Blog post

The Imperial Archive and Form: Lewis Carroll, Bram Stoker, and J.G. Ballard in the British Empire (Parts I and II)

Thomas Richards 2 April 2017

Image for blog post entitled The Imperial Archive and Form: Lewis Carroll, Bram Stoker, and J.G. Ballard in the British Empire (Parts I and II)

In The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire, published by Verso in 1993, Thomas Richards analyzes the proliferation of information systems in the British Empire, and the ways in which this link between state power and the measurement of fact were expressed in literature.

"Most Victorian epistemologies presupposed a superintending unity of knowledge," Richards writes. "A comprehensive knowledge of the world was for most of the century the explicit goal of all forms of learning." Later in the introduction, he continues: "this system-building impulse was the imperial archive's greatest inheritance from a philosophical tradition that posited a universal and essential form of knowledge, the tradition of Leibniz and Kant and von Humboldt, but it also took much the same ideas from a source nearer to hand, English Romanticism."

In the excerpt below, Richards considers three narratives of monstrosity — Lewis Carroll's Alice novels, Bram Stoker's
 Dracula, and J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World  in the context of the evolution of the science of morphology.   

Detail from Georg Dionysius Ehret's illustration of Linnaeus's sexual system of plant classification, 1736. via the Linnean Society of London.

This chapter is about the place of monstrosity in the nineteenth-century imperial imagination. Until Bram Stoker's Dracula, there are few monsters in Victorian fiction. In Victorian literature ghosts, those images of a nether world replete with human significance, are more common than monsters, and it is worth asking why. Victorian travellers like Richard Burton and Henry Stanley never saw monsters. In his Voyage of the Beagle (1831-36) Darwin travelled around the world without seeing one. Thomas Henry Huxley doubted whether monsters ever existed, even in the distant past. In Poe “monstrous” is always an adjective, never a noun, and monstrosity resides in the behavioral perversions of the self, as it does in Lombroso, where the monster is the criminal. In Victorian gothic it is the natural landscape that is monstrous. Even in the murky world of imperial gothic, as in Haggard's She (1887), there are no monsters of nature save for a woman who lives on eternally in a dead city. Why are there no monsters in Victorian literature?

This chapter looks at the role the science of form, or morphology, played in imagining a unitary natural world in which there would no longer be any place for monstrosity. Throughout the nineteenth century the practice of biology relied overwhelmingly on the techniques of morphology, the science concerned with the problems of form, function, and transformation in matter. The immediate heirs to the work of the great taxonomists of the eighteenth century, the Victorian morphologists saw all life as an organized succession of forms capable of being derived from a unitary apparatus of constants and variables. The nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century morphology of Owen and Darwin and D'Arcy Thompson represented life as unfolding within a Cartesian mechanism of vectors and coordinates, but it also moved the old Linnaean hierarchies into a new and completely different register. It fashioned not a hierarchy of general forms but a lineage of specific ones. No less an authority than Auguste Comte located the discipline of morphology perfectly at the juncture of the general and the particular, the abstract and the concrete. In morphology the project of a complete and unravelled representation of existence became the ally of the positivist project of comprehensive knowledge. More than anything else, the work of morphology was to construct lines to join together the established points of positive knowledge into a projected network of comprehensive knowledge; for many years there was nothing in the geological record linking mesopithecus and homo sapiens but the fictions of morphology. A method for locating continuity within discontinuity, morphology provided filler for the great gaps of knowledge the Victorians were continually discovering in their own global schemes. Morphology put all beings on the same imperial family tree. In the heyday of Victorian morphology, there were no longer any singular beings in the universe other than those which human beings created for themselves; as in Mary Shelley's novel, the Victorian monster is made, not born. Even ghosts, as in James's Turn of the Screw (1898), came to be seen less as independent beings than as projections of human psychology. The Victorian morphologists shared a common conviction that the day was coming when the relationship of all living beings could be traced in a great common genealogy. When that day came, there would no longer be any creature unable to fit anywhere on the great chain of beings. The Victorian search for the mythical missing link' presaged not so much a new kind of monster as an end to all monstrosity. The search for the missing link was the search for the final link in the evolutionary chain. At the point at which the missing link shored up the great chain once and for all, nothing could ever be monstrous again because everything would then be known, fixed in a continuous reconstruction of serial descent.

Victorian morphology saw its origins in certain debates about natural form going back to the eighteenth century. The science of form began as an explicitly universal science devoted to the task of preparing scientific directories of the natural world. In his Systema naturae (1735) Linnaeus uses an empirical method of nomination to construct an ideal taxonomy of pure forms. He claims to include all known species of plants, but he also advances the idea that the study of matter can be anchored in philosophical first principles. The problem of form was to be solved by constructing a calculus of four variables in which “every note should be a product of number, of form, of proportion, of situation. Linnaeus did everything he could to construct a work of natural history without undertaking to write an actual history of nature. For him nature always made manifest certain irreducible forms of order, forms which he attempted to call forth using an intricate system of symbols that resembled magic characters. Despite this emphasis on nature as a self-contained structure — what came to be called “the natural order” — natural form tended most easily to assume the form of logic, and his conception of the wholeness of nature assumed that nature would always somehow resolve itself into a synchronic logical arrangement. Form in Linnaeus meant taxidermy; single specimens in little boxes defined in terms of one generalized rubric, however defined. Any form that fell outside the purview of the logical definition was, by definition, a singularity, a fluke, a freak of nature, and the best that could be done was to place it in a bottomless category for all the deviations from logic traversed by nature, the special category of the monstrous.

In the nineteenth century the Linnaean metaphysics of the fixed form, the forma formata, gave way to the new field of the changing form, the forma formans. The problem of form no longer entailed the tabulation of synchronies; it now began to be equated with the diachronic reconstruction of lines of formal development. Linnaeus believed that since the forms of living beings were fixed, he did not need to delve into the past to study them. The new evolutionary reconstruction, however, extended into the past, the past of the fossil record. The fossil record equipped biology with a historical archive potentially capable of accounting for every form that had ever existed; all the exceptions that the old taxonomies had once relegated to the category of the monstrous could theoretically be rehabilitated using the new historical method in morphology. Just as, within philology, the desire to understand living languages led to a fixation on dead languages, in morphology the desire to understand living matter led to the residues of the fossil record. Victorian texts abound in representations of decaying residues, and in a classic morphological text, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms (1881) Darwin would go so far as to attribute the life of the earth's topsoil to an ecology saturated with decomposing residues. In a great variety of ways the new nineteenth-century morphology was most concerned with constructing a lineage not of the present but of the past. The creatures that evolution had passed by were strange at first but, safely dead, they could be easily domesticated. Unearthed as fragments of bone, they became skulls and spines reconstructed in some museum of natural history, no longer monstrous, little capable of inspiring fear or awe, not warnings or portents but destinations for family outings, dinosaurs for children. Life on earth was always changing, and once you knew how to follow out the changes throughout all time, there would be no monsters save somewhere in the past, buried in the vast geological archive of the fossil record.

In the course of the nineteenth century it became clear that there was no longer any place for monstrosity within the biology of living matter. If the motto of Renaissance humanism was “nothing human is alien,” the motto of Victorian morphology now became “nothing alive is alien.” There was a confidence that all forms, however monstrous they might at first appear to the examining eye, would at last be discovered to be related by serial descent to other, less alien forms. Deviations from normative forms could now be explained merely by adjusting the focus of a historical reconstruction. Monsters, once considered singular forms, were now placed in active relation to other forms, whether presently living or long dead. The order of things went from being the order of ordered things to being the order of all things that had ever existed. Thus did the one characteristic move of all formal explanation in the nineteenth century — the ranking of all species by historical descent and modification — wipe out in one broad stroke the conditions of possibility for the stores of monsters that had once abounded in texts of literature, travel, natural history, and natural philosophy. Henceforth the forces of monstrosity would have to be located outside the Darwinian world-view, for within it, all monsters were our distant relatives.

This chapter shows that by the turn of the century a new form of monstrosity arose to outwit Darwin. These new monsters were essentially mutants, capable of sudden and catastrophic changes of form, a kind of change outlawed and virtually unknowable under the Darwinian system. Even at the height of Darwinism in late Victorian Britain, writers began to imagine a great variety of monsters that fell outside the sureties of lineage enshrined in morphology. These monsters were beings capable of sudden changes of form. They were threats to the global claim of Darwinism, disrupting the very order of things and even threatening to bring about the end of Empire. The end was widely figured as a global morphology turned upside down, a state in which monsters that do not follow, and cannot be understood by, the ordinal system of morphological development, disrupt and finally overwhelm the harmonious Darwinian archive of Empire. The functioning British monopoly over knowledge ends in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), where a colonial alterity comes to be closely aligned with forms refusing to follow the ordinal scheme of historical morphological development. The abiding figure for this representation of morphological alterity is of course the vampire, a figure that first achieved full prominence at the close of the nineteenth century. H.G.Wells also hit on the idea of the mutant in his Island of Dr. Moreau (1898), a narrative in which an evil doctor incubates mutants on a remote island. Stoker, however, chose to place his monster in a larger international context and play out the problem of mutation on a much larger scale. He adapted an existing story rather than fabricating a new one, and his powerful new turn on the old Dracula story cannot be understood without a sense of how thoroughly he made his monster violate the doctrines of Darwinian morphology and so turn the natural world upside down. The narrative of Dracula makes it clear that there are some species whose origins cannot be understood using the Darwinian model, and that these originless species, impossible according to Darwin, had become the archetypal monsters of the twentieth century. After Dracula the monster stood once again outside science, not safely immured in the descent of man.

In common with the other chapters in this book, what follows has been laid out to trace a cultural course of development running parallel to the imperial trajectory of colonization, occupation, and decolonization. It shows the establishment, failure, and reconsolidation of a variant on the central organizing myth of comprehensive knowledge, the myth of the positive knowledge of form. The first part of the chapter reconstructs the central position which the notion of form occupied in pre-imperial discourse and considers Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) as an anatomy of the problem of positive knowledge of exceptional forms within mid-Victorian morphology. The Alice books are about a little girl dropped into a world of monsters, monsters whose world changes in accordance with the dictates of logical form. The second part looks at a fully imperial morphology in a sequence of turn-of-the-century texts and places Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) in the context of morphological theories of monstrosity and decay. The third examines J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World (1966), a text that links African decolonization with the rapid spread of an unknown crystalline form, and that testifies to the continuing presence of morphological assumptions in modern British literature. It will be seen that the search for the positive knowledge of form passed, as was the case with so many other positivist projects of comprehensive knowledge in the late nineteenth century, first from the domain of science into the domain of myth, and last into the domain of ideology. Yet at all points it preserved something of the essential character of the Victorian desire for the unification of all knowledge, a squaring of all departments of knowledge into a circle of concordant knowledges. In biology the project of constructing universal taxonomies of form remains very much alive, one of the last surviving emblems of the Victorian imperium, the project of a positive and comprehensive knowledge of the world.


For two centuries the science of morphology has worked to dissociate itself from the traditional fictions of metamorphosis. Alterations of form in morphology have none of the overt caprice of transformation in Ovid, where catastrophic changes issue from the summonses of gods. It was only in the nineteenth century that the science of form even began to concern itself with the mechanics of formal transformation. Rather the project of scientific morphology, idealistic or empirical, continuous or discontinuous, deductive or inductive, has always rested on a fundamental assumption of consonant wholeness. The system of form that developed within eighteenth-century botany asserted the priority of the whole, the idea that without the whole the parts are nothing, even as it allowed for the manifestation of growth in the extension of the plant, the assimilation or conversion of materials external to the plant into substances useful to the plant, the shaping of the plant according to the dictates of its own internal plan, and the interdependence between parts as constitutive of the whole plant. So influential was this matrix of organic form that, when Darwin toured South America in the early 1830s, the immense variety of new plant forms he saw, “plants assuming most fantastical forms,” forms falling outside of all existing structures of forms, scarcely disturbed his center of gravity. He had a confidence that everything would eventually come together with the precision of geometry. All relative magnitudes of formal difference would be subject to explanation by rectilinear coordinates (to make his taxonomies seem less mathematical and more organic, Darwin, like most of his nineteenth-century contemporaries, called them “trees”). The loss of a complete knowledge of the world was always a temporary matter, for in the fullness of time the whole would be regained.

In some respects, then, the demands of the whole in Darwin remain little changed from the Linnaean hierarchy. To overcome the separatist tendencies in his botanic material, Linnaeus had constructed classes to force variegated evidence into prescribed categories. He saw himself as a kind of technical writer supplying the specifications of a finished and complete product inspired by one logical and uniform Design. For Linnaeus, the form of logic dictated the logic of form, and the weight of design dictated the scale of designation. Though Darwin no longer accepted the argument from logical design, he was far from willing to abolish the typologies of classification derived from it. In fact he wanted to extend them. He devoted a long chapter in The Origin of Species (1859) to arguing for a great increase in the number of categories used to classify beings, all the while preserving most of Linnaeus's genera as families or still higher groups and advancing the project of an attainable holistic order. The crucial difference is that the construction of the whole to which Darwin subscribed understood nature as a global rather than a universal totality. Darwin saw nature as the natural world. It is worth remembering that while Linnaeus spent his career in the confines of his native Sweden, Darwin began his by circumnavigating the globe. In Linnaean nature form is horizontal; it has a name and a position but not a local habitation and a place. In Darwin the project of comprehensive knowledge loses its universal inflection; the world of nature becomes a vertical world, a specific world, a relational world, an instrumental world, above all, a colonial world.

The corollary to the Linnaean postulate of the absolute whole is that such a whole, though it forms a unitary field of order, is not ordinally manipulable. The claim to certainty that Linnaean order makes is, purely and simply, a claim to the inherent certainty of order. The purpose of order is not to exert order over non-ordered areas of the world but to infer a universal order from the evidence at hand. Operating as it did by inference and interpolation, Linnaean order had no colonial aspirations whatsoever. Rather, in the eighteenth century the science of form was a particular lineage of the absolutist state. An absolute whole is a conception well suited to the requirements of the absolutist state in which colonies tend to be viewed as subordinate parts of a sovereign whole, as “new” Englands in which economic and political transformation somehow issue as if by fiat from the numen of the original state. The unitary field of order favored by the absolutist state does not require manipulation to stay ordered, for order is universal and cannot be affected by contingent action. The world does not need to be converted to a new order of Empire for the simple reason that it has already been ordered, at every time and in every place. Form in a colonial world is at best a mutilated copy of form in the metropolitan world.

The sole representation of the colonial within the Linnaean system is the order of the monstrous. Monsters in Linnaeus rise only from the colonial world and display only a contingent alterity. Monsters are figures for alterity outside of European systems of order, an alterity consistently figured as deformation. The monster ensures the placement of difference within the general science of order. The monster is the joker in the Linnaean deck of cards, the undefined addendum, the blind spot in an otherwise compact system of order. In the 1930s the physicist Kurt Gödel offered a simple but convincing explanation for why projects of comprehensive knowledge such as Linnaeus's fail to achieve their ends. Gödel stated simply that a system of axioms cannot encompass all possible variations on that system. It cannot, in other words, foresee which variation will succeed in disturbing the system along its fault lines. The central position of the monster in the eighteenth-century science of form turns out at last to be the Gödel-moment in all taxonomy when the ordering impulse admits its own inexactitude. By resolving irresolution into a category of its own, the monster-category is a tacit admission that all knowledge is neither comprehensive in scope nor logical in form. It is an admission that new and unusual modifications arise from time to time that cannot be derived from a system of systems. As a category it bears silent witness to the existence of unforeseen transformations even as it attempts to lay to rest a much larger problem, the problem of the catastrophic mutation of form.

It was exactly this problem of ordering a disordered nature that led Lewis Carroll, a mathematician whose work on the mathematics of form still commands attention, to construct a lasting burlesque of the general science of ordered form. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass represent form as indomitable. A hundred years after the death of Linnaeus, Carroll's Alice stories laid bare the structure of what had become an obsolete science of form. Carroll structures his fantasy as a questioning of the received categories of morphology by performing a single and striking operation: he links the catastrophic mutation of form to the deconstruction of established logical categories. Unquestionably the most basic feature of the Alice texts is Carroll's linking of logical to natural form. Carroll goes to the end of his wits to make the Linnaean link — the basic assumption of eighteenth-century morphology that the form of logic dictates the logic of form — completely untenable. The mutations that Alice witnesses and undergoes make it impossible to maintain the fidelity of natural to logical form. But Carroll does not restrict his parody to highlighting unaccountable changes in form. Rather, the Alice stories are an anatomy of the very monstrosity of logic itself in dictating form. Logic, the Linnaean logic of form, is the only monster in the Alice books. The shapes the monsters assume there — cards, chessmen, cats — tend toward the domestic and the serene, not the strange and the portentous. Nothing in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass turns out to be more truly monstrous than the operation of logic itself, which dictates shape and configuration at every instant.

Most of Alice's adventures among the beings of Wonderland devolve on reversals of the logical order of common sense. Everything moves in both directions at once, prompting Alice to repeat like a mantra her pointed question, “Which way, which way?” Alice becomes larger and she becomes smaller. She crosses from the day before to the day after, passing over the present: “Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday — but never jam to-day.” She reverses more and less, as when five nights are five times hotter than a single night, “but they must be five times as cold for the same reason.” Active and passive switch positions, as “do cats eat bats?” becomes “do bats eat cats?” And, perhaps most prominently, cause and effect change places as beings receive punishment before committing crimes, cry before wounding themselves, and serve food before dividing up the servings. This series of reversals makes it virtually impossible to group morphological phenomena into general propositions. In no way does the surface of things mutate according to some presumed inner plan; morphology is no longer morpho-logical. Alice cannot perform the two operations most characteristic of the eighteenth-century science of form: she cannot fix the visible world in stable logical categories, and just as importantly, she cannot remember her own name. The loss of the proper name deals a final and crushing blow to the language of logical morphology, which, more than anything else, had been founded on the certainty of designation. In the Alice stories the very possibility of a unitary formulation for the science of form has become doubtful and remote.

The Alice stories also cast doubt on the certainty of allied absolutist conceptions of order. At all points Carroll makes it clear that Wonderland is an absolutist state that has lost its bearings. Wonderland is ruled by an imperious Queen who has adopted the cry of the Terror of the French Revolution, “Off with their heads!” The state and the control it exerts are purely a matter of rhetoric; as in morphology, the absolutist form of order has lost its structural stability. The dictates of Wonderland's absolutist state are completely unrelated to the world of forms it actually contains. The Queen has no control over the forms that the beings in her kingdom assume, for the simple reason that everything in Wonderland is singular and nothing is repeatable. Form is indomitable, the world is full of functionless beings. At the croquet game the hedgehogs and flamingoes and card soldiers do not long retain their functions as equipment in the game. They take up one function only to relinquish it quickly and move to another. The croquet game must be seen as a carnival of form and function, a coming apart of form and a rebelling against function. In the Alice stories nothing is more fragile than the link joining form to function (unlike the animals in most Victorian children's books, forms do not even begin to assume the functions they actually perform in the natural world). In Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass form is at best imperfectly manipulable. The state cannot control it. Carroll sees an excess at the heart of form that unsettles it into a state of measureless mad becoming.

The Alice stories of Lewis Carroll can be taken as a negative picture of the emergence of a Darwinian morphology in mid- and late-Victorian Britain (a positive picture, less devoted to parody of the Linnaean system, can be found in Charles Kingsley's parable of selective metamorphosis, The Water Babies (1862-63). Wonderland is everything that the mid-Victorian project of the positive knowledge of form sought to drive underground once and for all. At all points the Alice stories fail to provide a causal explanation of development. The project of Darwinian morphology rather fixed its sights on the grey areas between forms. It sought to verify the existence of forms between forms. As advanced by Darwin in The Origin of Species (1859), and later consolidated by E.S. Russell in Form and Function (1916) and D'Arcy Thompson in On Growth and Form (1917), the project of the positive knowledge of form designated form as the slow process of adaptation to new function. As confused as matters become in the Alice stories, Alice never loses form and slides into a state of formlessness, though there is a hint of this when she admits to being afraid that her neck will grow beyond its capacity for growth (soon the example of the giraffe's neck would become paradigmatic within the new Darwinian morphology). At times she is afraid that she will burst, but her body apparently conforms to internal limits. Overwhelmingly morphology came to be concerned with these limits to development. “At what point will I burst?” is a question which Alice consciously decides not to pursue, but which morphologists inspired by Darwin now set themselves to answer. The Darwinian morphology closely replicated Alice's concern with the limits of scale in formal transformation as it began to pose the question of the area between forms - how to understand it, how to represent it, how to manipulate it.

The Alice stories, then, occupy a transitional space between Linnaean and Darwinian morphologies. If Wonderland had made the world of the old logical morphology seem impossible, the new Darwinian morphology would make Wonderland seem doubly impossible. In Wonderland everything changes suddenly in accordance with the logic of language. In Darwin's morphology everything changes gradually, imperceptibly, the outcome of many random events ultimately selected out according to function. Ignorant of genetics, Darwin did not yet know why things changed gradually, but he firmly believed that evolution proceeds by slow and gradual stages. Once reconstructed, the complete sequence of organisms would be absolutely continuous throughout. There is no longer any place in Darwin's morphology for the catastrophic mutation of form. Monsters of form no longer have any place in a system which works out thoroughly the relationship of forms using the minima and maxima of calculus. Unusual, deviant, or monstrous forms can now be fixed on a vast index of change, a book of all changes. In Darwin's scheme, monsters either disappear forever or mutate themselves into a form which eventually becomes the norm. Change itself is stable and can be represented using what came to be known as “topology.”

A topology is a reconstruction of the form of forms. The serial drawings showing apes gradually straightening their spines and breaking into a human gait were the first and most familiar topologies, but by the turn of the century topology had become abstract and multidimensional. It entailed the representation of what D'Arcy Thompson, the great elaborator of differential topology that came to characterize late-Victorian morphology, once called “a difference of relative magnitudes, capable of tabulation by numbers and of complete expression by means of rectilinear coordinates.” The ability to classify and manipulate all types of form was achieved only by giving up quantitative concepts of exact measurement such as employed by Linnaeus. Victorian morphology became largely a labor of guesswork, scraping the ground for a past for which little hard evidence existed, but which had necessarily to exist if Darwin was right. Every small shard of bone thus bore immense hermeneutic weight, and paleontologists came to be known for their abilities to piece together a whole animal from a single surviving bone.

The Darwinian morphology thus managed to open up a new era of positive knowledge without forsaking entirely the traditional assumption of the consonant whole. Darwinian morphology was equally a project of comprehensive knowledge, a theory of variation that nevertheless presupposed the inherent stability of biological processes. "The form of the entire structure under investigation should be found to vary in a more or less uniform manner,” wrote Thompson, such that “a comprehensive law of growth has pervaded the whole structure in its integrity, and that some more or less simple and recognizable system of forces has been in control.” The emphasis on the control of the whole is striking. Though Thompson begs the question of what exactly is in control and how control is achieved and maintained, he assumes that control is unitary and comprehensive, exercised by a single “system of forces.” The next section of this chapter will show how, in the late nineteenth century, this idea of a controlled whole derived from morphology began to take on an explicitly global, and finally imperial, coloration. The wholeness of the natural world became a figuration, in other words, for a united Empire. The assumption of the whole, which began almost as a matter of faith, thus ended as a central myth of imperial knowledge. In a great variety of ways the morphological idea of the earth as a single family tree acted as a new and vital counterpoint to the central myth of the British Empire, the myth traced in detail in the first chapter, the myth of the world as understandable by one conjoined imperial archive. A reading of Bram Stoker's Dracula will cast light on the process by which morphology became an imperial science of form that, beginning in the 1890s, began to imagine form coming apart at the seams, torn by the greatest threat that late-Victorian morphology saw to the whole, the specter of discontinuous mutation.


The new monsters were beings that had undergone, or were capable of undergoing, catastrophic mutations of form. They could pass from form to form, moving not one form at a time but skipping many forms in a single jump. In evolutionary theory, no form could finally remain fully separate from other forms. These monsters could do so. They introduced into morphology chasms of unbridgeable difference. Darwin had been actively concerned with trying to arrive at a comprehensive view of species as the product of gradual and small-scale mutation. In a great variety of ways, these beings were a new construction of monstrosity well suited to the blind spot in the Darwinian paradigm. They were what had just begun to be called “mutants.”

Certainly mutants were monstrous for the traditional reason that, even within the liberal guidelines for classification laid out by Darwin in The Origin of Species, they fell outside the domain of existing knowledge. But the mutant was something more than a being that eluded all existing structures of classification. A mutant is a being without a history. It has no past, no progenitors, no lineage, no putative position on a reconstructed time-line. A mutant cannot be understood topologically as a displacement and redistribution of a stable aggregate of formal features. The mutant eludes science's quantitative grasp of number and magnitude: it signals the presence of irrational, rather than rational, modes of changing form. The Darwinian world-view had encouraged a one-sided view of change that harmonized with other nineteenth-century views of the essential continuity of matter: the smoothly curving paths of planets around the sun, the continuously varying pressure of a gas as it heated and cooled, the quantitative increase of the sugar level in the bloodstream. The mutant entailed another kind of change, less suited to the assumption of a comprehensive knowledge regulating the behavior of all phenomena, a form of change like the abrupt bursting of a bubble or the discontinuous transition from ice at its melting point to water at its freezing point. This new mutantcy meant the sudden death of form. A mutant did not develop according to the calculus of variations, a form of forms; it was a form outside form.

This precise emphasis on discontinuous mutation led Bram Stoker to create a new and particularly imperial inflection of the myth of Dracula, lord and master of the Undead. Stoker erected a new mythology around an old myth because he made his Dracula into a single dense locus of all that the Darwinian world-view had found inexplicable. In particular, Stoker's Dracula forcibly undoes the assumptions of Darwinian morphology in the form of a creature capable of both sudden and lasting mutations of form. Stoker's vampire lurks in these two blind alleys of Darwinism. He is the origin of his own species, a human being suddenly transformed into the progenitor of a terrifying new species. And he is a being whom his opponents openly view as a mutant capable of the catastrophic mutation of form. He is an ideal invader of England for the simple reason that he cannot be understood according to the usual patterns of recurrence of form in nature. A mutant capable of single-handedly and successfully crossing the boundary between species was entirely unknowable within the Darwinian frame of knowledge. Dracula represents a species having no gradual, composed origin. Little wonder that Stoker finds in his resuscitated vampire the material for a kind of Darwinian invasion novel. To the usual elements of the Dracula myth — the Transylvania setting, the wolves, the kisses of blood — he adds three elements: the sense of Dracula as a mutant; the association of Dracula with vegetable mould; and the shipment of the boxes of mould containing Dracula from the periphery of Europe to one of its centers, London. As a mutant, Count Dracula poses a direct threat to the order of things and, by extension, to the general order of an empire figured as knowable within a Darwinian frame of comprehensive morphological knowledge.

In Darwin the word “mutation” had had an almost neutral connotation. All species originate by mutation, but mutation always remains safely subordinate to the functional criterion of natural selection. In Darwin the emphasis on adaptive function almost totally restricts the range of variant form. By the turn of the century, however, the Dutch plant breeder Hugo de Vries performed a number of botanical experiments with the evening primrose that proved decisively that new species could originate in a large, single jump. In the short space of one generation de Vries observed that the primrose changed leaf shape, incision, and color. In The Mutation Theory (1901-03) de Vries maintained that new species arose in one generation through the occurrence of large-scale variations, which he termed “mutations.” Darwin had recognized the possibility of such a process in what he called “sports” or “monsters,” but he had rejected this mechanism as having little or no significant role in the production of species. The genius of Stoker's construction of Dracula is that, like de Vries, he realizes that the mutant is by no means a reproductive dead-end, that it has an immense potential for propagation. The narrative of Dracula takes on incredible suspense for the simple reason that Dracula must be stopped before he multiplies beyond the point where he can be extinguished. According to Van Helsing, the scientist who scrupulously observes Dracula's habits in Stoker's novel, the most fearsome feature of the vampire is the speed at which he mutates. He learns quickly, changes forms quickly. This sense of large-scale jumps between forms gives a new sense to the old adage, “The dead travel fast.” Van Helsing comes right out and says that Dracula has been “experimenting, and doing it well; and if it had not been that we had crossed his path he would be yet — he may be yet if we fail — the father or furtherer of a new order of beings, whose road must lead through Death, not Life.”

The consistent figure for death throughout Stoker's novel, and the one element with which Dracula is repeatedly associated, is vegetable mould. Previous Dracula stories had always likened the Vampire's lair to dust, but Stoker is very specific about his Dracula's preference for mould. When Jonathan Harker happens upon Dracula's sarcophagus in Transylvania he notices “the odour of old earth newly turned.” The cargo Dracula ships to London consists of “a number of great wooden boxes filled with mould.” This unlikely element was the subject of one of Darwin's most popular and practical books, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms (1881). The relevant feature of vegetable mould is that, in Darwin's definition, it is matter that consists exclusively of the decaying residue of what was once living matter. Vegetable mould is matter in the median stage between life and death, matter that exists in a state of fertility. The role of worms is to fertilize the soil by turning over the earth like a plough, mixing the soil with leaves, twigs, the bones of dead animals, the harder parts of insects, the shells of land molluscs. Worms accelerate decay by subjecting the particles of earth “to conditions eminently favourable for their decomposition and disintegration.”

The representation of death as decomposition thus holds no mystery whatsoever for Darwin. Here as elsewhere Darwin sees decay as the primordial constituent of life on earth; the earth thrives on spent life, for the successive generations of life passing into death ensure the fertility of the topsoil. In the Victorian order of things the frightful thing about Dracula is not that he lives in a cemetery amidst dead things (the Victorians viewed cemeteries as familiar places) but that he lives in a purgatory of decay instead of just passing through it. Victorian popular culture was full of horror stories about the undecayed bodies of remarkable people, Paganinis and Lincolns whose bodies remained mysteriously immune to decay after death. In Stoker's novel the most terrifying moments come when his characters view the undecomposed bodies of vampires — when Jonathan Harker flees the sight of Dracula in his stone box, when the four men confront the dead Lucy in her tomb, when Van Helsing slays the three weird sisters in their Transylvanian crypt. Van Helsing goes so far as to say that even the sight of an undecomposed body is enough to cast a spell. The slight alteration the vampire makes in the Darwinian scheme, the one that makes him into an archetype of monstrosity within it, is that he does not complete the developmental process that forms the very precondition for life on earth. He dies without decaying, and flaunts his condition elementally by living in mould.

The new direction in which Stoker takes the Dracula myth also entails placing his Darwinian monster in a specifically imperial economy and making him pose a specifically imperial threat. Like so many other Victorian biologists, Darwin located the great incubators of mutation in the colonial world (even Wonderland, after all, is under England and contains colonial creatures like the hookah-smoking hookworm). Overwhelmingly the mutation tends to be represented as the revenge of the colonial world on the colonizer. Then as now, mutations at the periphery of the world — new forms, new creatures, new diseases — come back to haunt the world at its center. Transylvania was of course never a British colony, but Stoker makes his Dracula into the very type of the alienated colonial intellectual later analyzed with such acumen by Frantz Fanon. In Stoker's narrative Dracula, a Magyar noble incensed at centuries of external domination that had reduced Transylvania to a Turkish colony, invades England from Transylvania. The basic movement of Dracula reverses the customary direction of colonization: in Stoker's novel the periphery attempts to colonize the center. Dracula brings with him not only an almost unlimited capacity for reproduction but also an association with the traditional carriers of the West's own ecological imperialism — rats, flies, mice, and vermin. He proves a master at using Britain's imperial system of transport to his own advantage. He invades using the very shipping lines upon which Britain depended for receiving raw material from the colonial world. Most adeptly of all, he has mastered certain imperial practices of knowledge and power. He has worked at amassing a comprehensive knowledge of Britain, in Van Helsing's words, learning “new social life; new environment of old ways, the politic, the law, the finance, the science, the habit of a new land and a new people who have come to be since he was.” In a sense he is pointing to a possibility that turn-of-the-century Britain could not bring itself to contemplate in the light of day: the possibility that the former colonist would emerge as the new immigrant, that Britain itself would emerge as a destination for immigrants from the colonial world. To prevent this from ever happening Stoker's characters adopt an unequivocal policy: “We must sterilize all the imported earth.”

How could such a creature, a colonial creature capable of appropriating so many of the means of imperial domination to his own ends, ever be defeated? Dracula is defeated because, though he can control the transport of bodies and things, he cannot control the flow of information. At every point Stoker makes it crushingly clear that Dracula must be defeated through a mastery of the means of information. Dracula himself cannot move long distances; throughout the novel he is less a moving body than a point of inertia. Because Dracula must hire intermediaries to carry him from place to place, his movements can be traced through invoices, memoranda, and other documents. He uses transport without realizing that what he is confronting is a new kind of empire, an imperial archive already seen on view in Kipling's Kim, an empire in which all transport entails the production of data. His movements from place to place leaves traces in a language that his opponents can decipher, the language of information. :Accurate note was made of the state of things.” It does not even occur to him to destroy documents that give his enemies some knowledge of him, like Jonathan Harker's journal. While Dracula moves in a state of stillness, waiting out the interval between arrival and departure, his opponents send and receive messages in the space of seconds using telegraphy. Distances mean nothing to Van Helsing and his crew of vampire-killers; they seem to traverse them in a flash. The spatial distance between central and peripheral zones makes way for temporal distance fixed by the imperial certainty of the train timetable. Even Lord Godalming's old-boy network joins the imperial archive, conveying messages rapidly from consulate to consulate in order to defeat Dracula. The dead travel fast but data travels faster.

In a great variety of ways, then, Stoker's narrative figures the defeat of a kind of colonial uprising. Dracula enacts the domination of a once-indomitable mutation by the imperial archive. The novel ends with an expedition to Transylvania in which the rebellious form is put to death. Like Lewis Carroll, Stoker takes care to represent indomitable form as despotic and absolutist, embodied in the form of Count Dracula, who “spoke almost in the plural, like a king speaking.” Far from being represented as the wave of the future, the colonial uprising has been represented here, as it soon would be by the British all over their Empire, as the recrudescence of an obsolete form, absolutism. The monologues recorded by Jonathan Harker in his journal read like an inventory of the modes of control invented by the absolutist state; speaking of Transylvanian history, Dracula tells of the introduction of standing armies, a permanent bureaucracy, national taxation, a codified law, and the beginnings of a unified market. Dracula is clearly a feudal lord who, over time, has come to think of himself as an absolutist monarch.

Van Helsing counters Dracula's universalism by slowly picking it apart. Like Auguste Comte, who sought to liberate politics from the influence of parties insisting on the divine right of kings by establishing a positive social science, Van Helsing counters Dracula's absolutism with a simple emphasis on the positive knowledge of form. Form for Van Helsing is not absolute and universal but particular and positive. He defeats Dracula by studying the functions of Dracula's form. He makes careful note of the vampire's habits and habitat. His manner of investigation is a model of experimental method, and he refuses to explain to the others that the mysterious occurrences in the novel have been caused by a supernatural phenomenon until he can supply them with sufficient proof. Even though he is dealing with vampires, Van Helsing preserves all the assumptions of the positive knowledge of form, maintaining the presumed integrity of the world though what can be called an imperialism of particulars. In Dracula "the habit of entering accurately” along with “power of combination” ensure the reach of the Empire. At stake throughout the novel are the methods and procedures for controlling the imperial whole, and the primary vehicle for the control of the whole, a whole that can now comprise the irrational as well as the rational, is the procedure of positive knowledge.

Despite the defeat of Dracula by a smoothly functioning imperial archive, however, the novel has a prospective and unmistakably postcolonial character, for in it the boundaries of Empire have contracted. The boundaries of Empire have fallen back from Africa and India to an obscure danger zone at the edge of Europe. Contrary to Kipling, the novel begins at the place where East and West actually meet. At Budapest, Harker has the impression that “we were leaving the West and entering the East,” entering “one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe.” He represents the Balkan region using the stock figures of orientalism: the trains run late as “in China,” the people remind him of “some old Oriental band of brigands,” all in all the region is “the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool” in which is gathered “every known superstition in the world.” Throughout the nineteenth century the Balkans were like a trip wire waiting to be crossed. The famous “Eastern Question” came into being to address the fall of the Ottoman and Persian empires and the emergence of superpower rivalry among successor states in the region. The narrative of Dracula runs along the retaining wall that separated imperial Europe from the imagined deluge of the colonial world, but it also points to the source of a very real catastrophe. The liminal zone of the Balkans, marked off by Stoker as the home of vampires, the site of mutation and locus of monstrosity, is the very place where the First World War began, the very place where the great colonial empires of the late nineteenth century began to end.

For nearly one hundred years the myth of Dracula has fed off this precise tension between continuous and discontinuous mutation, between an imperial order figured as continuous and a colonial disorder figured as formal discontinuity. In Stoker's novel the threat of discontinuity turns out at last to be manageable. Dracula is defeated, but only just. The triumph of the forces of Darwinian order over the forces of mutant disorder requires a last-minute high-speed chase in which the outcome is uncertain until the very last page. After two debilitating world wars it would no longer be possible to imagine the defeat of such a prodigy of mutation spawned in the colonial world. As a myth of knowledge the mutation would rise again in the imagination of postcolonial Britain. The last section of this chapter will show how the mutation took its place as a primary myth of decolonization, a myth of a force out of Africa, beyond the range of understanding, unstoppable, a myth of the world transformed into a latticework of crystal.

Continue to Part III

Filed under: imperialism, literature, weekend-read