Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Thing About Vampires: The Immortal

To return to an idea explored in my last blogpost, Byron had a major impact on the invention of the modern vampire. Here is his description of it in his Oriental romance, The Giaour:

And fire unquench'd, unquenchable,
Around, within, thy heart shall dwell;
Nor ear can hear nor tongue can tell
The tortures of that inward hell!
But first, on earth as Vampire sent,
Thy corpse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race…

In a nutshell: immortality bites. Whenever Byron grants immortality to a figure, it is always a sad story. In his closet drama Manfred, the title character pulls a Byronic version of Faust in order to summon the demons of hell to—get this—help him commit suicide. Living forever means watching everyone you care about die—living forever means that you have more than enough time to get bored of a job or bored of a city or bored of Halloween trick-or-treating—living forever means this times infinity.

Some modern texts figure this out to a certain extent. In Buffy, vampires are demons without souls—and so they live immorally, in the moment, in the present, because they don’t have human minds. On the other hand (ugh) in Twilight, Edward Cullen and family live in Forks, Washington, sitting through an eternity of science labs and pep rallies and—I think I have failed to give major props to Stephenie Meyer. She just designed what seems to be my personal idea of hell.

In Hawthorne’s posthumous work Septimius Felton, the title character imagines being immortal—and then starts talking with his lover what they might do with seven centuries of life. The answer? A lot! He thinks about spending a hundred years just accumulating wealth—another hundred years getting into politics—another hundred years inventing things with his centuries’ worth of accumulated knowledge—a hundred years touring the world and drinking fine liquor—and only then does he worry that he might get bored. It’s meant to be a bit of a joke—Hawthorne himself thinks that eternal life is playing with fire—and we’re meant to see Septimius as a mortal imagining immortality as it were a five-year vacation cruise.

 And that’s what is particularly tricky about vampires—unless the vampire was sired yesterday, it is a very different person from you or me. Think about how many things your grandparents think about that you don’t understand—or don’t agree with—or don’t believe. Think about Victorian novels or Shakespearean sonnets—which are usually sanitized, standardized, and explained in detailed footnotes. These things are only the tip of the iceberg if we're dealing with century-old vampires. 

That’s not to say that vampires need speak Olde English—but they’ll have grown up in an age where Puritans murdered Catholics or where cholera wiped out thousands of people because they didn’t have flushing toilets. It’ll create a very different person—one that our (twenty-year-old, fifty-year-old) minds won’t fully be able to appreciate or create in all their actual nuance.

I’m not sure who qualifies as a very convincing vampire in our popular culture. Any thoughts?


  1. I have no suggestions on who is convincing, but i just finished watching the series Vampire Diaries (it's kind of silly, but I liked it), and even though they tried to make the Originals (who were their first vampires created and centuries old of course) seem so much different, the only way they could do so was to make one of them simply evil and living in the moment, but the other didn't seem very different at all (other than he was a little more prim and proper perhaps). I agree that eternity does sound kind of depressing....I can only read for so long :)

  2. Hahaha! Immortality bites! I'd have to agree. When something is limited, that's when it becomes most precious.