The Secularization of the Undead

If you only know vampires, werewolves and zombies from modern fiction you won’t understand what I am about to say.  If you haven’t read Dracula by Bram Stoker this essay won’t mean much.  The origins of all the famous species of undead in fiction are shadowed in long forgotten myths.  They come from a time in human history were good and evil meant something very different than what it does today.  Primitive people saw reality created by two forces – the divine and evil.  The phrase the Devil made me do it wasn’t just some cop-out excuse for shirking responsibility.  People were either filled by the spirit of God or possessed by Satan.  To modern believers, God or Devil, at best influence people.  They bargain.  Even the most ardent feel they have free will to choose.  In the past that wasn’t always so.

dracula

As an atheist I don’t believe in the supernatural, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see it everywhere in people’s minds.  In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, vampires were pure evil, to be avoided at all costs – even to the point of committing suicide.  Whereas modern vampires are sex objects, and even the worse of them aren’t evil in the old sense.  As society moves away from religious beliefs, it is transforming its ancient symbols and myths.  This can be seen clearly by reading books about vampires in the 19th century, and then watching how the role of the vampire has changed through the 20th century and into the 21st.

A distinction we should make is between morality and ethics—the two main systems of determining right and wrong.  Legal systems are a strange hybrid of the two.  For most of history morality was defined by God and people were expect to follow his rules.  That’s the original definition of morality   As society became more secular people became philosophic, and right and wrong was hammered out with logic and rhetoric to eventually become ethics.  Ethics is the system by which humans decide what is right and wrong.  Many secular people still use the word morality, so it’s also being transformed.  There are even scientists who seek to find moral origins in biology and animal behavior.  But I’ll use morality in its original intent, as rules handed down by a divine being.

Vampires were immoral immortal creatures.  They were agents of Satan, and represented the flow of evil forces permeating the world.  Evil is seen as an absence of divine force, and its actions are in opposition to moral laws.  Modern vampires have become secularized so they are no longer evil or agents of evil, but they can be unethical.  We have also secularized the words good and evil.  Good used to mean the divine, and evil the lack of God, or the force of Satan.  Now good means many things, but it’s taken on a political correctness to mean what is socially acceptable.  Bad and evil, mean something different too.  Evil has taken on the connotation of something extremely bad, or extremely unethical.  Hitler was evil.  By the old definition of evil, that would have meant Hitler was an agent of Satan, working for the forces of evil.  By modern standards he was a psychopath that killed millions of people through his own intent and not the Devil’s.

There are philosophical problems here.  If God is all powerful, how can evil exist?  Does God allow Satan his domain in reality, or does Satan have his own power that God can not touch?  In Bram Stoker’s Dracula evil is darkness, without any goodness, that does have its own power.  Characters in the story protect themselves from evil by embracing God.  Thus the defensive power of the cross and holy water.

The undercurrent of Stoker’s Dracula is sex.  His Victorian novel was not allowed to be explicit, but it was obvious enough.  Evil conquers the virtuous through sex.  In modern stories, sex is still the major theme, but it’s been converted.  Sex is no longer evil, and neither is sex with a vampire.

Modern vampires can be good, and even seek to regain their souls, but this isn’t because divine forces won the war with the undead.  As women were emancipated in the 20th century and gained both political and sexual freedom, they no longer needed the protection of males, and they escaped the prison of being the icons of virtue.  Women writers refashioned vampires and the other undead minions for their own purposes.  Women writers have decided the undead are hot, and they have cleaned them up ethically, and made them into objects of sexual desire.  Stoker believed Victorian women should be protected from vampires.  Modern writers have made vampires into the ultimate bad boys of desire, very fuck-worthy, and perfectly suited to become Mr. Right.

Strangely, most modern male readers and writers would prefer that vampires stay ethically bad or even evil so it’s socially acceptable to kill as many as possible with no guilt.  We still like the Victorian attitude of the only good vampire is a staked vampire.  Action fiction demands a bad guy to be killed, so the soulless undead make great targets for first person shooters.  But even here, the undead have been secularized.  They are no longer agents of Satan, but just plain vanilla bad guys.  If the story was a morality tale it would require that the protagonists be moral, and the theme of the story would be morality, and that’s disappeared too.

Vampires were the first to become love objects, but slowly all the undead, even the gruesome looking zombie, are being transformed into protagonists of romantic interest.  It appears the whole pantheon of the undead have become symbolic figures in stories of teenage angst over sex and violence.  Any psychoanalysis of this fictional evolution would take book length studies requiring years of research.   For instance, one aspect to explore is immortality.  In the old days of God, immortality was conferred by the divine.  I doubt many believe in real vampires, but they do reflect a desire for another path to long life.  One where you keep your body and live a very long life on Earth.  Earthly life has become a secular heaven.

These stories have been further secularized by writers coming up with pseudo-scientific reasons to explain the undead and their powers.  But if we were a completely scientific society vampires, werewolves and zombies wouldn’t exist at all, even in fiction.  As an atheist I have little interest in the undead other than to see them as literary symbols.  It means as long as we have stories about the undead, then we have audiences and readers desiring aspects of the supernatural for some psychological reason or another.  We like to think it’s all childlike fun for goose-bumpy making tales but I worry that they are a kind of Freudian desire for things we can’t have.

JWH

Rethinking the Great Books of History

I am listening to “Books That Have Made History:  Books That Can Change Your Life” from The Teaching Company, taught by Professor J. Rufus Fears and I’m wondering if the “classic” books of history are being oversold.

great-courses

I’m a life-long bookworm.  I got my degree in English Literature.  I study books about books, such as those by Harold Bloom, and I even study the Bible as literature although I’m an atheist.  I wish I had the time to master the great books.  And I started listening to these lectures expecting to expand on my knowledge of the great books of history.  However, Dr. Fears is making me think otherwise.

Books That Have Made History is a popular course for The Great Courses, but I think it has a fatal flaw.  And I’m not the only one to criticize this series, just read the customer reviews at the site.

Dr. Fears approaches these 36 lessons with the assumption the greatest books of history have great moral lessons to teach.  He expects great books to explore and answer four questions:

  • Does God or do gods exist?
  • What is fate?
  • What do we mean by good and evil?
  • How should we live?

Dr. Fears teaches these books with a firm belief in the answers.  He teaches each title by fitting them into his own theological beliefs.  In his opening lecture he discusses Dietrich Bonhoeffer and how he was imprisoned by the Nazi’s and hanged on April 9, 1945.  Dr. Fears said Bonhoeffer and the judge that sentenced him to die both read and studied the same classic books of history, and asks:  How did they come to such morally different conclusions?

Dr. Fears assumes the great books of history have answers to the great questions of history.  I think he’s wrong. 

Dr. Fears assumes there is a God, there is good and evil, that we’re expected to live by definite rules, and we have a fate or destiny in our lives.  I think he’s wrong.

Dr. Fears refuses to believe that the universe is accidental, that there is no good or evil, that there are no moral laws embedded in the universe, and the universe expects nothing from us.   I think he’s wrong.

Dr. Fears advocates The Iliad was the Bible for the ancient Greeks like the Christian Bible is for the western world, and that Homer was a singular real person.  I disagree.

Dr. Fears believe Moses was a real historical figure and there’s amble historical and anthropological evidence to support his story.  I disagree and even think many Jewish scholars disagree.

Now my point is not to say I dislike this lecture series because I disagree with the professor.  I’m asking why we should read the great books of history?  If they exist for the reasons Dr. Fears suggests, then I say, let’s forget them.  I’m dead tired of trying to puzzle out truth about reality from ancient thinkers.  I’m willing to read their books to understand the evolution of mankind and its history, but I have no interest in acquiring their beliefs.

Dr. Fears believes studying these books are valuable and relevant to teaching modern people how to think and act.  I think that’s wrong.  I think that’s why our world is confused and full of conflicting belief systems.

Great books make you think about life and reality, but they should give no answers.  Explicit answers are dangerous.  We live in the 21st century and we need to study the moment.  Now it’s actually impossible to study the current “now” in books, since books take years to write.  But for example, if you are studying cosmology, anthropology, or geology, or another other science, you really need to be reading books written in the last five years, and no more than 10 year old.

History and biographies can have a trailing edge of maybe 25 years, but that’s because some topics don’t get written about all that often.

If you’re studying the great books of history, I believe they should be read as primary sources to supplement current historical research.  Your research efforts should go into studying how and why they were written in context of their times, and not use them for acquiring personal beliefs.

This represents a schism in approaching reality.  If you believe that science has been the only consistent human endeavor to answer questions about reality, ancient knowledge will only be superstitious beliefs and endless philosophizing.  If you believe in God, then ancient writings are a goldmine of potentially revealed secrets.  Books That Have Made History falls in the later category.  My thinking falls in the former, so these lectures have little value to me.

However, they do make me ask:  Should or can we write current books that summarize good and ethical behavior for people to study?  If people are wanting to read books about how to live their lives in a “proper” manner, can’t we come up with something a little more current and based on contemporary knowledge?

JWH – 9/12/12