Anna S. (eliade) wrote,
Anna S.

the romantic is the real

I've been wondering. In the Buffyverse, is there any qualitative difference between human evil and monster evil? Say that you have what appears to be a very mild-mannered vampire, like Dalton, and a very evil human, like Gary Leon Ridgway. One has no soul, unless you want to posit a demon soul; the other does have a soul, assuming you want to credit all humans with one by default. (Still theorizing inside the boundaries of the Buffyverse here.) So, you've got this line, the uncrossable soul line, and the vampire stands on one side, and the human on the other. Because of this, we say there's an essential difference between the two--a difference not of degree, but kind. They're two very different kinds of creatures. Except, how? I mean, sociopaths, like vampires at their worst, seem to have no meaningful human context either when you drill down into their psyches; they're disassociated from humanity, often from a very young age. And then on the other hand vampires often do seem to have a human emotional context, to some extent, that makes them recognizable to us; they had past lives (if you use a continuum rather than a replacement theory of vampire identity), they maintain relationships, they love, evince familial bonds, understand things like honor and loyalty as concepts even if they choose not to adhere to them, etc.

Okay, this is probably ill-advised, trying to juggle comparisons between the vampires of a fictional universe and the monsters of our real one. Because...I think a lot of fans approach the Buffyverse as if it's our own universe with a wacky twist, rather than a parallel universe of sorts. We focus on the similarities rather than the differences; and that's natural, that's our "in" as viewers, how we relate to a show despite the fact we aren't going out every night to cast spells and slay hellbeasts ourselves. But a parallel universe could have any rules. Set aside the fictive element for a moment and consider the Buffyverse as a "real" universe, one governed by its unique metaphysics. From that point of view, why shouldn't its laws be wildly different from our own? In our universe, death is where you're a fifteen-year old prostitute and some grotesquely ordinary guy with a beer gut, pasty skin, and coke-bottle glasses picks you up on the side of the road, chats you up, fools you into complacency by using his kid's toys as props, then rapes you and strangles you while you beg for your life. We don't want to die that way. But in the Buffyverse, there are different types of death: banal terrible deaths from serial killers we don't really see, occurring somewhere offscreen in a quasi-real-world context we can extrapolate as existing much like our own; and then there are the horrific, brutal deaths from toothy, grr-arrgh vamps; and then another kind of death, more alluring and seductive, represented by vampires like Spike and Angel, who may use their wiles on you, reel you in, make you half want it. It's death as sex and dancing. Who wouldn't want to die *that* way, if you had to go, as opposed to being gutted by some shmuck who's angry at his boss, or slowly wasting away in a hospital bed?

(Of course we do have that flavor of death in our own real world--practices like autoerotic asphyxiation wouldn't exist if people didn't want to flirt and fuck with their own mortality. And, obviously, I'm *completely* ignoring the artistic tradition of eroticized death that BtVS itself is a part of, themes like death and the maiden, etc, and just talking about real death for a moment, otherwise we're back into the realm of fiction. In fannish terms, I'm still playing the game of "the universe is real" when looking at BtVS, which sort of strips it out of context, as if it didn't exist for us as a fiction. And I need to stop this tangent now because there's probably only two and a half people still following this and I'm not one of them.)

It's not uncommon to hear fans say that a character like Spike glamorizes death, that if he were a buck-toothed moron with greasy hair and zits, we'd somehow see the hidden, creepy truth of what he does. But the truth is, the *point* of vampires--the humanesque survivors--is their aesthetic. That's what makes their style of death-dealing different, at least often enough to make us hesitate when we're thinking of writing them off. And Buffy stands in for the viewer; she's the crux of it all. She kills vampires, but she also sleeps with them. She tries to adhere to Giles's tutelage and toe the line of moral absolutes, but she gets to know vampires as people too. And here's where Spike is the more problematic monster (which to me makes him more interesting in key ways), because he *does* lack a soul, and so he breaks the rules by becoming worthy of attention, by being spared a dusty death.

I don't know what I'm wittering on about here. I guess I'm just trying to say...a lot of the time, we keep trying to draw events in the Buffyverse back into a semblance our own, and vice versa. We look for handy parallels and we talk about religion and morality, and it's reasonable to do this; we want touchstones to keep it real. A mundane common ground makes the fantastic elements of the story seem more real, heightens their delight. But if you stop trying to fit one universe overtop of the other in near-perfect correspondence; if you just let it hang in parallel, the differences are more allowable. Vampires can be seductive; you can sleep with vampires--men--who've killed thousands of people, even fall in love with them; they can be worthy enough to earn our attention and be allowed to exist. In other words, in our own world you could say it's a socio-psychological "law" of sorts that widescale murder and charisma can't comfortably coexist in one individual. Serial killing does not say to us "The Sexy," unless we belong to that creepy species of hag who hangs out in courtrooms and pens love letters to the Ted Bundys of the world. But in the Buffyverse, the same law doesn't always apply. Okay, yeah, Buffy clearly loathes the monster in Spike, but she finds it bearable in Angel, even though his history is arguably a far bloodier record of sadism and atrocity. If it's out of sight, it's apparently far enough out of mind that she can love him with all the passion of a teenage girl riding her first wave of hormones straight to hell. She knows he's got the beast in him, says at least once, "When you kiss me, I want to die." But she doesn't say, "When you kiss me, I want to crawl away, cut out my tongue and Brillo my epidermis off because I'm imagining all the women whose bloody corpses you dabbled with."

If you let yourself move away from "real" death into the realm of Buffyverse death, you're moving into romanticism. When we talk about fiction, we define romanticism as this rosy haze that rubs the harsh edges off our own world. But when we're playing around with fantasy, there's nothing stopping us from adopting a premise that another universe might operate on more romantic laws--that its metaphysics might be skewed that way. What if, in the Buffyverse, the romantic is the real? I mean, if you're saying that vampires exist, that prophecies have meaning, that higher powers decide the fates of champions, that Hell is plural and has viable zip codes, that magic is blah blah blah, why can't the meaning of death change? I've seen at least one story that suggested vampires could be agents of karma; whatever else, they're not doing to their victims anything that time itself won't do. There's plenty of spin you can apply: we all die; vampires just get there first. Vampires help with population control. Vampires are like aliens, not better, not worse, but different. Vampires are to humans what humans are to cows. Et cetera. These are all ways of tweaking vampires, as individual characters and as a monstrous demon species, away from the problematic "serial killer" analogy.

And in a fantastic universe, there's nothing really wrong with that. The only problem is, again, a kind of aesthetic or dramatic one--as viewers and readers, if we see a story make unacceptably casual excuses for vampires and their acts, or for any murder(er), the meaning of death twists out of our grasp, becomes unrecognizable. The ground starts to shake apart and collapse under out feet and we're no longer invested, can't suspend disbelief, because--in a badly told, poorly premised story--people always escape death at the last minute, or come back to life after they die, or kill someone without consequences. The writers of BtVS played close the line again and again; the trajectory and momentum of the series got kind of wild toward the end, when just about every character had committed a crime that under normal circumstances would merit incarceration. Buffy returned from the dead, murderers roamed free, a vampire got a soul and was welcomed into the fold. But the seeds of this wild moral mess were always there. Monsters were always part of the fold; the show began familiarizing them from day one; demystifying and humanizing them; making them sympathetic and romantic; making their evils--killings--seem clever, banal, petty. Amusing.

And not so amusing. Angelus kills Jenny; Giles grieves and tries to kill Angelus. Angel is resouled, returns, and both men come to an uneasy truce. Something like this could happen in the real world: Angelus is the drugged-out friend who has a psychotic break and becomes no longer responsible for his actions; Jenny is the victim of his manslaughter; Angel's time in Hell is time spent in prison. The emotions are recognizable. But in the Buffyverse, the social fabric stretches and warps nearly out of shape, and sometimes it's only the knotty bits of emotion that keep it all tied together. In the Buffyverse, you can nearly end the world and be forgiven for it; you can kill people with a song in your head and bury them in a basement, and your chums will understand and a curvalicious slayer will share a smoke and a flirt with you, because you're a hottie; you can go beserk and drag all your friends and your sister into the basement and set a demon on them, and they'll understand and let it go; you can machinate the murder of a souled vampire and continue to share airspace with him after your plan fails--no harm, no foul.

Sometimes I think that everyone on BtVS just operated for years on the most extreme edge of PTSD until we began to consider their dysfunction normal. As fans, we bird-spot for emotions recognizable as being like our own--oh, hey, there's love, there's forgiveness, there's compassion, there's anger--but we also try to fit these emotions into our own familiar context. Like, "Oh my god, Buffy beat the shit out of Spike! What a raging bitch!" Or, of course, "Oh my god, Spike tried to rape Buffy! That's the one unpardonable sin! I can never trust him again!" But we're not a slayer and not a vampire, and we don't live on the Hellmouth (unless we live in Cleveland), and we haven't spent the last seven years of our lives battling demons and dusting ashes off our Gucci boots. When I think about the Buffyverse, I rarely drag its "lessons" into my own life, or draw parallels to my personal experiences. I tend to think instead: "Well, over *there*..." [X happens, Y is true] Because it's this other place, this other universe--different laws, different existential fabric. And I want some parallels, have a dramatic need for them; but other likenesses just fall apart when I try to force them to fit. The mirror cracks.

That is all.

In other blather, I was riding the bus home and thinking about character affinities and frictives. Like, say you took Angel and (unsouled) Spike and Xander and sent them on a quest. And you wanted to write about their interactions. You can rearrange them any number of ways--Xander and Spike ally in a mutual dislike of Angel; Angel and Spike ally on vampire common ground, a kind of superiority of age and experience; Angel and Xander ally on the high moral ground of soulfulness and irritation with Spike. Et cetera. You shift them and shake them, and roll the dice like you're playing Dungeous & Dragons and at any given moment it's a little hard to predict how things will fall, and that's how it should be, because we're not robots. We're humans (even when we're vampires), and we can have our buttons pushed, but while we may be predictable 70 percent of the time, it's that other 30 percent that keeps us surprised.

I mention all this only to say that I think good writers allow their characters to shift and respond based on circumstance and mood and whim (I am hungry, therefore I am cranky, therefore I am more annoyed with Spike than I was an hour ago), whereas lesser writers force their characters to replay rote patterns into ruts, the way that guy made his ballerina dance the same dance over and over in "Waiting in the Wings," even if he didn't know it. You get these one-note characterizations: Angry!Xander, Butch!Angel, Possessive!Spike, etc. Because it's scary and hard for writers--if your characters are multifaceted, the complexity increases; you have an increasing number of permutations, it's like higher math. Challenging. But really, it's fun, and people should take the show itself as a model, because it's *all* about shifting alliances, the twists of relationships, growth and change, the fluidity of our identities, and so on.

You know--my original thoughts above, about vampires versus serial killers, were really meant to shoehorn me into questions about free will. In much shorter terms: so what if vampires don't have free will. Couldn't will itself be enough? Or is what's missing from their make-up some kind of critical purpose and principle that would keep a vampire on track, keep him from being distracted by the pretty shiny evil? And do vampires have an innate alliance with evil? I mean, do they follow evil as an active ethos, or is their evil more of a lack, a vacuum--do vamps tend to be lazy slaves to their own natures? Are they driven by a desire to give pain, or are they simply indifferent to human pain? (As an analogy, a feeding lion probably can't be called a sadist.) Or is it some combination of both that varies by vampire?

ETA: I sometimes flash on Spike in "All the Way" saying, "No, *I'm* a rebel..." It's got an appeal, the idea that Spike, even without a soul, could set himself in opposition to his own supposedly fixed nature. And sometimes in my fantasies, I imagine these conversations between Spike and whoever his man-of-the-week is, and Spike's all, "Better to reign in Hell..." and the guy says, "But you don't reign. You serve. Don't you see that you have a choice?" Other times I switch back to the idea that a soul is in fact a crucial difference and imagine someone helping Spike grow a soul, a shaman maybe, and he's got to want it, to choose it and keep on the path in order to effect a gradual and painful change over time, and in order to convince him of this, the shaman says: "If you have a soul, you can choose good *or* evil. You can still be evil, if that's what you want. Right now, you don't have that choice. You lose nothing by taking on a soul--you only gain." Spike, of course, would argue against that.

Sigh. I need pasta. I want to go to Stella's Trattoria but my car won't get me that far. Dear god, I need the love of a good man garlic.

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