Twilight or the Return of the Undead

Wolfgang Frühwald

The undead are coming. New vampire novels are climbing the bestseller lists every day. The classics of world literature are undergoing bizarre transformations with cannibalistic monsters and zombies. The leading characters of a new TV series just happen to be undead heartthrobs, while zombie films are reviewed at length in the feature pages of the most important newspapers. Why the sudden revaluation of what used to be a rather marginal area of cultural production? We at the Federal Cultural Foundation contend that this trend might have something to do with the transformation and expansion of our concept of life. Thanks to recent advances in biotechnology, the age-old dream of conquering sickness, pain, aging and death seems to be just within our reach. Along with these medical achievements, we encounter corresponding nightmares of an existence in which one can neither truly live nor die. The Federal Cultural Foundation has initiated a theme-based festival in spring 2011 at which representatives from the scientific, medical, ethical and artistic fields will discuss this development. In the following essay, Wolfgang Frühwald offers a cultural scientific perspective to highlight the current and potential impact of the bio-technologization of life which may be directly connected to the current onslaught of undead characters in film, literature and pop culture.


by Wolfgang Frühwald


The American Twilight Saga

The Twilight: New Moon Alice Cullen T-Shirt for girls, which sells for 19.90 euros on the Internet, is a bit smaller than conventional sizes according to its description. Which means one has to be careful to order the right size. Size XL is equivalent to a size 40, which is certainly roomy enough for most girls aged 14 or 16. After all, teenage girls are the target audience of the internationally successful four-part vampire series by Stephenie Meyer, whose first book Twilight appeared in 2005 and whose first two books (Twilight and New Moon) were worldwide blockbusters. They have already generated profits ten times higher than their production costs and, like the hysteria that followed Harry Potter, have taken millions of fans by storm in numerous countries around the world. It makes Count Dracula, the prototypical vampire of literature, pale in comparison (pun intended). The feature pages are full of theories as to the cause of the sudden outbreak of vampire fever which has made Stephenie Meyer’s tetralogy one of the best-selling book series of all times and the films major blockbusters. So far Meyer has sold millions of copies of her books which, though sanguineous in subject matter, are rather anaemic in constitution. On 31 December 2009 the SZ-Magazin printed an interview with a 16-year-old school girl, chosen from the Twilight fan-page, who had seen New Moon eight times already – and seven times just in the first week of its debut. The young woman was able to clearly explain why she had read these teenage books several times over and invited these fictional characters into her life – Edward, the friendly vampire who undyingly falls in love (literally) with Bella, the female protagonist in Meyer’s first four books, is the heartthrob of young girls everywhere. There is something ‘mysterious’ about him that goes beyond the secret of awakening sexuality and thus, beyond the story in the books and films of the Twilight saga. His character most prominently embodies the strict Mormon ethics which pervade these books. Edward not only protects his beloved Bella from the dangers around her, but also shields her from the blood thirst of his family and friends, and with iron discipline, from his own instincts, from himself and from herself.

Granted, Edward may be the idol of many young girls’ dreams. In this age of sexual permissiveness, he clearly represents the “Other” – a considerate, loving and gentle young man. In an age where intimacy is exposed so garishly in public, he represents the mysterious and quiet agreement of love. Where ads and fashion aggressively sexualize daily life, he offers a shy, but deeper friendship. And where chat rooms and face books have organized and commercialized social life, Edward offers girls togetherness, shielded from the world and even their own parents. In October 2009, users of the cinema portal Moviepilot picked the film kiss shared by Robert Pattinson (Edward) and Kristen Stewart (Bella) in Twilight as the Best Kiss of Film History, even surpassing the kiss between Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind. There is, however, a certain irony in such surveys, as the film kiss in Walt Disney’s animated film Lady and the Tramp placed at number five on the best kiss list.

Edward is 17 years old, and has been “for a while” – as he admits in the film. Bella is 16 at the beginning of the series. Edward is a vampire, which makes him a creature of the twilight, lingering on the threshold of the day and night, and as in life, at the threshold of awakening sexuality. Edward is a person in whom puberty has been halted and the desire to experience true love endures. Edward and Bella’s story is one that anchors the love of Romeo and Juliet in the fantasy world of modern-day teenagers. According to a review in the magazine Freundin in November 2009, the “Twilight virus” is extremely contagious. It is” transmitted by the undead and [causes] teenagers to lose their mind.” Like vampirism itself, Tobias Kniebel (in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 29 November 2009) claimed that the “current fan hysteria is a chain reaction [that is] transmitted contagiously; the film bite by the new sex god Edward might not be capable of infecting his on-screen love that is damned to chastity, but for female viewers, this certainly does not apply.”


The reverse side of rationalistic culture

The newest brand of American vampires inhabits the rainy town of Forks, Washington – now a pilgrimage site for fan tourists. Yet the hometown of the Cullen vampire family is actually situated on the romanticized reverse side of rationalistic culture which always accompanies periods of transition of modernization. The witch craze that devastated Europe, in particular girls and women who believed in this deadly superstition, arose in early modern times at the heels of the humanistic era and in the shadow of the development of modern scientific understanding and its mechanistic world views. The spirits, golems, undead, automated creatures and eccentric seers of Dark Romanticism originated in the Napoleonic age at the threshold of the Industrial Revolution, on the reverse side of technical rationality, enveloped in the steam and noise of the Age of Machines. In the works by Clemens Brentano, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Joseph von Eichendorff, Justinus Kerner and many others, they are an expression of the 18th-century modernization of typical “acceleration of changing experience” (R. Koselleck). They capture the turbulence of human experience which fell to the wayside in the latest holistic world views. And since then, the image of the human being can only be pieced together into a surreal, kaleidoscopic whole, and the only ones capable of understanding the fragmented world are seers and magicians (and their heirs in science fiction and fantasy literature). In the past fifty years, the reverse side of rationalistic culture has revived the spectres and spooks from the crater left behind by the explosion of recent experience and knowledge. These creatures haven’t changed very much and are still an expression of a general feeling of change. However, they are much closer to reality today, as scientific imagination has surpassed artistic vision by leaps and bounds. Fantasy thrillers like the Twilight series offer but a vague impression of the true potential of biotechnological and medical methods that are capable of changing the world and human race.

The Twilight vampires (particularly those in the Cullen family) are unlike the sinister creatures of past centuries in that they are good-natured and possess self-control that is (seemingly) humanlike. They restrain from biting their beloved girlfriends so that they may remain human, unless it becomes absolutely necessary to protect them from imminent death (which occurs in the final book of the series). The vampires in the Cullen family are – as they put it ironically – “vegetarians” because they only feed on animal blood and refrain from biting the necks of innocent people. This makes them politically correct vampires, for they wish to accept humanity as equal to their undead existence. They constitute a new genre of vampires at the height of a wave of vampire films, which Tobias Kniebe estimates at around 3,000. Their appearance also suggests a turning point. These fantastic undead creatures have now become so much like us, they no longer evoke repulsion and fear, but lust and desire. “While they used to embody the most dissimilar Other (including that within ourselves) which had to be combated, they are now often regarded as a strange or future Other, in whose rights one can understand and respect them.” (A. Klose). In other words, in the literary and cinematic undead of today, we no longer encounter what sober rationalistic culture conceals, i.e. their instinctual and threatening characteristics, the sub- and unconscious aspects of their overpowering form, but rather a sense that the prophesized and the obviously desired and planned creation of the perfect human is now within our reach, i.e. technically feasible. If this is truly the case, we may be at the brink of surrendering the human image we’ve known for thousands of years, an image like no other in the historic transformation of images of our world and human beings. This is not a mere change of terminology or consciousness (as George Steiner claims), but rather a mutation. The undead of today and their widespread success is an indication that we’ve gradually become accustomed to the idea of genetically altered beings, created through the oceanic process of science, beings which only look like us in popular literature and cinema (and not as science envisions them).


In the twilight of Romanticism

At the turn of the 19th century, when modernity was “spurred and saddled” so to speak, artistic imagination was far superior to that of science. As conveyed by the philosophy of the brothers Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, the classical-romantic language served as fertile ground to German scientific language of the 19th century. An example of this development is evident in the path that led thinkers from sunsets, nights, rising moons and twilights in Romantic painting, literature and music to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and his school of depth psychology. The moonlit nights captured by the painter Caspar David Friedrich and his friend, the doctor Carl Gustav Carus, the depictions of nightmares by Johann Heinrich Füssli, the imaginary creatures and monsters, the doppelgänger and spirits in Romantic literature are all testimony to the tremendous impressions that arose in poetic imagination with the discovery of the subconscious and unconscious world of the human mind. It was as if the sphere of human experience had expanded beyond measure. The experiments with the “man of depth”, the poetic configurations of powerful mental agitation and human instincts led thinkers to trespass into long-respected taboo zones and all too frequently violated the bounds of human dignity. For example, Clemens Brentano, whose German poetry arguably possesses the richest sound quality, was convinced that the hand of Anna Katharina Emmerick, a stigmatized seer, whose visions he demanded to hear and record for years, was able to differentiate between the holy and the profane even well after her demise. He suborned Luise Hensel, the pastor’s daughter in Linum, to assist a gravedigger, whom he bribed to dig up the remains of Anna Katharina Emmerick, cut off her hand and give it to him. But when Luise Hensel gazed at the exhumed corpse whose face was already covered with mould, her disgust was so great she refused to mutilate the body and had it buried immediately. The human experiments of the Romantic period primarily took place in the imagination.

The scientific discovery of the nocturnal side of human nature, the subconscious and unconscious influence on our lives, is unthinkable without its romantic precursors. On our path from art to science, from poetry to experimental psychology, psychotherapy and psychiatry, we encounter the undead, the vampires and driven creatures as shadowy figures of what Novalis called the Gemüt, the inner world in its entirety. They are all configurations “of the monstrous wealth of unconscious feats of the brain, of which the person in question is quite unable to gain introspection” (M. Jung). With popular literary and cinematic works in mind, such as the Twilight Saga, it is not surprising that, looking back, many of these stories are about boys and girls at the threshold of adulthood (Heinrich von Ofterdingen by Novalis, with his friend Ludwig Tieck, Florio in Joseph von Eichendorff’s story The Marble Statue, etc.), about wet dreams and the challenges facing young love under the spell of awakening sexuality. What is surprising, however, is how modern pop culture reflects developments which took place at the end of the 18th century when elements of traditional folk literature entered high literature, and now appear to be returning to their roots. Clemens Brentano felt the consuming desire of the undead within himself. He banished the sorrowful love of the abandoned woman into the figure of the Lorelei, who brings doom to men. Heinrich Heine was the first to re-cast Eichendorff’s witch, who represented man’s fear of overpowering female love, into a mythos of nature. Brentano regarded his unquenchable, restless erotic desire, which continued late in life, as a burden and therefore described his passion as a walking corpse at which even death shudders:


 “Death took flight from the desert

And shuddered at my greeting

And fled as I called to him

That someone here must die

To me he shrieked: First live!


For dying is to gain peace

That’s why you can neither live nor die

Your thirst is everlasting

Your legacy, I do not wish to inherit

So he shrieked, and hurried away from me.”


“Der Tod flog auf aus der Wüste,

Und schauderte, da ich ihn grüßte,

Und floh, da rief ich ihm zu,

Dass einer hier sterben müsste,

Er schrie mir: Erst lebe du!

Denn sterben heißt Ruhe erwerben

Drum kannst du nicht leben nicht sterben

Der Durst ist unendlich in dir,

Dein Erbteil, das will ich nicht erben

So schrie er, und eilte von mir.“


The moment in which the seductive Venuses of poetic imagination, their shadowy figurations of betrayal, jealousy and treachery combine with the modern fear of technology, we not only recognize E.T.A. Hoffmann’s automatons which seem so alive, but also the sophisticated living automata by the French mechanical engineer Jacques de Vaucanson, created in the middle of the 18th century. For example, his flute player and the quacking, eating and drinking mechanical duck, which actually digests everything it consumes and discharge it as stinking waste. Hans Magnus Enzensberger used this image in 2002 as an example of a useless, “stinking” manmade advance. Goethe’s homunculus in Faust, the artificially created man, is a product of a dull mind and demonically lecherous curiosity, a product of Wagner and Mephisto, who both stray from the path of nature to supplant the night of love with a laboratory (conception in a glass, in vitro). Pursuing this line of thought, Goethe outlined his vision of the self-thinking computer which would replace the living man “in the future”: 


“A great resolution may seem brilliant at first,

Yet we want to smile at the coincidence in the future

And so a brain which thinks so splendidly

Shall produce a thinker in the future.”


„Ein großer Vorsatz scheint im Anfang toll,

doch wollen wir des Zufalls künftig lachen,

und so ein Hirn, das trefflich denken soll,

wird künftig auch ein Denker machen.“



With the exception of their political correctness, the creatures of twilight which populate Stephenie Meyer’s books have much in common with older android images of fear, the race of the homunculi, automatons, golems, vampires and Frankensteins. They do, however, differ from today’s scientifically spawned, undead figures of fear. Gundolf S. Freyermuth describes these contemporary “trans- or post-human” beings of the future – whether they be visions or bogeymen – as entities purely comprised of data. They embody the “escape of the spirit from the prison of the mortal body.” And consequently, they are the expression of a final human “decentration”, by which we can envision the application of the already highly advanced, biotechnical alteration of genotype to the human phenotype. According to Jürgen Habermas, such decentration processes, or “processes of change in modernity” as described by Sigmund Freud, would be the Copernican revolution which removed the Earth from the centre of the galaxy, the Darwinian revolution, which banished humans from the pinnacle of creation and shackled them to animal ancestors, and the Freudian revolution which rehabilitated base instincts and anchored human feelings of the sublime to the subconscious and unconscious. And now we may presume that we are at the threshold of a final decentration, a biotechnologically produced shift away from the human body. This shift, however, entails the reduction of humans to the content of their brains. It will be “uploaded as digital memory [...] which will lead to new forms of existence [...]. One starts with the performance of information processing systems, expands them exponentially and identifies the whole with an unparalleled optimization of the human being” (J. Mittelstraß).  

The ancient dream of eternal youth is not about the survival of the human species, but rather one of individual immortality and a fountain of youth, with which one is blessed with endless beauty and vitality. In today’s “transhumanistic” fantasies, this dream should finally become a reality. But at what price? At the price of creating undead content of consciousness without a physical basis, of creating a world in which humans are neither an image of an omnipotent creator, nor of themselves, but rather an intelligent computer. It is no coincidence that the position of the heart – the catchword of classical-romantic literature – has been taken over by the brain, the holistic – though spatially divided – real and metaphorical central organ of the human body. Before humans can be (at least theoretically) reduced to entities of pure data, there is a phase in which we technically engineer a fountain of youth that tries to cheat death – the only real aspect of life. By this, we refer to the “body bluff” – the attempt to fake eternal youth through medical, surgical and technical methods, for there is no value more important than visibility when it comes to competing for respect, prestige and social recognition. The Graz sociologist Manfred Prisching claims that the “commitment to beauty” (apparent youthfulness) is one of the basic conditions of what he calls the “bluff society” in which deception and successful pretence have become so ubiquitous “that people are no longer ashamed when their bluff is revealed”. The eternally young undead in the popular vampire series are perfectly suited as a projection surface for the (telegenically based) ideology of good looks and the reconstruction of the human body as a facade. The process of decay only begins when the supply of blood is no longer guaranteed. This might actually come true faster than science-fiction writers could ever imagine.  As George Steiner asks, “at which stage, after exchanging his or her vital organs and electro-chemically re-stimulating his or her consciousness, does a man or woman enter what has been called “the bodynet” and become an episode or earlier incarnation in a theoretically endless molecular chain?” Doctors have long been aware that deep-brain stimulation, which has been used, for example, to treat Parkinson’s disease, strongly influences a patient’s awareness of himself and his sense of identity.

At a conference recently held at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research at the University of Bielefeld, participants examined the repercussions of the prevailing medical ethics related to the human image and human dignity. The issues that were examined, the research possibilities that are now ever closer to becoming reality, offer us a terrifying scenario of visions of the future based on their feasibility. Bella Swan can only survive in the Twilight series by relinquishing her humanity. Is this the kind of happy ending we can expect from such a book series? Could this be – though completely unintentional – the future of human progress? Contemporary ethical standards of medical and cosmetic treatment are not so far removed from such fantasies. Practitioners have long been working with facial transplants, hybrids and chimeras, brain prostheses and regular injections of neurotoxins for cosmetic refinement. In participating in this immortality craze, the profession is not even shocked by the idea that transplanting neuronal tissue could produce “beings with humanlike feelings and thought patterns which reside within the body of an animal, or vice versa, humans with implanted animal-like characteristics”. Fairy-tale fantasies, the tales of the Beauty and the Beast, the Frog Prince, the breakdown of elementary forces, stories about suspended animation and the undead are all making a comeback as realistic pieces of a mosaic of our future – a vision which is not only frightening to poets. These, however, were the first to articulate their fears, forming an entire phalanx of esteemed writers (Durs Grünbein, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Adolf Muschg, Michel Houellebecq and many others) to battle these “putschists in the lab”. They defend the fragility of life and the freedom to end one’s life as fundamental human traits. They defend humans as a species, which Houellebecq mourns, for though it has attained the capability of doing away with itself, it should at least live on as a memory in the medical and bio-technical visions of the future. They defend humanity as that “tormented, contradictory, individualistic, quarrelsome species with endless egoism, which at times has been capable of outrageous violence, yet never stopped believing in goodness and love.” Originally titled Les particules élémentaires (1998), Michel Houellebecq dedicated his book “to the human”.

Wolfgang Frühwald

Wolfgang Frühwald, born in 1935, is a Professor Emeritus for New German Literary History at the University of Munich. Between 1992 and 1997, he served two terms as president of the German Research Foundation and, from 1999 to 2007, was president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He is currently working on a book about Goethe’s presence in modernity.

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