Dracula, East and West

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Proposing a method for helping students make sense of the politics behind regional geography (using popular culture), Jason Dittmer writes:

The continued survival of regional geography classes within geography curricula reflects several factors. First, despite the general disdain for regional classes by geographers who favour systematic courses (Brunt, 1995), the classes continue to have tremendous appeal for students, who still associate geography with the study of specific regions and desire intimate knowledge of a region (Halseth & Fondahl, 1998). Second, the resurgence of place in recent theoretical debates has re-established the importance of local understandings, leading to an increased need for regional specialization within the discipline. Many geographers have illustrated the importance of place and region to social theory (Pred, 1986; Gregory, 1989; Massey, 1993).
Nevertheless, these regional courses pose a dilemma. The very scope and definition of the courses is contrary to much of geography’s current body of theory because it accepts the region as an object to be studied rather than a social process, constantly in the act of reconstruction. To engage in the act of teaching a region is, to a certain extent, to endorse a certain set of boundaries and characteristics of that region. For instance, to teach a course on the Geography of Europe is to select some geographic extent for Europe, and to base [-p.50] that decision on some cultural or other criteria. Often, this is dictated to some extent by the choice of textbook, although it is always possible to add to or subtract from the scope of the text. However, the alternative to fixing the boundaries is not palatable either; the goal is not to descend into an endless deconstruction of the metageography of place….” (pp.49-50)

How, then, do we give life to these theoretical and abstract thoughts in the classroom? How can we teach regional geography while still emphasizing the economic and political motivations behind the regions we discuss? The key is to provide the material and discursive bases through which regions are constructed, allowing the class to witness the process of region and identity construction that is so critical to the new regional geography (Warf, 1990; Paasi, 1996).” (p.50)

“…it is important to discuss the processes by which regions are produced as dominant constructions of reality.
In my Geography of Europe class I accomplished this by connecting the metageography of Europe to popular culture in a way that can be replicated elsewhere. In particular, I used the novel Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker as a lens through which to discuss the social construction of Eastern Europe. To do this, the class viewed Francis Ford Coppola’s movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). The movie differs from the book in a few plot points (notably, it includes a back-story for Dracula and a love story between the Count and Mina Murray) but is useful for class discussion because the students connect to the medium perhaps better than to a novel written in 1897 and also because Coppola uses dramatic [-p.51] visual clues to help constitute the difference between Eastern and Western Europe. Following the viewing, a discussion ensued in which the instructor’s role was to provide a summary of the geographic literature on the construction of Eastern Europe as well as a geographic interpretation of the novel. This paper begins with a history of the division of Europe between East and West, highlighting the role of travel literature and other writings in the development of an informal system of regions. Furthermore, the political and economic incentives and consequences for the perpetuation of these regions are discussed. In the next section, a geographic interpretation of Dracula is outlined, identical to the one used in the classroom discussion. This geographic interpretation outlines the dichotomies used to portray the fundamental differences between East and West. Finally, survey and test data are used to assess the success of this lesson in teaching students about the social construction of regions.” (pp.50-51)

Larry Wolff (1994) attributes the construction of an Eastern Europe that is separate from the civilized portions of Western Europe to Enlightenment philosophers (in particular, Voltaire and Rousseau) who perpetuated and mythologized each other’s accounts of a backward and barbaric homogenous region (despite some of these writers never actually
going there). For example, Voltaire’s History of Charles XII (1731) was critical in mapping Eastern Europe in the popular imagination by describing Charles’s march through Eastern Europe. This book was written in the first person and instilled a fantasy-filled image of Eastern Europe that later travellers would take with them, inserting a lens of preconceptions in their imagination. We know that the book was influential because it had several printings and translations, and its effect was far-reaching and long lasting.” (p.51)

“In addition to this representation from philosophers who may or may not actually have
been to Eastern Europe there were similar depictions available to the public from completely fictional travellers, such as those of Baron Munchausen (Wolff, 1994). While
there was a real Baron Munchausen who did travel through Eastern Europe, the stories
published about his namesake were tall tales written by Rudolf Raspe (1785) that portrayed Eastern Europe as a ridiculous and fantastic place. This representation became fashionable just as travel to the region increased…. At the same time, Southwest Asia and East Asia received a much more romantic image, perhaps because of its inaccessibility for most Europeans. The connection between inaccessibility and romance is reiterated by Goldsworthy (1998, p. 75), who notes: “the Gothic plot [as of Dracula] requires a setting which is sufficiently close to the reader to appear threatening, while nevertheless being alien enough to house all the exotic paraphernalia—the castles, the convents, the caverns, the dark forests at midnight, the mysterious villains and the howling specters”.” (p.51)

In Dracula, as in other literature of the time, Western Europe and Eastern Europe are portrayed as opposing spaces, which together embody a series of dichotomous relationships. As mentioned previously, this process of othering was enabled by Western [-p.55] Europe’s hegemonic economic and cultural power. Senf (1998, pp. 24, 37) alludes to some of these dichotomies, but the importance of them to the constitution of Eastern Europe is not fully recognized. The first of these dichotomies is Western Europe’s civilization versus Eastern Europe’s barbarism. This opposition is one of historic importance, as ‘civilization’ is a value-laden word that originally meant simply a settled, non-nomadic existence (Davies, 1996) but has since come to be associated with good manners, ethical decision-making, distinguished culture and other normative goods. Barbarian, in its original formulation (by the ancient Greeks—see McNeill, 1997), simply meant one who does not speak Greek, but has since become associated with all that is uncivilized: poor hygiene and appearance, cruelty to enemies, a lack of distinguished culture and a lack of attachment to place. This normative geography is inscribed in Dracula’s text, as Transylvania and the Count himself are both portrayed as barbarian. For instance, Jonathan Harker writes this in his journal on the way to Transylvania (Stoker, 1897, p. 3): [‘]The strangest figures we saw were the Slovaks, who were more barbarian than the rest, with their big cow-boy hats, great baggy dirty-white trousers, white linen shirts, and enormous heavy leather belts, nearly a foot wide, all studded over with brass nails. . .. On the stage they would be set down at once as some old Oriental band of brigands.[‘]” (pp.54-55)

Dracula partakes in a longstanding tradition of representing Eastern Europe as a place of sexualized violence.” (p.56)

“In a similar manner to the distinction made between Western mind and Eastern body, Stoker’s novel maintains a historical distinction between Western science and Eastern magic.” (p.56)

“That Eastern Europe is a place of fantasy and magic is a long-held truism in travel literature. This is a fundamental theme of Baron Munchausen’s travelogue. (p.57)

“Eastern Europe is portrayed as a place eternally of the past, with London (and all of Western Europe) portrayed as the dynamic source of change and innovation.” (p.57)

Dracula must be seen in its full literary and historical context. The Count must be
from Eastern Europe for the story to have its maximum cultural resonance; the story is as horrifying as it is because Dracula is this emblem of Eastern European danger threatening the West.
Dracula is not the only novel to take advantage of this geographic imaginary— Goldsworthy (1998, p. 76) notes that: “Typically, because of the need for a dichotomy between the familiar and the exotic, Gothic locations are on the edges of a particular geographical area, in its remote corners and on its borderlands.” Indeed, the entire Gothic genre helped construct difference between Eastern and Western Europe, even if that was never its specific intention. Stoker wrote the novel for the same reasons as most authors: to profit. Therefore, he exploited the already-existent division of Europe as the geographic framework of his novel, and through that hugely successful novel he inadvertently perpetuated that division, perhaps contributing more to it than any previous author or philosopher. The success of Dracula and books like it has vast political and cultural ramifications, as that success helps to structure the geographic imagination of its many millions of readers.” (p.58)

Dracula is particularly important within the genre because of its literary longevity and its role as the inspiration for an entire genre of books and movies, as well as a sub-culture, each of which reconstructs the division of Europe into east and west and makes it more of a taken-for-granted fact of life.” (p.58)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Jason Dittmer (2006): Teaching the Social Construction of Regions in Regional Geography Courses; or, Why Do Vampires Come from Eastern Europe?, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 30:1, 49-61

ABSTRACT “This article describes the difficulty of teaching about the construction of regions in regional geography courses, which are themselves built on a metageography that often goes unquestioned. The author advocates the use of popular culture to make this very complex issue palpable for undergraduates. Thus, the construction of Eastern Europe within a larger European framework is clear through a study of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the movies that the book has spawned. Included in this article is an analysis of the geography presented through the Dracula narrative, and the contents of the classroom experience created by the author to teach that analysis. The article concludes with survey data that illustrate the reaction of the students to the lesson as well as evidence that the lesson improved student learning.”

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