It’s Hard Out Here for an Immortal: Angst and Ennui in Interview with the Vampire and the Television Series Highlander
by Jonathan F. Bassett
August 28, 2011
This paper explores the ambivalence of psychological reactions to immortality. Immortal characters seem to assuage existential anxiety, by facilitating the desire for death transcendence, while simultaneously arousing concerns about the feasibility of immortality, by demonstrating how infinity might intensify the inherent problems of existence. Fictional depictions of immortality offer a means of posing, in a fantastical realm, ordinary existential questions that in reality we all should confront. The author contrasts the suffering of the character Louis, in Anne Rice’s (1976) novel Interview with the Vampire, with the successful immortality of the character Duncan MacLeod in the television series Highlander, in order to demonstrate that the quality of existence, regardless of duration, depends on how one lives in the face of existential anxiety. Fictional depictions of immortality are not purely palliative towards existential anxiety but also facilitate consumers’ contemplation of how to live and love fully in their own finite existence
The present paper examines Anne Rice’s (1976) novel Interview with the Vampire and the television series Highlander in order to advance the argument that fictional depictions of immortal beings offer consumers of these fictions valuable insight into their own existential struggles. My goal is to examine the ambivalence of psychological reactions to depictions of immortality. Immortal characters seem to assuage existential anxiety, by facilitating the desire for death transcendence, while simultaneously arousing concerns about the feasibility of immortality, by demonstrating how infinity might intensify the inherent existential problems of maintaining a meaningful and satisfying life.
According to proponents of Terror Management Theory (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991), the primary motive for much of human social behavior is to minimize the potentially paralyzing anxiety stemming from the uniquely human awareness that personal mortality is inevitable. If these theorists are correct, then depictions of fictional immortal characters may be appealing because they, like traditional religious notions of immortality, help to ameliorate existential anxiety by allowing people to imagine how some aspect of identity can transcend death. Portrayals of immortal characters allow one the opportunity to contemplate the question “would I like an immortal life?” In a 1999 interview with Mulvey-Roberts, Anne Rice expressed her incredulity at the idea that people would be turned off by the idea of becoming a vampire when she stated, “I think that’s a literary idea, that people will look at immortality and say No? what a nightmare. No thank you. I think the really human thing to do is to think try it for several hundred years and see if it works out” (p.177). The desire to avoid death seems to be a motive of the fictional characters that pursue the chance to become immortal through supernatural means. For example, at the end of Interview with the Vampire, the boy who has been recording the interview does not understand Louis’ suffering and demands to be made a vampire himself.
Don’t you see how you made it sound? … Give it to me! Said the boy, his right
hand tightening in a fist, the fist pounding his chest. Make me a vampire now!
He said as the vampire stared aghast. (p. 339).
Although the desire for immortality is initially seductive, its total appeal is questionable due to some depictions of immortality as a sentence of perpetual angst. If fictional immortality is appealing because it assuages deep-seated existential concerns, then what are we to make of instances where the immortal characters seem to suffer more than do their mortal counterparts? It is my contention that fictional depictions of immortality are not purely palliative towards existential anxiety but rather serve as a mechanism for fostering confrontation with the problems facing mortal existence. Previous thinkers have promoted the notion that vampires provide a mechanism for confronting existential issues. For example, Roberts (1994) posited that “the condition of vampirism represents for the contemporary reader feelings of helplessness in the midst of an awareness of atrocity and a sense of insignificance and alienation in an overwhelming atmosphere of decline” (p. 31). Further, Priester (2008) argued that vampires offer “a rich source of metaphorical allegory” that allow people to struggle with existential issues related to the meaning of life and conflict over competing urges and desires (p. 75). Continuing in this tradition, I assert that vampires and other fictional immortals depict how extending life indefinitely would exacerbate existential problems related to relationships and meaning, thereby providing a fantastical and potentially less threatening means through which people can struggle with the important questions of what matters in their own lives and how they ought to live. Consequently, the quality of an immortal life, just like the quality of a mortal one, would depend on successfully grappling with existential issues.
In Interview with the Vampire, the character Louis epitomizes the negative aspects of immortality. Louis views his immortality as a curse and seeks other vampires in Europe in order to learn “why under God this suffering was allowed to exist – why under God it was allowed to begin, and how under God it might be ended” (p. 168). The novel depicts the main problems of immortality as the loss of traditional religious beliefs and the inevitable ennui stemming from the tedium of trying to maintaining passion for existence. Roberts (1994) described Louis as “despairing at the utter loneliness involved in giving up his belief in God” (p. 37). She went on to suggest that Louis’ angst in the loss of his faith is symbolized in his visions of himself trampling the communion wafers and watching rats destroy the religious alter symbols. Louis longs for a religious aspect of the universe that would confer some irrefutable moral dimension and struggles with Lestat’s claim that “evil is a point of view.” When he learns that Armand has no cosmological explanation of the origin of vampirism or its meaning and no knowledge of the existence of God or Satan, Louis feels despair and is left with the unbearably lonely conclusion that he must be the sole author of any story about what his existence must mean.
The vampire Louis seems to be offering a cautionary tale about the dangers of longing for unnatural immortality because choosing such a life will lead to despair and meaninglessness due to the loss of religious beliefs and the terrible tedium of a perpetual earthly existence. Interestingly, actual participants in psychological research reiterate the same objections to hypothetical immortality raised by fictional immortal beings. Kastenbaum (1996) attempted an empirical test of the appeal of immortality. College students imagined a hypothetical world in which death no longer existed. Although the majority of students found this world initially appealing, after deliberation most people chose the world with death as preferable to a world with no death. Participants’ main objection to a world without death was that this form of immortality would deprive them of the heavenly immortality they were anticipating. Even in the absence of this objection, however, they still viewed immortality on earth as inevitably monotonous.
However, Preston (2006) dismissed these objections to immortality in defense of his claim that he would likely enjoy being a vampire. The first objection to vampirism is that they are by default evil because they are damned or cursed and represent an attempt to circumvent Christ as the means to immortality. If one does not however believe in traditional religious immortality then one does not have a sense of missing heaven by choosing to be a vampire. Preston also questions the claim that immortality must inevitably become tedious. To the extent that carnal and aesthetic pleasures are enjoyable, even when repeated frequently, then immortality need not becoming boring, as the sheer number of potential novel experiences would seem to allow an immortal to avoid ennui if so inclined. Lastly, Preston addresses the idea that immortality would take away ambition and motivation. He acknowledged that the awareness of mortality may motivate some people to accomplish their goals but also noted that many a mortal slacker squanders his or her time on earth. If immortality does not necessarily negate pleasure, motivation, or meaning, then existence as a vampire like existence as a human could be unbearable or satisfying. Just as mortals differ in their ability to find meaning and pleasure in life, so also might the quality of immortal existence depend on how one lives.
The negative experience of Louis the vampire stands in contrast to the relatively successful immortality of the character Duncan MacLeod in the television series Highlander. MacLeod is a member of a species that must participate in the game by engaging other immortals in sword fights, the goal of which is to behead the other and experience the quickening, in which the winner acquires the life essence and power of the loser. There is some similarity between the characters of Louis and MacLeod in that they both struggle with guilt over the fact that their continued existence depends on the killing of others. However, Louis’ outcast status, which leaves him brooding and miserable, stands in stark contrast to MacLeod who has lived a privileged and exciting life for 400 years. Perhaps this contrast is a function of the different metaphors each character embodies. Whereas the vampire represents the ineffectual outcast, the immortal MacLeod represents the life of power and privilege. Anne Rice stated to Mulvey-Roberts (1999) that her vampires are a metaphor for being an outcast, as she explained, “They can witness. They can record. They can understand. They can warn. But they cannot really intervene” (p.181). In contrast, Shimpach (2005) argued that the tastefully-refined-White-male character of MacLeod is a modern version of the 19th century adventure stories promoting the appeal of imperialism. That the future of the world rests on the handsome and capable shoulders of MacLeod is to be interpreted as an allegory for a Eurocentric privilege in the form of global capitalism. Although this is certainly a valid point, it is also possible to offer an interpretation of the distinction between Louis and MacLeod though the lens of existential psychology. The plight of the vampire stems from his inability to create a sense of meaning in life by symbolically imaging connections to the past and future.
The plight of fictional immortal characters seems to be the same problem facing actual human beings – namely the ability to connect symbolically with the past and future in a rapidly changing world. Robert Jay Lifton (1976, 1993) has documented the historical human need to achieve symbolic immortality by conceptualizing some way in which individuals make an important contribution to the world that will be more enduring than their corporeal identity. According to Lifton, by focusing on progeny, nationalistic or other group-memberships, cultural creations or accomplishments, or on the continuity and interconnectedness of the natural or divine aspects of existence, people can satisfy the intrinsic psychological need to believe that they are a valuable contributor to a meaningful and enduring world. However, Lifton recognized that the ability to conceptualize meaningful modes of symbolic immortality has become increasingly difficulty in the postmodern age. The rapid pace of historical and technological change makes it difficult for people to imagine how the lives of previous generations relate to their own or to envision how their contributions and accomplishments will matter in the lives of future generations. This need for symbolic immortality seemingly continues in the lives of fictional immortal characters. Further, because of the more dramatic historical changes they have experienced, fictional immortals appear to have great difficulty in maintain a sense of meaning in their existence.
The idea that the difficulty in maintaining identity-continuity would surely be exacerbated in an immortal life is illustrated in an exchange between the vampires Louis and Armand. In describing how he came to be the oldest vampire in existence at 400 years of age, Armand tells Louis that most vampires do not have the stamina for immortality. Most vampires want an immortality in which everything is changeless when in fact “everything except the vampire is subject to constant corruption and distortion” (p. 283). He goes on to say that most vampires lose the will to live because their immortality “becomes a penitential sentence in a madhouse of figures and forms that are hopelessly unintelligible and without value” (p. 283). Armand’s need to connect to the present age is what makes him so desperately desirous of Louis. Armand implores Louis “I must make with the age … and I can do this through you … you are the spirit you are the heart” (p.286). When Louis insists that he is of no use to Armand in this capacity because he is the perpetual outcast who has never felt connected to anything or anyone, Armand response by saying “This is the very spirit of your age. Don’t you see that? Everyone feels as you feel. Your fall from grace and faith has been the fall of the century” (p. 286). Louis’ failure to finding meaning in the traditional cultural symbols is representative of the failure of the age and it is through Louis that Armand hopes to gain insight into the spirit of the age thereby allowing him to interpret experience in the same way as contemporary mortals.
It is not clear that immortality inevitably leads to identity disintegration and despair. Louis’ failure to connect symbolically to the world stems from his status as outcast that relegates him solely to a voyeuristic existence. Although he has a love for human experience in books and art, he cannot contribute anything to that experience. It is this inability to contribute that precludes him from symbolizing a way in which his existence matters. Louis acknowledges this lack of contribution when he claims, “I sought for nothing in the one great source of change which is humanity. And even in my love and absorption with the beauty of the world, I sought to learn nothing that could be given back to humanity. I drank of the beauty of the world as a vampire drinks” (p. 321). His disconnect from human history is further evidenced in his statement that “Before all art had held for me the promise of deeper understanding of the human heart. Now the human heart meant nothing. I did not denigrate it. I simply forgot it. The magnificent paintings of the Louvre were not for me intimately connected with the hands that had painted them” (p. 318).
In contrast to the vampire Louis, the immortal MacLeod is able to sustain a sense of identity and meaning. Shimpach (2005) noted that Macleod’s identity has remained constantly violent, White, masculine, and heterosexual, while transcending its original geographical and cultural boundaries. He has now become a citizen of the world who “drives French and classic American cars, fights with a Japanese katana, learned martial arts in China and, as per the Rules, respects a variety of locally sacred sites as Holy Ground “ (p. 357). MacLeod’s ability to find continuing meaning in life stems from his participation in history. “Mac is not only versed in world history but has personally experienced most of the last 400 years of it. He has, for example, fought in the American Civil War (for the North), the Mexican revolution (against Maximillian), the first World War (for the Allies), aided the French resistance in World War II” (Shimpach, 2005, p. 358).
Although MacLeod has been able to sustain a sense of meaning, he is not completely free from existential anxiety. He does struggle with the temptation to shrink back from a full and intimate engagement with other people because of the inevitability of painful loses an immortal must experience as he outlives those he loves. In episode 1 “The Gathering” Tessa asks MacLeod if he has learned to cope with the death of his lovers. MacLeod says that each time someone he loves dies he feels naked and alone. Still, his previous loses have not stopped him from being vulnerable in his new love for Tessa. Yet, Shimpach (2005) pointed out that by the sixth and final season of the show MacLeod has lost all the characters he loved from the first season leaving him lonely. Here again the fictional depiction of immortality is a means of posing existential questions in a fantastical realm which are ordinary issues confronting us all. Highlander poses the question of how an immortal can continue to feel love with the pain of so many previous losses and the knowledge that any new love he finds will also die. In reality, all mortals must ask this question. Is it ok to be vulnerable to loss? Is it acceptable to love someone fully and completely at the risk of losing him or her to rejection or ultimately death? Perhaps it is safer not to feel too deeply in order to avoid the pain. Psychotherapist Robert Firestone (1993) argued that most people prefer the illusion of intimacy rather than true feeling and genuine love and consequently withhold their real passion, as a way to avoid the painful yet poignant sadness that love like all things is ephemeral. By identifying with MacLeod, the viewer can contemplate whether it is acceptable to be vulnerable and to love someone fully and completely at the risk of losing them to death.
In conclusion, it seems plausible that the psychological suffering depicted in the lives of fictional immortal characters could offer a useful mechanism through which consumers of these fictions could explore the deeper questions of their own mortal existence. By vicariously experiencing the challenges faced by fictional immortal characters, consumers of these fictions can evaluate the role of death in their own psychology, explore how death interacts with other existential motives, and contemplate how to live and love fully in their own finite existence. Consequently, we might do well to consider the advice of Preston (2006) who suggested, “Since it’s unlikely any of us will find ourselves vampires some day, why not do the next best thing? Try to live a life that would be worthy of eternity” (p.165).
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Received: August 28, 2011, Published: August 28, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Jonathan F. Bassett