Sunday 18 March 2012

Sudor Anglicus, the English Sweat

'It is hard now to really imagine the social chaos and trauma of severe plague outbreaks. Perhaps the best modern fictional resemblance occurs in Danny Boyle's 2002 film 28 Days Later, with is bleak apocalyptic scnearios and violent social disintegration. But the plague at least gave many people some bare chance of preparing remecies, or of simply composing themselves for a good pious death. In 1485, just before the coronation of Henry VII, England was hit by an entirely unfamiliar disease whose combined ferocity and speed of attack are comparable to a widespread epidemic of SARS or Ebola. Its horrors still seem fresh decades later, as recalled in 1552 by the physician John Caius. Where the plague might take between four and fourteen days to decisively claim its victims, the sweating sickness "immediately killed some in opening their windows, some in playing with children in their street doors, some in one hour, many in two it destroyed, and at the longest, to them that merrily dined, it gave a sorrowful supper. As it found them so it took them ... and in one house sometime three sometime five ... sometime more sometime all, of the which, if the half in every town escaped, it was thought great favour".'

Richard Sugg: Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians (Routledge, 2011), p. 140

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Fear and Servant

During the winter of 1736-37, the Devil travelled to Belgrade, Serbia, with his Serbian servant, Novak, to investigate rumours about vampires. At the same time, an Austrian commission was on their way to Belgrade to find out if vampires really exist.

However, the vampires they encounter - if they can in fact be considered vampires - are not exactly what one might expect, neither from the actual vampire cases of the period or from modern Western vampire fiction.

In fact, the whole story is as far from an attempt at recreating the period as it is a piece of ordinary vampire fiction. Rather, Mirjana Novakovic' Fear and Servant is a literary fantasy mixing history with literature, no doubt inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master & Margarita and Milovan Glisic's novel about the vampire Sava Savanovic, Posle devedeset godina from 1880. In the mix are numerous references to e.g. Melville, Shakespeare, Baum, and even the Rolling Stones (whose Sympathy for the Devil itself is perhaps inspired by Bulgakov's novel about the Devil visiting the Soviet Union).

The story is narrated by the Devil using the nom de plume Otto von Hausburg, and Princess Maria Augusta of Thurn and Taxis, the wife of Carl Alexander, Duke of Württemberg, who played his role in distributing the information about the investigation of purported vampirism in Medvedja in Serbia (cf. Hamberger, Mortuus non mordet, p. 111).

A reader in Nis in Serbia recently kindly mentioned that the novel, originally published in 2000, had been translated into English and published by Geopoetika in 2009 in a series of Serbian Prose in Translation. Obviously, Fear and Servant is not your typical vampire novel, nor is it a novel that provides much information of use for vampire research, but it is a very enjoyable and well-written novel, and as a literary experience certainly far more rewarding spending time on than Fred Vargas's Un lieu incertain.

The novel has been reprinted several times in Serbia, was awarded the Isidora Sekulic Award and a play based on it was performed in 2003 at the Kalemegdan Fortress in Belgrade where parts of the action takes place. As mentioned in an earlier post, the novel was translated into French in 2006.

Thursday 8 March 2012

Wild Serbia - Wild Balkan

Vampire nation or not, there are other aspects of Serbia and the Balkan nations worth getting acquainted with. Yesterday German TV channel NDR aired a 2008 documentary on the incredibly diverse wildlife of Serbia, Wild Serbia - Gorges and Jackals:

'Serbia, which lies at the heart of the Balkans, is called “little Europe,” a name that does full justice to the land and its extremely varied landscapes and nature. Serbia’s breathtakingly grandiose landscapes and unique animal world are at the forefront of this journey to the most beautiful and wildest areas of the Balkan peninsula. This is presumably the sole HD documentary about nature in Serbia, Europe’s hot spot for diversity of species. Highlights are the rare shots of wild jackals and black storks.'

Fortunately, someone has uploaded the documentary to youtube. Those who are unable to understand the German narration, can take a look at the English language trailer.

Another German production available on youtube and worth watching, documents Balkan nature and wildlife as if it could have been the inspiration for J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth.

Sunday 4 March 2012

'Vampire, see Serbia'

'Vampire, see Serbia', is what you find if you look up the word Vampyr in Dr. Christian Wilhelm Hufeland's encyclopedia on apparent death, Der Scheintod, oder Sammlung der wichtigsten Thatsachen und Bemerckungen darüber, from 1808.

The entry on Serbia, which incidentally follows an entry on the apparently dead eating themselves (das Selbstverzehren der Scheintodten: 'Man hat Beispiele von Todten, welche im Sarge sich selbst zu verzehren angefangen haben sollen...'), actually carries the title: 'Servien's Scheintodten-Ereignisse', the incidents involving apparently dead persons in Serbia. The entry concerns the incidents in Medvedja in the winter of 1731-2, although here erroneously dated 1733. Hufeland states that Emperor Charles VI asked Dr. Beyer to write an analysis of the matter, which however has not been published, but was probably suppressed by the Church ('Dieses ist aber, so sehr das Publicum auch darauf wartete, niemals öffentlich bekannt gemacht und warscheinlich durch den Kaiserlichen Beichtsvater, nach dessen Sinne es nicht ausgefallen seyn mochte, unterdrückt worden').

Hufeland finds that the vampires were in fact persons who became afflicted with some local disease and were presumed dead, and consequently  prematurely buried. Well, all things considered, it is not exactly a satisfactory theory, but that is the reason why Serbia and vampires are included in Hufeland's book.

But Hufeland is not the only one to identify Serbia with vampirism, and vice versa. In a recent book, Vampire Nation: Violence as Cultural Imaginary (Duke University Press, 2011), Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at the University of Winsconsin, Tomislav Z. Longinovic, writes:

'Until the Bulldozer Revolution in October 2000, global media networks and the public relations industry profiled 'the serbs' as avatars of post-communist violence in the Balkans. Despite the burden of all too real war crimes committed during the 1990s in the name of collective survival of their own territorial identity, global media excessively emphasized 'the serbs' as the incarnation of an exemplary and exceptional form of evil not proper to Europe, a vision that gradually excluded this imaginary assemblage from the sphere of civilization. Despite the fact that 'the serbs' belong geographically to the very core of Europe, symbolically and territorially, their borderline position was constructed as a projection of the Eurocentric fantasy about a cruel Orient in Europe.' (p. 5-6)

'The perception of pathological fixation of Eastern Europe in general and of the Balkans in particular, on the "old centuries" voiced by Stoker at the end of the nineteenth century through the persona of Dracula* is symptomatic of a cultural vision based on an interesting intersection of local and global discourses of violence. The past and its bloody memories define a refusal to yield to modernity imputed to the countries of the Balkan region, whose resistance to civilization and its laws are naturalized as inherently evil to oppose the advances of the Enlightenment and its technologies of mediation. The narrative projected onto the vampire as a beast within, enslaved to the undying, bloody past, serves as a national fetish underlying the repressed origins of Europe proper.

A small nation such as 'the serbs' is by definition led by a mysterious, degenerate leader who is ready to sacrifice others and commit bloodshed only to prolong his political power. During the 1990s, this vision of the other Europe reinforced an imaginary relationship that extended the vampire metaphor from the realm of the Gothic period's horror genre to the mundane practice of global politics, strategically deploying violence to advance civilization and the rule of law in the Wild East of Europe. The signifier that will forever sink into historical oblivion - Yugoslavia, the proper name of the country that was erased to deny the striving of culturally heterogeneous populations to live in a common state - has been assaulted by differentialist logic of the "clash of civilization" to enforce local insecurity by bringing about a collective return to the ideology of the vampire nation.

Stoker's Dracula, which founded the literary discourse of the Gothic imaginary, appears as the incarnation of those old centuries that refuse to fade away in the face of modernizing Europe. This imaginary, sparked by a belated Romantic mourning for the glory of the past boundaries of Europe, uses violence with the automatism of the beast who has no other choice but to feed itself on the blood of others. This hungry being is always engendered in zones of intense cultural and linguistic hybridization and simultaneously is imbued with the pathos of a race submerged in the narratives of its own past and viewed as a herald of a cruel modernity at hand.

Many "national" histories written and taught in the Balkans and in the rest of "Oriental" Europe are saturated with a celebration of violence that is monumentalized as just revenge and sacrifice offered to the glory of cultural life and survival. Small nationalisms contain this imaginary economy; they appear colorful but ostensibly irrational, steeped in gore despite enlightened intentions and dominated by discourses of masculine injury that claim the victim's right to feed on the blood of others as the only way to sustain survival.' (p. 19-20)

'The discourse of stolen blood reveals how the imaginary lens crafted by Stoker persists in the West as a cultural filter that defines alterity: Eastern Europe is a location where sex and violence know no limits. The image produced in British popular culture at the end of the nineteenth century has traveled to the end of the twentieth century to establish political discourses that the U.S.-led West sustains when it deals with new yet old types of revenant nationalism: the specter of 'the serbs' as the global vampires who deserve a well-guided stake of democracy.

This Gothic vision defines the boundaries of proper identity and its civilizatoinal other within Europe, a location where bad but sharp teeth, carnage, and fornication abound. The other Europe is an extension of the notorious count's ruined castle, where excessive passions and "old centuries" conspire to halt the progress and enlightenment proper only to the superior technology of the West. One of the most symptomatic returns of this Gothic vision is the mediated emergence of 'the serbs' as a phantasm of a vampire community governed by an excess of malignant historical imagination that is alien to the values of Europe and the "civilized world."

Firmly rooted in political and cultural ideals inherited from the best European traditions of nationalism and liberalism, 'the serbs' share military rationality and territorial logic of the nation-state with Europe proper. In fact, the Yugoslav tragedies of the 1990s are a legacy of the violence that formed the foundation of modern Europe: the political and cultural ideals made flesh and blood in the uncanny law binding the nation-state. The temporal disjunction between the "other" Europe steeped in old centuries of its historical imagination and the hypermodern amnesia of the U.S.-led West is at the root of this interpellated subjectivity structuring the Gothic emergence of 'the serbs'.' (p. 10)

Europe according to USA, from Mapping Stereortypes

'The extraordinary success of Twilight among youth in the United States appears as a global symptom of chronic hunger for attention from others and a craving for freedom that, paradoxically, shrinks under an invisible yet omnipresent force based on consumption and concealed forms of violence inherent in the developed modes of the current economy. Images of vampires have persisted in popular culture as a remnant of that undying demand for the extraordinary established by the Romantics and reveal, with symptomatic ambiguity, ever more powerful yet abstinent revenants who can control their craving for the blood of the ones they love. The disgusting, corpse-like appearance of the vampire has been sublimated into beauty in Goth subcultures, lending esthetic currency to the love of death that is overcome by the ever increasing levels of consumption demanded from ordinary humans.

In fact, the global media gaze that has discovered the cradle of European violence among 'the serbs' continues to act as a stake to put other vampire nations out for good. The skill of the vampire slayer equals that of the exterminator, acting with rational violence against the irrational one of the nations deemed below civilization's dividing line. The imaginary of minor and peripheral cultures of southeastern Europe has been interpellated by the political discourse based on that gaze to produce a variety of strategies of resistance to both domestic and foreign attempts at appropriation. While 'the serbs' face up to the unflattering task of confronting the real crimes committed in their name, the sublimation of the vampire on the global entertainment scene points to the displacement of Balkan topoi to account for the return of imperial desire to its rightful source.' (p. 186-7)

'In the global landscape where the force of capital naturalizes its existence to appear as the omnipotent and invisible source of death-in-life, the vampire perhaps remains the only true face of a being lost in the speculations of Western metaphysics. Its imaginary journey from the undead creature of Balkan folklore to the antihero of Hollywood blockbusters tells the story of our post-human future, shared by the most peripheral of European cultures and the political and economic centers of the West, to account for the increasing acceptance of humanity's transformation since mass ideologies of emancipation failed in 1989. The status of the vampire in popular culture suggests that the naturalized state of predation inherent in the global order of consumption marks a transition of humanity to a new stage of development in which it gradually accepts and covertly celebrates the violence whose origins remain hidden by the ruins of Dracula's castle. The notion of the nation as an effect of bourgeois liberalism that originated in the philosophy of the Enlightenment has given birth to a vampire whose current transformations manifest a dawn of a different subjectivity, detaching itself from the nation to enter the global stage of free play, and offer a model identification that transcends humanism.

The vampire as a theoretical hybrid between political science and psychoanalysis offers a kind of lay philosophy that transcends both the model of the machine and that of the animal commonly utilized by theoreticians of the post-human. The power of this hybrid to incarnate the subjectivity to come builds on the conventions that, in previous centuries, posited the vampire as the opponent of the common human subject. The precognition inherent in the imaginary flights of popular culture speaks the truth about a political unconscious that has found its incarnation in both the phantasm of 'the serbs' as a vampire nation and the vampire as a new model for the global order of being - an order that is all too (post)human.' (p. 188-9)

I have only dipped into this complex, and I think it fair to say: far from easy to read book, so in the words of another blogger I will be cautious when commenting on Vampire Nation'I will let others more knowledgeable than I opine on how successfully Longinović applies critical theory to historical analysis. In any case his book makes a provocative addition to the literature on the Yugoslav wars.'

The popular and globalized vampire of Western fiction is, of course, probably as popular in Serbia as in so many other parts of the world, so there is even a Vampires Serbia magazine containing photos of the stars from Twilight and other vampire films and TV series. We love Twilight, we love True Blood, and we love The Vampire Diaries in Serbia as well.

*) Longinovic refers to Jonathan Harker's diary in Stoker's Dracula where Harker while in Dracula's castle writes: 'It is the nineteenth century up-to-date with a vengeance. And yet, unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have powers of their own which mere "modernity" cannot kill.'

Saturday 3 March 2012

Attending the Austrian Army

Just a couple of years after dealing with vampirism, Gerard van Swieten published a book on the most frequent diseases found among the troops in the field: Kurze Beschreibung und Heilungsart der Krankheiten welche am öftesten in dem Fedlager beobachtet werden was published in 1758, i.e. during the Seven Years' War, and deals with both major and minor afflictions among soldiers, diarrhea, fever, epistaxis, venereal diseases, they are all here with a description of remedies.

The book is not aimed at experienced doctors, but rather at all those people who attended on the numerous ill soldiers, but required more knowledge to identify ailments and diseases and know how to remedy them.

Van Swieten also supplies advice on hygiene like cleanliness and how to act in circumstances like e.g. rainy weather, when it is necessary to avoid the rain from entering the tents.

In The Austrian Army 1740-80: Specialist Troops (1995), Philip Haythornthwaite writes of the Austrian medical services:

'Although in general the Austrian soldier received better medical care than his contemporaries in many other armies, Austria did not possess a military medical academy until the 'Josephinium' was established in Vienna in 1785. The medical establishment was reorganizaed in 1746, and although a military surgical school was not created until 1781 (at the military hospital at Gumpendorf), from 1750-1751 the only medical personnel appointed to army positions were those who had been proved medically comptetent. This eliminated the half-trained amateur and those insufficiently skilled to practise medicine in a civilian capacity; both could be found in the medical services of other armies. (---) Above the staff surgeons and at the head of the medical department was the Protomedicus, who was responsible not only for the appointment of competent medical personnel but also for the organization of and medicinal supplies for the army's medical service. In consequence of putting conscientious individuals at the head of the medical organization, by the start of the Seven Years' War the Austrian wounded and sick probably received better treatment than those in any other army, though the constraints imposed by contemporary medical practice still rendered the plight of the wounded pitiable indeed.'
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