Culture and Sacrifice: Ritual Death in Literature and Opera.
While the extent to which human sacrifice has saturated human history is clearly disturbing, less obvious is its role as macabre muse for many a cultural highpoint in literature, art and music. By mapping its bloody footprints, Derek Hughes in this important cultural study reveals how corporeal sacrifice embodies both the noble and the savage, the atavistic and the progressive.
The scope of this book is immense, ranging from Greek myth, through the Aztecs up to the Holocaust and beyond. A small sample of the writers and musicians covered includes Homer, Euripides, John Dryden, Richard Wagner, T.S. Eliot, Igor Stravinsky, Thomas Mann, D.H. Lawrence and Margaret Atwood. But it is the way in which Hughes reveals how sacrifice articulates the dynamics of history which is so impressive. His combination of bird's eye view and forensic gaze spans the implications of human sacrifice from individual to empire and the canonical to the obscurity of forgotten operas. But most masterly of all is the pin-pointing of the paradigmatic shifts of cultural transformation through the gory lens of human sacrifice.
This form of ritualised dying is described by Hughes as a monstrous transaction, which emerges as a measure of the value placed on human life. As such, it forms part of a system of exchange intended to make sense of death. In Greek myth as well as in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, human body parts become the objects of exchange in a gruesome economy. At other times, the power of literal sacrifice ebbs away into the symbolism of monetary value. Yet human sacrifice never completely goes away. For instance as Hughes points out, it has found new potency in the spate of suicide bombings in recent years.
Hughes exposes sacrifice in its various guises, whether they be sacred or secular, committed or averted. Some texts are chosen not because they deal directly with sacrifice but because they inspire those that do. A case in point is Friedrich de La Motte Fouque's novella Undine (1811), which influenced Wagner, Mann and Atwood. This is the tale of a knight accepting a kiss from a water sprite, a supernatural femme fatale, on his wedding night, knowing that it will bring certain death. Since Culture and Sacrifice does not claim to be encyclopaedic, it is tempting for the reader to fill in what has been elided. Might the murdered wives in the Bluebeard folk tradition and its literary transformations find a place in Hughes's pantheon of human sacrifice? Indeed the bloody chamber in Angela Carter's version of the tale may be viewed as a symbolic space for the sacrifices required of women through marriage articulated through a narrative so often traced in blood. But it is rather the interrupted wedding which captures his attention, linking several Gothic and operatic texts, including Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, E.T.A. Hoffmann's 'The Mines at Falun', two vampire operas of 1828 and Frankenstein.
'I shall be with you on your wedding night' (200) is the note of sacrificial doom replayed in Wagner's Parsifal, which was uttered by the creature to Victor Frankenstein, after his maker tore to pieces his prospective bride. Hughes notes, it is the giving of life in this novel, the very antithesis of human sacrifice, which is the foundational curse. This takes us into the realms of the godly and the godless. According to Greek myth, it was Tantalus who brought about the pagan equivalent of the Fall by disrupting the co-operation between men and gods. He subverted his feasting with the gods by feeding them the flesh of his son, Pelops. Grief-stricken by the loss of her daughter Persephone, Demeter was the only one who failed to notice and so ate. This act of mastication ended the Golden Age and precipitated a period of barbarity. Cannibalism would go on to enjoy an unsavoury kinship with human sacrifice and even be celebrated in the Christian restitution of the Fall, through the eating of the flesh and drinking of the blood of a god as central to the Catholic rite of transubstantiation. This forms a sub-text of Bram Stoker's Dracula, a novel which ties together so many of Hughes's narrative threads. The story may be read as a perverse revisiting of the Eleusinian mysteries as initiation ceremonies for the cult of Demeter and Persephone, the disrupted nuptials and the resonance of the economic with human sacrifice.
In his section on Dracula, Hughes makes an indirect allusion to Marx's famous equation of vampirism with dead capital. This would seem to provide an obvious link with his thesis, particularly as Hughes refers to Count Dracula hoarding dust covered unused coins of different currencies within his castle. Nonetheless, the latter observation is mentioned in a different context for, as Hughes has already asserted: 'The vampire is not an allegorical representation of something else, such as (as has been suggested) capitalism' (205). One wonders, why not? Hughes is, however, more willing to accept that the narrative deals with fin de siecle anxieties about racial degeneration and the threat to traditional gender roles posed by the New Woman. He focuses on 'the sacrificial expiation of pollution' (205) which is exemplified by Mina's alarm regarding a poison in her blood, the antidote to which is the pressing of a communion wafer against her forehead. Here vampirism represents the corruption of miscegenation as an affront to the guardians of racial purity.
Concerns over the female reproductive role were prevalent at the time when the novel was written, and are linked to classical matriarchy through the name of the ship from which Dracula embarks at Whitby. It is called Demeter supposedly after the Greek goddess of the bountiful harvest and mother of Persephone, who was snatched by Hades or Dis the God of the underworld. While Hughes views the novel as a reworking of the story of Persephone as represented by Mina, he acknowledges that Dracula, who should correspond to Dis, has a mismatching association with Demeter, whose role has been appropriated by the band of brave men hunting down the Count. Certainly the gender re-assignments are in keeping with the way in which Stoker exploits the fluidity of such boundaries. As Hughes observes, Demeter or Ceres's attribute of corn is transferred to the men. He provides the example of Dracula leaving his barren land for a country 'where men teem like "standing corn"' (206), which is an image of upright, wholesome virility. There is an even closer identification between men and corn than this simile in Dr Van Helsing's imperative quoted in Dr John Seward's Diary: 'Look! He's good corn. He will make a good crop when the time comes'. Significantly, this observation appears after Van Helsing has aligned his male subject with the gold of the masculinised sun and milk of Mother Nature.
Earlier in the book, Hughes plotted the development of human sacrifice from agrarian ritual involving the life and death of the grain, through to animal sacrifice up to and beyond the Crucifixion which, as he points out, is problematic as a paradigm, not least because Christ comes back from the dead. In his discussion of Dracula, the pagan and the Christian along with the ancient and the modern are skilfully harnessed together: 'The gifts of Ceres appear in their highest cultural form in the communion wafer, though Stoker characteristically glances at the capacity of modern technology to redefine ancient symbols: triumphant after tracking down Dracula's London address, Jonathan stops for "a cup of tea at the Aerated Bread Company"' (206). Dracula is seen here not as a dark parody of the Second coming of Christ but as another emanation of 'The second coming of Dionysus' the '"phallic lord of Nature"' (206). Here Hughes compares Dracula and his vampire women to Dionysus and his Maenads. This is one of two contrasting traditions which, as he has already shown, spring from Euripides. These are the reworking of the legend of Iphigenia who, in his version, escapes sacrifice and the Dionysian blood-bath of The Bacchae.
Hughes indicates how through breastfeeding with blood, Dracula once again reverts to a matriarchal figure. He claims that the author alters vampire legend so that blood is sucked not from the breast but from the throat. This may be so, though Stoker is more likely to have adopted for his vampire characters the blood-drinking habits of the Count's literary predecessors such as Varney the Vampire and Carmilla.
Vampirism is a sanguine economy, which is an elegant substitute for the more graphic horrors of human sacrifice. Even though the savagery of ritual death has been displaced into the arts, what does its abiding fascination tell us about ourselves? The monumental achievement of this book, which cannot fail to shatter preconceptions of this shocking subject, goes a long way towards providing us with some unsettling answers.
University of the West of England, Bristol
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2013|
|Previous Article:||Gothic Terrors. Incarceration, Duplication, and Bloodlust in Spanish Narrative.|
|Next Article:||Gendering the spectral encounter at the fin de siecle: unspeakability in Vernon Lee's supernatural stories.|