Friday, November 20, 2009

Claustrophilia I: Patrick O'Malley

Claustrophilia in the Vampire Crypt 

Toward the end of Claustrophilia, Cary Howie reflects that “before Chrétien de Troyes and Dennis Cooper were temporarily adjacent—though not continuous—authors for me, they were first books touching each other in space on my shelves” (150).  I love this image, suggesting as it does a contingency, fluidity, and transience of the archive, shuffling itself within the bathhouses and backrooms of our bookshelves.  What trysts and transformations occur as we organize our books alphabetically, or by size, or dustjacket color, or by the fleeting desires of our own perverse whims?  [I love it for the hint of erotic dissonance that is also abruptly clarifying: What, as their bodies touched or pounded, would Chrétien think of Cooper’s sexual brutalities—or Cooper think of Chrétien’s?]  And I love it for its insistence—as is true throughout this book—on the necessity of metonymy, through which, Howie points out, “enclosure is saved from impenetrability” (69), not—and crucially not—against metaphor but always proximate to it as well, “the metonymy that always inheres within the metaphorical” (142).  My investment in metonymy is perhaps self-serving: it is the alchemy of metonymy that allows me entrance—in all of Howie’s senses—to this panel and this room, I who am not continuous with the specific concerns and rhetorics—and archives—of medieval studies or, for that matter, early modernism but hopefully, and magically, temporarily adjacent to them.
      So what of my own bookshelves?  On them, Claustrophilia nestles between Gail Turley Houston’s From Dickens to Dracula and William Hughes’s Beyond Dracula.  This is true.  And these are good books; they’ve helped me out many times before and I expect that they will again.  But touching them, drawing them around itself, catching them, Howie’s book causes me to pause and notice how eager those titles are to be always somewhere else, jetting from Dickens to Dracula and then, arriving there, beyond Dracula.  Why the hurry?  What do we lose if we always think of books, even rhetorically, as springboards to the next idea and not as spaces in which we can sink, dream, desire, embrace?  So, pausing in the liminal space of metonymy, what is between Houston and Hughes?  What do they enclose?  Well, it’s Howie, of course—and Claustrophilia.  But it’s also Dracula, a book which, if I can admit it, I love.  And so, today I want to think with you, beside you, adjacent to you about Dracula and something of how Howie’s book has returned me to that novel and transformed it, opening passages—textual and architectural—in it to me and in me to it in new ways.

      Dracula is, of course, a novel haunted by enclosures: the rooms and winding passages and wings of the castle where Jonathan Harker is, in all senses, held; the vampire coffins nestled in the earth of houses and basements and chapels around Transylvania and London; Lucy’s veins in which the blood of four men promiscuously mingles; her claustral casket enclosed in lead and enclosed again within a locked family vault and enclosed again within the walls of the cemetery [adjacent to Hampstead Heath, a cemetery which Stoker calls Kingstead but which is clearly analogous to the wonderfully named Highgate]; the asylum; the coach; the boat’s hull; the conference room; the grave.  [By the end of the novel, Mina’s mind itself becomes a space into which both Dracula and Van Helsing can penetrate, meeting and marking each move and counter-move.]  Texts as well are enclosed and encloistered: the papers of the dead sealed and secreted; Jonathan’s harrowing diary of his imprisonment imprisoned again through its binding with string and prematurely sealed with the encircling avatar of narrative closure, the wedding ring.   For all of the pleasures of enclosure and disclosure that Claustrophilia disinters and which Stoker’s novel embraces, I would be tempted to entitle this talk “Dracula’s Crypt”—if only that weren’t already the title of Joseph Valente’s provocative deconstructive study of Stoker and Irishness.  But—again—whereas Valente largely uses the pun as a springboard from the image of Dracula’s tomb to a virtuostic decoding of Stoker’s semiotics of the politics of national purity, Howie’s book insists that we go at this from the other end as well: that language can be our key not out of the crypt but into it, where we might find not purity but danger.

      Indeed, as Howie notes, “metaphor, as proper comparison, always occludes catachresis, or improper comparison, and simultaneously establishes the catechretic utterance as its contaminant/supplement. […] Metonymy, however, exposes the contiguous second term with which it exists in a relation of mediating participation” (81-82).  This is, of course, a manifesto for Howie’s own project, arising as it does from the alchemical admixture of medieval studies and post-post-modernism.  “Just as fear and desire touch at the point of their shared affective intensity,” writes Howie, “so too are the Middle Ages and modernity brought close, and made discursively to touch, within an enclosing poetics of metonymy” (15).  For me, the thickest of intensities of fear and desire arise precisely between medievalism and modernity, in the Victorian age and in Dracula.  Indeed, contemporary reviews of the novel noted precisely—and criticized—the contamination of its modernity with medievalism, of its medievalism with modernity.  “Mr. Stoker has shown considerable ability in the use that he has made of all the available traditions of vampirology,” sniffed the Spectator, “but we think his story would have been all the more effective if he had chosen an earlier period.  The up-to-dateness of the book – the phonograph diaries, typewriters, and so on – hardly fits in with the mediæval methods which ultimately secure the victory for Count Dracula’s foes.”  What the Spectator is observing is precisely a contamination of metonyms, the tropes for modernity itself (the phonographs and Kodak cameras and typewriters and railway timetables) jostling with those for medievalism (the crucifixes and consecrated hosts, the garlic, the wild ash, and the rose), all contained, enclosed, embraced, in the space of this deliciously anachronistic book.  

      Indeed, Howie’s analysis of metonymy has given me a way to think about a scene in Dracula that has always troubled, fascinated, caught me, a scene describing a mirror and what can and cannot be seen in it.  No, not the scene in a bedchamber of the castle when Harker, the surface of his body penetrated with the drawing of the first blood of the novel, realizes that the vampire does not appear in his shaving mirror, although an analysis of the contagions of metonymy could help there as well.  There is another mirror in the novel, and that is the mirror that Lucy holds up to herself as she—weirdly—attempts to interpret her own face. Writing to Mina, she describes Dr. Seward: “He has a curious habit of looking one straight in the face, as if trying to read one’s thoughts.  He tries this on very much with me, but I flatter myself he has got a tough nut to crack.  I know that from my glass.  Do you ever try to read your own face?  I do, and I can tell you it is not a bad study, and gives you more trouble than you can well fancy if you have never tried it” (63).  It is an odd and telling moment: Lucy looks at herself—no, not herself, but her image, a representation of the surface of her visage—in a mirror and attempts to penetrate that surface, to crack that nut, to enter into the core of her own subjectivity.  And yet, we imagine, how is it possible to have to read in the glass the interiority of own’s own mind?  We know, or think that we know, what is going on behind the veil of her features: she’s thinking, of course, about trying to interpret what she’s thinking.  How hard could that be?  What sort of nut is that the meat of which is identical with its shell, the mystery of which is already solved—and dissolved—at the moment of its proposal?  Perhaps that is precisely the point: the image of Lucy’s face has no interiority—it exists only on the surface of the glass, only as metonymy.  To crack this nut, this mirror, would be not to display the subjectivity inside but to render impossible the image itself.  And yet, her reading of it imbues it with the fantasy of depth, metonymy contaminated with metaphor, the shell of the nut hiding the meat within if only we could crack it.  And yet—and this is where Howie’s book sparks like revelation—are these really so different?  The mirror—metonym though it may be— does enclose, embrace, enfold, just as the nut does.  After all, it frames Lucy’s face and is enframed as well within the text of Lucy’s letter, within the covers of Stoker’s book.  “Metonymy,” Howie points out, “stages neither the emergence of an originary heterogeneity nor the extension of an ironic yet originary interiority.  In fact, it resists the very opposition of interior to exterior, hetero- to homo-, before to after” (120).  Lucy’s mirror is Dracula’s crypt, the space in which enclosedness brings surface and interiority together, and it thus prefigures the paradoxically enclosing yet penetrating mouth of the vampire. 

      Which is why—to shift abruptly to an adjacent text, produced by a proximate writer, [sharing with Stoker not only the sea-enfolded isle of Ireland but also, within it, Dublin, insistently inside the Pale]—Sheridan LeFanu reworks and transfigures St. Paul’s words for the title of his great collection of ghost stories: In a Glass Darkly.  To see something, as the King James Version of Paul’s letter describes, “through” a glass is to imagine the glass as pure instrument, revealing or veiling the truth which is always outside, away, beyond.  To figure revelation as occurring in the glass is to bring metaphor and metonymy together, to enter into the claustral space of reflection itself and thus of both sight and understanding. 

      In this collection of stories, in “Carmilla,” a vampire tale that Stoker had read, the vampiric Carmilla approaches Laura, the narrator of the story: “Shy and strange was the look with which she quickly hid her face in my neck and hair, with tumultuous sighs, that seemed almost to sob, and pressed in mine a hand that trembled.  Her soft cheek was glowing against mine.  ‘Darling, darling,’ she murmured, ‘I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so’” (273-73).  Elsewhere I’ve observed the weirdness of this formulation: “One would expect that Carmilla would say ‘I would die for you, I love you so,’ yet she tauntingly predicts the inverse.  Likewise, even a reader who knows that Carmilla is draining Laura’s blood would expect the teasing hint of her vampirism to take the form ‘You live in me,’ that is, ‘your blood continues to flow in my veins and thus transmutes your life into my eternal life.’  But Carmilla claims the opposite.  […  T]he creepiness of both formulations lies in the fact that they resist stable interpretation precisely insofar as language colludes in the destruction of the barrier between ‘I’ and ‘you,’ a destruction that is formulated with the semiotics of intense desire” (140).  But now, both vampirism and Claustrophilia having gotten in my blood [—a phrase that brings together, as does LeFanu, as does Stoker, as does Howie, disease and desire—] I notice the insistence of the bodies’ own enclosures here: Carmilla hiding her face in Laura’s hair, her hand “pressed in” Laura’s own, entering the spaces of Laura’s body as though in reflection of her own penetration of Laura’s veins and her hypnotic fascination of Laura’s desires.  And so I have a new way of restating the wonder and weirdness of this passage: “you can only enter me to the extent that I entrance you.”

Works Cited
    Howie, Cary.  Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure in Medieval Literature.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.  Print.
    LeFanu, J. T. Sheridan.  In a Glass Darkly.  Ed. Robert Tracy.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.  Print.
    O’Malley, Patrick.  Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.  Print.
    “Review of Dracula.”  Spectator 79 (July 31, 1897): 150-15.   Rpt. in The Critical Response to Bram Stoker.  Ed. Carol Senf.  Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1993.  60-61.  Print.
    Stoker, Bram.  Dracula.  Ed. Maurice Hindle. Revised ed. London: Penguin, 2003.  Print.

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