Saturday 3 January 2015

A disinterested appraisal of Summers-ism

Back in 2011, I wrote two posts on ’a critical edition’ of Montague Summers’s The Vampire: His Kith and Kin edited by John Edgar Browning: A sustained study in projection and A Delayed Demonologist. These posts allowed me to once and for all collect some of the assessments that have been made of Summers’s work on ’the subject of witchcraft’, which includes the books on vampires and werewolves.

Recently, The Apocryphile Press has published The Vampire in Europe: A Critical Edition, once again edited by Browning, who in his preface remarks on the mission of these critical editions: ’Our approach, as literary critic Maurice Hindle noted after the fact, was instead a ”disinterested appraisal,” one aimed at re-visiting a familiar yet widely unexplored work with renewed perspective and interest in order that we may situate the book and its author in their historical context.’

I think that I have stated my mind on the matter in the aforementioned posts, but I am also happy to note that the new book does in fact include voices that comment on the style and contents of Summers’s work, because Browning has included excerpts from original reviews of The Vampire in Europe, both from 1929 when it was originally published and from 1960 onwards when it was reprinted.

Thus, according to a reviewer in The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer on November 27, 1929, Summers’s ’new book, like its predecessor, ”The Vampire: His Kith and Kin,” reveals an astonishing learning hand-in-hand with an utter neglect of scientific method or knowledge,’ while August Derleth in 1962 similarly notes that ’The Vampire in Europe is a curious work, a volume of pseudo-scholarship written with a fascinating air of authority, offering between two covers a great deal of the lore Dr. Summers assembled from various sources.’

Reviewing the reprint in The Catholic Historical Review the following year, Ruth B. Dinbergs finds that: ’Much interesting material is included in this monograph, but it is presented in a dispersed and unsystematic way. The book seems written in haste. Legends and tales are related which show only the vaguest connection with vampirism as defined in this work. The book is divided into chapters according to countries, yet the author does not stay consistently within these confines. The numerous notes following each chapter testify to the broad erudition of the author, but it is frequently difficult to judge where notes begin and the text leaves off.’

A more in-depth review of Summers’s approach to the subject and his use and neglect of sources was undertaken by Gustave Leopold Van Roosbroeck of Columbia University in The Romanic Review in 1930. He mentions several sources that Summers has neglected, while at the same time he criticizes the sources that Summers does actually take into account, before stating that: ’This study seems to rest on a vague notion of the meaning of Vamprism. It is impossible to explain, for instance, the inclusion (with an illustration) of Huysmans’ Black Mass from À Rebours among vampire lore, when it is evidently a case of devil-worship; the illustrations from Goya’s Los Caæprichos deal with the Sabbath and witchcraft, and not with vampires; and it is strange to find a description of popular superstition from D’Annunzio’s Trionfo della Morte in this miscellaneous collection. With this lack of discrimination, the author could have included the entire history of witchcraft and half of folklore.’

Bringing it up to our day, Carol A. Senf in her afterword characterizes Summers's work along the same line as the just quoted reviewers:

’Summers moves casually from the ancient world to the medieval and from one part of the globe to another, cavalierly mising legends, literature, and folktales and treating even the most improbable cases with total seriousness. The experience is a bit like listening to a garrulous old uncle who interrupts himself and moves cavalierly from one story to the next, not stopping to take breaths between anecdotes.

His organization is equally eccentric. Even though his table of contents suggests that he is organizing his cases geographically, they are actually a hodge-podge of materials collected from literature, folklore, and personal anecdote.'

Adding that ’despite my criticism of his organization and his aesthetics, I was (and am) grateful for Summer’s research,’ she states exactly that ambivalence that many people have with regards to Summers: On the one hand, he is an unrealiable and inconsistent researcher, on the other he can be fascinating to read, and for a long time he was probably the main, if not sole, source for information on vampires and related subjects.

This ambivalence was nicely phrased by Marco Frenschkowski, as I mentioned in a post in 2013, that many of the scholars who denounce Summers’s books on witchcraft probably read his books discreetly.
Decadence and Catholicism (1997) by Ellis Hanson, p. 346
So Summers has his particular, quaint fascination and charm, and Gerard P. O’Sullivan coins a phrase for it in a prologue to The Vampire in Europe: A Critical Edition: Summers-ism.

Claiming that The Vampire in Europe is a casebook modelled on the work of Summers's friend and intellectual mentor, the Edwardian sexologist Havelock Ellis, he firmly states that the roots of Summers's views on vampires and related subjects are not in orthodox Catholicism, but in ’a strange syncretism’:

’Those who praise or blame Summers for his putative ultra-orthodoxy are missing an essential point: Summers believed in Summers-ism, and even long after his covert ordination to the Catholic priesthood. Dig deeply enough into the footnotes of Summers’s studies and you will find Tertullian and St. Thomas Aquinas rubbing elbows with the sexologist Havelock Ellis, the German physician and occultist Franz Hartmann, practitioners of Victorian parlor mysticism, and trance mediums and spiritualists of all kinds. If reading Summers appears to stretch a reader’s credulity, it is because the writer himself believed so many contradictory notions simultaneously. He accepted as established fact many things which any skeptic, rationalist or even conventional Catholic would dismiss out of hand.’

Personally, I feel unsure to what extent Summers actually believed in the existence of vampires, or if his claims to do so were rather a gimmick, a way of setting himself up to sell his pseudo-baroque collections of witchcraft, vampire and werewolf stories? In any case, it should be obvious that one cannot expect Summers to be systematic, consistent or reliable, but rather the opposite, and even self-contradictory. Summers-ism makes for fascinating reading and a vast resource to dip into, but not a voice of scholarship in any traditional sense.


Anonymous said...

A fine review, Niels. I'm pleased you're pleased with the reviews--they took some digging.


klavaza said...

This is interesting reading, I think!

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