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I Survived An Encounter with a Vampire - Camille Paglia and Northrop Frye

Updated: Sep 10, 2019

This is the story of how I survived an encounter with a vampire.

Vampiress, if the feminine is more attractive.

There is something feminine about the idea of the vampire - the devourer and the unknown, but also the compelling, all together.

They say you need some kind of protection with vampires, like a ward to repel evil and hold off the power. Something symbolic and spiritual might do, like a cross. Something organic and pungent, like garlic. Or something illuminating, like sunlight.

What did I have? One word from a teacher, as though etched on a smooth stone. But it was enough. It was spiritual and symbolic. It was pungent in many respects, and organic, in the sense that things come to life from it. And it was illuminating.

This teacher was once compared to the sun. Marshall McLuhan once said of Northrop Frye that most academics strive for a moment in the sun. But good ol’ Norrie (that is, Northrop Frye) … he is the sun!

Northrop Frye - Vampire Tamer
Northrop Frye - Vampire Tamer

Don’t let the fuddy-duddy appearance fool you. In the dark recesses of the mind, Frye contended with some of the ugliest things imaginable, some of the oldest creeps and serious problems to have ever inhabited words.

Vampires are the undead, haunted and dangerous, writhing and hungry, old ghosts never achieving satisfaction though they prey upon the very life essence of the young and fertile. Vampires turn potential and promise into the terrible fixed loop of such things as unprocessed grief, unreleased trauma, unforgiven heartache and unchanged minds. Vampires do not serve life, but revile it and resent it and mock it. They may serve art, even beauty, but that's not the same thing.

Where did I encounter a vampire? In the pages of a book, a book called Sexual Personae. Camille Paglia’s writing style has the same force behind it as her speaking voice. Imperious, majestic, sweeping, strident. In Sexual Personae she traces the history of art alongside the history of sexual encounter, sexual inspiration, sexual temptation.

And I was drawn in. From infatuation at first sight, to alluring flirtation, to suggestive touch, she beckoned me and led me and welcomed me into her parlour. And next thing I knew, my head was back, neck exposed. Enthralled, in the grip of ecstasy, begging for belonging and embrace. I was gone. My own identity and individual presence was hollowed out and swept away.

By the middle of the book, my wits had left me. I was no longer reading critically. But then, as if by magic, the name of the most surprising of heroes appeared before me. And in some sense it was because of the seductress herself, because of the vampire’s vast presence and ambitions to claim both her parlour and the horizon. She was the one to invoke the ancient hero’s name. But she said it as though she could wave away his work.

Camille Paglia is in fact a student of Northrop Frye, a critical student. She used some of Frye’s work in Sexual Personae, but she also disagreed with some of his work. And in one passage of her book, it was her own disagreement that brought me out of my witless wonder, and back onto the hardened quest. It was a chance to shake my eyes awake, and turn them away from her own confidence and environmental control.

She dared to utter his name. And it was enough to open a door that I didn’t realize was there. You see, years before this encounter I had read Northrop Frye’s work and found in it a word dear and important to him. A hard-won word that could both cut you and reveal you and protect you and prepare you. The word is like a touchstone, sharp as a blade but also tested like a precise measuring tool. It is a refined sculpting instrument.

My mentor, my patient guide! In that moment, he burst through the doorway and into the lusty chamber she had weaved around, and he interrupted our imminent and forthcoming union. I tell you, I was almost lost. And I didn’t care. But Frye was suddenly there! Muttering something under his breath, snorting about who knows what, showing the impatience and tender care that only a good teacher can combine.

He brusquely patted himself off, as though he had a layer of dust on him from the catacombs. Then he punched me on the shoulder, one part encouragement and one part jarring shake. And that ended my contact with the enveloping vampire.

I regained my balance, and my own identity. And that’s when he placed the stone in my palm. Worn smooth by time and tide, dull to the eye and to the hand. But curiously, it was warm as though familiar. And you might have sworn it smelled like a bit of garlic.

He gave a quick nod as if to say, “Now, carry on.” But he also grinned as if behind his eyes there was a joke that came from the very firmaments of time - the human, all too human bowels of all our own predicaments.

And he was off, striding back the way he had arrived, ready to wake up and shine a light on some other poor hapless student tripping into the pitfalls of literature and the lairs of critics.

On the stone was set the word - “kerygmatic.”

Kerygmatic is Frye’s word that comes from the Greek, meaning something like proclamation. Frye used it as a word to mean “words to live by.” What’s going to get you through life? What can you use like a compass and magnetically pull yourself toward the better choices in life?

Art and literature can be dramatic, gripping, enticing, intoxicating, hypnotizing even. You can get lost in the genius of art and the magic of words. But at the same time, not all art is kerygmatic. Not all art contains confirmation of life, the celebration of the good, or the communication of what is the ideal pursuit.

Some art is resentful, hurtful, deliberately taking advantage of its own audience. Some art would tell you to rejoice and even speed up the decay of order and the collapse of life, just to spite being itself for the frustration and suffering that we must bear.

But it is our choice. It is our hard work to not betray ourselves and not betray those we love. It is our choice to fall into sex and whim and hollow darknesses, or we can fall in love, and rise with inquiry. We can forgive ourselves, and others, in order to make room for recovery and the chance of some upward reconciliation.

J.R.R. Tolkien made a distinction between seduction and enchantment. Seduction is about being used. Enchantment is an invitation - finding new worlds, seeing with new hopes, joining in love as one.

We can stretch our understanding of things to both the depths of roots and the heights of mountains, and grow wings as though eagles.

Without a noise, but with renewed senses and calm focus, I brought up the stone and the word and I tested the vampire with one touch. Suddenly things felt very earthy around me. There was rich abundance in Paglia’s book, but it was potential. It didn’t point to a better way. There was confirmation, celebration, and communication, but it was all to serve art, and not necessarily to serve life.

That is a choice. But it was not the choice I was going to make in that moment. Not for me and my work. I had my own seeds to plant. And seeds need both the rich earth and the abundant light.

So, the stone in my hand began to shine. I could see again, I could see more than just what the vampire wanted me to see. I could trace the symbols she wove around me, but I could also find my own spirit, my own centre.

And I walked with her, in all her potential menace and possible power and truly glorious beauty, but the stone guided me and warmed me and provided me with a light through the most treacherous reaches of her domain.

I encountered a vampire, and lived to tell the tale. What’s more, I learned so much from her and from the hidden treasures in her lair. But thanks to the toughened old guide who appeared just in time, I made it back to the light. And I was able to tell my tale.

It is very tempting to wait around for the vampires to come and claim us, so that they can sparkle for us and we can be dazzled in their presence. But we have to be heroes of our lives and not fall victim to seductive words. We must tread the paths carefully.

Sometimes we read to prepare ourselves for the tests and traps the future may hold. We need to read one thing before we can take on reading something else. Otherwise we risk getting caught with our pants down.

One teacher gave me a simple and time-worn stone. A word. And yet it proved to be enough. A word meant my survival.

I hope you find something in what you read that prepares you, invites you, and doesn’t just seduce you. Love is a preparation, perhaps one of the best. Ask most parents, most teachers. I hope that you prepare yourself with love to serve life, and that you find words that you can live by.

I explore more ideas and stories like this in my book, The Divine Daughter.


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