Arts & Culture

True Blood Libel

All of a sudden, and quite out of the blue, life expectancy has lengthened — to forever. Vampires are everywhere again, from the high-haired matinee idols driving tween box office in the form of Twilight — a film written by … Read More

By / December 5, 2008

All of a sudden, and quite out of the blue, life expectancy has lengthened — to forever. Vampires are everywhere again, from the high-haired matinee idols driving tween box office in the form of Twilight — a film written by a Mormon who thinks the beautiful are the damned, and forbidden love can wait — to the HBO series True Blood, which tries to reconcile a fabled genus of social outcasts with a very real one. In executive producer Alan Ball’s rendering, vampires are like gays (some of them even are gay), who have "come out of the coffin" to declare themselves your friendly neighborhood nightstalkers, thanks to a synthetic Japanese-manufactured blood cocktail that sustains them in lieu of the warm, vein-delivered stuff. It’s a clever political trope, even if flagrantly pilfered from the X-Men series. Though who among us would argue with Anna Paquin’s ability to finally get laid?

Any talk of glowering immortals stomping the earth in a state of High Romantic sturm und drang always puts me in mind of a different allegory — that of the Wandering Jew. Perhaps you’re familiar with this apocalyptic, anti-Semitic myth, which tells of a Jewish shopkeeper who, upon seeing cross-carrying Christ pause on his way to Golgotha, mocks the rebel rebbe: "Go on quicker, Jesus! Go on quicker! Why dost Thou loiter?" For his insolence, the merchant is admonished by Christ: "I shall stand and rest, but thou shalt go on till the last day," an incantation that condemns him to an eternity on earth. The inspiration for this fable of Hebraiophobic comeuppance derives from vague mutterings in the Gospel of Matthew as to the presence of those who "shall not taste of death till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom."

Sightings of the Wanderer throughout history have been said to presage the End Times, and so naturally sightings have been scattered and frequent. In the lead-up to the last millennium, and in reply to the chiliastic rumblings emanating from the ranks of fundamentalist Protestantism, Free Inquiry‘s Martin Gardner wrote a well-researched essay about this subject, explaining that, as the clock ticked closer toward 2000, "it would not surprise me to see a picture of the Wandering Jew on the front page of one of the supermarket tabloids." Eat your heart out, Bat Boy.

There are plenty of variations on the Wanderer theme, beginning with one explaining that Joseph of Aramethea was the death-thwarting wraith, whose real name was Cartaphilus. Aramethea, said to be one of the last persons to see Christ alive, was rumored to be tromping around Europe by the 13th century when an Armenian archbishop relayed his sorry tale to Roger of Wendover, who duly recorded it in Flores Historiarum.

Since then, the Wandering Jew has come into continental vogue cyclically, usually at times of cultural and political crisis. Eugene Sue French’s serialized novel Le Juif Erant (1844-1845) came out in Paris just in time for revolution, and well within the actuarial windows of future eyewitnesses to Alfred Dreyfus’s notorious unpleasantness. In England, George Macdonald’s Thomas Wingfold, Curate (1876) envisioned the Wanderer as an Anglican minister overcome with grief about the Crucifixion and clearly in the wrong line of work since he could not pass a cross without wanting to mount and hug it until he collapsed to the ground unconscious. Wingfold finds true love, only to then agonize over the object’s impending demise. They both try to off themselves by self-immolation in an active volcano-it works for her, but not for him. Nevertheless, Jesus returns to pardon his erstwhile catcaller and carries Wingfold off to heaven to be reunited with his girl in what may be the Book of Revelation’s sole answer to the happy ending.

Elsewhere in literature the image or palimpsest of the Wanderer has been "reclaimed" to self-aggrandizing effect, anticipating today’s sexy cool of angsty or amoral immortals. Benjamin Disraeli, England’s first and only Jewish prime minister, was equally assailed and envied in his time as a sinister "magician," the Tory arriviste whose outsize ambition resulted in his owning the exclusive attention of one the most influential monarchs in history. Disraeli winkingly satirized himself-not to say his popular reputation-in the fictional character of Sidonia, a behind-the-scenes power broker who appears in three of the parliamentarian’s late novels: Sybil, Tancred, and Coningsby, in which he plays a major role. As Adam Kirsch points out in his recent, brilliant biography of Disraeli, Sidonia is the uncanny archetype for every post-Protocols "international Jewish mastermind." He physically mirrors his creator in Iberian pallor, with an "impressive brow, and dark eyes of great intelligence." Despite having the ear of every European diplomat, a bank account capable of rescuing gross national products (a task that often falls to him), and a sexual demeanor to parody Orientalist stereotype, Sidonia is afflicted with an acute disorder: "He might have discovered that perpetual spring of happiness in the sensibility of the heart. But this was a sealed fountain to Sidonia. In his organization there was a peculiarity, perhaps a great deficiency. He was a man without affections." From Dracula to Barnabas Collins, vampires have warned their swooning prey not to get too attached….

"I am the Wandering Jew," says George Eliot’s Herr Klesmer in her proto-Zionist novel Daniel Deronda (1876),

"flashing a smile at Miss Arrowpoint, and suddenly making a mysterious, wind-like rush backward and forward on the piano. Mr. Bult felt this buffoonery rather offensive and Polish, but — Miss Arrowpoint being there — did not like to move away."

The difficulty of moving away is also, according to Wandering Jew legend, moored to an involuntary response: The unkillable shopkeeper is possessed of an irresistible charisma and glamour, just like True Blood‘s Bill and Twilight‘s Edward Cullen, who informs the unafraid new-girl-in-town Bella, "everything about me is designed to draw you in." Here one recalls that Byron, one of the earliest international celebrities who made seduction and sport-fucking seem Hegelian, served as the template for John Polidori’s foundational short story, The Vampyre. And Byron’s close friend and fellow radical poet was Shelley, who from a young, atheistic age grasped the abuses of enchantment, which he described with chilling precision in his first epic poem, helpfully titled The Wandering Jew (1810).

The future husband of the author of Frankenstein gave a sense of lyric tragedy to the medieval blood libel, naming his undead pale riding antihero Paulo, who bears the mark of a cross burned into his forehead and suffers from fitful bouts of depression. Shelley’s Wanderer is also the survivor of multiple attempts at suicide (lightning, volcano, cliffs) and when we first encounter him, he’s standing in a church watching a vestal virgin named Rosa offered up for sacrifice. He rescues her, falls for her, and, in the confines of his haunted castle, confesses his perfidious origins to her. Anne Rice might have easily given these strophes over to her Louis, the homoerotic Young Werther from Interview with the Vampire. A Cajun plantation owner in the late 18th century, Louis loses his family, then pines for death, whereupon he’s met and "turned" by the witty but conscienceless vampire Lestat, who’ll soon realize what a whiner he’s awarded limitless breath. Louis embodies the spirit of his age by being at odds with everything about it, and, rather like Paulo,

"pierce[s] with intellectual eye, Into each hidden mystery; I penetrate the fertile womb Of nature; I produce to light The secrets of the teeming earth, And give air’s unseen embryos birth: The past, the present, and to come, Float in review before my sight…"

Sookie in True Blood can read people’s thoughts and glimpse the future-except when it comes to Bill. Though when she drinks his blood after being beaten within inches of her life, her senses grow keener. She eats her grandmother’s old-recipe sausage, saying she can taste the farm on which the pig was raised, even the soil that grew the herbs upon which it fed. What is this but penetrating the fertile womb of nature?

True Blood has its fun lampooning bigotry and the cant of civil rights movements. While it may not intentionally echo the Wandering Jew myth, the series is hardly immune from unintentionally trafficking in familiar anti-Semitic clichés. Vampires in this hyperrealistic drama seek entry into mainstream society and publicly refute all manner of paranoid fantasies humans have concocted about them. A comely blonde representative of the American Vampire League (Abe Foxman meets Ann Coulter) regularly holds forth on television against sulfurous Christian preachers who’ll not directly address the spawn of Satan, thank you very much, as well as jaded liberal skeptics such as Bill Maher. "We’re just like you!" she keeps saying, and it’s certainly true that vampires have a collective identity crisis. They have complicated and divisive takes on the issue of conversion and mixed relationships. They also have to compete with other ethnic and racial minorities for inclusion. A moralizing satirist would leave things right there, except that True Blood goes a provocative step further: All the paranoid fantasies vampires deny about themselves also happen to be true.

Despite their public relations claims to the contrary, vampires do continue to feast on humans (probably the creepiest anti-Semitic parallel of all is that they profess to enjoy infants’ blood the most). They do congregate in shadow-bathed "councils" overseen by "magisters" who uphold an archaic vampire law and hand down punishments for transgressors, all to ensure the tribal compliance to a timeless international conspiracy. They influence politicians and the media, and very probably led us into war in Iraq as a personal favor to Transylvanian hardliners.

It’d be ludicrous to suggest there was any underhanded motive on the part of the unambiguously progressive producers of True Blood. (When American Beauty won the Oscar for Best Screenwriting, Alan Ball made a double entendre of the term "acceptance speech," and everything in his career and disposition makes good on that avowal.) But HBO’s blockbuster series about fangbangers in the bayou shows that camp postmodernism has a dangerous unintended consequence of draining the poison out of antique and pernicious cultural myths. And that kind of sucks.