Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Building Against Death

I looked at the news around the time I awoke at 4am yesterday and then not again until late in the afternoon. During that time, one of the things I was doing was reading Dracula again, and, has it often does when I re-read that book, the incredible amount of death impressed me. There's so much of it that's typically omitted from film productions, probably because it seems redundant. I was reading the section where Van Helsing and Dr. Seward are trying and failing to save Lucy from Dracula who, unseen for this entire section, steadily enervates her. During this time, Lucy's mother is also suffering from a heart condition that eventually kills her while Lucy's fiance, Arthur, is away during the final moments of Lucy's life because his father has died and he must attend to his affairs. Van Helsing reveals a fondness for Arthur is due to an incidental resemblance Arthur bears to Van Helsing's own deceased son. I kept thinking of a line from Coppola's adaptation of Dracula, an adaptation which otherwise doesn't really capture this aspect of the book; "Take me away from all of this death."

The movies that probably best capture this preoccupation of the novel are the two Nosferatu movies, Murnau's 1922 silent film and Werner Herzog's 1979 remake--moreso Herzog's film. Both are really adaptations of Dracula but both alter the story to introduce the concept of a plague ravaging the town, apparently related to Dracula/Orlock's presence. It gives the sense of death being everywhere and inescapable. What no film version has captured is the emotional exhaustion felt by the main characters who find they have new reasons for profound grief on a regular basis. It becomes so absurd it starts to manifest in compulsive laughter.

Arthur and Quincey went away together to the station, and Van Helsing and I came on here. The moment we were alone in the carriage he gave way to a regular fit of hysterics. He has denied to me since that it was hysterics, and insisted that it was only his sense of humour asserting itself under very terrible conditions. He laughed till he cried, and I had to draw down the blinds lest any one should see us and misjudge; and then he cried, till he laughed again; and laughed and cried together, just as a woman does. I tried to be stern with him, as one is to a woman under the circumstances; but it had no effect.

Van Helsing eventually reveals to Seward that the cause of his laughter is that Arthur took comfort in the idea that his blood transfusion with Lucy been something like the physical coupling of man and wife.

“Just so. Said he not that the transfusion of his blood to her veins had made her truly his bride?”

“Yes, and it was a sweet and comforting idea for him.”

“Quite so. But there was a difficulty, friend John. If so that, then what about the others? Ho, ho! Then this so sweet maid is a polyandrist, and me, with my poor wife dead to me, but alive by Church’s law, though no wits, all gone—even I, who am faithful husband to this now-no-wife, am bigamist.”

“I don’t see where the joke comes in there either!” I said; and I did not feel particularly pleased with him for saying such things.

Van Helsing, as a scientist, doesn't have the luxury of indulging in Arthur's simple attempt to create some kind of meaning, some kind of story, out of the senseless. That's the fundamental conflict in the book, the struggle between an omnipresent, ravenous, and mockingly capricious death versus an attempt to see meaning. Van Helsing uses tools which would have seemed heretical to the Victorian English Protestants; garlic and crucifixes, the latter of which being an invocation of continental European Catholicism and its veneration of icons deemed blasphemous by English Puritans. So I had been reading this before I read the news that Notre Dame was burning.

And it turns out religion plays a big role in the story of the cathedral's disaster. Many assumed or thought that this may have been another attack by Islamic terrorists but no evidence of this has come forward, inspectors seemingly laying the blame on an accident connected to recent renovations. But according to this article, there's been a chronic problem of egregiously insufficient funding for the upkeep of France's cathedrals, including Notre Dame, and this is apparently related to the sensitive place religion holds in current French politics.

The sensitivity of the issue was underlined last weekend when Nathalie Loiseau, 54, who is heading the European election campaign for Mr Macron’s La République en Marche party, announced that she would attend Mass. The outcry was so great that Ms Loiseau promptly issued an apology and said her announcement had been a “human error”.

I was also reminded of my web comic, Dekpa and Deborah, which is set in 1674 mostly in London, so far, so naturally I had to do a lot of reading about the 1666 Great Fire of London. Among the losses was the old, mediaeval Saint Paul's Cathedral. Last year I remember feeling eager to draw the remains of flying buttresses reaching out of the snow like claws.

It seemed natural to me that Deborah, a young woman with some Puritan leanings (she's John Milton's daughter), would feel tax money would be better spent on feeding the poor than on an ostentatious remnant of England's Catholic past. I suppose that's essentially the conflict in France now. How can you justify allocating tax money for such a thing with no practical application? Yet the idea of demolishing any Gothic cathedral seems monstrous to me. I suppose with the bitter ambiguities of modern political conflicts, the world seems particularly in need of that which is beautiful and permanent. Aside from any religious considerations, there's a kind of divinity in art that helps elevate human life from the sense of being a constant, ugly struggle with violent decay. It's the kind of thing you can't really explain logically but that's somehow part of it's virtue. Anything that can be explained is subject to interpretation and co-opting, while the simply beautiful belongs to everyone who looks at it.

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