J.T. Barbarese

The Vampire Colloquium

It was actually a joint multidisciplinary seminar undertaken by English, Philosophy, Women’s Issues and Paraplegic Studies. The invited speaker was a woman from Dalmatia.
      Joe entered through a side door and was immediately taken by the guest speaker’s height — a woman at least six-two who loomed over Betsy Plowperson, the staff Medievalist, who was acting as host. Betsy wore her usual garb of monk’s robe with hood lined with mink, wooden shoes with calfskin insole and what looked like a tiara with an AAUP button on the front. Beside her Jayne, the semiologist, wore a bright-yellow apron over cargo pants and a frilly blouse printed with a large empty red bull’s-eye. The two women stared up at the guest, who sported a kilt and a gemmed toilet-seat for a headpiece. She was describing her favorite food. Joe sat in the back row fumbling in his bag for some distracting reading, social camouflage, anything to bury himself in and avoid Betsy when Betsy approached with the guest.
      “This is Constantia,” Betsy said, abandoning Jayne to the wine and cheese prep. “Constantia, my colleague, Joe. Joe does Sports Studies, with a concentration in Baseball.”
      Betsy stood over Joe and Constantia stood over both. Joe rose and took Constantia’s hand, and she bowed slightly.
      “So happy,” she said, “so happy,” and she bowed again. “You study balls?”
      “Baseball,” Joe said. “Baseball Studies.”
      “Ah,” Constantia said, “a new field? What excitement!”
      “It is exciting. There’s going to be a summer institute, even,” Betsy said.
      “It’s a summer sport,” said Joe. “Field trips.”
      “But Joe, you’re all the way back here,” Betsy said, “come front.” She cupped her hand to her mouth and said to Constantia, “Joe is acoustically challenged.”
      “Ah,” Constantia said, nodding. “Bad hears?”
      “You could say that!” Betsy rocked with laughter.
      “I hear fine,” Joe said. “Betsy is just being Betsy.”
      Constantia furrowed her brow.
      “Who else is she to be?”
      Betsy and Constantia laughed quietly, then Betsy led Constantia to the podium. Joe followed. A moment later the chair of philosophy, Bill Wisdom, who carried his passport just to verify his surname, patted Joe’s shoulder and sat down. Joe liked Bill. Bill was working on novel approaches to the terminology of the disabled in literature, from a practical classroom perspective.
      “The crux is the semantics, this word disabled. Take Meursault,” Bill said, continuing the same conversation he and Joe had been having for months. Bill scoped the room as if looking for Meursault. “I would argue that the guy had Asperger’s.”
      “You can’t know the players without a scorecard,” Joe said. “In this case, The DSM.”
      “We’re terminologically disabled,” Bill said. “This woman may be our Lourdes.” He nodded toward the guest speaker.
      The room filled. Grad students, colleagues, two women from the business office, one dean, three microdeans, and two TAs with armfuls of bluebooks balancing huge venti-sized coffees. Department chairs jogged in, bringing up the rear.
      Betsy introduced Constantia as a Croatian scholar whose expertise was international disability literatures.
      “Much, much about which,” Betsy added dryly, “Constantia should know since her country has for decades been doing its part in adding to the lists of the disabled.”
      Several bowed their heads either in embarrassment or agreement, it was hard to tell. Not funny said a grad student behind Joe.
      “Chemical and biological warfare,” Betsy went on to say, “field mutilations, psychological trauma, shell shock, night sweats and fatigue.” Constantia leaned over and said something under her breath and Betsy laughed.
      “Not to mention the native diet,” Betsy added. The crowd chuckled. “Or trench mouth.”
      The graduate student behind Joe whispered Not funny to the girl next to him. Bill turned and glared at the grad student.
      “They probably think she’s come to talk about vampires,” Bill said to Joe. “Or zombies. They probably consider vampirism a disability.”
      “Zombies are ethnically Haitian,” Joe said. “Technically, zombies and Haitians are illegal aliens.”
      Bill squinted at Joe, then nodded.
      “And not covered by health insurance,” Bill nodded gravely. Joe looked at him skeptically.
      “Hey,” Bill said, “it’s an issue.”
      Constantia stepped to the lectern and tapped it twice with several sheets of rolled paper that she unrolled and flattened out. She began by announcing the title of her talk: “Vampirism as Disability” — Bill, wide-eyed, turned to Joe, who shrugged — and she spoke very clearly. Her English was excellent but wooden, and her accent very mild except for a slight habit of aspirating vowels, especially e’s and i’s. She had been born and had spent her first year in Philadelphia, where her father taught math in a small Quaker school before resigning to make an ill-advised return to what he thought was his homeland, Dalmatia. He had been wrong and Constantia and her siblings were brought up in what turned out not to be the homeland. Her grandparents, as she later discovered and as her (now late) father denied even on his deathbed, were originally from Southern California, descendants on both sides of Gold Rush pioneers who were first enriched and then impoverished by poor ancestral business decisions. In the early twentieth century they emigrated to Canada, where both her father, the math teacher, and her mother, his miserably unhappy wife, were born and raised. They grew up on the same street, she said, and went to the same Catholic school. They sounded Eastern European because they had lived so long in Quebec.
      “The truth is that my great grandparents were probably Hirish!” she said. “Which makes me Hirish. It is all very confused,” she added, laughing, and the crowd joined her. “I may actually be Hirish! Maybe that is why I’m hinterested in the vampires! And lucky for me because Dalmatia is just the place for one with such a hinterest!”
      She then began her talk. Her interest in disability studies (she named some names, several pioneers) stemmed from her sense that the disabled per se were not only a minority but in fact were an endangered minority in literature. Nobody was writing about them, certainly not anymore, with sensitivity. Or discussing them in classroom settings, with sensitivity. The lack of sensitivity was an effect of what she called our disabled pedagogy and the refusal among the professoriate to engage in dignified discussions of the disabled in literature. She gently pounded the podium twice for emphasis.
      “Our very terminhology is disabled!”
      Bill shifted in his seat. “She’s already there.”
      Oh there was Steinbeck’s Lenny, who was cognitively disabled, and there were characters like Long John Silver, and Billy Budd with his stutter, and of course Moses, and there was Quasimodo. But to take into account only these and other representatives of the traditions of literary realism narrows the field, beclouds the deeper and lasting implications of disability as a conceptual and not simply practical term and merely polarizes the very concept of disability and finally reduces it to yet another loathsome buzzword.
      “Therefore,” she went on, “I am not just excited by but committed to an hextension of the concept of disability into the dimension of the fabulous. To lycanthropy, zombiism, and of course, most sublimely, to vampirism itself, and to situating upon this broadened conceptual base such characters” —and she lifted her eyes from her pages —“as Count Dracula, the Golem, Captain Hook, Frankenstein’s monster, Wells’s Invisible Man, The Silkie — endless, the possibilities are endless.”
      Constantia paused to acknowledge a slight problem with definitions.
      “A disability in a fantasy that had no place in reality might not in fact be a per se hauthorized disability, I do hadmit. More work would, yes, be required.”
      Hands flew up.
      Someone from Women’s Studies asked about the woman called Sybil in the book of the same name and Constantia deflected the question by pointing to the existence of Disassociative Identity Disorder as a documented disability.
      “So we can answer our own question,” Constantia said, “by an happeal to medical hauthority, yes?” The woman seem pleased, bowed, and sat.
      A lively comment-cum-question came from a young woman wearing a pith helmet and a large gold nose ring. She wanted to know whether hobbits, dwarfs, trolls, and fairy tale giants qualified. Constantia answered patiently. Each condition should be viewed as a form of disability, she said. Fusty distinctions among fantasy and horror, sci-fi and realism were artifacts of now disposable paths of inquiry. Figures that embody these body designs and the body types of fantasy should be welcomed as co-occupants of a shared social space, and she waved around the room.
      “This space,” she said, and she waved again, “should be considered for them protected. Just as we would refrain from using certain offensive words in common discourse, by the same sense of decency we should be sensitive in how we cite the imaginary disabled. Hobbits, dwarves, wolf-men, Martians, and my favorites, the vampires, are all sites” —she spelled the word out in the air with a large finger — “of critical citation and not just hopportunities for cheap hexcitation.”
      The graduate student behind Joe whispered She’s a fucking head case and his hand flew up. Constantia acknowledged him, but he stayed seated.
      “My question has to do with the possibility that a name actually points to a real thing,” he said, “a thing it names?” He up-talked in a way that left Joe dejected. “So, in other words, when I’m teaching Lord of the Rings I shouldn’t refer to Frodo as a hobbit?”
      “Didn’t know they were teaching that in your department,” Bill whispered to Joe.
      Constantia had been nodding her head during the question, then repeated it for those who might have been hearing impaired — she looked down at Joe and smiled — and asked the student if her paraphrase was correct. He nodded and she nodded back.
      “Ha, well, precisely!” she said. “No more than you would use the word retard, for instance, to speak categorically of the cognitively impaired.” “The cognitively impaired are not in my classroom,” the student said.
      “But perhaps,” she replied, “her brother is.”
      “The cognitively impaired person wouldn’t be able to read the book we’re talking about,” the grad student persisted.
      “But her brother might,” Constantia said confidently. She lifted her shoulders in a happy shrug. “Your question was about hobbits, however, yes?”
      “It’s the same thing,” he said. “Hobbits or retards. There are no hobbits or retards in my classroom.”
      “No,” Constantia said. “Very true. No hobbits.”
      “Not around here, at least.”
      “No, but perhaps a student with large pointed ears, of small stature, with large eyes, perhaps such a grotesque lives, matriculates, graduates. You see the problem.”
      Somebody behind them whispered Down Syndrome. Somebody else whispered half my section.
      “What about Vulcans?” one of the whisperers stood and asked. “Tall people with pop-eyes and pointy ears?”
      “Exactly how tall?” she asked, laughing. “Do let me know of any tall people you know of! I don’t care about the pointedness of the hears. It would be to date with someone of my level! Gravitational if not intellectual!”
      All of which loosened the crowd. The graduate student sat back, grumbling. Bill Wisdom, squirming, raised his hand.
      “I’m wondering,” he said, “about Camus’ Meursault. Are psychological disorders admissible? Raskolnikoff. Or better, Madame Bovary,” he added. “The woman’s married to a doctor so you ask yourself, what’s to complain about?”
      “Her I would admit but not the Russian,” Constantia replied, “though on this the reasonable people can disagree. Emma is textbook borderline personality. It is self-evident from her choice of men. Karenina, a different story.”
      Other examples were tossed out. Ariel and Caliban (from Wayne, an older colleague from English) elicited a demurral because, Constantia said, everyone in Shakespeare is in some way disabled by having to represent themselves in verse.
      “Hamlet too?” Wayne asked.
      “Narcissist,” Constantia replied. “The soliloquies are substitutes for masturbation and self-pleasuring. But in western culture,” she added, “narcissism is a prerequisite to bourgeois existence, even citizenship, so . . . ”
      Somebody else picked up on the reference to Caliban and asked about Victor Frankenstein’s creation and whether it was ok to use the word monster.
      “Only after supplying a context, historical and cultural and perhaps political, for such usage.” The questioner looked back dumbfounded.
      “In other words, in what sense is the being that is thoroughly self-taught and assembled from spare parts not a monster?”
      She looked down, arms folded, and made a face. The audience did the same, confused. She seemed to be grimacing at the ceiling tiles.
      “I mean,” she said, “we should be real. Particular terms that are explosive, needlessly offensive. The word negro of course is one, the one in the foreground, it or its supplements, the ‘n-word,’ which is interesting, don’t you think, since it offers itself to the listener already sous erasure —already self-conscious of its otherness. It is like a nose job —the new nose is a site of speculation. The old one, was it hooked? Pert? It is a ghostly fulfillment of a need to eradicate the unspeakable void. To teach the unspeakable is to teach context, to unspeak the spoken. And vice versa.”
      “Which is the vice, which the versa?” asked the grad student.
      Jayne intervened and said she felt compelled to ask a question.
      “Your approach,” she said, “makes semantic equations between words like negro and monster?”
      “At least in the classroom,” Constantia replied, “but not only there.”
      “But Frankenstein’s monster is a fiction. What about Huck’s Jim?”
      “Yeah,” said the grad student. “What about the old nomina sunt consequential rerum?”
      “Would Huck be capable of reading the book named after him?” Constantia asked the air in the room.
      “That wasn’t my question,” Jayne said, and she looked around for support but was getting none. Then somewhere in the back of the room a chair loudly scraped the floor. Joe turned and saw a black colleague named Leslie, an associate dean, rise to ask a question. Constantia meanwhile was leaning from the lectern and tapping it with her rolled talk and considering the question.
      “Of course,” she said finally, “Victor’s monster would be able. He was a highly literate monster and refined despite his technical lack of education.”
      “Are there any other questions?” Betsy asked.
      “Yeah,” said Leslie. “Are you asserting that being black is a disability?”
      “I’m certain that’s not what our speaker means,” Betsy said. She had wedged herself between Constantia and the microphone.
      “Is being black like being a vampire?”
      “Again,” Betsy said, “I think, uh” — and she looked plaintively toward Constantia.
      “Or Jim in Huckleberry Finn is too illiterate to read Frankenstein?”
      “Actually,” someone else said, “that was my question as well. Are we including learning disabilities?”
      “Being a slave isn’t a learning disability,” the black man said.
      “That’s not what I meant,” and the other speaker stood up. It was Joe’s friend Rich, the linguist.
      “Well, what do you mean? I got issues.”
      Constantia stepped to the microphone and with a finger lifted a length of her hair over her left ear and squinted into the crowd.
      “Blackness is a concept,” she said. “Its constructedness is like any other conceptual entity. Whether the discussion is about a Black person or a vampire, we must respect their constructedness. Speak respectfully of both. In a way that makes the unspeakable speakable. Respectable.”
      “Repeatable,” Betsy said from the side.
      “And respeakable,” Contantia said, with emphasis.
      Betsy walked to the mic and said that if there were no further questions they could convene in the rear of the room for cheese and wine. Somebody shouted that there was another questioner, and Betsy squinted and said ok, yes, where? Way in the back a young woman in a motorized wheelchair was raising her left hand and moving slowly up the center aisle, her mouth around a device that powered the chair. The young woman began to speak. Everyone in the room could hear her.
      “Can you say, like, what isn’t a disability? This is not a construct,” she said, rubbing her hands over the arms of her wheelchair.
      “I’m having trouble hearing you,” Betsy said. “The system,” she said, “what’s with the system?” and she tapped the microphone and produced muffled thuds in the loudspeaker. The girl repeated her question and Betsy leaned over and cupped her ear then turned to Constantia, who gently moved Betsy away.
      “I would argue that the class disability is not a sub-class of ability,” Constantia said.
      “Ok,” the young woman said, nodding.
      “Does that answer your question?”
      “Ok,” the young woman repeated.
      Betsy stepped back in and canvassed the crowd, but there were no other questions. She invited the audience to make its way to the tables in the back for wine and cheese and further discussion with Constantia, who bowed to the loud applause and followed Betsy over to where Joe and Bill were already standing and grazing on cheese cubes.
      “Bill Wisdom,” Bill said, with a little bow. He extended his hand and Constantia extended hers, swallowing his.
      “Constantia,” Constantia said.
      “I know,” Bill said. “That was powerful.”
      “Wonderful questions,” Constantia said, “wonderful students.”
      “One thing,” Bill said. He glanced at Joe as if to corroborate what he was about to say. “Is one correct in assuming that your position is that everything is a disability?” People had begun to gather around them.
      “You were the Camus question, yes?” Constantia leaned backward, smiling. “Nous sommes tous des cas exceptionnels, n’est pas?” Bill nodded. Somebody whispered What did she just say? and somebody else translated it. “I would say the same applies in this case here. We are all disabled,” she said, triumphantly, and she waved at the circle that had formed around them, stopping at the young woman in the wheelchair. “N’est pas?”
      “Ok,” the young woman said.
      “Then it’s a distinction that makes no difference,” said the annoying grad student who had been sitting behind them.
      “Sophistry,” Constantia said. “Open your thinking. Calibrate the scale differently. Say, from the bottom up. It is like saying, the thing at the bottom does not define something absolute, only distance from the top. An example would be the devil.”
      “Is the devil disabled?” The grad student was persistent.
      “Clearly,” Constantia said, “by his distance from God.”
      “Evil,” Bill said, “is a measure of distance from the good, not some thing.”
      “Yes,” Constantia said, “and take the next leap. Disability is not a defective form of hability, but hability is a defective form of disability.”
      “Ok,” said the young woman, grinning now. “I get it,” she said, excitedly.
      Constantia beamed down at her.
      “I think that a few more exciting moments like this,” Betsy said, nodding, “might lift you right out of that chair!”
      “Like The Secret Garden,” somebody said.
      “You have asked me, now I have a question for you.” Constantia bent and knelt before the young woman and spoke in a near whisper. The student leaned in to the question, then nodded and smiled.
      “I, too, am really into it,” said Constantia.
      “With a partner?” the girl asked. Constantia stared at her, wide- eyed.
      “I have heard of such an ability!” she said. “I thought it was myth!”
      Betsy sidled over to Joe and Bill and cut between them. “So,” she said, “whatcha think?”
      “Impressive,” Bill said. “They had questions, she had answers,” and he looked at Joe, who shrugged.
      “Joe,” Betsy said, “can you give her a ride back to Faculty House? You’ve got the biggest car here, and she’s a big girl.” Faculty House was across the campus, a twenty-minute walk, and Constantia had bags. Joe said sure and glanced at Constantia, who was standing over the young woman in the wheelchair and extending her wine cup to some anonymous pourer.
      “She’s not much of a drinker,” Betsy said. “But when she drinks, she drinks.”
      Twenty minutes later Joe was accompanying Constantia to his car. She talked all the way from the lounge where she gave her talk through the parking lot into his SUV. She seemed untouched by the wine and declined to have him carry her bag. When they got to his car she handed it to him, got in and stared out at the campus.
      “And I will not invite you in when we get there,” she said, amiably.
      “I’m heading right home,” Joe said.
      “Unless you insist,” she said. Then she turned and put her hand on his.
      “So, didja like my talk?” It was gone, all of it — the accent, the square manner, all gone. Joe started to laugh, then stopped and stared at her, amused. Equally amused, she stared back.
      “Does Betsy know?” he asked.
      “She knows nothing,” Constantia said, in a fake European drawl, dragging out the final vowels. “So how did I do?”
      “I thought you did ok,” he said. “But nobody catches on?”
      “The stakes are too low. Plus, when people start paying attention they never know what to look for first.” She yawned. “What do you do, again? I am a little bit, y’know, from the wine . . . ”
      “Sports literatures,” he said. “Concentration is baseball.”
      “Weird field,” she said.
      “I pack ’em in,” he said. “We do field trips to ball parks and spring training. I get retired baseball scouts to guest lecture. Retired players do Q&A’s and sign baseballs after class. They love it. I feel like the Pied Piper.”
      “The Pied Piper was the first vampire,” she said. She stretched out and yawned. “It’s true. Ever read Stoker? A piece of shit, total trash, but it came later. First came Browning’s poem. You read that, it’s all vampire all day long.”
      “Then I’m a vampire,” he said. “What I do in the classroom.”
      “We’re all vampires,” she said. “A professional hazard.”
      “You do a good accent.”
      “Upbringing,” she said. “Loved the Lugosi films.”
      “Huh,” he said. They drove in silence for a while.
      “Why don’t you ask me in?”
      “Call me Connie,” she said.