The Ultimate Vampire
By Maria Pacheco de Amorim
Far from being just another CW teen soap opera, The Vampire Diaries might be the moment that the vampire fiction initiated by Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) reached its highest state of self-awareness. Unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is really about the burden of a calling and the pains of growing up, or True Blood, a show more focused on crime and politics, The Vampire Diaries explores the moral aspects inherent to being a vampire, that is, the loss of humanity and its redemption through love. Because of its ambivalent origin in the context of an Enlightenment turning against itself within gothic literature, and a subsequent development that highlighted the more scientific streak of its nature while, at the same time, increasing its humanity, the vampire became a character filled with unresolved tensions and different meanings.
Better than any other blood sucker, Damon Salvatore exhibits the moral conflict, and logical contradictions, at the heart of being a vampire. His wide appeal is well known and his love story with Elena Gilbert the object of a cult following that keeps leading to Delena videos being published every day on Youtube. You could always blame it on Ian Somerhalder’s good looks or his character’s disarming sarcasm but, even if there is something to be said for beauty and humor, a deeper reason seems to be at the root of the audience’s endless fascination with Damon Salvatore.
When, drawing from a previous tradition of legend, gothic tales, and romantic poetry, Bram Stoker established the main features of the species of the vampire, he imagined what was supposed to be an alien form of life. One could never be a human being and a vampire because Dracula, and all his children, were born out of, precisely, the loss of humanity. Because we can only feel such loss as inimical, the vampire was from the very beginning envisioned as an antagonistic monster with which we, humans, could not identify. It represented instead that which we could fall into but abhorred becoming, and should therefore fight against. The allure was there, but also its horror, given an external existence in a monstrous creature that could be annihilated. There is a fleeting moment of compassion for Dracula felt by Mina Harker, when she reminds her male companions that the “poor soul who has wrought all this misery is the saddest case of all” and that destroying “his worser part that his better part may have spiritual immortality” was not a work of hate but mercy (367). But apart from that, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula the vampire remains a monster to be killed, not a creature to be understood.
It was only in the context of postmodernism that, just like any other minority, the vampire was finally entitled to occupy the place of narrator and main character in Anne Rice’s groundbreaking Interview with the Vampire (1976), becoming the protagonist we could see ourselves in. Even if the vampire’s ability to tell his own story had been there all the while, it was only when he used it to its fullest that he became easily identifiable as human. If Alasdair MacIntyre is right when establishing the relationship between the concepts of narrative, intelligibility, accountability, and personal identity as “one of mutual presupposition” (218), then we cannot have a supposedly inhuman monster using language, especially to tell the story of his life, without turning that monster into a rational creature, that is, an agent accountable for his actions and capable of exchanging reasons with others to justify them. The moment we gave the vampire the opportunity to speak for himself we brought his humanity back and made him a redeemable moral being. However, this tension between the monstrous and human aspects of the vampire, once separated yet now joined within the same character, is not the only one. The monstrous aspect itself is just as ambivalent.
When imagining the vampire, Bram Stoker created a typically ambiguous gothic villain, somewhere between a Hobbesian predatory version of human beings in the state of nature and a supernatural phenomenon that challenged the nineteenth century’s positivism. Dracula was a creature of nature that could only have been conceived in the rationalist context of the Enlightenment, his attack being described in biological ways that include him in the animal kingdom: “The wounds seem such as might be made by a rat or a small dog, and although of not much importance individually, would tend to show that whatever animal inflicts them has a system or method of its own” (213-4). But Dracula was just as much a folkloric creature of evil whose existence contested the Enlightenment’s empiricism, which accounts for his hunter Van Helsing filling the dual role of scientist and exorcist.
A fitter predator than us, the vampire was a superior biological animal, endowed with a cunning intelligence completely focused on the satisfaction of its sensuous urges, a constant reminder of how we prey on one another, in our extreme individualism. In time, other, mostly physical, abilities like extreme speed would be added and the lonely vampiric figure multiplied until it became a species, sometimes seen as a plague, as in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954). This increasingly scientific understanding of the vampire never entirely replaced, however, its more mythical streak of meditation upon death and evil, one that truly resurfaces in The Vampire Diaries. As an undead human, who rebelled against God’s order of things and lost his soul, the vampire was more than a wolf or a hawk and belonged not to the amoral world of nature but, in his wickedness, to the moral and religious world of reason.
That is why Dracula and Jonathan Harker can entertain in conversation all night long through the sharing of a language and, with it, rationality. In spite of his exacerbated animal side, intended to signify the loss of humanity that comes with indulging in our instincts, the vampire is already within what Wilfrid Sellars, in Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (1956), calls the space of reasons, where you can enter only when in possession of a language. Dracula’s rationality comes from his previous human nature, abandoned when he embraced damnation, severing his connection to the good life for man. This same rationality was resurrected as soon as we chose to tell the vampire’s story from his point of view, partially because his origins were human, but also because we could not have him tell his story without immediately personifying him. Thomas Nagel once famously asked “what it is like for a bat to be a bat” (439). His point was that we, humans, will never know because we are not bats and we cannot occupy their point of view without making it disappear. “It is often possible to take up a point of view other than one’s own,” says Nagel, but only in the case of “someone sufficiently similar to the object of ascription to be able to adopt his point of view” (441-2). Since bats are one of the things Dracula can turn into, the same could be said of vampires. It is in fact impossible to know what it is like for a vampire to be a vampire unless there is not that great a difference between vampires and humans.
No vampire, except maybe for Spike, inherits these tensions at the core of the species better than Damon Salvatore, within the context of the story of The Vampire Diaries. On the one hand, unlike his brother Stefan and pretty much every typical conflicted vampire from Louis, Nick Knight, and Angel to Edward Cullen or Bill Compton, Damon sees nothing wrong with living according to his predatory nature. He does not try to repress it, making Dracula and Van Helsing one and the same, but looks instead for the right way of being one, cultivating his “snatch, eat, erase” technique. And, given the framework of virtue ethics, he is right. Having from the very beginning established, and since then reinforced, the vampire as a dangerous animal species, we cannot blame it for eating people, any more than we can sentence a wolf to lifetime imprisonment for having done so. As every other creature that is part of the food chain and the ecosystem, as long as, like wolves and hawks, vampires fulfill their purpose, the right thing is happening. Only if wolves and hawks were to become vegetarian would we start worrying, as we worry about climate change and global warming. Which raises the question of why we find it so normal that a vampire should abstain from eating us. Damon sheds light on just how unnatural such behavior is and, like Elena in the episode “The Five,” we cannot help feeling that there is something right in how deeply he accepts and enjoys his nature: “What makes me able to drink my fill, and leave someone breathing and not rip their heads off like my brother, is that I can revel in it. I can make it fun.”
On the other hand, it is also true that we do approve of the typical conflicted vampire’s choice to fight their nature (even if the puritanical angst of it all can get tiresome) and of Damon eventually letting himself be changed by love, becoming a “reformed serial-killer.” The moment the monstrous vampire was turned into a rational creature, consciously aware of his purpose and, therefore, able to judge it and to choose whether to embrace or refuse it, he acquired (or regained) a human nature that, with its own peculiar good life and proper flourishing, conflicts with his fanged nature. And because “rationality is a social trait” (Davidson, 105), he has also left the realm of nature and entered a moral community of equals that he can no longer see as food, whether human or vampire. The more scientific conception of the vampire as a very dangerous predator is automatically flipped over into the moral image of a criminal that could never be at ease with his status but must be converted and redeemed.
What is so interesting about Damon Salvatore is how much he clarifies the true character of the clash at the heart of the humanized vampire. Because of the vampire’s ambivalent origin both as a biological species and a creature of evil, and his subsequent development from an inhuman monster to a rational being, capable of love and care, the conflict could never simply be that of a struggle between a good human side and an evil vampiric one, as is the case with most conflicted vampires, like Stefan Salvatore. A far more complex picture, where predatory instincts, moral evil and human flourishing coexist uneasily, arises from this history and is made evident in Damon Salvatore. In him, unlike what happens, for example, in a werewolf, all of this is present at the same time, the whole time. He inherits two ultimately irreconcilable natures, that of the predatory, animalistic, sensuous vampire (akin to the wolf in the werewolf) and that of the rational human being to whom killing will always be wrong, with both having equal claim, every single day, to his personality.
To the very end, Damon Salvatore enjoys being a vampire, having learned the right way to be one, and never broodingly turns against its way of life. But he also, deep down, misses being human, and no human could behave like a wolf or a hawk without feeling guilt. It is then that the vampire reacquires its moral meaning of a creature of darkness. Most of all, because the only way he can be with Elena is if he chooses his humanity, he must refrain from eating people and eventually decides to take the cure. In the end, against Stefan and Elena’s more Kantian approach, he does not choose humanity for itself. For what is the good of a human life without a reason to live it? And what other reason besides love is actually worth the pain and risk of it all? When Damon finally makes up his mind, it is because, as he says to Elena, “the smallest chance at the perfect life with you is infinitely better than an immortal one without you.” (“I’ll Wed You in the Golden Summertime”, The Vampire Diaries, season 6, episode 21). To account for the wide appeal of Damon’s character more would have to be said about this evilness that lingers in the predator animal; and the resulting need for redemption, which, somewhat in the tradition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, is brought about by love and friendship, not the autonomous will to do the right thing. But that would be the subject of a different essay.
Maria Pacheco de Amorim, Ph.D., teaches Anglo-American literature and cinema. She specializes in Wittgenstein, Donald Davidson and Alasdair MacIntyre and seeks to challenge aestheticism and advance an alternative description of art. She is also the music editor at Magazine.HD, a Portuguese entertainment website, where she writes regularly about indie rock and other instances of pop culture.
Davidson, Donald. “Rational Animals” in Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue (2nd Edition). London: Duckworth, 1985 (1981).
Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Oct., 1974), pp. 435-450.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. London, New York: Penguin Books, 1994 (1897).