The Now and the Then: Buffy and History
mundusmundi - August 24 2001

A few weeks ago, while browsing through the umpteenth Spike thread at another forum (strange we never get those here), I stumbled on a post that unleashed the coup de grace. When asked why Spike was beyond redemption, the poster replied in essence: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

This pearl of wisdom, by the 20th-century philosopher George Santayana, has particularly among historians attained the status of a proverb. Nary an academic term goes by that an instructor doesn't put it on his syllabus, or fails to recite it like a Pavlovian test subject when asked to justify why history courses belong in the college core curriculum.

Personally, though, I don't buy it. And not only because, like Buffy, I'm suspicious of most any cliche that's entered the vernacular. While in some respects true, Santayana's quote oversimplifies a complex subject. If studying history teaches any one thing, it's that remembering the past can be as lethal as forgetting it. If watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer teaches any one thing, it's that history is dangerous.

History in the Buffyverse
Understandably, Joss Whedon has other things on his mind besides historical accuracy. First and foremost, his show is a modern myth, one that updates ancient folklore via the more modern genres of horror movies, chopsocky flicks, slapstick comedies and soap operas. Yet if Whedon were merely deconstructing vampire mythology through a filter of smug irony, Buffy would have dusted long ago. Instead, Stacey Abbot argues in a recent Slayage article that he has reinvigorated the mythos. ("A Little Less Ritual and a Little More Fun: The Modern Vampire in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.") By using archaic elements like iconography, Whedon clearly shows a historical awareness of the genre's traditions and a respect for those traditions. But he is also iconoclastic, a challenger of conventions, open to change.

A fundamental law of the Buffyverse is: Characters shall remember things. How refreshing it has been to watch a show where events in the past affect those in the present. Previous series have employed "plot arcs" (notably Stephen Cannell's Wiseguy, which BtVS writer Douglas Petrie has cited as an influence). But Buffy also has "emotional arcs" that have imbued profound changes in its characters.

This historical consciousness has created a conundrum. While fans experience an emotional catharsis in episodes like Becoming and The Gift, new or infrequent viewers are invariably left confused or cold. (Syndication may be a blessing for Buffy, as inductees will now get quickly up to speed.) In other words, remembering the past (i.e., previous episodes) leads to the repetition of becoming loyal viewers, while the Buffy-ignorant remain blissfully unaware that something besides Survivor is on the telly. (If Buffy isn't a show about survival skills, what is?)

More to the point, one could argue that history has the same effect in the Buffyverse as in the Realverse. On Buffy, history isn't an endlessly repeated, hermetically-sealed cycle, as on Family Ties or Northern Exposure. These series use each episode as a means of teaching its main characters a facile lesson ("Money can't buy happiness," "Small towns have big values"), only to have the lesson promptly forgotten by the next installment. They teach that history is something passive yet didactic, like a dim Hallmark homily. In reality, history is an active, unstable, volatile force. Joss Whedon is aware of this fact. On Buffy, history can hurt.

A Slayer, not The Slayer
Like many young people, Buffy Summers was initially unappreciative of history. Giles summed her up thus: "(Buffy) lives very much in the now, and very much about 'the then.'" Buffy isn't obtuse. She's just so powerful that she had never fully considered that there were forces molding her, propelling her, even beyond her control.

This is demonstrated in Innocence, when the boastful Judge-"No weapon forged can kill me"-meets his end in the mall. "That was then," Buffy says, casually slinging a rocket-launcher over her shoulder, "this is now." For the younger Buffy, history was a dull aggregation of facts and dates, rituals and omens. When it did get threatening, as personified by the Judge, she could splinter it into a million pieces.

Not until Restless did Buffy's historical consciousness begin to evolve. The oft-invoked Joseph Campbell wrote that dreams were "personalized myth(s)," but they are personalized histories as well. In Buffy's dream, her past four years (a relatively long tenure, for a job with a high turnover rate) were distilled. Though Buffy fended off the mighty peeved "Primitive" (the First Slayer), her self-awareness was thrown into question. "You think you know who you are," the Primitive tells her, by proxy through Dream-Tara. "What you're to become. You haven't even begun." A subtle shift in cognizance-from being theSlayer (the Chosen One) to a Slayer (the Chosen One of Many)-gave Buffy a broader perspective.

Which is why the "new" Buffy would rather read a book on the Crusades (students love carnage) than hang out with her boyfriend, or bother to do her reading assignments on the Russian Revolution. That she gets shouted down by a boorish professor for questioning Rasputin's death doesn't deter her from seeing history as her shadow, a part of all her days. (I wonder if this wasn't also an attempt to connect the "unkillability" of Rasputin with Buffy's own catlike collection of lives.)

Yet there were perils to her newfound self-awareness. By learning about the past Slayers, Buffy discovered the unhappy prospect of death. Moreover, she began to see that she had more in common with her adversaries than previously thought.

The Vampire as Historical Agent
Vampires are beneficiaries of natural selection in the Buffyverse. As demons who retain the physiques, personalities and memories of the humans they devour, they would appear rather sad were they not so lethal. In the Buffyverse, vampires function as historical agents, arguably in the Malthusian manner of whittling down populations once they've outstripped their natural resources. (What resource is more natural, more immeasurable than blood?) This would almost make it seem that they are performing a public service, feeding on the "inferior" persons of our species, but as embodiments of evil vamps naturally gravitate toward what is anathema in themselves. Like mosquitoes to a vein, they are drawn towards the Slayer.

When Angel and Darla, Spike and Drusilla saunter through (presumably) Peking during the Boxer Rebellion, they're a vivid metaphor for bloodsucking Western imperialism. However, the two men of their quartet are going in opposite directions. Angel, once the undisputed leader (although Darla is his sire he seems to call the shots), has just begun to embark on a life of soulful reflection and regret. Similar to early Christian ascetics, he retreats from the world and becomes a solitary individual. In a spiritual twist, he sees his life not as a pilgrimmage to the afterlife, but occupies an immortal limbo, striving to earn another shot at mortality. Angel is trapped in the amber of history, bound by both his past and his promised destiny, neither fully among the living nor the dead.

In contrast, Spike became an agent of destruction. Yet it seems wrong to suggest he doesn't forget the past. Rather, he revels in it. He boasts to Buffy his pair of Slayer kills, even wearing the leather jacket of one as a memento. His famous Thanksgiving speech to a sermonizing Willow (the gist of which was "You won, they lost. Get over it.") reveals both Spike's historical acuity and his limitations. His difficulty lies in reflecting on what the past means to the present. Spike goes with the flow, changes with the times. This fluidity is what has made him so dangerous. Whether it will also be what saves him, or if he will lapse into recidivism, is an open question.

The Revisionists
There are also some in the Buffyverse who don't adhere to the historical record. Indeed, they go so far as to tamper with the results.

In the Realverse, this "revisionism" can provide a fresh perspective on taken-for-granted subjects and challenging the status quo. At its worst, though, historical revisionism can encourage selective memory, embellish the importance of some evidence while diminishing other data, or cite "facts" that just aren't there. The worst revisionists are egoists who in sum make themselves the "stars" of their own chronicles. Metaphorically-speaking, the revisionists in the Buffyverse have been Anya, Jonathan, and the Key-guarding monks.

Much older than even Angel or Spike, Anya has shown surprisingly little historical consciousness. As Anyanka, she too served as an agent-assassin but was forced to part ways with her mentor d'Hoffryn after he refused to "turn back the fabric of time." Since becoming human, Anya has begun to admire American history, in a jingoistic junior-high-school way. If any of the Scoobies would benefit from a college education (and would probably be an enthusiastic, discussion-monopolizer type of student), it is Anya. She has a rudimentary appreciation for history; now she needs more breadth and depth of learning to understand its power. (I could suggest a reading list, were I in a position to offer one.)

Needless to say, Jonathan is even more foolhardy. The cloud-cuckoo-land he conjured in Superstar was doomed from the start. He's seen so rarely-one of the countless "Where's Waldos" of history, an obscure serf on the manor of life-it's difficult to say just what he has learned.

The monks are a tougher call. Making the Key human, building memories like so many castles in the air, may be the most constructive kind of revisionism history has to offer. Yet this especially is an example of history's hazards. When Joyce asked whether Dawn was dangerous, Giles replied, "I assume you mean her existence and not her intentions." Dawn has been a boon to the Buffyverse, and a threat. The Key is a prime example of the neutral energy of history, it's capacity for good or evil.

History as a Double-Edged Stake
The Santayanic impulse to view history as morally instructive is admirable. Certainly it's preferable to the same counter-trend Richard Dawkins laments is happening to the teaching of science in Unweaving the Rainbow-that it's "fun, fun, fun." History is fun, in the sense that it isn't boring; "(i)t can enthrall a good mind for a lifetime" (Dawkins, 22-23). But this inclination by some historians to make it "relevant"-by hook or by crook-reeks of desperation. History is relevant to us in the same way religion was relevant to the ancients. It's all-pervasive, all around us. It functions the same in the Buffyverse as it does in our world: not cyclical, but like a river branching out in different directions, all deriving from the same primeval source.

History is rewarding. And it's dangerous. As with Buffy, it teaches us who we are and what we're to become. It reminds us that, when it comes to understanding the truth about ourselves, we haven't even begun.

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