Twilight: Existence and Empathy

[Content Note: Minor True Blood Spoiler, Religious Upbringing]

Twilight Summary: In Chapter 14, Edward and Bella spend the night together.

Twilight, Chapter 14: Mind Over Matter

So here's something that is probably going to shock everyone: I think Chapter 14 is probably my favorite chapter of Twilight. (And, yeah, I know, I said something similar about Chapters 12 and 13.) And it's funny for me to say that because Chapters 12, 13, and 14 all contain some hugely unhealthy problematic stuff in them. And we need to look at that.

But before we do that, I will say that the thing I like about these chapters is that they are, for whatever it's worth, realistic to me. Chapter 14 in particular follows Bella and Edward through the rest of the day and into the night, with both of them so headily-over-heels in New Love and Perfect Honesty (well, at least so far as Bella knowing Edward's nature and being okay with it) that they can't bear to be separated EVEN ONE MOMENT. This isn't necessarily healthy, but it strikes me as realistic, and that's something that's been largely missing in the first eleven chapters of this book.

In fact, this chapter reminds me a little of that scene in True Blood where the boy shapeshifter has found and fallen in love with a girl shapeshifter -- the first he's found of his kind, at least on-screen -- and they're lounging around in post-coital bliss and he's just so completely happy:
Sam: You’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met.
Daphne: You’re just saying that because I’m the first honest sex you’ve ever had.
Sam: No, that’s not true.
Daphne: Have you told anybody else what you are?

And that scene doesn't really bother me in the same way Twilight does. Partly because True Blood is here dealing with adults who are roughly the same age, whereas Twilight is dealing with a fairly young and sheltered teenager paired with a 100-year-old immortal telepath. And also partly because the True Blood pairing above isn't meant to be seen as the best (or even healthiest) love story of all time. It's a relationship, but not an Ideal relationship. And it's interesting how the addition of that concept -- Ideal -- affects how I view both Twilight and Narnia.

   HE COULD DRIVE WELL, WHEN HE KEPT THE SPEED reasonable, I had to admit. Like so many things, it seemed to be effortless to him. He barely looked at the road, yet the tires never deviated so much as a centimeter from the center of the lane.

I'm not sure why, precisely, Edward is perfect at driving Bella's car except that he's perfect at everything. He can't read her mind to see the road through her eyes, and I doubt there's enough people around this area for him to read their minds. It's possible that he's using his super-speed to look at the road and then back at her face so quickly that she can't see the movement, but it seems like that would be both a real pain and something the laws of physics might care about. Who knows.

But the thought strikes me yet again that Twilight probably wouldn't be so problematic -- and certainly would be less bland -- if Edward weren't so perfect at everything all the time. (Except, you know, when it comes to being in a healthy, non-abusive relationship with others. That's the one time he gets to be imperfect. A more cynical reader might suggest that his "imperfection" in that regard was imposed after the fact as a retconned explanation for his abusive actions as opposed to being the driving cause of them in the first place. YMMV.)

Why does Edward need to be good at driving with his eyes closed? He may be immortal, but there's no reason for him to have ever driven a comparable truck to Bella's in his long unlife. He may have telepathy, but that doesn't make him psychically aware of everything around him -- at best, he's aware of the perceptions of everyone around him, but he should also know from experience that perceptions can be wrong. If we had an Edward who made mistakes, an Edward who was variously fallible at more things than Relationships, and who was wrong in ways that the narrative acknowledged, I think Twilight would be vastly improved for it.

And, indeed, I think this is one of the many reasons why I like Chris the Cynic's Edith so much: she's Right about a lot of important things, like feminism and consent and bodily autonomy, and that's a good thing. But she's also Wrong about a lot of realistic things, and sometimes she's right in the wrong ways, like when she gets defensive or slips up and references things she shouldn't know. Theoretically, Edward is supposed to do this too, but (a) it's mostly something that's told to us instead of shown, and (b) I always get the impression that we're supposed to agree with him that the kids need to get off his lawn, etc. He's never just anachronistic to be wrong, or different; he's an Ancient Gentleman From The Old World. If that makes sense.

Speaking of:

   He had turned the radio to an oldies station, and he sang along with a song I’d never heard. He knew every line.
   “You like fifties music?” I asked.
   “Music in the fifties was good. Much better than the sixties, or the seventies, ugh!” He shuddered. “The eighties were bearable.”
   “Are you ever going to tell me how old you are?” I asked, tentative, not wanting to upset his buoyant humor.

If knowing 50s music by heart is the sign of immortal vampire, I'm in trouble.

But I don't think this is just decade-dropping; I think it can just as easily be taken as yet another clue that Edward is secretly a Good Christian Boy. One of the reasons why Golden Oldies music is so well-known among people who grew up in evangelical Christian homes is that the parents generally (though not always) consider oldies music to be a relatively safe alternative to the modern secular music that the kids these days listen to. Sure, people in the 50s and 60s and 70s still sang about sex, but the general evangelical perception is that it was all safely cloaked in impenetrable metaphor, with music getting more and more explicit the closer you reach the current point in time. And as a rule, the people running the oldies radio stations seem to understand the value in catering to this perception, or at least they did so where and when I grew up.

To a certain extent, I find this characterization choice unfortunate. I recognize there's a long-standing tradition of making vampires like anachronistic things as a clue to their age. (Here it will be used to lead-in to Edward's "true" age.) But if Chris the Cynic has taught us anything as regards Grecian Vampires and their modern pants, it seems like the vampires best suited to long-term secrecy and survival would be the ones capable of embracing new things. It would be a nice touch if Edward was belting out Lady Gaga tunes, and would additionally underscore the Feminism Lite message in the series that openly stated sexual desire -- particularly female sexual desire -- is not a bad thing.

And now I want a YouTube mash of Edward Cullen lip-synching to "Poker Face".

As a complete side-note, I briefly Googled "what music does Jacob Black like", to see if our Bad Boy romantic rival gets this kind of attention in text and instead ended up staring blankly at this page: Would Jacob Black Fall For You? It seems to me that the only valid question in such a quiz would be "Do you possess a magical imprinting egg in your uterus and/or are you the product of such an egg?" And that particular revelation just made me sad all over again at how the main romances in Twilight -- Edward/Bella and Jacob/Renesmee -- are largely compulsory by gods and forces we cannot comprehend. Twu Luv isn't merely "love at first sight" in Twilight, but rather "love at first sight because Thou Must."

And I am reminded of a Girls' Bible Study they put us through for several weeks when I was a teen, where the book we were teaching out of pretty much flat-out told us to stop dating and stop being interested in boys and instead we were supposed to sit at home and think very pure thoughts until god sent us a husband. And I remember being confused, even then as the stereotypical Good Christian Girl that I was, as to how that was supposed to happen in actual practice. The book seemed to be genuinely saying that one day the doorbell would ring and there would be a man out there whom God Had Sent. But how were we supposed to know he was for real? And how often, I wondered, did that really happen? It just didn't make sense to me -- though now I realize that the authors were less interested in ensuring my future happiness and more interested in being reactionary as regards teenage sexuality. (Fuck you, author-whose-name-I-can't-remember.)

Yet that scenario basically describes the Ideal relationships in Twilight. Jacob will never have to wonder if maybe his love for Renesmee isn't True or Right, because it's god-sanctioned to the point where he literally does not seem capable of having second thoughts. He loves her so much and so tangibly and so immediately that she is, now and forever and always, literally the most important thing in the world to him. Edward's imprinting takes about three days to really "take", since he also has to struggle with a compulsion to kill the woman he's destined to love, but once that clears up he's no less enthralled. So too is Bella -- to the point where there doesn't seem to be a lot of free will in this love saga.

I understand this fantasy: it's a fantasy of Perfect Security. Edward may worry that Bella will eventually prioritize her safety over their relationship and/or get weirded out by all this vampire stuff, and Bella may worry that Edward will decide she's too old, too ugly, or too human to continue the relationship, but these are moments of melodrama that the reader doesn't really take seriously. We know that Edward and Bella are committed to the long haul; why, she's already declared that she'd rather die than be apart from him. And they hadn't even kissed yet when she declared that! Edward and Bella are always secure in each other's love, and the tension of the saga seems to revolve around them coming to realize that. (And, in fact, the final scene in Breaking Dawn is when Bella pulls back her mind-shield and lets Edward see for certain that she loves him as much as she has always said she does.)

Yet a side-effect of stripping Edward and Bella and Jacob of the choice of leaving in order to create Perfect Security is the fact that their pairings seem motivated by persons and powers they have no control over. Imprinting may be for the imprinter's "own good", but that fact in no way diminishes the fact that it was imposed on them without their consent and they have no free will to refuse it. That's kind of fucked up. And I'm reminded of an early ElfQuest comic by Wendy Pini that I very much liked, back when they were okay with exploring the fucked-up-edness of "recognition" (their brand of "imprinting"):

Scouter: And it's supposed to be good for you! I hope I never have to go through it!
Dewshine: Nor I! Love is much more pleasant! Think of Nightfall and Redlance! They aren't recognized!

(Of course, later ElfQuest comics went entirely back on this and recognition pretty much became All The Good Things and this scene was entirely ironic in retrospect. Possibly because the fantasy of Perfect Security is just that strong, particularly when dealing with immortal beings written by mortal authors who aren't perfectly convinced that love can survive the rigors of immortality. Who can say.)

   He sighed, and then looked into my eyes, seeming to forget the road completely for a time. [...] “I was born in Chicago in 1901.” He paused and glanced at me from the corner of his eyes. My face was carefully unsurprised, patient for the rest. He smiled a tiny smile and continued. “Carlisle found me in a hospital in the summer of 1918. I was seventeen, and dying of the Spanish influenza.”
   [...] “I don’t remember it well — it was a very long time ago, and human memories fade.” He was lost in his thoughts for a short time before he went on. “I do remember how it felt, when Carlisle saved me. It’s not an easy thing, not something you could forget.”
   A few seconds passed before he answered. He seemed to choose his words carefully.“It was difficult. Not many of us have the restraint necessary to accomplish it. But Carlisle has always been the most humane, the most compassionate of us. . . . I don’t think you could find his equal throughout all of history.” He paused. “For me, it was merely very, very painful.”

(Plot-hole alert: I don't really understand how the Volturi can have so many allies if turning is so hard to do. But whatever. Obviously this isn't supposed to be actual evidence that Carlisle is saintly, just outright Telling that we're supposed to accept. Just like when Rosalie defers that Carlisle is better than her despite the fact that she's never tasted human blood and he has, albeit under the guise of "turning" people.)

Edward clams up about his conversion experience right after this -- "I could tell from the set of his lips, he would say no more on this subject." -- which is very frustrating to me because I can't tell if Carlisle ever asked Edward if he wanted to become a vampire before turning him. I don't get the impression that he asked anyone in the family, and I don't know if that means that he didn't have the chance to ask (i.e., they were unconscious and on death's door) or if he just plain chose not to bother.

In an attempt to double-check this, I found a more complete version in The Twilight Official Illustrated Guide and it's worse than I'd expected: 
Nine months before his eighteenth birthday, the Spanish influenza hit Chicago, infecting all of Edward’s family. Gravely ill, they were treated in the hospital where Dr. Carlisle Cullen worked. Edward’s father quickly succumbed to the disease. On her deathbed and fearing for her son’s life, Elizabeth Masen begged Dr. Cullen to do what was necessary to save her son. Somehow she seemed to know Dr. Cullen had a supernatural means to save Edward.

Moved by Elizabeth Masen’s plea and having already thoroughly considered the idea of creating a companion, Carlisle took Edward from the hospital late that night, carrying the unconscious boy to his home. There Edward became the first human Carlisle changed into a vampire.

Ew. So Edward's consent was not sought and/or was overridden because his mom gave it instead. And keep in mind that the entire reason Carlisle turned Rosalie was because he wanted her to be a mate for Edward. And Esme, who was turned after Edward, will later be described in Twilight as being extremely enthusiastic about Edward's relationship with Bella: "She’s ecstatic. Every time I touch you, she just about chokes with satisfaction.” There are some serious boundary issues going on in this Ideal Family that I find deeply problematic and which resonate way too much with my own Conservative Christian Upbringing.

   “Carlisle brought Rosalie to our family next. I didn’t realize till much later that he was hoping she would be to me what Esme was to him — he was careful with his thoughts around me.” He rolled his eyes. “But she was never more than a sister. It was only two years later that she found Emmett. She was hunting — we were in Appalachia at the time — and found a bear about to finish him off. She carried him back to Carlisle, more than a hundred miles, afraid she wouldn’t be able to do it herself. I’m only beginning to guess how difficult that journey was for her.” He threw a pointed glance in my direction, and raised our hands, still folded together, to brush my cheek with the back of his hand.

Let's all take a moment -- or at least I'm going to take a moment -- to love Rosalie as the Feminist Hero of this Feminism Lite tale, regardless of the fact that the author tried to make her a classist catty she-devil (a.k.a. Cordelia Chase) in an attempt to convince us not to like her. Rosalie was turned into something she hates and despises, without any consideration for her consent or will, by a man who saw her only for her beauty and hoped to give her as a sexual gift to his son. Instead, she struck out on her own, found a mate to her liking, and carried him -- broken and bleeding and very tempting to her vampiric senses -- a hundred miles to the one person who could help him. And I'd like to think that at some point in that hundred-mile trip, she talked to Emmett and obtained his consent.

Makes me kind of wish this story was about her, instead of about Bella.

   “But she made it,” I encouraged, looking away from the unbearable beauty of his eyes.
   “Yes,” he murmured. “She saw something in his face that made her strong enough. And they’ve been together ever since. Sometimes they live separately from us, as a married couple. But the younger we pretend to be, the longer we can stay in any given place. Forks seemed perfect, so we all enrolled in high school.” He laughed. “I suppose we’ll have to go to their wedding in a few years, again.”

And also she plans her own parties and weddings for the pleasure of it -- despite the fact that they don't need to get married again, and without letting Alice railroad her on the wedding planning -- and she breaks off independently from the Cullens on occasion for "me time". (And who can blame her.) Edward doesn't even do that, not unless he's off hunting humans. Which, oh yeah, Rosalie doesn't do. 

Anyway, then they talk about Alice and Jasper -- "They both developed a conscience, as we refer to it, with no outside guidance." -- and how they have mental powers. Then Edward tells her that there aren't a whole lot of vampires, and that vegetarian vampires are even more rare. He points out that, in order to remain undiscovered, they generally have to be either nomadic or to band together in areas where they won't stand out -- which includes places where it's not very sunny. I won't quote the bulk of this because we've been over it all before. But I do want to touch on one point: 

   [...] “Alice doesn’t remember her human life at all. And she doesn’t know who created her. She awoke alone. Whoever made her walked away, and none of us understand why, or how, he could. If she hadn’t had that other sense, if she hadn’t seen Jasper and Carlisle and known that she would someday become one of us, she probably would have turned into a total savage.”

I don't really think that S. Meyer means this view of morality: that without human memories, we are incapable of empathy or morality. I do think this is just lazy characterization so common in badly-written vampire novels: They are Other, and therefore They are Bad. (And, of course, this is also why vampire fiction often tends to invoke supernatural explanations as well. If your vampires are also possessed by Evil Demons, then you don't have to worry about the problems with characterizing them all as a monolithically evil.)

But really, I find it so ridiculously offensive that Twilight vampires require memories in order to be even remotely not-evil. Alice shouldn't need to remember she was once human in order to empathize with her prey. Indeed, according to this logic, it should be flatly impossible for ethical vegetarians to exist among humans, except for humans who have experienced and remember experiencing life as an animal. Basic observation proves that this is not true.

The Volturi remember their past lives as human -- or at least some of them do -- and yet many of them are apologetically evil murders. And not just of their human prey; they are more than willing to kill their own kind as well. So it therefore follows that existence as X (human or vampire) does not automatically bestow empathic and ethical treatment of other X (humans or vampires). If existence and empathy are already decoupled in one direction (i.e., existence does not bestow empathy), why should Edward assume that the one is necessary for the other to exist in the other direction (i.e., empathy requires existence and/or memory of existence)? 

This may seem like a small point, the repeated insistence that the Cullens are outright strange to be empathic of Others, but in a novel that is touting itself as Feminist Lite, it matters when the case is made that experience is a prerequisite for ethical treatment. Edward shouldn't need to have experienced life as a human in order to understand that murdering humans is wrong. In the same vein, he shouldn't need to have experienced life as a woman, or as a trans* person, or as a queer person, or as a person of color, or as a disabled person, etc. etc. in order to behave ethically towards the people who do claim those self-identities.

Edward is invoking the Michael Potter view of empathy -- "I'm a man vampire." -- in explaining why he doesn't, technically, need to treat others ethically. And the narrative seems to expect us to give him All The Cookies for treating people ethically despite the fact that (according to the logic we've been told to except) he doesn't really need to. But he does anyway! Doesn't that make him a wonderful person! So unique and wonderful and incredible and great!

No. No, it does not. It means he's barely clearing a basic ethical bar that I expect everyone to meet. Nothing more than that.


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