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  • "A Presage of Horror!": Cacotopia, the Paris Commune, and Bram Stoker's Dracula
  • Eric D. Smith (bio)

Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

—Friedrich Engels, 18911

The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters.

—Attributed to Antonio Gramsci2

Elaborating Nina Auerbach's marvelous description of the novel as a "compendium of fin-de-siècle phobias,"3 criticism of the last two decades has sought to address lacunae in Dracula's long critical tradition by complicating the conventional doxa of psychosexual analyses and grounding the novel's social anxieties in material history. Perhaps the most conspicuous omission in previous readings of the novel, as many of these scholars have observed, is a consideration of its preoccupation with class conflict at the turn of the century. This essay builds upon the foundational work of recent material historicist readings like those of Laura Sagolla Croley, Eric Kwan-Wai Yu, Stephen Arata, Carol Senf, and Franco Moretti4 by suggesting that one as yet unacknowledged source of the novel's deep social distress is the 1871 Paris Commune, the unsettling political possibilities of which were still haunting the English cultural imaginary at the turn of the century in the form of what Matthew Beaumont names the cacotopian novel. [End Page 71]

According to Beaumont, the formation of the cacotopian literary subgenre in England functions as the formal "missing link" between the brief reemergence of the narrative utopia in the 1870s and the dramatic antiutopian turn of the early twentieth century. The reformist political programs of the 1860s, motivated by a strategically conservative bourgeois utopianism, designed both to preempt and to contain the coalescent revolutionary energies of the era, realized their ultimate structural and practical limits in the brief existence of the Commune as its devastating impact was registered throughout Europe. Narrative accounts (as well as photographic images5) of the revolution and its bloody denouement, appropriated by English historians, were absorbed rapidly and deeply into Victorian popular culture. In this way, Victorian culture "superimposed the red spectre of communism on the substance of the Commune, employing the rhetoric of fantasy both to unleash and to tame the horrors imputed to the Parisian working class."6 Thus the emergence of the cacotopia, which imagines specifically the "catastrophic" future of proletarian political ascendancy, exploits the historical immediacy of the Commune and the social unease it occasions to shore up a beleaguered bourgeois hegemony. I contend here that Bram Stoker's Dracula, a text written in the waning years of the literary cacotopia's short life, is both clearly informed by this generic trend and in complex dialogue with it.

The most obvious indication of a generic kinship between Dracula and the cacotopian novel is the wealth of imagery—including the central image of the vampire itself—drawn directly from popular representations of the Paris Commune in both historical and fictional accounts. Beaumont suggests that the abiding Victorian fear of the incomprehensible rise of the proletariat is often "imaged as a natural or infernal force over which supposedly rational human agents, like the state, have no control."7 The cultural/political mobilization of this imagery is heavily indebted to late-nineteenth-century discussions and descriptions of the Commune. While volcanic or chthonic images are the most common forms of this imaginatively naturalized proletariat, "miasmic imagery," typically in the form of fog or other telluric effluvia, is closely related.8 A work like William D. Hay's Doom of the Great City (1880) offers a classic cacotopian vision of the destruction of London by an asphyxiating bank of fog that radiates, not surprisingly, from the city's impoverished and presumably morally degenerate East End.9

Stoker thus operates within a firmly established symbolic economy when he introduces one of several innovative departures from the traditional lore of the European vampire: Dracula's unique ability to transform into vapor. The log kept by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-0342
Print ISSN
0011-1589
Pages
pp. 71-90
Launched on MUSE
2010-12-30
Open Access
No
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