The novel also explores the related themes of secularization, a cultural "loss of faith," and the existential despair that can result. Lestat's quest is at its heart a philosophical and spiritual one. In a world where God does not exist yet good and evil still do and he is evil personified, Lestat finds that he "cannot live without some embracing philosophy" (288). In fact, Lestat's quest resonates well with Thompson's definition that a classic Gothic tale seems "the embodiment of a demonic quest-romance, in which a lonely, self-divided hero embarks on an insane pursuit of the Absolute. This...quest is metaphysical, mythic, and religious, defining the hero's dark or equivocal relationship to the universe" (2). The Vampire Lestat, like much Gothic fiction "may be seen as expressive of an existential terror generated by a schism between a triumphantly secularized philosophy of evolving good and an abiding obsession with the Medieval conception of guilt-laden, sin-ridden man" (Thompson, 5-6). So the novel, like all vampire myths, inverts Christian symbols and rituals throughout; after all, "as an institution the Church affirms and validates the supernatural" (Williams, 117). Just as Christ's blood is central to the Christian concepts of redemption and resurrection, vampiric blood also conveys immortality and when the vampire drinks, the blood "is transmuted into ecstacy" (295). When Magnus, the vampire who transforms Lestat, offers him his blood he tells him, "Ask and you shall receive" and "This is my Body, this is my Blood" (89). But the greatest systemization of Christian inversion occurs with The Children of Darkness, a vampire coven created during Europe's Black Plague. The Coven has 'religious' regulations like the Five Laws that govern the members' behavior in detail including the rituals surrounding how new vampires are created (300-2). They 'worship' Satan and obedience to His laws brings 'salvation' (213). Lestat and his mother Gabrielle are viewed as 'heretics.' Yet Lestat laughs at their superstitions and proves to them that 'God' is not in 'God's House' by going into several churches, including sleeping underneath the altar of one during the day (191-3). The vampiric inversions of Christianity define Lestat's negative relationship to God but more importantly, serve to highlight the irrelevance of God and religion in the modern world.
Indeed, the very existence of vampires disproves the Christian conceptions of God and Satan since vampires already possess the immortality that Christianity promises. Vampires are like gods themselves in that they can bring both death and eternal life to any human they choose. "This transcendental fusion of the divine and the diabolical is the essence of the vampire concept" (Carter, 5). The novel contains many instances in which vampires refer to each other as "angels" and as "gods and goddesses." In this respect, I think that Rice intends the vampire to recall the figure of Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humans and was punished with eternal torment for doing so, and in general represents a seeker of forbidden knowledge. The novel mentions Prometheus several times: Lestat imagines Magnus is "a dark Prometheus stealing a luminescent fire" (89), Marius tells his fledgling vampire Armand that his fate will be "to snatch from the distant stars as if you were Prometheus an endless illumination" (295), and Lestat envisions his upcoming battle with other vampires as one in which he "would bring them all into the light soon enough" (10). Thus, the vampire becomes an eternally tortured god who can convey everlasting life, who is both estranged from and loves humanity, and who must constantly discover new knowledge in order to adapt to a changing human world. Rice transforms the vampire figure from the earlier bloodthirsty predator to a fallen figure who is nevertheless engaged on a noble and defiant quest. And in referencing older mythic figures (Osiris, Typhon, and Dionysus are similarly mentioned), the novel also reconstructs a history in which vampires have a place in the mythical and archetypal realms of Western culture. And as such, the novel does a good job of properly placing the vampire figure among this rich mythic landscape of folk tales, ballads, and legends that the Gothic has always drawn on. In terms of history, the novel successfully addresses both the vampires' mythic significance and its specific historical significance to modern culture.
Even though Lestat loses faith in God he finds he is "still an immortal being who must find his own reasons to exist" (380). And as the reader follows his quest for meaning, one finds that his existential dilemma is the same for us all, the fact that he's a vampire only exaggerates his alienation and his need to establish his own significance. Lestat tells his friend Nicholas "I can live without God...But I do not think I could go on if I did not believe in the possibility of goodness" (72). Yet this idea of goodness is a personal one since Lestat has decided that good and evil are "merely concepts that man has made" (114). For Lestat, goodness is to love those mortals and other vampires that he becomes attached to and to value their love in return and to only prey on "thieves, killers, and evildoers" (121). Marius, Lestat's vampire teacher, describes him as an "innocent." He tells Lestat, "To be godless is probably the first step to innocence," "to lose the sense of sin and subordination, the false grief for things supposed to be lost"; innocence is the "absence of [the] need for illusions," it is a "love and respect for what is right before your eyes" (333). Lestat is thus a paradox; he is an "old-world" evil in a secular world that doesn't believe in him, and in fact he understands the mindset of the new age so well that he himself cannot account for his existence in the old terms of good and evil and is driven to develop his own philosophical theories. Thus, Lestat is representative of many of Rice's other fictional characters in that they "are all made anew by the battering of experience that exposes them to existential realities, frees them from false moralities, and teaches them to trust their own moral philosophies" (Roberts, 141). Lestat finds he must develop his own code, for even though he has dissolved the barrier between life and death, "the world closes tight around this miracle soon enough...you become accustomed to the new limits and the new limits define everything once again" (307). In struggling to develop this code, Lestat arrives at a philosophy based on aesthetic principles that he calls the Savage Garden. Beauty is a supreme Quality, only Beauty is consistent and verified by the natural world, and it is therefore transcendent over moral concepts of good and evil which are based on religious superstition. The Savage Garden is a primal world of predators and prey in which strength, creativity, and developing one's essential nature is emphasized. Mortals and other vampires are valued for their physical beauty and many vampires are artists; Marius is a gifted painter and Lestat has a talent for the stage. In fact, Lestat urges a group of fellow vampires to form The Theatre of the Vampires: "Think on it...There's a perfection in it that you can't deny. We are illusions of what is mortal, and the stage is an illusion of what is real" (312). The aesthetic ideal as a substitute for religious faith is not a new one, the last fin-de-siecle was witness to the battle cries of "Art for Art's sake." Yet Rice also seems to be getting at the deeper issue of representation. Vampires imitate life as art imitates life and both are aesthetic creations, symbolic and metaphoric reflections of US. By elevating the figure of the vampire in this way, Rice clearly feels it represents a central truth about our cultural imagination at this point in our history. I'll conclude with a brief exploration of what this might be and how, if at all, hers might differ from previous representations.
As already mentioned, the portrayal of the protagonist Lestat draws on the mythic figure Prometheus in his defiant refusal to consider his evil status as a vampire, doomed to perpetually wander the earth, as sufficient reason to deny himself the pleasures of the modern world and the comfort and love he may enjoy through relationships with human beings and other vampires. He is also a Wanderer figure of Romantic poetry and a picaresque hero who experiences a series of adventures. And he is a typical Gothic hero/villain (a blend of the 18th century hero of Sentimental novels and purely evil Gothic villain) in that he has both the resourcefulness, pride, and attractiveness of the Gothic villain and the pathos of a hero who is sensitive, emotional, and compassionate, albeit tormented by his own evil (Mac Andrew, 50-4). MacAndrew explains that as the moral outlook of Gothic fiction became increasingly relative and psychological, the merging of these two literary characters was inevitable. Finally, like Milton's Satan, Lestat can be said to be "the tragic individual, whose grandeur is increased by the fact that his quest is doomed by a predetermined fate" (Kilgour, 40). All of these influences make Lestat a fairly complex character whose experiences reference not only actual conditions and historical events for the reader but also narrative structures and techniques of various literary traditions. Thus, this is a highly intertextual work. However for my purposes, given the popularity of the Lestat character, the hero of five bestselling novels, the most significant aspect of Lestat's portrayal is how he symbolically represents the role of the cultural Other and what this may say about our culture in terms of alienation, our fears of death and of dissolving cultural taboos, and our paradoxical desires for ultimate sexual, moral, and creative freedoms.
Jacques Lacan, psychoanalyst, theoretician, and student of Freud, "sees literature and psychoanalysis as two systems which are part of the same project, that of at once seeking and affording glimpses into the hidden workings of human thought" (Meltzer, 156). For Lacan, as for Freud, the ego or Subject is always split "constituted by a conscious, accessible mind and an unconscious, inaccessible series of drives and forces. That which is unconscious for the Subject is that which is unknown, alien (although fundamental)...therefore the notion 'unconscious' lends itself at once, to the idea of Otherness." (Meltzer, 157). Linked with this idea is the notion that "the Subject is constituted by something missing, which...creates desire. Desire is experienced by the subject as a Lack' which he/she will try to eradicate" (Ibid.) Therefore the Subject experiences the unconscious as other than himself and the "way the Subject views, and projects upon, an Other will yield a clue concerning the Subject's relationship to his unconscious wishes and desires" (Meltzer, 158). And since the unconscious is an abstraction and beyond consciousness, "it is then condemned to being represented concretely through analogies and extended metaphors" (Meltzer, (161-2), i. e., through literature. As stated at the outset, this view of the Gothic as functioning like a metaphoric screen on which is projected a culture's unconscious fears and desires, that which it claims as Other, is widely accepted and owes a great deal to Lacan's work. Freud also felt that what is "encountered in this uncanny realm, whether it is termed spirit, angel, devil, ghost, or monster, is nothing but an unconscious projection...which the subject refuses to recognize or rejects in himself and is expelled from the self and located in another person or thing" (Jackson, 66). But unlike much of early Gothic, the most striking thing about The Vampire Lestat is that it is related by the vampire himself, his story is told from his point of view. Therefore, the novel "displaces the human voice from its privileged position at the center of the text. Suddenly the outsider is on the inside and the voice of the Other...is heard in no uncertain terms" (Hollinger, 151). The effect of this is to break down the barriers between the human and imaginative worlds of the Other and the reader comes to identify with the Lestat, the vampire Other, in the closest terms. In sharing Lestat's adventures and feelings, the reader tends to suspend his/her moral judgments and comes to understand the potential for evil and the desire to do good that not only he faces but everyone faces. In giving imaginative assent to the vampire's account, the reader cannot then dismiss him.
Reader identification with Lestat is aided not only by his first-person account of his life but by the fact that he perceives of himself as Both human and monster. When he first looks into a mirror as a vampire, though he knows he's a monster, he "becomes frantic to discover [him]self in it" (103), and "the human in [him] looked helplessly about" (104). Near the end of the novel, Lestat concludes that he is "somehow kin to every mortal man" instead of an "exotic outcast" (430). And even his vampire self has the instincts of a bestial predator like a wolf or large cat rather than a "monster," he has heightened senses and can smell the blood of human victims but he also sees beauty, "billions of colors and tiny configurations of movement" when he looks upon "a living creature" (133). Thus he is the universal divided self, trying to reconcile what he is and what he wants to be while retaining his ideal of being a good person. But he is continually rejected by humans, by his father and brothers when he was human, and by his human friend Nicholas when he's a vampire, as well as being rejected by other vampires like Armand and even his mother Gabrielle, made into a vampire by him, because they all perceive him as too different, too Other. This rejection ultimately leads him to "go into the ground" out of despair where Marius finds and resuscitates him years later (362). Thus, the reader is drawn to identify with Lestat not just because he is the narrator and has many human characteristics and dilemmas but because we identify with his sense of Alienation, his sense of being the rejected Other.
Punter sees Gothic literature as a "literature of alienation" (417) and in defining Karl Marx's four specific types of alienation which are intertwined in the formation of capitalism, Man's alienation from his "species-being, from his sense of human-ness" and "Man's alienation from himself" stand out as being specifically applicable to the character of Lestat. Obviously Lestat is both estranged from his "human-ness" and in turn from part of himself; he is so alienated that he can never be integrated into society. And both the reader's imaginative identification with Lestat and his/her simultaneous recognition of Lestat's unreality helps to render Lestat a symbolic projection and representation of the reader's own unconscious sense of alienation. Modern bourgeois society emphasizes individualism rather than collectivism and Lestat's constant quest for connection and community mirrors the modern reader's. Experienced vicariously, Lestat's condition reflects the reader's in a modern alienated world and his quest suggests the fractured hope of recovering a lost sense of unity. Given the overwhelming conditions of dehumanization in the modern world, from lack of public space and the omnipotence of technology, to corporate ownership of all creative forms of expression and governmental disconnect with the citizenry, it becomes clear why an alienated figure like Lestat is seen as a creature the reader can identify with; though hopelessly alienated, Lestat and the reader have no option but to still strive for connection and meaning in a fragmented and meaningless world.
Lestat, like all vampire figures, also dissolves the barrier between life and death and is a symbol of taboo. He is dead but he lives forever. According to Freud, taboos are the strongest inhibitions which a culture imposes to guarantee its survival (Jackson, 70). The desire for immortality is seen as taboo, humans should not aspire to the condition of gods and as the vampire figure shows, the highest spiritual aspirations often bring with them the greatest evils. Death and the desire to touch or make contact with corpses is also taboo. Lestat breaks both of these. But Lestat learns to hate death while he is still living because he perceives it as the death of the soul, a vast nothingness that by contrast highlights the meaninglessness of life. He has a shattering existential experience and sees death everywhere around him, "Real death, total death, inevitable, irreversible, and resolving nothing!" (57) and he subsequently feels that "nothing natural seemed beautiful," a feeling he says he has never lost (58). So becoming a vampire is a Dark Gift for Lestat since it means his consciousness will continue indefinitely, "the cycle of birth and death is closed" to him (408). Indeed real death is for him not to feel anything, "not misery, not thirst, not ecstacy" (359). Besides the obvious attractions of immortality lived in a body that never decays, Lestat's situation may also resonate with readers because "death in a fragmented and individualized society is far more frightening and anxiety-laden than in a genuine community" (Jameson, 261). Our culture does not really confront death but rather focuses on various ways to deny it or keep it at bay. Following Lestat's adventures enables the reader to both vicariously experience what it might be like to be dead and yet also to live for centuries. In a culture obsessed with youth and immortality, Lestat is what we long to be. He becomes the reader's guide to the "undiscovered country."
Lestat is also a bringer of death and murder is another universal taboo, especially if one takes as much pleasure in it as Lestat does. Lestat confesses, "I think I was offended by death unless I was the cause of it!" (126) and the sensation of drinking blood is elaborately described in ecstatic terms. His first victim is "a writhing morsel of hot flesh and blood" and the blood itself is "lovely," "delicious," and "luscious" (111). He enjoys the role of predator, prolonging the chase and the struggle "for [his] own pleasure" (122). And he enjoys being "the thing that others fear" (189), "of the dark ilk that makes others cringe" (99); He is "Gentleman Death in silk and lace, come to put out the candles" (229). Though he initially hates being a creature who must kill to survive, once he decides to only hunt "evil-doers" he quickly accepts it and does it with style. Thus, Lestat also blurs the boundary between man and beast, he reminds the reader that humans are not completely rational creatures but also have a darker predatory nature that is often barely concealed beneath the veneer of civilization. He is "the monster who looks like everyone else" (228) because in this respect he is everyone else.