Saint Buffy (the Vampire Slayer)
‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ aka Buffy
Summers, sometime school student and serial saviour of the world.
Habitat: the small town of
A success story spawning a number of series, translated into many languages, exported to many parts of the world, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ has become part of world culture.
A successful formula then; but one whose roots lead much further back through time than to its apparent point of origin, the Gothic (even if its face is turned towards a mythical Medievalism).
In the course of centuries, in the culmination of a long tradition, what is it that remains the same? Boy meets girl perhaps? Typical; but hardly a story without there being some obstacle to be overcome. The triangle then; that evergreen, ever-present standby of the history of storytelling whereby some obstacle obtrudes between lover and beloved (be it family loyalties, class, race, a kidnapper, or just an outworn husband or wife)? Well, yes… and no. Yes, there is certainly a form of triangulation involved. But no, it is not the regular triangle, a tug of love between three humans. This is the familiar triangle based on a crossing (or a ‘double-crossing’) of desire, the tensions of which may then go on to create potentially tragic divisions in society and in the psyche, a conflict that is the motor of literature - as of so many of our popular narratives. However we are not dealing with this, the ‘everyday triangle’ beloved of soaps and novels alike, where the change of heart, ‘affair’, ‘adultery’ or external interference entangles three souls in an emotional crisis that (traditionally at least) requires resolution. Rather it is its ‘adult’ relative, the metaphysical form of triangulation favoured by myth, religion and the supernatural that marks ‘Buffy’ out for special consideration. This is the realm of the ‘supernatural triangle’ where one (at least) of the participants is either more than human or else represents a fundamental, metaphysical Law, such that earthly law or desire and sacred Law or Desire must clash. The ‘everyday triangle’ of desire offers an easy point of recognition, of vicarious pleasure, a symbolic and diverting hiatus in the smooth transfer of the baton of social continuity between generations, this form of the triangle is often over-laden with allegorical overtones of community division (with loyalties divided between the desire of the Self and the dictates of Family, Community, State or Religion). The ‘supernatural’ or ‘metaphysical triangle’ by contrast, offers a struggle between Good and Evil, where a religious culture or world-view is incarnated in a person (be it a demon or a saint).
Genealogy. To take this path would be to follow a well-trodden route following the ‘triangle’ through its differing incarnations, now taking one form, now the other. As we brush aside the dust and debris of the present we begin to perceive a voyage through the history of human narrative traversing early (Greek) Romance and the Saint's Life, followed by the history of Drama and Narrative (the Medieval Mystery play and its after-echoes in Renaissance drama, the Gothic novel and the genres of the uncanny and fantastic through to science fiction) manifest in both 'art' and popular forms (in ‘literature’ as in ‘fiction’). A special case in the twentieth century would be the Noir genre together with its imitators in prose and on film. In the Lyric we have the inner landscapes of the courtly love nexus of themes and the poetry it has inspired (surviving, along with the complaint, into our popular song traditions). A postcard from the past sent now to our mass media, home of popular culture.
This repetition of the triangle as obstacle to true ‘desire’ is also an allegorical impediment to the institution of marriage and so a possible, or symbolic, impediment to the continuation or survival of society from one generation to another. An impediment to reproduction read as an impediment to social reproduction. No matter how dedicated its garb of adventure, chase and rescue, in this incarnation the triangle is little more than a variation on the marriage plot with its key theme of the splicing of a new generation into the reproductive cycle (and the same may be said of its continuation in the novel and in popular culture, with most soaps as little more than serial triangulations - ‘kitchen sink’ realism spiced with a sprinkling of ‘la Ronde’).
The post-marital version of the triangle, however, implies a deeper crisis in society and its (sexual and reproductive) ordering and so always carries moral overtones (hence in literature the drama of death and the warning it carried was usually preferred to a prosaic finale ending in divorce). The block, impediment or crisis, signalled by the triangle is therefore never only about the desire of individuals; it is a matter of the continuation of a social form and about the saving of society from its tendency to entropy, internal decay and obsolescence. At root is the theme of renewal. Of a rescue from the waste, the conflict and demons which entropy produces… At its most potent the triangle offers a ritual of incorporation, cleansing and continuation. In its supernatural form this ritualistic element shines out with greater clarity. Harbinger of a bright new dawn (with the damned banished forever to some form of Hell down below – at least until next time…).
(A dawn occasionally brought about by sacrifice, voluntary or not, as when Buffy replaces her ‘sister’ Dawn, at the end of the penultimate ‘final series’ and dies in her place. Only to be resurrected in the final ‘final series’.)
So, should the light of dawn itself fail to return, should the realm of the social, community, the world even, run the risk of failing, of falling… Then the blockage is symptomatic of evil…with a metaphysical capital ‘E’.
In this situation what we are faced with is the ‘metaphysical triangle’, a triangle where one corner will be the representative of Evil and the other(s) of Good. The Saint will be opposed to the Roman Governor, a representative of pagan evil, his wife will side with the Saint; marriage will come second to religion (in perhaps one of the only genres in which such an exchange is made -until today anyway- the Saint’s Life). Or the Lover would be demonic, carnal and the Lady must chastise him, chasten him, keep him chaste and so reclaim him to God and religion (where God is the third term, and sanctity, a consecrated identity, the issue). Or we see the inversion of these structures in ‘Dracula’ and the genres of uncanny contagion (to supernatural contagion can be added medical contagion, as with plague and AIDS in Hammer’s ‘Masque of the Red Death’ and Abel Ferara’s ‘The Addiction’).
Whence the repeated triangle with its demon lover and the theme of chastity or unrequited love (at least initially, for if requited then disasters, moral and more, must surely follow). The epithet 'demon lover' applies equally to Angel (Buffy's first love) as to Spike (her last), both are initially unrequited, but when consummated the metaphor of the demonic lover becomes literal. Angel actually is transformed into a demon. When he is finally cured of this recidivism the couple must, exactly like the Lover in pursuit of his unattainable Lady of the courtly love tradition, remain celibate in order to maintain his (and her) goodness and purity of spirit. Their identities are moulded by the desire of the chaste (the history of Monasticism, as of much Western poetry and its influence on the arts can be found here).
On the other hand, Buffy only consummates her relationship with the reformed vampire Spike after her return from the dead, and then as lust and distraction, by contrast to Spike's role as faithful knight. Henceforth (with the odd lapse) Spike will be the staunch defender of Buffy and her family. Here it is the tamed vampire who is the more moral, Buffy, on the other hand (now possibly herself some kind of undead thing) treats her relationship with Spike as a diversion, a sexual as well as military utility. Such ironic reversals abound in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. Indeed such reversals are far from abnormal when a given pattern or formula is repeated in a different historical context (Buffy's postmodernism lies in this successful mimicry of previous genres, themes and tropes, not least of which is the supernatural or metaphysical form of the triangle). However when repulsed by a Buffy revolted by her own actions (and by her lust) Spike reverts to form. Turning once again into a vampire, so adding new plot complexities, before yet again re-emerging as the purified Knight (the sanctified Lover).
The Medievalism of the ‘Buffy…’ series is not only made manifest in its many Gothic elements; the underlying themes and more important, repetitive structures, are themselves as old as, or many cases much older, than then the medieval itself. Even if the late-medieval period was to present these themes and structures to us in a format which our culture has recycled ever since; they are nevertheless far older - indeed the particular form of the triangle we have been discussing would be impossible without the structure and rhetorical force of the earliest Saint's Lives as told in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. The early and later series of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ contain this basic structure, which is played out in the tense relationship of the heroine to her two significant others (there was also a middle series, with a middle man, but he could not cope with Buffy's superhuman status -male insecurity, challenged masculinity, call it what you will, soon ended that relationship). If this structure, the supernatural triangle is repeated twice in Buffy, it fits well with its neo-Medievalism and its post-modern Gothic take on the teen/school/college angst/adolescent genre (with its overtones of ‘becoming’, or ‘coming of age’ genres). We should not be surprised by this apparent archaic return, for this is no coincidence, nor is it a script writer's a-historical flight of the imagination (although certainly their crock of gold). Rather it is the result of a cumulative literary history that would not have allowed the story to be told in any other way and still to gather to itself a comparable success.
Nearer to our own times, we have the influence of what it has become convenient to call, the Noir tradition - perhaps the definitive genre of the 20th century. As the Saint’s Life and Baroque drama were part of a crisis of religion, the arrival of Christianity and the Reformation respectively, so the Noir formula, or Noir version of the triangle, is part of the crisis of ideologies of the 20th century that marks out the beginning and the end of the secular religion of Communism. The hard-boiled ‘tec (detective, personal investigator, or private eye) encounters a strong woman, the femme fatale, who he will either save from Evil - or condemn with it. Typically she will be affianced to (or daughter of) rich, powerful, and corrupt men (the State and Capital are inevitably corrupt in this genre and linked directly to the lower depths). The top and bottom of society are mutually co-implicated, as the ‘tec discovers when an investigation of events at the bottom leads directly to those at the top. Echoing the Saint’s Life the saint/’tec, rescues the woman from the powers that be (otherwise it is her tragedy to be condemned with them). Unlike the saint, however, yet like the Baroque courtier, the ‘tec is implicated in and complicit with the fallen world he condemns). In ‘Buffy’ it will be the heroine, literally and supernaturally ‘strong’, who either damns or saves the leading men (the ‘men fatales’) who have fallen to the side of Evil.
Gender roles. What is new. Yet also what is old. In the civilising role of women we have a theme as persistent in the history of literature as its opposite, the variations on woman as Eve the temptress (found both together in Christianity in the redeeming power of female saints and the diatribes on the essential sinfulness of women). The positive moral relation is parodied the second time around in Buffy’s use of Spike; indeed the role reversals that take place after the sexual consummation of the relationship are replete with irony. However, these are reversals whose ironies require the backdrop of the courtly love tradition with its stereotypes and repeated triangular structures (a tradition already parodied at its onset in the 12th century by many troubadours, and whose adulterous versions fill the pages of medieval romance).
Its success and place in our culture? Triangulation, transgression and rituality… (by which is not meant the rituals of magic which regularly appear in ‘Buffy’...’).
Television serials as ritual? Rituality within the world of the text? (Not the same as the presence of rituals within the plot line of the series; but the ritual functioning of identity confirmation within the fictional world represented by the series.) Within the text then. Disguised as… The triangle. A repeated structure that confers identity; purity, a better self, an improved renewed self. An identity exchange based upon deferral and sacrifice (in this case usually involving sex, its deflection or deferral, but also involving the refusal of the use, or gift of power). In Buffy’s sacrifice and resurrection we find more than a passing reference to one of the master tropes, one of the key symbolic exchange relations in our culture, the Christ figure and his role in the fundamental, originary, ritual of the religion that bears his name. Very few relations of self-sacrifice, or self-abrogation, pass without being referred to as ’Christ-like’. This later too is a triangular relation (comprising the deity, the sacrifice and the redeemed).
Transgression. Here, amid so many transgressions -amid a genre made out of transgression and its trappings- the focus of transgression falls (as it often does) on the sexual relation. In the series this is a relation whose taboo–break will damn its participants to unhappiness or worse; the ‘negative’ exchange which transforms identity. The ‘positive’ exchange was the sacrifice of desire made in order to transform demon into saint. (All exchanges are positive, the terms only reflect their moral colouring as defined by their context). Transgression as a mark of ritual: the absent god in Buffy is the law that governs (sexual) relations between mortals and immortals. This is a transgressive relation: it is Law (not law or mores) that is broken in Buffy... (whence the supernatural nature of the triangle). The test of which is that the absolutes are exchanged, Good becomes Evil and vice versa.
The text as ritual ‘for us’. Rituality outside of the world of the text (the text as ritual for the viewer). Showing by example: leading by warning (by inoculation). If ritual identity uses the realm of ‘not-temporality’ to cement our temporality, our ‘here’ and ‘now’, and ‘when’ and ‘then’, then how is the relation to temporality expressed in a serial, in ‘Buffy’? The supernatural pole in the serial (just like the rational pole in ideology, which when read as universal also becomes a-temporal) in this way raises to eternity the (subjunctive) values of civilisation. Of civilisation as denial; through the rumoured presence of greater forces as the pace of the universal and intervening third term (whose place is always ‘outside’ [the place of the universal and eternal). Deferral is investment in identity, as its future, its continuation (with eternity as guarantor).
The ‘outside text’; writing ourselves; rituality again. What identity is confirmed, which identities are confirmed …now? Only empiricism can give precise answers. However theory would suggest the following. The episodes of this series are consumed as part of a life-style, a code of self-recognition, indeed a code of communication to be shared with others deemed to be ones community of identification. Further, time is given up (yes, given...up, offered up) from other forms of consumption as investment (other life practices). As indeed from earning, which may already be in the process of being sacrificed as earnings exchanged for memorabilia, ‘fanzines’, images and icons. The watching, or better participation, is then repeated in a cyclic manner (as with any ritual). Together these investments, these …rituals, constitute the viewer's identity statement.
Identity/audience. Clued-in teen (and above…) and other perhaps mainly ‘middle brow’ audiences? Broadly ‘progressive’ in character, inclusive (but there do not appear to be many African-Americans in Sunnydale, however a lead character ‘of colour’, the new headmaster, was brought in for the last -comeback- series). Whereas the Los Angeles-based branch of ‘Buffy…’ (‘Angel’) has made a determined effort to represent, include, or exploit the notion of minorities, of a city of communities. Of sexuality, always such a crucible of politics in America’s culture wars, ‘Buffy…’, although brave enough to include lesbians (and lesbian relations) had not yet, in these days of the backlash and the 'gay provocation' defence plea, made any more than a passing attempt at an example of sympathetic male homosexual relations (such a figure exists in the final -comeback- series, but not the relations).
Last word: tradition as echo-box. The tradition inherited by ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. The supernatural strengths of mythic women in myth, epic and legend, Brunhilde et al. The civilising role of women as the positive, productive side of the holy triangle and its restructuring of identities, often accompanied or underlined by personal self-sacrifice (or martyrdom). This aspect of the tradition stretches from the early Saint’s Life of the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, to the Courtly Lady (from the twelfth century renaissance to the earliest of novels, Madame Lafayette’s ‘Princes of Cleaves’) and so to the prose of Rousseau and Goethe. Including even the basic structure of the revolutionary Jacobin novel, where the evil of the aristocracy (bent also on sexual evil) is diverted, or defeated, by a virtuous Lady in thrall to a greater ideal, Reason, personified by her, more plebeian, saint-like lover, who is often an activist in the cause of the Enlightenment. And finally the Noir tradition of our times, teamed with the new genres popular culture, as created and disseminated by the mass media. The tradition inherited by ‘Buffy’ is a potent one indeed; yet to avoid it would have been to chose the more difficult path...
Copyright © 2003 Peter Nesteruk