Twilight: Skeptics Society Ahoy!

[Content Note: Religious Cults]

Twilight Summary: In Chapter 13, Edward and Bella spend the weekend alone together in the woods.

Twilight, Chapter 13: Confessions

When we last saw Edward, he was expounding on the evolutionary superiority of vampires in a self-hatred-y way.

   And he was in front of me again, standing two feet away, still as a stone.
   “As if you could fight me off,” he said gently.
   I sat without moving, more frightened of him than I had ever been. I’d never seen him so completely freed of that carefully cultivated fa├žade. He’d never been less human . . . or more beautiful. Face ashen, eyes wide, I sat like a bird locked in the eyes of a snake.

A very great problem with deconstructing Twilight over a three year period of time is that it's very easy to lose remembrance of what has come before. This passage in particular puzzles me: Bella says she is "more frightened" of Edward than she "had ever been". And I'm forced to try to dredge up another time in which she was frightened of him, so that I have some kind of fear-baseline for what "more frightened" means in this instance.

I don't honestly remember Bella ever being frightened of Edward. She's certainly been irked, irritated, and angry with Edward, but frightened? I could go and look, of course, but I'm more interested in poking apart the cozy that pervades this novel. Even here, where Bella is objectively more frightened than she ever has been before, we have no real sense of what that translates to in terms of practical fear: is she afraid Edward will kill her, or leave her, or something else entirely? (Edward is, as has been noted, quite capable of killing everyone in town who might suspect Bella's new boyfriend in light of her disappearance.) And we have only the briefest mention of this fear before we are again reassured that Edward is still hella gorgeous, which also seems to defang the terror a little.

Beyond anything else, I'm intrigued by the mention of Edward's "cultivated facade" as well as his apparent abandonment of it. He doesn't seem to have fanged out like most vampires do when they're being frightening; there's no mention that I can see in this passage of Edward's teeth lengthening inhumanely. (Could such a thing even be portrayed in an abstinence novel, given the obvious implications of arousal and erection that have been explored in other vampire settings?) He seems to mostly just be running around really fast and smashing up trees. Which, okay, that could be scary, but this isn't the first time Bella has seen him using super-powers. It is, I suppose, the first time she's seen him really revel in the use of them, but what I am saying here is that this passage did not Use The Right Words, in my opinion.

   “Don’t be afraid,” he murmured, his velvet voice unintentionally seductive. “I promise . . .” He hesitated. “I swear not to hurt you.” He seemed more concerned with convincing himself than me.
    “Don’t be afraid,” he whispered again as he stepped closer, with exaggerated slowness. He sat sinuously, with deliberately unhurried movements, till our faces were on the same level, just a foot apart.
   “Please forgive me,” he said formally. “I can control myself. You caught me off guard. But I’m on my best behavior now.”

And now I am going to go off on a rant that is almost entirely unrelated to Twilight. BECAUSE I CAN.

For book club this month, I've been reading with no small irritation Jon Ronson's Lost At Sea. I am irritated because the book deals with precisely the sorts of things I have an interest in -- religious cults, UFO groups, Indigo children, and so forth -- but it deals with these things entirely without skepticism and without any kind of real research in the subject matter. Instead, each episode is largely a write-up on Jon Ronson's thoughts, and whatever the interview subject has to say for hirself, without hardly anything in the way of fact-checking on Ronson's part. The book is less educational and/or informative and more 'a day in the life of Jon Ronson as he interviews people who may or may not be flagrantly lying'. And since I had no prior interest in or knowledge of Jon Ronson, I don't particularly care about his daily life interviewing people who may or may not be flagrantly lying.

And I am particularly frustrated with Ronson's chapter on the Alpha Course he attends, which is led by charismatic religious leader Nicky Gumbel. Ronson presents the entire course "straight-up" without any kind of research on either basic logical counterpoints to common religious arguments, nor any apparent interest in the tricks of the trade which can be employed by stage magicians in order to fool the unwary. Ronson notes how deeply impressed he is by the impeccable logic of the Lewis Trilemma, and he is absolutely astonished when Nicky Gumbel quotes from the Book of Joel, because Ronson himself has a son named Joel. Ronson offers up this strange coincidence to Gumbel during a session on how Coincidences Are Messages From God discussion and asks if this particular coincidence is a Message From God; Gumbel affirms that it very likely is.

Because, really, what are the odds that a charismatic religious leader would, in a small group discussion with a widely known reporter with a national audience who signed up for the course in advance and with his real name, would know that the name of that reporter's son is "Joel"? He couldn't know; it's just too impossible to imagine such a thing. You'd have to be some kind of psychic to get that information.

If you read enough James Randi -- and if you can get around his infuriating ableism, which I absolutely do not blame you if you cannot because it's really souring me from being a former hardcore fan to being thoroughly exasperated -- the point eventually comes through that one major reason why stage magicians can do what they do is because of misdirection. They do what the audience doesn't expect, when the audience's attention is engaged elsewhere. It's not hard for someone who brings in millions a year from charitable donations and who employs a small staff of inner circle members to look up the names of the people attending next week's seminar, narrow down to the most important of the VIPs (due to political, religious, or journalistic rank), gather a few choice details that are freely available to the public, and manage to drop those into the conversation as 'proof' of psychic ability and/or direct communication from unseen powers.

None of that is difficult; it just takes a little work. And since the audience genuinely doesn't expect that work to be done in advance, the misdirection is easy to accomplish. We tend to rationalize away the work as impossible or prohibitively hard, even though it's not; we tend to overemphasize the possibility for failure (there was no guarantee that Ronson would notice Gumbel talking about Joel) while downplaying the possibility for success (if the trick is played enough times, eventually enough VIPs will convert and use their influence to support the church).

None of this, of course, is meant to be an accurate representation of what happened in Jon Ronson's Alpha Course -- it's entirely possible that what happened was just a fortuitous coincidence or a Real True Message From God. I don't know, and I'm not pretending to know, nor am I attempting to accuse Gumbel of employing this trick. What I am saying, is that the trick is possible, and that it can be easily hidden by the common willingness of most people to assume the best -- or, at least, not the worst -- of people they genuinely like. And that is why it often takes dedicated skeptics to point out these methods, rather than incurious journalists.

And all of which is a very long way of saying that Bella really can't say with any assurance that Edward's tone is "unintentionally" seductive, because she doesn't know and she's not an unbiased observer. 

An ongoing theme of Twilight is that Edward isn't just sexy, but is in fact Objectively Sexy. There is very little room for personal preference in the world of Twilight: Edward is a Perfect Ten; Bella is a solid Seven who was previously surrounded by Nines but is now outshining the local Fives. The women in Twilight flock to Edward's dazzling countenance and Bella chastises him for flustering them with his seductive charm. These women who are helpless to resist or deny Edward -- Jessica, the Port Angeles restaurant hostess and waitress, even the school nurse -- are frequently implied to be seen by Bella as competitors and to be considered by Edward as utterly unworthy of notice. This works to set up the romance themes of Edward's perfect desirability (because Every Woman Wants Him) coupled with his perfect monogamy to Bella (who he chose over Every Other Woman).

But there's another aspect to this fantasy which is not really sustainable, and it is that Edward remains obliviously unaware of how desirable he is. Throughout the series, Bella is constantly informing him how hard it is to resist jumping his bones, to his bemused delight. Edward is over one hundred years old and psychic and was implied by Jessica to have romantically rejected at least one (or more) girls at Forks high school, yet when Bella scolds him for his effect on women, he merely cocks his head quizzically and mulls over this hitherto unknown information.

   “You really shouldn’t do that to people,” I criticized. “It’s hardly fair.”
   “Do what?”
   “Dazzle them like that — she’s probably hyperventilating in the kitchen right now.”
   He seemed confused.
   “Oh, come on,” I said dubiously. “You have to know the effect you have on people.”
   He tilted his head to one side, and his eyes were curious. “I dazzle people?”

And when Edward does briefly accept that he's objectively gorgeous, it's only so that he can indulge in some self-hatred of the "oh, woe is my vampire beauty" variety as seen in Chapter 13: yes, he's gorgeous, but it's all an evolutionary trick in order to draw in willing victims, and thus he is free to despise his terrible beauty as the curse that it is. Before then immediately forgetting about it.

I can understand why Bella wants to think the best of Edward: she likes him. I can imagine that she would rather believe that he's seductive by accident rather than on purpose -- that he's unaware of his effect on people, and that if he were aware, he'd try to tone it down a little. After all, it's not usually considered very nice to flirtily purr at other women when you're on an outing with your One True Love. And all this throaty seduction apparently aimed at Bella contradicts somewhat Edward's insistence that he is wrong for her, that she would be better off without him, and -- later -- that chastity is the most important thing ever. (Though given that the text explicitly points out that Edward is using the chastity issue to hurry up their wedding, maybe the contradiction isn't so inherent after all.)

So I think all this ignorance is meant to make Edward more palatable, and less schemingly dangerous. But it doesn't sit entirely well with me, and not only because Bella asserts something that she cannot be sure of as unassailable fact.

If Edward were a human, I would care a good deal less about whether or not his flirtations were intentional. Some people are naturally flirty without realizing, but even if he were 100% aware of what he was doing and how and why, it's his right to interact with people how he pleases and it's Bella's right to decide whether or not she wants a relationship with him once she knows and understands his personality. And I want to stress that Edward is not responsible for the way women see and view and respond to him: one person's arousal is not the other person's "fault".

But Edward isn't really human. He's a vampire, and his objective beauty is tied into that in a way that (he thinks) is intended to aid him as a predator. And it's not just him: all vampires apparently become more beautiful when they are turned, and whether this beauty is supernatural-and-consent-overriding or just really-obvious-to-the-senses is not entirely clear. For Edward to remain oblivious and uncaring about his effect on other women seems negligently careless, especially in his earlier years when he was struggling more with his bloodlust. If an innocent woman, supernaturally attracted to his predatory charms, arranged to meet him privately so that she could ask him out, would Edward be able to resist hurting her? What about Jasper, who is so constantly on edge that he cannot even safely shake Bella's hand for fear of losing control?

If Edward and Jaspar are deeply opposed to killing humans for reasons of conscience -- and the text asserts that they are -- shouldn't they be hyper-aware of their effect on the non-vampires around them, and constantly working to minimize dangerous and tempting situations? Once again we run into the characterization problem that the Cullens are recovering alcoholics who have no concept of or interest in how to minimize their chances of relapse. And also once again we run into the world-building problem that they have an eternity for thought and action, yet seem to have examined themselves and the world around them as little as possible.

Bella believes -- against all evidence, all logic, and all reason -- that Edward is sexy in spite of himself, and without knowing his effect on the women around. It's possible that such a belief humanizes him to her, and makes his actions seem less frightening, less calculated, and less hurtful. But even if I accept her assessment of him as true, I'm not certain that sustained ignorance makes Edward more likeable or less dangerous. It seems like it just makes him more careless.

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