Studying the Gothic

Posted by Gary Farnell on August 17, 2012 in Dr Gary Farnell, Guest Blog tagged with , , ,

Sarah Phillips, the Deputy Head of English at Godalming College, store a state sixth form college in Surrey, England, has had an excellent conference idea. Her students are studying the Gothic; they are considering as well the possibility of continuing their studies, in English, next year in higher rather than further education. So Sarah has decided to convene a conference at her College, on ‘Studying the Gothic’, at which there will be invited representatives from universities in the region as the speakers.

The beauty of this idea is that it ticks a lot of boxes. The students studying the Gothic have their tuition enhanced through this diversification of input. They are able to get a sense of what degree-level study in their field is like, bridging the gap, as it were, between the further and higher education experience. English as an academic subject the students might choose to study at university is foregrounded; within this the Gothic as a subject the students might wish to focus on is foregrounded as well. And, of course, the university teachers who already have a specialist interest in the Gothic get a chance to meet one another, to meet colleagues working in the further education sector, and, perhaps, to meet some of their own future students. Exchanges like this, one might suggest, should happen more often.

In a little more detail, this is what Godalming College’s Gothic conference, scheduled to take place in mid-September, will look like. The Gothic syllabus for A2 students of English Literature (of which there are 180 at Godalming) is as follows: Dr Faustus; Macbeth; Frankenstein; Wuthering Heights; The Bloody Chamber (the students are required to concentrate on a choice of three texts from this list). The syllabus as such allows a fairly broad interpretation of ‘Gothic’, seen not only in its ‘classical’ form, but also in terms of its influences and variations. (There is perhaps an element as well of gaining access to canonic texts through the Gothic lens.)

The speakers at the conference (as mentioned, from nearby universities in the region) are going to address the rise, the form, and the legacy of the Gothic. In regard to that, there will be presentations from Brycchan Carey (Kingston), Judith Hawley (Royal Holloway), and Marion Wynne-Jones (Surrey). There will also be a contribution to these proceedings from Winchester; that is, from myself. And so this is to take the opportunity in this present blog to outline a few points for a proposed presentation at the above-mentioned conference, ‘Studying the Gothic’. Any comments from readers of the present blog about any of the above, that one might then take to the conference, are welcome.

Monstrous Gothic

By way of a contribution under that rubric of the rise/form/legacy of Gothic, arguably a discussion of what we could refer to as ‘Monstrous Gothic’ would be good. Why? Well, for several reasons, but essentially the reason that, from the outset (long may it continue!), Gothic was a scandal. A scandal? – think of Horace Walpole, author of the first ‘Gothic Story’, writing under the influence of some of his favourite Shakespeare plays such as Hamlet and Macbeth, choosing not to put his name to the first edition of The Castle of Otranto. Otranto was controversial, thus by virtue of the supernatural machinery in the tale, as well as the suggestion of an incest theme in the plot. Not only that, the very word ‘Gothic’ for Walpole’s contemporaries in the mid-eighteenth century connoted not just the medieval past of ‘Gothic’ churches and cathedrals, but also the barbaric past of the fifth-century Goths who attached the Roman empire and sacked Rome, making themselves synonymous with the idea of the end of civilization. In short, ‘Gothic’ spelt trouble.

Take another example: the famous-notorious novel The Monk, published by Matthew Lewis in 1796. In part inspired by the story of Dr Faustus selling his soul to the devil dramatized by Christopher Marlowe, this is a story of violence, rape, incest, murder; as a form of artistic expression it is as thrilling as it is shocking. It was much admired artistically by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, himself a fine practitioner of Gothic in his ‘supernatural’ poetry (see Tom Druggett on this at this same website). But morally his evaluation of this work was quite different: ‘The Monk is a romance,’ he wrote while reviewing the novel, ‘which if a parent saw in the hands of a son or daughter, he might reasonably turn pale’. Suffice it to say, this novel is the favourite Gothic novel of none other than the Marquis de Sade, Lewis’s contemporary (within the era of 1789) and a fellow pornographer.

This story of scandal, controversy and trouble is similar in the case of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Let us highlight simply the fact of the remarkably hostile reception which this paradoxically popular novel received. Critics deplored this work of fiction for being badly written . . . it was badly made, just like Frankenstein’s monster. A reviewer of Shelley’s later novel The Last Man commented (in The Literary Magnet, 1826) that it was ‘another Raw-head-and-bloody-bones’. Thus Shelley’s work as a Gothicist seems dominated by this notion of the monstrous, the very symbol of which is that sheer monstrosity – the body-in-pieces, a suturee par excellence – created by Victor Frankenstein.

Implicitly, this discourse of the monstrous (and of monstrous Gothic more generally), evokes a celebrated specification of the term monstrous from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, the leading aesthetic thinker at the time of Gothic’s first eruption. In his ‘Analytic of the Sublime’ in the first part of his Critique of Judgement of 1790, Kant writes: ‘An object is monstrous where by its size it defeats the end that forms its concept.’ So, for example, Frankenstein’s misshapen monster is monstrous precisely in this sense. By its size it ‘defeats its concept’ (i.e. its humanity), remaining unable to join the human race, or become a member of society, or become a worker under the current division of labour. All as argued by the excellent Italian critic of Gothic, Franco Moretti.

Scandal, controversy, trouble

But the important thing about monstrous Gothic, in the above sense, amplified by the related notions of scandal, controversy and trouble, is that its actual monstrousness should not diminish up to the present time. We can note in passing how a certain form of monstrous Gothic is sustained in the mid-nineteenth century by Wuthering Heights. The ‘monstrous’ theme of incest which is central to classical Gothic – incest’s idea ‘defeats its concept’ vis-à-vis the nuclear family – finds expression in Emily Brontë’s novel. Old Earnshaw is arguably the father of both Catherine and Heathcliff; this suggestion helps explain why these two figures are so alike (‘“I am Heathcliff”’, etc.): the latter is an illegitimate child brought back from a business trip to Liverpool.


But beyond this, in our current era, there is surely a sense that today ‘We live in Gothic times.’ This is to quote the diagnosis of our cultural condition of Angela Carter, set forth in the 1970s, the commentary on which is her fiction, not excluding the stories (which articulate the modern with the monstrous) collected in The Bloody Chamber. In the present day, monsters like crises are everywhere! (This is something I have sought to emphasize in my previous blogs: see ‘For Lauren Cohan’ and ‘“Where Were the Humans?”’.) Suffice it to notice the signification of the monstrous in newspaper headlines generated by the financial crisis: ‘What created this monster?’ (New York Times, 2008); ‘Curse of the zombies rises in Europe amid an eerie calm’ (Financial Times, 2009); ‘Acropalypse now for the euro’ (Sunday Times, 2011). Thus the signification of these headlines is that of a monstrous Gothic for monstrous times.

The news in this sense therefore is spelled out clearly. There is always a danger of ‘taming’ the Gothic when we make it an object of study. We lose sight of its properly troubling nature as regards its cultural value and its social function, both despite and because of the fact that its essence is to be monstrous. To say this is not to defeat the object when it comes to ‘Studying the Gothic’; rather, it is to reaffirm its concept in its very monstrosity.

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