Dracula was NOT modelled on Vlad the Impaler

Like most people – including apparently the makers of the atrocious looking new film Dracula: Untold – I’d thought it was a fact that Bram Stoker had modelled his vampiric villain on the notoriously cruel medieval Romanian ruler Vlad the Impaler.

IO9 suggests this is a myth. Apparently it arose because Stoker’s notes of his research for Dracula went missing for many decades. In their absence, speculation about Dracula’s came to focus on the idea that as the name Dracula was derived from Vlad’s patronymic, so might the rest of his character. However, when the notes eventually resurfaced they didn’t really bare this out:

The truth is, there’s no evidence that Bram Stoker was even aware of the name Vlad III—much less that he was called “Vlad the Impaler.” [Stoker scholar] Miller warns that we can’t assume that Stoker’s notes are the end-all, be-all of the creation of Dracula, but they do provide the only factual information we currently have about Stoker’s research. And the notes tell us exactly where Stoker got the name “Dracula.”

While in Whitby in the summer of 1890…Stoker came across a copy of William Wilkinson’s book An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. We know that, because he copied sections of the book into his notes. Wilkinson’s book contains references to multiple voivodes named Dracula, and some of the sparse details on one such Voivode Dracula make it into Stoker’s text: that he crossed the Danube to attack Turkish troops and had some success. That’s it. There is no reference to a “Vlad,” no mention of a nickname Tepes or “the Impaler,” no detailing of his legendary atrocities.

So why did Stoker choose that name, Dracula? Well, we can infer that from his own notes. He copied information from a footnote from Wilkinson’s book that read in his own notes, “DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL,” with those capital letters. The footnote explained that Wallachians gave the name “Dracula” to people who were especially courageous, cruel, or cunning. Stoker chose the name, it appears, because of its devilish associations, not because of the history and legends attached to its owner.

This is the only reference to the historical Voivode Dracula that appears in Stoker’s notes. Is it possible he knew more? Sure, it’s possible. But this all we know for certain.

The article does, however, eventually conclude that – whatever the initial truth – Vlad III and Dracula have been conflated for so long that they will probably remain so even though the truth is now known.

More on why perfectionism sucks

I’ve done a couple of posts so far on why perfection is so awful. But I wanted to share this very good piece from Salon by Erica Larsen writing about her own experience battling with it:

It’s this loss of connection with the self, I think, that really makes perfectionists so prone to mental illness. Perfectionists’ self-esteem is always yo-yoing between self-importance and self-loathing. We hold ourselves to higher standards than we demand of the rest of the world, yet we refuse to acknowledge anything less than a full-on victory. I’ve seen this same contradiction in the rooms of recovery. Even though addiction causes people to be extremely selfish, many addicts acknowledge that they’re harder on themselves than on anyone else.

Can we have high standards without being perfectionists? Maybe, but it can seem as daunting as stopping at one Oreo. Being okay with “good enough” takes daily practice, daily surrender. Perfectionism is really the opposite of acceptance, which is one of the keys to recovery from anything. No matter how many times we say or hear the Serenity Prayer, it doesn’t come easy.

There are, of course, things we perfectionists can do to ease up on ourselves. Hokemeyer urges his patients to see that “releasing their grip on perfection, if even ever so slightly,” will allow them to have “the peace of mind, connection with the world and a grounding that they’ve hungered for their whole lives.” But I know from dealing with my own mind that it’s one thing to learn to accept things that are obviously out of our hands, like traffic or the weather but much harder to accept and forgive our own mistakes. Still, the truth is that we can’t change those either, and we also can’t change the fact that we’re going to make more no matter how hard we try. Whatever the Higher Power that guides us through our recovery might be, it’s sure as hell not us. And if we’re not God, how can we expect to be perfect? Regardless of what Steps Six and Seven say about removing our shortcomings, recovery won’t make anybody perfect. Nothing can. And that’s not only okay, that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. 

Care for yourself as you care for your neighbour

Earlier this week, I blogged about the damaging and potentially deadly effects of perfectionism.  That explored it as a psychological phenomenon but for some people it can have a theological dimension too.

Christianity is apparently pretty clear on human beings being imperfect. In Romans 3, the Apostle Paul writes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and the notion that all humans are impregnated with original sin is widespread. And it’s moral standards are exceedingly enacting: it’s not enough to do the right thing, you also have to do it for the right reason.

Perhaps surprisingly there is a tradition – particularly associated with John Wesley – that teaches otherwise. Wesley believed that Christians could with God’s help perfect themselves and that would mean:

…his one desire is the one design of his life, namely, “to do not his own will, but the will of Him that sent him.” His one intention at all times and in all places is, not to please Himself, but Him whom his soul loveth. He hath a single eye; and because his “eye is single, his whole body is full of light.” The whole is light, as when “the bright shining of a candle doth enlighten the house.” God reigns alone: all that is in the soul is holiness to the Lord. There is not a motion in his heart but is according to His will. Every thought that arises points to Him, and is in obedience to the law of Christ.

And the tree is known by its fruits. For as he loves God, “so he keeps His commandments”: not only some, or most of them, but ALL, from the least to the greatest. He is not content to “keep the whole law, and offend in one point,” but has, in all points, “a conscience void of offence, towards God, and towards man.” Whatever God has forbidden, he avoids; whatever God has enjoined, he does. “He runs the way of God’s commandments”: now He hath set his heart at liberty. It is his glory and joy so to do: it is his daily crown of rejoicing, to do the will of God on earth as it is done in heaven.

It is worth clarifying at this point that Wesley did not think that this was necessary for someone to be saved: God’s love was all that was necessary for that. However, that does not mean one can relax about not being ‘perfect.’ If you can be perfect then don’t you owe it the God who saved you to be perfect?

And that’s an idea that can eat away at people. There is a brand of Christian I’ve come across often working for the church or in the caring professions and generally with mental health problems. They are compulsively trying to do the right thing and mortified by falling short in any way. In short, they exhibit precisely the kind of problems that one associates with perfectionism.

My friend Ed Watson recently blogged about a similar issue drawing on his own experience of living in a residential faith community in which he observes thatthe people who most want to do good in the world are among the very worst at taking care of themselves.”

He goes onto unpick the theology underlying this mindset:

“Let’s look first at what it means to say that we stand in need of redemption. This is not, in my mind, the clarion call to self-flagellating guilt so typically thought of as part of the doctrine of Original Sin. It is rather the observation that we are finite and fallible creatures, capable of mistakes, easily worn out, and above all incapable of absolute self-sufficiency. This is not, of course, to say that this finitude is what we need to be redeemed from (after all, it is as finite and fallible creatures that we were created and loved): it is to say that we will always need external things to sustain us, whether it be food, the company of others, or the redemptive love of God. This is no cause for shame: it merely implies that when we get home on a Friday night, utterly exhausted, it is a part of our nature to require something beyond our own sense of duty or resilience to help us carry our work on joyfully into the next week.

Insofar as this is the case, the recognition that from time to time we need to take the time for proper self-care is not a denial of the command to put the needs of others before our own: it is rather the recognition of our own finitude. Here we find another meaning in the ‘as thyself’ in the command to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ (one which I’ve lifted from Karl Barth). We cannot love our neighbour as God loves them, for we are not God: we can only love them as we are capable of loving them, as ourselves. Thus to love others as God commands, we must be honest with ourselves about the limits of our own capacities.

There are times, then, when if we are to carry any cross at all, we have to stumble, rest, and allow others to help us along our way. We have to recognise our own limits and so learn to say no to jobs which take us over those limits. We have to learn to accept the loving gifts of others, whatever they may be.”

Now to be clear the kind of people whose problem is giving up too much for others are a definite rarity even among the kind of people I described at the outset: Christians working for the church or in caring roles. However, they do exist. And for their sake the notion of perfectibility must be handled carefully.  If it even possible – which I doubt – then it is incredibly difficult. It is a notion roughly equivalent to enlightenment in Eastern traditions but they also embrace the notion of reincarnation which gives one many lifetimes to achieve it. If you only have one, you are very unlikely to manage it. And as even Wesley acknowledged doing so would not free someone from ordinary human ‘infirmities’ like imperfect knowledge and judgement. To which we might add the need for mental and physical recuperation.

We probably will be imperfect but God still loves us. So hating oneself is an unnecessary tragedy.

When the best housing is the enemy of any homes at all

Why campaigns to stop houses being built in the ‘wrong’ place, often prevent houses being built anywhere.

So yesterday I posted about why I’m uneasy with the propensity of local Lib Dem parties to campaign against proposed housing developments. This post wound up circulating rather further than I’d expected. It was retweeted by among others the Head of Policy at the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Group Land and Planning Director for Barratt Developments!

However, it did garner one response I thought deserved more than a 140 character reply:

Now this is an argument I have a lot of sympathy for – I’ve helped Neil campaign against ‘specific housing sites’ before! – and it’s theoretically sound. In a given case it may be that one could build the same number of homes in an alternative location and that doing so would produce fewer negative externalities. However, in practice I would only want to apply this argument to the most egregious proposed developments.

The reason for this is that I suspect that very often what will happen is that preventing houses being built in a sub-optimal location will not mean they get built in a better one. Rather they not be built at all. This could happen for any number of reasons. For example, it may well be that having marched their financiers up the hill for a project that then failed, the developers can’t get them to do it again. However, the most likely problem is that in the absence of a clear way to establish what is the ‘right’ place to build something, there will almost always be a strong local coalition which considers a given location to the be the ‘wrong’ one.

Let me use an illustration from my own time as a councillor in Oxford. The City Council’s preferred option for building new homes was an urban extension to the South of the city. This aroused the opposition of those living in the neighbouring rural areas and the then leader of the Conservative County Council took the view that if “there is an argument for some changes to Oxford’s Green Belt, it should be to the north of the City.” With a change in government the arguments against building to the south of the city eventually prevailed. When attention did eventually shift to building to the north of the city a far smaller number of homes were proposed and this development likewise proved controversial.

So I take the point but would want to apply it sparingly. Given the extent of the housing crisis we face, I’m inclined to take new homes in less than ideal places over waiting for houses in a better place which may never arrive.

Lib Dem NIMBYism is politically self defeating

York Lib Dems recently scored an impressive victory in a local by-election. When Lib Dem Voice reported the result, as well as congratulations some commenters expressed concern about how the result had been achieved. Matt Hemsley wrote that:

Obviously this result is pleasing.

But it does appear – especially from the quote from the Council Group Leader – that yet again a major premise of our campaign is about preventing the building of houses. This comes shortly after our conference, where we outlined the need to build 300,000 houses a year to meet housing demand.

While I am sure someone from York will explain to me why “this development was not the right one for York”, there is an increasingly wide disconnect between our national narrative and our local narrative in many places across the country. If we are serious about building more homes, we’ll also need to campaign for building them; and work to get them built.

Predictably people from York did indeed pop up pleading that this was the wrong development. But that’s the point: when in opposition all developments are the wrong development. The political incentives make that almost inevitable.

There is a mismatch between social and electoral benefits. The gains of better, cheaper and more plentiful houses are substantial and real. The loses are generally modest –  such the loss of unremarkable farmland – or chimerical like the notion of putting pressure on local services. The people who would live in those houses have to live somewhere and use the services there! However, those who would have lived in the houses that weren’t built will probably never realise but their prospective neighbours would be bound to.

And believe me I understand this temptation. I’ve taken part in – and quite possibly initiated – campaigns against developments. But even putting the dubious ethics aside this might not ultimately be the most effective way to get Lib Dems elected. As Mr Hemsley pointed out we are trying to promote a national narrative around housing and if that succeeds people are going to start noticing the dissonance.

And that would be a problem. We are trying to rebuild our credibility and need to be vigilant for things that might make us appear hypocritical. Housing is also an ideal issue to mend bridge with young voters who are the closest to us in terms in values but the most alienated from us.

That seems like a lot to sacrifice for the sake of boosting local campaigns. Especially given that a number of local parties have married electoral success with ambitious homebuilding programs:

What Jeremy Browne’s retirement tells us about the Lib Dems

Jeremy Browne, the Lib Dem MP Taunton Deane, is standing down at the next election. He has always been a divisive figure within the party. He has his fans but also plenty of detractors. I’m emphatically in the latter camp and have previously written a post calling on him to defect. My issue with him was that for all his posturing about being a libertarian or a ‘true liberal’, his thinking was actually pretty straight forwardly centre-right on both economics and matters like immigration.

Was what does his departure indicate about the direction of the Lib Dems. As is often the case Mark Pack provides the most astute analysis:

Jeremy Browne’s comment that in national politics “my race is run” reflects not only his falling out with Nick Clegg (who sacked him as a minister) but also is a conclusion he can only have come to if he also thinks the next leader of the party – who after all may only be a few months away with a post-election contest – won’t be congenial to his views either. This is not the action of someone who thinks an Orange Book coup has taken over the party and changed it. And if even he doesn’t think that…Standing down isn’t the action of a man with a serious chance of winning the party’s next leadership election. I think Jeremy is right in his views of his own chances, in part because he so often polled so relatively poorly in Lib Dem Voice’s polls of party members.

There has been much pontificating by journalists about the Lib Dem right wing. What Browne discovered is that there is little support within either the parliamentary party or the grassroots for such an approach. The Lib Dems clearly have evolved in the past few years but not into a kind of centre-right party Browne would have liked.