Sublime Claustrophobia, a Gothic Paradox

Posted by Benjamin E. Noad on September 27, 2013 in Ben Noad, Blog tagged with , , , , , ,

Inspired by a recent visit to Edinburgh’s underground vaults (courtesy of City of the Dead Tours) – I now want to share my thoughts on this particularly Gothic phenomenon. I am convinced that realisations of the claustrophobic are textually represented in one of two ways: The first of these reads as a psychological recognition in which an environment becomes temporally confining. The second is of course, a more overt depiction of being bound by the spatial. In some instances, these motifs overlap as I will later demonstrate. The focus here is with the curious aftermath of identifying with the Sublime through a much specified use of fear.

Edinburgh's underground vaults

In order to demonstrate this idea more clearly, I have selected two favourite examples suitably arousing the sensations of claustrophobia. To begin however, I want to recall one very important notion from Burke:

‘Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the parts of pleasure.’[1]

There is no doubt, that confinement of any kind – especially in the experience of claustrophobia, ‘excite[s] the ideas of pain, and danger’. The Sublime however, is far more familiar as an outdoor visual. External environments rarely seem to allude to a sense of entrapment, if anything – perhaps such spaces are more accurately termed Sublime Agoraphobia. Nevertheless, the psychic concept of being bound to a moment via temporal paralysis is imbedded in certain narratives. With this in mind, my first example comes from Ann Radcliffe’s masterpiece Gothic Romance, The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Considerably removed from the feudal labyrinthine and spectral excesses of Walpole and Lewis, the prosaic charm of Radcliffe’s novel offers almost endless instances of awe-inspired stasis through its lengthy volumes; interspersed with poetry and the initial travelogue. The start of Volume Two sees Emily St Aubert, recently distanced from her lover, journeying through the Alps, her mind ‘even so much engaged with new and wonderful images, that they sometimes banished the idea of Valancourt, though they more frequently revived it.’[2] It is a page later that Emily encounters this terrific sensation of cognitive immobility – prior to her Storied Sonnet. (165):

‘As she descended on the Italian side, the precipices became still more tremendous, and the prospects still more wild and majestic, over which the shifting lights threw all the pomp of colouring. Emily delighted to observe the snowy tops of the mountains under the passing influence of the day, blushing with morning, glowing with the brightness of noon, or just tinted with the purple evening.’ (164)

The excitement – or overwhelming splendour of Emily’s gaze upon the ‘Arcadian landscape’ (164) of Mount Cenis confines her in self-reflection. The Sublime here becomes a scapegoat and an altogether more pleasing view to the prospect of a forced marriage with Count Morano. There is a reflective, mirror-like quality in such images. What we see reflected back in such intricate sights, becomes a process of trying to identify with an impossible imago. Furthermore, the isolated parts of this gestalt are equally overpowering. In other words, the perceived landscape is difficult to comprehend because of its Sublime complexities. The short poem Emily contrives, is an attempt at defining – or justifying an overly imagined mountainous view.

The sublime view of Mont Cenis

Such symbolic paralyses (or metaphorically claustrophobic scenes) are a constant distraction in The Mysteries of Udolpho. The Sublime functions as a wish-fulfilment fantasy detracting from a harsher material reality. For Emily, such encounters are commonplace. We learn early on this is an apparent trait: The earliest introductions to her character display her passion for walking which ‘in scenes like these, she would often linger alone, wrapt in a melancholy charm; till the lonely sound of day faded from the west; till the lonely sound of a sheep-bell, or the distant bark of a watch-dog, were all that broke on the stillness of the evening.’ (6) Many of the psychological torments which Emily meets are worsened by her romantic conceptualisations. David Punter has identified that ‘Claustrophobia and fantasy are inextricably linked, for sublimity is seen as the solace of the deprived senses. But the sublime, as we have seen in Longinus, is related not only to the imaginative construction of an alternative reality but also to the limits of communication. It can be hinted at but never described;’[3] Radcliffe’s environments are in this way, a deliberate source of conceptualisation and identification for her protagonists: An escapism which manifests its own idea of confinement.

I now want to turn to John Berwick Harwood’s short story, The Underground Ghost, originally published in the three-volume collection Major Peter (1886). Following concerns of ill-health, the narrator intends to visit Malta ‘as the place of [my] reluctant exile.’[4] Owing to an accident his intended ship meets, he decides to visit a potential property right – a salt-mine in Setton Bassett. Early on, the narrative reveals an instant sense of entrapment. The prospect of exploring ‘one of those noted Cheshire salt-mines, which, if dwarfish in their proportions, when compared to those of Poland,’ (204) is appealing, in part because it is family owned. However, there is a notion of being stranded with his travel delay – this motif is repeated throughout the story.

Cheshire Salt mine

By accident, the narrator stumbles into an unexplored part of the mine. This seems pre-fated by the tour guide’s initial assurances, that ‘there was no sort of danger, if we only kept together, took care of the lights, and minded what he told us.’ (206) Darkness plays an enormous role as a mode of the Unknown. Darkness obscures and in a more frightening regard to claustrophobia, darkness reinforces a perpetual cycle: In crawling through dark, mysterious and confining caverns, there is always a fear that there is no end to such unfamiliar and grossly entombing spaces. Acknowledging this, the narrator reveals ‘it is one thing to range about a mazy wood, or to roam in circles among the great purple moors, and another to be lost underground, in the dank air and darkness of a living tomb.’ (208) To make matters worse, claustrophobia is accompanied by a mocking promise of the wider space – the dimensionally small confinement is always a labyrinth in a wider dungeon; there is perhaps a chance of escape. This possibility is toyed with, as the narrator woefully declares

‘But, alas! On emerging from the passage into a sort of square chamber, in which some rude benches, carved out of the rock-salt for the miners’ in use in bygone times, were cut in the gleaming walls, I found that no less than six openings gave access to different parts of the mine, and I was fairly at fault.’ (208)

The tension is somewhat released with the emergence of a ghostly woman, who guides him onwards. Yet the spectral aspect to the story is less convincing as a form of terror than the representation of confinement. But what is sublime about these depictions? The answer is the magnificence and awe of these small spaces. While internal crawl-spaces threaten an eternal paralysis, there is something wonderful regarding their construction and splendour. ‘A pretty sight was that mine,’ (206) the narrator declares, recognising

‘It was pretty and curious withal, to see the stretch of long galleries running away to the dim distance, to see the “halls” and “chambers” into which we suddenly emerged, and whose roofs were propped on columns of salt, and decked with frieze and cornice never carved by earthly chisel.’ (206)

From the salt-mines of Poland, to the pyramids of Egypt – these sublimely claustrophobic spaces exist outside of fiction. I would strongly recommend The City of the Dead Tour in Edinburgh for a live experience of this wonderfully binding Gothic sensation!

Salt mine in Poland


[1] Burke, Edmund, ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757)’, in Gothic Documents A Sourcebook 1700-1820, ed. E.J Clery and Robert Miles, (Manchester University Press, 2000) pp. 112-121 (p.113).

[2] Radcliffe, Ann, The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794, ed. Bonamy Dobree (Oxford World Classics, 1998) p163.

[3] Punter, David, The Literature of Terror Volume 1: The Gothic Tradition (Longman Group, 1996), p78.

[4] Harwood, John Berwick, ‘The Underground Ghost’, in The Mammoth Book of Victorian & Edwardian Ghost Stories, ed. Richard Dalby (Robinson Publishing, 1995) pp.205-217 (p205).

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