The Dialectic of Fear Franco Moretti New Left Review, 136 (Nov. Dec. 1982), 67-85

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The Dialectic of Fear

Franco Moretti

New Left Review, 136 (Nov.-Dec. 1982), 67-85
The fear of bourgeois civilization is summed up in two names: Frankenstein and Dracula. The monster and the vampire are born together one night in 1816 in the drawing room of the Villa Chapuis near Geneva, out of a society game among friends to while away a rainy summer. Born in the full spate of the industrial revolution, they rise again together in the critical years at the end of the nineteenth century under the names of Hyde and Dracula. In the twentieth century they conquer the cinema: after the First World War, in German Expressionism; after the 1929 crisis, with the big RKO productions in America; then in 1956-57, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, directed by Terence Fisher, again, triumphantly, incarnate this twin-faced nightmare. Frankenstein and Dracula lead parallel lives. They are indivisible, because complementary, figures; the two horrible faces of a single society, its extremes: the disfigured wretch and the ruthless proprietor. The worker and capital: 'the whole of society must split into the two classes of property owners and propertyless workers.' That 'must', which for Marx is a scientific prediction of the future (and {68} the guarantee of a future reordering of society), is a forewarning of the end for nineteenth-century bourgeois culture.
I. Towards a Sociology of the Modern Monster

The literature of terror is born precisely out of the terror of a split society and out of the desire to heal it. It is for just this reason that Dracula and Frankenstein, with rare exceptions, do not appear together. The threat would be too great, and this literature, having produced terror, must also erase it and restore peace. It must restore the broken equilibrium -- giving the illusion of being able to stop history -- because the monster expresses the anxiety that the future will be monstrous. His antagonist -- the enemy of the monster -- will always be, by contrast, a representative of the present, a distillation of complacent nineteenth-century mediocrity: nationalistic, stupid, superstitious, philistine, impotent, self-satisfied. But this does not show through. Fascinated by the horror of the monster, the public accepts the vices of its destroyer without a murmur, just as it accepts his literary depiction, the jaded and repetitive typology which regains its strength and its virginity on contact with the unknown. The monster, then, serves to displace the antagonisms and horrors evidenced within society to outside society itself. In Frankenstein the struggle will be between a 'race of devils' and the 'species of man'. Whoever dares to fight the monster automatically becomes the representative of the species, of the whole of society. The monster, the utterly unknown, serves to reconstruct a universality, a social cohesion which in itself would no longer carry conviction.

Frankenstein's monster and Dracula the vampire are, unlike previous monsters, dynamic, totalizing monsters. This is what makes them frightening. Before, things were different. Sade's malefactors agree to operate on the margins of society, hidden away in their towers. Justine is their victim because she rejects the modern world, the world of the city, of exchange, of her reduction to a commodity. She thus gives herself over to the old horror of the feudal world, the will of the individual master. Moreover, in Sade the evil has a 'natural' limit which cannot be overstepped: the gratification of the master's desire. Once he is satiated, the torture ceases too. Dracula, on the other hand, is an ascetic of terror: in him is celebrated the victory 'of the desire for possession over that of enjoyment', and possession as such, indifferent to consumption, is by its very nature insatiable and unlimited. Polidori's vampire is still a petty feudal lord forced to travel round Europe strangling young ladies for the miserable purpose of surviving. Time is against him, against his conservative desires. Stoker's Dracula, by contrast, is a rational entrepreneur who invests his gold to expand his dominion: to conquer the City of London. And already Frankenstein's monster sows devastation over the whole world, from the Alps to Scotland, from Eastern Europe to the Pole. By comparison, the gigantic ghost of The Castle of Otranto looks like a dwarf. He is confined to a single place; he can appear once only; he is merely a relic of the past. Once order is reestablished he is silent for ever. The modern monsters, however, threaten to live for ever and to conquer the world. For this reason they must be killed.

Like the proletariat, the monster is denied a name and an individuality. He is the Frankenstein monster; he belongs wholly to his creator (just as one can speak of 'a Ford worker'). Like the proletariat, he is a collective and artificial creature. He is not found in nature, but built. Frankenstein is a productive inventor-scientist, in open conflict with Walton, the contemplative discoverer-scientist (the pattern is repeated with Jekyll and Lanyon). Reunited and brought back to life in the monster are the limbs of those -- the 'poor' -- whom the breakdown of feudal relations has forced into brigandage, poverty and death. Only modern science -- this metaphor for the 'dark satanic mills' -- can offer them a future. It sews them together again, moulds them according to its will and finally gives them life, But at the moment the monster opens its eyes, its creator draws back in horror: 'by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; . . . How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe . . . ?' [1.4.1]

Between Frankenstein and the monster there is an ambivalent, dialectical relationship, the same as that which, according to Marx, connects capital with wage-labour. On the one hand, the scientist cannot but create the monster: 'often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion' [1.3.6]. On the other hand, he is immediately afraid of it and wants to kill it, because he realizes he has given life to a creature stronger than himself and of which he cannot henceforth be free. It is the same curse that afflicts Jekyll: 'to put your good heart at rest, I will tell you one thing: the moment I choose, I can be rid of Mr Hyde.' And yet it is Hyde who will become master of his master's life. The fear aroused by the monster, in other words, is the fear of one who is afraid of having 'produced his own gravediggers'.
A 'Race of Devils'

The monster's explicit 'demands' cannot in fact produce fear. They are not a gesture of challenge; they are 'reformist' demands. The monster wishes only to have rights of citizenship among men: 'I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am thy creature, and I will be ever mild and docile to my natural lord and king, . . . I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous' [2.2.5]. Furthermore, when all kindly relations with humans have failed, the monster humbly accepts his marginalization, begging only to have another creature who is 'as deformed and horrible as myself'. But even this is denied him. The monster's sheer existence is frightening enough for Frankenstein, let alone the prospect of his producing children and multiplying. Frankenstein -- who never manages to consummate his marriage -- is the victim of the same impotence that Benjamin describes: 'Social reasons for impotence: the imagination of the bourgeois class stopped caring about the future of the productive forces it had unleashed . . . Male impotence -- key figure of solitude, in it the arrest of the productive forces is effected'. The possibility of the monster having descendants presents itself to the scientist as a real nightmare: 'a race of {70} devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror' [3.3.1].

'Race of devils': this image of the proletariat encapsulates one of the most reactionary elements in Mary Shelley's ideology. The monster is a historical product, an artificial being: but once transformed into a 'race' he re-enters the immutable realm of Nature. He can become the object of an instinctive, elemental hatred; and 'men' need this hatred to counterbalance the force unleashed by the monster. So true is this that racial discrimination is not superimposed on the development of the narrative but springs directly from it: it is not only Mary Shelley who wants to make the monster a creature of another race, but Frankenstein himself. Frankenstein does not in fact want to create a man (as he claims) but a monster, a race. He narrates at length the 'infinite pains and care' [1.4.1] with which he had endeavoured to form the creature; he tells us that 'his limbs were in proportion' and that he had 'selected his features as beautiful' [1.4.1]. So many lies -- in the same paragraph, three words later, we read: 'His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes. . . . his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.' Even before he begins to live, this new being is already monstrous, already a race apart. He must be so, he is made to be so -- he is created but on these conditions. There is here a clear lament for the feudal sumptuary laws which, by imposing a particular style of dress on each social rank, allowed it to be recognized at a distance and nailed it physically to its social role. Now that clothes have become commodities that anyone can buy, this is no longer possible. Difference in rank must now be inscribed more deeply: in one's skin, one's eyes, one's build. The monster makes us realize how hard it was for the dominant classes to resign themselves to the idea that all human beings are -- or ought to be -- equal.

But the monster also makes us realize that in an unequal society they are not equal. Not because they belong to different 'races' but because inequality really does score itself into one's skin, one's eyes and one's body. And more so, evidently, in the case of the first industrial workers: the monster is disfigured not only because Frankenstein wants him to be like that, but also because this was how things actually were in the first decades of the industrial revolution. In him, the metaphors of the critics of civil society become real. The monster incarnates the dialectic of estranged labour described by the young Marx: 'the more his product is shaped, the more misshapen the worker; the more civilized his object, the more barbarous the worker; the more powerful the work, the more powerless the worker; the more intelligent the work, the duller the worker and the more he becomes a slave of nature. . . . It is true that labour produces . . . palaces, but hovels for the worker. . . . It produces intelligence, but it produces idiocy and cretinism for the worker.' Frankenstein's invention is thus a pregnant metaphor of the process of capitalist production, which forms by deforming, civilizes by barbarizing, enriches by impoverishing -- a two-sided process in which each affirmation entails a negation. And indeed the monster -- the pedestal on which Frankenstein erects his anguished greatness -- is always described by negation: man is well proportioned, the monster is not; man is beautiful, {71} the monster ugly; man is good, the monster evil. The monster is man turned upside-down, negated. He has no autonomous existence; he can never be really free or have a future. He lives only as the other side of that coin which is Frankenstein. When the scientist dies, the monster does not know what to do with his own life and commits suicide.

Mary Shelley's Bad Dream

The two extremes of Frankenstein are the scientist and the monster. But it is more precise to say that they become extremes in the course of the narration. Mary Shelley's novel rests in fact on an elementary scheme, that of simplification and splitting ('The whole of society must split into the two classes. . .'). It is a process that demands its victims, and indeed, all the 'intermediate' characters perish one after the other by the monster's hand: Frankenstein's brother William, the maid Justine, his friend Clerval, his wife Elizabeth, his father. This is a sequence echoed in the sacrifice of Philemon and Baucis, as Faust's entrepreneurial dream dictates the destruction, in the figures of the two old people, of the family unit and small independent property. In Frankenstein too, the victims of the monster (or rather of the struggle between the monster and the scientist, a struggle which prefigures the social relations of the future) are those who still represent the ethical and economic ideal of the family as an 'extended' unit: not just the relatives, but also the maid and the fraternal friend Clerval. Clerval, in comparison with his contemporary, Victor, is still placidly traditionalist: he, unlike Frankenstein, has chosen to stay in his parents' town, in his family home, and to keep their values alive. These values are corporative, localistic, unchanging: the ethic of the 'common road' praised by Robinson Crusoe's father. Frankenstein himself ends up being converted to them, but by then it is too late: 'how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow. . . . Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries' [Walton 11]

Frankenstein's last words reconnect with Mary Shelley's preface, which gives the aim of the work as 'the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection' [Preface 2]. Nor is it by accident that his words are spoken to Walton, since Walton is essential for the communication of the work's message. Like Frankenstein, Walton starts out as the protagonist of a desperate undertaking, spurred on by an imperious as well as aggressive and inhuman idea of scientific progress: 'One man's life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought' [Letter 4.6]. But Frankenstein's story puts him off. At the end, Walton accedes to the protestations of the sailors, who are frightened for their lives, and agrees to come back 'ignorant and disappointed' [Walton 8] to his homeland and his family. Thanks to his conversion, Walton survives. And this confers on him a dominant function in the narrative structure, in the book's system of 'senders' of messages. Walton both begins the story and ends it. His narrative 'contains', and thus subordinates, Frankenstein's narrative (which in turn 'contains' that of the monster). The broadest, most comprehensive, most universal narrative viewpoint is reserved for Walton. The narrative system inverts the meaning of Frankenstein as we {72} have described it, exorcising its horror. The dominant element of reality is not the splitting of society into two opposing poles, but its symbolic reunification in the Walton family. The wound is healed: one goes back home.

The universality attributed to Walton by the system of narrative senders applies not only to the story at hand but to the whole course of history. Through Walton, Frankenstein and the monster are relegated to the status of mere historical 'accidents'; theirs is only an episode, a 'case' (Stevenson's title will be The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). By this means Mary Shelley wants to convince us that capitalism has no future: it may have been around for a few years, but now it is all over. Anyone can see that Frankenstein and the monster die without heirs, while Robert Walton survives. It is a glaring anachronism, but one for which Mary Shelley has prepared us. The sociological fulcrum of Frankenstein -- the creation of the proletariat -- responds neither to economic interests nor to objective needs. It is the product of a solitary, subjective and entirely disinterested piece of work: Frankenstein expects no personal advantage from creating the monster. Or rather, he cannot expect it, because in the world of the novel there is no way of utilizing the monster. And there is no way of utilizing him because there are no factories. And there are no factories for two very good reasons: because for Mary Shelley the demands of production have no value in themselves, but must be subordinated to the maintenance of the moral and material solidity of the family; and because, as she understood, the factories would undoubtedly multiply the feared 'race of devils' to an infinite number. Wishing to exorcise the proletariat, Mary Shelley, with absolute logical consistency, erases capital from her picture too. In other words, she erases history.

And indeed, the end result of the peculiar narrative structure employed is to make the story of Frankenstein and the monster resemble a fable. As in a fable, the story proceeds in oral form: Frankenstein speaks to Walton, the monster to Frankenstein, Frankenstein to Walton again (whereas Walton, who embodies history and the future, writes). As in a fable, there is an attempt to create a cosy, trusting, domestic situation: even the monster, at the beginning of his narrative, suggests that he and Frankenstein take refuge in a mountain cottage so as to be more comfortable. As in a fable, by an iron law, what has happened must be considered an imaginary occurrence. Capitalism is a dream -- a bad dream, but a dream nonetheless.

Count Dracula is an aristocrat only in a manner of speaking. Jonathan Harker -- the London estate agent who stays in his castle and whose diary opens Stoker's novel -- observes with astonishment that Dracula lacks precisely what makes a man 'noble': servants. Dracula stoops to driving the carriage, cooking the meals, making the beds, cleaning the castle. The Count has read Adam Smith: he knows that servants are unproductive workers who diminish the income of the person who keeps them. Dracula also lacks the aristocrat's conspicuous consumption: he does not eat, he does not drink, he does not make love, he does not like showy clothes, he does not go to the theatre and he does not go hunting, he does {73} not hold receptions and does not build stately homes. Not even his violence has pleasure as its goal. Dracula (unlike Vlad the Impaler, the historical Dracula, and all other vampires before him) does not like spilling blood: he needs blood. He sucks just as much as i necessary and never wastes a drop. His ultimate aim is not to destroy the lives of others according to whim, to waste them, but to use them. Dracula, in other words, is a saver, an ascetic, an upholder of the Protestant ethic. And in fact he has no body -- or rather, he has no shadow. His body admittedly exists, but it is 'incorporeal' -- 'sensibly supersensible' -- as Marx wrote of the commodity, 'impossible as a physical fact', as Mary Shelley defines the monster in the first lines of her preface. In fact it is impossible 'physically', to estrange a man from himself, to de-humanize him. But alienated labour, as a social relation, makes it possible. So too there really exists a social product which has no body, which has exchange-value but no use-value. This product, we know, is money. And when Harker explores the castle, he finds just one thing: 'a great heap of gold . . . gold of all kinds, Roman, and British, and Austrian, and Hungarian, and Greek and Turkish money, covered with a film of dust, as though it had lain long in the ground.' The money that had been buried comes back to life, becomes capital and embarks on the conquest of the world: this and none other is the story of Dracula the vampire.

'Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.' Marx's analogy unravels the vampire metaphor. As everyone knows, the vampire is dead and yet not dead: he is an Un-Dead, a 'dead' person who yet manages to live thanks to the blood he sucks from the living. Their strength becomes his strength. The stronger the vampire becomes, the weaker the living become: 'the capitalist gets rich, not, like the miser, in proportion to his personal labour and restricted consumption, but at the same rate as he squeezes out labour-power from others, and compels the worker to renounce all the enjoyments of life.' Like capital, Dracula is impelled towards a continuous growth, an unlimited expansion of his domain: accumulation is inherent in his nature. 'This', Harker exclaims, 'was the being I was helping to transfer to London, where, perhaps for centuries to come, he might, amongst its teeming millions, satiate his lust for circle of semi-demons to batten on blood, and create a new and ever widening circle of semi-demons to batten on the helpless.' 'And so the circle goes on ever widening', Van Helsing says later on; and Seward describes Dracula as 'the father or furtherer of a new order of beings'.

All Dracula's actions really have as their final goal the creation of this 'new order of beings' which finds its most fertile soil, logically enough, in England. And finally, just as the capitalist is 'capital personified' and must subordinate his private existence to the abstract and incessant movement of accumulation, so Dracula is not impelled by the desire for power but by the curse of power, by an obligation he cannot escape. 'When they (the Un-Dead) become such', Van Helsing explains, 'there comes with the change the curse of immortality; they cannot die, but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world'. It is remarked later of the vampire that he 'can do all these things, yet he is not free'. His curse compels him to make ever more victims, just as the capitalist is compelled to accumulate. His nature forces him to struggle to {74} be unlimited, to subjugate the whole of society. For this reason, one cannot 'coexist' with the vampire. One must either succumb to him or kill him, thereby freeing the world of his presence and him of his curse. When the knife plunges into Dracula's heart, in the moment before his dissolution, 'there was in the face a look of peace, such as I would never have imagined might have rested there'. There flashes forth here the idea, to which we shall return, of the purification of capital.

The Vampire as Monopolist

If the vampire is a metaphor for capital, then Stoker's vampire, who is of 1897, must be the capital of 1897. The capital which, after lying 'buried' for twenty long years of recession, rises again to set out on the irreversible road of concentration and monopoly. And Dracula is a true monopolist: solitary and despotic, he will not brook competition. Like monopoly capital, his ambition is to subjugate the last vestiges of the liberal era and destroy all forms of economic independence. He no longer restricts himself to incorporating (in a literal sense) the physical and moral strength of his victims. He intends to make them his forever. Hence the horror, for the bourgeois mind. One is bound to Dracula, as to the devil, for life; no longer 'for a fixed period', as the classic bourgeois contract stipulated with the intention of maintaining the freedom of the contracting parties. The vampire, like monopoly, destroys the hope that one's independence can one day be bought back. He threatens the idea of individual liberty. For this reason the nineteenth-century bourgeois is able to imagine monopoly only in the guise of Count Dracula, the aristocrat, the figure of the past, the relic of distant lands and dark ages. Because the nineteenth-century bourgeois believes in free trade, and he knows that in order to become established, free competition had to destroy the tyranny of feudal monopoly. For him, then, monopoly and free competition are irreconcilable concepts. Monopoly is the past of competition, the middle ages. He cannot believe it can be its future, that competition itself can generate monopoly in new forms. And yet 'modern monopoly is . . . the true synthesis . . . the negation of feudal monopoly insofar as it implies the system of competition, and the negation of competition insofar as it is monopoly.'

Dracula is thus at once the final product of the bourgeois century and its negation. In Stoker's novel only this second aspect -- the negative and destructive one -- appears. There are very good reasons for this. In Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, monopolistic concentration was far less developed (for various economic and political reasons) than in the other advanced capitalist societies. Monopoly could thus be perceived as something extraneous to British history: as a foreign threat. This is why Dracula is not British, while his antagonists (with one exception, as we shall see, and with the addition of Van Helsing, born in that other classic homeland of free trade, Holland) are British through and through. Nationalism -- the defence to the death of British civilization -- has a central role in Dracula. The idea of the nation is central because it is collective: it coordinates individual energies and enables them to resist the threat. For while Dracula threatens the freedom of the individual, the latter alone lacks the power to resist or defeat him.

Indeed the followers of pure economic individualism, those who pursue only their own profit, are, without knowing it, the vampire's best allies. Individualism is not the weapon with which Dracula can be beaten. Other things are needed -- in effect, two: money and religion. These are considered as a single whole, which must not be separated: in other words, money at the service of religion and vice versa. The money of Dracula's enemies is money that refuses to become capital, that wants not to obey the profane economic laws of capitalism but to be used to do good. Towards the end of the novel, Mina Harker thinks of her friends' financial commitment: 'it made me think of the wonderful power of money! What can it not do when it is properly applied; and what might it do when basely used!' This is the point: money should be used according to justice. Money must not have its end in itself, in its continuous accumulation. It must have, rather, a moral, anti-economic end, to the point where colossal expenditures and losses can be calmly accepted. This idea of money is, for the capitalist, something inadmissible. But it is also the great ideologic lie of Victorian capitalism, a capitalism which is ashamed of itself and which hides factories and stations beneath cumbrous Gothic superstructures; which prolongs and extols aristocratic models of life; which exalts the holiness of the family as the latter begins secretly to break up.

Dracula's enemies are precisely the exponents of this capitalism. They are the militant version of Dickens's benefactors. They find their fulfilment in religious superstition, whereas the vampire is paralysed by it. And yet the crucifixes, holy wafers, garlic, magic flowers, and so on, are not important for their intrinsic religious meaning but for a subtler reason. Their true function consists in setting impassable limits to the vampire's activity. They prevent him from entering this or that house, conquering this or that person, carrying out this or that metamorphosis. But setting limits to the vampire-capital means attacking his very raison d'être: he must by his nature be able to expand without limit, to destroy every restraint upon his action. Religious superstition imposes the same limits on Dracula that Victorian capitalism declares itself to accept spontaneously. But Dracula -- who is capital that is not ashamed of itself, true to its own nature, an end in itself -- cannot survive in these conditions. And so this symbol of a cruel historical development falls victim to a handful of whited sepulchres, a bunch of fanatics who want to arrest the course of history. It is they who are the relics of the dark ages.

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