The Gothic: A theological and metaphysical literature worth exploring….?

Posted by Eleanor Beal on August 11, 2015 in Blog, Eleanor Beal tagged with

In the coming weeks I am going to examine the concept of a theological Gothic, as recent research has led me down the troublesome path of trying to define how the stylistics, no rx themes and poetics of the Gothic are often shaped by theological argument, if not belief. In particular I am interested in how the Gothic, in both its early and contemporary manifestations, has participated in the integration of orthodox Christian symbols and themes into a form of speculative theology in the public and popular imagination. Feel free to put your two pence in, I would appreciate any thoughts or recommendations on this subject.  For now, I am going to introduce and discuss some areas where the Gothic and theology intersect and that I believe may benefit from further exploration.

staring contest

Like many undergraduate students of the literary Gothic, my first introduction to its religious roots began with Victor Sage and his seminal book, Horror in the Protestant Tradition (1988). Pin-pointing 1688 as a focal point for his study, Sage excavates, much early than many other studies, the cultural and religious soil from which the Gothic would originate and evolve. As such, he offers numerous insights into the prominent position that religious conflict has played in British literature, particularly its horror modes, from the Reformation to the mid-twentieth century. Sage refers to these as both internal and external conflicts ranging from the Protestant conscience to the ‘subsequent struggles, doctrinal and political, which flared up between Catholic and Protestant throughout the course of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth’ (28-29).

The importance of Sage’s text cannot be overstated and it remains a strong influence on how we regard the religious motivations and representations of not only late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Gothic, but its present day manifestations. While the Gothic has become figured as a chiefly psychological drama, it is important to remember that the Gothic novel has long featured such religious phenomenon and encoded such debates. To give some examples of contemporary writers; Stephen King, Peter Straub and Peter Ackroyd also explore the contours of a Protestant political unconscious and a Calvinistic sublime through inversion and the occult.

A different but related aspect of the Gothic’s largely Protestant inheritance introduces another area of conflict that needs to be considered when mapping out theological features of the Gothic. For, while early Gothic preoccupied itself with liberating the doctrinal and political from the superstitions of the past, a strain of Romantic Gothic emerged that was less concerned with the specificities of scripture than with the liberation of human nature and the imagination. Gothic Romance articulated and encoded a different set of conflicts and uncertainties arising from developments in science and enlightenment/rationalist/empiricist philosophy.  The question of human nature and consciousness along with related issues and phenomena of sexuality, dreams and death became bound up in discourses of the grotesque, in which, the grotesque is often produced through the promiscuous mating of the sacred and vulgar, the archaic and the modern, the mythic and commercial. Thus, while Sage maintains that ‘the rhetoric of the horror novel is demonstrably theological in character’ (xvi), it is also demonstrably secular, in so far as it participates in a process of assimilative desacralisation, decontextualisation, and fragmentation of the orthodox Christian symbolic.

weeping angel 2

However, a literary mode that predicates its identity on liberating the theological from the entrapments of the past for the uses of the ‘wild imagination’ is, as Diane Hoeveler argues, ‘ambivalently secular’ and it is this ambivalence that has been key to the Gothic’s survival. On the one hand, the adaptation of the Gothic’s theological conflicts to secular concerns with the physical and psychological world of the self has saved the Gothic from becoming hopelessly formulaic and outdated; on the other hand, the conflicts between the supernatural and rational, the ineffable and the tangible also  provide writers with a rich resource through which they can generate opposition to, or find refuge from, the dominant cultural assumptions and artistic procedures of a secular society. This latter tendency also appears commonly in literature of a postsecular nature and it is a connection between the two modes of the post-secular and the Gothic that I will interrogate further in later posts.

References

Victor Sage, Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988)

Diane Long Hoeveler, Gothic Riffs: Secularizing the Uncanny in the European Imagination (Columbus OH: Ohio State University Press, 2010)

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