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Vampires and Vampirism

Rarely do I peruse customer reviews because, as a rule, they are overly positive, overly negative, or so general as to add no stickiness to the paste.  But I had to smile at some proffered insight into another of this author’s books which I will do the critic the dishonor of paraphrasing.  According to this most disappointed reader, Monsignor Summers (if he were indeed ever ordained, a matter of biographical debate) is, like “most religious writers … horribly tainted” by his beliefs; he "cannot seem to write a line without referring to Our Holy Father" (which the critic, to underscore his consistency, does not capitalize); he “picks his flavor” according to his religious beliefs, not according to “proof”; with the result being a “narrow−minded” book with “strong marks of fundamentalism.”  Whatever the dyes Summers uses to color his quilt, quoting hundreds of texts in six languages from the last twenty−five centuries is probably not the most appropriate example of “narrow−minded.”  Nor does “fundamentalism” have anything at all to do with his beliefs, which are heretical in a harmless way and as far from standard doctrine as they could possibly be with good intentions.  But the real howler here is the idea that proof and belief have anything to do with one another, and that only “religious writers” (somewhat of a redundancy, for all first−rate writers have some religion) cherry−pick what they need for their arguments while the great objective empiricists include all the facts, pro and contra, before drawing their conclusions.  I cannot imagine what our good reviewer was seeking to find in a book written by a priest on the occult, but his lack of appreciation is exceeded only by my pity.  Which brings us to an authoritative take on what is presumably a fictional subject.

sleepy_ros.jpgI say “presumably” because as fantastic and preposterous as vampires may sound, you may never find another text that could more convince you of their reality.  This has much to do with the way in which Summers, an eccentric man of awesome learning, chooses to present his information.  He is not looking at teethmarks, scrutinizing autopsy reports, or investigating missing persons; rather, he is suggesting what spiritual penury could result in a state of living death and the traditional beliefs that reflect this possibility.  He begins exactly where one should begin in such argumentation: with some of the countless occurrences of persons buried alive.  These are not, mind you, intentional happenings, but weird stoppages of vital signs that persisted long enough to persuade the local medical authorities that nothing more could be done.  We are introduced to examples from Hellenic and Slavic culture — the countries of the Balkan Sprachbund being the wellspring of vampiric lore — as well as other instances from European, African and Asian lands.  Summers then proceeds with ecclesiastical justifications for casting someone out of the church, as well as the mania of suicide that has become such an accepted component of modern society that we think little of its spiritual consequences.  As it were, features commonly associated with a vampire have their roots in basic beliefs about suicide, burial, excommunication and human psychology, although there exist less tantalizing explanations for all these phenomena (usually, that they are the products of ignorant superstition).  Yet we are never told that we must think it so; we only understand that this is his belief laid out before us like a shroud upon an oaken bier.

The instances he localizes and enumerates are impressive enough, but our respect as scholars is overtaken by our pleasure as readers.  Most renowned as the first English translator of this evil book, Summers has a lush, somewhat archaic style of perfectly weighed phrases and endless libraries to feed his metaphors and sidelights.  Take, for one, his opinion on suicide:

The belief that a man has not complete dominion over his own life and that it is unlawful for him to take it is certainly a feeling naturally implanted in the human breast, and it was only when nations were entirely barbarian or had become decadent and corrupt that the notion of suicide was held up as noble and even heroic.  Whatever certain among the later Greeks may have practiced and taught, in earlier days, as we have seen, the act of suicide was regarded as a dark and presumptuous deed.  They truly felt that there was something of ἀσέβεια, something of that  ὕβρις which so surely stirred the wrath of heaven and inevitably called down righteous vengeance.

In one way or another, we are all familiar with the pitfalls of hubris.  “Impiety” (ἀσέβεια) was the charge leveled at Socrates and later at Aristotle for crimes that they could not possibly have committed.  The obvious idea here is that life is a gift: those who choose death as some form of refuge from daily ills (Summers does not fault the poor and miserable among the suicides whose existence is but a litany of suffering) should be condemned to it eternally.  Thence is derived the mentality, to use a modern term, of the vampire, of living death, of sleeping through every manifestation of the sun, and of preying upon those who have chosen to carry on regardless of the odds.

The book culminates in two learned chapters on the vampire in literature, old and new.  We saunter through the twilights of Assyria, Polynesia, pre−Colombian Mexico, China, and, most of all, India, which has a longer and more pronounced tradition than perhaps any region on earth save the aforementioned Balkans.  Here we find curious correlations in legend, and a rather unpleasant collation of detail.  So when the final chapter on modern literature begins with a consideration of this horrific tale from the coldest reaches of Sweden, we are already sufficiently gorged on bloodthirsty subjects to discern the subtleties of storytelling that inform our images.  And our images are not only tainted with our beliefs, they seem to shadow them like soundless serpents wandering near our ankles in the dark.  Non timebis a timore nocturne.

Reader Comments (2)

hahaha... great first paragraph. love the bemused take on the disappointed reaction of the (presumably linguistically) poor critic. would like permission to reprint in Melacholy's copybook.

i must point out, however, my disappointment with your lack of breathing marks for the Greek.

June 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMelancholy Korean

Many thanks and permission granted. And as you can see, I have righted that egregious error already.

June 18, 2008 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

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