Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Vampire as a Leaky Vessel: problems of gender in vampire fiction, part 1

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will update weekly, addressing late 19th and early 20th Century vampire fiction:

So, I'm not entirely sure where I first encountered the expression, “the female body is a leaky vessel”, but I know it was at some point during my BA. I was reading one of those books I used to get to peruse – the ones with titles like, Queering the Middle Ages1. Anyway, I liked the phrase. It stuck with me all through the writing, reading and note-taking I did on archetypes in folk ballads and the legality and theology behind pre-1750 marriage, simply because that is a brilliant way of looking at the whole squeamish, misogynist mess surrounding bodies in our culture. The female body is leaky.

For we have, do we not, a dichotomy in the dominant social discourse? A myth of two genders who fall under that generic term of 'mankind'. Two genders, one of which does it all properly, and another which doesn't exactly play ball, which is – not to put too fine a point on it – faulty. After all, women don't have a discreet pattern of arousal. They don't have nice, neat interaction with the reproductive process, an inoffensive little flap of tissue that hangs down, and – in theory - only makes its presence felt, only making a mess when it is called upon to do its duty. If the male member realises that it is not wanted, it can – at least theoretically – make its retreat. After the business is done, it need only wash itself and we are back to square one, back to the unperturbed, normative, sexless body of inert masculinity.

Without that pattern of arousal, while the female body can never be considered entirely sexual, it is also never - socially, politically, or even physically – inert. In terms of sexuality, the female body is leaky.

If it were not enough that women can't have a man's proud, upstanding organ, not enough that their bodies have – potentially – limitless ability for sexual performance2, women menstruate. If you have unprotected sex with them, women drip. And after that there is pregnancy with all its discharge, morning sickness, blocked sinuses, swelling middles and stress incontinence. There is labour with all the blood, faeces, vomit, amniotic fluid and 'show' – that nightmare combination of sneeze and nosebleed which makes its presence felt through jellied lumps sliding from woman's vulva just as she enters active labour. (Consider this a public service announcement for all expectant mothers. No-one ever tells you about 'show'.)

I apologise to any gentlemen who are now running for the smelling salts, but suffice to say all this unspeakable mess doesn't even take us to the baby, which (covered in meconium or otherwise), flops out, followed by a blue-white sinew of umblilical cord and a chunk of bloody yech that is the after birth. When that's all done, then comes the lactating: tits like Catwoman's, and the superpower of being able to shoot milk across a room, ruining five bras in half an hour.

Honestly, if you're beginning to sympathise with some of the more paranoid ramblings I encountered during my degree, I can see your point. You may sympathise with that old moderate, St Jerome, who got his head in such a twist over the idea of pregnant women that he had the urge to punch them in the bump.3 Or you may feel there was some grounding in the medical treatise that claimed women's menstruation was how they rid themselves of the impurities they got from congress with lepers.


Also, what?

We went pretty quickly from 'ugh, girl cooties' to 'fornicating with lepers'. What with the moral and social stigma attached Hansen's disease and extra-marital sex in that period, that's a pretty extreme explanation for a routine process of ejecting useless tissue.

But that's just it, isn't it? This discourse of leaky women who drip and bleed and gush plays very easily into a belief that women are leaky in their moral, as well as physical selves. After all, to the medieval imagination, women, were the agents of the fall. In the dichotomy of heaven/earth, king/state, head/body, women were very much supposed to occupy the latter position in each balance. This rhetoric is remarkably pervasive. Go to the right places, you'll still hear it today: “Just as Jesus is the head of the church, so the man is...”

God created mankind in his image. He created women in his image, as well. He just created them a bit different, a bit more bodily, a bit more earthy, a bit, well, leakier. So it stands to reason, doesn't it, that if something is bodily rather than spiritual, animal rather than civilised, 'faulty' rather that 'normative', it is simultaneously less male, less human. Indeed, it becomes female.

I promised you vampires, didn't I?

There are lots of ways this nasty little myth wriggles itself into our culture. There are lots of ways it played out in the medieval discourse that I'm not going into here. What's interesting me right at this minute is the way my passion number one (perceptions of gender, sexuality and marriage, particularly in the medieval and early modern period) has a curious intersection with what is probably passion number three.

Namely, vampires.

Yes, that's it. Sorry it took me so long.

What this is really all about is a vague trend I have noticed from reading far, far too many vampire novels: the later the narrative, the more likely it is that male vampires will be portrayed as attractive, as desirable, as sympathetic. A female vampire not only retains a more or less steady attractiveness over time, but is in fact far less likely to occur the later the narrative.

The folkloric vampire and its liminal state:

We don't really see vampires as bodily any more. No, don't start listing all the gruesome vampire films you've seen – if you're reading this, you're probably an expert and therefore don't count. Instead, go and ask an average seven year old what a vampire looks like. Because in this, post-Dracula world, most people's first impression of a vampire is essentially a smoothed down version of Bela Lugosi – male, adult, white.

We all know what a vampire looks like
The image is cartoonish in its ubiquity. It is a Hallowe'en caricature: smooth skin and slick hair. Its colour come in bold blocks and contrasts: white shirt, black jacket; white skin, red eyes; black cloak, red lining. Even the much maligned Robert Patterson/Edward Cullen look feeds into this photo-shopped perception of vampirism: hair in such rigid spikes it looks carved that way, skin with something of a lacquered finish, eyes a bright amber under manga-distinct brows. Vampires these days are not physical, they do not smear themselves across our consciousness. They are complete, discreet, self-contained. They have the same studied passivity of religious icons.

Vampires didn't used to be like that. They didn't even, in the words of a thousand internet warriors,used to be 'bad-ass'. No. Vampires used to be leaky.

They are spirits, characters, identities that cannot be contained within the useful boxes that society and morality would teach us. They are death leaking into life, sexual desire seeping into the virginal bed. They are a combination of hysterical grief and lust. The folkloric ghouls, squeezing bloated from their graves, dripping blood from rotting maws, crawling back to infect those they beloved with the miasma of death and they are leaky in the extreme. If it is better to marry than to burn, traditional vampires reminded people of the destructive power of desire which had no respect for the proper sacraments, for holy days, for the fact that marriage lasts only until death. Like corruption, like the pox, the vampires trickle in to any crack left in the vessel – any invitation, any little flaw in your armour of hygiene and righteousness.

Yes, newsflash, vampires are about sex. No, not only about sex, of course, but it plays a major part. They are about morality, about corruption, about disease. They are about damnation and sin. They were created in a culture that saw no clear distinction between spiritual, moral and physical cleanliness. What better way to reject one's spiritual nature than to remain on earth in physical form? What better way to spread damnation than to crawl from your grave and corrupt your spouse, your children, your family - those connected to them through bodily means.

As much as from medical ignorance, from fear of illness, the myth of the vampire arises from fears of intimacy, of the way an 'earthly' bond can override the moral strictures of community and faith. It has its foundation in the obsessive attachment that strictures of religion and custom are intended to contain. Vampires were unreasonable, unreasoning in their appetites. They put human interaction before the law of God.

In the head/body, male/female dichotomy, these are female flaws, female traits. Whatever their gender, vampires were codified as female, as the the body, and as such, they leak.

Ruthven, Varney and Carmilla:

From these myths we draw the shattered beginnings of the vampire in literature.

What is strange, in the light of recent prejudices, is that vampires arrive on the literary stage having shaken off the majority of the grave mould. We have Lord Ruthven (1819), tall, magnetic, alarmingly cold. We have the beautiful, passionate Carmilla (1871). We have Sir Francis Varney (1847) who – while unspeakably ugly – dresses and speaks like a man of fashion.

Still, these vampires are leaky. As Polodori tells us, “their veins became distended to such a state of repletion, as to cause the blood to flow from all the passages of their bodies, and even from the very pores of their skins.” The mask they present, the refinement, is merely a pretty show that masks their wicked nature. The body that you lust after is merely food for the worms.

They are tempters, these vampires. Their danger is encoded as specifically related to Eve and to the Fall. Of course, they provide heavenly shows - wealth, affection, clever words and fine sensibilities – but these delights are transient, physical, worldly. What the vampire offers is the secular, sexual world, and it is offered at the cost of the immortal soul. Ruthven, “knew so well how to use the serpent's art” that he could corrupt even the most chaste. “There is not one of them,” says the cynical Mr Leek, of Varney, the Vampyre, “who would not marry the very devil himself and be called the Countess Lucifer... always provided there was plenty of money”.

And money there is, or at least class, because these vampires are modern, wealthy, titled. Here, of course, we enter another of those discourses that will come up when studying vampires: the corrupting influence of class, the brutality of an outdated aristocracy, the vampire in the Marxist sense. It is not to be overlooked that, as well as tempters, these vampires are awful snobs.

Ruthven is the opposite of charitable: he will give money to those whom it will fund in greater iniquity, but will meet the deserving poor with disdain. Sir Francis's intermittent gentility depends much on the class of his victims: to the aristocratic Flora he is courtly, villainous, and ultimately quits the field; to the impoverished-genteel Helen he is overbearing, until her faith for her penniless lover leads him to great magnanimity. The lower middle-class Mary, however, is faced with a wily, scornful beau who eventually ruins both her and her mother. Although Carmilla takes the majority of her sustenance from the working classes, she is firm: “I don't trouble my head about peasants.” Indeed, when a 'peasant' brings himself to her notice, she responds with an oration that would shame the tyrannical Lord of a melodrama, “My father would have had the wretch tied up to the pump, and flogged with a cart whip, and burnt to the bones with the cattle brand!”

All three prefer the rich, the aristocratic, the innocent. But this attitude is not high-mindedness, it is another mark of the vampire's attachment to corporeal things: transient beauty, material wealth, earthly rank. This snobbery, this cruelty, is merely another marker of the vampire's leaky nature. Ruthven oozes gold to the least reputable of characters, insinuates himself into positions of innocence, leaks out poison. Carmilla manipulates her way into the intimacy of the female home and brings corruption with her hot, uncomfortable kisses along her hostesses cheek. Varney is voluble, charming; he bleeds out words, language, as well as spreading his ever-diminishing wealth.

Femininity and Effeminacy:
The leakiness these vampires show is moral, is bodily, is material. To be precise, it is effeminate.

Internet pedant that I am, I use that word as the parallel of 'emasculate', rather than as a synonym for 'feminine'. To be feminine is to practice probity, chastity, to be silent, to be soft. Mulier, people still argue, has its root in mollior.

For a man to be emasculate is to go against the nature that was granted him by God – it is for him to go from hard, virile, purposeful and to descend to something weaker, softer, more female. For a woman to be effeminate she must make a similar failing in femininity. She must be sly, insinuating. She must gossip, spend, leak. But, as we know, women are by nature leaky and have been so since Eve. As femininity is already construed as softness, to sink to effeminacy is not to become 'harder', it is to cease being soft as in 'yielding', and to become soft as in 'faulty.' To call a woman emasculate is to point to her divinely ordained estate. To call a man effeminate is to mark him with the worst character possible.

And, female or male, these vampires are effeminate. Carmilla is described as languid, chatty, girlish. She has no energy for useful pursuits, sleeps until late, but she will waste an entire day in animated gossip. Sir Francis, for all his bluster about swords, is sneaky and treacherous in a fight. He prefers talking and trickery to the bluff action of Jack Pringle and Admiral Bell. Often, he is mentally unstable, even hysterical, wouldn't you say? When he spends money, he is ostentatious, like a peacock. Lord Ruthven, meanwhile, is that most despicable of things: a seducer, a man concerned more with masturbatory, compulsive pleasures than upright, virile masculinity. He has, we are told, “nothing in common with other men”.

In order to work that “serpent's art”, to bring other men down to their level, the vampires must find a point of weakness in the armour of righteousness. In these early stories, that weakness tends to be feminine, too.

Deviancy as Default - why it is always the woman's fault

1For the record, my degree was awesome.
2Assuming, of course, that the woman in question has legs which do not tire.
3That's how I remember it, anyway.

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