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December 28, 2009

Twilight cont’d

Filed under: Books — Camassia @ 9:53 pm

Before the library takes my e-copy of Twilight back into the ether whence it came, I wanted to comment on its cosmology. There isn’t much of one, to be honest; maybe the subsequent books do more world-building, but in this one there’s not much indication of what kind of universe we’re operating in. Still, we get a provocative remark by Edward, when Bella asks him about the origin of vampires:

“Well, where did you come from? Evolution? Creation? Couldn’t we have evolved in the same way as other species, predator and prey? Or, if you don’t believe this world could have just happened on its own, which is hard for me to accept myself, is it so hard to believe that the same force that created the delicate angelfish and the shark, the baby seal and the killer whale, could create both kinds together?”

Edward here appeals to an issue near to my heart: the problem of natural evil. If God is such a bastard to make a natural world that runs on predation, then why not make vampires? And yet, the vampires as described in this story not only go against all Christian concepts of natural law, but against Darwinian laws also. Despite the rhetorical tone of his question, vampires couldn’t evolve as other species do. Immortality is unnatural, and even if some creature obtained it, it would obviate the need to eat. One of the visceral horrors of vampires is that they are cannibals, violating a nearly universal human taboo and to some extent a natural one as well. (Animals do cannibalize on occasion, but for obvious reasons no species has evolved to specially hunger for its own kind.) This isn’t really a scientific explanation or a theological one; it’s more a cry of despair at a random universe.

It’s interesting to contrast this with Bram Stoker’s version. In keeping with an ancient theory that evil can’t create things on its own, but simply mock and imitate creation, Dracula is portrayed explicitly as a perverted shadow of Jesus. The blood-drinking is a warped version of the Eucharist and also of marriage; approaching one victim, he even uses the biblical phrase, “blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh.” He has an acolyte prone to saying things like, “Master, give me eternal life!” And indeed, the eternal life of a vampire is a parody of the eternal life in heaven. Although I wouldn’t exactly call Dracula a Christian novel, you only really get the horror if you assume that you have a soul and that it should be headed for a Christian version of the afterlife. If you think you’re a soulless beast headed for oblivion, then what really is the downside?

It seems to me that most vampire stories of the last 20 or 30 years have struggled with this question, and Twilight is no different. Like many of its fellows, it falls back on the power of sentient minds to make moral choices — even in a social and spiritual vacuum. Sci-fi author D.G.D. Davidson did an amusing review of both the book and the movie last year; I don’t entirely agree with it, but he made an interesting observation down in the comment thread:

Though you are probably ultimately correct that vampires — if they exist — would be supernatural and evil with no free will, I would suggest that fiction, where the author can within certain moral limits make up his own rules, allows for vampires with free wills, capable of receiving grace and choosing to cooperate with it. However, when you add in Twilight’s paradox, in which the vampire can choose good and yet is barred from salvation by his vampiric nature, the idea of the good vampire becomes objectionable theologically, even within a fictional framework.

As a fiction writer, I can attest to the strong temptation to create repentant characters shunned by God. It has pathos. It is, in fact, an easy, instant recipe for pathos (probably a good reason to avoid it). I forgive Meyer and attribute it to well-meant, misguided naivete.

As I pointed out a while ago, even C.S. Lewis couldn’t quite integrate the needs of the heroic fantasy narrative with the idea that we’re all hopeless screw-ups without God’s grace. But as Davidson points out here, another problematic character of the genre is the innocent victim. You get instant pathos from someone who is damned through no fault of his own, or who is basically good but is persecuted for something he can’t help. Yet the Christian story insists there was only one truly innocent victim in all of history. It messes up our favorite stories in all kinds of ways, which I suppose is part of the point.

2 Comments

  1. […] theology of Twilight (as seen by Camassia) and the Coen brothers (as seen by Johan […]

    Pingback by Noli Irritare Leones » Blog Archive » First link round up of 2010, from the death of Jim Goddard to the proposed Kenyan constitution to the theology of Twilight — January 2, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

  2. It doesn’t directly impinge upon your general question about vampire cosmology (which is, really, a very good question; Matt Yglesias, of all people, also touched on it in an off-hand comment a little while ago, in which he wondered why Meyer’s vampires don’t seem to act, in terms of memory and such, as in they’re immortal at all), but given Meyer’s Mormonism, you might be interested in some of the reflections which we Mormons have made about the creation and temptation narratives (such as they are) in her books. This essay here–a version of a piece which recently appeared in the journal Dialogue–is a good place to start.

    Comment by Russell Arben Fox — January 6, 2010 @ 8:53 am

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