Wednesday 18 December 2013

The limitations of manliness in Dracula

The following was to be part of the postscript for That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012) but I instead decided to insert a Coda which examined the  appeal of the Gothic in our times. In retrospect, I think the right decision was made. The original postscript works best as a series of blogs. This short piece concludes that series.

Bram Stoker
If Stoker conceived of Dracula as a critique of scientific positivism, he also challenges the assumption that mental health can be best achieved through self-control notwithstanding his expository writing wherein he explicitly champions the need for self-censorship. One reading of Stoker argues that his novels and other writings endorsed the need for restraint and the restoration of firm boundaries, and from what we know about his life we can assert that fear of disclosure and incitement of raw passions were overriding values. But his ability to write in the Gothic genre allowed him to explore more subversive ideas. For all his conservative values, there is evidence in this nuanced novel of his tongue-in-cheek spirit to question the healthy male model of self-control that was so esteemed in the late nineteenth century. Perhaps this penchant reflected his Irish sensibilities and a wickedly perverse impulse to turn an Anglo stereotype of the Irish back on its perpetrators. For years the Anglo-Saxons had embodied masculine, virile qualities whereas the Celts were condemned as emotionally incontinent, with a sensibility that exuded a soft feminine quality with its “nervous exaltation.” This stereotype of the Irish fits the description of female hysteria that Mina experiences, but as I tried to demonstrate in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War, Stoker’s portrait of Mina is much more complex.

The male characters equal, if not surpass, Mina in fretting about breaking down as the spectre of madness looms large for them. Renfield is the only one that is certified a lunatic but he has more insight into the dangers that Dracula poses not only for him, but also for Mina, than the healthy men do. Jonathan Harker experiences “brain fever” as a result of his forcible confinement and traumatic encounter with the three female vampires while in Dracula’s Castle that leaves him feeling weak and diminished. His somnolent ravings, his amnesia on waking, the resolution gone out of his eyes, the relapse and subsequent amnesia one month after his wedding on seeing Dracula ogling a pretty girl, are symptoms that Jean–Martin Charcot would have diagnosed as male hysteria. Indeed, his hysteria was more acute than that experienced by Mina. He does, however, acknowledge the support of Van Helsing, who has read his journal and written to Mina, affirming the reality of what he experienced in the castle even if it lies outside the boundaries of conventional science and religion. John Seward, often depressed and even suicidal, constantly frets about breaking down and going mad from which he protects himself through worka defence that inhibits his professional development but possibly saves his sanity. He often consumes drugs to sleep and worries about becoming addicted. Since powerful emotions, especially in men, need to be contained and sanitized, the act of writing permitted both expression of the words and the restraint of feelings that would otherwise appear unmanly. To the embarrassment and incomprehension of Seward, Van Helsing breaks into a fit of uncontrollable giggles and tears after the death of Lucy. Manliness is not what defeats Dracula; Mina’s hybrid of feminine compassion and masculine ingenuity and tough mindedness are more germane. Stoker intuitively understood that the manly model of emotional self-restraint and the constant exercise of will power by themselves were inadequate tools to confront vampirism or the undead.
Male hysteria vividly captured in Stanley Kubrick's 1957 Paths of Glory

Had Stoker lived three years more, he would have witnessed the powerful currents of World War Ι in which thousands of men enlisted in a war that would severely test their manhood in ways that were almost unprecedented and where the forces symbolized by vampirism re-emerged: xenophobia, the blood lust and men trapped between life and death as the casualties of severe war wounds or post-traumatic stress. In this tragedy, reason and self-restraint were helpless before the maws of a technological war devoured young men. In a small way, Dracula portends what happens to healthy men when confronted by a powerful enemy when terror and horror can reduce these men to a shadow of their former lives when they suffered from shell-shock.


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