Lacan and Dracula

Posted by Timothy Jones on August 23, 2018 in Uncategorized tagged with , ,

By Josephine Sharoni


Already in 1958 the literary critic,  Maurice Richardson commented that the set up in Bram Stoker’s Dracula reminded him of the primal horde,’pictured somewhat fantastically’  by Freud in Totem and Taboo, ‘with the brothers banding together against the father who has tried to keep all the females to himself’.  It then turns out that several other literary works from this same period also look rather like Totem and Taboo. The Lost World (1912) by Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (1897) and She by Henry Rider Haggard (1887) to take just three examples, all featuring the re-emergence of a violent primordial father figure and his or her subsequent death. This return is enabled by plots based on a ‘dual space’ – a regular ‘everyday’ location and an extraordinary fantasy one. In most cases the distinction is geographical, between the mapped civilised space of England from which the hero sets out and the exotic lawless destination, where the primordial father re-appears; in Dracula, the vampire’s Transylvanian castle. There is also as Žižek notes    Conrad’s fiction with ‘this figure of the “other father”– the obscene, uncanny, shadowy double of the Name of the Father  […], Kurtz in Heart of Darkness or Mister Brown in Lord Jim’. This linking of Dracula with these other contemporaneous texts invokes a historical contextualisation with which psychoanalytic readings are not normally associated. ‘Perhaps, the contemporaneousness of these of Conrad’s works with the moment when in Totem and Taboo, Freud proposed his theory on the “primordial father”, is not a mere external coincidence’.


Freud, seems to have regarded Totem and Taboo as an actual historical event, providing an explanation as to the origin at the dawn of human time of the incest taboo which differentiates nature from culture.The proliferation of Totem and Taboos however raises Žižek’s question of why this narrative was written and rewritten at this particular place and time, that is, aside from Freud’s version, Britain in the period leading up to the Great War. The answers which Lacanian theory suggests lies in the unprecedented modernization which occurs in Britain in this period:-  rapid urbanization, almost universal literacy, the decline of the aristocracy, the waning of religious belief and practices, the unprecedented alteration in the position of woman and the increase in scientific thinking and technological innovations. While on the one hand overall these changes cannot be seen as other than hugely progressive, representing a significant improvement in the conditions, both material and other, of the vast majority of the population, on the other they lead to what in Lacanian terms can be termed a crisis in the symbolic or symbolic authority. It turns out that the rising dominance of science and technology apparently rendering former authorities such as the church and aristocracy obsolete cannot realize their functions in culture and society.


This point hinges on what is actually taboo in human culture. David Punter has written of the power of Dracula deriving from its dealing with taboo and the obscuration by the vampire  of ‘certain bounding lines and divisions which enable society to function without disruption’. The vampire ‘blurs the line between man and beast,[…..] he blurs the line between man and God by daring to partake of immortal life and by practising a corrupt but superhuman form of love; and he blurs the line between man and woman by demonstrating the existence of female passion’. The Lacanian position is different in that boundaries such as Punter lists are either impossible for a human to cross or alternatively can and are crossed in societies, particularly more liberal ones. As Joan Copjec phrases it, ‘laws are made to be broken, prohibitions to be transgressed’, yet the point is ‘that transgression of the law’s interdiction of specific, named acts in no way violates the law’s other, more basic interdiction of the real’. It is on Lacan’s conception of the real that my reading of Dracula is based.


A look at Freud’s well-known Irma dream from 1897 can clarify this idea. It begins with a large hall where the Freuds are receiving numerous guests. Among them is Irma one of his patients in analysis. At one point Freud takes Irma to one side and gets her to open her mouth so he he can look down her throat. ‘There on the right I found a big white patch; at another place I saw extensive whitish grey scabs upon some remarkable curly structures which were evidently modelled on the turbinal bones of the nose’. For Lacan, this is ‘an anxiety-provoking apparition of an image which summarises what we can call the revelation of that which is least penetrable in the realm, of the real’. At this point there appears within the dream what could be termed a cinematic cut or dissolve. The next scene is filled with medical men making various learned pronouncements (serving, albeit in contradictory fashion to absolve Freud for the seemingly unsuccessful treatment of Irma). A similar trajectory can be seen in Dracula with  the incremental dissolution of his social and linguistic milieu during Harker’s journey to  Dracula’s castle which then becomes the site for various encounters with the anxiety provoking real (Dracula’s missing mirror image, the vampire woman, Dracula himself lying in a coffin, the wolves outside etc etc) ending in that same dissolve or cut as in Freud’s dream. The equivalent to the learned medical profession is Van Helsing and his band of vampire hunters through which occurs, to return to Žižek’s quote, the restoration the symbolic efficacy of the Name-of-the-Father re-shrouding its obscene, obverse side. As Copjec comments on the second part of Freud’s dream but which applies equally well to this part of Dracula, it is the ‘re-emergence of paternal figures and the restoration of rules which provide a shield against the unbearable”.

This leaves the question as to the historical circumstances leading to the reappearance of the literary primal father figure who according to Freud’s myth was killed once at the beginning of human time. The answer suggested in Dracula can be seen in the means through which symbolic efficacy is portrayed as being restored. A number of traditional roles which by the end of the 19th century are no longer operative, that of father-in-law, master and priest are reenacted by van Helsing. They can can be very briefly summarized as follows. The first simply in the difference between Lucy and Mina. Lucy is the new woman who chooses her own husband, (thus bypassing the age-old function of the father, the one who chooses or at least affirms his son-in-law) but who then becomes the immortal Vampire-Thing that van Helsing commands the would-be husband Arthur kill with a stake. Mina, on the other hand, is the one whom van Helsing, as a proto-reconstituted father-in-law guards during the journey back to the castle until Jonathan has killed his double-Thing, the vampire and can then marry.  As a “master” van Helsing becomes the authority, the one who now gives the orders including to the aristocracy (in the form of Arthur, later Lord Godalming) seemingly on the basis of his (pseudo)-knowledge but actually (when one reads closely) on the basis of a je ne sais quoi. Van Helsing manages to persuade Arthur that even if he cannot believe in his knowledge he can believe in him. This is a master signifier at work, something, anything, taken on trust. Thirdly, the reference, to the waning of religion belief, at this period can most easily seen in the motif of the crucifix. It first appears as locals’ means of protection against the vampire, which Harker (as a ‘modern’ non-superstitious Anglican) initially turns down but which then later reappears, in Van Helsing’s instructions, as a means of in neutralizing the power of the vampire, in short representing a symbolic screen against the real.


The point which must be stressed here is that although this performance of an apparently conservative reconstitution of these roles leading to the traditional happy ending (the ‘new woman’ turns into a vampire), Dracula has no retrograde agenda. This is made clear in the portrayal of the absurdities of Van Helsing, his broken English, in particular, giving the supposedly learned Dutch professor an air of fraudulence. Above all, the novel’s portrayal of the use of Christian symbols in  their material as opposed to symbolic attributes signals the impossibility of a return to previous cultural practices, the holy wafer, for example being reduced in Van Helsing’s hands to a tacky paste to plug up cracks in a tomb. Rather it enables us to see that the function of these cultural formations as still relevant to our contemporary western society, and only obsolete in terms of their efficacy. For Lacan the real is a product of the symbolic, an unavoidable and permanent residue of the fact that a human  speaks or is ‘in language (in the novel this ‘always’ is indicated in the logical supposition that the Harkers’ baby will have been infected through his mother, who begun to show signs of vampirism after being bitten by Dracula) and its ‘treatment’ is by means of that same symbolic (as opposed to say, pharmaceuticals).

Reading Dracula with Lacan, cannot be concluded without make one final point regarding fantasy literature in general of great relevance to the current ongoing argument regarding the worth of literary studies.  In modern science there appears a split, already noted by Descartes in his remark on looking at the sun, between the way the world appears to us (the sun is very small) and the way it really is, according to science (the sun is three times bigger than earth). Modern (Galilean) science follows an internal logic concerning the manipulation of signifiers and thought processes based on autonomous rules. This in Lacan’s words ‘without anything being less motivated than what exists at any given point’. One can say something analogous about fantasy literature in that in its creation of such imaginary devices it is has nothing to do with how the world appears to us (no vampires, it seems) but how it really is (a longer discussion of the novel shows how the vampire becomes a means of staging avant la lettre many aspects of Freudian and Lacanian theories of subjectivity; the mirror stage, ego, id, superego, jouissance, the double, object a)  Reading Dracula with Lacan gives us a way of thinking about the human subject, (not an object of Galilean science) in a truly modern scientific way – that is unmotivated by appearances.


Josephine Sharoni’s new book, Lacan and Fantasy Literature: Portents of Modernity in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Fiction is available now in the Brill/Rodopi Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies series.

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