Thundering at The Door: Vampires, Ibsen and Mad Men

Halvard Solness?

Reading Ben’s post on stagnant thought and homogenous time, I thought of a cultural rut that America seems unable to escape: an obsession with vampires. The past two years have seen “Twilight,” “True Blood” and “The Vampire Diaries, ” not to mention a flurry of knock-offs. Today, the movie “Let Me In” comes out in theaters, a vampire film which is itself an adaptation of the Swedish film “Let The Right One In.” Even the venerable New Yorker has dedicated a panel in its three-day festival to the phenomenon. Of course, media executives often hop on the bandwagon of whatever superficial element seems to be selling tickets and DVDs. Still, I am curious about this cultural trend. What is so compelling about vampires right now?

Writing about the zombie craze that has had a stranglehold on the nation’s (sub)consciousness, Mark McGurl refers in passing to the enduring appeal of vampires:

The brightest star in [the community of the Undead] has always been the vampire, with his elegantly alarming fangs and aristocratic lineage, and a philosophically instructive vampire vs. zombie class war is being conducted before our eyes today. Vampires are smart, agile, glamorous. Even when presented as a sort of minority community, as in the HBO show True Blood, they are also highly individualized, even eccentric, with identities held intact across centuries. They are “historical” figures in this sense, a representation, within the generic, of the realist ideal of character. But as the recent multimedia megahit Twilight makes clear, they should more properly be thought of simply as celebrities, beings superior to us in every way except morally. They represent the cruelty entailed in all our dreams of exalted individuality.

I think McGurl is right. The vampire represents our fantasies of being Hegelian, world-historical figures at the same time that they serve as a safe target for ressentiment at an aristocratic class seen as parasitic and debauched. This reading, however, falls short of explaining why there is such a craze for vampires right now, at this particular historical moment.

The first relevant feature of the vampire archetype to our times is eros without reproduction. It’s a cliché to talk about the vampire as an essentially sexual creature, but what really fascinates me is that, for all its sexual power, the vampire is impotent. All the sex/bloodsucking is incapable of creating new life; the only way a vampire can “reproduce” is by transforming a non-vampire, an act that is less reproduction than re-appropriation. Twilight is the notable exception, but the exception that seems to prove the rule: note the series’ intense fear of sexual intercourse, and the fact that Bella’s pregnancy almost kills her.

The immortality of the vampire also raises some interesting issues for a contemporary audience. McGurl’s identification of the vampire with Hegel’s concept of the world-historical figure is particularly useful here. World-historical figures are world-historical because they have some sort of insight into the zeitgeist; as Hegel puts it, they are “thinking men who [have] an insight into the requirements of the time – what was ripe for development . . . [the world-historical individual] is devoted to the One Aim, regardless of all else.” At the same time, Hegel notes, the world-historical person is unlikely to be aware of his role in serving the World-Spirit: “Such individuals had no consciousness of the general Idea they were unfolding, while prosecuting those aims of theirs; on the contrary, they were practical, political men.” The eternal, world-historical individual is a curious paradox. He would share the eternal moment of the World-Spirit, and act instinctively in the spirit of that moment, but he would likely be ignorant of the historical progress of the world. In other words, the vampire is a powerful being who is nevertheless trapped in an eternal present, unable to conceive of a possible future.

The prototype of this particular vampire comes not from Bram Stoker, but from Henrik Ibsen. The main character of his play The Master Builder, Halvard Solness, is the key to understanding the modern preoccupation with the vampire. For, despite his lack of dramatic bloodsucking, Solness truly is a vampire. He refuses to graduate his apprentice, Ragnar Brovik, so that he may continue to feed on his creative ability. Further, Solness is simultaneously erotic and impotent. He seduces Ragnar’s wife, but contrary to appearances, he never consummates the relationship; it is simply a means to the end of keeping Ragnar attached to him. He is also creatively ineffectual: despite his reputation, he long ago abandoned the grand artistic challenge of building churches in favor of building “homes for human beings,” and Ragnar’s father Knut, contrasting Solness’ designs with Ragnar’s “completely new and different” designs, suggests subtly that Solness is long past his creative prime.

Solness is the type of world-historical genius who has a unique insight into the zeitgeist. He sees a crack in the chimney of his wife’s childhood home and does nothing, allowing the building to burn down in order to give him the opportunity to build a new home that would create his reputation. This is the world-historical mentality in action: “If old Knut Brovik had owned the house, it never would have burned down so conveniently for him – I’m positive of that. Because he doesn’t know how to call on the helpers, or the servers either.” But trapped in an eternal present, Solness has an intense fear of change, growing, by his own admission “awfully afraid of the young. . . . Wait and see, the young will come here, thundering at the door! Breaking in on me! . . . they’re retribution–the spearhead of change–as if they came marching under a new flag.” Note the traditional vampiric aversion to thresholds. Who the young are and what change they bring always remains vague. Solness doesn’t fear one development in particular, but rather the whole idea of development; or better yet, the final development, the arrival of the Eschaton that will put an end to his dominance. When the character Hilda–herself an uncanny, eternally youthful presence from Solness’ past–announces that she “wants her kingdom,” the symbolism isn’t exactly subtle.

The Solness vampire, freed from the baggage of fangs and capes, can be found throughout contemporary culture. Consider Mad Mens Roger Sterling. In the most recent season, Roger has either no desire or no ability to bring in new business to the firm, and instead feeds off of the abilities of others: Don’s advertising acumen, Pete’s sales ability. Sterling is still powerful, but he lives in a world he does not understand, surrounded by rapid change that petrifies him. In the episode “The Sword and The Chrysanthemum,” he sabotages a deal with Honda. The excuse he gives is that, as a World War II veteran, the idea of doing business with the Japanese is abhorrent to him. But as Pete points out in the confrontation that follows, Roger’s real reason is that Pete bringing in the Honda account would shift the power balance away from Roger and towards Pete–and towards the younger members of the firm in general. Roger’s complaint to Joan towards the end of the episode is very telling: “Since when is forgiveness considered better than loyalty?” Forgiveness here really means change, and not just any change–it means the dramatic, historical change that renders the ledgers of the previous era meaningless. It means a minor eschaton.

It is an anxiety over eschatology, Walter Benjamin points out, that is at the root of the prevalence of vampirism in contemporary culture. In The Origin of German Tragic Drama, he writes about what was perhaps the original Solness vampire, the sovereign of the tragic form called Trauerspiel. The sovereign is characterized by melancholy and an inability to take action. The root of the characterization, Benjamin argues, is, on one hand, Calvinist thought that reduces all human action to the non-historical function of the signposts of predestination and, on the other hand, the Counter-Reformation which positively rejects historical development. The sovereign has the power to act historically, but also the knowledge that such action is futile. The future is something that he cannot comprehend and that positively excludes him. Thus, he does not move:

The religious man of the baroque era clings so tightly to the world because of the feeling that he is being driven along to a cataract with it. The baroque knows no eschatology; and for that very reason it possesses no mechanism by which all earthly things are gathered in together and exalted before being consigned to their end. The hereafter is emptied of everything which contains the slightest breath of this world, and from it the baroque extracts a profusion of things which customarily escaped the grasp of artistic formulation and, at its high point, brings them violently into the light of day, in order to clear an ultimate heaven, enabling it, as a vacuum, one day to destroy the world with catastrophic violence.

As Benjamin knows so well, the modern significance is that the baroque period represents the birth of our modern, capitalist society. Their religious men are now our Solnesses and Sterlings.

We hear constantly from the media, from politicians and from entertainment that our way of life has been too good for us. It will come to an end. The world will boil over. The US will go bankrupt. Our food supply is unsustainable. It’s simply been too good and it has to end, and when it will end, it will end in a cataclysm. Obsessed with such an outlook, our society bitterly resists any sort of change that might herald the end. It refuses to let our current form of unrestricted capitalism die. And when something’s time is up, and it refuses to die, what can it be other than undead?

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One Response to Thundering at The Door: Vampires, Ibsen and Mad Men

  1. brendan says:

    Really excellent essay. I especially liked the analysis of the vampire mythos through the lens of Ibsen leading to your interpretation of Roger Sterling’s decline within the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Price.

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