1897

Oh Melinda! You have planted the seed of a most dreadful thought in my head! My governess, who was Welsh, used always to warn my younger brother Toby that self-abuse would inevitably lead not only to hairy palms and blindness, but that God’s special punishment for self-fornicators was to turn them into Irishmen!

Follow me closely now, Melinda: if Mr. Stoker’s book is indeed a tool to incite an epidemic of masturbation (forgive my bluntness in saying it), and if masturbation (forgive me again) is a sin carrying the punishment of Irish transfiguration, and if Mr. Stoker is himself an Irishman: could not this terrible, terrible book be the instrument of a diabolical plot to turn all of Brittania’s sons Irish?


Letter, Miss M.C.W. to Miss B.H.P.

October 19, 1897

Gracious me and mine! I fear you may be correct, Beatrix. I have just spoken with the family physician, who has informed me that modern science has yet to devise a prophylactic against becoming Irish. He has pledged to begin work on such a device immediately. In the meantime, he says, we should take any and all measures necessary to prepare ourselves for the coming Irish plague. He suggests stocking up on garlic as a first step.


The Vampiric Sublime

October 7, 2009

Quillebeuf, at the Mouth of Seine 1833

I don’t know about you guys but I kind of dug Chapter VII’s newspaper clippings, particularly the opening section describing Dracula’s storm. It’s fun because it allows Stoker to indulge in some literally purple prose-painting without having to take full responsibility for it, since he’s filtering it through the voice of the newspaper man. I’m thinking of this sentence in particular:

Before the sun dipped below the black mass of Kettleness, standing boldly athwart the western sky, its downward way was marked by myriad clouds of every sunset-colour–flame, purple, pink, green, violet, and all the tints of gold; with here and there masses not large, but of seemingly absolute blackness, in all sorts of shapes, as well outlines as colossal silhouettes.

Stoker’s doing some characteristically late-Romantic style word-painting here, something that he self-consciously highlights in the very next sentence:

The experience was not lost on the painters, and doubtless some of the sketches of the ‘Prelude to the Great Storm’ will grace the R.A. and R.I. walls in May next.

A little later in the paragraph, Stoker strengthens the painting analogy by having the newsman quote a line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in describing Dracula’s ghost ship:

As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.

The Norton editors have footnoted a few lines conjecturing that Stoker is evoking the storm paintings of J.M.W. Turner (see above for an example). I think this is a sound interpretation because one of Turner’s main concerns was the portrayal of the sublime.  ‘Sublime’ is one of those annoyingly slippery categories that’s difficult to pin down, but maybe for our purposes here I’ll define it as something at once immense, terrifying, and beautiful. Particularly something in the natural world, like a mountain or a storm. I get a good taste of the sublime when I’m hiking in the Adirondacks. You can probably catch a whiff of it just about anywhere out West where there’s a broad vista in a relatively uninhabited area.

Stoker, channeling his inner J.M.W. Turner, paints us a picture of Dracula’s arrival as a sublime event, at once terrifying and beautiful. Take this passage:

Some of the scenes thus revealed were of immeasurable grandeur and of absorbing interest — the sea, running mountains high, threw skywards with each wave mighty masses of white foam, which the tempest seemed to snatch at and whirl away into space; here and there a fishing-boat, with a rag of sail, running madly for shelter before the blast; now and again the white wings of a storm-tossed seabird.

Stoker’s practically describing Turner’s painting Snow-Storm–Steamboat Off a Harbor’s Mouth c. 1842:


Terror mixed with beauty and awe — couldn’t we characterize our emotional response to the character of Dracula, and to vampires in general, in a similar fashion? I think the sublime, as a category, causes an emotional response in the viewer/reader that’s very similar to the way we experience books in the Gothic/horror genres. Joseph Addison remarked that the sublime “fills the mind with an agreeable kind of horror” — isn’t this exactly what we’re after when we read a scary book or watch a scary movie?

It’s probably also worth mentioning that Johnathan Harker describes the Carpathians in the language of the sublime as well. It’ll be interesting to see if the sublime makes appearances elsewhere in the book.

So Dan Brown and David Foster Wallace Walk into a Writing Workshop…

October 6, 2009

In September 2009 Boston Magazine reported that Dan Brown and David Foster Wallace shared a creative writing class at Amherst College.

Week 1.
Hi there, I’m David.
Who do you work for?
Excuse me?
The Freemasons? The Illuminati? Bilderbergs? Opus Dei – that’s it. You must work for Opus Dei.

You look like a self-flagellator.
Aren’t all writers self-flagellators? I mean on some level, at least.
Haha. HAHAHA! I like your style, David. Let’s be friends.

Week 2.
I still can’t believe They kicked me out of the journalism seminar and told me to do fiction instead. Everything I write is true!
You know, that’s interesting – everything I write is true, too.

Week 3.
[left-eye nystagmic] David did you know that I graduated Phi Beta cum Laude from the Harvard-Sorbonne Institute of Advanced Studies with a Doctoral Baccalaureate degree in the field of Symbology, with a quintuple-major in jujitsu from The Citadel?
I did not know that. Why is your eyeball twitching?
I’m on amphetamines that acceleromerate my thoughts to the speed of a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet traveling through an alternative dimension at the square root of the speed of light squared. That way my enemies can’t read my mind.

Multi-dimensional mind-reading was the subject of my dissertational hypothesis, you see.

Week 4.
[wearing a trench coat and a tophat and cotton balls glued to his face in the shape of a moustache] David. Tell me everything you know about zodiac iconography in relation to entanglement physics and manta ray migration.
Um.. I don’t really…
[slams fist on desk] Of course you don’t! That’s why you’re doomed. Doomed!

[Dan Brown empties a vial of cocaine on his desk and snorts it through a rolled-up facsimile copy of Dead Sea Scroll #1QapGen (“Genesis Apocryphon”)]

DFW: Holy shit! Dan!
[sniffs] David. Please calm yourself. In order to complete my transmorgrification into a Gnostic Archon it is hypercrucially imperatative that I dissolve my internasular septum by any means necessary.

Because if I don’t have a septum then where will They put the barcode, David? Think about it.

Week 5.

[Dan Brown is naked except for his head, which is wrapped in several layers of aluminum foil. Two eyeholes are poked through the foil. They don’t quite line up with his eyes.]


Don’t be naïve, David.

Week 6.
Letter from Dan Brown to David Foster Wallace:

I regret to appraise you of my unfortunate absence from class today, but by now surely even you must know that I no longer exist in physical form. The instructor, who the four Zoas have informed me is but a pawn of the Decepticons, asked me to read and edit some of your writings as my final corporeal act on Earth before I ascended to the starry realms that the Book of Ahania speaks of. Your original passage is above and my revised version below. Quite obviously with the full moon coinciding with the aurora borealis the use of Track Changes was out of the question.

I like this Lenz character and think he will make a great hero for your book. Is he a Symbologist by any chance?

Lenz euphorically tells Green how he once got the tip of his left finger cut off in a minibike chain once and how but within days of intensive concentration the finger had grown back and regenerated itself like a lizard’s tail, confounding doctoral authorities. Lenz says that was the incident in his youth after which he got in touch with his own unusual life-force and
energois de vivre and knew and accepted that he was somehow not like the run of common men, and began to accept his uniqueness and all that it entailed.

Revised by Dan Brown, Ancient of Days:
Robert Langdon Lenz’ eyeballs glowed like the eyes of a tiger that had high-wattage halogen lamps where the pupils of its eyes would normally be. He cut a distinguished figure and was what all the young women in the creative writing class would call ‘eccentrically good-looking with a whiff of danger.’ He lit a fine Cuban cigar and leaned in towards the ravishingly beautiful Dr. Consuela Green.

“Once,” he nearly whispered, “When I was held prisoner by the Illuminati at their secret temple in the basement of the White House, I nearly lost a hand to the salt water crocodile that lived in my cell.”

Dr. Green’s intake of breath was crisp with the sharp bite of anticipation.

“Fortunately,” Lenz continued, “I was able to cleverly convince the crocodile to befriend me and use the powerful force of its strong terrifying jaws to break through the bars of my prison and facilitate my escape, and I thought to myself that at no time in my life had my intensive study of Kabbalistic mysticism been as profitable to me as it had been at that precise moment.”

Setting Bairns and Dizzy Women A-Belderin’

October 6, 2009

Saint Mary's graveyard, Whitby, by Flickr user Tasa M used under a Creative Commons license

Let’s compare Mina’s visits to crazy ol’ Mr. Swales with J-Hark’s experiences with the Transylvanian locals. Both Mina and Jonathan play the role of the sophisticated tourist out among the quaint but somewhat benighted peasant-folk. What’s interesting, though, is that Stoker places Jonathan’s Transylvanians and Mina’s Yorkshire residents at opposite ends of the belief/skepticism spectrum. We’ve seen that “every known superstition in the world” can be found among the Transylvanians, whereas old Mr. Swales delivers a downright blasphemous takedown of Christian burial rituals and the beliefs associated therewith.

Swales’ “sermons”* center largely around the fact that many of the graves in the churchyard are actually empty. Thus the phrase “here lies the body” is often a downright lie. Among other things, Stoker appears to be setting up a dichotomy between “empty” and “full” graves. But Dracula, and vampires in general, disrupt the dichotomy since they sleep in graves. If you’ve got a vampire in your grave, “here lies the body” may be true on some occasions and untrue on others — the line between truth and lies becomes blurry. A more accurate epitaph would read “here lies the body… sometimes.” It seems that Stoker isn’t content to set up the simple inversion between rationalism and superstition that I mentioned in a previous post — perhaps he’s inverting them and then muddying them up to further disorient the reader, an act of deliberate obfuscation that anticipates later acts of post-modern trickery.

I think there’s something similar going on at the end of Chapt. VI when Swales talkes about life and death:

For life be, after all, only a waitin’ for somethin’ else than what we’re doin’; and death be all that we can rightly depend on.

On the surface this seems pretty straightforward: You’ve got life on the one hand, and death on the other, and never shall the twain meet. Except that vampires, again, blur this distinction — they’re neither properly living nor dead. Consider the vampiric state and suddenly the phrase “somethin’ else than what we’re doin'” acquires a whole new creepy resonance.

Finally: I love the part where Lucy gets the fantods about sitting over the grave of a suicide, and Swales comically assures her by saying that “poor Geordie” would be happy to have “so trim a lass sittin’ on his lap.” Lucy’s such a hussy that she even sits on the laps of dead guys!

* I can’t say I found Swales’ dialect completely convincing, btw — it seemed like Stoker couldn’t quite capture the entire range of Yorkshire speech and had Swales speaking an odd mash-up that was half regular English and half Yorkshire, rather than a smooth blend between the two. For example, one of Swales’ lines starts with the very proper-sounding “And, as to hopes of a glorious resurrection,” and ends Yorkshire jive-style with “an’ he didn’t want to addle where she was.”

Genre Dysphoria

October 4, 2009

Photo by flickr user cbmd, used under a Creative Commons license

The opening chapters of Dracula have many of us asking ourselves, “WTF is Johnathan Harker thinking?” Infinite Zombie Daryl says “Parts of the first two chapters read to me the way the beginning of the movie Scream unfolds.” Zombie colleague Web Webster throws popcorn at the movie screen on behalf of readers everywhere and yells “Dude.  Do NOT get into that caleche.  DUDE!  DON’T.  Awwww maaaaan!” At the I.S. forums, ariel asks at what point do you pack your bags and head back to England and says “i just wish i could choose not to know all i know about vampires and horror plots.”

I think the use of movie metaphors in this line of questioning is important, because it drives us back to the key question of genre. One thing that might be easy to overlook in our reading of Dracula, particularly as we dive into it armed with annotated editions informed by scholarly inquiries on questions of race, class, gender and sexuality, is that Dracula is, at its heart, a work of genre fiction. As such there’s a certain set of rules that the book must deal with, and part of the fun for us, as readers, is to see which rules get followed and which get broken and which get bent all to hell in ways that we maybe didn’t expect.

As some commenters have noted, there’s an interesting interplay between ideas of superstition and rationality that Stoker is building up. Harker is a rational modern-day Englishman who brooks absolutely zero bullshit when it comes to things like evil eyes and hexes and old ladies with their crucifixes. But in the horror genre this dichotomy between the rational and the irrational gets reversed — in Dracula‘s supernatural world it’s the “superstitious” village-folk who are actually being completely sensible — if your town is besieged by a creepy old man who eats babies but who can be warded off with garlic, doesn’t it make perfect sense to carry garlic around all the time? And wouldn’t you have to be a totally irrational booger-eating moron to hop right into the Count’s carriage without even the most basic of anti-vampire prophylaxes?

And look at us, the presumably “rational” readers: we’re all standing in the crowd with the Transylvanian villagers, pointing and laughing at Harker and also cringing a bit, because can you believe what a dope this guy is and boy does he ever have it coming to him! The rational and the irrational are turned on their heads, and Stoker’s played us all like fiddles because we’ve no choice but to go with it. This sly little reversal is possible thanks to the conventions of the horror genre.

Let’s try to answer ariel’s question: at what point would you, dear reader, turn back? You, a hyper-rational product of the internet age, take a trip out to a remote Eastern European outpost for business. You get there and all the people are fucking crazy: they’re going on about witchcraft and hexes and offering you gifts of garlic and crucifixes. In all honesty, how do you react to this? Do you get creeped out and run away, or do you think to yourself “how deliciously authentic” and snap a few pics with your iPhone and upload them to Facebook and send out a few Tweets about the quaint customs of the locals? Dollars to doughnuts says you do the latter, and for Harker it was the same. Except that instead of an iPhone and social networking he had a journal.

Going There

October 3, 2009

Photo by Flickr user dobharrison, used under a Creative Commons license

Hitherto I had noticed the backs of his hands as they lay on his knees in the firelight, and they had seemed rather white and fine. But seeing them now close to me, I could not but notice that they were rather coarse — broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm.

Show of hands, please: who else read the hairy palms bit and thought “Chronic masturbator!”

Okay, yes, I am indulging my inner 13-year-old a bit here, but note that the super-serious Norton Critical Edition of Dracula does give a rather coy endorsement to the Transylvanian Monkey-Spanker interpretation in the following footnote:

These hairy palms are one of Dracula’s few affinities with the werewolf (and, in the opinion of some commentators, with the Victorian masturbator as well).

If we’re going to go 100% Freudian and read the book as a case study in repressed Victorian sexuality then yes, okay, this makes some sense. But I’d be hesitant to fully sign on with this unless we knew for certain when hairy palms became associated with jacking off — maybe we should page Dr. Miller on this? But regardless of which direction the influence runs — that is, whether anti-wanking crusaders adapted Stoker’s description of the vampire for their own uses, or whether Stoker used a well-known trope to convey conspicuous ickiness and imply that maybe Drac has been sucking his own blood, so to speak — it’s pretty interesting to see this imagery show up here.