The Zoophagous Madness and Degeneracy in ‘Dracula’

The Zoophagous Madness and Degeneracy in ‘Dracula’
© Photograph by Flo Delabioteam

Max Simon Nordau’s evocation of the spirit of the age at the end of the nineteenth-century caused a sensation when it was first published. He tapped into a rich vein of commentary in which cultural and moral criticism were intertwined, as the trial of Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde so poignantly demonstrates. Max Simon Nordau’s journalistic flamboyance feeds off the very culture it attacks. For Max Simon Nordau, inspired by the work of Cesare Lombroso and Bénédict Augustin Morel, the period was one of degeneration, which he defines as a disease affiliated with hysteria. Both are associated with the nervousness that is part of life in modern industrial society.

Like his precursors, Max Simon Nordau believes that degeneracy is recognised by physical “stigmata”: “Science, however, has found, together with these physical stigmata, others of a mental order, which betoken degeneracy quite as clearly as the former.” Such degenerates occupy a “borderland between reason and pronounced madness”, and like all degenerates “lack a sense of morality and of right and wrong”. Following the lead of the psychologist, Henry Maudsley, Max Simon Nordau characterises the extreme position as one of moral insanity, which shared with degeneracy the characteristics of “egoism” and “impulsiveness”, or lack of self-control.

Although the idea of degeneration was originally a biological concept, it adapted easily to more figurative usage, providing a scientific foundation for the moral panic at the end of the century. In the deviations from and perversions of what was seen as normal, society seemed to be no longer progressing, but regressing; it was both hurtling forward to disintegration and retreating into primitivism. As Jonathan G. Dollimore has put it, “this was evolution simultaneously accelerating forward out of control and regressing backward out of control; a terrifying forward and backward unbinding of the arduously achieved higher forms of civilization and biology”. In ‘The Pathology of Mind’ (1879), Henry Maudsley makes explicit the comparison between insanity and primitivism: “The former lacks by nature that which the latter has lost by disease when he is the outcome of a morbid degeneration of kind and, sunk to a congenital idiocy by reason of defective nervous plexuses, is less capable of ordinary intellectual and moral culture than the low savage.”

That madness has moral connotations is made quite clear: “ if insanity be on the increase among civilized peoples the increase is due more to their pleasures than their pains — to idleness, luxury, and self-indulgence more than to work, thrift, and self-denial.” On the other hand, Henry Maudsley is influenced by the work of those who were showing that mental states had a physiological basis. He enumerates the traditional causes of insanity: grief, remorse, disappointed love, domestic cares and anxieties, jealousy, pride, and asks whether madness is associated with particular religious sects, with certain nations or occupations, with one sex rather than the other, only to conclude that such questions are “too vague and general, to wanting in precision, to admit of instructive answers”. The only safe conclusion is that “all moral commotions and mental overstrains which cause insanities do it by straining or breaking the molecular ties of the nervous structure and so injuring or destroying its vital elasticity”.

There is a tension underlying Henry Maudsley’s work between the explanation of insanity in terms of physiological processes, for which the individual can hardly be morally accountable, and the association of madness with reprehensible styles of living, for which the individual is responsible and can, therefore, be held morally culpable. This tension is implicit also in the concept of degeneration, for if, as William Greenslade says in ‘Degeneration, Culture and the Novel, 1880–1940’, “the nature of human evil can be explained as organic anomaly”, then the reverse is also true and organic anomaly can be explained as evil. William Greenslade points out that the idea of degeneration was a fruitful source of myth in the post-Darwinian world, and it will be the aim of this chapter to show how notions of degeneration enter into that most potent of late nineteenth-century myths, Dracula.

When Abraham Stoker wrote ‘Dracula’ in 1897 he added a number of new features to the established tradition of vampiric literature, including the lunatic asylum, the madman and the doctor. The working notes for the novel show that the idea of madness was present from an early stage; a cast list dating from the spring of 1890 includes a mad doctor and a mad patient who has “a theory of perpetual life”.

In the chapter outline dated March 14th, 1890, Dr John Seward’s diary in Book I includes mention of “the fly patient” who is in love with death, and two years later, as the “Fly man”, he figures in Dr John Seward’s diary as a herald of Harker’s arrival at Castle Dracula rather than of Dracula’s arrival at Carfax. It would seem, then, that the idea of insanity was an integral part of the Abraham Stoker’s conception, but his reading of clinical literature does not appear to have been extensive. Christopher John Frayling’s list of books in Abraham Stoker’s library relevant to the writing of ‘Dracula’ mentions only Johann Kaspar Lavater’s ‘Essays on Physiognomy’ (1750). But Clive Leatherdale notes that Abraham Stoker’s source material, as revealed in the papers held by the Rosenbach Foundation, including books by Herbert Mayo (‘On the Truths contained in Popular Superstitions, with an Account of Mesmerism’, 1851) and Thomas Joseph Pettigrew (‘On Superstitions connected with the History and Practice of Medicine and Surgery’, 1844). Also, three of Stoker’s brothers were medical men and could no doubt provide information. It is not the purpose of this chapter, however, to trace a one-to-one correspondence between Abraham Stoker’s representation of madness and that of any particular clinical source, but to see what conception of insanity informs his writing, what part it plays in the novel as a whole, and how it relates to the novel’s ideas about masculinity. In so doing I shall be concerned with the complex interplay of realism and fantasy, and with the progressive dissolution of the demarcation between sanity and madness.

Although, as has been well noted, ‘Dracula’, like ‘The Woman in White’ (1860), is constructed from diary entries, letters and newspaper reports; unlike the earlier novel, the assemblage does not appear as the work of one individual operating as an author/editor and there is greater emphasis on the recording of events, impressions and thoughts almost as they happen rather than submitting formal reports afterwards. This is particularly the case before those having some sort of contact with ‘Dracula’ have joined forces and pooled their information. Apparently disparate phenomena are recorded, for which causes have to be discovered and between which links are gradually revealed. One of the chief narrators is Dr John Seward, the doctor of the asylum in the grounds of Carfax, Dracula’s first London residence, and the phenomena that the records are the symptoms of madness exhibited by R. M. Renfield, his “pet” lunatic. Dr John Seward’s diary, with its comment “Kept in phonograph”, which accompanies the first entry, is one of several reminders that we are in the mechanised world of the late nineteenth-century, but there are features of the text’s rhetoric that reduce its contemporaneity. For instance, Dr John Seward’s position as one of three suitors whom all propose to Lucy Westenra on the same day puts him in a fairy-tale situation, and the parallels with the earlier journal of Jonathan Harker add further allusions which strengthen the suggestion of fantasy. In his determination to find consolation in work and in particular to understand the unusual lunatic, R. M. Renfield, Dr John Seward follows in his own way the pattern set by Jonathan Harker, for whom keeping a journal “becomes a therapeutic act of self-preservation”. For both, it is a means of exerting some control in circumstances that highlight their vulnerability.

In this first outlining of the mystery presented by the madman, Dr John Seward draws on the terms conventionally employed in the discourse of madness, but without noticeable coherence. He remarks on the need to make himself “master of the facts of his hallucination”, describes him as being of a “sanguine temperament” and then gives details of his swings of mood from morbid excitability to periods of gloom.

Hallucinations had long been established as one of the standard symptoms of insanity, but the concept is not particularly pertinent to R. M. Renfield’s madness and is not mentioned again in connection with him, though, as I shall later discuss, it is of relevance to the text more generally. The reference to a “sanguine temperament”, on the other hand, recalls the ancient humours-based theory of personality, which usefully introduces the motif of blood, and this is combined with more contemporary ideas of mood and the notion of manic-depression. Already the text gives signs of swinging between old wisdom and superstition, on the one hand, and, on the other, late nineteenth- century rationality and positivism. This is, in fact, a key feature of the text and madness becomes a crucial arena for the interplay of the two modes of interpretation and understanding, just as it does for the oscillation between realism and fantasy. Dr John Seward presumes that R. M. Renfield’s madness is the result of some “disturbing influence” on the sanguine temperament, the two together giving “a mentally-accomplished finish” (p. 61). Just what this means is unclear, but it does give the impression that once all the operative factors have been determined, the case of R. M. Renfield will become comprehensible. As a case study, then, R. M. Renfield has an analogous position in the text to that of ‘Dracula’. Both represent phenomena underlying which, it is assumed, there is a coherent pattern to be discovered, provided one follows the correct procedure of sharp observation, meticulous record keeping and logical deduction.


Also published on Medium.

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