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Reading Dracula Again for the Very First Time.

October 3, 2009 3 comments

From the first time we burble “Again, again” after Daddy reads us The Snowy Day to the last time the mourners utter a pre-Eucharistic “Thanks be to God” at our funeral, we meatsacks are borne swiftly through life on the backs of familiar stories, repeated again and again and again until the words scarcely have meaning any more.

Throughout December and regardless of faith leaning, we hear the story of Christ’s birth. The Night Before Christmas gets endlessly repeated and re-written to fit the most mundane of applications, the office Christmas Party (Twas the night before Christmas/and all through Accounting,/the billing was late, the tensions were mounting).

Star Wars retold The Seven Samuari which retold every Western ever. Stories of the underdog’s triumph unwind endlessly back into history. Even the Creation stories our varied faith ascribe to have the ring of the familiar (Hey Noah.  Gilgamesh called.  He wants his flood back)

We’re comforted by their repetition.

And it’s that very familiarity I have to work to overcome when reading Dracula. Sure, Dracula is the vampire story that sired them all. But the fact that it’s the source, the ur-Dracula, means that while the plot elements can change from telling to telling, the tropes themselves never will.  And, for that matter, they never can.

So we have Harker en route to the castle, with every person he meets along the way telling him not to go.  We have a coachman pick him up at the Borgo Pass who we know to be Dracula.  The teeth,  the pallor, the inhuman strength.  The thrall he holds over the canine and lupine.

Has there ever been a book more deserving of having its reader yell, rude-in-the-movie-theater style, “Dude.  Do NOT get into that caleche.  DUDE!  DON’T.  Awwww maaaaan!”

We must have the willing victim.  We must have darkness and dogs.  We must have repressed heroes, helpless women (on which more, later) and the deus ex machina of a wizard/shaman/doctor/Van Helsing.

We welcome them, cheering as they enter on stage.  “Hey y’all it’s Jonathan Harker!  Hey Jonathan!  When you here a slap-slapping at the window, don’t open it dude!”

And yet.  As we read, no matter how familiar we are with how the story will play out, we KNOW that we’ll continue to read.  In fact, because we know the play and players so well already, we can spend more time peering into the text for subtleties.

Here’s some of what I’ll be looking for.

  • Does the Count have a sense of humor?
  • Is he playing with his food as he welcomes Harker to the castle?
  • Precisely how far up his own ass, careerally speaking, is Jonathan Harker’s head to miss out on the many disturbing signs he sees along the way because he’s so focused doing the job he was sent to do?
  • Are the women any weaker or stronger than the men in how they deal with Dracula?
  • Is the real evil in the book the Seward/Renfield relationship?
  • Is Dracula, for that matter, evil?  Or is he merely animal?
  • How does Dracula feel about his immortality?  Wouldn’t someone who could never die eventually wish he or she could if for no other reason than to try something truly new?

Too, like the story of the Nativity, every vampire tale brings a new element of the overall Dracula universe to light (so to speak).

So that’s my challenge to me.

What will you hope to find in this reading?

If this is your first ride through the Carpathians, what presuppositions will you have challenged?  If you’re an old pro, what will surprise you this time around?

Coatlicue

We learn on page 516 that Dr. Rusk “always wants to probe [Hal] on issues of space and self-definition and something she keeps calling the ‘Coatlicue Complex.’” This latter term has an end note reading “No clue,” which pretty much screams “go look it up.” Of course never until this read has it occurred to me to actually look it up. Courtesy of wikipedia, I’ve learned that Coatlicue is the following things:

  • the mother of gods
  • the one with the skirt of serpents
  • “Goddess of Fire and Fertility”
  • “Goddess of Life, Death and Rebirth”
  • “Mother of the Southern Stars”
  • she wore a pendant made of human hearts (calls to mind Poor Tony’s victim), hands, and skulls (alas, poor Yorick)
  • She represents the devouring mother, in whom both the womb and the grave exist.
  • According to Aztec legend, she was once magically impregnated by a ball of feathers that fell on her while she was sweeping a temple (she was rewarded for this ignominious begetting with a plot by daughter Coyolxauhqui to murder her, which plot was foiled by son Huitzilopochtli who sprang fully formed from the womb to kill his sister and prevent the murder)
  • the mother of Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl and Huitzilopochtli (among many others)
  • generally sort of a motherhood goddess, and a patron of mothers who die in childbirth
  • She’s also known as or associated with Toci, who is generally considered to be old but “is not always shown with specific markers of great age”
  • “Mother Goddess of the Earth who gives birth to all celestial things”

This makes me think of Avril’s (= April = spring = a time of fertility and rebirth) green thumb. She’s also the mother to a southern (football) star, and the notion of Avril as a devouring mother resonates with some of the ways in which she is so needy of her sons, but in a way that makes it obvious that she’s trying not to come off as needy — how she wants to seem as if she’s supportive almost more than she actually wants to be supportive and nonjudgmental. Orin describes her as “The Black Hole of Human Attention” (521); black holes are all-devouring. Orin has bird associations (I think I wrote something brief about this in a prior post), and Coatlicue has the whole impregnated-by-a-ball-of-feathers thing.

Which brings me to Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent deity who is often depicted with his beak-like mask insignia. Worship of Quetzalcoatl sometimes included animal sacrifice. His was a virgin birth. Orin’s birth may have been one of expediency (so not a virgin birth, but not quite a wholly wanted or optimal birth). He sacrifices the roaches that he finds in his bathroom. And he is feathered (playing for the Cardinals, sometimes literally feathered during pre-game antics) and is, with respect to his Subjects, sneaky and snake-like. He wears a helmet with a (vaguely) beak-like face mask.

Of course, then there’s another son, Huitzilopochtli, represented in iconography as a hummingbird with feathers only on his left side (isn’t Orin left-handed?), with a black face (“Orin” is an anagram of “noir”) and holding a snake-like scepter and a mirror (consider Orin’s fascination with watching Joelle’s short videos of himself).

Now consider Xolotl, a god (twin brother to Quetzalcoatl) of lightning (Incandenza = incandescent?) and death (Hal discovers his father’s body). In art, Xolotl was often depicted with reversed feet (Hal and the bad ankle?). He was the patron of the Mesoamerican ballgame, which resembled something like a cross between hip-volleyball and basketball but which had ritual associations (Eschaton, anyone?) and sometimes resulted in human sacrifice (Penn and Lord?). Of course, with Pemulis’s knowledge of optics (lightning = light) and his presiding over Eschaton, perhaps it’s less of a stretch to associate him with Xolotl than to associate Hal with the god.

Still, we know that Hal has indigenous American type heritage via a Pima-tribe great-grandmother (p. 101), and this, paired with the Coatlicue reference suggests that there may be something of good old native American mythology (versus the more obvious European mythology in evidence throughout the book) behind parts of this great American novel. The details could probably inform a pretty substantial master’s thesis in the hands of somebody with a better grounding in indigenous American culture than I have (meaning somebody who at minimum doesn’t have to go to wikipedia for recall of the stories behind even the most familiar deity names).

Getting back to the context for this tangent, what exactly does Rusk mean by a Coatlicue Complex? Hal sort of clings to the hem of Avril’s skirt (so to speak), and Coatlicue has a skirt of snakes, which calls to mind the Medusa myth. Yet Avril is no hag; a looker, she bears greater resemblance to the Canadian Odalisque variation on the myth. Hal, the hero (?) of stasis (like the hero he writes of in an essay within the book and of which somebody blogged about on one of the prominent Infinite Summer blogs, but I forget who and where) is ultimately rendered effectively stone-/gem-like. But Rusk of course has no idea about this future outcome. Maybe Rusk is getting at Hal’s habit of defining himself in terms of his mother’s all-devouring expectations of him. Or maybe this is just another, more American, way of saying Hal has something of an Oedipal complex.

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