Friday, 30 September 2011

View from a classroom, part 2
Before we reach the conclusion of Jane's guest blog (see: part 1), I thought I'd share some 'bonus' material with you. While Googling about, I happened to find the course's syllabus (opens a pdf file) for this year's Fall Semester.

It's great to see exactly what's been taught in Thomas J. Garza's class, the materials needed, deadlines, the nitty gritty. It also shows vampire study's no walk in the park. Jane's smack-bang in the middle of it; the course doesn't finish til November.

It's also great to see the emphasis given to the folkloric vampire. The required and supplementary texts are a solid introduction to the genre. Anyhoo, here's the rest of Jane's wonderfully insightful guest blog...

Anyhow, after going over the different definitions in detail, Professor Garza informally quizzed us on what all the different definitions had in common, to create a new compact-all-purpose vampire definition. The class came up with three traits: vampires are undead, they attack the living, and they come out at night. The resulting definition was: "a reanimated corpse which returns at night to prey on the living." The slides go on further to specifically define a Slavic vampire as "a being, which derives sustenance from the living, who is weakened by the experience." I think that’s interesting because by that definition, the greedy 11th century priest really was a vampire – taking wealth (as sustenance) from the parishioners, who are weakened by the experience. And as Professor Garza pointed this out, once again, someone brought up Rick Perry. He's very popular with the university crowd these days, you see… I digress. At this point we ran out of time so the Professor said we would finish the lecture the next class session.

During roll for the third lecture, Professor Garza played "A Road Song" by S Brigade (again, a song in Russian).1 He mentioned that this song is one of many "folk-rock" songs that became popular in Russia…at some point (I can’t remember when he said it was). It reminds me of the band Gogol Bordello quite a bit. Even after reading the lyrics in English a few times I’m still not entirely sure what the song is about. Here's the first verse (translated by Professor Garza):

"Hey, driver, turn toward the devil,
Let's drive home by a new road.
Hey, driver, turn toward the devil,
This isn't our forest, but someone else's."

I know Prof Garza explained the song briefly, but all I recall is he saying it had something to do with a pagan forest sprite. Which makes sense, as later in the lecture we do the 'quick and dirty' lesson on Slavic paganism. I feel like the song is so close to making sense, but I'm just not getting it for some reason. I have plans to go to Prof Garza's office hours sometime soon, so perhaps I’ll have a chance to ask him about it.

Quick note: so far, the third class lecture is the one I’ve taken the most notes, twice as much as for any other lecture, so it may be a little bit long. This is partly due to having to finish up the lecture from the previous class session, covering 'Types of Vampires'. The first type is the 'folkloric vampire', which (who?) is the result of dualism of religion in central Europe. Dualism, meaning two things that co-exist yet should repel one another, is big topic for this lecture, and comes up in later lectures too.  In this case it refers to when pagans began to convert to Christianity, but carried over aspects and traditions of paganism, creating a Christianity that included aspects of paganism. The folkloric vampire is represented as 'the other' – something unlike 'us' (the storytellers). The other can be blamed for misfortunes, especially fatal and disturbing (and bloody) misfortunes such as murders, animal attacks, the black plague and tuberculosis. In fact, I get the impression that would blame vampires, or other supernatural monsters, for just about anything that went wrong.

Next came the 'psychotic vampire' type, which is probably the type I was most unclear about. As far as I can tell, vampires qualify for psychotic with one main quality, and that is it is a vampire whose power is based on the ability to control others to commit atrocities. Professor Garza's metaphorical example was Charles Manson, who committed horrible acts himself, but also committed a great deal of horrible acts by proxy – through his followers. Thus (in part) it was simply his influence that led to bloodshed, rather than his actions. The other example given was the circumstances after WWII, in which a great number of Nazi officers claimed they were "just following orders" at their trials. These claims emphasized that there were greater forces at evil in play than the officers themselves.  From the one of the readings I recall there being the belief that vampires were the dead possessed by evil spirits, and driving a stake through it's [sic] heart was actually an exorcism. I think that kind of possession-demon would constitute a psychotic vampire.

Thirdly there is the 'psychic vampire', which are those that drain life by psyche or telepathy. Professor Garza had another metaphorical example for this one – Rasputin. He inserted himself into the Russian Imperial family as fortune-teller for the tsarina, exerting his 'psychic influence', and angering a great number of people. Like a vampire, he was very difficult to kill. It was strangely entertaining to hear the variety of ways he was not killed – he survived 20 assassination attempts! Incredible.  I wrote in my notes that the psychic vampire is very popular in modern vampire stories, but now I can't think of any. I think I got confused with 'psychic ability' as in, vampires who can read minds, and control and charm people through telepathy. That's not quite the same thing as draining their life through telepathy – perhaps I should have written that down under psychotic vampire? Charming people is bit like controlling them, after all.

The fourth category is the 'literary vampire' – which are those vampires we know best, or at least I do. It's simply the vampires that are authorial creations, such as Bram Stoker's Dracula, or Anne Rice's Lestat. The other types of vampires can all funnel into this type. Professor Garza explained he considers the literary vampire's success to be partially based on the author's ability to dress up (or down) the vampire to fit a culture and a place, such as what Anne Rice did with New Orleans in Interview with a Vampire, or what Charlaine Harris did with Bon Temps for the True Blood/Sookie Stackhouse series. He also gave a critique on Stephanie Meyer's lack of this quality in the Twilight series, saying that the setting (Forks, Washington) doesn't build on the vampire myth.

And that was 'Types of Vampires.' After this we covered Slavic paganism and the rise of Christianity, although as we were running behind it was the 'down and dirty' version. Very (very) quickly we went over a few Slavic pagan gods – Svarog (sun god), Orel (malicious god of winter), and Perun, the god of storms and thunder. We learned some pagan spirits (not quite gods, it seems, but supernatural) such as the Domovoi – a poltergeist or house spirit, which can be good or evil (mischievous), often lived near the stove. The Kikimora was a kind of female-Domovoi. There were the Leshi, the wood sprites, who were friends with all the animals in the forest but were notorious for stealing and eating children. The Polevoi, spirits of fields and crops, could ward off evil in your field — or they could bring pestilence, drought, and crop failure. Vodianoi were the spirits of water and harbingers of ill news. A kind of Vodianoi (I think) were the Rusalka, a cross between a siren and a mermaid, who was a bad omen and a symbol of unrequited love and despair. Charms and images of the Rusalka were supposed to ward off evil (much like the Turkish evil eye), often put up in homes, doorways, and as figureheads on the prows of ships.

Next comes "Slavdom turns Christian" –we start off with a brief anecdote of how Prince Vlad of Kiev back in 988 adopted Christianity for all his the people of Rus' (which was a pretty big chunk of Central Europe), after extensive research as to which religion suited him best. Professor Garza used several non-vampire related examples of religious dualism to give us an idea of how it works. The druidic tradition of decorating a tree for the winter solstice celebration was adopted and became a Chrisitan motif for "the lights of the stars in the East and decorations as representations of the gifts of the Magi" (taken from Prof Garza's slides). The pagan springtime fertility celebration gave the Christian Easter its symbols of reproduction – bunnies and eggs. Nothing says fertility like bunnies and eggs!

Now this part is a little bit different (not as direct as the previous examples). Now we get to the "how Christ is like a vampire" segment. First you must forget all notions of a nice Jesus, because apparently from the 3-6th century, fear was completely the central aspect to worship, not love. Christian missionaries drew parallels between Christ and vampires to persuade pagans that it was not vampires who caused their misfortunes, it was God. And the cure for those misfortunes wasn't garlic, it was prayer.  "The blood is the life" it says in Deuteronomy – Christ's blood specifically. The missionaries didn't draw parallels between Christ and vampires because they are strong connections – they did it because it was a convenient way to get people to understand what Christ was (in their eyes). Some of the parallels were: nailed to a cross/impaled on a stake, buried in a tomb/rests in a coffin, resurrected from the dead/becomes the living dead, can transcend human form/takes on animal forms, and cultivated disciples/victims turned vampire. In my opinion, these parallels definitely smell of "I found them because I wanted them to be there" not because they were actually there.  Just as a disclaimer, Professor Garza was not making any claims that Chirst is a vampire -- just that some old missionaries said he was like one to scare pagans Christian. Another note is that during this time, the cross was not known as a weakness of vampires.

To end off the lecture we watched two clips, the first from The Blair Witch Project, which borrows the pagan symbol of man and mashes it with a crucifix to give a pseudo-religious creepiness to it. In the clip we watched a group of young adults lost in the woods where the little stick figures are hanging everywhere from the trees. Next we watched a clip from The Barber of Siberia, where we saw a Russian pre-lent festival that had a number of aspects that were originally pagan. Most interesting was the "forgiveness" tradition, where all the young men take off their shirts and beat each other up in a huge brawl – to forgive each other of their sins. Throughout the clip a couple other pagan-like traditions pop up, including burning an effigy of a witch and a huge fire-structure (it spelled out something in Russian, but I don’t know what) that tied in with one of our readings about pagan rituals called "need-fires." The need-fire was a ceremonial fire lit during times of need in order to drive away the evil plaguing the community. It was a great clip, to say the least, and makes me want to see the movie.

And that’s all, folks!

Thanks, Jane! It was interesting to see the influence of Jan L. Perkowski's writings on Garza's views of vampires, from the vampire types, the etymology of 'vampire' and impact of dualist religions on the Slavs.2 But it's not like he hides it: he discussed Perkowski's influence during our 'interview'. Either way, great stuff.

For those interested in taking the course, yourself, consult the syllabus for what's expected. It's a little late to enroll, but keep an eye on The University of Texas at Austin's course schedule. Or, you could ask him.

1. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a clip for this song, unlike the ones mentioned in part 1. Sorry.

2. See JL Perkowski, The darkling: a treatise on Slavic vampirism, Slavica, Columbus, Ohio, 1989.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...