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Becoming-Other: (Dis)Embodiments of Race in Anne Rice’s Tale of the Body Thief

  • Trevor Holmes

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  • Trevor Holmes
    University of Guelph

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Behold: your hero for the duration, a perfect imitation of a blond, blue-eyed, six-foot Anglo-saxon male.

Lestat in the prologue to Anne Rice, Memnoch the Devil (3)

And so it was David the Reborn, David with the high-gloss India beauty, and raw well-nourished strength of British lineage [...].

Anne Rice, Pandora (11)

“There was your same boldness and decorum. And then the warmest smile from you, a smile in which I think your former physiology must have dominated because you looked far too wise for one so young and strong of build.”

Anne Rice, Pandora (20)

“You took the decision from me, and gave me what I could not help but want.”

David Talbot to Lestat in Anne Rice, Tale of the Body Thief (427)

Critics Daniel Pick and Judith Halberstam have each established separately that the Dracula moment in vampire fiction draws on a criminal, racialized, sexualized “type” emerging in late-nineteenth-century European discourses of degeneration. Pick notes Stoker’s reference to Lombroso, author of Criminal Man (110); Halberstam notes a strong connection between degeneration, Jewish identity, and physiognomy in the novel (93). Whereas in Stoker’s work, Count Dracula is a kind of Baudelairean “flâneur” (167) of global proportions whose travels bring with them the risk of infection, Anne Rice’s response in an era of acquisitiveness and liberal desire is to create Lestat, whose travels form part of a general erasure of cultural and racial specificity while relying precisely on these to ground the eroticism for which she is known. For example, while Lestat’s favorite urban spaces are ethnically diverse melting pots, it is his blue-eyed, blond whiteness that guarantees his attractiveness, and it is David Talbot’s new, young, darker body that functions as raw, animal desire stamped by his cultural coinage (British, upper class, rational). As a potential critique of dominant masculinities and heteronormativity, Tale of the Body Thief is perhaps the most effective of the vampire chronicles. There is, however, a sense in which it seeks to have it both ways with race and ethnicity. Where gender and sexual difference is deterritorialized in and by vampire embodiment, difference reterritorializes onto race through desire.

When French thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari write about becoming minor, rhizomic, molecular, woman, other, and ... and ... and ... (they prefer series to choices), they could find in gothic fiction an uncanny exemplarity, and in vampire fiction the very experimentation they so privilege. For even while vampire fiction often derives from and leads back to a conservative politics, the transformations of, and flights from, the body that are contained therein illustrate almost too neatly the minoritarian impulse that drives Deleuze and Guattari’s work. Briefly, minoritarian refers to the active deconstruction of dominant polarities (including major-minor); minoritarian is a kind of third term that denotes an experimental line of flight from identity, from organicity, and from binarisms. Their method relies on, often paradoxically, binarisms such as molar versus molecular, root versus rhizome, or being versus becoming. [1]

That Anne Rice’s vampire universe has shaped a genre whose filiation descends from Byronic poses and Baudelairean flâneurism is clear enough; this essay does not seek to take account of her entire oeuvre so much as it seeks to explore what happens to the vampire mythos when the hero of her chronicles and his human friend are each given the opportunity to move into new bodies. For Lestat, the move into a human body is a way for us to question the stability of the (racially unmarked) category male (masculinity and the male body are made strange by Lestat and especially by his experience in a different body). For David Talbot, leader of the occult-studying Talamasca society, the move from an old body to a young body (and subsequent transformation into a vampire body) is wrapped up in a discourse on race, ethnicity, and gay male desire. What often seems to be a study of gender and sexuality (the Vampire Chronicles in general) finally confronts its tendency to erase race when Talbot is granted an opportunity to re-embody.

Lestat’s “Savage Garden” is the godless yet Gnostic world in which he finds meaning. It is figured as undifferentiated id, desire, body, strength as opposed to cultured cerebral intelligence, wit, charm. This problem is worked out on the level of the body and the supernatural thievery of the body. A particularly eighteenth-century opposition between the rational and the natural is to be expected in any of the chronicles narrated by Lestat. His own working through the racist and sexist material is meant to be forgivable, or at least anticipated, by readers who are familiar with his contradictory, impulsive search for intensities. In following the trajectory of David Talbot’s particularly English desire, however, one finds a colonization at work that becomes complete only when he has attained the marriage of the cerebral and the darkly embodied. This trajectory is the one that is most troubling in Rice’s novel, in part because the homosexual desire endorsed by the text is endorsed exactly at the expense of ethnic and racialized tropes, metaphorized in the vampire figure of difference but literally a granting of British cultural plenitude to an empty, Indian object of desire.

The vampire-human split in Rice’s chronicles is structured like a racial split. Becoming a vampire constitutes an essence, a shared material difference that is not something humans can come close to understanding. Not only is this difference given what is essentially a genetic explanation (Queen of the Damned 403-04), but the exchange of human and vampire blood in the granting of the “Dark Gift” makes human racial specificities disappear. In the process of erasing what we might call lived or experienced racial differences, however, Rice relies on embodiments of ethnicity and racial specificity in her management of gay male desire (a major factor in her popularity). The complexity of the relationships that shift and multiply between gender, desire, race, sexuality and otherness is figured most promisingly in Lestat’s re-entry into the embodied human species via body switching.

In the case of Lestat’s body-switching, Rice represents what a “becoming-man” would look like from the perspective of a male vampire, who had previously become-other (from the position of man to the “line of flight” of the vampire). In so doing, one wonders whether a line of flight has been produced or simply an introduction of deviance into the program of sameness that is white male masculinity. By virtue of the vampire’s inversion of gendered norms (focus away from the generative organicity of sex and on the becoming-surface of the skin and the becoming-molecular of the blood), it is possible to read the figure of the white, straight male queerly.

One of the main reasons that queer works well as a term in sexuality and gender studies is that it flags an indeterminacy not possible in identifiers like gay or bisexual. As such, it contributes a critique of identity that explains precisely what it is I want the gothic to be able to do. Lestat bends gender. It is not so much that his effete but robust masculinity is without precedent in dandified figures of eras past; rather, his bending of gender is linked to his embodiment as a vampire-become, a formerly human being whose current ontology is marked by heightened senses, an impermeable skin (the play of surfaces in the constitution of the vampire body is key here), and a marked redundancy in genital pleasure or organicity of any kind. Concomitant with the bending or hybridity of gender is a hybridity of gothic trope: Lestat is neither hero nor villain but both. Rice elevates the predatory, lascivious gothic villain to the status of romantic hero. Lestat is, in a sense, wildly attractive in his “brat prince” persona: a perfectly desirable, heroic gothic villain. Although aspects of his narrative tend toward a majoritarian recuperation of maleness and linearity, it is in a delicious piece of gothic comedy that Rice’s minoritarian potential is momentarily actualized. The comic gothic, the funny gothic, or the camp gothic: these do not name phenomena that should be ignored in a serious inquiry into gothic effects. Gothicization includes the playful, humorous subversion and transgression of norms that queering (in its mobile, fluid sense) performs. Rice’s vampires are “bodies without organs” (Deleuze and Guattari, Thousand Plateaus, 124), and Lestat’s movement back into a body with organs defamiliarizes the structuring principle of organicity against which his vampire body (and by extension, all bodies-without-organs) has previously defined itself.

The scene in question occurs in Tale of the Body Thief, the fourth novel in Rice’s series. In the first novel, Interview with the Vampire, narrator Louis tells the young reporter all about Lestat’s excesses and amorality; the second novel, The Vampire Lestat, is a response to the first from the perspective of Lestat. Both of these texts portray a Lestat whose body is whole, armored by its new vampiric powers, its human functions completely unimportant or changed entirely into vampiric versions of desire and economies of fluids. Queen of the Damned is the third book, and it offers a response to the first two from multiple narrative perspectives, telling the tale of the ancient female vampire Akasha. It is in the fourth book’s supernatural premise, however, that the possibilities for a troubling of the vampire-human opposition are explored.

Tale of the Body Thief involves a being who can switch bodies with other beings. Some of the most potent homoeroticism of Rice’s vampire universe occurs because of this premise: it allows David Talbot of the Talamasca, a kind of supernatural monitoring agency, to lust after and finally become a younger man. The integrity of the vampire body and its otherness, however, taken as given in previous novels, is here inverted by way of the body thief’s exchange with Lestat himself. In effect, Lestat’s re-turning to a human body reverses the strangeness of vampirism, making masculinity and male bodies strange in his discomfort and revulsion.

Lestat loves his vampire body, with its preternatural senses (a phrase so oft-repeated in Rice that it is hard to imagine where to begin to cite it) and superior strength. The likelihood that he will exchange it for a human body is therefore slim, but the premise works because of a well-established tendency on Lestat’s part to do precisely the bratty thing, to do that which he absolutely should know better than to do. His curiosity combines with the romanticisation of his formerly human self to make the decision for him. When he successfully leaves his vampire body and squeezes into the body occupied by the body thief, who then enters Lestat’s vampire body, he is at a loss about how to operate it. There is an obvious disjunction here between the mind or soul and the body, raising philosophical, ontological questions typical of the Ricean genre. What is atypical is the manner in which the male, human body is no longer taken for granted as a norm.

In terms of the vampire’s experience of the fleshly body, Lestat sounds almost transsexual in his description of being “trapped in this strange body” (Tale of the Body Thief 166): a vampire trapped in a man’s body suggests, by analogy with the familiar trope of “a woman trapped in a man’s body,” a feminization of the vampire. This makes sense in that the becoming-venal of vampire desire can be seen as a de-phallicization of masculinity in a different economy of fluids (penetrating teeth notwithstanding). The split between mind and body is invoked as soon as Lestat realizes he has been successful in switching:

Slowly I climbed to my feet, at once aware of the increase in height and feeling very top-heavy and unsteady [...]. Panic seized me, but I managed to grab hold of the moist wood with these large trembling fingers, and keep myself from going down the steps. Again I strained to see through the darkness, and couldnt make out anything clearly at all.

167

In effect, the switch has also switched Lestat from the position of heroic gothic villain to confined gothic victim. He can no longer see clearly, control his environment, or navigate gravity. Panicked now and later, when the body thief predictably fails to return at the appointed hour, Lestat here inhabits an anxious body, a body that is inadequate because mortal. Nearly dying because he cannot negotiate the physicality of the very strange human body he is in, Lestat is nursed back to health by a nun, providing Rice with the opportunity to represent both the religio-philosophical debates she often has Lestat perform and the soft-porn erotic sensibility for which she is also known.

The comedy, however, that troubles majoritarian human gender, lies in Lestat’s fascinated yet repelled sense of his newly rediscovered organicity: unlike in his vampire body, he has a bladder and a penis through which it desperately wants to be voided.

I had to piss, I simply had to, and I had not done this in over two hundred years.

I unzipped these modern pants, and removed my organ, which immediately astonished me by its limpness and size. The size was fine, of course. Who doesnt want these organs to be large? And it was circumcised, which was a nice touch. But this limpness, it felt remarkably repulsive to me, and I didnt want to touch the thing. I had to remind myself, this organ happens to be mine. Jolly!

And what about the smell coming from it, and the smell rising from the hair around it? Ah, that’s yours too, baby! Now make it work.

I closed my eyes, exerted pressure very inexactly and perhaps too forcefully, and a great arc of stinking urine shot out of the thing, missing the toilet bowl altogether and splashing on the white seat.

171

For several more paragraphs Lestat expresses his nausea and revulsion at all aspects of urination, including the flaccidity of the penis, the smell of the urine, the inability of soap to make the hands feel clean, and the wet spot on the front of his pants afterward. Like countless self-affirmation books and advice manuals for young women and men, Lestat tries to remind himself that this is all a normal human function and nothing to become obsessed about (173). Most nauseating of all, however, is his anticipation of excrement upon eating, which makes him, therefore, not want to eat (172). This scene captures a scatological, carnivalesque humor that makes strange the most basic human bodily functions and marks their absurdity as particularly male. As such it participates in, or even materializes, a rhizome that can be followed back and forth through the texts whenever vampire bodies are mentioned in order to point out the absurdity of masculinity that may in fact be there. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of discourses on eurocentrism and Anglo-Saxon superiority. Although Rice is keenly aware that Lestat is playing with his identity when he claims to be a “perfect imitation” (Memnoch 3) of an attractive-because-white human male, it is in the character of David Talbot that we fail to find a deconstruction of racialized identity that might correspond to the gender trouble outlined above.

More than in any other novel, Tale of the Body Thief portrays the aging David Talbot of the Talamasca group repeatedly as the colonial, British gentleman hunter with no more colonies in which to hunt. His prey, initially a young Brazilian man, is instead eroticized—because, no less, of Brazilian specificity. Whereas Lestat’s vampire kin are of a kind because of their acquired traits that erase specific ethnicities, human British gentlemen and Brazilian youth seem to maintain ineradicable differences: “The people in Brazil are like no people Ive ever seen,” says Talbot (65), musing that their great beauty might be “the blending of Portuguese and African, and then toss in the Indian blood” (65). These molar differences, or at least their type, however, are combined at the molecular level when David Talbot successfully hybridizes his British, cultured self with a youthful, exoticized dark body.

David Talbot is among the privileged classes in England. With the resources to have “restored from his own pocket” the quaint village with “sixteenth-century buildings” near his “ancestral manor” (40), Talbot wants for nothing material. Lestat observes him sitting in his archetypal British library, full of leather and the warmth of fire and single-malt scotch. What renders the manor house “unusual,” though, are the “relics of a life lived in another clime” (42). The relics evince an Orientalism mixed with a New World otherness that prefigures the transformation to take place later in the novel; Lestat inventories them thus:

The mounted head of a spotted leopard was perched above the glowing fireplace. And the great black head of a buffalo was fixed to the far right wall. There were many small Hindu statues of bronze here and there on shelves and on tables. Small jewel-like Indian rugs lay on the brown carpet, before hearth and doorway and windows.

And the long flaming skin of his Bengal tiger lay sprawled in the very center of the room, its head carefully preserved [...].

42

Perfectly at home in his mansion, David is and has always been the perfect English gentleman traveler. His narration of his trip to Brazil in his younger days satisfies Rice’s niche market (gay male readers for whom the British gentleman’s “world tour” may resonate as an “open secret” trope):

I was so eager for it, for the sheer alien quality of it! That’s what sends us Englishmen into the tropics. We have to get away from all this propriety, this tradition—and immerse ourselves in some seemingly savage culture which we can never tame or really understand. [... T]he city itself surpassed all expectations [...]. Yet it was nothing as entrancing as the people.

65

Readers attuned to formations of identity that privilege mind over body, reason over passion, will recognize this pedestalization of the Brazilian people for a reification of the privilege that led to it: Talbot goes so far as to describe bossa nova music as the language of the Brazilian people, and it is this with which one falls in love, in essence denying the people a voice of their own—music and magic are the opposite of the British master tongue and rational study (represented nicely in the Talamasca and its archives). Talbot’s attempt to “go Brazilian” by learning the Candomble magic ultimately fail, just as his initial association with the Talamasca failed to yield the full picture of vampirism that he so craved. Remarkably, it is with an image of penetration that Talbot describes this inability to find full answers: “I only penetrated so far” (67). His metaphor for knowledge is both sexualized and grounded in geography, not unlike Lestat’s own sense of the “savage garden” throughout the chronicles and its situated nature in Tale of the Body Thief’s actual jungle. Images of penetration and concealment are a mainstay of Rice’s vampire universe; throughout, the bite and the “dark gift” are eroticized, and in an analogy to an incest taboo, a vampire “parent’s” mind is concealed from his or her “children” and vice versa. This particular concealment is in fact doubled in Tale of the Body Thief: not only can David and Lestat not read each other’s thoughts any longer after the former is turned by the latter, but Lestat finds in Talbot’s new body another kind of inscrutability.

As Lestat admires Talbot’s comfort in the new body in which he was never able to get comfortable—he felt “monstrous” in the young, fit body (220)—the usual mode of impenetrability between vampire “offspring” and “parents” is replaced by an inscrutability based on race: “The dark tone of his skin concealed too much” (427). Not purely bestial, the brown-skinned body is saved by the supplement of British propriety, wisdom and dignity here and elsewhere: “He crossed his legs and fell into an easy posture of relaxation, but with David’s dignity intact” (427).

The pronominal, referential difficulties here are difficulties of identity. It is as though the signifier “David” still refers for Lestat to the aging, very British homosexual hunter, and the he refers to the body in which David has lodged himself. Finally David penetrates the secrets of the young, exotic male body fully, at the same time as he penetrates the secrets of vampirism that he never could attain (“only penetrated so far” 67). Yet the “he” ultimately refers to a new formation of identity: not the old David grafted onto the young male body whose will was removed by drugs and/or by the original Raglan James (effectively of course this body has been doubly done in by two members of the Talamasca and also by two vampires, Lestat and then David as a vampire-become)—not even the old David filling the empty shell of a body and investing the Other with meaning. Rather, David and he slip into one being through vampiric rape, producing an Other that rather than being strictly Other is a new way of organizing desire, a new way of organizing a Deleuze and Guattarian “Body Without Organs.” [2] Deleuze and Guattari, in Thousand Plateaus, speak of otherness as degrees of deviance from a norm (178). This is what makes David so commodious for Rice: he can become-other without losing that which makes him cerebrally attractive. He becomes a bit deviant, but not fully other. Note how he appears to Pandora in her eponymous novel: first we read, “And so it was David the Reborn, David with the high-gloss India beauty, and raw well-nourished strength of British lineage [...]” (9); then, “There was your same boldness and decorum. And then the warmest smile from you, a smile in which I think your former physiology must have dominated because you looked far too wise for one so young and strong of build” (20). He becomes part of the pandemonium, or the pantheon, depending on your point of view: a tapestry approach to racial harmony that in effect conceals the rapacious trajectory of this particular line of flight—a deterritorialization of vampire embodiment and British embodiment to be sure, but a reterritorialization on the colonized body of India as well.

The trope that differentiates most clearly the difference between what I would assess as a critical reading of gender and an uncritical reading of race is that of colonization as rape. David’s need to become-other is fixed around several nodal points: other as magical, other as young, other as exotic and racialized. In fact, his desire to become-other is expressed as a desire that is not fully self-present, that requires rape by the vampire after consciously switching bodies. The desire is fulfilled only after this second, forced stage, and it reads suspiciously like a cipher for British colonization of the India that provided the young male body’s mother. Note David’s conversation with Lestat, which is worth reproducing in an extended form here. Lestat clearly wishes to hear that David detests him for making him a vampire, insistently asking “How can you not hate me?” (427). David replies,

“Id be making the same mistake you made if I hated you” he said, eyebrows raised. “Dont you see what youve done? Youve given me the gift, but you spared me the capitulation. Youve brought me over with all your skill and all your strength, but you didnt require of me the moral defeat. You took the decision from me, and gave me what I could not help but want.”

427

Talbot, in seeking to penetrate secrets, and in seeking to become the raped and feminized male body of India, holds a particularly dubious status in Rice’s liberal, assimilative vampire universe. Where Lestat troubles gender more obviously here than in any other novel, Talbot reifies (through embodiment) a kind of “race trouble” that intersects sexuality, gender, colonization and knowledge at the crossroads of desire. Vampires may no longer be characterized by pallor and alabaster whiteness, but it is not necessarily positive and liberatory that “brown is beautiful” in Tale of the Body Thief. David Talbot’s switch into a young male body, as well as his own becoming-other and becoming-vampire thereafter, is an instance of both general and specific racialized embodiment. Lestat’s experience of the human flesh is different from Talbot’s and in fact does more to constitute identity as gender and sexuality than as race. Talbot’s assimilation into Lestat’s identity formation (erasing ethnicity by way of becoming an other) still produces a specificity, one that privileges dark, exotic youth.

Where Tale of the Body Thief succeeds in the troubling of male normativity, it fails to activate the same level of ironic becoming-other for the ethno-racial identities about which Rice consistently seeks to speak progressively. David Talbot’s new “figure” (face in French, physique in English; here I mean to enact both senses) is figured (metaphorized) as a successful hybrid of British intellectual and class superiority with the bodily attraction of the exoticized Other. Inadvertently perhaps, given her attention to urban melting-pots such as New Orleans and Miami and her focus on the commonalities between faiths and peoples, Rice reifies in Talbot the final colonization of occident over orient: his wisdom, intellect, and propriety rushes in to fill the empty cipher that is the desired body of (in this instance) India. The body, the “it” into which British robustness, intelligence, and “well-nourished” organicity is poured, becomes the exotic companion, sidekick, or foil to add to the mix of characters in the novel series in ways that an aging, white, gentleman scholar would not have done. David Talbot, ultimately, thus becomes the popular literary equivalent of the difference-erasing “United Colors of Benetton” advertising campaign.

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