Monday, November 25, 2013

Why Vampires Can’t Have It All

Twilight’s Edward Cullen has a problem, and it’s not his sparkly skin. His problem is a complete absence of poetic tension.

Vampirism brings him immortality. It is also delivers eternal, youthful beauty; effortless wealth; fast cars; and tremendous physical strength. What's not to like? Even though Edward claims that being a vampire is a hard and lonely route, the reader is not made to feel this suffering. Even though he speaks of missing out on the normal milestones of humanity, he is ultimately able to marry and to father an equally beautiful child. Edward gets to have it all for free, and that is why he is forgettable.

Vampires of old legends or of contemporary novels like Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian are caught in a very different situation. They possess immortality, yes. But it extracts so heavy a price that it makes their deathlessness a curse instead of a coolness factor: in order to continue their existence, they must live off the deaths of others. Ultimately, the people they once were are no longer alive because they have forfeited their souls. These vampires are difficult to forget. 

Even apart from vampires, enduring literature is always filled with tragic tension. Achilles must choose between a long and comfortable life that will end in obscurity, or an early and glorious death that brings the immortality of fame. Guinevere and Lancelot cannot embrace their passion without destroying their kingdom (and themselves). In Les Miserables Jean Valjean cannot retain his integrity without sacrificing the success that his integrity made possible. Even the characters in Lord of the Rings pay for their choices: Frodo is never again able to belong to the Shire that he helped to save. Arwen must walk alone in the empty woods of Lothlorien after her beloved Aragorn dies. There is a reason that we humans write this kind of story over and over again, and it is not merely a crude realization that no lunch in life is free.

Stories of vampires and fallen kings are memorable, poetic, and hauntingly beautiful because, by lingering at the edge of the abyss, they show us what should be but is not. They show us glimpses of what human life might be like without death and tragedy. They break our hearts with glimpses of glorious perfection and eternal peace. We continue to tell these stories because life’s tragic tension feels as unnatural as it does inevitable. We cannot escape the feeling that somehow, we ought to have it all. We ought to be able to achieve immortality or build a kingdom that will last forever. Yet we know that no human can do so— the world is broken and death is too strong. None of us can shatter tragedy instead of merely beautifying it.

Edward Cullen’s glamorous life might seem to answer our predicament. He and Bella are able to achieve the American dreams of youth, wealth, and love without sacrificing anything meaningful. However, free happiness, like a dollar store toy, is too plastic and too cheap to satisfy for long. Unlike the struggle of Guinevere or the grief of Arwen, it doesn’t feel true. That is because it does not truthfully portray the tremendous price of happiness. Western literature yearns to redeem our souls from death. Our stories may sometimes seem to speak of death’s triumph, but they are really about death’s wrongness, and about our desire for an anti-vampire who will sacrifice himself for others instead of sacrificing others for himself.

Natural law is evident in this yearning. We sense that death is wrong. We feel that it can only be defeated at great cost. We know that none of us will ever break its power.

The Scriptures speak of a God-man who swallows up Achilles' desire for immortality, Guinevere’s longing for love, and all of our wishes to see the world as it should be. He destroys the tragic tension by paying its price. He redeems us from the death to which we are all sentenced. He gives us life. Like Edward Cullen, we too can have it all. Unlike him, our story rings true, because our happiness is not fake and free. It is eternal; free from the vampirism that leads our race to prey upon others in a frantic struggle for happiness. It is intensely valuable and already payed for.

Enduring literature echoes truth. That is why we remember Frodo and we will forget Edward Cullen.


Have you seen this mashup of Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer? It's funny.

I love this essay (and may have already linked to it, at some point: Why You Can't Read Twilight: A Letter to My Daughter

Linking-up with Essential Fridays.

1 comment:

  1. I can't believe no one ever commented on this post. You'd think it would bring out howls of dissent from Twilight lovers. :)


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