Gender, Genre and Dracula: Joan Copjec and “Vampire Fiction”

Neil Cocks
Neil Cocks

Perhaps the most celebrated recent intervention into the field of history, gender, and the Gothic is Joan Copjec’s ‘Read My Desire’ (2015), especially the chapter ‘Vampires, Breast-Feeding, and Anxiety’. Copjec writes this work within a Lacanian tradition enacted by, amongst others, Frederic Jameson (Jameson 1977), Miran Bozovic (Bozovic 2000), and, most famously, Slavoj Žižek (Žižek 1997).

Her aim, shared by these theorists, is to question prevailing historicist and deconstructive approaches to literature.

More often seen as antagonistic, these movements are, within Copjec’s analysis, too content to analyse structures of deferral without acknowledging the limit these require — a limit, that, as we shall see, turns on what is understood to be the ironically necessary and subversive power of “nothing”.

In her reading, whilst deconstruction follows the “free play” of the signifier, and historicism responds to whatever text it meets with reference to a further text, neither can address the cut-o point or constitutive gap necessary to such movement. Thus, for example: Lacan argues “[…] that beyond the signifying network, beyond the visual field, there is, in fact, nothing at all […] Yet the fact that representation seems to hide, to put an arbored screen of signifiers in front of something hidden beneath, is not treated by Lacan as simple error that the subject can undo; nor is the deceptiveness of language something that undoes the subject, deconstructs the subject by menacing its boundaries. Rather, language’s opacity is taken as the very cause of the subject’s being, that is, its desire, or want-to-be. The fact that it is materially impossible to say the whole truth–that truth always backs away from language, that words always fall short of their goal–founds the subject.” (Copjec [1993] 2015, p. 35)

The nothing that interests Copjec, then, is one that is required by, yet falls beyond, textuality, meaning, and identity.

In the chapter of ‘Read My Desire’ that concerns us here, this nothing is taken to be the source of the “anxiety” that is understood to attend a seemingly diverse range of texts.

In what follows, I will address two of the genres that are understood to have such “anxiety” as their “essential feature”: “vampire fiction”, and the literature of eighteenth-century breastfeeding advocacy (Copjec [1993] 2015, p. 118).

My aim is to question Copjec’s account of the constitutive nothing of genre, and the account also of gender to which it is bound, through returning to an analysis the textuality that “Vampires, Breastfeeding, and Anxiety” can be read to repress.

Let us begin with “vampire fiction”. Copjec’s claim is that the celebrated problematics of identity associated with vampires are not to be understood, for example, by reading through gender as a discursive and historical construction.

The argument instead is that we should “confront” what such criticism apparently misses, the “overwhelming presence of the real” for which all “interpretation […] is superfluous and inappropriate” (Copjec [1993] 2015, p. 126). As Copjec states: “If vampirism makes our hearts pound […] this is not because it puts us in contact with objects and persons — others — who affect us, but because it confronts us with an absence of absence — an Other — who threatens to asphyxiate us.” (Copjec [1993] 2015, p. 128)

It follows that the existing criticism generally fails in not paying due attention to the anxiety the vampire produces: that “the encounter with the vampire is always anxiety-ridden would seem to be undebatable” (Copjec [1993] 2015, p. 127).

I would suggest that this formulation is open to debate, as it introduces a number of problems, not least that of establishing what is to count as an “encounter” within “vampire fiction, in all its gothic forms” (Copjec [1993] 2015, p. 118). Who, for example, is understood to experience such an “encounter”? To answer such a question requires an engagement with the language of these fictions, one largely resisted within Copjec’s work.

My interest, then, is in building on Ken Gelder’s observation that “Copjec in fact barely mentions vampire fiction in the course of her argument: it is there as a kind of ideal, an imaginary text” (Gelder 1994, p. 48).

There are challenges in Copjec’s understanding, even if we were to assume that the encounter is that experienced by a discrete character in a given text. Here we might turn to ‘Dracula’, the only work of vampire fiction referenced in “Vampires, Breast-Feeding, and Anxiety”, and one of the most celebrated vampire encounters. ‘Dracula’ has saved one of the text’s narrators, Jonathan Harker, from the murderous attention of the “young women” in the vampire’s castle: “Are we to have nothing tonight?” said one of them [the women], with a low laugh, as she pointed to the bag which he had thrown upon the floor, and which moved as though there were some living thing within it. For answer he nodded his head. One of the women jumped forward and opened it. If my ears did not deceive me there was a gasp and a low wail, as of a half-smothered child. The women closed round, whilst I was aghast with horror; but as I looked they disappeared, and with them the dreadful bag.” (Stoker [1897] 2003, p. 47)

The “encounter” is limited to Harker. The narration he offers is retrospective, and within it there can be no seeing inside the bag, and hearing comes only with the possibility of error. Harker claims to have seen and to have heard, yet what he witnessed was not a living child, only something comparable to one.

If pity, horror, or, indeed, anxiety, are to be read here, they are dependent on the narrator’s lack of knowledge of what it is “the women closed round”. What is in the bag is not a child, at this point in the narration, because it is unreachable, invisible, other than itself.

It follows that if anxiety attends the encounter, it is constituted through narrational point-of-view, and that whatever is in the bag does not, therefore, encounter the vampires, and does not suffer anxiety.

To further work through how the notion of “encounter” might be challenged by a detailed reading of text, and how this reading in turn might impact on discourses of gender and history, I will address the figure of the child.

As suggested already, Copjec does not notice the child within her analysis of the vampiric encounter, yet childhood is important to the understanding of Dracula forwarded in “Vampires, Breast-Feeding, and Anxiety”. Indeed, in what follows, I argue that central debates within the critical response to Dracula can be read to turn on constructions of childhood.

It is my contention that the structures of deferral and iteration that result in disagreements between Copjec and wider critical responses to Stoker’s novel can be productively addressed through tracing the work’s contradictory conceptions of childhood.

If ‘Dracula’ is taken to turn on notions of doubling and displacement, then it seems to me that, for example, a reading of the enigma of Dracula’s repetitious “child-brain” has the potential to impact upon existing understandings of the very structure of the novel.

I will begin by turning to Copjec’s claim that “all the narratives and iconography of vampirism” make “clear, it is not the child who is the vampire”. For Copjec, the image of the child at the mother’s breast is understood not to elicit the anxiety that defines the genre of vampire fiction. (Copjec [1993] 2015, p. 128) Instead: “It is only at the point where the fantasy enabling this relation to the partial object no longer holds that the anxiety-ridden phenomenon of vampirism takes over, signalling, then, the drying up of the breast as object-cause of desire, the disappearance of the fantasy support of desire. The drying up of desire is the danger against which vampirism warns us, sending up a cry for the breast that would deliver us from this horror.” (Copjec [1993] 2015, p. 128)

Because “[t]he breast […] is an object, an appendage of the body, from which we separate ourselves in order to constitute ourselves as subjects”, such a constitution “can only be accomplished through the inclusion within ourselves of this negation of what we are not” (Copjec [1993] 2015, pp. 128–29).

In other words, for Copjec, “Freudian objects” such as the breast are “not only rejected from but also internal to the subject […] they are extimate, which means they are in us as that which is not in us” (Copjec [1993] 2015, p. 129).

For most of the time, the extimate object “appears as a lost part of ourselves”, but there are occasions when we get too close, and this results in anxiety, a “special feeling of uncanniness”. When “our distance from it is reduced” in this way, the extimate object: “no longer appears as a partial object, but–on the contrary–as a complete body, an almost exact double of our own, except for the fact that this double is endowed with the object that we sacrificed in order to become a subject. This would mean that the vampire is not only a creature that menaces the breast as object-cause of desire, but that it is also a double of the victim, whose distorted bodily form indicates its possession of a certain excess object: the breast once again, but this time as source of jouissance. The most vivid confirmation of this thesis concerning the double is given […] in that horrifyingly obscene moment when we are startled to witness Mina Harker drinking from the breast of Dracula. Desire, society itself, is endangered by Mina’s intimacy with this extimate object.” (Copjec [1993] 2015, p. 129)

According to this argument, Dracula is a threat to the breast and the breast itself, and intimacy with this double figure is threatening to the social organisation.

This is the danger of an “overproximity” to what, after Jacques Lacan, Copjec names the “unique” object a, the lack of lack that has neither “essence nor a signification”, so “inalienable that like Dracula and all other vampires of Gothic and Romantic fiction it cannot even cast a shadow” (Copjec [1993] 2015, p. 119).

If we turn to the passage in ‘Dracula’ that Copjec references, it could be argued that further compressions and doublings can be read: “The attitude of the two [Dracula and Mina] had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink.” (Stoker [1897] 2003, p. 300)

To introduce the text neglected by Copjec’s analysis thus problematises her claim that the child is not the vampire. Dracula is not passive in the scene, but rather forceful, and this in a way that resembles a child.

As was also the case in the quotation discussed above concerning the women in the castle, the child is introduced through comparison, but here as the aggressor, not the victim.

If one threat I read in this formulation is that of a child implicated in the scene of anxiety-inducing feeding, another is simply that of the substitutive economy of the symbolic making a disruptive return to the seemingly singular experience of the real.

In being the breast and the threat to this, Dracula resembles a child. To encounter Dracula requires a third: the vampire is registered in terms of his being like another. But even this is not quite the case, as it is the “attitude of the two”, Dracula and Mina, that resembles child and kitten. Dracula, the “inalienable object”, cannot be taken on his own.

There is a further excess to be returned to Copjec’s account of “that horrifying moment” that “we are startled to witness”, as in ‘Dracula’, this event is narrated neither by “us”, nor the two parties directly involved.

It follows that the problematics of identity are not limited to Copjec’s reading the “inalienable” as a multiple identity, nor even to the sense in which Mina and Dracula need to be taken together as differently gendered subjects if they are to resemble the ungendered kitten and child.

Indeed, the failure to account for the specifics of narrational framing that I take here to be exemplified in the disappearance of Dr Seward’s narration is a persistent difficulty with Copjec’s analogical approach to ‘Dracula’.

On the one hand, “Vampires, Breast-Feeding, and Anxiety” offers an account of the Lacanian formation of the subject, one that is concerned with how, for example, the “object a appears as a lost part of ourselves”.

A link is then made between “our” recognition of this “extimate object”, and Mina’s relationship with Dracula: the one instances the other. The difficulty is Mina’s feeding is not this kind of narrative of collective recognition but rather Dr Seward’s view of an intimate encounter between others.

Copjec’s account represses this difference and thus produces a compromised “equivalence”. In short, Copjec’s equivalence can neither engage the gendered shifts and externally constituted identities to be read through the figure of the child, nor the narrated frame of the text.

It is necessary to range a little more widely over Stoker’s text if we are to gain a clearer understanding of the challenge the child offers to notions of stable, consistent, and gendered identity.

Take, for example, Van Helsing’s reference to Mina as “my child”. As such, she is understood to be what she opposes within Dr Seward’s account of Dracula’s attack upon her.

Children, moreover, in the “bloofer lady” journalistic sequence, are figured in terms of performance through an ability to be what they are not that rivals that of Ellen Terry.

It follows that, in being like the child, ‘Dracula’ and the contents of the “dreadful bag” pertain to a quality of childhood in a more radical sense: childhood is defined, in part, by a performative otherness.

A further turn of the screw: Dracula resembles the child against the animal when Mina drinks his blood, but he has the ability to appear in the form of an animal in a way that is not simply resemblance, whilst the animals he commands are, of course, the music-making “children of the night” (Stoker [1897] 2003, p. 25).

Lastly, at least within this admittedly cursory reading, Dracula is understood by Van Helsing to have a “child-brain”, this because his brain does not develop, fated as it is to do the same thing over and over again.

In Van Helsing’s formulation, the child can be read as an adjectival modifier to the brain or the owner of it, but in either case the brain has a strange independence: it is not that Dracula is a child, at this stage, only that he has a “child-brain”.

Crucially, I read this organ to be as much a “partial object” as anything else in Copjec’s account. As such, the logic of the “extimate” returns to Dracula himself, problematising what I take to be the claim that he is necessarily “without feature” and fundamentally “inalienable”: the relationship between Mina and Dracula finds repetition in that between Dracula and his brain.

The difficulty for Copjec in the reading of the child offered above is, I would suggest, not with the general impossibility of a given identity. As I have argued, “Vampires, Breast-Feeding, and Anxiety” is committed to drawing out the uncanny presence of the other in the self and the self in the other.

My issue with this account is its claim that the image of the child at the mother’s breast is necessarily free from anxiety. For this to be the case, the comforting child must be protected from the uncanny textual effects introduced within ‘Dracula’.

Copjec’s method, I would suggest, rests on the notion of a “point” of anxiety, at which the symbolic is both defied and necessitated (Copjec [1993] 2015, pp. 22, 34)

In such an understanding, that I take to be committed to a discrete set of impossible divisions introduced through the limit of the inexpressible real, what is bypassed is ironically the différance required for the dimension of difference.

In my reading, neither vampire nor child are encountered as a fixed point, but are constituted instead by an elsewhere that can never wholly be recovered, returned, and encountered as is.

The child at the breast is always already haunted by its already haunted others, and it is this textuality that is necessarily repressed in Copjec’s reading.

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