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Encountering Eastern Vampires: Institutions of the Undead

Encountering Eastern Vampires: Institutions of the Undead
© Photograph by Michał Olszewski

Anne Rice’s American vampire Louis de Pointe du Lac thus expressed his disappointment at meeting the Eastern European vampire, the alleged origin of his kin, for the first time, and finding it was no more than a dumb, mindless animated corpse lacking any trace of subjectivity or self-awareness. The whole description can be read as reminiscent of the otherising discourses employed to describe the colonized or racialized subject in the Western world since the eighteenth-century. Louis de Pointe du Lac seems to imply that the creature he and Claudia have greeted by killing it and obliterating its threatening difference belongs to their same species, but just as their biologically and intellectually underdeveloped counterpart. European colonizers used the same logic with the native inhabitants in many of the “newly discovered” lands.

In a sense, Louis de Pointe du Lac is merely reproducing an old discourse that, applied to living human beings instead of vampires, emerged both in and as a consequence of the irruption of the latter in the cultural space of Western Europe. In the first third of the eighteenth-century, the Austrian Imperial authorities had to send military officers stationed in the Serbian lands newly conquered from the Ottoman Empire to cope with the social unrest caused by a supposed epidemic that originated in certain mysterious beings called vampyr.

The reports sent back to Vienna were dominated by the consciousness (under rhetorical construction in these very reports) of an unbridgeable ethnic gap between Habsburg officers and local peasants. This gap, probably fully realized here for the first time in modern terms, was grounded not only on military or discursive authority, but also on substantial differences such as scientific development, biological conditions of life, and lack or not of individual subjectivity and intellectual independence.

Most of these reports began by stating the ethnic otherness of the native population, explicitly denominating them “Rascians” (Ratzen in German), the then usual term for Serbians or, sometimes, in a wider perspective, Southern Slavs. Both military chaplain Petar Blagojević, who reported from the Serbian village of Kisiljevo the first case of vampirism that reached the West in 1725 (Hamberger, 1992, pp. 43–45), and the epidemiologist Glaser, sent to the village of Medvegia, also in Serbia, to investigate the strange incidents that took place there at the end of 1731 (Hamberger, 1992, pp. 46–49), attributed more or less overtly the local beliefs — that they mostly despised — to Rascian uncivilized customs or superstition.

In the wake of the latter case, quickly disseminated across the whole continent already during 1732, a frantic attempt to explain the enigmatic episodes erupted among the scientific circles of the West.

Rascian, or merely Eastern European otherness, was frequently proposed as the cause of a phenomenon generally regarded with contempt from the vantage point of Enlightenment mentality as an instance of backwardness, discursive underdevelopment, and irreflexive submissiveness inherent to Slavic peoples. In his ‘Besondere Nachricht von denen Vampiren’ (‘Special Report about the Vampires’, 1732), the doctor Johann Christoph Meinig — writing under the pseudonym “Putoneus” — credits the existence of such “absurdities” to the ethnic condition of the Rascians: “It is initially worth noting that this fact had to take place among the Rascians, that is, among a people dominated not only by the greatest ignorance of all natural things, but also by the greatest superstition; consequently, such subjects are inclined to fancy the most foolish things, and their priests know they can make of them what they will.” (Hamberger, 1992, p. 119)

A wider reference to “the Eastern part of the world” can be found in a singular anonymous article published in London as soon as May 1732: “I must agree with the learned Doctor, that an inanimate Corpse cannot perform any vital Functions; yet, agree with the Lady that there are Vampyres. This Account, you will observe, comes from the Eastern Part of the World, always remarkable for the Allegorical Style. The States of Hungary are in Subjection to the Turks and Germans, and governed by a pretty hard Hand; which obliges them to couch all their Complaints under Figures.” (Political Vampires, 1732, p. 631)

Here, an ethnic difference is accounted for in terms of political regime and, above all, discursive practices. A politically subject people cannot but produce psychic non-subjects who, unlike Western citizens, are incapable of speaking for themselves and of distinctly perceiving, analysing and naming reality.

Many ethnic and cultural negotiations about the notions of Europeanness and subjectivity are at stake in the discursive contact space that the eighteenth-century Western reception of vampirism came to represent. Vampirism and vampires themselves were thus configured from their introduction in the West as a surface that absorbed, projected, and simultaneously facilitated and problematized the construction of discursive, conceptual and ethnic boundaries between the civilized self and its irreducible other. However, to a certain extent, this was not just an innovative feature that emerged in the cultural contact. Beyond the discursive realm, in Eastern European folklore, the vampire already emblematized ethnic crossing and confrontation, as a rapid reading of the very same cases I have just mentioned will make clear.

As a site of (ontological, ethnic, cultural) crossing, the coarse corporealness of the vampire embodies at the same time the threats and the fluidity of existential difference. It allows inscribing or turning visible the separation between self and other, but simultaneously complicates such separation, revealing its precariousness. The rejected difference, death, evil, or strangeness, comes back with the corpse to be compulsively (re)incorporated into the space of the self.

The Serbian peasants from the cases reported by Austrian officers found themselves in a period of transition between different foreign rules, namely the Ottoman they had just left, and the Habsburg they were becoming acquainted with. At this moment, both their self and difference were being redefined. The complexities of the vampire seem to stand in some way for the intricacies of these identity negotiations. Both in Petar Blagojević’s 1725 report, and in the diverse Medvegja ones, the locals refer vampirism to Turkish geographical or temporal spaces. Petar Blagojević’s informants allege a connection between their present afflictions and “Turkish times,” while all the original vampires in Medvegja 1731–2 had been infected while temporarily living in a loosely defined “Turkey.” As Gerard James Butler has suggested, “in both cases, the vampire represents an outside contaminant that has lodged in a member of the social body and now stands to sicken the whole populace. […] Thus, when villagers united to do away with one of their own […] they affirmed that they would not allow foreigners to incorporate them, a fate even worse than death.” (Butler, 2010, p. 38)

Not only were the Serbian peasants trying to re-found their own identity in front of the new Austrian rulers and apart from the old Ottoman ones; they were at the same time acknowledging, through the hideous body of the vampire — one of themselves — the uncertainties of identity and the frightful hybridity which they tried in vain to get rid of. Besides implying the emergence of another and thus a new, stronger delimitation of the self, the sudden appearance of the vampire entails from the beginning an othering of the self, its advent as an element always already in question, contaminated or contaminable by the other.

In this sense, the Serbian episodes of 1725–1732 can be read as a twofold phenomenon: on the one hand, the vampire provided a space of definition for Western Europeans in opposition to the East; on the other, it offered a site of self-delimitation for Slavic populations. In both cases, though, self-definition was haunted by the anxieties derived from the uncertainty of limits embodied in the transgressing figure of the vampire. In fact, the reaction of both sides to the threat of vampiric pollution is entirely parallel, if by different means.

The physical extermination of the undead carried out by Serbian villagers in order to eradicate this element of internalized difference menacing their community can be equated to the discursive endeavours of European scholars to annihilate the sphere of epistemological difference represented by the superstition of Eastern peoples on the edge of the Empire, and thus prevent any chance of contamination.

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