The Dying Text: Learning from Scottish Gothic

Posted by Timothy C. Baker on April 27, 2015 in Guest Blog, Timothy Baker tagged with , , ,

While death is self-evidently a primary theme of Gothic in all its iterations, mourning is no less so. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, for instance, ends with the following curious formulation: ‘And, if the weak hand, that has recorded this tale, has, by its scenes, beguiled the mourner of one hour of sorrow, or, by its moral, taught him to sustain it – the effort, however humble, has not been vain, nor is the writer unrewarded’ (p. 672). Reading a Gothic novel may be useful diversion, but it may just as much provide a model for mourning. Gothic teaches us something about our own mourning: it has the potential to give us our deaths back to us. For Radcliffe the relation between text and reader, both within and without the given narrative, becomes primary. As I’ve tried to suggest in the previous posts on Michel Faber and John Burnside, this desire to investigate the nature of presentation remains central to contemporary Scottish Gothic; the question is not only how a text presents the world, but how in presenting itself it changes its own relation to the world.


Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia, for instance, offers two ways of knowing the world: literary tradition, as represented in Scott and the Border Ballads, and animal life, as found in the protagonist Janet’s pet jackdaw, the appearance of a dead frog, and Janet’s own murder with a rabbit-skinning knife. As the novel both begins and ends with Janet’s death, the reader knows that neither the text nor the world will offer permanent respite. Yet scenes in which Janet sits ‘reading Lorna Doone while the wind boomed down the chimney and lashed the chestnuts from their leafy branches and whirled the jackdaws and rooks into a wild confusion beneath the racing clouds’ (p. 46) show that neither can be approached separately. Reading is always situated, and the world is always understood in relation, even if in opposition, to our reading. 51PUMKi9YXL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In Barker’s novel, as in Burnside’s, reading can be seen as a process of becoming: the protagonists read both to know their world and to transcend it.


And this is just as true of all of us. We read to learn and to transcend. And if this is true of all texts, it might be especially true of Gothic. All life, all ethics, Rosi Braidotti claims, is based on the question of life and death: ‘Being on the edge of too-muchness, or of unsustainability, surfing on the borders of the intolerable is another way of describing the process of becoming’ (p. 214). Gothic gives us this too-muchness, this intolerable, this dance with the dead and the monstrous and the othered in which we find ourselves. Gothic teaches us how to live because it teaches us that loss is found in the midst of becoming. As Christina Howells writes: ‘It is our awareness of mortality that creates the lack or fissure in the self through which subjectivity is born’ (p. 2). And certainly Gothic presents that mortality back to us.


This claim could, perhaps, be made of all literature, or of all art. So what might make Gothic, or even as narrow a field as contemporary Scottish Gothic, particularly worthy of study? What I want to suggest is that the self-reflexivity of Gothic texts presents a two-fold idea of mortality. There is, of course, the mortality presented within the text, the representation of death as something perhaps knowable, as something which can, perhaps, be experienced, as something which haunts and informs our lives. And yet there is also the mortality of the text itself. Gothic is now, as it has always been, filled with the question of what the dead text can teach us. If Scottish Gothic has an advantage here, it is precisely in the constant call to the canon, the endless echoes of Scott and Hogg and Stevenson. The text is static, yet it forms us. Reading situates us in the world, even as it teaches us that the world as it is is never sufficient. Fiction, in James Wood’s recent formulation, ‘moves in the shadow of doubt’ (p. 12). And Gothic dwells in those shadows more than most texts: Gothic novels upend our certainties about the world and the text. Gothic teaches us to mourn not only our dead – not only our selves, but also the books we read.


There might be no better example of this than the anonymous sculptures gifted to Edinburgh libraries, museums, and cultural institutions in the past few years. The book is recreated and made new, yet the viewer is always aware of the book that was. This tension between returninggifted-3 to the text and yet using it to make something new is central to much of the Gothic fiction currently produced in Scotland. These texts show Gothic as a process of becoming. Gothic is always haunted by itself, always mourns itself, yet in that action returns us to something new.




Elspeth Barker, O Caledonia (London: Penguin, 1992).

Rosi Braidotti, Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics (Cambridge: Polity, 2006).

Christina Howells, Mortal Subjects: Passions of the Soul in Late Twentieth-Century French Thought (Cambridge: Polity, 2011).

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, ed. Bonamy Dobrée (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

James Wood, The Nearest Thing to Life (London: Jonathan Cape, 2015).

Tiny URL for this post: