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Re-Entering the Vampire Castle
See the bottom of today’s ‘stack for some news and updates, and also for some summary comments on my “reader survey” of two weeks ago.
“Shall I not then be stifled in the vault,
To whose foul mouth no healthsome air breathes in?”
Western Europeans and Americans visiting Romania for the first time will often be told that any association of the place with vampires is really an unfair imposition, having mostly to do with Bram Stoker’s more or less ex-nihilo invention of a Transylvanian setting for his 1897 novel, Dracula. After all, just over a century earlier, in 1780, a Transylvania University could still be founded in Kentucky with no connotation but the generic one of being “across the forest” — an etymology students and faculty at that institution must get very tired of having to explain. The English novelist’s tale, you will hear, is a typically Victorian confession of England’s own deepest fears — of pestilence; of pathologia sexualis, hopelessly interwoven with what would soon be called the “death-drive”; of uncouth swarthy continentals (“The wogs begin at Calais”, it used to be said across the Channel from where I write, and by that measure a Transylvanian was the nec-plus-ultra of wogdom). Depending on your precise location in Romania, as for example in the shadow of the Bran castle that once was home to Vlad the Impaler, you might enjoy the irony of hearing this revisionist history lesson while surrounded by a whole gallery of vampire kitsch — kiosks with plastic fangs for sale; a painted wooden plank in vampire-form with a cut-out oval hole for the face, where infantilised tourists can have their pictures taken in the guise of a sort of Dracula, though one as diminutive and unthreatening as his descendants Count Chocula, of breakfast-cereal fame, or Sesame Street’s own Count von Count.
It has been a long time since I was on the receiving end of such a lecture, but back when they still happened I often found myself unable to suppress that exclamation, so completely taboo in our era of stay-in-your-lane deference: “Well, actually…” It is not that I had a particular interest in vampirology, though I had at least done a bit of reading; had seen popular entertainments such as Interview with the Vampire (1994), both F. W. Murnau’s and Werner Herzog’s versions of Nosferatu (1922, 1979), and the memorable Blacula (1972); and I had long enjoyed observing that analytic philosophy preferred to go with “zombies” (or some Americanised form of them unrecognisable from their initial appearance in rural Haitian folk-culture; see my attempt at a deconstruction of the “philosophical zombie” here), rather than this other species of the undead that interests us here today, for reasons that might be instructive about differences between philosophical styles. Vampires have in general been more useful to the imaginations of thinkers descended broadly from Romanticism, while zombies give us all of the conceptual problems about mind and consciousness, but none of the feeling, and are thus perfect water-carriers for whatever it is the analytics are trying to do. To “think with vampires” is by contrast to think about feeling, mood, and the dimensions of human existence these disclose.
My vampirological expertise was in any case deepened somewhat more recently, by circumstance rather than by choice, when, in a world still without Substack, and in which magazine editors were still incomprehensibly rejecting my “pitches”, I took on the project of writing a curious little book, for a $4000 flat fee and no claim to future royalties, called Vampires: Lovesick and Bloodthirsty. If Martin Amis can write a how-to guide for playing Space Invaders, I told myself, there’s no shame in doing some breadwriting (as a Dutch friend refers to my efforts in this space, apparently adapting a common expression from his mother tongue) on a topic that is anyhow not totally unconnected to my long scholarly interest in the history of reflections on the immortality of the soul, of medical debates concerning methods for conclusively establishing the death of a patient, &c. I doubt there are any copies still circulating out there, but if this book served any purpose beyond helping me to pay the bills for a while, surely it is that the research I ended up doing for it provided me a much deeper understanding of the historical process by which the figure of the vampire made the gradual transition, between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries, from the proto-ethnography of the Balkans to the imaginations of Gothic littérateurs.
Most succinctly, we may say that the figure of the vampire emerges out of the confluence of three elements. The first is the real historical record of the actions of a certain Vlad Țepeș (1428/31 - 1476/77). The violent transgressions for which he became notorious were indeed extreme —notably, not just impalement, but impalement on rounded and greased spikes, carefully avoiding direct puncture of inner organs so as to prolong the victim’s misery—, but they were also fairly continuous with the sort of things both allies and enemies commonly did, in the absence of any international laws governing war crimes, and the sort of things people are no doubt still doing today, notwithstanding such laws. Woodcuts depicting his deeds were soon published in German books, and as these circulated the legends surrounding him grew beyond all human proportion. More on Vlad soon enough. The second element is the arrival of Germanophone Habsburg administrators in newly subordinated regions of Southeastern Europe, who had been influenced in their practices by the emerging culture of the Republic of Letters, which among many other desiderata encouraged literate travellers in little-known places to note down and to report back to the metropole all rare or mysterious incidents. The third element, finally, are the ancient folk-cultural practices and beliefs that these humble clerks observed and documented.
Of particular importance in the revisionist lesson foreigners in Transylvania often get is the task of clearing Dracula from any association with vampirism. “Dracula”, they explain, is simply the title, but not the name, of Vlad Țepeș / Vlad III / Vlad the Impaler. He inherits it from his father, Vlad II, a member of the Order of the Dragon. In Romanian, dracul derives from the Latin draco, and simply means “the dragon”. Vlad III was “draconian” in his rule, but this is not where the title comes from. He is bloodthirsty, in his own way, but not in the way vampires are. He prefers simply to spill blood, rather than to drink it.
It is not in fact in the castles, but in the villages of Romania that we typically hear rumours of the strigoi, which are in turn close cousins of the vrykolakas of Greece, the upior of the Slavic countries, and other species of revenant still from Hungary, Turkey, and elsewhere. These are, in all their regional variants, ghosts of the deceased, poltergeists who return to trouble the living. A common belief holds that one may prevent their apparition by sealing the coffin of the dead shut with extra nails, and by driving a stake through the chest of the corpse. Should one encounter a strigoi, some texts and traditions counsel the use of apotropaics such as garlic or holy water to ward them off. These folkloric characters thus share some, but not all, of the traits associated with the Stokerian vampire. There is as yet no strong association with bats, for example, or with hematophagy.
It is at least true, then, that Stoker’s rendition bumps the vampire up several social classes from where it had always resided in “authentic” folk culture, from the peasantry to the aristocracy. And it is the elevation of traditional village practices to a form of aristocratic decadence that enables Stoker to give his fiction a historical grounding, and to identify his own protagonist’s vampirism as part of an inheritance from none other than Vlad the Impaler:
Who was it but one of my own race who as Voivode crossed the Danube and beat the Turk on his own ground? This was a Dracula indeed! Woe was it that his own unworthy brother, when he had fallen, sold his people to the Turk and brought the shame of slavery on them! Was it not this Dracula, indeed, who inspired that other of his race who in a later age again and again brought his forces over the great river into Turkey-land?
In portraying Vlad as a hero in the war against the Turks, the English novelist is channeling a historiographical tendency more commonly seen in Russia and the Balkans than in Western Europe. In the Orthodox lands, while his cruelty is acknowledged, Vlad is seen foremostly as a valiant defender against the Ottoman menace, and therefore as a bulwark of Christendom. In the German-speaking world, by contrast, his significance as a military leader pales in comparison with his inhuman and gratuitous cruelty. Beginning as early as the 1460s broadsides circulated describing the delight Vlad took in roasting babies alive and forcing their mothers to eat them, in hearing the low moans of his impaled victims as musical accompaniment to his meals.
In 1463 a six-page pamphlet was published, most likely in Vienna, under the title Die geschicht dracole waide [The History of the Voivode Dracula]. It opens with a denunciation. Dracula and his brother (the latter of whom, you will recall, is portrayed unsympathetically in Stoker’s telling), “have abandoned their faith and have promised and sworn to darken the Christian faith.” The previous year, in 1462, Vlad was defeated in battle with enemy forces conspiring to seize power in Wallachia, led by Radu cel Frumos [Radu the Handsome] who conspired, with the assistance of the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II, to replace Vlad as voivode of the province. Vlad retreated to Hermannstadt in Transylvania (today known by its Romanian name of Braşov), seeking protection from the Hungarian king, Matthias Corvinus. Together the two contrived various plots to retake Wallachia. In November, 1462, as Vlad set out on his mission from Radu, Corvinus had his erstwhile ally ambushed, arrested, and taken to the Oratea Fortress in Podu Dâmboviţei, deep within Wallachia. The Hungarian king had come to find the constant fight for the Balkans draining, and determined that it was in the greater interest of his political ambitions vis-à-vis the Holy Roman Empire to simply cede as much of Southeastern Europe as possible to the Turks.
According to the historian Matei Cazacu, the 1463 screed published against Vlad was almost certainly the work of parties loyal to Corvinus, perhaps even members of his court. The first version of the pamphlet was most likely in Latin and addressed to Pope Pius II, whose favour the Hungarian king hoped to cultivate. The original text has been lost, but there are four extant manuscript copies in German that are considered faithful to the original. The pamphlet’s obvious intent was to discredit Vlad politically, and in fifteenth-century Europe, an accusation of heresy or, worse yet, entering into a pact with the devil, was indeed an effective strategy to ruin your enemy. Vlad’s inherited title facilitated this association, though when his father joined the Societas Draconistarum, draco still had more to do with the creature of medieval romance and heraldry than with deviltry.
The core message of the screed is undoubtedly correct: Vlad was a sadistic and cruel military leader. Cazacu reports that, upon hearing the moans of his impaled victims, Vlad once sarcastically exclaimed, “Ah, with what adroitness and rhythm you wriggle!” He may indeed have roasted babies and forced their mothers to eat them, and he may have treated a group of supplicant Roma in similar fashion, as we read later in the text: “[Dracula] had imprisoned a Gypsy who had stolen, but the other Gypsies came and begged [him] to give him to them. But he said that he must hang, and that they must themselves carry it out. They said this would not be suitable to them. So Dracula left the Gypsy to simmer in a kettle, and the other Gypsies were made to eat him, flesh and bone.”
We need not believe every anecdote in order to conclude that the historical Dracula must have done some awful things indeed. In the communist period, an important political matter in the construction of Romanian historical memory held that Vlad never drank the blood of his victims. As Cazacu notes, this seems a minor point, compared to the certain historical fact that he “shed rivers of blood and, according to a contemporary source, loved to plunge his hands into it with relish.” It is not hard to speculate that some of it got into his mouth, even if this was only a side-effect of his pursuit of other aims.
Non-fictional writing on strange incidents and curiosities stretches back to antiquity, but it is in the wake of the scientific revolution that a more systematic approach develops to the collection of eyewitness reports. The journal of the Royal Society of London, The Philosophical Transactions, founded in 1666, was meant to be a forum for presenting cutting-edge scientific research in barometry or mechanics. But many of its pages are also taken up with testimonies from far-flung travellers and country doctors telling of what they saw when they went to investigate rumours of two-headed calves, talking dogs, or hauntings.
Early treatments of vampires are often written in a tone that emulates the learned gentlemen of the Royal Society. The first extant treatise on vampirism is De masticatione mortuorum in tumulis [On the Chewing of the Dead in their Tombs] (1725; German edition 1734) by the German Lutheran pastor and historian Michaël Ranfft. Ranfft observes that the phenomenon in question “will of course be revered by the faith of the Roman Catholics as some sort of divine miracle,” but maintains for his part that it will best be explained, along more enlightened and scientific lines, by appeal to “a certain influx in the bodies.” Here Ranfft exemplifies an approach that will be standard throughout the subsequent history of vampirological writing: an affected tone of doubt and distance from the subject matter, a strong denunciation of superstition, but always leaving open to the reader the titillating possibility that the author is himself wrong, or, perhaps not completely forthcoming about his own views, or about the depth of his personal interest in the subject.
In the 1725 work Ranfft helped to make vampires known throughout the German-speaking world by republishing and discussing a report from a minor administrator in the Serbian provinces of the Kingdom of Hungary, who described some peculiar events in the village of Kisolova following the death of a certain Petar Blagojević (perhaps an ancestor of a certain disgraced Illinois politician), of whom “it was stated that, within eight days [of his death], nine people, both old and young, died after enduring an illness of twenty-four hours.” It is reported that “as they still lay alive on their death beds… the above-mentioned Plogojovitz [sic], who had died ten weeks prior, came to them in their sleep, lay down on top of them, and croaked that they must now give up their souls.” Blagojević’s widow, too, reported that her husband had returned to “ask for his oppanki or shoes,” but after this left the village to appear in another.
The author of the report cited by Ranfft uses the word “vampire” in one of its earliest printed occurrences. He reports that “since among similar people (as are called Vampyri) there must be visible various signs, as that their bodies are undecayed, with skin, hair, beard, and nails growing,” the villagers resolved to open up the grave of Petar Blagojević and to see what they might discover there. Here is what they found:
That, first of all, the body and its grave were not in the least touched by the usual smell of the dead. The body, other than the nose, which had somewhat fallen off, was very fresh; the hair and the beard, and also the nails, of which the older ones had fallen away, had grown on him; the old skin, which was somewhat white, had peeled away, and a new fresh skin had come forth underneath; the face, hands and feet, and the whole body were so composed that they could not have been more perfect during the course of his life. Not without surprise I glimpsed fresh blood in his mouth, which, according to the common expression, he had sucked from those he had killed.
At issue in part was a puzzlement about some unexpected contingencies in the way bodies decompose (it was only in the sixteenth century that anatomical studies of cadavers became socially accepted, many of them procured by common grave robbery). While they often rot quickly, depending on the circumstances of the air, the temperature, and the presence of microorganisms, bodies can also come to appear, under the right conditions, even more healthy than than they had been just prior to death. Sometimes a corpse is found with blood streaming from the mouth, a natural consequence of the internal breakdown of the organs, which nonetheless can easily be mistaken for a vestige of recent feasting. They frequently become bloated, and in an era in which corpulence was still strongly associated with health, this temporary condition could easily appear as an improvement only to be explained on the assumption that the corpse had been ingesting food — food, that is, or blood.
Another broad social change that precipitates the eighteenth-century fascination with graves and their inhabitants is a growing awareness of the history of burial practices and the variety of methods by which different human cultures have disposed of dead bodies. Already in 1658 the English author Sir Thomas Browne (one of my own most significant influences, I confess) publishes the Hydriotaphia: Urne-Buriall, Or, a Discourse of the Selpuchrall Urnes lately found in Norfolk, a strange and meandering treatise occasioned by the discovery of Roman burial urns near that town. The work expands into a broad-scoped reflection on burial practices and rituals surrounding death throughout the world. Browne remarks that “[m]any have taken voluminous pains to determine the state of the soul upon disunion; but men have been most phantasticall in the singular contrivances of their corporall dissolution.” The most sober nations, he continues, “have rested in two ways, of simple inhumation and burning.” Europe, since the end of antiquity, preferred interment. But increased exposure to other funerary rituals through encounters with non-European cultures, notably in India (see François Bernier’s account of sati, or the self-immolation of Indian widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres, in his Voyages dans les états du Grand Mogol of 1671), and through an increasingly systematic archaeology of the European past, led Europeans to reflect on what, in fact, the best methods of “corporall dissolution” might be. In the Balkans, cremation was an exceptional measure in the early eighteenth century. Yet we might still see Blagojević’s fate, burnt “down to ashes” to make sure that he can never return, as part of a broader exploration and questioning of traditional funerary practices.
Many of the conventions deployed by Ranfft reappeared throughout the eighteenth century in medical treatises not narrowly concerned with vampires, but rather focused, from a clinical point of view, on the difficulty of determining the precise boundary between life and death. The most interesting example of such work is undoubtedly the Danish-French physician Jacques-Bénigne Winslow’s 1742 Dissertation sur l’incertitude des signes de la mort, & l’abus des enterremens, & embaumemens précipités [Dissertation on the Uncertainty of the Signs of Death, and the Misuse of Burials, and Rushed Embalmings]. Winslow cites several authorities to establish the view that “putrefaction is the only infallible sign of death.” Like Thomas Browne, he surveys the “funeral solemnities” of various nations, attempting to show that human beings across the world developed practices to avoid premature burial of the living.
Winslow also peppers his treatise with macabre reports, many of which read like Gothic fiction. Thus we learn of a lady of Auxbourg, who, “falling into a Syncope, in Consequence of a Suffocation of the Matrix, was buried in a deep Vault, without being covered with Earth… Some Years after, however, one of the same Family happening to die, the Vault was open’d, and the Body of the young Lady found on the Stairs at its Entry, without any Fingers on the Right Hand.” Soon enough, documentary sources such as this were sublimated into fiction. Edgar Allen Poe for one was voracious for materials like these, and indeed some of his short stories, notably “The Premature Burial” (1844), read more like documentary metafiction imitating works like Winslow’s than straight fiction in the usual sense.
Nor are all the antecedents of the high gothic storytelling of the early nineteenth century non-fictional. A significant if neglected current of Romeo & Juliet is the proto-Romantic exploration of the liminal condition of those who are neither alive nor dead. In Act IV, Friar Lawrence, a learnèd reader of grimoires and other unholy sources of knowledge, instructs the Capulet girl on the proper method of inducing all the signs of death without being truly dead:
Take thou this vial, being then in bed,
And this distilled liquor drink thou off;
When presently through all thy veins shall run
A cold and drowsy humour; for no pulse
Shall keep his native progress, but surcease;
No warmth, no breath, shall testify thou livest;
The roses in thy lips and cheeks shall fade
To paly ashes, thy eyes’ windows fall,
Like death when he shuts up the day of life.
Such poetic representation of the condition of the undead migrates into the quasi-documentary strain of writing from Ranfft through Winslow —authors who, we may suspect, would rather be writing fiction if they were given a choice—, and then migrates back again, beginning from the late eighteenth century, into the Romantic imagination.
The early modern explosion of interest in Balkan “superstition” is, as we have begun to see, in no small measure an effect of the encounter between the Catholic and Orthodox worlds, and in particular of the expansion of Habsburg rule into regions of the Balkans that had previously belonged to the Ottoman Empire. This encounter triggered a long —and indeed still ongoing— habit of representing Southeastern Europe as a land of benighted and backwards belief. If you have spent any time in that part of the world it is impossible to escape the dawning awareness that Eastern Europe —roughly whatever lies in the buffer zone between the Turks, the Germans, and the Russians— is Europe’s own first and most familiar “subaltern”. This was already true when, even before the European encounter with the New World, Viennese publishers represented a Wallachian warlord as a cannibalistic savage, but the representation became all the more vivid in the era of the high Enlightenment. In his contribution to the 1776 Dictionnaire philosophique, none other than Voltaire, who never misses an opportunity to scoff at people who happen not to be French, takes up the example of vampires not only as a measure of the distance between Enlightened Europe and those other parts, but also between the rationality of the ancient Greeks and the irrationality of their degenerated modern descendants. “Who would believe that the fashion of vampires came from Greece? This is not the Greece of Alexander, of Aristotle, of Plato, of Epicurus, of Demosthenes, but rather Christian Greece, which is, unfortunately, schismatic.”
Voltaire is a defiant atheist, but his polemical anti-clericalism brings him close to some of the themes of anti-Papism familiar from Protestant lands. For many Protestant authors, the difference between Catholicism and worship of the forces of darkness is but another case of the narcissism of minor differences. And thus it is not surprising to see the theme of vampirism functioning, at least on one level, as an allegory of Catholicism. Voltaire, writing in this same spirit, speaks mockingly of a young skeptic who had dared to question the truth of a number of reported miracles involving the Virgin Mary, and who finally was won over to all manner of Catholic articles of faith as a result of exposure to folk-beliefs about vampires. “This well-known man who refused to believe,” Voltaire writes, “who dared to cast doubts on the appearance of the angel to the holy Virgin, on the star that guided the magi, on the healing of the possessed, on the drowning of two thousand pigs in a lake, on the eclipse of the sun during a full moon, on the resurrection of the dead who walked the streets of Jerusalem: his heart was softened, his mind was illuminated: he believes in vampires!” On Voltaire’s satirical account, it is best for the weak-minded to shelter themselves from stories of vampires, if only because these can all too easily serve as a gateway drug to the Roman religion.
Among Catholic authors, by contrast, we generally see not mockery of folk-beliefs about vampires, but rather a subtle, almost mischievous, effort to occupy the ambiguous space between affirmation and skepticism. The French Dominican Augustin Calmet’s 1751 Traité sur les apparitions des esprits, et sur les vampires, ou les revenans de Hongrie, de Moravie, &c. [Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits, and on Vampires, or the Revenants of Hungary, Moravia, etc.], is noteworthy for its concern to delimit sharply the geographical homeland of vampirism. He declares he has “always been most struck by what is related of vampires or the revenants from Hungary, Moravia, Poland, the brucolacs of Greece, those who have been excommunicated, who, they say, never decay.” Calmet is on the one hand intent on establishing the reality of the phenomena he describes, in order to characterise revenants as true instances of diabolism, and to warn his readers of their danger. Thus, in a chapter entitled “Are Vampires or Revenants Truly Dead?”, the author appeals to the wisdom of crowds. He insists it is impossible “that all at once several people begin to believe they are seeing what does not exist at all, and that they die so quickly after from a sickness that is purely imagined.”
On the other hand, like Browne and Winslow, Calmet seeks to dispel report of apparently supernatural occurrences, tracing the strange phenomena back to plausible medical pathologies or environmental conditions. Thus:
Those who have died of the plague, from poison, from rabies, from drunkenness, and from epidemic are more subject to returning as undead, apparently because their blood coagulates more difficultly, and sometimes those who are not yet dead are buried, in view of the danger that there is in leaving them for long outside of the sepulchre, for fear of the infection that they cause… These Vampires are only known in certain countries, like Hungary, Moravia, Silesia, where these illnesses are more common.
One might reasonably wonder at this point what Calmet really thinks. Is it diabolical forces at work? Or is it just epidemiology? As is typical of vampirologists, the author prefers to keep us suspended between the two registers of explanation, to maintain his reader’s attention by striking the perfect balance between sobriety and gullibility.
A convention emerges in vampirological works over the course of the eighteenth century, whereby the author is generally presented as an intrepid and dedicated, but perhaps somewhat shadowy character. This doubt is in turn offset by an assurance that the author is a man of the cloth, an abbey or a clergyman who has immersed himself in the study of dark forces in order to better combat them for the sake of humanity’s salvation. This is the persona adopted by Augustin Calmet, and it is one that will continue in fictional form into the era of cinema.
Perhaps no one embodies this type more perfectly than the eccentric English Catholic deacon Montague Summers, author of multiple works on witchcraft, demonology, werewolves, and vampires. Throughout his oeuvre Summers repeatedly claims, in a somewhat deadpan tone, to be committed to the reality of all these objects of his study, and to be fighting against them by the power of the pen. A foreword to the 1968 edition of his 1929 study, The Vampire in Europe, tells us that Summers made all his public appearances in clerical dress, and attempted to convince others that he was a Catholic priest, though it is far more likely that he was in fact an unfrocked parson. He was also, as late as the 1930s, a vocal advocate for the public execution of witches. The author of the foreword, himself a Catholic priest, conjectures that Summers’s stern admonitions against necromancy and other dark practices are at once an expression of his own guilt, or of mixed feelings at having engaged in these practices himself. All this, of course, is meant to heighten the interest of the reader. Which side, one constantly wonders, is the author really on?
Whether writing as a science-oriented debunker, or as a pious fighter against the forces of darkness, or indeed as some mixture of these two, vampirologists always seem to be infected by their subject. Skeptics will see them as frivolous for wasting their intellectual energy on an old folk myth, and the pious will see them as rather too interested, for suspicious reasons, in the very thing they are supposed to be fighting against. It is hard to be taken seriously as a vampirologist.
And yet it still seems to me that the vampire is due a certain measure of rehabilitation. The vampire, I think, is at least as “good to think with” as the “philosophical zombie”. The title of the present essay is of course a riff on the late Mark Fisher’s notable 2013 cri-de-coeur, “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” but other than that the two pieces of writing have nothing in common. Uncharacteristically, Fisher shows little sensitivity to the full range of meanings with which the figure of the vampire has been endowed in literary and historical tradition, effectively impoverishing it in much the same way that David Chalmers impoverishes the zombie.
In its essence a vampire is a being that knows it is dead, and feels infinite sadness about its plight. This is a paradoxical situation to be in, since death is supposed to be the cessation of all consciousness. But it is also fairly close to what we imagine when we try, per impossibile, to imagine death. We do so, mostly, by feeling our way into it, until we can bear no more and recoil. We do so by allowing what that feeling discloses to us to count for something.
And also in our dreams, notably, we encounter dead people with surprising regularity. They walk and talk, and give us tidings, yet there’s something off about them, by which we understand that they are dead. An impossible condition — yet there they are.
Thank you to everyone who responded to my “reader survey” a fortnight ago. I was very surprised and heartened to receive so much feedback. There was a diversity of opinion, of course, but one message came through loud and clear. To phrase it as one of the commenters did: “You do you.” Overwhelmingly, readers expressed the view that I should not change anything in the style, frequency, or focus of this Substack, and especially not in order strategically to maximise new subscriptions. I should say I was also very surprised to see how many new subscriptions I was able to wrangle just by coming out and asking for them, as I did two weeks ago. This is both good news and bad news. Our new hustle economy would have us doing that sort of fundraising all the time, acting at once as writers and as our own agents, PR people, Svengalis. I’d really rather the subscriptions just keep coming in spontaneously, little by little, after every essay, without having to pause and make an explicit issue of them, like some Jerry Lewis telethon or like the fundraising week that NPR seems always to be in the middle of whenever I go to the US and happen to tune them in. It’s undignified for me as an author, and an interruption for you as a reader. So, advice taken: I’ll just keep doing my thing. And if you like that thing, why not subscribe?
Finally, there is a new episode of “What Is X?” out now, and I’m really excited about it. I invited the number theorist Michael Harris on to talk about Numbers, and what they are. Give it a listen. Also, note that Michael has his own Substack, of which I am an avid reader. It is called The Silicon Reckoner, and unlike mine it has a laser-sharp focus: “What computers will do for, or to, mathematics and mathematicians.” Read him!
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