Undead and Undying

The Eternal Amongst Us

Good morning colleagues, peers and friends! Let me start out by saying how excited and honoured I am to be here today. Honoured, because it is hugely gratifying and humbling to be speaking to kindred spirits who not only tolerate passions and interests like mine, but who actually share them and contribute to them every day in every conversation encountered, book read and paper presented. You are here this morning at a conference entitled Figures de l’immortel/Figures of the Immortal because you chose a path that was unconventional, incredibly salient, and necessary in these times. But, on a personal note, it is also exciting to be here because you are all interested and polite academics who invited me here, and now you have to listen to me maunder on about my own thesis, and who amongst us doesn’t just love to jump into the topic of “my thesis” when given the opportunity! So thank you for having me today.

Although I was being a little facetious (I’m not really going to talk about my thesis), I will mention my own research to get to the point, in a pretty convoluted way. My background is in literature, but as you all know, at one point in a graduate degree, we have to leave behind our ill-defined grandiose dreams of working on “literature about women” or “racism in film”. You tell your friends “My master’s thesis is going to be on Game of Thrones” and when you tell them they say, “Wow! That’s so cool! I wish I could do a master’s on Game of Thrones!” And then you tell your potential thesis director and she laughs, and says, “Can you be more specific?” In the course of “becoming more specific”, you do an awful lot of soul searching, but you also search for information that will guide you to a research question, a problématique that you can not only live with but that you will come to love and know, the way you love and know a favourite book, a favourite meal, a lover. One of my most jarring moments while I was doing my coursework for my PhD was when a student mentioned glibly, in an informal seminar, that you become your thesis. I couldn’t miss the opportunity for a joke, so I quickly retorted that I was writing my dissertation on vampires, so they’d all better watch it! But she was right. Some of you here are working on MA thesis or a PhD dissertation, or delving deeply into a research topic that has held you in thrall until you decided to plumb its depths and explicate its importance. And through this process you will find yourselves morphing into the principle, the concept, the creature with which you are fascinated.

As far as my story goes, my own beginnings in graduate school were particularly mercenary, as I started my master’s degree as a research assistant on a project at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières on emergent Quebecois science-fiction (SF) published between WWI and WWII. It was the first time I was actually paid to read books and actually give my opinion about them. At the time, I didn’t give a tinker’s damn about SF and I cared even less about war, but when my voice was heard, I realized that I suddenly did care, that I did have an opinion and that it had darn well better be lucid and coherently enunciated. I left the project to pursue studies in optometry, a solid, serious field of study where I would be guaranteed a job after graduation. Two years of flipping lenses and yearning to be amongst my academic soulmates convinced me that although I could work in the sciences, I would have to agree to die a slow, languishing death.

I started my real master’s degree at McGill University , where I used my newfound appreciation for science-fiction (if the word “science” was mentioned, it was serious after all, right?) and parlayed it into a thesis on the perception of the future of motherhood and the new reproductive technologies in the works of 70s dystopian SF women writers. My first supervisor, Professor Darko Suvin, upon finding out that I had eschewed literature for optometry some time before, asked me if I could really have completed a degree in that field. I was offended and replied that of course I could have completed it! And he said, “No. Of course you would have been capable of it. But could you have limited yourself to that?” And then it all made sense. I had never realized that my choice of a research topic had not been limited by the necessities of graduate study that require you to narrow down your focus to a pin prick so as to guarantee originality. The fact that I researched feminist dystopias at a time when the document Proceed with care – the final report of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies was published and widely disseminated, meant that I was an active participant in current events, a member with an opinion (unfavourable though it was) on the way that women’s bodies were suddenly redefined and reassessed as objects in a race to produce the first test-tube baby. My research meant that my voice counted, and, through it, was heard.

When I decided on a PhD dissertation subject, I realized that I wanted to be one of the “cool kids” who needs to choose a topic that would send me on wacky and dangerous research adventures. After all, when I finished this last diploma, I would ineluctably be forced into the stodgy, dusty world of academe where I would probably teach Beowulf and Shakespeare and start speaking in iambic pentameter.

So I chose to work with vampire fiction and folklore to demonstrate the impact and depiction of the revenant on a North American society largely stripped of its observance of traditional religious rite and ritual even as it struggled with the dogma and doctrine which had previously informed it. I made arrangements to visit a coven (I never got there) and to go to Transylvania (I did THAT). And I became my thesis. And it is during that point in time when my imposter syndrome was at its worst that I remember listening to a fellow student before my Oeuvre de la littérature mondiale class at Université de Montréal proclaim that she wanted to do something practical and useful for society with her degree. “Je ne veux pas que pelleter des nuages!” I agreed and nodded vehemently and…had no idea what she meant. I wanted to ask her what she would do with her newly minted degree. She could perhaps use it to teach sentence structures to high-school students? Or maybe use it to offer fragments of opinions on the authors she particularly admired? At worst she could use her hefty dissertation to prop up her computer if the table was too low. But that comment, combined with my friends’ still impressed but more inquisitive “Vampires? Cool! But what are you going to actually do with that?” started to nag at me more insistently. One of my Transylvanian friends, Elena, a Romanian structural engineer, said, “A thesis on vampires? Vampires do not exist. Terminat.” So I set out to show how changing religious values in Western societies affected the representation of the vampire figure in film and literature to the point where he became a repository not only for the sacrilegious, but also for the religious, for the divine. I completed my thesis shortly after nine-eleven and I realized, once again, how, when I started closely examining the content of my chapters and the arguments I used to convince my defense committee that there was a tangible correspondence between the vampire and the shifting religious and spiritual values of our North American society which had been shaken to its roots. I started to see how the safe privileged space that I had glorified and taken for granted had to be reassessed and redefined with respect to the rest of the world, and how, although my own Quebecois society scoffed at the restrictions and dictates that the Church had once put upon us, I was still very much a subject of the Judeo-Christian spacetime that had made me, and how inhabiting this domain unquestioningly would not do if I wanted to contribute to a better world. My once-cool vampire suddenly took on a LOT more importance in his diachronic representation, and in order to understand him (and those who created him) I had to learn the meaning of alterity. My vampire became fully fleshed out (to borrow a turn of phrase) not only because he was frightening, but because he was frightening and undead. Indeed, when I started talking to fellow students and colleagues about my interests, I got so many suggestions of where I should take my research: my political science friends obviously wanted me to continue the metaphor of the vampire as emblem of ravenous capitalism. My fan-girl and fan-boy friends wanted me to focus on the works of (fill-in-the-blank) because she’s so cutting edge! And my philosophically-inclined friends saw the vampire as emblematic of the works of Marx/Žižek/Hegel. And none of them were wrong. The vampire truly was immortal, not only because he had transcended the centuries and managed to leave his mark on every culture (except for North American indigenous culture), but because his undead heart beat out the pulse of the society he inhabited at a given time in a given place. The title of my dissertation was Unholy Transubstantiation: Christifying the Vampire and Demonizing the Blood. I even designed a tidy Cartesian graph, complete with x and y axes, of the path the figure of the vampire took from the early middle ages, through modernity to today, plotting the contrapositives of blood diseases vs. public perception of the figure of the revenant/vampire against a backdrop of literary and social currents. That was my nod to science, my parting comment to my classmate: “Tu vois! Moi non plus je ne pelte pas des nuages! TOUT devient sérieux et scientifique quand on le place sur un graphique!” Terry Cochran, my thesis director (bless his tolerant heart), shook his head and said, “Mais, tu n’en a pas besoin! Ta théorie fonctionne sans ton graphique! Mais garde-le si tu y tiens!” The graph was pretty and it was colourful and it validated my work, I thought. So I kept it. And I still show it from time to time for the “wow” factor, but Terry was right. I didn’t need it. Comparatists and philosophers and writers and creators do not need the blessing of the sciences although we have been bamboozled into thinking we have. We are worthy without Science’s approval, and our impact will be felt far and wide. But what do people like us do in “real life”? When I explain that “Je suis comparatiste” I often get, “Ça mange quoi en hiver un comparatiste?” Fair enough.

We are gathered today to exhume and laud and berate and define and circumscribe the figures of the immortal. Thankfully, our forebears, our kindred spirits who precede us, have forged the path we are on today. Percy Bysshe Shelley, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (of Frankenstein fame), author of works such as “Prometheus Unbound”, “Ozymandias” and The Daemon of the World, belonged to the early 19th century Romantic school of literature (so named one hundred years after its greatest writers had published their works)—in particular, the Satanic School of Romantic poets—along with many other greats such as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Lord Polidori, and John Keats. Shelley wrote poetry and prose copiously and his output remained steady throughout his life, but publishers often saw fit to distance themselves from him for fear of being taken to task, or even arrested, for either blasphemy or sedition. Shelley’s poetry may have been considered underground art during his day, but his poetic achievements are widely recognized today, and how many of us here have not at least heard of him in our literature courses? Shelley’s production was not limited to artful writing, however. His art underpinned and informed his advanced political and social thought and influenced politicians and statesmen in ways that reach down to this very day. It is known that Shelley’s theories of economics and morality, taught in tandem, had a profound influence on Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi. Poets, says Shelley, in his “Defense of Poetry”, are « not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society… Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world ». 1 Shelley had understood almost 200 years ago, how words and their production, manipulation and dissemination, could be perceived as instruments of intellectual freedom and a vehicle for political and social subjugation.

Centuries before Shelley, Plato himself, in his discussion of theia mania, had postulated that poets (amongst others) were possessed by a divine madness. Touched by God. And while I am not suggesting that we will shortly start to walk about speaking in tongues, what I am suggesting is that by our very intellectual curiosity and our practice of following a thought, a concept, an idea to its logical extension in order to understand its wellspring and ultimate destiny, our very willingness to accept the other’s journey as a complement, a validation, a mirror of our own, we are making very necessary and precious sense of this world of which we are a part. Indeed, it is not only our prerogative to share and explicate our perceptions, fears and apprehensions, but our duty to document and critique.

We may, as Plato said, have to be imbued with a divine madness in order to understand our world today, and to make sense of it. The philosopher felt that poets had to be imbued with this divine madness, but perhaps although poets, today, may feel they are going mad, the world around them is the one that seems to be lapsing into senselessness and insanity. To borrow a term from modern noir cinema, when we turn on the television or read the daily news, we may feel we are being gas-lighted by those serving up our society in bite-sized bytes, slices of politics with a side of contempt or ridicule. The small child who will point out that the emperor has no clothes will be shushed by the multitudes who have lost their hearing due to the emperor’s insistent baying that his are the finest, most incredible clothes in history! And the hordes will continue to buy the myths, to believe the hype, to drive the bandwagon that will, they think, carry them to their Utopian Mar al Lago where they will all share in the spoils promised to them by their benefactor. And that bandwagon will go flying over the cliff and drive them right into the ground. And it is then that the “crazies” who foresaw this will be understood, where the Cassandras will be vindicated and we will breathe a sigh of relief. Which brings me back to my basic idea: we are the Cassandras.

Now, more than ever, we need to understand our worth and purpose. We will be swayed by harsh winds that try to push us in the direction of those following the trends and giving in to the privileged path of least resistance and of populist dictates. At this moment, we seem to be in the clutches of a force-field of anti-intellectualism that threatens to ride roughshod over us, our ideals, our careful approach and appreciation of différance and in the way we make room for the other. In the way we have, through our apprenticeship to mentors we still follow and thinkers we emulate, understood that the world is not black and white and cut and dried. That although we seem to have taken many, many steps backward, we understand that progress cannot be unmade, however we define “progress”. Because the truth we embrace as beauty is not only beautiful, it is unending, immortal. And that is why we are here today. That is why we are gathered around this table contributing our views and visions of the figure of the immortal and giving our various versions and explaining how integral they are to the fabric of our society; our microcosm, yes, privileged perhaps, but also its influence on our macrocosm, and it needs us and our ideas and our perspectives and our divine madness.

I was given the opportunity recently to guest-lecture a class for Professor Eberle-Sinatra on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. It was fun to review and reread the novel for my presentation, but one young woman who had a valid point for discussion afterward prefaced her comment with, “I don’t want to dig too deeply into this issue though!” I assured her that she could never dig too deeply or analyse too thoroughly or “see too much”. Indeed, the reverse is probably true in that it seems too much of the world doesn’t want to dig deeply, or analyse at all, or even harbour a pretense of wanting to see anything differently from what has been commonly accepted. And this brings me back to…what is it that academics like you and me do?

Some of us teach. We teach now or we’ll teach after our degree is done or we’re thinking we don’t really want to end up teaching. The bottom line is that we have a huge responsibility in that we have the pressures from those who will benefit or profit from our courses and want to capitalize on our skills, and for whom we forever walk a tightrope of holding back a lot to let out a little and make it not only relevant but interesting. For those of you who will end up teaching in the non-literary spheres, you will find yourselves imbuing your lessons with use-value. You, too, will get the “We like you and everything, but why do we need to take your courses?” We will pass on the most significant novels of the past century, the Mann-Booker, Neustadt or Hugo prize winners, the canon gatekeepers. In the process, we will also pass on to children and adults alike our insight and experience, and the benefit of a variety of opinions. We will teach people how to understand symbols and we will also guide their thought and appreciation of words: written, spoken and implied. Very often, whether we like it or not, we will be at the frontline of authority. We will be the greatest totem of literary hegemony, even as we attempt to dismantle the canonical in order to understand it, and how it works on us and for, or against, us.

The most bitter philosophical argument I have ever had in my life was with an author whom I consider to be, ironically, a friend and a political genius. Her position on global hegemonies in general and academe in particular struck a very personal chord with me; many educators, she believes, hold positions unfairly and are chosen by institutional powers-that-be to perpetuate harmful stereotypes at best, and damaging and untruthful propaganda at worst. Those who should be allowed to speak and make their voices heard are often shut out. The disenfranchised continue to be held at bay although the words from within profess to speak on their behalf, to tell their stories. I have pointed this out many times, in many ways; teachers ARE a practicing academic hegemony. Our classrooms are our pulpits, our course-packs are our Bibles. That is why (to briefly venture into popular culture) “Use the Force, Luke”…but only to do good. This Force is, indeed, our readings and writings and discussions and analyses.

Those of us who do not or will not teach, are researchers and writers. We are the ones who keep our finger on the pulse of the social and historical, while always looking over our shoulders and out toward the horizon because our divine madness keeps us sensing the changes in the air. We write because we probably can not even remember a time when we could not not write. We scope out and report on the most intangible as well as the immediately experiential. We must, frustratingly and sometimes painfully, reach beyond the obvious and the apparent around us, unfortunately but especially when the immediate surroundings are going preternaturally well. We always need to ask for whom things are going swimmingly, even though our comfort and complacency and (dare I say it) privilege don’t really encourage us to sally forth in that direction. We need to penetrate, verbalize and enunciate the zeitgeist of our times, and today, we find ourselves doing just that with our “geists” taking on many different forms and functions. We are, indeed, speaking and writing and publishing from an elitist position, but it is this very position, ironically, that permits us to interrogate all elitisms and to appoint ourselves the stewards of the repository, melting pot and launching pad of perspective and alterity.

Lest I am making us sound like fantastic creatures or the divine, undying beings we are presenting on and discussing today, we do not function on an ethereal plane. But contrary to many, our work is not cut out for us. We do not graduate from solidly implemented curricula and economically stable departments. We do not have clear-cut professions hollowed out for us. To the question “Ça mange quoi un comparatiste en hiver?” Well, “Bien souvent, ça ne mange pas gros!” But seriously, the fact that our professions are ill-defined does not mean that our ambition is as well. More often than not, our calling finds us before we even try to seek it out. In the scroll-down boxes where we tick off “nurse” or “architect” or “cook”, we will not find “comparatist” or “legislator of the world”. We must often forge our own way, create our own niches, and it is in this very quest that we will reach our audiences and find our students to teach and who will continue our legacy.

No discussion of the figure of anything would be complete without the spectre of Erich Auerbach brandishing his figura. My own undead figura was that of the vampire figure, in the true Auerbachian sense, of what served to approach the problem, in my own research, of the ultimate repository of how sexual and religious ambivalence are combined in the character of the vampire, where the figure of the undead suggests a historical personage or event which prefigures a later one, with the latter shown to be expressed as subject-vampire, with, as its forerunner, that of Jesus Christ. I was alluding to the description Auerbach makes of figura at a specific time when it was “the figure which was then regarded as the most important and seemed before all others to merit the name of figura was the hidden allusion in its diverse forms”.2 The vampire figure is not anchored down in history; rather, it moves through history by virtue of the fact that it embodies the religious/sexual tensions of particular historical moments. From the earliest frightful revenant reported in folklore, to the soul-searching, God-fearing creature for which we willfully suspend our disbelief, the vampire has been subjected to historically dependent transformations and mutations. This is why, in part, the vampire (to me) will always be pertinent. He will carry on in our imaginations and our histories, transcending our own foibles and mishaps. His own immortality is proof of ours, if not in our bodily configurations, then in our spiritual and intangible manifestations. The vampire, in the figure of the immortal, is the very figure par excellence of what we are through what we do. The work we do will never die. Our ideas will live on in our writings to be debated and extrapolated on. Our research, sometimes undefinable and arcane, will never be futile if it moves even one more soul. Nothing we do, think or feel, and transmit in our publications is for naught. Ours, however, is a satisfaction that, more often than not, will come at a later date.

We must carry proudly our standard of the immortal, of the undead, knowing that our craft, which is the vehicle for our ideas and our contribution to this life, is, far from an airy, insubstantial “nuage à être pelleté”. Our figure of the immortal, of the undead, is indeed the ghost of everything that is alive. Stand out and be counted it must, because right now, there are an awful lot of zombies we need to fight.

  1. 1Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry,” Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments. (London: Edward Moxon, 1840) 6, 57.
  2. 2Erich Auerbach, “Figura,” Scenes from the Drama of European Literature  (New York: Meridien Books, 1959) 26-7.