The Philosophical Calamity that Created Vampires

“The sleep of reason produces monsters.” — Francisco Goya
Myths, legends and stories about vampires have appeared throughout history, in a great many cultures and societies. The notion of a vampire is, indeed, a perennial idea, perhaps an archetype, in the Jungian sense of the word. All the same, the real fascination with vampires begins in the modern age.

There was a vampire craze in the Eighteenth Century, leading to a sustained popular interest in subject in the Nineteenth Century. It gave rise to that literary genre known as Gothic fiction. Bram Stoker’s influential masterpiece, Dracula, was published in 1897. Part of the appeal of this genre is its depiction of a Manichean struggle between good and evil, or God and the devil, cast in Christian terms.

In any case, there was something that happened, back in the 1780s, that laid the groundwork for the dark and unholy interest in vampires that we have today. It was not an historical event, but rather a philosophical calamity, occasioned by the publication of a certain book.

We are still suffering its aftermath, as is evidenced by the fact that the interest in vampires — as well as zombies and other creatures of the night — is greater than ever before. There is a plethora of books an films on the subject of vampires. What, then, was this philosophical calamity? What does it have to do with vampires? And what dark secrets does the contemporary interest in vampires reveal about the present zeitgeist?

Who Are these Bloodless Beings?

Vampires are beings that are dead, but have come to life to suck the blood of living beings. The implication is that they lack blood themselves. To a large degree, this fascination with bloodless beings reflected an emerging sense of things: people have become too civilized; they have lost their passion for anything other than money and security. The embodiment of this new spiritual illness was the bloodless intellectual. He is alive, but — due to an excess of reflection — has lost his immediacy, spontaneity and passion. He has become disengaged from life, a mere spectator or witness to passing events.

Beginning in the Nineteenth Century, there was indeed a sense that modern life was becoming overly civilized and, as a result, the body and the passions were falling into desuetude. That’s a fundamental leitmotif in the writings of Nietzsche. It is also the theme of Kierkegaard’s book The Present Age (1846). What Kierkegaard means by “passion” is activity, by an individual, inspired by meaning and purpose.

Without meaning, we have the type of frenetic activity endemic to the present age. Or we have activity bereft of any real theme — something akin to the confused plot of a typical musical video. Or we have people seeking to lose themselves in the collective, in utopian dreams, as a surrogate for genuine meaning, as witnessed by the “hope and change” crowd. Or we have people simply pursuing money.

It has always been a danger of thinking that a person can become so self-reflective as to lose his enthusiasm for life. (Legend has it that a vampire cannot be seen in a mirror. This makes sense since there has to be something there for an image to appear. Being totally reflected-out of all immediacy, there is no longer anything that appears, so to speak, in the mirror of reflection.)

An example of a bloodless intellectual is Goethe’s Faust, (Part One, of the long play, appeared in 1808). The brilliant Faust is pictured alone in his attic with his many books, hungering for life. To satisfy his lust for life, he sells his soul to the devil. Faust then pursues the innocent Margaret. His relationship to Margaret, although romantic, is like a vampire to its prey, in so far as he is sucking the innocence out of her.

Similarly, Kierkegaard, in his Diary of a Seducer, presents a picture of an intellectual seducer. Kierkegaard’s seducer brings a young woman to self-awareness and then, when she becomes self-aware — and thus a fallen being like himself — he leaves her, no doubt to seduce other innocent and immediate women.

Woody Allen, in a number of his early films, presents a humorous image of a kind of a neurotic, intellectual vampire. There is a telling scene, from the film Annie Hall (1977) that takes place in a bookstore. We see Annie (played by Diane Keaton) browsing through a book on cats, while Alvy Singer (played by Woody Allen) is looking at The Denial of Death (1973), by Eric Becker. Cats represent a certain feminine energy. Alvy’s interest in that book reveals his depth, but also hints at his vampirism.

Annie is perhaps more ditzy and scatterbrained than innocent, but whatever innocence she may have retained from growing up in rural Wisconsin, is lost after being in New York City and with Alvy, the despairing intellectual comedian. In other films, such as Manhattan (1979), we see Woody Allen again pursuing innocence. Then there is his personal life, but we won’t go there.

Today, vampires — in the deeper sense of the word — are everywhere. Indeed, there are cities that have more vampires than they do normal human beings.

The Animus Against Thinking and the Fear of Vampires

Fear of intellectuality and those who embody it is nothing new. The Greeks condemned Socrates to death for being an intellectual seducer of Athenian youth. And the Catholic Church executed Giordano Bruno for his new view of the universe. Today, most of what people learn at college is too abstract and devoid of personal meaning to be threatening in any way. Furthermore, students are trained to be inauthentic in their thinking. I.E., they keep ideas at a safe, objective distance from their life. They become glib in discussions, but remain unaffected and unchanged by what they read and hear.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was, though, a brief period in which students demanded relevance from their teachers. They wanted to graduate, not just with a trade and not just with a head full of ideas. They wanted to be transformed by education, to attain wisdom. That period of cultural openness did not last very long.

By the 1980s, there became an increasing animus against true education. College professors who taught students to think existentially, to ask real questions — the real type of questions that could illuminate their emotions and transform who they are — could be sued libel for having “experimented” on students.

Furthermore, in the 1960’s an identity crisis was a good thing. It prompted a student to abandon the cave, or “matrix,” of delusive images and to search for true reality. These days, though, an identity crisis is viewed as something that could impede a student’s career path and professional success. The 1960s certainly should not be romanticized, for the all to brief period of openness — perhaps it was one year — soon gave way to an awful degree of idiocy, from which we are suffering today.

That said, there is something to be said for devoting some time in one’s youth — and perhaps again in one’s middle age — to self-reflection and the pursuit of life’s deeper questions. We might add that the foremost management theorist, Peter Drucker, was a strong advocate for the liberal arts as a basis for business and personal success. Another great management theorist, Charles Handy, once implemented a great books program at a major corporation. Alas, today, anyone who does get people to think — not just abstractly, but in a way that could really affect them — would be branded as a vampire.

The animus against existential thinking is apparent everywhere. Few believe that thinking could lead a person to become a liberated being. That is why there is an interest in non-intellectual paths to wisdom and inner-transformation, such as yoga and meditation. Thinking is out, for there is a fear that by thinking a person will become a bloodless being, a vampire, who will then seek the blood out of other innocent beings, until they become vampires.

In any case, much of the contemporary fascination with vampires stems from the animus against thinking and those who invite others to think. Not every thinker is a vampire, but those who fear vampires fear all thinkers. We might also recall that one of the names for the devil is Lucifer, which means bringer of light. So here we have the paradox that vampires — who are incarnations of the Devil — dwell in eternal darkness, but bring the light of reflection. The Romantics, such as Lord Byron, were not oblivious to this paradox.

The Calamity

There was, as we had suggested, a philosophical calamity that had — through a curious kind of dialectical development — led to the popular interest in vampires. In 1781, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was published. Kant showed that the mind is not capable of knowing true reality, or the thing-in-itself. It really meant the end of philosophy. Kant claimed that his critique, by limiting the range of reason, made possible faith. But, for may people, the existential concomitant of Kant’s skepticism was despair.

We had earlier quoted the title of a painting by Francisco Goya The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1797). When reason became dethroned as essential to who we are, philosophers, artists and writers no longer saw human beings as essentially rational. Instead, they portrayed man as an abyss of lust, will, drives, and dark emotions. The title of a seminal novel by Joseph Conrad sums it up, Heart of Darkness (1899). Yes, a vast interior darkness constituted our being. The Gothic horror story emerged out of this sense of things.

Back in 1859, had Darwin had contributed to this dark sense of things, for the inevitable logic of his theory of evolution was that if we are descended from beasts, then — despite education and refinement — we are still essentially beasts. Freud, too, with his notion of civilization as a repression, is relevant here.

This struggle with our supposedly animalistic urges found literary expression, among other places, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Stevenson gave voice to a terrible suspicion that the animalistic Mr. Hyde represented our true self, beneath the veneer of civilization. The vampire story — and the werewolf story too — emerges out of these subterranean depths, for here is a vision of homo lupus homo, of man being a wolf (or a vampire) to man.

From Skepticism to Nihilism

Kant’s critique had a related effect. The dethronement of Reason was the despair of masculinity. To be masculine is to guide one’s life, not by feelings, emotions or blind will, but by a code of moral laws. But a code of laws must be graspable. It must, be intelligible to human reason. After Kant, we still have morality, but its connection to an ultimate, or absolute, is now lost, for — due to the limits of human reason — we cannot grasp the ultimate.

This was really devastating to the masculine spirit. It is hard to imagine people jumping out of windows after reading a philosophy book, but some did, back in the 1780s, after reading Kant’s critique. The philosophy of Existentialism is really an exploration of the everyday consequences of Kant’s conclusions. T.S. Elliot gives voice to one of the consequences of this development, in such poems as The Hollow Men (1925). They are hallow because they lack an inner core of beliefs. Such men, who hunger for life, are apt to become vampires.

We have, of course, been using the word “men” in the older sense, to include both men and women. There have, of course, been female vampires, and they have received literary rendition well before the publication of Stoker’s Dracula. Sometimes, they have been pictured as lesbians. For women, too, can — symbolically speaking — lose their immediacy and, becoming hungry for life, seek the blood of other beings. Similarly, just as men can become hollow, so can women. The decline of the masculine spirit has also had devastating effects on women, as it has had on men. The effects, though, have been different. Perhaps, we shall explore them in a subsequent essay.

Good News for Modern Vampires

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was, obviously, not the end of philosophy. Philosophers after Kant concluded that if Reason couldn’t allow us access to reality, such as the will and the intuition. Hegel and other philosophers, who followed after him, found radically new paths to wisdom. Western philosophy has, in certain respects, been a very roundabout path to Eastern wisdom. There is, indeed, a route beyond the bloodlessness that has been attributed to the intellect. The problem, though, is that few people have any great faith in the power of thinking to transform their life. Thus very few walk that path.

As legend has it, vampires only come out at night. During the day, Count Dracula remains in his closed coffin, for the rays of the sun are deadly to him. Analogously, to free the vampires among us (the hollow men) of their dark night of nihilism, what is needed is a new dawning of the human spirit. This dawning can only occur on an individual basis. The interest that many people have in finding meaning in some sort of social and political change is usually a flight from the task at hand and only leads to a more hopeless nihilism.

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2 People have left comments on this post

» apiascik said: { Mar 31, 2010 - 11:03:02 }

I was at a bookstore the other day and found myself reading from the biography of Anne Rice, the author of many popular novels about vampires. She was raised in a strict Catholic household but fell away from her childhood faith after entering college and living in San Franciso during the 60′s and 70′s. She was well read in authors including Nietzche, Sartre, and Camus and was a professed atheist until, after several tragedies in her life including the death of her husband and one of her children, and coming close to death herself, she returned to her Catholic faith. Many of her former fans were confused when she began writing a series of novels about the life of Christ. There does seem to be a connection between vampirism and the path that Western thought has taken. Europe (and much of Asia)will face a demographic catastrophe in the coming years because of low birth rates and declining population, which is beginning to bankrupt some of the social democracies there. You could say that the “life blood” of European civilization is slowly being drained away.

» mdillof said: { Mar 31, 2010 - 11:03:58 }

That is very interesting about Anne Rice. What’s been said about soldiers is true of most people who have been through terrible tragedies: “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

You are uncovering a really intriguing connection between declining birth rates, the decline of the West, and the symbolism and myth of vampires. Yes, the life blood of Western civilization is steadily draining away.

“Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
— T.S. Elliot, “The Wasteland”

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