Sunday 24 April 2011

Why librarians should be interested in vampyrology

As should be apparent from this blog, I and others interested in this subject of magia posthuma or vampires spend a lot of time perusing books and other texts. We hope to find more information through books or archival material instead of going on a field expedition to regions of the world where, perhaps, we can find people who believe in vampires or other revenants. In that sense, vampyrology – as some call it – is rarely thought of as an empirical endeavour. For that reason, people who are or have been part of or in contact with a society whose ‘belief system’ includes something akin to a ‘vampire’, can be bewildered and perplexed by our interest.

Of course, a lot of research (if I dare use that term in this connection) is done in an office, but in many cases it does in fact relate to empirical data, like in the case of so-called desktop experiments. In the case of vampires, we somehow expect the subject to be part of something remote, something in the past or at least something that is hard, most likely even impossible to observe, so the endeavour to gain some understanding of the subject usually involves, as Eric W. Steinhauer says in his Vampyrologie für Bibliothekare, ‘Ein Haufen Papier’: a pile of paper. And, as he points out, this was certainly the case in the 17th and 18th century, when people debated vampires. For a great number of the learned people of that day, the library was their equivalent to a laboratory. The texts of e.g. the Serbian vampire cases themselves, in particular Flückinger’s 1732 Visum & Repertum, became the source of knowledge:

‘Was bedeutet das methodisch? Nun, der gelehrte Forscher nimmt die Vampirschilderungen so hin, wie sie berichtet werden – war doch das plötzliche Dahinsiechen offenbar vorbei, wenn der vampirische Leichnam vernichtet wurde – und sucht dann nach einer plausiblen Erklärung in den Texten und Theorien der in den Bibliotheken präsenten philosophischen und theologischen Autoritäten. Hier wurde er leicht fündig. Und so konnte der Vampir aus der spezifischen Medialität der Bibliothek heraus erwachsen und so konnte seine Existenz intellektuell plausibel werden.’ (p. 47)

The way that the vampire research of the 18th century was related to archives and libraries is the first point in Steinhauer’s vampyrology for librarians. The second point relates to the importance of texts and libraries in certain pieces of vampire fiction: Polidori’s The Vampyre, Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Stoker’s Dracula, and Kostova’s The Historian: Books and libraries connect the fantastic world of the undead with the reality of our present day, making libraries, in Steinhauer’s terminology, into a mechanism that materializes the uncanny.
The third and final point, however, relates to the nature of books themselves. They somehow stand there on the shelves waiting for a reader to pick them up, only to suck him into the world and thought of the author, who may have been dead for centuries. Here Steinhauer quotes Jorge Luis Borges who says that a library is full of dead people who can be reborn:

‘… eine Bibliothek sei …voll von Toten. Und diese Toten können neu geboren, wieder zum Leben gebracht werden, wenn man ihre Seiten ôffnen.’

But too much study of books can make you weak and pale, as I recall my grandparents telling me when I was a child who, apparently, at times spent a little too much time reading books and comics. Other descriptions of the effects that books can have on the health and imagination of researchers and other people who spend a lot of time over books are dealt with in Steinhauer’s Vampyrology, which is a delightful little book on vampires with some tongue-in-cheek observations meant for fellow librarians.

Vampyrologie für Bibliothekare is brief, just 101 pages, but the notes and bibliography show that Steinhauer himself has spent many hours studying vampire books! In fact, I found a few interesting references that I will now check up on. There are also a number of very nice illustrations, which - although it is slightly flawed by some unfortunate typos - altogether makes the book a pleasure to read.

And it is, of course, worth reading not only for librarians. In fact, it would make for a nice gift for anyone interested in books in general.

Eric W. Steinhauer: Vampyrologie für Bibliothekare: Eine kulturwissenschaftliche Lektüre des Vampirs (Eisenhut Verlag, 101 pages, €12.90)

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