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Count Logos, the Deferred Presence: Thresholds and Uncertainty in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

2008 September 19
by Tedb0t

Dweller beyond thresholds, purveyor of uncertainty, but a threshold and uncertain agent itself: Stoker’s Count Dracula has provided over a century’s worth of readers an adventure in Gothic horror as well as an insight into language’s functions and poetics.  Dracula repeatedly resists inquiry into its nature; for the vampire hunters and victims, it is physically evasive.  For the reader and critic, the idea and Idea of Dracula, vampires, and the words themselves are defiantly ambiguous.  These entities and nonentities constitute themselves of thresholds, between-spaces that utilize uncertainty to negotiate between two understandable or ‘present’ terms.  Dracula, history’s most popular and well known vampire, exists as Logos exists: everywhere and nowhere, neither real nor unreal, the deferred presence of signification.

Thresholds, as linkages between two or more terms, manifest themselves physically and rhetorically in Dracula.  Almost any transition from one place or idea to another can be considered a passage through a threshold, provided a physical or rhetorical demarcation between origin and destination.  The most common thresholds are spatial: a home’s doorway is called a threshold, where it delineates inside from outside.  The word threshold originally described the medieval block of wood placed in a doorway to keep the floor covering (thresh) from spilling out.  A threshold, therefore, is something that keeps inside space from becoming outside space; it is a boundary and a margin.

Real and figurative thresholds are vital to Dracula, providing spatial logics, vampiric rules, and ultimately, a scheme for understanding language’s shifting nature.  The spatial importance of between-spaces in the story are manifold.  Within the second page, Jonathan Harker is given the impression that “we were leaving the West and entering the East,” (p. 27) a movement that occurs through the key threshold of the Borgo Pass.  One arrives at this mountain crossing after traveling through the “Mittel Land” (p. 33), a beautiful forest region that lends geographical significance to Transylvania, meaning “the land beyond the forest” (p. 245).

Harker’s experience in and around the Pass begins to change, as “great masses of grayness” in the trees “produced a peculiarly weird and solemn effect” (p. 34).  The other passengers, native and superstitious, become increasingly agitated as they draw nearer to the Pass, and once there, “several of the passengers offered [Harker] gifts,” given with a blessing and “fear-meaning movements” (p. 34), gestures to guard against the evil on the other side of the Pass.  Clearly, the Pass is a dividing point between the peasant’s understandable world and the realm of danger and mystery.

In Todd Browning’s 1930 film Dracula, the Borgo Pass sequence employs a film-negative effect to imply a passage from consciousness to subconsciousness.  The world appears far different from reality with all the colors reversed, the sensation of transgressing a subliminal threshold.  To Harker, “[i]t seemed as though the mountain range had separated two atmospheres, and that now we had got into the thunderous one” (p.35).  Inexplicable phenomena abound on this ‘subliminal’ side, such as the “strange optical effect: when [the driver] stood between me and the flame he did not obstruct it, for I could see its ghostly flicker all the same” (p. 38).  Transylvania is a world of seeming unreality, founded on different rules and principles than the known world.  It is one term of several dichotomies: real and unreal, West and East, and with liberal extensions, even good and evil, and life and death.

The presence of thresholds play an important role in determining the vampire’s abilities.  On page 244, Professor Van Helsing enumerates a list of powers and limitations known from tradition and superstition.  Among these, several regard Dracula’s ability to move about in space, and at least two limitations specifically involves thresholds: “He may not enter anywhere at the first, unless there be some one of the household who bid him to come, though afterward he can come as he please.”  Furthermore, “he can only pass running water at the slack or the flood of the tide.”  Dracula’s physical presence and movement are restricted by inscrutable laws that the vampire hunters come to know through tradition, the collected observation, interpolation and invention of older cultures.  These two particular ‘rules’ are rooted in thresholds.  In the first case, a home’s inside-space is protected from the vampire until the conscious intervention of a human agent.  The threshold of the home, in this situation, is an uncrossable boundary, a limit.  Running water, as in a river, is an equally strong boundary except at the extremes of its cycle, a limitation derived from traditions in which moving water effaces the power and flux of magical forces.

Thresholds, then, are not only spaces allowing passage but also boundaries: the term has no singular existence but exhibits opposing possibilities.  A threshold, moreover, is the negotiating term between two or more other terms.  For Westerners to conceive of a ‘West,’ there must be an ‘East,’ and the meeting of these two regions requires a boundary.  As in the case of the Borgo Pass, the boundary itself can be a space possessing its own qualities, a place that is neither West nor East.  Abstractions like ‘real’ and ‘unreal,’ naturally, have far less defined boundaries, especially in the world of Dracula.  Its protagonists experience numerous phenomena that they can only consider to be ‘unreal,’ yet are apparently occurring ‘in reality.’  The threshold between terms like these is a state of uncertainty, where something otherwise exclusive to one term is in fact mixed with it.

The poststructuralist understanding of this idea is deconstruction.  The two terms of any binary oppositions making up a text are shown to be imbricated in each other, and therefore one term can never be privileged, the other never marginalized.  The result is a kind of deconstructed uncertainty-words, sentences, ideas, etc. having multiple meanings can never settle on one meaning, but instead vacillate between them, producing a multiplicity of texts in the mind of the reader.  In this sense, the given text is really only a threshold (and in other terminologies, a diagram) between the ideas and influences of the author and the resultant ideas of the reader, what the reader forms in her own consciousness.  The threshold space, the text of shifting denotations and connotations, is a space of uncertainty.

And uncertainty abounds in Dracula.  The actions and motives of its antagonist are almost always uncertain, plunging the hunters into fear and doubt.  The antagonist itself is, in fact, an agent of uncertainty, capable of myriad forms and designs but reducible to no single form.  Count Dracula is metamorphic, shifting and changing between states, and is evidently exempt from many previously known ‘laws of nature.’  As Van Helsing details, in eccentric English, “[Dracula] throws no shadow; he make in the mirror no reflect.”  “He can transform himself to wolf . . . he can be as bat.”  “He can come in mist which he create.”  “He come on moonlight rays as elemental dust.”  “He become so small,” and “slip through a hairbreadth space . . .” (p. 244)  The Professor assumes, however, that Dracula’s default form is his human-like guise, that is, in the apparent body of a once-human.

What manner of Form is this, or what manner of Idea is it in the semblance of Form?  Dracula’s ‘human’ form cannot be assumed to be the vampire’s definitive nature-it reappears as animal, as mist, as storms.  An uncertain agent such as Dracula is like a quantum particle: when not being observed, its state is completely indeterminate.  No speculation can assume perfect accuracy, and most importantly, it is impossible to predict its exact nature with full certainty.  This is the keystone of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that any act of observation inevitably changes the object being observed.  Before Dracula’s crate of earth is opened, or Lucy’s tomb uncovered, no entity can predict what the vampire’s nature is.  Perhaps, at rest, the vampire is discontinuous, like Van Helsing’s “elemental dust,” or perhaps it simply has no form whatsoever.  Van Helsing says of the dormant, vampire Lucy, “[i]t is her body, and yet not it” (p. 221).  Speculation on an unobservable form is endless and fruitless.

Similarly, Dracula’s state of ‘undeath’ is a prime example of uncertainty.  Between the two extremes of Life and Death-a binary opposition fundamental to all cultures-lies this threshold state where the undead appears to have capabilities of the living.  Dracula can move in space, interact and communicate physically with the living, but “cannot die by mere passing of the time” (p. 244).  It can sustain damage to its body with no danger to its continued existence, unless certain, prescribed actions are taken.  Dracula is clearly not alive in any sense we are familiar with, but cannot be dead.  The undead vampire is not only a passive dweller in an uncertain threshold, but an active entity with an agency of its own.

If Dracula is, then, an uncertain agent, special consideration must be given to the fact that it does not appear in mirrors.

I had hung my shaving glass by the window, and was just beginning to shave.  Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder, and heard the Count’s voice saying to me, “Good-morning.”  I started, for it amazed me that I had not seen him, since the reflection of the glass covered the whole room behind me.  . . . I turned to the glass again to see how I had been mistaken.  This time there could be no error, for the man was close to me, and I could see him over my shoulder.  But there was no reflection of him in the mirror!  The whole room behind me was displayed; but there was no sign of a man in it, except myself.

(p. 50)

Poor Jonathan is able to observe the Count directly, but not in a mirror.  It is as if the impressionable human mind can perceive Dracula’s indeterminate, threshold state, but its presence in a mirror would be privileging-by proving to physics-only one of the vampire’s many possible forms.  What presence Dracula does have is deferred: the ideal vampire is never present, rather only one ‘material’ form of it at a time.  The effect in the novel is uncanny, formulated from tradition and superstition to contribute an uneasy sense of unreality to the reader.  Schematically, the mirror is as immune to agents of uncertainty as the threshold of a still-sacred home.

Furthermore, the threshold state of uncertainty affects not only vampires: several characters come into the vampire’s sway, and for humans, the effect is to risk ‘madness.’  A ‘sane’ human is one that operates under a certain level of certainty: one who is comfortable assuming that the sun will rise in the east every morning, that an apple dropping from a tree will fall to the earth instead of the sky.  In everyday life, we feel we can be certain about these things; there is no wavering between real and unreal, no experience of the threshold between them.  When we do experience such a state (and it could be in a well-designed haunted house, a subversive film, or Harker’s trip to the Carpathians), the effect is uncanny-unheimlich, in Freud’s original German, not home-like.  The experience of phenomena outside our realm of certainty (such as the home) leads us into uncertain territory, the threshold state in which we can not be sure of reality or unreality, and the extreme of this state is perceived as ‘madness.’

Dracula’s principal madman is, of course, Renfield, a human lunatic under the powerful influence of the vampire.  Dr. Seward, in charge of studying such lunacy, commits himself to detailing and cataloguing Renfield’s many symptoms.  Renfield continually refers to an unseen ‘Master,’ eats lower life-forms in order to append or increase his own ‘life-force,’ and exhibits erratic and sometimes unpredictable behavior.  To those still within the home-like realm of certainty, Renfield is unquestionably insane.  He hears, sees, understands and interprets ‘reality’ much differently than others, because of his proximity to the story’s ultimate agent of uncertainty, Dracula.  But as the hunters progress and learn more about the ‘true reality’ within the novel, they begin to understand the causes of Renfield’s affliction.  By the end, they have formulated an entirely new conception of the situation, one in which Renfield’s insanity is the result of Dracula’s aura of uncertainty.  Jonathan Harker, too, is driven close to the brink of unrecoverable insanity within Dracula’s castle, the undisputed vortex of the real-unreal threshold, where neither reality nor unreality exist, but only wavering, vacillating uncertainty.

By now, there is little doubt to Dracula’s indeterminacy.  John Paul Riquelme, in his deconstruction of the novel, catalogues a panoply of oppositions and pairings that undermine any singular reading.  But we can take one more associative leap in our understanding of Dracula as composed of uncertain thresholds: that the character of Dracula itself, as an uncertain agent, is an analogue to words themselves.  Ross C. Murfin, in his overview of deconstruction (p. 540), reminds us:

As Saussure demonstrated, words are not the things they name and, indeed, they are only arbitrarily associated with those things.  A word, like any sign, is what Derrida has called a “deferred presence”; that is to say, “the signified concept is never present in itself,” and “every concept is necessarily . . inscribed in a chain or system, within which it refers to another and to other concepts” (“Différence” 138, 140).

Dracula, the vampire that harasses the Harkers, Lucy, Seward, et al, is only a sign of the vampire concept, a manifestation of the idea of ‘vampire.’  The sign ‘Dracula,’ its name, would refer to a contiguous body in a human, but without any determinate corporeal existence to be signified, ‘Dracula’ signs to a disintegrated threshold state of uncertainty.  Dracula is a deferred presence, and as demonstrated, there is no ‘real’ Dracula, only the particular manifestation observable at any one time.  All signifiers suffer potentially from such indeterminacy, as Saussure observed, as arbitrary units, and take on meaning only when we associate them with concepts, which in turn are only networks of other signs.  Derrida’s deconstruction arose out of recognition that when a word has multiple potential meanings, no single meaning can necessarily be privileged, and that instead all the meanings must be present at the same time, in the same space.

Because a reader inevitably reforms the text in her consciousness, interpreting the text at will, pursuant to her influences and subconscious desires, it is impossible to conceive of a text having an inherent, authoritative meaning.  The author herself biases the writing and reading of her own text as it is written, and all readers bias it as they re-write it into their consciousness.  The character/text Dracula is an agent of uncertainty just as a word, logos, is an agent of varied interpretability.  A word’s deconstructed state, when its many meanings float on equal levels, is the threshold of uncertainty between one meaning and another.  Dracula, the paradox of life and death, hovers in several simultaneous states just as the word ‘undead’ represents several simultaneous and conflicting meanings.  So let us not dwell for too long in entirely deconstructed language, for to fall under the sway of such an agent of uncertainty is to risk madness.

Ted Hayes, October 2004, Gainesville, FL

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