Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Progress of the Twentieth Century

Vampire mythology is indefatigably interesting to me. The way Anne Rice depicts vampirism is exciting and engaging in her novel The Vampire Lestat, but I have my reservations. I read this book once before and am now re-reading it. She is, like many American writers, a mouthpiece for consumerist lifestyles, and in this way she operates as a kind of unacknowledged propagator of these values. This is much more clear to me now. Five pages into the novel we read that the Vampire Lestat has arisen from his slumber since the 1920s. The year is 1984 now, curiously, and he is loving American capitalism. I find this somewhat humorous, but I wonder if I should. Lestat explains,

"Department stores had become palaces of near Oriental loveliness--merchandise displayed amid soft tinted carpeting, eerie music, amber light. In the all-night drugstores, bottles of violent and green shampoo gleaned like gems on the sparkling glass shelves. Waitress drove sleek leather-lined automobiles to work. Dock laborers went home at night to swim in their heated backyard pools. Charwomen and plumbers changed at the end of the day into exquisitely cut manufactured clothes. In fact the poverty and filth that had been common in the big cities of the earth since time immemorial were almost completely washed away."
Lestat's inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations proceeds as follows:
"Ah, the Twentieth Century. Ah, the turn of the great wheel. It had outdistanced my wildest dreams of it, this future. It had made fools of grim people of ages past. I did a lot of thinking about this sinless secular morality, this optimism. The brilliantly lighted world where the value of human life was greater than it had ever been before."
But I must delve into a bit of Marxist literary criticism here. Lestat is obviously unaware of the perils of living outside the marvelous spectacle of middle-class abundance and progress. He glorifies the leisure and luxury at the disposal of the American middle class, or what appears to be an endless supply of credit and perfectly liquid capital markets. He has not seen any "slum" or witnessed any legitimate hardship in the capitalist spectacle. His eyes are fixed to television screens and the worldly possessions of an apparently classless and non-hierarchical society. It is particularly interesting that he never once mentions the working class nor the upper class, only the middle class, and he is oblivious to the wealth of any other nation, or any other neighborhood besides the bustlingly elitist French Quarter of the old New Orleans.

The sociology of this text is particularly telling; it is so obviously infused with the American mythology: that we are all members of the middle-class now, that there is no upper or working classes, that we have all been washed up by tide of increasing wealth, that there is no wealth disparity, and if there is: it is easily moved through the workings of mobility. But Anne Rice mentions these people very seldom, and when she does, she has reserved her most venomous words for them.

Lestat is particularly distasteful towards whom he calls "drunkards" and "beggars". Of course, 'we' have "achieved a certain androgyny," a certain aesthetic that the Marxists of the past had called "decadence". There is really no reason that there should be drunkards and beggars today, what with all the abundance and luxury described thus far.

This is a particularly interesting way of cementing our beliefs about the sociology of our world, that is, through the guise of the modern mythology of the vampire. The way fantasy and fiction authors in general describe our world by the devices of 'other worlds' is a way of passing on a code, a code that perhaps only Marxist literary critics are keen to, but to which we should all be familiar.

This is certainly only Anne Rice speaking here, not the Vampire Lestat. We are told that Lestat was witness to the French Revolution and who tilled the soil alongside peasants in the 1700s. The technological work and progress of the Twentieth Century had been remarkable and
it certainly has made fools of people like Thomas Malthus and other catastrophists. But the savage garden of Nineteenth Century had not in any way been completely uppified and utterly utopiafied by the Twentieth Century. What a silly joke. The Twentieth Century has been one of the bloodiest, most gruesome centuries known to the human race, and the Twenty First Century is looking no better.

One thing is clear, Lestat is not merely being a naive Eighteenth Century noble who landed in the last century. This is much more genuinely the way in which Anne Rice would assume a French person from the Eighteenth Century would evaluate our century. They would apparently fall head over heels in love the the workings of this mythically 'classless' capitalist empire, with all it's cultural niceties like rock and roll bands and what not.

Further Reading:

Rice, Anne. Interview With a Vampire. Ballantine Publishing Group. New York, NY: 1976.
Rice, Anne. The Vampire Lestat. Ballantine Publishing Group. New York, NY: 1985.
Rice, Anne. The Queen of the Damned. Ballantine Publishing Group. New York, NY: 1988
Lukács, Georg. History and Class Consciousness. Merlin Press Ltd. London, UK: 1971.

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