fears and ‘a calling’ to labour in Dracula


Eric Kwan-Wai Yu points out that

The “’anxieties of empire’” expressed in Dracula, Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel, have attracted a great deal of critical attention lately.” (p.145) However, he continues: “I shall not dwell on the various sources of the late-Victorian cultural anxieties concerned. Reading the major periodicals of this period, Samir Elbarbary finds a discourse of “’primitivism and degeneracy,’” which undermines dominant evolutionism and scientific progressivism (113). In addition to the fears of atavism, miscegenation, and reverse colonization, some critics find obvious anti-Semitic connotations in the descriptions of Count Dracula’’s hoarding of money and sanguinary parasitism (Halberstam, 337–41; Gelder, 14–15). To this list one might add [-p.146] the fears of the ‘“lumpenproletariat,’” of the Irish rebellion, of the “’New Woman,’” of sexual transgressions, especially homosexuality perceived as gross indecency” in the wake of Oscar Wilde’s trial, or, of ‘“sexual anarchy,’ ” to borrow Elaine Showalter’s catchy book title. Reacting to Dracula scholarship in the past two decades, which has dealt with various kinds of anxieties, Nicholas Daly reminds us of the phenomenal growth of the British Empire between 1870 and 1900. This period also witnessed much tighter government control, including the encroachment on the private sphere and the free market (182–83). The discourse of crisis, paradoxically, did not lead to actual collapse: “’Fears there may well have been of the decline of Englishness within England, as well as assaults from without, but these fears had the effect of buttressing —not enfeebling —the power of the state”’ (Daly, 183). Furthermore, these fears ‘“established a mission for a new group of professionals in human management’” (183). Seeing the vampire fighters in the novel as a team of male experts, Daly relates them to the rise of professionalism in the late nineteenth century. He further claims that Dracula ‘“uses anxiety to produce as both necessary and natural a particular form of professional, male, homosocial combination’” (181).

This paper is an attempt to substantially revise and further develop Daly’’s intriguing ‘“productive fear”’ thesis to arrive at an entirely different end. Drawing on Max Weber’’s study of the Protestant work ethic, I turn to the often neglected problematics of labor in the novel, highlighting the quasi-religious sense of high duty and ascetic hard work in the vampire fighters, the so-called “’Crew of Light.’” The main thrust of my argument is that fear aroused by the paranoiac perception of sexual perversity begets a curious kind of work ethic in the imperial subject, reaffirming Enlightenment reason and scientific progressivism while, at the same time, betraying the very unreason in reason and the profound anxieties underneath the confidence in progress and empire. Contrary to Daly’s reading, which overemphasizes the power of the team of male professionals to “manage” fear successfully, I side with Troy Boone and other “’anxiety theorists’” in stressing that the ambivalent text ‘“retains an ironic stance relative to . . . scientific [progressivism]’” (Boone, 80) and offers ample room for deconstruction.” (pp.145-146)

Whatever shapes of fear vampirism might evoke elsewhere, in this novel the dominant form has to do with sexual menace or the dreadful perception of sexual perversity.” (p.147)

“It is regrettable that few critics, with the notable exceptions of Franco Moretti and Carol Senf, have paid much attention to labor in Dracula, despite the pervasiveness of the theme in the text.” (p.149)

“…no one, to my knowledge, has explored the curious interrelations of labor, sexuality, and fear in the novel. Having linked up fear and sexuality, in what follows, I attempt to relate them to labor, or more specifically, the unique work ethic in the Crew of Light, characterized by industry, asceticism, rationalism, and a solemn sense of duty. Unlike Moretti, I want to take labor much more literally. I argue that fear, often aroused by the perception of sexual anarchy, demonic uncleanliness, or disfiguring excess, is productive rather than paralyzing. It arouses in the bourgeois imperial subject a quasireligious sense of “calling,” an imperative to work assiduously together [-p.150] to exterminate the demonic Other; in so doing, an uncanny kind of ascetic hard work accompanied by extreme rationalism manifests itself. This is not to claim that, before the vampire-hunters come into contact with vampirism, we cannot detect in them such traits as industry, frugality, punctuality, honesty, and rationality, so famously discussed in Weber’s classic study of the Protestant ethic. Like Stoker himself, Van Helsing, Seward, Harker, and even Mina are all bourgeois working people.” (pp.149-150)

To better explain the peculiarities of ‘“calling”’ in the bourgeois characters of the novel, allow me to take a detour. Turning to Weber’’s pioneering study, I will discuss the Protestant notion of ‘“calling’” and its subsequent development into a secular work ethic, characterized by the obsession with endless acquisition through hard labor, ‘“combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life’” (Weber, 53). A “calling” is not only ‘“a task set by God,’” but ‘“a life task, a definite field in which to work’” (79), accompanied by the conviction that “’the valuation of the fulfillment of duty in worldly affairs [is] the highest form which the moral activity of the individual could assume’” (80). According to Weber, this conception is a product of the Reformation. Though Luther is the first to popularize the idea of calling through his biblical translation, it is in Calvinism and related sects of ascetic Protestantism that we find the development of religious calling into a vigorous work ethic.” (p.151)

““Good works” become, Lessnoff argues, “not a means to salvation, but the means of getting rid of the fear of damnation” (6). With a strong belief in predestination, it is ‘“as if the Calvinist subject were driven by an anxious premonition that, after all, the unavoidable might not happen,’” as ŽZizžek puts it (70). The Protestant ethic, in this perspective, is based on a profound, primordial fear. From this heritage of ascetic Protestantism, Weber announces, ‘“[o]ne of the fundamental elements of the spirit of modern capitalism, and not only of that but of all modern culture: rational conduct on the basis of the idea of calling, was born’” (Weber, 180). In the course of secularization, eventually, ‘“the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs”’ (182), but the obsession, in worldly asceticism, with ceaseless work to maximize profit as an end in itself might not have entirely died out in later stages of capitalism, even with the rise of consumerism, predicated on insatiable expenditure rather than ascetic restraint.” (p.151)

In many ways labor depicted in this novel is an idealization of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. We can detect in the Crew of Light the strongest disavowal of the darker side of labor under capitalism: instead of insatiable acquisitive desire and individualist concerns, we have voluntary work for a “good cause,” authored by God and benefiting all; instead of solitary or alienated labor, we have hard work based on robust, trusting, and selfless friendship and a true team spirit transcending sexual rivalry and even national, class, and gender difference.” (p.157)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Yu, Eric Kwan-Wai (2006) Productive Fear: Labor, Sexuality,and Mimicry in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Volume 48, Number 2, Summer, pp. 145-170


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s