Also an episode from a story "The Strange History of Daniel Mortimer"
|Sympathy for the Devil? The Case of Vlad III, alias Dracula
To anyone who concedes that evil exists in theological or metaphysical terms, Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, the so-called Impaler, must number among those who most notoriously personify this mysterious force and yet to some he was, and remains, a freedom fighter, even a defender of Christianity against the inroads of militant Islam. As a boy and a youth, he spent years as a hostage in the court of the Ottoman Sultan and had to reckon with death at a moment's notice should his father break the terms of his fealty to the Sultan. His half-brother, also in the custody of the Sultan, had to defend his chastity by stabbing the Sultan in the thigh when about to be sexually abused. Vlad' s most favored means of execution, impaling, could be construed as a symbolic form of sexual assault as in its most grisly form it involved the rupture and penetration of the lower region of the body by a wooden stake. Thus Vlad's fascination with one of the most obscene, degrading and cruel forms of torture may have been initiated by a desire for revenge. Of course, relativizing apologists may interject , Vlad lived in harsh times After all, he adopted impaling from the Ottomans themselves, who apparently introduced this measure during the siege of Constantinople. Offering no quarter to the inhabitants of towns where their leaders had refused the terms of surrender before a siege was standard practice even in biblical times. So why single out Vlad III as the very epitome of evil?
In terms of the sheer quantity of the deaths he inflicted in a cruel manner was exceptional even in his day. The sight of the "forest of the impaled" that met the eyes of Sultan Mehmet and his army was appalling enough to deter that sultan from further pursuing his current military campaign in Wallachia and Transylvania. Those who wish to defend Vlad have argued that there was method in Vlad's madness to the extent that only the most drastic means secured him a chance of surviving when all the odds were squarely against him. Arguably, we enlightened taxpayers in many nations today implicitly aid and abet the potential use of weapons that, if ever used, would exterminate entire populations and even end all human life on this planet.
As far as his brutal treatment of Turks is concerned, Vlad's grim methods served to enhance his prestige in some quarters the Christian world. Constantinople, the Second Rome, had recently fallen and in the Levant Islam seemed to be gaining ground on several fronts. When the Pope canvassed for support of a new crusade, Vlad expressed interest in doing his bit; to establish his military prowess beyond any shadow of doubt he assembled a collection of many thousands of noses cut off from the corpses of his victims. His skill as a military leader was proven by his conduct of guerrilla tactics, his resort to scorched earth tactics in the face of overwhelming enemy forces on the open field as well as by commanding his troops very effectively in phases of conventional warfare.
The fact that Vlad was engaged in war with the Ottoman empire seems to have blunted some of the criticism leveled against him by his detractors, especially when a widespread attitude condoned the imposition of harsh measures against Infidels that would be regrettable if meted out to fellow Christians. For centuries to come non--Christians were enslaved without a qualm despite it being seen as distasteful to enslave those who were Christians. Earlier in the Middle Ages the crossbow was deemed a most inhuman contraption and even unlawful by the Church if aimed at Christians but not so if used against non-Christian foes. Of course, we discover the exact obverse in Muslim attitudes to Christians during the same time period. Besides, Vlad could prove just as cruel to Christians as he could to Muslims, as his execution of Saxons in the Siebenburgen area of Transylvania showed only too clearly. In fact Vlad's evil reputation as a demonic monster, which ultimately culminated in Count Dracula the vampire in Bram Stoker's famous novel, goes back to printed illustrations of Vlad's impaled victims made possible by the recent invention of the book press, which the Saxons employed as a propaganda tool to much effect.
In the first and in some ways most chilling case of Vlad's bloodthirsty and vindictive state of mind the next case we consider adds perfidy and even an element of sacrilege to a catalog of Vlad's atrocities. In 1457, Vlad, only recently installed in power as the ruler of Wallachia, took a drastic step to eliminate the power and influence of the Boyars in his realm. The Boyars belonged to class of nobles who as independent magnates like the barons in the reign of King John in England, could thwart the claim of absolute power to which Vlad laid claim. Having accepted Vlad's invitation, five hundred Boyars participated in a banquet held on Easter Sunday in the grand hall of the royal palace in Targoviste, then with Bucharest the capital of Wallachia. No sooner had the guests finished their repast than they were arrested on charges of complicity in the death of Vlad's father. The older Boyars were summarily impaled outside the city walls whereas the younger members of the class were sent on a horrendous forced march to a craggy height on which they were made to build an impregnable and strategically vital fortress. Here one could almost discern an early anticipation of the process of selection that took place in Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. Over and above Vlad's disrespect for humanity, the timing of the massacre incurs the charge that he brazenly challenged divine authority to boot. History affords few comparable cases of perfidy resulting in the massacre of one’s own guests. Mehemet Ali eliminated the Mamelukes in Egypt by using much the same ruse in 1811. There have been several notable cases of exploiting the distraction offered by a religious holiday in history. I remind readers of the Yom Kippur war and the attack George Washington made on Hessian troops at Christmas after crossing the Delaware in 1776. All is fair in love and war, as they say. In short, I find no true parallel to Vlad’s treatment of the Boyars.
To religious minds his cognomen of Dracula appears relevant. His father had become a member of the Grand Order of the Dragon, hence the dragon displayed in his heraldic crest and his appellation which, when transferred to his son, became Dracula, the son of the dragon. In common parlance the same name referred to the Devil. In medieval legends the Devil was credited with the immense power of a master builder. The architect of Cologne Cathedral supposedly enlisted the aid of the archfiend. The energy and the skill that marked Vlad's ability to raise mighty castles and fortresses are truly remarkable as any visitor to Romania today will affirm. Were it not for the enormity of his crimes Vlad could well elicit admiration as well as dread and repugnance. Certainly the tourist industry today has done nothing to conceal his amazing architectural achievements. Unfortunately Vlad was a human being like us despite the bid to assign him to a non-human category occupied exclusively by demons and devils. For all that there is no doubt in my mind that Vlad III was “evil” and as such the bearer of a warning to us all, especially now.
P. S. In the meantime visit Romania, a much overlooked but highly worthwhile goal for tourists, as my son and I discovered only last week. I can highly recommend a taxi-driven day’s outing with a friendly and astonishingly well informed guide.
A further episode in the series "Daniel Mortimer's Way Out experiences in Washington, D. C. from Those Writings on the Wall http://www.lulu.com/shop/julian-scutts/those-writings-on-the-wall/paperback/prod...
. The shock of falling into the cold river induced an experience so strange that I am daunted by the attempt to describe it. It was as though the names of all rivers and oceans babbled in my ears--the Potomac, the Rhine, the Amazon, the Thames, the Ganges, the Euphrates, the Seine, the Yang-Tse, the Weser, the Jordan. Then came the sensation of falling through air, as though I had been back in the airliner to Boston. The turbulence had become unbearable and the doors had burst open. I had been sucked out of the plane into the atmosphere. Falling, I could hear a sound like the squealing of rats.
Below was a livid sea from which there rose the stench of putrefaction. Soon the color of this infernal sea had changed to a lurid red and yellow. My horror increased when I saw the loathsome forms on its surface-decaying corpses, skeletal wrecks, a scabby crust floating like pack ice on a frozen sea. Even more terrible than the scene itself was the awareness that I was about to be made part of it - like the wretched creatures I could see being merged and dissolved into the vile mass. Now I could make out hideous things like sea spiders that were crawling on the crust and lunging their probes into bodies as they floated by. I cannot remember the moment or even the manner of my immersion, only the futile effort to prevent myself sinking into the morass. My frantic movements attracted the attention of one of those giant spiders. Slowly and deliberately it worked its way toward me. My legs felt something slimy and slippery; a feeling of utter disgust made me retch. I hoped for a quick, merciful end. Then something white of yet indefinite shape approached. It seemed to wade toward me. As it brushed past, I somehow knew there remained one chance of deliverance.
I flung my arms round what I could now imagined to be the neck of a pale mare. I tightened my grip. I was being drawn along faster and faster until, to my immense horror, it made a terrifying plunge downwards into the depths of the foul sea. I held my breath until my lungs were near to bursting. The thought of breathing in that polluted substance terrified. When I could hold my breath no longer, I experienced for a moment that feeling of self-abandonment a dying man must feel. My eyes, hitherto kept closed, opened to a scene where all was drenched in a deep red light. The exquisite pain was over. I could breathe. The substance through which I was borne became translucent and air-like. The savor of sweet wine was on my tongue and the mane of the pale mare waved, as might the leaves of a plant in clear water. Fear had yielded to a sensation of emotional as well as physical buoyancy, for I now surveyed a delectable land where the mountains and hills had put on delicate hues of red and pink, a land with fairy castles where everybody from the King, with his long white beard, and Queen to the humblest servant were spellbound by the enchanting tone of the minstrel. Now confidently astride the white mare, I looked down over forests of trees that swayed to and fro, rising and heaving, like gigantic underwater plants.
Fish and birds shared the same airy-liquid medium. The landscape gradually changed. Scenes of luxuriant growth were replaced by the desolation of a rocky and sandy waste. The horse no longer "swam" but moved on its hoofs in customary manner along a lonely track. This led into a rocky chasm, which was so narrow at one point that there was barely room to pass. As I looked up, the walls of rock took on the shapes of giants or titans raging against the heavens.
Soon the chasm widened into a spacious canyon in which the first sight to meet my eyes was that of a magnificent temple facade cut into the rose-red sandstone. As I rode forward, more temples in the rock appeared. The path was now a paved road leading into a colonnade. Between the columns were the statues of great men in ages past, the emperors of Rome, philosophers and poets. Rough stones yielded to white marble, this to the gleam of silver and gold. I statues of gold; precious stones lay on the ground like pebbles by the wayside. I saw a figure like the Queen of Heaven adorned with precious stones- -diamonds, sapphires, amethysts and emeralds. I could hear the music of the flute, lyre, trumpet and tumbrel and a woman's voice singing a lullaby. At last the statues came to life. A nymph clad in gold and purple smiled graciously, her hand outstretched for me to clasp. I tried to reach it, but the mare, like the ship of Ulysses, carried me past death and danger, for then I noticed a skull, overlaid with gold and silver, resting at her feet.
The colonnade splayed out into a great forum beyond which stood a magnificent temple of white stone. I rode to the foot of a broad flight of steps leading to a forecourt in front of the temple's main portal. As I looked up, I beheld a great throne of white marble with six ivory chairs at either side. Twelve elders came through the great door and sat in their appointed places. At either side of the door stood a man in shepherd's attire with a ram's horn in his hand. This he placed to his lips and blew a sound that began as a long monotonous wail and ended in a series of high-pitched notes like the call of a bird. A grave patriarch appeared at the door. A figure with a winged helmet walked beside him.
When they reached the white throne, the patriarch sat while his attendant stood beside him holding a scroll of parchment. The horse climbed a flight of steps until we reached a white circle, and here it stood quite still. One of the elders rose from his seat and said my name. The patriarch looked at the attendant, and the attendant inspected the scroll. He made a sign with his staff. The patriarch, pointing at me, pronounced: "Not yet." His grave face yielded to a smile when he again said--this time to me personally--"Not yet."
At that very moment I sensed a sharp pain in the back of my neck. I felt myself being pulled back through time. In the space of a few moments all that I had experienced in my strange vision flashed before me in reverse sequence, the forum, the colonnade, the canyon, the chasm, the desert, the lush forests and fairy castles. The pain grew more intense, for it was as though a bony hand had clasped me by the neck. Then the evil stench of the loathsome sea almost stifled me as the horrors of that hideous sight appeared again for a mercifully brief moment before I was braced by the sudden sensation of cold water over all my body.
I looked up into the clear night sky. The stars seemed to be so near, like specks of silver I could sift through my fingers. With what awe I contemplated the greatness of the universe and the smallness of man. Only the divine spirit implanted in the human soul was not subject to the laws of physics and chemistry, which governed all else. It was as though I could hear Rachel say "Many waters cannot quench love."
I was conscious that I was being ferried back to the riverside. When l fully came to, I found myself lying on a mossy slope overlooking the Potomac. I enjoyed the rich aroma of decaying leaves. I must have fallen into the river, I thought.
Something about a chase through bushes was coming back to me..
"You forgot something, Daniel--your wallet."
I could hardly believe my ears.
"I took the liberty of paying the waiter for the meal and the wine. I think this is yours too. You left it in a bar as a security, remember? Jake asked me to return it to you.”
"Thank you," I said, totally nonplussed, "Thank you very much indeed."
I was still trying to figure everything out in my mind. The voice of rationalism in me chortled triumphantly:
"Danny, you superstitious fool! Fancy just running out of the restaurant like that without paying, then running through the streets like a mad thing, then ordering a drink with only a dime in your pocket, failing to find your way back to the restaurant and then, to top it all, running off like a startled hare and jumping into the Potomac. And all because you saw someone in a clerical habit. There are monks and friars, you know! Had you forgotten that there are still people around with enough true Christian charity to make them chase after nuts like you and return things you have left in the most unearthly places? This guy even dived into the Potomac after you and saved your life. Shame on you. As your father always said, ‘A little less Edgar Allan Poe and a little more common sense. You're so heavenly-minded, you're no earthly good.’”
Yet there was one thing my rational self could not explain. The hand that dangled my watch in front of me had no skin on it!