Monday 5 July 2010

Monsters of the Mind

There’s an intriguing article in the July issue of Standpoint by Ben Judah reporting from Tajikistan (In search of the Yeti.) Here he found villagers prepared to take a solemn vow on the Koran – no light matter – that they had seen the Yeti, the abominable snowman of Himalaya legend. I have not the least doubt that they have, not the least doubt that in lonely mountain passes the shadows of the mind have taken on a definite shape.

There are some interesting historical parallels here, as the author indicates;

Living close to nature, without thorough schooling, peasants have always been frightened of the mythical wild man. In the 18th century, the oppressed central European peasantry was gripped by a terror of aristocratic vampires in the run up to the French Revolution.

The hysteria raged for a generation. Thousands of sightings were reported. Villagers swore by Christ that they knew what they had seen. The Austro-Hungarian Empress
[sic] Maria Theresa was concerned enough to dispatch her personal physician to investigate whether or not vampires existed. They were not real, but poverty, oppression, ignorance and superstition were.

Actually, the fear of the aristocratic vampire in this area of Europe was more than superstition, more even than a kind of metaphor for aristocratic oppression. Aristocratic oppression, particularly in Hungary, had been severe for centuries, sometimes taking on a very real, particularly bloody and vampire-like form.

I’ve blogged before about the aristocratic vampire, latterly in a humorous vein (I’d rather be bitten by a vampire!) but before that in an altogether more serious fashion in a piece I called Erzsébet Báthory, the Blood Countess.

For those who may not have heard of her, Erzsébet Báthory was a Hungarian countess, one of the best-connected in the land, who died in 1614. She was also one of the most prolific serial killers who ever lived, specialising in the torture and murder of peasant girls who lived on her estate.

The details of her crimes, carried out with a select band of accomplices, are truly terrible, but the most terrible thing was the powerlessness of the people in the face of her depravity. Her downfall only began when, running out of peasant girls, she turned on the daughters of the lesser nobility. Even then the decisive factor was that she owed money to Matthais, king of Hungary and emperor of Austria.

At the time the details of the case were embellished with rumours of witchcraft and sorcery. But it wasn’t until a hundred years after her death that a new interpretation of her actions began to emerge. This is how I concluded my previous blog;

Like Vlad the Impaler and the myth of Dracula, Erzsébet began to attract her own mythology, including the story that she bathed in the blood of her victims, believing it to be a way of preserving her youth, a tale that goes no further back than 1729. Such a suggestion is, of course, horrible, but it at least supplied both a dark rationale and a motive. The real horror of Erzsébet's life is that she simply had a taste for suffering and blood as ends in themselves. A vampire of a kind, yes, but infinitely more terrifying than any of the monster's of fiction.

It is therefore true that the monsters of the imagination have a firm grounding in reality. Fear is most often accompanied by a sense of powerlessness, an inability to deflect or avoid the malevolent forces that govern one’s destiny. Given the form of politics that prevail in present-day Tajikistan, politics that Judah makes plain in his article, it comes as no great surprise that the Yeti continues to walk the mountain valleys.


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  2. They are certainly not as common as they used to be, though I think I could point out one or two in that other place; well, 'girl' is not quite the right word. :-))

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  5. Hi Ana,
    Very interesting explanation about imaginary monsters.

  6. Morning, Ana,

    Some deep psychology here. What is the difference between an imagined vampire and a real one? Or an imagined postman and a real one?

    He thought he saw a banker's clerk
    Descending from a bus ;
    He looked again and saw it was
    A hippopotamus.

    An old music hall ditty that makes a serious point. If he had not looked again, he would have been for ever convinced that he had seen a banker's clerk.

    A psychologist asks, is it possible that there are such things as collective perceptions of banker's clerks? Your own tale suggests that a whole population might make a mistake re vampires and yetis - so, why not about banker's clerks? or the colours of roses? or the size of the universe? or the workings of genes? What you're saying in your blog is leading to something profound. Why, it leads right into my own blogs on perception!

    I know you will probably have read this, but I'll remind you anyway. ;-)

  7. How helpless we all felt after thirteen years of New Labour and no Yeti to divert attention.

  8. Adam, In all probability underneath the computer.

  9. Ana, This one is often overlooked:

  10. ...I think Keats would have enjoyed reading it.

  11. Jamie, one verse deserves another.

    Yesterday upon the stair
    I met a man who wasn’t there
    He wasn’t there again today
    Oh, how I wish he’d go away.

    Fear is indeed a powerful force but more than that it's a kind of social contagion: it reproduces itself in the most effective ways. FDR was right- we have nothing to fear but fear itself. He forgot to add that vampires and yetis are a lot more scary than bankers! Yes, i have read your post but I will refresh my memory a bit later.

  12. Nobby, you surprise me. I was under the impression that Gordon Brown was a yeti. :-)

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  14. Hmm... yes, but it isn't just scary things, Ana. In my fictitious example, it would have been the benign clerk who was remembered. There are some experiments on (mis)perception which are charming and puzzling - but I admit only for those who have a livly interest in people. I must tell you about the cup and the cricketer one day. ;-)

  15. This post is a fascinating tale of two monsters. One may be mythical and the other I was completely unaware of.

    All things considered I would rather face the yeti than Erzsébet Báthory...but then again I am not a peasant girl so maybe I could subdue her with tales of my glorious fishing. Your posts are endlessly amazing.

  16. You are sweet, CC. :-) Did you read the piece on Báthory? Her story truly is horrific. The other aristocratic 'vampire' you might want to check out is Gilles de Rais, one-time companion in arms to Joan of Arc, who ended raping, torturing and murdering hundreds of boys in medieval France. I wrote about him on May 24 last year, a piece I called The Baron and the Devil.

  17. I have heard of her vaguely in overall reference to vampires but nothing in depth. Your blog post also has this amazingly dramatic portrait of her. I will have to review your “I’d rather be bitten by a vampire” as well as “Erzsébet Báthory, the Blood Countess”

    Just did a quick-wiki on this chap, Gilles de Rais. He sounds as terrible as his haircut. Quite terrible indeed. This fellow was not covered in my watered down textbook history lessons on Joan of Arc.

    That is why I follow your blog as it is an enlightening splash of intelligence on this feeble brain only fed by the History Channel and what nuggets can be combed from the net. Your posts help pull my brain from the muck and into the light so to speak. The fact that you are hopelessly enchanting is a pleasant bonus.

  18. I appreciate your appreciation. :-) CC, try to get hold of a novel called La Bas or The Damned by Joris-Karl Huysmans. It should be on Amazon. It explores the career of Gilles de Rais at some length.