The Moth Chase

Elevating the Art of Procrastanalysis – Academics wasting time on pop culture

Twlight – the books

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Read below for the original email exchange that started the blog.

Natalie was writing a proposal for a conference paper on the Twilight series and knew Kathryn had been doing some theological work on vampires, and so we began a conversation over email that developed into the seed for the first post of this pop culture blog.

Hi Kathryn,

I have a quick question – I’m putting together a conference paper proposal on the Twilight book series (it’s for a panel on zombies which I’ve convinced the organizer to extend to vampires so I can write something I’ll actually enjoy).  I think you said you had been doing some work on vampires, and just wondered if you had come across any particularly helpful sources, magazine articles, or anything like that, that you would be willing to share.

ox,
Natalie

Dear Natalie,

Yes, I have been on a vampire jag, prompted by the new HBO series True Blood but expanding rapidly. I just finished the Twilight series. Though I didn’t think I could keep going after the first one, they hooked me later. What is up with the “you will be saved onto immortal life through pregnancy” and “the eternal life of the family” in Meyers’s books?! Crazy, right? Or maybe I am just reading them through the lens of Big Love. Yep, I think I am doing that. I’ll try to explain what I mean when I figure it out!  I have been thinking a lot about the different ways that the human women in each series (Sookie and Bella) respond to the vampires as a way to measure the limits of their own humanity and what they make of those limits.
Anyway, some books that have been fun so far:
–William Patrick Day, Vampire Legends in Contemporary American Culture
–Nina Auberbach, Our Vampires, Ourselves
–Paul Barber, Vampires, Burial and Death
–Eric Nuzum, The Dead Travel Fast

I am sure whatever you are saying will be great! What are you saying, by the way?

Kathryn

Hey Kathryn,

Hmm, well I’ve only just finished the first Twilight novel , so I’m excited to see this pregnancy storyline. The rest are arriving via Amazon prime tomorrow.

It sounds like we’ve actually been thinking along similar lines.  I got into thinking about vampires initially as a comparison to explain how much I hated zombies.  I realized that my hatred of the zombie character and my love of the vampire character grew out of the way each constructs, or has the potential to construct selfhood communally.  The gist of the interest was how in typical conversation (even dorky academic conversation), the basic acceptance seemed to be that zombies ‘lost’ their identity in their conversion, but vampires ‘maintained’ it – in a sense, heightened what they were as a type of super-self, but always as a type of preservation.  I began to wonder what that said about what we actually think a human being is or how we think humans live in the world as individuals and together.  I mean, how could such a comparison help us think about the importance of relationships and human experiences in the ways we think about being human beings?

As an even dorkier sidenote, this interest began with the character of Dorian Gray in the movie, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – he walks through his library in this great scene, books flying everywhere, and I thought, “oh my gosh – if you’re immortal, you’ve got the time to read all those books! sigh”.

So I think the interesting thing about Edward is that Meyer leaves you to think that his mad skills are inherent to his nature (i.e. vampire, not human, nature).  If that is the case then Edward (and all people in Meyer’s world) comes fully made, with no possibility that agency, behavior, or skill are things acquired over time.  In fact, there is little about Edward’s character that indicates that his having a hundred years to develop as a person matters at all.  Whereas the Dorian Gray character, as well as other vampire characters I’ve known and loved, have their skills honed through centuries of practice, Edward’s skills and personhood seem to have been bestowed in some natural way by his becoming a vampire (despite his strong desire to ‘be human’ – whatever he takes that to mean… apparently, not to eat other humans).

This lack of development is perfectly typified in his erotic life, much commented on by everyone who writes about the Twilight series.  So while he’s this intensely erotic character, he has little to no erotic experience.  He’s a virgin when he meets Bella – and I find this particularly interesting because I hear women gush, “a 17 year old body with a hundred years of experience” – except that’s not the case.  We’re just mixing in expected vampire lore!  And after a hundred years of life experience, he’s still interested in a 17-year-old girl!! I’m actually less grossed out by the vampire/human power imbalance (even though I find it horrible how much he reminds her playfully that he could kill her), and more concerned about the creepy age gap!

In sum, after much rambling, the pitch for this conference paper will be something along the lines of how vampire stories perform shared cultural fears, desires, self-understandings, etc., and then tease out how the domestification of the vampire in this text appeals to a popular contemporary cultural narrative of chastity as sexy.  But rather than stop at the ‘Twilight has sexy chastity’ argument, which has been done, I want to argue from this angle of Edward’s stunted selfhood as a way to speak back to, say, the practice of chastity balls and all that hooplah, for example.  I’m still working it all out, but that’s the path I’m going down.

Thanks for the sources!

Ox,
N

N,

Wow, I am so sorry I gave away the plot!! I misunderstood and thought you had already finished the series!

Once you are done with the series, we can talk about all these things – how fun! Your point about Dorian Gray is well taken. The pleasures of immortality and the possibilities for personal enhancement are pretty staggering. In fact, that is what disturbed and intrigued me the whole way through the series: there does not seem to be one good reason why Bella should want to stay human. As you will see, Edward’s hesitation to turn her into a vampire is in fact a theological concern, itself quite interesting. But in the end, the immortal life of the undead is so amazingly glamorous, who wouldn’t give up the fluctuations and paltry limitations of human life? I found that intriguing and problematic – the vampire as a kind of transcendent horizon against which humanity was defined, and found horribly wanting. I guess vampires have always filled this role – the glamorous possibility of practical immortality. But most vampires are also creepy, violent, dangerous, and more than a little morally vexed, so there is at least some balance to their allure. The normal human condition, with all its frailty, stands at least a fighting chance in the scale of desire. As you point out, Meyer’s has defanged the myth (quite literally – what, no fangs?!). So much more to say, but I won’t give away any more details! Though I look forward to hearing your thoughts about identity after you read the rest of the series!

So sorry again to have given away the big plot twist! Happy reading!

– K

Hey K,

Don’t worry about giving away the plot – I knew elements of it anyway.

Just one quick note, because I’m pretty intrigued by this – so you think there’s no compelling reason for Bella to stay human??  Because I can’t come up with a good reason for her to become a vampire!  At least in the first book, she is drawn to it solely by Edward, and not in any desire to be like him or have his powers, but purely because of her attraction to him – she’ll give up life, family, friends, everything, just because she likes the way he smells.  It seems like the saddest version or disempowered biological determinism (or at least some warped version of pheromone-determinism) to me.

Hmm, maybe if they did something more interesting with her annoying clumsiness I could respect her desire to escape that. Ok, ok, I’ll keep reading.  The books should arrive within the hour, actually.

– N

Dear K,

I’m on my way to bed, but just wanted to let you know that I finished the Twilight series just minutes ago.  I gotta say, I think the final book was my favourite.  While I don’t necessarily put this down to authorial intention or skill, it really had some interesting things going on.  The abortion stuff was never as clean cut as I expected from a right-wing writer – while Bella doesn’t abort in the end, the desire for a late-term abortion among other characters is not maligned or judged as evil.  In the end, the woman’s choice wins!  And while the eternal-holy-family stuff holds center-stage, there is so much in the way of alternative family structures that intrigues me.  For example, the final vision of the series is a community constructed along the lines of chosen ties as well as familial.  All that to say, I’m pretty captivated by the final vision of community.  I wonder how it might relate to contemporary visions of broad kinship networks shared by people groups as diverse as alternative Christian communities (I’m thinking of The Simple Way in Philly or IKON in Belfast), new agrarian communities, communities of gay and lesbian people (think the beautiful lesbian kinship network created in The L-Word and among so many of our friends!), and urban dwellers (like, think along the lines of Seinfeld and Friends and how revolutionary those shows were for breaking the nuclear family primetime tv focus).

That being said, I’m pretty convinced that the name Renesmee Carlie is the best caution against teenage pregnancy that I’ve ever encountered!  I would put it on par with the image of old men outside hospital emergency rooms smoking through their trac holes in relation to any desire anyone might ever have for a cigarette.

Ok, talk soon!
N

Dear N,

Ha! So true about Renesmee Carlie!

It is sort of hard not to be enamored of the last novel, I think, since it not only ties up all the loose ends that lingered like irritated teeth in my mouth, but it imagines a completely kick-ass version of immortality that involves real bodies, even if they are super human, super cool, and super sexy. And while I found it really frustrating that Bella is birthed into this immortal super-dom through the patient, silent bearing of excruciating pain and that it turns out that her super-power is a shield (um, sort of maternal there too, eh?), I was right there with her as she senses the limits and non-limits of her new body. And I have to say that the scene when she first goes hunting and she and Edward can barely keep their hands off each other was the first time I actually believed the sexual desire that was supposed to exist between them. There is much to say about alternative family structures too. Maybe it is just because I am watching the third season of Big Love right now, but all I can think about is how much of the particular contours of Meyer’s fantasy are influenced by Mormonism, which explains why it is so familiar a fantasy and sort of just off from other conservative Christian fantasies. In fact, couple the popularity of this series with the increasing popularity of Big Love and I wonder if Mormon romance isn’t hitting a nerve in popular desire. I have to run now, but will say more about all this soon!

Kathryn.

Kathryn!

I absolutely agree about the hunting scenes.  I love that sense of freedom and restraint as she tests her new abilities and learns how to control them.  I think that tension of freedom/constraint is my favourite theme in the books – Meyer really captures what it is about conservative sexuality that is pleasurable.  Restraints, limits, boundaries – they aren’t just the ways we hem in our pleasure, but are actually the sites at which our pleasure is or can be most ecstatically performed.  This is certainly true with conservative sexuality, even if I would want to push back against the ways in which that is then taken as normative or is projected with such sacralization onto all forms of sexual practice.  The way the body as sexual, strong, violent, how it moves and is moved, etc., in this book really gets at that, I think, in a way a lot of progressive Christian sexual ethics don’t…in a sense, I think it queers queer theology in some whole new ways that I find really compelling.

And you’re right – Ed/Bella finally made sense to me in this book.  Up until now I had just wanted her to ditch Ed for Jacob, who to me seemed warm and cuddly, fun and sweet (a friend pointed out to me that I like Jacob better because I describe him with the same adjectives I’d use for my own husband – fair point).  So I’m intrigued that their relationship doesn’t truly make sense until she becomes his equal (superior, in fact).  Again, I don’t think Meyer intends that, but it’s an interesting consequence of
her writing!

I hear what you’re saying about the shield, but I found that more complicated too – of course, all the body/mind dualism that was happening through the books in regards to her powers (even as human) was driving me crazy.  But in the end, the function of the shield upended those.  And that’s part of the vision that I enjoyed too – that while the shield was maternal and she developed it for her daughter (and husband), in the end, those skills became useful and salvific for the whole community…in fact, their real beauty was in their being given to the community rather than hoarded for the nuclear family.

Much more to say but I have to run to a chiropractor appointment, (talk about manipulating bodies!).  I’m still puzzling on the christological imagery of Renesmee, the age-old fairy-tale bit about the essential death of the mother (we care so much more about Charlie than Renee), and why I love the notion of imprinting so much when I don’t believe in anything like soul mates in real life!  Any thoughts?

Dear N,

I am not sure what it says about me that I really liked Jacob when he was the fun, cuddly younger friend with a crush, but that I found him almost unbearable as the surly, arrogant, possessive adolescent werewolf he became. At first I really liked what Meyer was up to with the two lovers and all of Bella’s reflections on the possibility of loving both of them, even if slightly differently. I thought it was awesome that Bella realized that she did have more than just brotherly love for Jacob and that she suffered some of the conflict of the situation in visceral form.

Solving it all with pregnancy and imprinting was a bit too neat for me until I starting thinking about the possibility of Meyer’s Mormonism grounding the entire fantasy. It was watching season 3 of Big Love when [warning, spoil alert] Barb agrees to start dating a fourth wife because she is worried her cancer has returned and she will die without knowing who she is going to spend all of eternity with when it hit me: the vampires in Twilight are the perfect allegory for monogamous, eternal marriage, a key Mormon doctrine. Eternal marriage is the doctrine not only that properly sealed marriages will last for all eternity, but that reaching the highest levels of celestial bliss requires just such a marriage. As a doctrine it is kind of the theological jackpot to ground heterosexual, monogamous marriages and it comes with a strong belief that our souls were predestined for our spouse’s soul in our pre-bodily state. Add that to the heavy focus on human agency in Mormon theology – we are all assigned bodies by our Heavenly Father so we can learn to struggle against evil and walk in the paths of righteousness until we are called back to celestial bliss – and suddenly using vampires as perfect immortal beings who have earned beatitude through moral self-restraint is genius if you are looking for a non-preachy way to get your vision out there.

Truthfully, if any of this seems true, I doubt Meyer was consciously thinking about it. But the contours of her own imagination – as a faithful LDSer – must be shaped by these doctrines, making it seem quite obvious that the love triangle will be overcome by Jacob finding his soulmate in the offspring that itself helped birth Bella into her own immortal life. I have been thinking more about why this fantasy, alongside Big Love, is so compelling, and why for all their horrible machinations and jealousies – not to mention an authoritarian patriarchy that is almost too much to bear – I like the Hendricksons more than the Cullens. How is it that plural marriage can seem so awful and also sort of great in that show? If you watch Big Love, we should talk about it.  Now I have to go put dinner in the oven (ha! speaking of domestic and family obligations).

Kathryn

Written by themothchase

September 22, 2009 at 9:08 pm

Posted in The Twilight Saga

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