Ahasverus and Vampires

The second chapter of Peter Tudvad’s Stadier på Antisemitismens Vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (stages on the way of anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) deals with the legend of Ahasverus, the “eternal Jew” in Danish, or “the wandering Jew,” in English. Ahasverus is a character who supposedly taunted Christ on the way to his Crucifixion and was condemned, as a result, to wander the earth forever. This chapter, which is more than one hundred pages long, examines the legend of Ahasverus in such detail it could legitimately be published as a monograph on the subject independently of the rest of the book.

Students of romantic literature will eat this chapter up because it is filled with references to that period of literary history. In addition to a general survey of literature on Ahasverus, there is a great deal of interesting material on the history of Kierkegaard’s preoccupation with the concept of the wandering Jew. In fact, the material in this chapter could easily form the basis of a dissertation on the subject. I’ll confess, however, that I found making it through this portion of the book something of a hard slog.

One of the most interesting aspects of this chapter, from my perspective, was the similarity that gradually became apparent to me between the legend of Ahasverus, and the mythical character of the vampire. I promised earlier to come with a post on Kierkegaard and vampires. Given the current popularity of vampires, cynical readers might have interpreted this as a shameless attempt to boost the popularity of my blog. I should confess that that was part of my motivation. There really is a striking similarity, however, between Ahasverus and vampires. First, both are “undead.” That is, both are condemned to live forever and, unlike so many people today who appear to think an indefinite extension of the human lifespan would be a wonderful thing, both see this as a fate much worse than death. Both are melancholy and incapable of forming close emotional relationships with ordinary human beings. Even more interesting is that, according to Tudvad, the character of Ahasverus in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Queen Mab, like the vampire, casts no shadow.

The legend of Ahasverus apparently originated in Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages (there is no support for it in Christian scripture). So, it appears, did the legend of the modern vampire. Both were also favorite subjects of authors during the Romantic period. Jungians have argued that the vampire actually belongs to the collection of archetypes inherent in human consciousness. The similarity of Ahasverus to the vampire suggests this figure is simply another instantiation of the same archetype.

There are so many interesting topics to be explored here: What is the historical relation between the two legends? What is the literary relationship? Are they expressions of a single archetype? If so, what does this archetype reveal to us about human nature or about the psyche? So far as I know, none of these questions has been given serious scholarly treatment even though the time is clearly ripe for such treatment.

Please forward a link to this entry to anyone whom you think would be interested in tackling one of these fascinating topics. I can’t wait to read what people are going to write!

Conference News

Forgive my failure to put up my standard two posts last week. My Drexel email account has apparently been corrupted and I spent the majority of last week working with the tech support people at Drexel trying to fix it. Unfortunately, they have so far been unable to solve the problem, so anyone who wishes to email me should, for the time being, address all emails to my Apple Webmail account: mgpiety@me.com.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that I just returned from the first International Conference on Religion and Spirituality in Society. Unlike many conferences that claim to be “international,” this one truly was. There were just over 100 participants, but these included scholars from Japan, Jordan, Germany, Nigeria, Portugal, the UK and Kuwait, to name just a few of the countries represented. The keynote speakers included internationally famous and widely published indologist Wendy Doniger from the University of Chicago and Steve Shoemaker, host of the popular and critically acclaimed weekly public radio program “Keepin’ the Faith.” Doniger gave a fascinating talk on the issue of whether Hinduism was monotheistic or polytheistic (her answer was yes) and Shoemaker talked about how he got started with his radio program and the kinds of guests he has had (from poet laureates, Imams and Rabbis to student activists), to why he thinks programs such as his are important. In between were many other stimulating presentations the topics of which varied from religion and spirituality in contemporary popular culture to the same in ages past. It was one of the most interesting and stimulating conferences I have been to recently because of the variety of topics covered and because the small size facilitated better discussions.

Now what, you are undoubtedly asking yourself, does this have to do with Kierkegaard? Well here’s the thing: the call for papers is already up for next year’s conference in Vancouver and it seems to me that this would be a great opportunity for Kierkegaard scholars to present their work and to meet and exchange ideas with other scholars in related fields. Check it out!

More about Dictionaries

I did the junior year abroad thing when I was an undergraduate, except at my college it was actually a six-month program. I chose the Germany-Austria program because I was a philosophy major and everyone told me that all philosophers had to know German.

Learning German was rough, particularly during the Austria half of the program. I took a German language class at the Dolmetscher Institut at the University of Vienna and my professor was brutal. He used to walk up and down the rows, standing directly in front of the person whose turn it was to do the exercise in question. You got one chance to look at your book and then you had to look up at him and do whatever it was the exercise required (e.g., changing the tense of the verb or the number of the subject). I remember once some poor guy in the row behind me made the mistake of trying to look down at his book a second time. Wham! The professor slammed his book down on top of the poor guy’s book obscuring the page.

That class was always suspenseful because the professor also liked to make fun of students who had done the exercise correctly but whom he suspected did not understand the meaning. He’d try to strike up a conversation on the subject of the exercise with the sole purpose of humiliating his victim by exposing the person as shabby automaton, with no real understanding of what he was doing.

Now what does all this have to do with Kierkegaard, you ask. Well, I will tell you. That sadistic German professor insisted that we throw out our bilingual dictionaries and begin, as soon as possible, to work exclusively with a German-German dictionary. He was right.

I know I directed you to the wonderful Ferrall-Repp A Danish-English Dictionary, and you will certainly want to use it as your primary Danish-English dictionary. There is a lot to be said, however, for working with Danish-Danish dictionaries as well. Christian Molbech’s Dansk Ordbog from 1833 is available as a pdf from Google books. That’s the dictionary most Kierkegaard scholars have traditionally used when contemporary Danish-English dictionaries failed them. Molbech’s dictionary is certainly useful (with the 1859 edition being the more useful of the two given that dictionaries tend to document usage from a slightly earlier period than their publication date). An even better resource, however, is the monumental Ordbog Over det Danske Sprog, the Dane’s equivalent of the OED. Unfortunately it takes up an enormous amount of bookshelf space and is prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, the Danes are more egalitarian than the Brits, so the ODS is actually freely accessible in a searchable online version. I guarantee it will help your Danish, plus, it’s a lot easier than trying to use the pdf of Molbech because it is searchable, while Molbech, because it is in Fraktur, is not. Check it out!