Undead White Males
A Review of 'Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians and the Pursuit of Immortality'
By: Lee Thomas|Published: August 10, 2010 3:47 PM
Being a professor of philosophy employed at a college can be a problem: many of your students may think your material is boring. And they might just have a point—philosophy deals with topics discussed by Western white males who died hundreds or thousands of years ago. How can those topics possibly have any relevance to today's hip, multicultural world, and the students who live within it?
Riding to your rescue comes the “Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series.” Its aim is to show that philosophical topics arise all the time in today's world, and are in fact the main reason that pop culture is interesting. The thesis is that philosophical issues are what put the drama in dramatic entertainment; without a love of wisdom, life would be far less entertaining.
A quick perusal of the “and Philosophy” titles—including South Park, Metallica, 24, Lost, Batman, X-Men, Terminator—shows a bias towards topics of interest primarily to young men. So it's about time the series published something for young women, too—hence Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians and the Pursuit of Immortality.
Like all the other books in the series, Twilight and Philosophy is a compilation of short articles written by various authors, strung together for continuity. It contains 18 articles of about 10 to 15 pages each, written by 20 authors, and cleverly arranged into four parts named for the four novels in the Twilight series. As with the rest of the Blackwell books, this one assumes you've not only read all the novels in detail and remember all the significant scenes in each, but that you've also seen the movies and spend a lot of time remembering your favorite parts with relish. This is philosophy written for diehard fans, not for anyone who got partway through the first novel and gave up.
The unstated point of the Blackwell series is to drive readers into college philosophy classes they might otherwise avoid. In that (ahem) vein, the very first essay takes up the vampire Edward's repressed desire to “feast” on the human girl Bella and her somewhat repressed desire to have sex with him, and shows that Socrates had all this confusion over food, sex and desire worked out 2,500 years ago. Of course, “worked out” doesn't mean that the dramatic tension (“Just bite her, already!”) is any less; none of the authors wants to alienate the audience of fanboys and fangirls. So the essay ends with a somewhat contradictory note by saying that Socrates might be right, but the moral life he describes (where erotic love is under control of reason, just as Edward reasons his way out of biting Bella immediately) is boring.
That contradiction exposes a major weakness in not only the essays in this one book, but all the essays in the Blackwell series. In the Terminator and Philosophy book, one essayist makes the point that philosophy denies that there is any authority other than man-made wisdom. Therefore, a philosopher rejects an argument based on the Torah, the Christian Bible, the Qur'an, or the Book of Mormon as the final word on a subject. All of philosophy is therefore a process of judging whether Person A or Person B had the stronger argument. But the problem with denying authority is that your conclusions are never authoritative; anyone looking for final, concrete answers is in the wrong university department.
As with other Blackwell books, Twilight and Philosophy attempts to cover all the academic divisions of philosophical thought, including ethics, aesthetics, logic, epistemology, and metaphysics. One chapter discusses the meaning of life, what it could be for the undead, and why Bella's choice to become an immortal 19 year old could be right (as Bella believes) or wrong (as Edward believes). Another essay attempts to determine if a vampire can be considered a person, with all the rights that attach to personhood. A third considers the complications of being able to read someone else's thoughts, with the implications for privacy. Later chapters are unafraid to delve into such unfamiliar topics as “semiotics” (the notion that everything can be categorized by three properties) and ontology (what do space and time mean, to someone who can travel great distances with incredible speed and has no fear of death).
In all cases, names like Kant, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Sartre appear, attempting to prove to the reader that those apparently boring Intro to Phil. courses might actually be quite interesting. One chapter even sets out to prove how life is better without religion, echoing Satan's temptation in Genesis 3:5 (“you will be like God”) without actually quoting it.
Even though it achieves its goal of making enrolling in a philosophy class look attractive, Twilight and Philosophy is at its best when it departs from the Blackwell formula. Most of Part 3 is devoted to “feminist philosophy,” which explicitly rejects the conclusions (inconclusive as they are) that were founded on Plato and his ilk, and attempts to bring a modern woman's perspective to the fore. That sets up a fascinating conflict, since Bella is hardly a feminist icon, preferring to support her father domestically and look down upon her mother's “liberated” lifestyle, and especially in seeking to be subjugated to Edward and think primarily about sex—worse, heterosexual sex!!—instead of about worldly accomplishments. The first chapter in Part 3 veers toward the political by criticizing Sarah Palin as the living archetype of all that is wrong with Bella as a fictional character. Other chapters ask if Bella and Edward's relationship isn't actually idealizing womanhood from a time nearer to Edward's still-human youth, before suffrage and other reforms. The most interesting chapter, though, drops the philosophical motif entirely and determines that Twilight actually promotes violence against women, coming to an actual authoritative answer.
One other interesting chapter that departs from the Blackwell formula is the one that delves into the correlations and contradictions between the Twilight series and Mormonism. Apparently much of the morality of the Twilight series comes straight from a booklet given to new students at Brigham Young University. Due to that, it's possible to see Stephenie Meyer using the Twilight series to explore just how far one can go in erotic relationships without actually breaking any LDS rules or violating any unwritten expectations of family or church.
The authors do miss some seemingly obvious topics. One that stands out: how can you call someone “immortal” when they can die if they don't consume enough blood (whether human or animal)? Doesn't “immortal” mean “cannot die,” unconditionally? Another missed topic: why can humans become vampires or werewolves, but it's not possible to reverse that and make a vampire or werewolf into a human? In other words, why does the transformation of human “substance” only work in one direction?
Finally, the notion of the human soul receives a very light treatment. C.S. Lewis wrote: "There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat." It is our souls that make us immortal, but the authors in this volume treat the soul as merely something that makes us human—but talk as if vampires can be humans, too.
As is common in philosophical discussions, the heavier issues are ignored in favor of toying with relatively insubstantial ones, at length, and finally reaching no conclusion whatsoever. This could lead the reader to the conclusion that philosophy professors themselves are rather like Stephenie Meyer's undead, in that creating value for others is as optional for them as it is for Carlisle Cullen (Edward's father figure), and requires similar heroic dedication. Perhaps a class in ethics would help. Oh, wait. . . .
The authors of Twilight and Philosophy are knowledgeable about both the Twilight series and about their (mostly) philosophical topics. That makes the book an interesting read, but it is the departures that make the book worthwhile. It is particularly so if the reader keeps in mind the idea of philosophy as the absence of an authority other than fallible human arguments . . . and then reads the book to see where the authors write with authoritative voices.
Lee Thomas is a regular commenter at The Point.
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