These Words Mean Something Different than What They Are

One of Rene Magritte’s most famous paintings is The Treachery of Images, though most simply know it by the writing on the work itself: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. The basic idea of the piece is that the pipe that Magritte painted is not actually a pipe, simply a representation of one. Therefore, the pipe and the representation are separate entities. The same thought process can be read in Michael Field’s poem “L’Indifferent” in which the authors describe a painting of a boy who is dancing. “Though old enough for manhood’s bliss,/ He is a boy,/ Who dances and must die.” These lines, while they could easily mean that the subject of the painting is physically old enough to be a man but still behaves like a boy and in general his own mortality is imminent, however these lines could be displaying the relationship between the subject and the art. The subject is old enough for “manhoods bliss” because so much time has passed since the rococo period in which the subject would have been a boy. Therefore, the representation of the boy is bound to dance for eternity, while the boy himself must die, because his youth and joy can not last forever.

In a way, this is similar to Saussure’s concept of the signifier and the signified in his ‘theory of the sign’, only instead of words, its is the painting itself that is the arbitrary signifier. The signifier, usually a word, is a jumble of letters used to represent a physical thing or a concept. The signified is the actual ‘thing’ be it conceptual or physical. What this ‘thing’ is internal to an individual because it is the way that they process or perceive it. Therefore the signifier is meant to portray the perceptions attached to the signified, but the sign can never be universal because the signified is perceived in different ways by each individual and therefore the signifier will have a different effect on each person. The painter would have their own thoughts behind why each stroke should be placed as it is, however the colors and lines that would have represented the abstract idea of this boy’s dancing in Watteau’s mind, can be interpreted with different subtleties by the individual. They might have different associations with the concepts that Watteau is portraying that impact their emotions or perceptions of the scene.

Therefore, the poem by Michael Fields is actually a signifier, or a signified, of a signifier, of a signified. The boy dancing is the original concept, the signified, which is then signified by the painting, which is then the signified of the poem, since the poem is a signifier of Fields’s perception of the painting. Therefore, Cooper and Bradley had their own thoughts and ideas about the painting itself that they then attempted to explain in the poem, which can never guarantee the same understanding from the reader, because the reader will have their own internal understanding of the poem that they’ll never fully be able to explain because words are arbitrary and will never have the exact same effect on each individual. Therefore, we, as readers, are so far removed from the feeling of the original moment itself, that we can only base our perception of the event on someone else’s inherently biased representation of it. Which I find fascinating, because even as you, as a reader, read this, you’re reading a concept or idea that means something ever so slightly different to you than it does to me, because of the way that we perceive and understand the words I’ve chosen to represent this idea. 

Dorian Gray’s Love for a Performance

Throughout Wilde’s novel, readers are encouraged by Lord Henry to view Dorian Gray as an interesting mind to be observed and analyzed. Therefore, who better to pull into the psychoanalysis of Dorian than Freud himself. In his speech on Writers and Day-Dreaming, Freud provided an analysis on the act of day-dreaming and fantasies for adults that is useful in understanding Dorian’s relationship with the young and beautiful actress, Sibyl.

Sibyl is nothing more than an idea to Dorian; she is not an actual person of substance in his mind, instead she is a proxy for his own fantasy of immortality. He first noticed her on the stage, and from that moment on she was an ever-changing and malleable idea. She was someone new each night that Dorian went to see her, and he could always return to whichever representation or role that he enjoyed most. “Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or rather, re-arranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him?” (Freud, 144). Dorian never understood that there was more to Sibyl than her art because he did not want to. He could continue to love her as her performance, and therefore she could be anything he wanted her to be.

“I have seen her in every age, in every costume. Ordinary women never appeal to one’s imagination. They are limited to their century. No glamour ever transfigures them. One knows their minds as easily as one knows their bonnets… But an actress! Oh how different an actress is! Harry! Why didn’t you tell me that the only thing worth loving is an actress” (Wilde, 51).

Sibyl was never a real person to him, she was only a piece of living, breathing art for him to admire. Dorian’s love for Sibyl stems from these grand romances that have lived for centuries, never losing their beauty and their relevance to society and human emotion, that she portrays on stage. There is the immortality of beauty that Dorian will never possess, and is constantly reminded of through his portrait, and Sibyl has had to carry the torch of that beauty through her performances.

When discussing an orphan’s fantasy for a successful life that centers around a stable family and home, Freud explained:

“In the phantasy, the dreamer has regained what he possessed in his happy childhood – the protecting house, the loving parents and the first objects of his affectionate feelings. You will see this example from the way in which the wish makes use of an occasion in the present to construct, on the pattern of the past, a picture of the future.”

By planting seeds of discontent in Dorian’s mind, and the idea that the most important thing he has is his youth and beauty that comes with it, Lord Henry took away Dorian’s happiness. Lord Henry encouraged Dorian to think about things he wasn’t quite ready for, therefore in idealizing Sibyl, Dorian is regaining the innocence and beauty that was stripped from him. However he is also building his idea of an ideal future, because Sibyl is a symbol of the immortality of beautiful art, therefore he can regain the delusion of his own beauty’s immortality by latching it on to Sibyl’s work.

Basically, Dorian’s passion for his actress stems from the fact that he can not separate her performance from who she is as a person. This then makes me wonder about Freud’s idea of when a child begins to separate play from reality, and therefore as an adult they are able to separate fantasy from reality. Personally, I don’t think Dorian ever learned to separate one from the other, which is how we ended up with this situation.

Are the British Correct or Arrogant in Imposing their Religious Traditions on Others?

Dracula as a novel is one deeply associated with the history of British literature, especially since the main chunk of the novel itself takes place in London. To herald the book as a British masterpiece is to erase some of its own history. This novel holding currents of British anxiety of reverse invasion by those they once conquered was written by an Irishman. Though Stoker was a Protestant and a Loyalist in his time, he grew up in County Sligo and would have seen first hand the oppression of Irish Catholicism by the English Church. Even in his higher education at Trinity College Dublin, Stoker would have been made aware of the British attempts to extinguish Irish culture and religion, as until the early 1900s only Protestant students were admitted into the university. By acknowledging the religious climate that Stoker was raised and educated in, the way that religion works within Dracula becomes incredibly interesting.

It can’t be a coincidence that the only effective ways of warding off Dracula and other vampires stem from religious traditions that the British Empire would have been trying to erase in Ireland. When Harker was first offered the crucifix, he almost did not accept it because of his idea of himself as a “Good English Churchman” (Stoker, 11). According to Longman in his Anthology of the Victorian Age the religious life of England was very strict in its simplicity: “Anti-Catholic, Bible-oriented, concerned with humanitarian issues, and focused on the salvation of individual souls within a rigid framework of Christian conduct, Evangelicalism dominated the religious and often the social life of working- and middle class- Britons” (Longman, 1056). Therefore, the crucifix, a commonly worn item among Catholics during this time, would have been seen as straying from the straight-forward path of religion laid out by the Bible and other rigid constructs of the Victorian Age. This makes it interesting that even though Britain was so anti-Catholic at this time, it is the Catholic symbol that is effective against Dracula.

The coach ride that Harker takes to meet Dracula’s coach in the woods is a particularly lasting image of the importance of and faith in catholic tradition in this region. “By the roadside were many crosses, and as we swept by, my companions all crossed themselves. Here and there was a peasant man or woman kneeling before a shrine, who did not even turn round as we approached…” (Stoker, 14). The shrines that Harker described were not an acceptable form of worship in Evangelical England, as shrines tended to be decorated and elaborate, and they are physical representations of what is being worshiped, which would not have been accepted out of fear of idol worship. Therefore, a solution for the evil that awaits Harker does not reside in his own religious traditions, but in those of the land he is exploring.

Catholicism is a strong factor in what makes both the Transylvanians and the Irish ‘other’ in the eyes of the Evangelical British. Therefore the implications of the Catholic traditions being capable of defending people against Dracula, while simple faith in God that Evangelicals subscribe to so as to not complicate worship not being able to accomplish the same, appears to be a commentary on the whether or not the English are truly correct, or best, in their religious traditions. This then calls into question their legitimacy in forcing colonized nations, like Stoker’s Ireland, into adopting British religious preferences.

American Anxieties and the 1972 Hit Movie: Blacula

William Crain’s Blacula, released in 1972, was an American adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The film follows Prince Mamuwalde, an Abani African prince who went to Transylvania to seek Dracula’s help in ending the slave trade in 1780. Instead of helping Mamuwalde, Dracula turns him into a vampire, giving him the name of ‘Blacula’, and Mamuwalde lays in rest until 1972 when his coffin is bought by interior decorators in an estate sale and shipped to Los Angeles. After slaying the interior designers Dr. Gordon Thomas, a pathologist for the LAPD, begins to investigate their deaths. Blacula therefore changes the nuances of the story itself, but preserves the undercurrents of fear of foreigners by the invaded society, changing the nuances to create the same feelings in American society in the 1970s.

One of the clearest anxieties felt by Victorians was the anxiety towards foreigners, entering their nation and causing disorder and uncertainty of ones’ place within society. The story of Dracula is particularly blatant about this fear. Dracula is a nobleman from the far reaches of Eastern Europe who enters British society and wrecks havoc on those who aided him in entering the nation in the first place. Since Blacula was an adaptation, it would make sense that the general premise of the vampire as the foreigner falls in line with Dracula, since he, as an African Prince, is an undoubtedly an outsider. The anxiety towards those from the Balkans, whose culture was not understood or commonly replicated in Britain, can be compared to the lack of understanding that white Americans in the 1970s held towards both African and African American culture. Even in the trailer for the film, Blacula is pronounced Dracula’s ‘Soul Brother’, and the use of Funk for a horror movie’s soundtrack makes it clear that Blacula is different, and ‘othered’ from other horror movies.

As a film Blacula has a unique focus on the repercussions of slavery. Blacula was hailed the “Black avenger” in his film, since Mamuwalde originally sought out Dracula to end the slave trade. When he arrives in Los Angels, he is a bought good from the estate sale – making the coffin he was shipped over in even more symbolic. Mamuwalde then turns Americans into vampires, and therefore enslaving them for his dark purposes. This can be seen as a product of the slave trade, as Mamuwalde enslaves Americans before they’re given the chance to enslave him. He was unable to stop the slave trade in 1780 and therefore still holds the fears of that time period in relation to America. Once this line of thinking is worked out, it can also be applied to the original Dracula. Dracula hails from a nation untouched by the British during this period, but in the course of Britain’s history, England has invaded 90% of the world’s countries, and during this time is was an Imperial power. Dracula could therefore be seen as attempting to colonize England before it attempts to colonize him. Even when talking with Harker about his anxieties of moving to London, Dracula mentions that he is a noble in his homeland and that common people know him to be a master. Dracula does not want to give this position in society up; therefore he would attempt to exert dominance in England. By entering a country that is not his own and forcing those already there to accept him as a man of power, Dracula is colonizing England.

Through the way in which foreigners are presented and interact with their adopted societies within the vampire genre, it is apparent that they represent not only the fears of the unknown held by society, but the fear that the harm countries like Britain and America have done on to others, will be done on to themselves.


The Law and the Ten Commandments

Religious life during the Victorian Era centered around the strict Evangelical church, which held the Victorians to a rigid ideal of morality (Longman). This strict, self-restrictive religious culture is reflected in The Laws of the Beast Men on the island which read as followed:

“Not to go on all-Fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”

“Not to suck up drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”

“Not to eat Flesh or Fish; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”

“Not to claw Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”

“Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”

And so from the prohibition of these acts of folly, on to the prohibition of what I thought then were the maddest, most impossible and most indecent things one could well imagine (43).

The laws themselves appear to mirror the format of the Ten Commandments, using “Never to go…” in lieu of “Thou shall not.” The list is clear and incontestable, just as the language of the Ten Commandments leaves little or nothing to interpretation. The Law prohibited the Beast Men from chasing other Men – which when discussing creatures labeled as Beasts by the narrator leads me to believe the chase prohibited is one of malicious intent – just as the Ten commandments prohibit murder of another man. Even the restriction on the consumption of Flesh and Fish, while holding its scientific reasoning to slow the degeneration of the Beast Men back into animals, is reminiscent of the restrictions on consumption of meat during certain periods of the Christian Religious calendar. These restrictions are therefore a reflection of the line of morality in Victorian society, as well as the line of morality within the society of the island itself.

The Sayer of the Law would then take on a Moses-like position within the Beast Men if one were to subscribe to the belief that the Law mirrors the Ten Commandments. Moses received the list of commandments that all must follow in order to avoid punishment in the Christian religions, just as the Law that the Sayer creates must be learned and followed in order to avoid the “house of pain” (43). Moses was the deliverer of the Hebrews, leading them from their enslavement in Egypt to the promised land that God had told him of. The Sayer of the Law did not personally lead the other Beast Men to their new homes in the forests, removed from the House of Pain in which they were created, but his word and law was meant to deliver them from the punishment and pain that Moreau could inflict within his enclosure. His Law therefore kept the Beast Men safe from their creator’s wrath, and in his good graces, just as the Ten Commandments do according to the Bible.

The idea of the House of Pain closely relates to the idea of Hell in my mind, as both are where souls go to suffer the consequences of their immoral actions, which makes the role of Moreau within this entire analogy rather complicated. He is both the creator of the Beast Men, and their punisher, which could equate him to God, who is simultaneously the giver of life and the punisher of the immoral for Evangelicals. However Moreau also rules over the House of Pain, where the Beast Men appear to return to after they break the Law, never to rejoin society. However it is not God, but Lucifer who rules over the punishment of human souls in Hell. The easy answer to me seems to be that Moreau is both God and Satan to the Beast Men, but that then leads me to the question of whether or not HG Wells was proposing that God is also both beings within his own society’s religion.