The Gothic Cross

Posted by Rarignac on May 01, 2012 in Guest Blog, Noel Montague-Etienne Rarignac tagged with , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sankta Katerina.  © Rarignac

Bordeaux, Midnight, May Day, 2012

Dearest Reader, I have been asked to blog at this page over the course of the month of May. Flattered to be solicited, I have accepted the invitation and will try to check in daily and post every week or so. Yet as one inexperienced and unschooled in the techniques and etiquette of blogging, I face the task before me with a certain trepidation. The editors, seeking to soothe my rattled nerves, have assured me that I am authorised to write at any length about anything at all that interests me, although others, namely you, will get to contribute and comment as we attempt to form a coven of comprehension. I am counting on that outside assistance to make for an instructive and interesting experience.

I suspect that my work on The Vampire (The Theology of Dracula: reading The Book of Stoker as sacred text, on sale everywhere, and Arcanum of the Concatenated Vampire, which should be available soon) is what ultimately encouraged the editors to invite me to cross their threshold. While I habitually argue that The Vampire is not Gothic but Neoclassic, given the blog title of “Gothic Imagination”, it seems only proper and fitting that my first subject somehow reach into the image and the imaginary of the Gothic. So, putting The Vampire aside, allow me to begin my service with a question that I have previously addressed to myself: What do you imagine the Gothic to be? I’m sure that as I catalogue my rambling thoughts on this prickly subject readers will help me overcome faulty memory and ignorance by filling in any voids my virtual pen may leave in its inkless wake.

The Gothic Cross
To begin at the mid-point, that sacred spot where all axes intersect, with the coming of modernity — a period marked by the advent of Romanticism in evolving, bifurcating forms —, the term Gothic was actively invested with an unfolding, inorganic, synthetically-mutating complexity. With the Romantic Gothic, an underlying suspenseful dynamic pitted a masculine sublime, materially expressed in landscapes, castles, ruins, villains, against a feminine beauty, seen in everything bespeaking truth, love, harmony and goodness. We all know what Walpole, Reeve, Radcliffe, Lewis, and Maturin individually and collectively made of the Gothic of their imaginations: a variegated-yet-unified virtual realm of gallant knights, distressed damsels, brooding inquisitors, perverted convents, murderous confessors, vivacious volitional representations, hidden chambers, cross-dressing-enabled rescues, lingering superstitions, occulted secrets, haunting ancestors, obscured genealogies, compromised legacies, orphaned babes, innocently coupled sibling pairings, forbidden yearnings, incestuous desires guiltily indulged, issue and issues unclaimed and unresolved, forgotten dungeons, and labyrinthine structures that chain decadence to purity while imprisoning temporality itself — all of which darkly combine to define an enduring literary Gothick that inevitably still inhabits our own imaginations under the auspices of an unholy trinity interlinking the affective, the material, and the spectral.

Over the centuries that have succeeded the instant sparking the Romantic impetus, the term Gothic has continued to both manufacture and attract meanings, and to spawn affiliated genres, epi-genres, meta-genres, sub-genres, sub-sub-genres, micro-genres, and chaotic expressive gestures that fall beyond human powers of classification. Generally, our understanding of gothickness and Gothicity has been closely aligned with a societal ideology that is predicated upon notions of progressive innovation, evolution, and a tendency towards the embroidery of structures of increasing complexity. The Gothic as the perpetually-developing Romantic form has been truly of the era of its creation; yet, despite its universal success and widespread accessibility, it has insisted on being strongly marked as a dissenting voice that emanates from beyond the ambit of society’s predominant discourse, on being heard as the asynchronous bleating of the flock’s black sheep. The naughty indulgence of the average citizen, this Gothic advances the norm inverted. It purveys flamboyance and darkness, oxymoronically kindling an obscuring flame. Such is the true mystery of Udolpho and of the Gothic’s claim to our affinity of spirit with it. The Gothic embodies paradox.

An augmentation and intensification of this generic confrontation of paradoxical tendencies became inevitable when, a few short generations after Walpole, adjective ‘Gothic’ was forcibly wed to noun ‘Revival’ — suggesting to resuscitate, make live again — to beget an artificially-inseminated quasi-Renaissance. Instead of birthing anew, the Gothic attempted to bring the previously dead to life. Curiously, while the Revival figuratively accomplished reanimation through literary works, it concretely lent its Victor Frankenstein-ethic and revenant-glamour to the British Commonwealth’s major (governmental, academic, and religious) institutions through works of architecture — England’s ultimate tribute to Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill was through Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin’s sincerest flattery via imitation, the latter draping the classical form Charles Barry planned for the Palace of Westminster in revived heraldic and gargoylish Gothic garb. Similar costuming was used to dress the principal monuments and administrative palaces of capital cities across an Empire on which the sun never set and — simultaneously and by the same token – never rose.

As Walter Scott noted, Gothic, prior to Walpole, was a word that was used “to express whatever was in pointed and diametrical opposition to the rules of true taste” , exactly the quality which had marked it as the perfect aesthetic neologism for Giorgio Vasari to stoop down, scoop up, and fling at prevalent European cultural styles and expressions not Florentine. Vasari seized on Italy’s recollection of the vandalistic Goth to thickly apply a malignant racial memory of them as a varnish, as he set about in all his mighty chauvinism to gloss the cultural accomplishment of non-Latinate, non-Tuscan Europeans, specifically those menacing northern peoples (so meritorious of insult) that had for the half-millennium prior to richissime Firenze’s rise been the hapless builders of churches. Vasari figuratively superposed associations of Alaric’s Goths — Alaric, destroyer of temples, scourge of Rome — onto a fiercely Christian people’s art and sensibility. If this Gothic developed in Île de France, it flourished throughout north-western Europe and England; Vasari thus freshly demarcated the territory north of the Arno’s watershed as the land of the Goth. Vasari’s Gothic architecture, most remarkably and fervently expressed in the cathedral, evolved from simple yet massive forms in the 11th and 12th centuries to those flaming prayers in stone that through heroic communal effort reached, nearly floated towards the heavens from the 13th through the 15th centuries and indeed continued to do so up until Vasari’s own day and beyond — still and always dark, heavy and ponderous, yet, paradoxically, gravity-defying. Like Egypt’s pyramids or Wiltshire’s Stonehenge, they stand as eternal structures, giant unified blocks of stone pierced and illuminated by a magical sacred light. The pejorative ‘Gothic’ was equally attached to the graceful, clear style of painting and sculpture that appeared contemporaneously to the cathedrals, indeed in, of, and on them, a style of elongated forms, full of expressiveness, bespeaking human individuality, often representing Christ crucified or a graceful and guileless blond-haired Virgin with Child, local instantiations of a representational tradition dedicated to the Goddess and her divine Son that, through the Romans and Greeks, reaches back to the figuration of Isis and Horus. Other, more imaginative, phantasmagorical forms — gargoyles, griffins, tongue-pullers, green men —, sublime in their grotesqueness, manifest themselves as well as an integral part of this oh so solid Gothic.

As proof that the Gothic’s Foucault pendulum never suspends its planetary, galactic, cosmic spiralling, a quarter-millennium after Vasari, the Romantic revolution’s promulgation permitted post-Revolutionary France to rehabilitate the Gothic of Vasari. Charles Nodier proclaimed, “the monuments upon which we impose with such scorn the name of Gothic and which we relegate to the construction of barbarians were neither so savage nor so barbarous.…   They are better than the Greek monuments in religious solemnity and in mysterious harmonies to the same degree that the noble beliefs of Christianity surpass the poetic theology of paganism” (A. R. Oliver’s translation of Nodier’s “Introduction” to Volume II of Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans l’ancienne France). The author of the great romance that borrows the name of the celebrated Gothic cathedral Notre Dame de Paris, challenging Vasari’s barbaric associations altogether, happily and proudly branded these monuments of piety “Christian”, and through their grotesqueries saw Gothic and Romantic unified: “Those myriads of intermediary creatures which we find all alive in the popular traditions of the Middle Ages; …the ghastly antics of the witches’ revels, which gives Satan his horns, his cloven foot and his bat’s wings” (¶39 “Preface to Cromwell“) are not pagan, but supremely Christian beneath Victor Hugo’s gaze.

To attribute to Vasari some share of reason, Christian or not Christian, the Gothic’s monsters, like Mannerism’s grotesques, must be more reasonably seen as pagan souvenirs placed within the sacred context that the quinto acuto’s narrow opening provided. After the conquest of Jerusalem and intimate contact with Islamic architecture, a devoutly contemplative age married the half-forgotten ritual spaces of Goth and Celt to that of the cult of Constantine, and, in so doing, bridged the ages that span the Christian and the Neolithic, and gave life to pagan Evil as the bulwark of piety and godliness: “The greatest achievement of the Gothic masters… was a new conception of man in relation to the universal and to Nature. They expressed this in… the incarnation of divine light into Gothic space; they recreated the holy glades and avenues of forests in stone and in doing so they gave us new insights to the immensity of the human mind in contemplation of the divine unity and the works of creation” (William Anderson, Green Man, 105).

The great articulated pillars that line the naves of the cathedrals and flower into complex patterns as they fan into manifold rib vaults and liernes overhead are inevitably perceived as avenues of oaks refashioned in stone, in a similar manner the filtered glow of the rosette windows is inescapably felt as evocative of the displaced dappled light that once plunged through the verdant canopy of great deciduous stands to flicker in concert with the winds upon mossy forest floors. Within these synthetic groves of stone, the Gothic perpetuated ancient practices and notions not through syncretic incorporation but through literal superposition. The great cathedrals were sited on pagan, Druidic foundations — Chartres upon the shrine the Latinate called Virgo Paritura, its iconography synthesised a singular transformative tradition of resurrection; Notre Dame de Paris succeeding the shrine of Esus Rober, the Celtic estive god of vegetation who, with winter, becomes Cernunnos, divinity of wealth, the underworld, the dead. The same dynamic is to be seen in play at countless sites across Europe. The great Gothic structures sit there where the Neolithic and successive metallurgical ages had arranged their cromlechs and dolmens and inhumed their most honoured departed. From the heavens, the solar-aligned Gothic house of worship marked the sign of the cross, a masculine body crucified, but from a terrestrial perspective it becomes reconfigured, through the archetypal Gothic form, the pointed arch, so fetishised and labial in the elaborate tympana that adorn the entryways, as a feminine body poised to give birth — the whole miraculously rising from out of ancient tombs.

Through his attempt at formulating a Romantic Poetics with the “Preface to Cromwell”, Victor Hugo embraced the Gothic of prior ages as emblems of Romantic sensibility, thereby fusing the Gothick of Horace Walpole’s Otrantini Castle and Strawberry Hill, and the Gothic of Abbé Suger’s Abbaye de Saint Denis: an essential superposition. This linking of Gothic to Gothic likewise assimilates, from tallest spire to most ancient crypt, pagan precedence as well. Following Hugo, John Ruskin made similar claims in the name of the Gothic Revival, hailing the “many-pinnacled image of the Gothic spirit within us” to discern “what fellowship there is between it [a Gothic spirit] and our Northern hearts”. While Devendra Varma asserts that it was the aura of gloom permeating the Gothic cathedral that drew Romantics towards its filtered flame, it seems more likely that that attraction, for many, was not to the doctrinal understanding of the world that the cathedrals project, but to the cathedrals themselves as artefacts of an understanding abandoned, a belief system discarded and, through the act of disinvestment, become exotic, Romantic. The Christian and pagan had nostalgically merged in quaintness and, beyond dogma, found wistful harmony in their resonance with human longings and intuitions which modernity embraced as an outward rejection of the precepts of scientific materialism. Pausing in the cathedrals’ stony glades — what Orson Welles termed their “rich stone forest” — one finds oneself on deeply fertile barren ground. Here, in Edmund Burke’s Sublime made concrete, the dead lie in wait, secure in crypts and catacombs buried in ancient, pagan depths.

Having commenced in the middle, to make ends meet and move on it must be recalled that as a first referent ‘Gothic’ indexes those restless marauding Nordic tribes that are collectively united under the title of ‘Goth’. These pagan invaders of the Roman Empire, besters of Huns, topplers of the Eleusinian Temple, arsons of the Ephesian Temple, bought-off rulers of the Iberian peninsula, departed warriors that inherited Vasari’s backward-looking contempt must NOT BE FORGOTTEN. Without them, there would be no further goth or Gothic, for — for the Latinised, for the contemporary world, for ourselves — goth or Gothic could only be a useful term of deprecation (indicating the uncivilised, the barbaric, the fervently believing irreligious fanatic) because of them. Their story comes directly down to us through the Gutasaga, the historical writings of the elder Jordane, and the numerous elaborate necropoles that they have bequeathed to the living’s inspection and contemplation as the original, sky-domed Gothic cathedrals. As a final ‘goth’ referent, let us recall the incidental, accidental tribe that bothered to assign itself the title of goth as the last century, so marked by every human excess imaginable, reached its fin-de-siècle end in a boom of real estate valuation and an explosion of opportunities for cut-rate borrowing, when Gothic and goth became an announced, black-habited lifestyle, promiscuously extending itself beyond the literary and architectonic into music, decorative arts, body arts, fashion, sexual, social and moral behaviours, and all of what Catherine Spooner has written of under the title of ‘Contemporary Gothic’, that orgy of myriad and dissimilar objects and actions, amalgamated by funereal overtones, de-contextualised, de-sacralised religious symbols blasphemously displayed, reversed, inverted, and alternating poses of joyous morbidity and depressed liveliness. This particular expression of Gothdom, more dedicated to costuming than Pugin, is extraordinarily virtual yet actually and deliberately lived, from candigoth and Lolita subculture to stridently indulged and developed fetishes, ostentatiously refined perversions and sordid obsessions. This goth’s ability to survive economic downturn will be of critical interest as the Gothic moves forward.

By my surely inaccurate back of the envelope accounting, these are the main currents that combine to lend The Gothic form and to inform our understanding of ‘Gothic’ as a vehicle of imagination. So many divergent impulses, so many historic threads, so many aesthetic directions would seem, through excessive plenitude, to make for a thoroughly empty term. Is there any aspect to these sundry Goths, goth, and Gothics that serves to unite the set into a singularly meaningful force or coherent idea, into some actionable belief, some justification for a desire for adherence? How, after all, could the brilliant polychromes of the fifteenth century have bled into the ubiquitous flat black of our own age? What specificity is left to ‘Gothic’ today?

I have wondered about this, in a very off-and-on kind of way, for several years now, perhaps since a comic incident at a Gothic conference. Being presented a wide range of works of contemporary art under the banner of ‘Gothic’, über-Gothicist David Punter, with a certain touch of exasperation noticeable beneath his breath, felt compelled to press the ICA and Tate Gallery’s Chrisoph Grunenberg to define “What is not Gothic?” Is there no valid limit to the Gothic’s plasticity? While the tension between the various cultural movements and symbolic expressions that shelter beneath the Gothic appellation is intriguing, challenging, their cohabitation all too often makes of Gothic a frustratingly ambiguous, all-too-elastic label: a ‘Made in CE’ of the mind. And still, the dynamic nature of the term is so damnably compelling that we know it will surely continue to accumulate new referents and foster new avenues of expression for another millennium. Gothic has proven itself to be a lodestone with an inexhaustible capacity to draw the invisible towards manifestation, even should that glimmer of exposure to consciousness be so very fleeting as to be retrospectively termed an ‘uncanny’ effect. Due to the mercurial nature of its powers, it is understandable that the Gothic is said to be founded on an endless stream of reflective referents that disappear into time and nothingness; should that be true, it unfortunately makes of the Gothic an aesthetic term that is ultimately and utterly useless.

In an attempt to establish commonalities, to make sense of the aesthetic problem that the Gothic constitutes, I considered the totality of the referents that I have listed above. I mapped the Goth’s migrations, from the northland, down the rivers flowing to the Baltic into central Europe, around the Black Sea, thence to Eleusis, Rome, and the Iberia, from Saragossa to Toledo. I recalled how the mania (for a mania it truly was) for Gothic architecture radiated in capillary waves from a Parisian epicentre — la Tour St. Jacques — not only down through Chartres, Vendôme, Tours, Poitiers, Bordeaux towards Saint Jacques de Compostelle, but back, up, down, and out to every compass point reachable through the skein of pilgrimage routes that, threading across Western Europe from Roma to Plymouth, Sevilla to Prague, fed a mighty highway of piety that connected Christian Europe into a singular, universal moving faith articulated through the stone of Peter. I recalled how the advent of a popular postal service with an international reach helped a trans-European literary Gothic to flourish everywhere a Royal post road extended its reach to a reading public. I imagined how the contemporary Gothic is envisioned, communicated, elaborated, bought, sold, and given away, from Kyoto to Cape Town, Stirling to Sydney, Buenos Aeres to Berlin, New York to New Delhi, Visby to Valparaiso via Vladivostok through the planetary network of the World Wide Web, and how social media are continually reforming today’s tribes of Bluetooth goth. I determined that several commonalities are inherent to the Gothic in all its expressions, most notably: a questing insistence on structural innovation even as the impact of surface effects gains in symbolic importance; a creative and procreative process dependent upon superposition; an insistence on binding the paradoxical into fixed units, most particularly the merging of masculine and feminine; the drive towards movement and pilgrimage, not only of spatial pilgrimage, but of temporal return; the sense of mission, reaching deliberately into the past and those hidden truths that seemingly must have been known by our forebears to justify our intuition of the eternal; a sense of perpetual belonging, of discovering a family that stretches beyond genealogy, genetics, and into time and a universal chain of being. Ancestors, even should those ancestors perhaps be not our own, are somehow present and seemingly accessible through the Gothic. We are locked into a vast resonant space along the continuum of being where life and death intersect and cross to seemingly dwell together forever.

My sense is that the Gothic foments accentuated tension even while defeating the binary alternatives of the polarities it so determinedly posits, a victory effected by binding opposites, defeating paradox, through the formation of ring-like structures, unities (within or between works) that join movement and fixity, piety and blasphemy, life and death, light and darkness, (sister and brother), individual isolation and dendritical networks. Circular, elliptical, spiralling, the Gothic refuses closure, finality, ends. We are forced to begin at the mid-point, since every point is the mid-point, in order to make ends meet and accept the continuum that binds us.
It is with this understanding and in this spirit that I determined to investigate the Gothic through a pilgrimage of my own. For a few hundred euros and a detailed study of the Easyjet flight schedule, I organised an autumnal Gothic tour that took me from my home on the European landmass’s Atlantic coast to Villa Diodati and Staël’s Château de Coppet at Europe’s heart, east towards Poland and the Ukraine, north to Gotland in the Baltic Sea, south to Eleusis and the Temple of the Goddesses destroyed by Alaric, on to Milan and the final authentically Gothic architectural enterprise, and, eventually, through the Pyrenees and down to Saragossa and Toledo. Tracing my route on a map of Europe, I could see that it projected a slightly skewed Gothic Cross. I contacted hotels and hostels, artists and administrators, curators and car rentals, architects and archaeologists, goths and Gothicists, and planned every second of my time, and then I clicked the purchase button on the Easyjet site. I loaded up a single meter-long shoulder bag with machines, cameras, dollies, film, magnetic tape, recording equipment, microphones, tripods, a few changes of clothes and tins of conserved foods to keep body and soul joined, borrowed a portable telephone, and set out on my Gothic venture. I visited ancient tombs, followed Athens’ Sacred Way and retraced many of le Chemin de Saint Jacques’ lacy routes through the hinterlands, bounded over the Alps, scaled the Pyrenees, flew from Arlanda to Malpensa with Nick Cave, and struck out to find Gothicity. While my travels and travails proved to be frustratingly inconclusive, they may perhaps provide a subject on which we can blog together for a moment over this month of renewal, this very month that every year marks the return of the season of light through the mid-Spring feast of Saint George the evergreen.

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