Daniel Klein and Thomas Cathcart

Twilight for vanity

By Daniel Klein and Thomas Cathcart
November 19, 2009

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IN “NEW MOON,’’ due out tomorrow, Robert Pattinson’s handsome vampire Edward leaves his human girlfriend Bella (Kristen Stewart), hoping that his departure will enable her to live a happy, supernatural-free life. But the breakup has devastating consequences for both characters, who find themselves facing down the Volturi about the nature of their relationship and Bella’s knowledge of the undead. - L.A. Times

What gives with our current bloodsuckermania? Now, with the “Twilight’’ sequel, “New Moon,’’ about to open, that question is being raised again by parents and pundits from coast to coast.

Sure, vampires are sexy in a borderline S/M sort of way - the ultimate hickey from the ultimate bad boy. But what does this furor tell us about the zeitgeist?

Bucketsful, according to existentialist philosopher and pop culture scholar Jennifer McMahon. The possibility of becoming a vampire, she says, offers us what the 20th-century German existentialist, Martin Heidegger, called a death-denial strategy. A death-denial strategy is our way of coping with our mortality and all its attendant angst by supplying us with a myth of eternal life, thus enabling us to deny the fact that we are living in the face of death. The concept of heaven used to do the trick, but for today’s young folk, an eternal life of harp-playing in shapeless choir robes lacks a certain dramatic tension, not to mention style.

But, according to McMahon in an essay on our attraction to vampires, there is another aspect to this “Twilight’’ zeitgeist that appears to supersede death anxiety: the fear of losing one’s good looks. Sure, eternal nothingness is a bummer, but growing old, wrinkled, and unsexy is worse. That’s, like, living death. Gross.

Bella, the attractive teenager on this side of the Great Divide in the “Twilight’’ series, seems more bewitched by the agelessness of her new vampire pals than by their eternal lives; in fact, their agelessness causes her some serious pulchritude envy:

“ ‘Not aging? Is that a joke?’ Tears of rage filled my eyes. ‘Am I the only one who has to get old? What kind of world is this? Where’s the justice?’ ’’

And at another point Bella insists that being frozen forever at age 18 is every woman’s dream.

The existentialists know whereof Bella speaks. Picking up where Heidegger left off on the subject of death anxiety, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus identified the fear and trembling found in that prelude to death, personal degeneration - like, say, crow’s feet. Sartre, a mind-body dualist, spoke of the “nausea’’ that comes when a mind helplessly watches its body decay, causing consciousness to inevitably become estranged from its body. Talk about existential fragmentation! Camus chimed in: “A day comes when a man notices that he belongs to time, and by the horror that seizes him, he recognizes his worst enemy.’’

As writer Joseph Epstein put it, Camus’s horror results in the peculiar double status that aging occupies in our consciousness: youth is experienced both as a transitory state and as an aspiration, an ideal state. Bella could relate.

Yet there is one existentialist who makes us wonder if this vampire fetish has legs, so to speak. Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of “eternal recurrence’’ - living as if your life will be repeated forever - is given a fascinating new spin when Bella learns that her vampire paramour, Edward, will remain a teenager in high school forever and ever. Bella is uncharacteristically disquieted by this facet of vampire immortality, perhaps because it reminds her of Woody Allen’s reaction to Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence: “That means I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again - it’s not worth it.’’

Did we hear Bella murmuring, “That means I’ll have to sit through Mr. Banner’s biology class again. Yikes!’’

Daniel Klein and Thomas Cathcart are the authors of “Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates.’’

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