Friday, April 9, 2010

Q & A with Bruce A. McClelland, Part 3

For the previous installment, click here.
AH: In this light, what do you think the next phase of the vampire's etymological evolution holds? Or do you believe that the current incarnation is too firmly embedded in popular consciousness to fade away?

BAM: That's a great question, and one I am considering for a new book. Clearly, the vampire is no longer a consequence of an ecclesiastical belief system, but rather what an anthropologist friend of mine once referred to as an "infinitely malleable signifier." More cynically, the vampire is a theme that has become so deeply engrained in our [Western] consciousness, which is increasingly less ecclesiastical as official-political religion becomes desperately more fundamentalist and thereby makes itself less and less relevant, that its way of encoding the conflicting positions and desires of the powerful and the powerless continues to make for new stories. Which can, it seems, be sold to ever younger audiences for new dollars. I think the new phenomenon of Twilight and True Blood, which starts, probably, with Anne Rice's simplistic but clever inversion of the protagonist/antagonist dynamic in Interview with the Vampire, may represent a kind of death knell for the vampire as we know him/it. We are getting further and further away, with each new unbaptized generation, from having any awareness of the deeper religious and eschatological conflicts that underlie the vampire myth. Certainly, the scapegoat theme is still the profane essence of the story, so what we have now are movies and TV shows in which outsiders no longer seek autonomy or identity, but inclusion in the post-liberal manufacturing and consumption system. The blood-drinking aspect of the vampire represents a nice Freudian combination of eroticism with violence, but there are so many other dramas out there that deal with that subject more literally and directly.

Twilight, it seems to me, is aimed at neutralizing the fear of the male that has been generated by the proliferation of the pornographies of sex and violence, and by glorified popular culture images of sexual behavior as soulless and violent (leaving adolescent and pre-adolescent girls with no better models of the female/feminine than such degraded, manufactured images as Brittany Spears and her desperate retro-pubescent exhibitionism).

The popularity of the vampire waxes and wanes, historically, but let's not forget that his true popularity is only 80 years old, hardly eternal. Stoker did not die a rich man, and in the Slavic countries, the vampire is nothing special (at least in the folklore history). I have recently contributed a chapter to a forthcoming book entitled True Blood and Philosphy (Wiley/Blackwell, 2010), the very existence of which suggests that as soon as these media events (Buffy, True Blood, Twilight, etc.) are produced, they are analyzed to generate meta-products for another, ostensibly sympathetic audience. There is a new industry, in other words, of neo-scholarship trying to make itself relevant to an increasingly illiterate society, by paying almost serious attention to what would otherwise pass as mere entertainment. How long that can go on is anybody's guess, but currently, it doesn't feel as though the vampire has many places to go to get out of this trap.

AH: The ninth and tenth chapters of your book present your case for Bram Stoker's characterisation of Abraham Van Helsing being inspired by Dutch physician, Gerard van Swieten. Would you care to explain the link between the two and why you believe Stoker was influenced by him?

BAM: Because Stoker played so close to the vest regarding his model for Van Helsing, the subject is of course liable to much speculation, and my opinion on the subject is far from being widely accepted. I should say at the outset that there was one brief moment, several years ago, when I came across an article on the Internet by a scholar, a physician I think, whose name I don't remember and whose article I can no longer find, who had absolutely independently come to the same conclusion on the basis of some of Stoker's notes he had read at the Rosenbach Foundation Museum in Philadelphia. Elizabeth Miller patently rejects the idea, claiming, not without justification, deep familiarity with the Stoker collection at the Rosenbach. Still, I was encouraged by the same conclusion being put forth independently by someone who mentioned the link between Vans Swieten and Helsing, almost in passing. How I wish I could find his paper! [Dear Sir: if you are reading this, please contact me with the reference that led you to the conclusion that Stoker had drawn upon the character of Van Swieten for his character Van Helsing.]

First of all, while I'm willing to admit that Van Helsing is a fictional character and thus a composite of possibly multiple acquaintances and prototypes, I can't buy the common argument that Arminius Vambery was the model for VH (see Arminius Vambery). They have virtually nothing in common. Stoker's reference to his "friend Arminius" in Dracula is homage, of course, but I think more a matter of gratitude and indeed, respect or friendship, not a winking hint that Vambery=Van Helsing.

At the famous 1890 meeting between Stoker and Vambery at the Beefsteak Club, this Hungarian adventurer and agent provocateur supposedly regaled his British audience with his knowledge of not only Transylvania, but also Central Asia, where he had traveled widely, sometimes as a spy speaking a Turkic language and dressed as a dervish or what-not. Recall that Vambery's personal and somewhat covert mission in London was to garner support for his brand of Pan-Turkism, which in theory the British might have supported because of its anti-Russian position. Vambery gave lectures in London about his ideas, and it is possible, perhaps likely, that Stoker attended one or two. Pure speculation so far.

But although Elizabeth denies the significance of the connection between Stoker and Vambery, being, in my opinion, unnecessarily cautious but nevertheless scholarly, she ignores the fact that two years before the publication of Dracula, Vambery had published, in English, with Allen and Unwin, The History of Hungary. In that book, which I have a copy of, he mentions both Dracula (Vlad III) and Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria and Hungary, albeit in different chapters, of course. (So far as I recall, he does not mention Van Swieten.) As an historian of Hungary, including Transylvania, he certainly knew more about Vlad's exploits than he brings into his book, since these were widely known from the fifteenth century on. Considering that Vambery was a Pan-Turkist, and that Vlad's father, Vlad II Dracul, was a member of a paramilitary band sworn to fight the Turks, this might explain both the short shrift that Vambery gives to Dracula in his history, and a reason to associate Dracula's widely known bloodthirstiness and anti-Turkish rage with evil. (Though without the Romanian fighters against the Turks, Hungary may have remained under Ottoman domination longer than it did.)

Furthermore, Vambery must have known a good deal about Van Swieten, since he was the principal and most trusted advisor to Maria Theresa in a number of matters. If he knew about Van Swieten, he also knew about his Consideration, Swieten's treatise on magia posthuma, since among the first significant duties of Van Swieten was to investigate the goings-on with vampires in Silesia in 1755.

Following the above logic, we so far have a link between Stoker→Vambery→Vlad III/ →Maria Theresa→Van Swieten. Interesting, but not yet convincing. But if we now look at the common characteristics of Van Helsing and Van Swieten, in this context they seem to be more than purely accidental. Both are, for example:

(a) Dutch (Vambery was Hungarian);
(b) knowledgeable about vampires (Van Swieten was one of the first Western authors on the subject);
(c) physicians;
(d) holders of professional credentials in other areas (Van Swieten was Chief Censor and Head Librarian for the court of Maria Theresa); and
(e) perhaps most importantly, Catholic (see "Envisioning an indulgence: Dracula (1897) & Van Helsing (2004)").

Vambery, meanwhile, possesses virtually none of those features in common with Van Helsing (or Van Swieten), but he would have known all those things about Van Swieten. Or, if Vambery did not mention them specifically, Stoker could have easily learned more about Van Swieten, as a result of interest piqued by Vambery's stories, at the British Museum (speculation).

Between the demonstrable pathways from Stoker to knowledge about vampires (Transylvanian folklore, which of course he also learned about later from Land Across the Forest), Vlad Dracula, and Gerard van Swieten, on the one hand, and the more-than-coincidental morphological similarity between the fictional Abraham Van Helsing and the real Van Swieten on the other, I am hard pressed to accept any other model for Van Helsing proposed to date. This is especially true because no other hypotheses ever offer evidence that even comes close to refuting that put forth above. But, to be honest, although I think this connection is close to being demonstrated, it's not a subject I'm going to pursue any further, at least actively.
To be continued...

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