Saturday, January 31, 2015

Science, Magic, Religion And Dracula

In 1897, Bram Stoker wrote, subjectively (I don't want to start a fight here), the greatest novel of all time about an age old vampire, whose image and story has been soiled in most movies about him, by the name of Dracula. Interestingly enough, Dracula was written about seven years after Frazer's Golden Bough, which we have read parts of for class, and ties together the ideas of science, magic, and religion into a European setting. I am going to break up how the novel addresses these three factors and then explain what I think the meaning is behind how the novel uses them.

Starting from the most simple item to address, magic is depicted in Dracula in the simplest way possible: there is a immortal, mythical, and, arguably, evil creature as the main topic of the story. Now, if you were to read Dracula, you may first mistake the actions of Count Dracula as closer to Frazer's ideas on religion than that of magic. You may think his deeds seem closer to the Mass of St. Sinclair, which at the surface appears to be religious, but, as we discussed in class, is really a form of magic, or at least a variation of it. Like in the steps Frazer lays out for magic, Dracula follows certain measures in order to "convert" and move forward with his plans. For example, Dracula knows that if he bites (not drink blood) and performs a certain, and almost sexual, ritual, which results in death, on someone, namely the character Lucy, he can change them into a vampire. This only works if he follows the exact steps though, so just biting someone three times will not change them (Looking at you Hollywood). Furthermore, if his little ritual is interrupted, then the transformation still happens but at a much slower pace. Dracula also shows a cognizance in regard to his limitations. He knows that he cannot travel large distances very quickly, so he opts to hide himself in shipping containers or coffins filled with dirt. Why dirt? Your guess is as good as mine.

Most science in the novel is represented through one character that Hollywood also renders poorly: Dr. Van Helsing (That's right DOCTOR not VAMPIRE EXPERT/HUNTER, at least not at first). Dr. Van Helsing is strictly a man of science, when he is introduced anyway, and assists the protagonists in figuring out what is wrong with Lucy, after she and Dracula have been "hanging out". He uses scientific terms, follows ordinary doctoral procedure in diagnosing a patient, to find facts. He mainly acts as a forensic scientist for Lucy's case, his main lead being the bite mark on her lower neck and the blood samples he gets from her, to figure out exactly what made the wound. He does not, however, immediately think "Probably a vampire, that makes the most sense" and has to do a lot of digging in Transylvanian folk lore. Only after Dr. Van Helsing learns of vampires does his character start to take on qualities of the other two factors (magic and religion), but I will get to that later. He does, however, classify vampirism as a disease and not a curse, making it seem more scientific and explainable.

Finally comes the arguably most important factor, for the characters at least, in Dracula. Religion plays an important part in the "curing" of vampirism. After Mina is bitten and Dracula's ritual on her is interrupted, thus making her half dead and fading (the books kind of vague on that part), the only thing the protagonists can think to do for her is pray and produce religious symbols. For example, they use the Communion wafer, or Christ's body, to try to expel the disease form Mina's body. They can not get her to eat it so press it on her forehead, which burns a mark of the same shape into her skin. Furthermore, they use a rosary, a religious item to keep count of one's faith, to ward of Dracula. This almost makes Dracula appear as a sort of Anti-Christ figure, and to be fair he doesn't really help himself out in that regard.

Now I don't know about the rest of you, but when we were talking about science, magic, and religion in class it seemed to me that they were all somewhat combatant with each other (I know today we say that science and religion can both be upheld but that is now, this is then - heh, wordplay). So, branching off of this perspective, having all three present in one literary work in a sort of connected fashion, seems a little bit strange. Having them present in one character, Dr. Van Helsing, seems twice as bizarre. I believe that Dracula's focus on the fusing of these ideas stems from the cultural anxieties it reflects. In the late 19th century, people like Frazer started to question the validity of certain ideas, like religion, by simply studying them in scientific terms as they would anything else they wished to understand completely. With this came a similar denouncement of magic, because, as Frazer says, when magic is correct and not some mistake of association it becomes science. It was hard for some people, so ingrained in past lifestyles, to accept new facts about something they believed to be absolute fact and were appalled by any sort of argument against parts of it. I think Dracula was a response to this, and Bram Stoker focused on the character Dr. Van Helsing to show what he believes a melding of the three ideas would look like. He starts off purely scientific, following those steps necessary for any proper doctor to follow, but then runs into something that he does not expect. Then he learns more about the magical and mythical side of the world, which was previously just written off as dumb folk lore, and finds some shocking similarities. Finally, he uses religion as a means of treatment for a subject of a magical disease called vampirism, which he finds works through the scientific process of trial and error. You may think that these type of mix would create some sort of instability in there person in which they are present, well you would be wrong. Not only is Dr. Van Helsing the smartest character in Dracula but he is also the most mentally stable and has the strongest willpower out of all the characters. To me, Bram Stoker is trying to show his audience that, maybe, Science, Magic, and Religion can coexist naturally (not the best word here, I know), perhaps not in one person but in a society; that people can choose to follow one or more of them without being questioned by others.

If you've read this far, I want to thank you. As many of you know, Bram Stoker's Dracula is my favorite work of literature and one which I believe that I have only scratched the surface of here. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post and feel free to comment on it because I could have always missed something or mistook an idea.

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