Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula continues to be enjoyed by both fans, and academics, who explore its pages for entertainment as well as something more. The religious elements of Dracula have long been recognized, but recent studies are pushing in this in very different directions. In his book The Theology of Dracula: Reading the Book of Stoker as Sacred Text (McFarland, 2012), Noel Montague-Etienne Rarignac suggests a reading of “the horror classic as a Christian text, one that alchemizes Platonism, Gnosticism, Mariology and Christian resurrection in a tale that explores the grotesque.” In the following interview TheoFantastique explores aspects of this thesis with the author.
TheoFantastique: Noel, thank you for your willingness to participate in this interview. I enjoyed the book and found it setting forth an interesting reading of Stoker’s classic work of horror. How did you come to develop the idea that Dracula should be understood as a sacred text?
Noel Montague-Etienne Rarignac: I would like to thank you for your interest in the book. And I am very happy to finally have the opportunity to talk things over with you, because I know it took a little time and doing for us to arrange the interview.
The figure of The Vampire originated in a sacred text, whether that text should be attributed to Byron or Polidori, I am not quite sure — no doubt both contributed, but that is what started me off in the direction of this book. What I am certain of is that the Platonist Thomas Taylor was definitely influential in the stories that were written in Geneva by the poet and his traveling physician. Taylor provided the subtext that was used to structure the story of The Vampire, a fact which was observed by several knowing Continental authors as soon as “The Vampire: a tale by the honourable Lord Byron” was published. It was their perceptive reading of the story that was responsible for the Vampire craze that followed.
What is truly fascinating is to track the various strands that fed in to the original Vampire back to their origins. We find Taylor, Caroline Lamb’s half-neoclassic, half-Gothic Glenarvon, John Cam Hobhouse’s travelogue of his coming-of-age tour with Byron a few years prior — which recounts their visits to the Eleusinian Temple and what they believed to be the ruins of the Temple at Ephesus — all contributing to the story that is now attributed to Polidori. It was my work on that story and its successors that eventually brought me to work on Stoker’s masterpiece, because, from the moment Nodier picked up Polidori’s story and adapted it to the stage until the post-Romantic figures such as Dumas worked it over, the sacred aspect of the text had only been, in general, reinforced. It is true, however, that the public was never aware of what the Vampire was about. But the writers always knew. Even postmodernists like Ann Rice seem to continually motivate their Vampire stories through tension between and unity of the ancient religious practices of the Neolithic and the practices of the Christian era, a tension that can be seen articulated nicely in a story like Théophile Gautier’s Arria Marcella. It wasn’t surprising, by the way, that Rice went from Vampires to Jesus in her choice of subject — they are closely related.
Initially, I didn’t expect to find much in Dracula that would continue this occult tradition, but as I note in my introduction to the book, I was amazed by what I found, and the book more or less wrote itself as Dracula revealed itself to me.
What I found was that both Christianity and the ancient religions were given exceptional prominence by Stoker, but the latter had been filtered into the contemporary occult of the late-Victorian period. For decades there has been much speculation as to Stoker’s involvement with the Golden Dawn, a kind of gossipy, irrelevant-to-his-work interest in the author. Well, I think that — whether or not he was a member — he was extraordinarily close to the thinking behind the formation of the so-called Hermetic Order, now that I have truly gotten down to the symbolic base of the novel. What I would insist upon, however, is that I wasn’t out to prove any case, I was merely interested in discovering what the author had invested in his work.
TheoFantastique: How would you summarize your basic thesis concerning the religious elements within Dracula, particularly the sacred hermetic element?
Noel Montague-Etienne Rarignac: Let me say that the sacred hermetic aspect flows out of the early modern alchemical tradition, something which had been forcefully renewed in the mid-nineteenth century by a man who assumed the name of Eliphas Lévi. Lévi was a student of post-Renaissance alchemistic texts, and tried to bring the writings of the pre-Enlightenment alchemists into relevance with the scientific age. Lévi spent some time in England and his works were translated by his acquaintance A. E. Waite, one of the founding members of the Golden Dawn.
What is important to recall is that many of the authors of these European alchemical texts were clerics, let us also recall that the golden age for these texts was roughly contemporary to the Inquisition. It was quite common for magical recipes, given through allegorical recitations, to be accompanied by devout professions of belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ and in the teachings of his disciples, etc. Well, this seems to be very much in line with the approach that Stoker took. For this reason it is difficult to separate the Christian from the sacred hermetic when evaluating Stoker’s discourse; they are intertwined and interdependent.
What I can say is that I am a researcher, scholar if you will, who strives to be honest and open-minded. What I found was unexpected. While the Christian aspects of the novel are largely on the surface, the occult aspects were, indeed, occulted. The most startling element has to do with what is called Coniunctio Oppositorum, the “Chymical Wedding,” for I realized that Stoker had borrowed his plot from descriptions of the mystical planetary nuptial of the Sun and the Moon, and that not only plot but his characters and their personalities too were predefined. Lucy, as twin-natured Venus — Venus-Celeste and Venus-vulgare: heavenly and bawdy — made sense of a character whose paradox was otherwise incomprehensible. This is not to disparage Stoker’s work on the elaboration of his characters, which was masterful, it is just that he had an idea that had a perfect articulation which already existed: he had a template to guide him. What is beautiful is how his work is in great harmony with the allegories of three or four centuries previous, the very moment of the chivalrous romance, and by combining those two aspects he created a work that was far more entertaining and compelling than anything by Christian Rosenkreutz, Petrus Bonus or Paracelsus, no doubt because Dracula is, finally, far more truly Christian.
TheoFantastique: When religious elements are discussed within Stoker’s text, it is usually the Christian aspects (of a Roman Catholic and Anglican variety) that are identified. Why do you think many have missed the Neoplatonic and Gnostic-influenced elements within it?
Noel Montague-Etienne Rarignac: I really can’t say, although some have seemed to have caught the Gnostic element and published on that aspect. Let me note in particular the work of Mark M. Hennelly, Jr., who has written repeatedly on certain aspects of Stoker’s “Gnostic Quest” and the scriptural references Stoker seems to be making to John’s Apocalypse, and other items. Hennelly, to judge by his publications, was most interested in Dracula back in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when there was less interest in Stoker. His work was far more perceptive than the slew of “critical” papers that were to follow. I was well off into what I was beginning to suspect might be a book when I came upon one of his essays, and I tracked him down. He was gracious enough to read my material, and to pose some probing questions that kept my words flowing in reply. I wish I had dared to impose on him more, because it was so gratifying to have a perceptive companion as I worked, even though we are separated by 10,000 km and have never met.
There is also Barbara Belford’s mention of the potential role of the Tarot in structuring the novel in her biography of Stoker and there were similar points made by Clive Leatherdale in his Myth and Legend book. There are a few other writers, whom I have not read but have recently become aware of, that are worth mentioning: Walter C. Cambra, who has his unpublished material on file at several libraries in the West Coast U.S.A., and Thomas Thornburg, who has a 1970 thesis on the Tarot and Dracula. Cambra concludes in one text that Dracula furthers an inverted Mariology, obviously not my conclusion, but I would like to read what Cambra has to say nonetheless. He seems interested in the esoteric and in fortune telling. Thornburg is a more traditional scholar, and, judging by the abstract of his thesis, perhaps more interesting for you and me. He writes: “As a compendium of ancient arcana, Dracula knows few rivals in fiction, and as a work of art which demonstrates the properties of world myth and archetype, and the diabolical reversal thereof, the book has no equal.” I intend to purchase a copy of this thesis as soon as I am able to afford it. What I can say is that now I have published my first edition of “reading The Book of Stoker” I am discovering many new leads to pursue. That is always the way things work.
TheoFantastique: In your Preface you describe “mounting interest” in Stoker’s time in various things that you see reflected in the text. In what ways does Dracula incorporate, for example, theosophical syncretism, and sacral king/dying-god mythologies?
Noel Montague-Etienne Rarignac: “The King is dead; Long live the King!” is the great cry of the ages. For the King to live, the king must die. In The Golden Bough Frazer traced a clear expression of this dynamic back through the rites of renewal of the ritual kingship at the Temple of Diana at Nemi because of the uncluttered purity of the rite, and no doubt because the rite had not been practiced in living memory, but even before the pre-Roman moment the dying-god — and the King is the representative of the divine on earth — was an archetype expressed all over the Middle East and elsewhere. Frazer’s connection between the dying-god and the Christian story of Jesus caused him, in the face of an anticipated outcry of protest, to weaken his conclusions, yet the story of resurrection is always a story of the dying-god — and The Vampire is only present in stories concerned with resurrection. Fundamentally, the resurrecting divine is an agricultural motif typical of Neolithic thought.
In the West, the great dying-god of the pagan era was Dionysus, a pivotal player in the drama of the Greek mysteries. And it is upon this god and his ancient rites that The Vampire was likely constructed. Of course, to wrap things up, Theosophy flowed directly from Thomas Taylor, the man who so inspired Polidori and Byron. Taylor, it should be noted, was also influential on the American Transcendentalists, writers like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and the Transcendentalist tradition influenced the poets Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, whom Stoker so earnestly admired, and, in Europe, on Madame Blavatsky. Many members of what would become the Golden Dawn were initially drawn to Blavatsky’s London Theosophical Society, which had such an impact on Victorian era London society, and, I think, ultimately, in modern thought on religion.
I was also considering the great impulse that drove the Victorian mind to plunge into its great empire in an enterprise of establishing the Social Sciences. What Darwin had done for the natural world, others proposed to do for the social world of mankind, through the comparative study of mythology, folklore, religious practices, ritual, etc. The search for universals within the newly collected data was an unavoidable outcome, and one that proved to be exciting to many. Without this ethos it is doubtful that Madame Blavatsky would ever have known the celebrity she enjoyed.
TheoFantastique: In your view, was Stoker relaying or incorporating some of his own spiritual journey through the novel?
Noel Montague-Etienne Rarignac: Really, I have no idea. How the biographic intersects with the creative has never really interested me much. I think it is frequently an error to look for meaning in art through the life of the artist, it is the domain of the historian perhaps. For that reason, I believe in examining art as an artist. I think in that way we come upon a truer true. If it takes a thief to catch one, to understand art one must be, or be like, an artist. When a work is clearly biographical in nature, okay, it may be fair to delve into the facts of an artist’s life in mediating the work, but that is hardly the case with Dracula.
TheoFantastique: Noel, thank you again for the book, and this interview.
Noel Montague-Etienne Rariganc: Truly, the pleasure was mine.