Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Dostoevsky does Dracula?

It is high time we got back to Dracula.

The vampire hunters band together to kill the title character. In her diary, Mina quotes the inspiring botched English of Van Helsing:

How then are we to begin our strike to destroy him? How shall we find his where, and having found it, how can we destroy? My friends, this is much, it is a terrible task that we undertake, and there may be consequence to make the brave shudder. For if we fail in this our fight he must surely win, and then where end we? Life is nothings, I heed him not. But to fail here, is not mere life or death. It is that we become as him, that we henceforward become foul things of the night like him, without heart or conscience, preying on the bodies and the souls of those we love best. To us forever are the gates of heaven shut, for who shall open them to us again? We go on for all time abhorred by all, a blot on the face of God's sunshine, an arrow in the side of Him who died for man. But we are face to face with duty, and in such case must we shrink? For me, I say no, but then I am old, and life, with his sunshine, his fair places, his song of birds, his music and his love, lie far behind. You others are young. Some have seen sorrow, but there are fair days yet in store. What say you?"

Whilst he was speaking, Jonathan had taken my hand. I feared, oh so much, that the appalling nature of our danger was overcoming him when I saw his hand stretch out, but it was life to me to feel its touch, so strong, so self reliant, so resolute. A brave man's hand can speak for itself, it does not even need a woman's love to hear its music.

When the Professor had done speaking my husband looked in my eyes, and I in his, there was no need for speaking between us.

"I answer for Mina and myself," he said.

"Count me in, Professor," said Mr. Quincey Morris, laconically as usual.

"I am with you," said Lord Godalming, "for Lucy's sake, if for no other reason."

Dr. Seward simply nodded.

The Professor stood up and, after laying his golden crucifix on the table, held out his hand on either side. I took his right hand, and Lord Godalming his left, Jonathan held my right with his left and stretched across to Mr. Morris. So as we all took hands our solemn compact was made. I felt my heart icy cold, but it did not even occur to me to draw back. We resumed our places, and Dr. Van Helsing went on with a sort of cheerfulness which showed that the serious work had begun. It was to be taken as gravely, and in as businesslike a way, as any other transaction of life.

This scene is rife with Dostoevskian potential. Because he is not Dostoevsky, nor does he care to be, Stoker breezes through the whole vampire-hunting dilemma in less than a page. Now, if he were Dostoevsky, he--in the guise of someone like Ivan Karamazov--would dwell awhile on the fact that if one is killed by a vampire while trying to rid the world of his evil presence, one gets damned by God for one's trouble. You might think it was the bravest, most selfless act of all to risk not only one's life, but one's immortal soul, to protect others from the same damnation. One might think God would want to offer an extra special reward for such a risk. Apparently not. However, apparently "duty" (as Van Helsing puts it) goes beyond the duty to God--the duty to humankind takes precedence.

Perhaps there's a reason why Stoker blew through all this rather quickly. It's a knotty theological problem. Our heroes have, sort of quietly, renounced God, or at least God's blessings, and we admire them for doing so. It can't have been Stoker's intention to reveal the limits of God's love, to suggest that by making the greatest sacrifice of all, you could end up damned forever. Then again, maybe that is what sacrifice really means--giving up God's love voluntarily for the sake of humanity. Leaping without the net, and never expecting the net to appear. It won't, because you are beyond it.

Or is that wrong? Because you give up God's love when you do bad things, also, so...

Anyway, here's a fun writing challenge. Put Van Helsing (minus the accent, please), or Mina (who would be more interesting)* into a dialog with, say, Jesus. Model it on the Grand Inquisitor, and let it explain the role of the vampire in leading us to or away from God.

*Note that in the scene above, Mina is afraid--not of what Van Helsing is describing, but that Jonathan (I will always think of him as Keanu Reeves) is losing his nerve. The touch of his hand reassures her that he is indeed a brave man. But we don't need that reassurance from Mina; we know she's brave. Stoker then has her clam up like a good wife, and let Jonathan answer for her. Too late: she's gotten out of her cage again.

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