Everything changed with Dracula.
An oversimplification, sure, but it was around the time that Bram Stoker wrote what is arguably the finest tale of horror ever told that the earth shifted—and has been struggling to return for a score and a century, the way an out-of-place spine will after it’s been adjusted.
I don’t know if you’ve read Dracula or only know of him from the counting version of him on Sesame Street, but he, and Bram’s tale in general, are desperately important to this developing narrative. Forgive me while I get a little nerdy.
Humans have been telling stories for probably as long as we’ve been speaking in sentences. Stories help us suss out what make us tick, to communicate ideals, to grapple with things that frustrate or terrify or send us into fits of melancholy. And for a very long time, they were done the same way: orally.
Oral stories are helpful when passing down information that someone finds important or virtuous. If you want your children to be cautious around strangers, you don’t lecture them; you tell them the story of Hansel and Gretel.
The chief machine for driving a story onward is tension. You must have tension, or else your story will, well, suck. There must be tension between the innocent children and the wicked witch who wants to cook them into a pie.
Think of the tales of Chaucer, of Homer. Think of Beowulf. Of Macbeth. The tension in these stories comes from the protagonist striving against something evil: trickster fairies who lead travelers to their demise, the monster Grendel and his horrid mother, the Cyclops trying to eat Odysseus for supper, the power-hungry wife who would murder for a throne. A characteristic of the literary genres before just a few hundred years ago is the presence of the clear-cut "villain."
But something changed, and this brings me back to Dracula.
Tell me a villain who is not more well known than the infamous blood-sucker and I'll stand and applaud your villain-naming skills. The murderous, stalking, seemingly omnipresent baddie fogs the novel named after him with an oppressive force. During the course of the tale, Van Helsing, the good doctor scouted by the heroes of the story to cure a poor woman succumbing to the vampiric curse, stands in direct opposition to the timeless monster, leads a makeshift faction against the monster Dracula, hunts him down, and finally drives a stake through his undead heart.
But the horror of the novel is not in the looming threat of vampire fangs or in the ghastly transformation of Mina; it comes in some of the final lines, a moment after the corporeal body of Dracula is finally speared through, and it's presented in such a way that if you blink, you'll miss it.
See, just as his body is released from the world, the Count's face is, for the briefest moment, serene; it's peaceful after a thousand-year tormenting possession—the implication being that the worst is far from over. The famous vampire is a symptom; the disease which strikes him is the culprit. For just a moment before his final dispatching, Count Dracula is the most tragic of protagonists: unfairly treated by the disease, unfairly hunted by the team set against him, and unfairly portrayed by millions of readers, Halloween costumes, and film remakes even after his death is long set in the pages of a novel.
This is quite a dangerous idea. If storytelling is one of the most vivid ways that humanity has always interacted with the world around it, what are we to take from stories about hairy-palmed men stricken by the vampire's curse? C.S. Lewis told us, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” We write of dragons so that we may see how to defeat them. We write of heartbreak so that we may understand our own. We love stories of underdogs because we've all been an underdog at one point and so we feel the stirring inside of us watching the underdog come out on top.
We started telling stories like Dracula because we had to come to grips with the fact that perhaps everything isn’t as cut-and-dry as it seems.
A Turn of the Screw
So what does this flipped "villain equation" mean, where perhaps the villain isn't the villain at all, rather simply another victim of something greater? What happens when Grendels are just ogres misunderstood? What does it mean that the scary ghosts in The Sixth Sense are the REAL twist (the Bruce Willis twist was just a late-coming smokescreen): they're not the ones tormenting the helpless preteen, they're doing all they can, bending space and time and physics and reality, to get whatever help he can muster?
Here’s the horror of it: if we call Grendels and violent ghosts misunderstood, then can we call Hitlers misunderstood? Can we call Dahmers misunderstood? I realize that there are many footholds we have yet to get rid of that keep us from slipping into that kind of territory, but I believe the rule stands: in some sense, we need evil people so that we may have good people.
In fact, shifting villains from evil to misunderstood and afflicted has led to some of the most problematic arguments of recent centuries. Nietzsche yelled until he succumbed to madness around the neck of a whipped horse that Christianity dared to try to call things evil when "evil" cannot exist, except as the result of a monotonous etymology of a word invented by the 1%, so to speak. Madness has gotten murderers out of federal prison and into asylums, because it's the madness that's the monster, not the man.
And the madness was brought on by an abusive father, but the father was only abusive because he wasn't loved as a child, but his father never loved him because.... you get it. Evil becomes derivative—the result of endless justification. Turtles all the way down, if you will.
If the monsters are not monsters, we don't need heroes to defeat them. It's just us here by ourselves, fighting our imaginations in the fog, hoping that we see our Jekylls rise to the top of ourselves and overtake our Hydes.
This was the ideology that pervaded in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Napoleon Chagnon made a name for himself when he visited and extensively documented the Yanomamö, an indigenous tribe in the Amazon. His seminal work Yanomamö: The Fierce People described the base, animalistic ferocity with which these people lived their lives. “Look at these savages,” the work says, “in contrast to our civilization.” Good and evil. Cultured and debased. Man and beast.
But in 2000, Patrick Tierney took Chagnon to task in a polemic entitled Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. He called Chagnon out for using unsound anthropological techniques, for introducing Western diseases to an untouched people group, for distributing the very methods that encouraged the kind of violence he documented among them. Suddenly Chagnon was not the grandfather of modern anthropology, but the bumbling villain stirring filth into the broth he served. The Yanomamö were no longer savages; they were hapless victims of a man who was in over his head.
See how the tables turned—the shift in the Yanomamö narrative. But see, also, that it stayed the exact same: we were still dealing with inarguable “wrong” and inarguable “right.” Nevertheless, there was a new gold standard in anthropology that arose out of the tension, called Cultural Relativism. Cultural Relativism states that we cannot judge the rightness or wrongness of a foreign culture by the standards of our own; it is to be taken as its own canvas, and all we can do is set it in a pretty frame and present it as it is.
I was taught Tierney’s work in college by an anthropology professor bent on painting the “white man” as the chief offender of the gold standard of Cultural Relativism.
He didn’t teach us the Anthropological community’s savage critique of Tierney’s work. He didn’t point out the numerous ways that the American Anthropological Association ripped the book apart, saying, "book appears to be deliberately fraudulent", and that "Patrick Tierney has misconstrued or misrepresented his primary sources to a considerable degree in an effort to support his allegations."
It was so deliberately libelous that John Toobey wrote in a Slate piece that it would have been better labeled a work of fiction.
We’d swung back around. The Yanomamö may or may not be a brutal people; we might not ever truly know. But there is, again, a definitive rightness and wrongness to the way that information can be represented. Now we can view the publicly disgraced Chagnon as a pioneer in a vast field who made inevitable mistakes, but with a good heart, and the likes of Tierney as an antagonist that should be condemned with vitriol.
And soon someone will come along to swing it back around the other way.
The Awakened Beast
Despite our best efforts at ridding the world of objective right and wrong, it seems as though we can't avoid using objective right and wrong to do it. Tierney’s critique of Chagnon was: “You can’t say that they are bad, because bad doesn’t exist. That is a bad assumption.” But the tension between Chagnon, Tierney, and the American Anthropological Association is a microcosm of the very same thing playing out in our social media feeds this very day.
In the past few years, we’ve seen this Tierneyesque Relativism come full circle and become embodied in the Tolerance movement. You know the one—it says, “You cannot call my way wrong, because I’m me and you’re you. My truth is my truth and your truth is yours, so let me be.”
“Live and let live,” it says. “Judge me not.”
What an incredibly judgmental thing to say. It’s Chagnon to the Yanomamö all over again; it’s Tierney back at Chagnon; it’s the AAA to Tierney. An argument for pure relativism, for untainted subjectivity, is itself an argument for right and wrong. “It’s wrong to believe in right and wrong” is an absurdity.
It casts us back into the stone age of storytelling—it delivers individuals up as malicious villains bent on single-minded destruction of the heroic, rags-to-riches hero. The Right called Obama, and the Left calls Trump, a singularly unnameable evil that must be stopped at all costs.
And to do this, we’ve turned into a nation of Tierneys: we reduce the thing we are attacking to such an absurd base that what we end up attacking is a man made of straw. We watched people opine that Obama was the Antichrist. We see celebrities get on a stand and declare that Trump is sending every immigrant packing. We call Edward Snowden either a does-what-is-necessary American hero or a despicable traitor. We call right-wingers “literal Nazis.” We call left-wingers “filthy Commies.” We call those in the middle feet-draggers, who just need to pick a side already.
By reducing and reducing and reducing humans in the spotlight to mere summaries, we are doing exactly what a culture obsessed with relativistic coexistence abhors. We’re doing precisely what the AAA condemned Tierney for doing. We’re looking at the blood-sucking Dracula and planning a staking expedition and then rejoicing in triumphant victory while the vampyre exists his body and lights on the next unsuspecting victim.
So Now What?
I wish I had a really nice walking point. An action step. Well, sorry; I don't.
If you skipped straight to the end (an understandable move), I think that I'd like you to be left with this:
Despite our best efforts at preaching "to each his own," we have done nothing to truly rid the world of objective right and wrong; rather, we are simply shifting its boundaries left and right. We've watched the vampire leave Dracula's body and realized that he, himself wasn't the problem. Still, there remains a problem. We've realized that Chagnon isn't the horrid beast we said he was, but there was still a dark cloud tainting something. Universal relativism is a pipe dream; it's the work of someone who can't shift their focus far enough ahead, of people who are often the greatest offenders of the rules that they lay before us.
For instance, the argument to "celebrate me as I am" in retort to someone casting a moral judgment on you is every bit as bigoted as the person you're enraged against. Demanding that someone celebrate you despite their moral leanings can easily be switched back on you. In our strange late-21st-century worldview, the lines of morality are purely subjective. They're decided by a strange sort of populism: those with the loudest voices are the ones who get to decide the rules by which everyone else gets to play.
You cannot have your truth-is-truth-to-me cake and eat it, too, unless you're also ready to stop punching "Nazis" and rioting against Trump and calling liberals fascists and demanding that everyone use your pronouns, and so on.
Instead of coming to the whole of humanity demanding that they just accept you, do your part to love the people next to you. So they didn't vote how you voted. So they have a rough past. So they are covered with vulgar tattoos. So they actively practice something that you find abhorrent. You don't have to agree with somebody to value them as a human being.
Fine. I'll bring it home.
Telling a woman walking into an abortion clinic that she's murdering a human being is neither sticking up for the unborn nor loving a woman making an incalculably difficult decision; it's you being a prick to get your point across.
Making a weepy YouTube vlog about your waiter calling you the wrong gender neither creates empathy for your point of view nor encourages a conversation about how we perceive ourselves, where we find our identity, or what makes us human beings; it's you shoving your fingers in your ears and refusing to give the same acceptance you that you ask people to give you in return.
If you are holding a sign saying that unborn lives matter, this is what you are saying: "Whether this person turns out to be the one who cures cancer or the one who incites a racially motivated genocide, its life is sacred." If you do not apply the same kind of thinking to someone coming from a place filled with a combative ideology or someone who looks dirty and strung out on the street, then you're probably a hypocrite.
Aristotle said something like, "The mark of an educated mind is the ability to entertain an idea without accepting it." There could not be a more opposite mentality in this country today. Which do you hold in higher regard: getting to the Truth or having your own truth confirmed? Are you more comfortable seeing Count Dracula as the purely evil spreader of plague or are you willing to see him as a tragic anti-hero afflicted by a centuries-long plague? Would you rather post on the Internet about how homosexuality is a sin or invite the gay couple living down the hall from you over for dinner? Are you more comfortable making a vagina hat and marching with people who will celebrate it or asking your "pro-life" friend to coffee to try to understand why she didn't march with you?
It's our sole desire at the CBC to encourage engagement with the things you're being told. We believe in the difference between what is True and what is true-for-you (and if that turns you off, sorry), but we also believe that automatic dissent and combativeness is exactly the opposite of a healthy response. It's the fever that reveals the infection.
For God's sake, be kind to each other. Examine your heroes. Consider the things you're told; entertain an idea without accepting it, and in turn you might open the door to a new kind of understanding you've never experienced.