Gothic Whiteness: The Lost Girls in the New World

Posted by Gerald Gaylard on March 16, 2009 in Guest Blog, Prof Gerald Gaylard tagged with

It is one thing to have lost boys in all things gothic and vampiric – and after all the entire genre might be regarded as the dark side of the prodigal son archetype in that it deals with exile, pilule isolation and suffering – but what about the girls? In particular, what about the white girls? Where would the gothic be without its distraught maiden, alone and palely loitering: its Ophelia-Cordelia, its Miss Havisham, its Vampirella? Where indeed. 

Many of the maidens of Gothicism have lost themselves in the “New World”. Indeed, the notion of a “postcolonial hauntology” – deriving from Derrida’s notion in Specters of Marx that the past never disappears but is always revenant, that the repressed returns, that justice depends on absent others – has become current of late. This is particularly apparent in the imagery of stranding and suspension that is characteristic of postcolonial literature. In Ugandan/Dutch author Moses Isegawa’s Abyssinian Chronicles, for instance, we see that the urban migrant often returns to find the village of his youth in a state of decay:

I went to the village for the first time in years. The hills and the swamps and the forests were as magnificent as ever. The village had shrunk. It was a like a desert island eroded by gales, before being revitalized by a new population of pirates. The old part of the village was trapped in an abyss of desolation, while the new part exhaled the harsh air of dubious wealth…. Serenity’s house was wrapped in webs of decay. The windows were sealed from the inside by termites, and the doors were being sawn off their hinges by ants. The roof was flaking and reddening in the incessant rain and sunshine. Serenity had obviously lost interest in the house, and in the village, and was ready to see the past crumble into the dust of decrepitude. I opened the house…I was greeted by a musty cloud of heat, dust and bats…. Oppressed by the weight of the past and the brutality of change, I walked away. Grandpa’s house still looked big and impressive, but carried the sulky air of a deteriorating monument. (278)

Such descriptions of decay are typical in postcolonialism, probably because decay is characteristic of postcolonial states where the colonial heritage is literally falling apart as is indigneous tradition in the village itself which is described as “a musty cloud of heat, dust and bats”. This decay is most often accompanied by descriptions of a rapaciously Triffid-like nature that reclaims structures at will if they are left untended. Thus the village Macondo in Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was “lost in the drowsiness of the swamp” (15), a primordial pool of archaic extinction for those foolish enough to venture into it: “the expedition felt overwhelmed by their most ancient memories in that paradise of dampness and silence, going back to before original sin, as their boots sank into pools of steaming oil and their machetes destroyed bloody lilies and golden salamanders….They could not return because the strip that they were opening as they went along would soon close up with a new vegetation that almost seemed to grow before their eyes” (17). In the swamp of time, colonialism is indeed marooned and reclaimed by nature:

Before them, surrounded by ferns and palm trees, white and powdery in the morning light, was an enormous Spanish galleon. Tilted slightly to the starboard, it had hanging from its intact masts the dirty rags of its sails in the midst of its rigging, which was adorned with orchids. The hull, covered with an armour of petrified barnacles and soft moss, was firmly fastened into a surface of stones. The whole structure seemed to occupy its own space, one of solitude and oblivion, protected from the vices of time and the habits of the birds. Inside, where the expeditionaries explored with careful intent, there was nothing but a thick forest of flowers. (17)

It seems to me that post-colonialism’s most profound meaning is in this imagery of kingdoms rising and kingdoms falling. Imperial enterprises are inevitably grounded upon the geographical “surface of stones” in this extract, grounded upon the sweep of geological time which dwarfs all things human into insignificance. The futility of human enterprises becomes apparent through the historical anachronisms that wider time scales throw up. Thus Isegawa points out that “the village of my birth was consigned to the caustic dust of oblivion” (386), and that  “rains poisoned with the wrath of the dead fell, and the swamps swelled, flooding and submerging the surrounding areas. They undermined house foundations and the ruins rot and crumble. They carried the ooze to the bottom of Mpande Hill in swirling waves and washed away the history of the village” (387).  

The return of the repressed in this imagery of suspension, stranding and decay, in this transhistorical moment out of time, is not merely apparent in these tropicalised versions of the haunted castle. The imagery of suspension may also be embodied and gendered. This is apparent in the 1932 Bela Lugosi movie White Zombie directed by Victor Halperin. In this film set in Haiti it is clear that images of haunting, of ghosts, of being unable to transcend the past and move into the future are characteristic of postcolonial literatures because these are so often literatures of exile and migration. Both colonisers and enslaved were migrants, unable to land so to speak. White Zombie utilises the imagery of the stranded passive femme, the abandoned bride, so brilliantly rendered as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, reiterated by the oh so virginal Mina Harker in Dracula, and reprised by Angela Carter in “The Lady of the House of Love” from The Bloody Chamber, which is shown in many ways to be the ultimate Gothic image. The film literally has its heroine, Madeleine Short, enter into a narcoleptic coma under the mind control of Bela Lugosi’s “Murder Legendre” character, but I think that more is suggested beyond this literal level. Not only is the detritus of empires apparent in this image of bouffantly frothing virginal Victorian tulle and lace (with all of the socio-political and historical connotations of lace), but also the association between love, marriage and death by imprisonment is apparent. Whiteness here is as much a prison historically as it is in terms of psychological anxieties about domestic and sexual enclosure. If we coalesce these two anxieties, then it becomes apparent that whiteness carries the fear of anachronistic sexuality; the fear of entrapment in a colonial laager that must always protect itself against time and the indigenous; the fear of entrapment within hypocritical moralism, the notorious “stiff upper lip” of empire’s sexuality (or lack thereof). Purity here becomes a prison, the prisoner  (invariably female, though not necessarily so) a zombie within its whalebone and lace. In other words, whiteness, particularly of the imperial era, is a spectral, lost zone, a haunted space. This is particularly apparent in the setting of the film on a sugar plantation in Haiti, home of voodoo and other related magical activity with its origins in darkest Africa; Bela Lugosi’s necromancer magicks up zombie slaves for the plantation mills there.

So, the blanched maidens of Gothicism have historically morphed into distraught colonial women, hysterical in a haze of chiffon in the corridors of their lonely colonial mansions. A direct line can, I think, be traced from Ophelia to Poe’s bloodless ethereal heroines to the white zombie in the colony, all of whom might be seen as manifestations of anxieties about entrapment in a suspended zone of sexual enclosure and control. Hence, if blackness can all too easily be equated with the subconscious and all that is deep and occluded, then whiteness can also be associated with spectral hauntings. If the sons of Ham have inherited all of that ham-fisted association between blackness and evil, blackness and darkness, then whites have been saddled with angelic ethereality and ethical dematerialisation, and this is particularly apparent in the portrayal of white women. Indeed, one of the Zulu words for white is “Mhlope” which means “ghost white”. Indeed.

 

Carter, Angela. “The Lady of the House of Love.” The Bloody Chamber. London: Vintage, 1979. (107-125).

Halperin, Victor. White Zombie. 1932.

Isegawa, Moses. Abyssinian Chronicles. London: Picador, 2000.

Márquez, Gabriel García. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. London: Picador, 1978.

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