ASE Wrap-Up: Aristocratic Vampires

While I’m not going to do a full report on the ASE Conference (other than to say it was a lot of fun and really awesome!), I do want to address a question that came up during my presentation, and hopefully provide some insight into an otherwise dissonant element of my overall argument that the historical vampire was “disenchanted” by vampire literature which represented the Balkans in contrast with western views of itself in the “modern” era. It was a good question, and deserves a bit of space here.

For those of you who haven’t been to an academic conference, this is what usually happens: After a paper is given, the presenter answers questions regarding the paper (or the topic). This is actually a very fun part of the conference in that the speaker has a chance to talk about their ideas with other scholars, get some feedback, and perhaps consider angles they hadn’t thought of previously. The tone is (usually) collegial, though sometimes it can get out of hand.

Now, I prepared in advance for several questions. Here are a few inquiries I did not field, but nevertheless prepared for:

Q: What happened to Arnod Paole?
A: He made several vampires before being staked, at which time he let out a most serious groan.

Q: Why were the Balkans viewed so pejoratively?
A: Their location within Europe made them susceptible to foreign empire, both Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman, and their geographical position held many advantages for the great powers of Britain, France and Russia, who each sought to control access in the region. Thus, by demonizing a peoples they wanted to subject, they could more easily lay claims to power in the region.

Q: Who are you wearing?
A: Kmart Jaclyn Smith Collection…on sale.

But no, I got none of these questions. Instead, I was asked a very astute question which totally complicated my argument that the Balkan peasantry and “primitive” belief in vampires constituted a threat to the west. More specifically, I was asked why Balkan vampires in literature were all aristocrats.

Let me say first, I am not the quickest person on my feet. I think I answered with a bunch of “I don’t knows” and some half-ideas that went…somewhere, maybe. But now that I’ve thought about it, perhaps I can take a stab (ugh) at it here.

Talking about vampires at the ASE.

Stephen D. Arata, I think, provides the clearest reason for the aristocratic vampire. In his analysis of Dracula, he observes how the character of Dracula reverses one version of the orientalist travel narrative (634-639). In brief, this narrative involves a westerner who goes to an exotic locale in the East and “passes” for being a native. However, the converse is rarely true. While an Englishman, such as Richard Burton, can don a headscarf and be mistaken as indigenous, it is unlikely someone from the east could make the opposite journey and move about undetected (Arata 639).

Except in vampire novels. And this is what Arata argues is so terrifying about Dracula. The Count is not one of the backward peasantry, but well studied in the intellectual pursuits of the day. (For some reason, reading train schedules is especially important here.) Even more, when Dracula encounters westerners…he passes. People do not see him as a foreigner, but an aristocrat (Arata 638-639).

In other words, he threatens to break into the existing elite social order. The device of the vampire serves to show how foreign incursions into these areas will drain the vitality—or hegemony—from those currently on top (Arata, 630-632).

While my paper argued that vampires, or more specifically the sort of people who believe in vampires, represented a specific encounter between east and west in the “modern” era, the aristocratic vampire does complicate things. Certainly, literature from the time supports this socio-economic distinction, as western diplomats often accepted their elite eastern counterparts (Todorova 465-466). The vampire designates the sort of threat that can happen within these encounters—meetings which don’t easily stratify into “us-and-them” but rather align along social status. The threat is ambiguous, hard to detect, and undermines the existing hegemony.

We must keep in mind that while these fictional books did encode certain common messages, at the end of the day they were entertainment—and in this case were a form of literature that was intentionally designed to disturb the reader. On the one hand, the Balkan peasants serve as a foil, to remind the reader of how far they’ve come from “primitive superstitions” on the other hand, the aristocratic vampire suggests the threat not only still exists, but is omnipresent, undetectable, and able to infiltrate—and subvert—the highest realms of society.

I hope this helps clarify what is definitely a complicating feature of my argument. That said, the overall message—that the East contains ideas and beliefs that are dissonant with those of the West, I think still holds up, even if that threat is polarized in social status from those who give it credence.

Sources:
Arata, Stephen D. “The Occidental Tourist: ‘Dracula’ and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonialization.” Victorian Studies 33.4 (1990): 621-645.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897. New York: Signet Classics. 2007. Print.
Todorova, Maria. “The Balkans: From Discovery to Invention.” Slavic Review 53.2 (1994): 453-482.

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About Sarah Veale

Former journalist, current student of ancient religion. My first peer-review article, "Orientalism in Iamblichus' The Mysteries," was recently published in The Pomegranate:The International Journal of Pagan Studies.
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7 Responses to ASE Wrap-Up: Aristocratic Vampires

  1. A voice from the heavens, or maybe the peanut gallery, interrupted my reading of this to say “World War I is the key to understanding European history not only after 1918, but for two generations before as well.” Explains, you see, where East vs. West was going, and the tensions that made the aristocratic order break down.

  2. Sarah Veale says:

    Absolutely! Internal and external struggles in the region definitely contributed to this atmosphere, and (of course) WWI.

  3. henadology says:

    It could also be that the vampire literature offers a symbolic critique of the position of the aristocracy, a critique which is less threatening if the aristocrats in question are foreigners, rather than members of the domestic nobility.

  4. Sarah Veale says:

    There is certainly a critique of elite views contained in these works, especially contra the experiences of the characters, for sure. But that is a really interesting way of reading it.

  5. Robert M. Place came up with another take on Stoker’s Dracula: it works as an inversion of the Grail legend. It is as if the Count took the legend too literally and believed that blood was the Elixir Vitae. That was the inspiration for his Vampire Tarot.

  6. Sarah Veale says:

    This is a bit of a digression from my original argument (which wasn’t limited to Dracula!), but the vampire is a very pliable metaphor, for sure.

  7. Indeed! All of the really good stories and myths can be sliced several different ways. We have now been “civilized” long enough that the “decadent aristocrat” is an archetype, which can serve many purposes in stories.

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