Teresa Reed (email@example.com)
Jacksonville State University
Southeastern Medieval Association, October 2006
BABEL Panel: Premodern to Modern Humanisms
In Thrall to History as Vampire
I’m going to be talking about vampires, or the vampire, Dracula, as he is characterized in Elizabeth Kostova’s recent novel The Historian. Feeling a bit anxious about exactly what I was going to talk about for this presentation, I had worked through a few ideas in my head that had all come to nothing. But I was reading The Historian for fun and because I had read about its production--written over a span of ten years, highly researched, and sparked ultimately by a father-daughter relationship reflected in the fictional father-daughter team in the novel. Plus, in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, the book was on sale in the bookstore where Steve Carrell’s character was trying out some new pick-up lines, and this, actually months before its release. Kostova got a $2 million dollar deal at the end of a taut six-day long bidding war for her manuscript. Then the reviews came out. The hype died down. Jennifer Reese of Entertainment Weekly suggests, “There's a really terrific vampire story buried somewhere in The Historian,” but Reese couldn’t find it underneath descriptions of “letter-writing academics meander[ing] across globe and centuries, postponing plot-sensitive discussions until, say, that leisurely trip to Tuscany when they can chat about bloodsucking freaks in a ‘sun-washed piazza’.” She concludes, “There is indeed a rich payoff if you persist through the slow parts. But then again, this is a frigging vampire novel. There shouldn't be slow parts.”
As I slogged through some of these “slow parts” it dawned on me that--like another more widely-read book about academics figuring out clues and adventuring to save the world, the Da Vinci something or other-- Kostava’s novel actually puts the work of the humanities at the forefront. The novel spends pages and pages and sometimes whole chapters describing the work that historians do. By rough count, the word “library” shows up nearly 150 times and “archive/s” nearly 70. (I’m not sure what to make of the fact that one of the novel’s earliest villains is a librarian.) In the end--and I’m going to tell you the end because I don’t recommend reading the novel; it’s just not that good--the historian turns out to be a hero!! His anthropologist wife, too!! His daughter, the narrator, becomes a historian herself and all seems well with the humanities.
Yet the text does just as much to preserve undead anxiety, for in The Historian, Kostova creates an intertextual labyrinth, spanning past, present, and future and including archival research, anxiety over conference presentations, and “report[s] of a strange plague, sometimes an outbreak of vampirism” (630) to which the narrator is not immune. The novel’s appearance in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin Dracula, himself, becomes the symbol for the author’s anxiety about this intertextuality, a condition that affects not only the telling of her narrative but her relationship to the past she attempts to create and recount. Dracula---a dark, brooding, handsome, seductive, all-powerful, there-but-not-really-there figure-- becomes, too, I think an apt symbol for the humanities’ relationship to the past as we find our own ways to deal with what R. Allen Shoaf has called “the crisis of difference,” that is, our anxiety about comprehending or apprehending the past or, alternately, being taken by it. In a discipline that is traditionally, well, traditional, often tied to the past for some important reasons and in some intractable ways, our medievalists’ relationship to history is a vexed one. The past is, or at least can be, seductive and scary.
The narrator of The Historian exists for us, as any narrator does, as words on a page, as seeming authority over the text. At the same time she is, in effect, only a framing device and tells the story through layers of various other texts including letters, journal entries, archival documents, personal interviews, and flashbacks. In the course of this novel textual authority becomes repeatedly suspect as texts within texts, within texts pile up. Characters are known only through other characters’ interpretations of them, and when Dracula, himself, is presented as the quintessential historian, readers must pause to see the sketch of postmodernity and the post-human that is presented to them. In other words, while the novel valorizes the wit and fortitude of its humanities scholars--they are heroes because of, not in spite of, their ability to read and interpret texts and apply their interpretations to the world in which they live--the novel’s structure and certain narrative elements make it particularly rich in boundary transgressions and undo the dream of unified happy endings.
As I have stated already, one way that The Historian undoes itself is its very structure. The narrative voice opens and closes the work, but in between these bookends are nested many different other narrative voices. For instance, the narrator’s father tells his story--both in conversations with his daughter and via letters--and the story of his wife/the narrator’s mother, the story of his dissertation advisor, and the story of the advisor’s long-lost love interest. Nested inside his stories are letters (often set in italics just to remind us of the different narrative frame) and flashbacks told from yet other narrative points of view. At one point, I counted that the novel had gone “four deep”; i.e. there were two narrative levels between the narrator and the character whose words and actions were being described. On one narrative level, in addition to finding and killing Dracula, the narrator, through her good humanities-type research, is also able to better understand the man her father is by understanding his past and running to catch him in their present--all kinds of happy endings. Indeed, the novel begins, in a faux “Note to the Reader,” by explaining that it is the story of “how [all the characters] found [themselves] on one of the darkest pathways into history” (ix), a dream of completion and full self knowledge. The nested aspect of the structural level, however, produces a text in which the narrator reinterprets her own life based on what she reads. The narrator similarly acknowledges the instability of her identity in the “Note to the Reader,” which continues, “As a historian, I have learned that, in fact, not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it. And it is not only reaching back that endangers us; sometimes history itself reaches inexorably forward for us with its shadowy claw” (ix).
This is the nightmare version of history’s thrall over us, how texts can affect us, “endanger” us. This text is one in which, in Donna Haraway’s words, the “transcendent authorization of interpretation is lost” (153). And no doubt, for some, that is a truly frightening prospect. Even Chaucer expressed authorial anxiety over how his words would be taken and how past texts were reaching out to infect his writin. At the beginning of Book Two of Troilus and Criseyde, for instance, in a famous passage, the narrator talks about the intertextuality of his story, saying,
Me needeth here noon other art to use,
Forwhy to every lovere I me excuse
That of no sentement I this endite,
But out of Latin in my tonge it write.
Wherefore I nil have neither thank ne blame
Of al this werk, but praye you mekely,
Disblameth me if any word be lame,
For as myn auctour saide so saye I;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Ye knewe eek that in forme of speeche is chaunge
Within a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden pris now wonder nice and straunge
Us thenketh hem, and yit they spake hem so,
And spedde as wel in love as men now do;
Eek for to winnen love in sondry ages
In sondry landes sondry ben usages. (Book 2.Lines 11- 18 & 22-28)
Chaucer’s narrator both shirks and accepts responsibility for the story, both acknowledges his text’s debt to the past and plays with its presence, its words, which must be ever-changing. This is, I argue, not the nightmare version of intertextuality but a pre-modern acceptance or, indeed, embrace of it. In contrast, The Historian acknowledges and even uses intertextuality but conceives of it as the dark monster in the corner--ever there, ever threatening. For instance, the narrator’s father says, “It is a fact that we historians are interested in what is partly a reflection of ourselves, perhaps a part of ourselves we would rather not examine except through the medium of scholarship” (239), illustrating his conflicted approach towards the past and his practice of the humanities.
Of course, intertextuality is perceived as dangerous because it describes the way that everything exists as part of everything else; boundaries become suspect. Everything is infected. The Historian uses infection as another articulation of its fear of Dracula and everything for which he stands. Indeed, the narrator’s father, among many others, begins his quest to find Dracula because of a book mysteriously left in his study carrel at the library, a book completely blank but for an engraving of a dragon at its center. That engraving serves as the virus that sets him off on his vector to encounter others similarly infected by such books and the need to know. On a more literal level, Vlad Dracula, himself, is said to have practiced biological warfare by sending his soldiers, infected with bubonic plague or smallpox, into enemy camps to infect as many as possible. Throughout the novel, vampirism, itself, is described as a sort of plague that infects its victims and travels in ways like those that historical diseases would have. In a similar vein, we come to find out that the narrator’s mother--and therefore, the narrator--are blood kin of Dracula, the mother being marked with Vlad’s sign, the dragon. Even safe at home, the narrator discovers that the monster is already within the gates; more horrifying in the horror genre is the fact that the monster is already within the heroine. Such infection reflects the novel’s fear about a world in which all boundaries seem permeable. Dracula can be anywhere, anything, and anyone he wants to be. The very act of biting a neck and sucking blood is about transgressing boundaries after all. That this act can cause a profound internal, biological change is the very pumping heart of all vampire stories and the motivation for the heroes and heroines to take action to stamp out the evil.
As I have suggested, The Historian partakes in this narrative formula and humanities scholars get to be heroes. However, have I told you who owns the best, most seductive library our characters come across, the collection with the most books, the rarest books, and the books known to the rest of the world as the “lost book of (fill in the blank with a famous classical writer’s name)”? It’s probably not hard for you to guess who is the ultimate scholar of humanity and the humanities in this novel. Dracula’s library is so seductive that the eminent historian who acts as the narrator’s father’s dissertation chair is tempted to turn his back on the world just to explore its myriad volumes. So when the villain is the book’s ultimate example of scholar and archivist, what’s a humanities scholar to do?
If I can return to the narrator of Troilus and Criseyde, I’ll see if I can sum up an answer to this question as I conclude this presentation. It has always seemed to me that Chaucer was being a bit playful at the beginning of Book 2 of T & C when in the short space of fewer than twenty lines, he has his narrator confess that he is both copying an author and changing his original text, that he his both wanting no blame for what he writes and spouting sophisticated language theory about authority in writing. Chaucer wrote of the permeability of boundaries between texts. Kostova does the same but presents a story in which the product is fear, is a fearful presence, a ghost story, a monster. To my mind these authors represent the poles between which we find ourselves as we teach not only about the past but about the literature of the past, the stuff of human production. Where do we find ourselves on this continuum? I think it’s pretty clear where we Babel folks find ourselves--at the playful pole, where we find possibilities in transgression, whether those transgressions occur because of our mixing postmodern theory with our study of the past or because we work in current university settings where none of us gets to be solely a humanities scholar. I suggest that it’s important that we consider our possibilities, think of the boundary transgressions that we experience every day not as just dangerous monsters but promising ones that can illuminate--to paraphrase Haraway--the new pleasures and politics of the humanities. So have fun with the vampires. Ask ‘em over for coffee.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Criseyde. The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. John H. Fisher. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977. 403-540.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.”Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-181.
Kostova, Elizabeth. The Historian. New York: Little, Brown, 2005.
Reese, Jennifer. Rev. of The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. Entertainment Weekly’s EW.com 17 Jun. 2005. 2 Oct. 2006 <http://www.ew.com/ew/article/review/book/0,6115,1073562_5|108664||0_0_,00.html>.
Shoaf, R. Allen. “Literary Theory, Medieval Studies, and the Crisis of Difference.” Reorientations. Ed. Bruce Henricksen and T. Morgan. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995. 77-92.