I’ve just returned from a lovely school jaunt to London and Romania, following the trail of Stoker’s Dracula, and while I did blog about the trip in general for the university’s travel blog, I find myself left with a number of reflections that seem more appropriate for my personal blog than for the university’s. The first of these begins with a thought that struck me rather forcefully as I sat in my hotel room on our last night in London:
London is a vampire.
|An all-seeing Eye…|
It is more of one (in the classic sense) than any place we visited in Romania could ever have been. In a way, great cities are all vampiric. A city consumes souls and bodies, feeds on them, cannot exist without them to feed its hunger for life. Sometimes, people can feed on the city, too. They can become great and strong, consuming the lives of others. More often, the city feeds itself on life that never really gets much back. So why is London more of a vampire than Bucharest? Perhaps the answer to that question is: London is what a vampire wants to be, while Bucharest is what a vampire dreads becoming. I think that there is a good case to be made that Stoker’s Dracula (escaping the Carpathian wilderness for the teeming population of London with Harker’s unwitting assistance) represents the difference between one vampiric city and another.
Stoker’s Dracula is a strange sort of character. We are supposed to find him dreadful, the powerful, menacing creature of the night who seduces and feeds and destroys and cannot be resisted or destroyed except at profound personal cost. Yet when we meet him, he is isolated, a lonely leftover memory of a noble history. He hides in the mountain wilderness with his brides, feeding on kidnapped children and served by superstitious “gypsies” (Stoker’s description, not mine) whose loyalty is bought mostly by fear. He is starving, and it is only with the assistance of Jonathan Harker that he can negotiate a way to escape his starvation. In the wilderness, he is both terrifying and oddly pathetic.
Yet he is also fascinating. Stoker’s Dracula has a proud history, and remembers every bit of it. There is a strange sort of nobility about him, and a desire to grow without losing that remembered history. Even as he hungers constantly for the new, he is still a figure of the past.
He is London.
|Old hospital, new hospital — side by side|
London mixes old and new with a kind of peculiar reverence for both. When new construction erases old streets, the masonry is aligned to preserve the memory of the old map. 17th Century houses stand comfortably next to 20th Century buildings (replacing what German bombs destroyed). Lovely Georgian squares sit quietly and pleasantly just around the corner from busy commercial streets. It is cosmopolitan, worldly — it reflects the empire of which it was once the beating heart. There are Hindu temples and old churches and mosques. There are innumerable different cuisines. There are old castles viewable from a giant, brightly lit ferris wheel. Shiny modern buildings gleam above old battlements. In Whitechapel, the now-gentrified old slum may be well-lit and busy, but in darkened corners old bits of the ancient city walls loom over alleys or hidden mews or car parks.
|A grand modern building,
framed by Whitechapel
Whitechapel, in fact, embodies exactly what London-the-vampire is like. Back when Jack the Ripper was murdering prostitutes, it was unlit and foul. In its darkness, the poor and the broken and the hopeless made their wretched homes, trying desperately to live but fallen at last to a kind of dead end. The women on whom the Ripper preyed were already prey to the city itself — victims before ever he found them of a world in which women’s choices and chances were few, and in which compassion was in short supply. Whitechapel itself was a greater predator than Jack the Ripper. It ate more people every day than he could kill in a lifetime. He was merely an awful extension of Whitechapel’s appetite for life. Now, well-lit and cleaner, it still consumes. It’s just neater about it. It has found more civilized ways to eat.
Dracula is London, a thing of the past and the future all at the same time, and he (like the city) is infinitely hungry. In Stoker’s novel, he is really just going home to himself.
In part 2, I’ll have a look at Bucharest, and consider how communism kills vampires (or tries to, anyway).