Wednesday 22 September 2010

Vampirism - specific instance of the characteristic behaviour of modernity

The popular culture obsession with vampires is obvious - I believe that this fascination arises because vampires represent, in a mythological form, the characteristic behavioural response of moderns when experiencing the major spiritual malaise of our era: alienation.


Alienation is feeling cut-off from 'life' - an isolated consciousness in a dead world - and of life having no meaning or purpose.

Modern life is seen as a matter of meaningless bureaucracy, of imposed duties, of mere exixtence followed by pointless death and being forgotten.

This is a near universal, but especially common among those who think most abstractly - those of higher intelligence and education.


There is no full solution to alienation in modernity - but temporary solutions include intoxication; 'losing-onself' in virtual realities such as books, movies and TV; making one's life into an absorbing/ distracting emotional war-zone or psychodrama - and vampirism.

The vampire drains vitality from those with whom it come into contact. The surge in vitality is gratifying and energizing, and cures alienation - purpose is recovered in the search for victims.

Exploitative sexual relations (or implicit/ potential sexual relations) are one obvious example; but vampirism also includes draining love and affection from friends and collagues, draining their energy and cheerfulness, or diverting their purposefulness.


Since alienation is a basic problem which cannot be solved in a secular and worldly context, the primary response is to lead a life of 'seeking' - specifically seeking vitality, contact with reality, relationships.

But having sought and found, we are up-against the biological universal of habituation - such that repeated stimuli lose their effect.

So seeking never ends, but overcoming habituation requires either serial change, refreshment - in a word novelty; or else increasingly-strong stimuli.

The stimuli may be media or technological (i.e. 'whatever works') - but for humans (as 'social animals' in origin) - the strongest stimuli, which work-best, are often other people.


So the vampiric seeker moves through the world, seeking energy-releasing stimuli (i.e. 'victims' ).

When a suitable victim is found, the vampire will drain vitality from the encounter - energy which is diverted into sense of connecting with life, of motivation, and the meaningfulness of life.

But this gratification is temporary.

These positive feelings fade - later or (usually) sooner - and the vampiric seeker must seek a new victim, serially zig-zagging through life after new stimuli, some novelty which 'works for them'.


By this account, human modern secular social life is divided into vampires and victims, the powerful and the weak, the exploiters and the exploited.

For the vampires there is pride, mastery, power. This is the all-absorbing purpose of life, validated by primal gratification; complete, explicit, shameless, self-glorifying self-sufficiency in self-regard.

The ideal life is seen as one of dominating, utterly-draining and then discarding multiple serial victims; a compromize is to live off one or a few people who are partially-drained then allowed to recover until suitable for further vampirism.


For the victims - the weak and exploited - there is the adoption of victim status (either by deliberate choice, or simply by habit); the finding of sequential temporary meanings and purposes in being-used.

Life becomes a process of serial submission, recovery and regeneration; with the implicit aim of offering one's vitality to the most prideful, masterful, and powerful vampire possible.

The ultimate goal is that of voluntary and vicarious self-sacrifice to the vampire - to be so utterly dedicated and drained as actually to die in submission.


This dark and deadly, nihilistic, vision of life as a war between potential exploiters - with the only opt-out being suicide - is what underlies the contemporary cultural fascination with vampires: vampirism is modernity recognizing-itself in myth.



Bill said...

This is very insightful. Audiences identify with vampires because vampires epitomize the alienation which audiences habitually feel. But, there is something else going on as well.

In several vampire TV series and stories, there are good vampires and bad vampires (c.f. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel"---and there are others). The good vampires are ones who struggle against their desire to feed on human blood and who protect humans from bad vampires. This constant wrestling with their base desires is often a major theme of the story.

So there is an esoteric, pro-Christian, pro-ascetic theme in contemporary vampire stories. I think this, too, is indicative of our age. It is easy to see that goodness lies in wrestling with our baser desires. Unfortunately, modernity defines almost all base desires out of existence (by defining away their baseness). So, the natural inclination to see oneself in spiritual combat and especially in successful spiritual combat has no outlet. This aspect of vampire stories is then wish-fulfillment, although a wish-fulfillment that dare not speak its name and that most audience members are really not consciously aware of.

There is another layer to this esoteric spiritual combat theme. Often, there are two kinds of humans: those who know what is going on vis a vis vampires and those who are oblivious. This is again a recognizable Christian theme---many people do not even know that there is a struggle going on. They are either (temporarily, we hope) lost to evil or irrelevant to the struggle because they are asleep.

I don't know whether any of this is conscious on the part of the creators of these stories. Regardless, it demonstrates both how grace calls to us even as we are fallen, and how vapid and entirely lacking in its own ideas modernity is.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bill - some good points here.

My impression is that good vampires are those that favour 'friendship/ altruism' over selfish vampirism.

Indeed, the idea that friends are important is a big, big theme in the US TV programs I see (including lots of kids programs, from Barney the dinosaur on upwards to, well, Friends for example).

To bang-on about the importance of friends in a world of travel and transience is superficially a rather bizarre notion, given that in real life people are *not* concerned about their friends except as a form of entertainment and distraction, and make no significant sacrifices (whether short term or long term) for their friends.

(Would a friend give up a job, move house, stay-in for weeks at an end, or live somewhere they were miserable; would a friend give up a quarter of their income for another friend? - Yet parents do this stuff all the time for their children! Friendship is pitifully weak by comparison with family. To say that 'your friends' are vital is propaganda - not observation.)

But 'friends' is probably used as a politically correct alternative to 'family' - given that the people who make the programs do not have, do not want, feel free to leave, or dis-value families, and that broken homes are so frequent.

Saying that 'your friends are reeely reeely important' is therefore a transparently weak and feeble ethic - but it is probably the only remotely-plausible positive sentiment that is pretty-much universalizable.

My guess is that friends/ altruism is the only remaining comprehensible worldly value which can be opposed to selfish and exploitative assertion.

Therefore, good vampires who are loyal to their friends, live in voluntary misery and risk their lives for their friends, are an indirect form of brainwashing from people who think that this is how friends *ought* to behave; such that elective and liberal human relationships such as friendship might replace involuntary, biological and right-wing relationships like families as the basic unit of human life - as these people would wish to be the case.

Bill said...

Yes, I agree. The self-denial taken up by good vampires is in the service of friendship or romantic love, rather than in the service of some external moral code, of family or social obligation, or of God. Very not right wing.

The relationship in particular between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel was particularly interesting, though. Although the two were in love, they could not engage in sexual relations because Angel would lose control and kill Buffy. This lead to the kind of sexual tension which, elsewhere in the art of Christendom, was created by the characters trying to live their faith.

There is a webpage here with brief comments on this relationship which comments are interesting. Almost nobody picked up on the fact that the thing which made this relationship so interesting was the echo of our previous normalcy.