With the cinematic end of the vampire series in sight, the Singapore Review of Book‘s intrepid Jeremy Fernando suggests that, despite the general cynicism of its detractors, there are crucial lessons to be learnt from the fifty shades of pale.
Nibble nibble, or…
I will give you a few minutes to calm down. No, I’m not trying to put you in the same cell with Gary Glitter. Nor am I trying to make you the favourite uncle at the next family gathering. And I’m certainly not claiming that Meyers will know literature if it smacks her in the head.
But I will categorically state: Stephenie Meyer’s The Twilight Saga is essential reading.
For, despite her bumbling attempts at writing, Meyers inadvertently offers us a glimpse of the intricacies of human relationships. Everyone knows the basic plot: vampire (Edward Cullen) and werewolf (Jacob Black)—who are naturally sworn enemies—fight over human girl (Isabella ‘Bella’ Swan). At this point, do momentarily set aside your feminist instincts and refrain from lunging at the fact that it is banal to name the female protagonist girl. And whilst you are at it, put aside the fact that this is basically the storyline of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s error was in developing rounded characters: Meyers makes no such mistake. By offering us flat, one-dimensional, caricatures she demonstrates to us the modern condition of communication. Where speech between people does not reveal anything, is not meant to have any meaning, but is instead merely for effect; purely performative. In other words: phatic communication. Which is not to say that it is not important. We know that it is not always a good morning. That uttering it to each other is merely ritualistic. But try not saying it the next time you run into an acquaintance, a co-worker, your boss. The very reality of your social existence depends on that performance.
For, it is not that illusions—appearances—allow us to deceive ourselves, ease our reality. Reality itself is sustained by illusion. This is the lesson of Stalinism. When Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin at what is now known as the Secret Party Congress in 1956, the reactions ranged from congress members collapsing in shock, a few dying of heart attacks later, and a couple more committing suicide. All because Khrushchev called Stalin a mass-murdering dictator; something that everyone already knew. But just because one knows it does not mean it can be said. Ever tried being honest when (s)he asks if (s)he’s put on a few pounds?
Which suggests that to read The Twilight Saga we should not make the error of most detractors (who focus on the weak plot, complete misunderstanding of the vampire myth, the insipid romance, etc.) and instead take the appearances for what they are. And listen closely (in true Edward Cullen mind-reading fashion) for what the protagonists are attempting to do through what they say. This alters the usual notion of meaning from signification (semantics, semiotics) to significance (the effects of words on the discourse, and more importantly on other people). It would, of course, be absurd to divorce significance and signification—but one can foreground one over the other, at least momentarily.
And this leads us to the core of the series: in particular, the much-maligned notion of celibacy that Meyers is supposed to be promoting. It is too easy, too convenient, to make fun of the fact that the entire saga is an extension of a Mormon’s dream (even though in interviews Meyers repeatedly asserts that the characters came to her in her sleep). Her critics zoom in on the fact that it is rather incongruous to mix abstinence (till marriage) and a mythology that is clearly sexual.
But this is where they have all missed the point.
For, there is no contradiction between celibacy and sexuality here. In fact, the entire saga is about nothing but sex: there is bestiality (Bella and Jacob), necrophilia (Bella and Edward), interspecies attraction (Edward and Jacob [ed.: allegedly])—if not always actualized, certainly strongly suggested. And celibacy is precisely the hinge around which all of these desires rotate. Here, one should recall Jean Baudrillard and his teaching: “the great stars or seductresses never dazzle because of their talent or intelligence, but because of their absence. They are dazzling in their nullity, and in their coldness …” (Seduction, 96). It is not that Bella actively attempts to seduce Edward or Jacob. It is precisely by doing nothing that she is so seductive. In that way, she can be whatever they want her to be. This is not nothingness as an absence; this is nothingness as full possibility.
By doing absolutely nothing, but saying practically nothing, Bella has made herself into the perfect object.
The Twilight Saga is what Neil Strauss’s The Game could have been: if only it did not make the mistake of taking itself so seriously. Being caught up in a hunter mentality, Strauss’s error was in supposing that the one seduced had to be pursued—in short, he completely misunderstood the game itself. The one thing that he got right is that there is always a prize at stake. His blunder was in not realising that the seducee sets herself up to be pursued: that she is not a stake, but instead a lure. What is at stake is your very self.
Oscar Wilde famously quipped: “women are not meant to be understood, they are meant to be loved.” One should never make the mistake of taking this to be advice: it is a warning. For, one can only love an object. It is only by making themselves truly enigmatic, truly unknowable, that women are transformed into objects. That is their secret—the alleged weakness that is their strength.
In Stephenie Meyers’ saga, we catch a glimpse of how.
This review refers to: The Twilight Saga. Stephenie Meyer. London: Little, Brown Books, 2010.
Also: Jean Baudrillard. Seduction. trans. Brian Singer. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990.
Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School. He is the author of 5 books—most recently Writing Death. He believes that one should not make the mistake of reading a book before reviewing it—less it clouds one’s judgement.