If you are like me — and may Zeus help you if you are — then at least a few folks are bound to think that you do not worry nearly enough about vampires draining your life force, and instead worry way too much about precisely what, if anything, the concept of a vampire symbolizes. I’ve been told that it is far more fun to fear vampires than it is to coldly dissect their meaning.
And the folks who say that might have a point: The goose that laid the golden egg each day did so only until the people dissected it to see where the eggs came from. A joke can be killed by “over-analysis”. And even the most powerful mythic symbols can be rendered merely ridiculous by subjecting them to logic, evidence, and reason.
Vampires, of course, are mythic symbols, and hence, they can — and sometimes do — have their power over our imaginations, sentiments, and feelings sucked dry by rational analysis. So, as a warning to all you vampires out there — it might be best for you to read no further, because we are about to commit ourselves to a dispassionate analysis of precisely what you symbolize.
But let’s begin with a bit of history….
The general concept of a vampire has been around for a while. That general concept might be described as of “an undead being that feeds on the life force of the living”. There are folks who argue that the concept is ubiquitous, but that seems to be an exaggeration. Instead of appearing on every continent, in every culture, and at every time in history, the concept seems to have gotten its start in pre-Christian Slavic cultures and spread from there.
There is a rich enough history to the concept of the vampire that one can properly speak of there being several concepts, rather than just one. Early on, the vampire is little more than a nasty, rotting, evil corpse who has come back from the dead to prey on the living. But when the poets pick up the story in the 1700s, they begin to give the vampire a more rounded character. By the time Lord Byron’s physician, John Polidori, publishes the first vampire novel in 1819, the vampire has evolved charisma and sophistication.
The most influential of the early vampires was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was published in 1897. In the person of Dracula, we find find the same charisma and sophistication that Polidori ascribed to his Vampyre, but this time welded to a ruthless, tyrannical being bent on power and world dominion.
Marilyn Ross, in her Barnabas Collins series (1966-71), continues the trend of presenting vampires as charismatic and sophisticated, but then departs from tradition to portray them as tragic heroes, rather than as the embodiment of evil. Later, Anne Rice seems to take her lead in part from the Collins series: Her vampires are once again more tragic than evil. As Rice states of her heroes:
All these novels involve a strong moral compass. Evil is never glorified in these books; on the contrary, the continuing battle against evil is the subject of the work. The search for the good is the subject of the work… Interview with the Vampire… is about the near despair of an alienated being who searches the world for some hope that his existence can have meaning. His vampire nature is clearly a metaphor for human consciousness or moral awareness. The major theme of the novel is the misery of this character because he cannot find redemption and does not have the strength to end the evil of which he knows himself to be a part.
I think with Rice we have the overtly spiritual vampire. But it is a deeply troubled spirituality: Brooding, insecure, introspective, angst-ridden, romantic. Last, in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series of novels, the charismatic, sophisticated, and romantic vampire seems continued.
But what does it all mean — if it indeed means anything at all?
I think the key to understanding the concept of the vampire is to see the vampire as symbolic of the individual self. That is, the vampire symbolizes the “ego”, the consciousness, the “I” — the self.
Now, I think we in the West have — in some respects at least — a somewhat limited understanding of what the self really is. We seem to do a fair job when it comes to promoting the “socially responsible individual” as an ideal self that some of us strive to realize. In that respect, we might even be on top of our game. But when it comes to knowledge of the self, it’s origins, how it works, and what it is, we in the West are relatively clueless when compared to our brothers and sisters in the East.
If that is the case — if we good Westerners do not understand the self as well as we might — then that might help to explain why it is not obvious to nearly everyone of us that vampires symbolize the self. Indeed, the very moment we hear that a vampire is a mythical, undead being who feeds on the life force of the living, the word “ego” should be screaming in our ear. But why is that? On what basis can we say that?
First, let’s take a bit closer look at what the self is. The self, in at least one way of describing it, is that ongoing psychological process, which takes place in the brain, and that results in a perceived division or separation between the I that observes things and the things that are observed. In other words, the process that creates the self creates both a perception of an “I” or self and a perception of things separate from that self.
When you divide the I that observes from the things that are observed, you create a world in which the I, the self, mirrors life but is simultaneously cut off from life. I am not the flower I am looking at. Since I am not the flower I am looking at, I am psychologically or perceptually cut off, or separated, from the flower I am looking at. One way of symbolizing this perceptual state might be to call it “undead”.
In one sense, I am alive because I am perceiving. Thus, in that sense, I am not dead. In another sense, however, I am cut off, separated from the world, from what I am perceiving. Thus, in that sense, I am dead. Combining the two senses I arrive at a symbol that simultaneously fits both: I am neither the living nor the dead — I am the undead.
All of the above is a very dry and abstract way of discussing how the individual self can be thought of as undead. And if that insight is at all accurate, then the dirty little secret — the truth we probably don’t want to see — the truth we hide away in frightening symbols — is that we are undead. We are vampires. For the vampire is a symbol for the self.
Of course, the self being spoken of here is the so called, “small self”, “individual self”, or ãtman, that can be found in many forms of Hindu mythology, and which is often distinguished in that mythology from the “great self”, “universal self”, or godhead. The ãtman can also be found in Buddhist mythology, in which case it is sometimes distinguished in that mythology from — not a greater self — but no self at all.
Now, please recall, that the self has been described as “that ongoing psychological process, which takes place in the brain, and that results in a perceived division or separation between the I that observes things and the things that are observed.” Since the self is created by a process, it can be interrupted. And when it is interrupted, when the process that creates a perceptual distinction between subject and object comes to an abrupt end, while experiencing yet continues, there is then no perceived distinction between the I that observes things and the things that are observed. It is then that you experience god.
Or, more precisely, the experience that comes about when there is no perceived distinction between the I that observes things and the things that are observed — that experience is referred to by some mystics as “god” — probably because they lack a better word for it.
Since that experience of god is, in effect, the opposite of the experience of self — and since the self is the vampire — vampires can be considered “godless”. It should be no surprise, then, that Anne Rice’s vampires sometimes suffer from a sense of alienation and meaninglessness.
The self is endlessly aggrandizing, but its efforts to aggrandize itself are founded on illusions. As the Buddhists point out, nothing in this world is permanent. But if that is true, then the self cannot permanently acquire anything for itself. Hence, its efforts to do so are based on illusions of permanence. Here is a description of the self that might be labeled, “How the self expands itself”:
When we observe what is taking place in our lives and in the world, we perceive that most of us, in subtle or crude ways, are occupied with the expansion of the self. We crave self-expansion now or in the future; for us life is a process of the continuous expansion of the ego through power, wealth, asceticism, or the cultivation of virtue and so on. Not only for the individual but for the group, for the nation, this process signifies fulfilling, becoming, growing, and has ever led to great disasters and miseries. We are ever striving within the framework of the self, however much it may be enlarged and glorified.
Perhaps that description reminds one of how Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a ruthless, tyrannical being bent on power and world dominion. But whatever the case, the self’s endless attempts at aggrandizement mean that its appetites are theoretically unlimited.
As one insightful writer notes, in vampires, this sense of unlimited appetite is sometimes symbolized as sexual desire:
The modern vampire is still a creature of appetites, and that certainly includes sexual appetites, but the vampire’s sexual adventures are not limited to members of the opposite sex. So high is their libido and so devoid are they of proper gentlemanly and ladylike restraint, that vampires will have sex with just about anyone. The magnitude of their lusts is terrible.
Well, the same applies to our lusts. We humans are also controlled by our lusts, or rather frequently fear that we will be if we let down our guard. Sex can make people do awful, self-destructive things. So does greed. So can all of our appetites. We’re on guard all the time. We aren’t afraid of monsters hiding the dark; we’re afraid of ourselves.
But whether manifested as sexual desire or manifested as greed, lust for power, or something else, the self’s desperate need to aggrandize itself is often realized at the expense of other people. Briefly (and a bit superficially) it is in that sense that vampires, which are symbols of the self, can be said to suck the life out of people. Indeed, I could go on at great lengths about precisely how the self can be seen as something that sucks the life out of others. But I am reaching 2000 words here, which is quite long for a blog post, and which must surely be trying everyone’s patience with me.
To recap: I have attempted to show here how the vampire can be a symbol of the self. As I see it, the vampire has been evolving and so it today symbolizes somewhat different aspects of the self than it symbolized back in the 1800s or so. But in a fundamental way, it has symbolized the self since at least 1819 and perhaps even earlier. Whether it continues to do so in the future is another matter. Symbols are not unchanging.
Of course, many people have their own ideas about what vampires symbolize. What might yours be?