|A Humanist Look at Myth, Symbol, and Art
Prairie UU Society
April 3, 2011
What is this fascination with vampires?
Since 2007 Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series of young adult fiction has propelled her, and subsequently the actors who play her characters in film, to stardom. With her has come Charlaine Harris, author of the Skookie Stackhouse series of vampire novels that became HBO's True Blood. Other novel series include Melissa De La Cruz's Blue Bloods, Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, and P.C. and Kristin Cast's House of Night. As women authors they take their cue from Anne Rice, whose Vampire Chronicles a major phenomenon in the 1980s and 90s. This was also the era of Francis Ford Coppola's film, Bram Stoker's Dracula well as the film and TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
So the fascination runs deep, an ever-potent imagery enjoying an incredible revival — which is reason enough to reference the literary and cinematic vampire as a textbook case of how myth, symbol, and art are used to reflect a truth, a concern, a passion, or an important value. Vampires, you see, though physically non-existent, are far from irrelevant. Pervasive myths never are — they tell a lot about how people feel and about the times in which one lives.
Now, when I use the word "myth," I don't intend the technical meaning employed by anthropologists but rather the more general usage as shown in the second definition in the American Heritage Dictionary: any real or fictional story, recurring theme, or character type that appeals to the consciousness of a people by embodying its cultural ideals or by giving expression to deep, commonly felt emotions.
Thus defined, myths are to be found everywhere. And some of the most powerful and influential occur in popular culture, since these are often the ones that have the greatest immediate social impact.
Take for example the fact that the vampire of 18th and 19th century literature, particularly English literature, is almost always an aristocrat. This is significant when a comparison is made to the earlier imagery from folklore, where the vampire is more often seen as a fellow peasant, perhaps a diseased member of the family who has died and who, through his or her plague and imagined stalking in the night, drains the life from the other family members one by one. (In many cases, this proved to be a reasonable primitive explanation for a phenomenon now better explained by the germ theory of disease.)
So, the nature of the vampire changed when its imagery was moved from folklore to literature. It changed because its audience was different. In such literature, produced by and for an emergent middle class, the vampire becomes a powerful symbol of the evils and absurdities of a predatory aristocracy — a blood-sucking nobility, often linked by family ties to foreign governments, that feeds off the labors of the middle and working classes. So the vampire became the villainous symbol in a class struggle, a battle the middle class was already winning.
To demonstrate this view of the literature, I need only note certain recurring story elements. There is the depiction of those who conquer the aristocratic fiend as members of the middle class. They are clerks, professors, elementary school teachers; and they frequently utilize an industrial technology completely unknown to the hopelessly feudal vampire. This is particularly evident in the 1897 novel, Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Here the middle class heroes are able to catch the count before he returns to his castle because they know how to plan their pursuit according to railroad timetables. He, on the other hand, is for the most part stuck on a slow-moving sailing ship. Symbolically ratifying and illustrating a contemporary European trend toward throwing off the yoke of monarchy, they pursue him back to his rotting castle, prove that such aristocrats have no heart, and expose him to the public light of day. By this process, the pedigreed ghoul is destroyed and capitalism is freed to flourish.
Another element of the literary vampire story of this period is its reflection of social tension caused by revolutions in science and technology.
With the end of World War I, and the resultant fall or diminution of a number of monarchies, this type of vampire imagery slipped from fashion — to be replaced by yet another variety. "The war to end all wars" had brought in its wake rampant poverty and disease throughout much of Europe. And to symbolize this suffering, a hideously ugly and plague-carrying fiend entered the scene, most starkly drawn in the 1922 German silent film Nosferatu: The Symphony of Horror.
Not devastated as Europe was, however, the United States experienced a change of values instead. The lyrics, "How ya gonna keep'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?" expressed the new worldliness of those returning from the war. The changing morality of the Roaring Twenties followed, making it possible to not-so-subliminally illustrate a growing sexual freedom in the stage production of Bram Stoker's novel. New emphasis was put on the sensuous symbolism already present in the book. And Lord Byron's century-old imagery of a vampire as a handsome and charming nobleman, suave and cultured, with continental accent and dashing cape, was easily revived. In October 1927 Dracula opened on Broadway with Bela Lugosi as the lead. It quickly became a major hit, followed by two national tours that grossed its promoters millions of dollars.
During the Great Depression that followed, public interest in vampire lore increased more than ever. Ray Carney, professor of film at Boston University, notes that Dracula always rises again in hard economic times. "Vampires play into our sense of being drained by unseen forces," he explains. So the play was transferred to film in 1931, where the mysterious and sexy count continues to feed off of his victims, and to wage war against traditional morality. Such a vampire, of course, can never be allowed to win. He (and in the 1936 Dracula's Daughter, she) must finally be conquered by cross-bearing religious fanatics who will make it a point to either kill or convert back every sexually liberated woman or man the vampire has created. This is a mid-twentieth century allegory of reaction, a story told by those who would save a repressive system of "family values" from the supposed evil influences of an unstable and changing world.
Its popularity with audiences, however, stemmed more, perhaps, from the way it titillated, the way it offered increasingly positive images of "forbidden fruit." During the 1940s this sensual approach became a commodity, a product to be marketed through numerous repetitive plots carried out by a stable of recycled actors. And we had the ever seductive Hollywood vampire.
New postwar sexual revolutions of the 1950s and 60s served to render vampires even more attractive, and their victims more willing. Gay and Lesbian vampires entered the scene in the 1970s. After that, a number of other changes began to occur. Ray Carney declares, "The core of the vampire is sexual dynamics, that frightening territory where someone possesses you, and you become obsessed. There is a sense of betrayal, of being out of control, of men and women using each other."
During most of this time, from 1958 to 1979, Christopher Lee eclipsed Bela Lugosi as the quintessential blood-sucking tempter, though sadder than his predecessors, and for that reason increasingly desirable. The sadness, in fact, soon became a statement of its own, bringing the vampire into its most recent transformation – as someone we could sympathize with.
Beginning in the late 1960s, alongside a rising social and global consciousness, some vampires were metamorphosed into tormented and self-deprecating heroes. There was Barnabas of the Dark Shadows TV series, Louis and Lestat of the Anne Rice novels. These are beings who suffer from an existential inner conflict, uncertainty, and guilt. Try as they may, these vampires cannot help the fact that, in the very act of living, they wreak death and destruction on legions of innocent victims. In short, the vampires become ourselves — a people who, while enjoying the consumer society that provides so much life and pleasure, unwittingly and ironically rape and destroy the planet; suck the life out of cultures in the poorer nations, even the cultures of our own poor. The symbol of the vampire thus has come to appeal subtly to a, perhaps unconscious, angst generated by our own witnessing on TV of scenes of so many people dying in famines and natural disasters. Further, it encourages many to consider the idea that today's fat and industrialized nations are comprised of (albeit well-meaning) parasites feeding off of the oppressed.
This change in the meaning of the image indicates that the old style vampire scares us less and less. From the beginning of World War II we have existed in an environment that has spawned a Hitler, a Stalin, and a Mao. What can a mere vampire do to top that? In "limited wars" our country utilizes horrifyingly powerful weapons. As a result, no vampire, no matter how vicious, impersonal, or thirsty, can begin to compete with an ordinary 18-year-old American soldier sitting behind a 20 MM electric cannon firing 700 explosive rounds per minute. Vampires can stir our fears today only if their evil is psychological and grips us in a vice of inner conflict. So this is one thing that vampires have become — mirrors of our own socially-aware self-doubts.
For teenagers today, vampires and those who love them represent misunderstood misfits. As a metaphor for AIDS we are encountering a deadly act of love. For these and other reasons, vampires remain very much with us. In Anne Rice's words, they are "a fathomless well of metaphor," as are so many other myths and symbols.
However, a common approach in many humanist and freethought circles back the 1990s was to debunk rather than understand a superstition — to prove, for example, that no vampires existed (as if very many people really thought they did)! And, when not so engaged, humanists and freethinkers tended to forget about myth, legend, and folklore altogether. In the light of a literalistic, almost legalistic, rationalism, symbols and imagery became annoying. Were humanists to continue taking such a reaction, it would doom humanism to irrelevancy.
For you see, myth, symbol, and art often appeal to very human visceral and subconscious feelings. But this should not be cause to relegate them to the misty isles of the irrational. Works of symbolic art — narratives both folkloric and literary — are almost always deliberate and even rational products of the mind. Behind them stand difficult creative and intellectual processes, not to mention a long and distinguished history of artistic and literary criticism. Narrative art in particular must stay within certain rational bounds, as laid out by Aristotle in his Poetics, in order to maximize its aesthetic and social appeal.
Humanists who pride themselves in their rationality and common sense can, when they look more broadly, appreciate that the story narrative is perhaps the most efficient means of communication known to humanity, one not lacking in intellectual and ethical merits. Whether present in a film, novel, play, poem, or song, a well-told story can affect the mind in a way no didactic lecture or philosophical argument usually can — and the idea so imparted will more easily be remembered. That is why, in the lives of so many millions of secular people today, art, literature, and music have supplanted religion as the method of choice for examining ethical and moral questions.
And the humanist movement grows, it is reaching that secular audience. More humanists are tapping into the aesthetic — growing comfortable in the presence of striking images and gripping tales and becoming at ease with the power of myth and symbol. All great political and religious movements have had their images and stories. There have been hero tales, allegories, legends, and songs. And from these such movements have derived strength, staying-power, and growth.
Jesus told parables. The Bible is a collection of narratives, not philosophical arguments. Evangelicals give anecdotal personal testimonies, not scientific demonstrations. In short, human beings are captivated by a good story. It is one of the ways people recreate their experiences in order to make sense of them. Stories are thus part of the rational and analytic process, not mere superstitious or emotional substitutes for thinking.
Stories are also democratic. They can reach a wide audience that includes people not frequently engaged in philosophical and ethical discourse — which is why the story narrative may prove to be the vehicle of choice by which humanism is taken to the people.
Indeed there have been humanist storytellers and humanist stories in the past. One only need view a tragedy by Euripides to find out. Consider the following examples.
In The Bacchae, Euripides expresses in poetic drama all the seductions and dangers of cultic and fanatical belief. His characters suffer personal tragedy to the very extent that they allow themselves to become caught up in the Bacchic frenzy, or to dogmatically and undemocratically work to suppress the Dionysian cult. And Dionysus, in the end, is exposed as the cruel, capricious, and vindictive god that he is. Through him, all his promises of joy through faith are ultimately broken.
In Iphigenia at Aulis, a priest declares that Agamemnon has sinned against a god, and this is why the wind has not blown, and will not, to send his thousand ships to Troy. Only penance through the sacrifice of his daughter will restore the god's good graces. So, reluctantly, Agamemnon orders the daughter seized and burned at the stake. She is courageous in the face of death, while her father's cowardice before the altar of superstition unwittingly dooms him also — he will later be murdered by his wife to avenge the daughter's death. But, for now, the priest lights the flame, and, ironically, not a moment too soon, because the winds have already begun to blow.
In The Trojan Women, the forgotten suffering in the aftermath of every war is laid bare. One undeserved tragedy after another befalls those women of Troy unlucky enough to survive the final destruction of their once proud city. And why was Troy brought down? For what did so many Greeks and Trojans give their lives? To retrieve a wife charged with adultery.
Euripides criticizes in his plays religious fanaticism, superstition, male domination, war, and other evils. But how often are his works recommended to humanist or would-be humanist readers? How often do humanist groups show the gripping film versions: Michael Cacoyannis' Iphigenia and The Trojan Women?
The names of other humanist storytellers are legion: Lucian, Moliere, Shakespeare, George Eliot, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, Sinclair Lewis, Margaret Atwood, and Kurt Vonnegut, to name just a few.
In the realm of popular fiction, we often think of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Not only did his work express humanist values, but he was directly involved with the humanist movement, as was mystery writer Miriam Allen DeFord. Yet, when it comes to the direct glorification of reason through storytelling, perhaps no writer did more than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His character, Sherlock Holmes, by his shrewd use of logic, heroically personifies the power of rationality in action. (Some humanists, unfortunately, prefer to focus on the author's private beliefs in the paranormal, especially his promotion of some rather curious photographs of fairies.)
Outside of popular novels and short stories, there is the even more accessible material from television. It hasn't always been easy to deliver Humanist views to the wide audience reached by this medium, but today, due in part to the pioneering work of the late "Star Trek" producer Gene Roddenberry, the public has increasingly become comfortable with various aspects of the humanist message. An avowed humanist and atheist, Roddenberry made no bones as to what he was up to. When receiving the 1991 Humanist Arts Award from the American Humanist Association, he encouraged others to follow his lead and keep finding ways to insert humanist messages into their work. Today on television, numerous shows from time to time present humanistic ideas that years ago would have been quickly censored. So noticeable has this change been that evangelical Christian groups frequently charge that humanists have taken over the networks! They point to such popular shows as House, The Mentalist, and The Simpsons.
Beyond novels and teleplays, there are other ways to relate stories. In more tribal cultures there is the village storyteller who relates legends with special meaning to the community. In urban societies the counterpart is the nightclub stand-up comedian. She or he shares with eager audiences striking insights about society, human relationships, politics, and anything else that matters.
In fact, a good joke or humorous story can often illustrate a point better than an intellectual argument can. Take, for example, the understanding that, with blind faith, agreement between people isn't really possible. Once the reliable triad of reason, observation, and compassion is abandoned as a standard of judgment, there's no longer any common ground people can find. Might becomes right, and differences between individuals and groups must be settled by force.
No need to venture into the labyrinth of logic and epistemology to argue this. Just do as Mark Twain did in "The Damned Human Race" and tell the story of a little scientific test.
Among my experiments was this. In an hour I taught a cat and a dog to be friends. I put them in a cage. In another hour I taught them to be friends with a rabbit. In the course of two days I was able to add a fox, a goose, a squirrel and some doves. Finally a monkey. They lived together in peace; even affectionately.
Next, in another cage I confined an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, and as soon as he seemed tame I added a Scotch Presbyterian from Aberdeen. Next a Turk from Constantinople; a Greek Christian from Crete; an Armenian; a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas; a Buddhist from China; a Brahman from Benares. Finally, a Salvation Army Colonel from Wapping.
Then I stayed away two whole days. When I came back to note results, the cage of Higher Animals [the non-humans] was all right, but in the other there was but a chaos of gory odds and ends of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and flesh — not a specimen left alive. These Reasoning Animals had disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court.
Or let's take the argument that it's an easy thing to believe in the wrong religion, the wrong god. What proof has anyone that they've chosen aright? A person needs verification if he or she really wants security.
But why go on? Just tell the story about the sky diver.
And lo, the time had come to pull the rip cord and release her chute. So she pulled it. She pulled it as she always had. She pulled it hard and waited.
But nothing happened.
She pulled again, harder, again and again, until it broke loose in her hand — but the parachute remained as tightly packed as before.
And she continued to fall free, the green earth rising up, rapidly, to greet her.
In her struggle, a beaded cross she'd chained about her neck worked free of her blouse and began to swing out in mid-air. It dangled before her eyes. It dangled until, suddenly, in a desperate rush of panic and faith, she grabbed it. Holding it tightly she shouted out loud, "Oh St. Francis, save me!"
She prayed as she shouted, hope linked with fear in what she knew was her last gasp of belief.
When out from the clouds above streaked a giant hand. Like lightening it seized her body and held her firm. Protectively it ended her fall. And the woman heaved a sigh of relief and thanksgiving.
"Oh thank you! Thank you dear St. Francis. You are my guardian, my hope, my solace. I will honor you forever: dear, dear St. Francis!" But a thunderous voice in the sky inquired loudly, "'Ignatius' or 'of Assisi?'"
The woman swallowed hard and thought. She looked at the hand that held her. And then, with a trembling voice she chose, "Of Assisi."
Suddenly the hand opened, her free fall resumed, and the voice boomed loudly, "Wrong!"
Finally, consider the position that it is foolish to literally believe in a myth or superstition, no matter how persuasive it is. Need one belabor this point with examples of harm from false belief? Or can one just tell the story of the man skiing down the mountain?
So it came to pass that he was alone on the slope. He had removed himself far from his friends and was enjoying the solitude of nature. As the winter wind whipped through his hair, its sound fusing with that of his skis blading deftly through the pliant snow, a sense of buoyancy transported his mind.
And distracted him from the jagged reality of a cliff edge rushing rapidly toward his feet.
His eyes fell upon it at just the last moment. He turned his skis sharply to the left, tried to avoid going over, but it was too late. He tumbled down along the sheer face, grasping at anything he might hold, and, by the purest luck, his hand caught a branch and halted his descent.
Halted him, and there he hung.
He was too far down now to clamber up. And as he looked at his feet, still swinging to and fro from the shock of his sudden stop, he could see nothing but a deep and ragged chasm, its floor easily more than a mile below. The branch was all he had. It cracked from the strain, threatening to break under the pressure of his weight.
As he held on, pale with fear, he slowly, cautiously, so as not to stress the branch even more, let out a cry. "Is anybody there?!"
The words bounced off of the ridges and echoed through the gulf. He waited. There was no answer. So he called out again. "Is anybody there?!"
Again, the words reverberated against the silent rocks. But this time, slowly, sensuously, with increasing clarity, a soft and protective voice began to rise up from the depths of the chasm. Feminine and sweet, it spoke with welcome words. "I am here." Its delicate tones seemed to fill the mountains. "I am here for you, the Goddess of the Abyss, the Mother of the Crags. I will protect you! Let go of that branch and allow yourself fall, safe into my arms. Trust me. Have faith in the salvation of my warm bosom."
As her last words slipped away, cool into the depths, the man continued to hold on, perplexed. He looked about. He thought and wondered.
And then, after a long and considered silence, he shouted out, "Is anybody else there!"
Yes, stories can go a long way toward making a point. Therefore, we needn't define our philosophy exclusively in abstract and intellectual terms. Plato, in his dialogue style of philosophizing and with his frequent use of examples from mythology, helped show that this is the way we humans naturally explore and communicate even abstract ideas. So why shouldn't we see this as permission to be who we are? Humanism can be, not only intellectual, but aesthetic as well.
Today, postmodernism has addressed this, inducing us to be less smug about supposed "objective truths" and to increase our recognition of the rich and human narratives to be found everywhere, even in humanist conclusions and ideals.
As we've seen, the same myths, the same symbols, can have vastly different meanings at different times and places. So myths and symbols need not be viewed as unchanging. They are better seen as vehicles for helping people understand and communicate new ideas.
In this connection, we've found that humanism has a story to tell. It has works of art, and may now call upon and use them without apology. Myths and symbols play a natural part in the pattern of truth and understanding. Myths and symbols are also uniquely human, as decidedly so as reason and science. As such, it is only normal that a broad-based humanist philosophy will include them within its universe.
And it is a perfect fit for the Prairie UU Society, which affirms and promotes "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning."
This lecture was presented as the pulpit address at the Sunday service of the Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society of Madison, Wisconsin, on April 3, 2011. An early version was published as a paper in Humanism Today, the journal of the Humanist Institute, in 1994.
Fred Edwords is national director of the United Coalition of Reason and the International Darwin Day Foundation, serves on the faculty of the Humanist Institute, and acts as a management and public relations consultant to the American Humanist Association.