What If Globalization Creates Vampires?
Inspired by a new book on vampires, Italian writer Chiara Valerio analyzes how the figure of the vampire has come to represent life and death over centuries of science, art and culture. When understood through a modern lens, what can the vampire tell us about our own Gothic concerns?
TURIN — What is death?
Well, let's put it like this: what is a vampire? From the moment that they first made their appearance in fiction, vampires have served as a symbol through which to understand the relationship between life and death. But did vampires exist before Gothic fiction? What did it mean to return from the dead and be nourished by blood? Could it have been not horrifying — but divine?
These are the questions that Italian writer Francesco Paolo De Ceglia asks in his book Vampyr, Storia Naturale Della Resurrezione (Vampyr: A Natural History of Resurrection). The book looks at centuries of meditations on the question of death, consisting of religious and scientific nuances, metaphors, and metonymies. Often, it all adds up to nothing more than pain.
Reading De Ceglia, it becomes clear that when understanding death, the pivotal issue is the separation between the scientific moment of death and the metaphysical question of what comes after. Today, technology can pinpoint the exact instant of death. But the threshold between life and death hasn't always been such a sharply defined one. For centuries and centuries, humans observed how the process breathing ceased and that of decomposition began, both obscuring and exposing the human body. Little wonder that an army of shadowy figures made their way into the decomposing body — the vampire being the most famous of them all.
The vampire, more than witches and werewolves, even more than ghosts, stands as proof that the question "What is death?" cannot exist without the question "What is life?"
In this overlap, the natural history of resurrection imagined and compiled by De Ceglia is a cultural history of blood. When blood flows, the body is alive. In some way. Where there is blood at all, the body is alive. It doesn't matter to whom the blood belongs.
With globalization, new vampires are born.
To mix blood as a vampire does is to disrupt the strongly Western, entirely patriarchal idea that blood is a political instrument, that blood purity exists and should be preserved. Instead, the vampire tells us that there is only the blood that measures life and binds us all together.
The same principle is embodied in the figure of the saint, for instance. A body considered dead but found intact — capable of blood, we could say — is the body of a saint for Catholic Christians, while for non-Catholic Christians, it could be a vampire. What's in a name?
Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1922)
Bram Stoker's Dracula/Imdb
Vampirism in the modern world
Greek and Roman myth is replete with symbologies on the stasis between living and not. We find witches, werewolves, ghosts, and other liminal creatures — but there are also lessons to be drawn from how we understood and continue to understand plagues and infections. You need only look at the depictions of the modes of contagion that are also their own immunization. Now think of how a vampire's blood can both turn you into one of those creatures or protect you from them.
And so it goes on forever. In today's globalized world, we should not only be concerned about geographies and economies but also data. It has become the new essence of our lives, akin to blood, stored in servers splattered across the world. What is it to be immortalized through our data, for it to be piled and mixed with millions of others? With globalization, new vampires are born.
We start asking ourselves again, "What is death?" while trying to answer, in fact, "What will this new life be like?" Globalization is a form of resurrection, and hence, the breeding ground of vampires.
Robert Pattinson in Twilight (2008)
My own book, Così Per Sempre ("Like this Forever) presents another Italian take on the figure of the vampire. Dracula isn't dead; he has simply moved to Rome, saved with the help of a faithful assistant, Ion Tzara. Just as De Ceglia notes, Jesus didn't rise from the dead; he left on his own two feet with the help of Joseph of Arimathea.
The vampire tells us more about ourselves than we can say about vampires.
In Così Per Sempre, resurrection is a continuous and uninterrupted process, a measure of metamorphosis and change. We each return from our past, as if we were rising, to face time and the future from the grave of all our yesterdays. We carry our grave with us like snails carry their homes.
This idea is everywhere: in the original Bram Stoker novel, in Coppola's film adaptation, in essays and scripts and fiction. But books work like blood; they mix.
It seems that the vampire tells us more about ourselves than we can say about vampires.
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