It’s been said that vampire mythology has remained compelling for generation after generation because the myths lend themselves to the preoccuptions or anxieties of each generation. In Bram Stoker’s time this might have been an anxiety about industrialisation, or perhaps the alien East; more recently we’ve seen vampires transformed into romantic outsiders (the Twilight twaddle) or away from the mainstream, into parables of capitalist excess, AIDS, or homosexuality more generally (Perfect Creature, Daywalkers, True Blood and so on).
I caught up with film director Neil Jordan’s most recent excursion into the vampire world, Byzantium. It’s good to have a violent edge restored to the myth after the teenage goo of the Twilight saga, though it’s a much smaller film than Jordan’s previous Interview with the Vampire, and has had less success. That’s not surprising because despite a strong cast it was disappointing in many ways, needing more time and space to explore the ideas it was throwing up.
All the same along the way it raised, perhaps inadvertently, an interesting question about one of the most common features of horror myths, the idea that you might have immortality in return for your soul.
In the more religious ages of Christopher Marlowe, Goethe, or even Stoker, it’s apparent that the loss of the soul would be more straightforward (and frightening) than it is to us now. In those times it was (a little) clearer what might be meant by the soul, the part of us destined in any case for immortality either in heaven or hell. For Doctor Faustus it was the pact with the devil, the choice between an extraordinary life here on earth and the possibility of eternal bliss in the afterlife. This idea spilt over into vampire myths. In most 20th century versions, while some victims are simply turned into monsters by other monsters, there are often those who will willingly choose the vampire fate rather than die (this idea persists strongly in True Blood).
In Byzantium the loss of the soul was clearly presented as the price you’d pay for immortality, and yet it was not apparent in the film, nor in the broader context of our secular lives, what exactly it is that we would lose through this bargain. In earlier versions of the vampire myth, certainly in Stoker’s Dracula, and Christopher Lee’s version for Hammer, the vampire is reduced to a kind of bestiality, with no real emotional attachments and not much more than an instinct to survive. In this “monster” version the soul becomes the thing that makes us distinctly human, our capacity to care for others, the value we give to emotions and (arguably) through those emotions to ethical behaviour.
Religious belief is rooted in this idea, but it doesn’t depend on religious belief. In his contribution to the RSA’s Spirituality project Iain McGilchrist asked whether it still made any sense to talk of the soul in a secular world, and came up with a positive answer: in his account the concept of soul is a way of understanding the fullness of how we are in the world, the fullness of our experience, without necessarily invoking metaphysical beliefs about the divine or life beyond death.
In this view we might say that the idea of the soul is an aspect of consciousness, or even a generous concept of consciousness (hard to say what that distinction really means, but that’s part of the problem of discussing consciousness). We could even say it’s part of what we mean to have a soul, that we should care about the question of what it means to have a soul.
Thinking in this way means trying to achieve a better understanding of what might be possible through epistemology, about what we can and cannot know.
Thinking this way has to acknowledge the relatively recent realisation that our sense of identity is subject to the physical reality of our brains, that certain kinds of brain damage may alter our personalities radically, or destroy the memories on which our sense of identity depends. It seems to me that this inconvenient truth makes it very difficult to maintain the idea, common to pretty well all religions, that life on this earth is (in Keats’ phrase) a vale of soul making, with the fruits of those labours only fully realised in a life beyond this one.
This concept of the persisting soul itself depends on a concept of some kind of persisting identity, as well as the belief that this identity, this self or soul is responsible for its own development. But if a bang on the head can send all the development onto a different track then it’s hard to see how we can be held responsible for it, or to put it in a less judgemental way, which soul/identity is going to persist into another kind of life?
On the other hand, and this is part of McGilchrist’s wider thinking, it’s naïve to say the least to equate electrical or chemical activity in the brain with “thought” or indeed consciousness. The equation is made because we can correlate the two, but we shouldn’t confuse correlation with equation (or identity). We need a better account of embodied consciousness, without naive materialism but also without resorting to the tangles of metaphysics (let alone religious metaphysics). It’s plausible that a secular concept of soul offers a way of doing this.
This is all very well for debate in a philosophy seminar. It doesn’t make for particularly gripping drama. One of the problems with Byzantium, and indeed many modern vampire stories, is that they want to put some weight on the loss of soul, the price to be paid, without having any way of taking seriously what this could mean. So our lead characters far from being monstrous appear to be persistently human, with a full range of emotional and moral concerns, apart from the fact that they routinely have to cut into other’s veins and consume all their blood. The stories depend on this persistence of humanity to command our interest and sympathy.
Byzantium’s vampires are not even excluded from the daylight. Theirs is a subtler burden, the pain of living secretly among humans and knowing yourself to be different (hence the ready analogy with queerness). This doesn’t really seem like soullessness, more a fairly common aspect of human experience.
There is another sense in which choosing immortality will immediately estrange us from our humanity, our soul. Uncomfortable though it might sometimes be, our sense of what it is to be human really might depend on our mortality, on the fact that we age and die. This doesn’t make the prospect of death any more welcome in itself, but it does make it more acceptable. As Tennyson’s Tithonus complains “me only cruel immortality/Consumes”. The force of that “me only” falls on “consumes”: Tithonus is not the only immortal, but the immortal gods are made of different stuff, their ageless eternity quite unlike the withered Tithonus who persists only as a “walking shadow” in the world. We might reasonably wish for more time with better health, but in the end even the futility of wanting more is part of what it is to be human.
The bitter irony is that for fundamentalists of all stripes, the promise of an afterlife, of an existence more important than life on earth, or even a cause they think might live on through their action, is enough to make them forget their humanity and destroy what life we do know is real. There be monsters.