I want to start by baldly stating that culture, especially “high art” culture, is often dark. Because cultures of most kinds are so influenced by the archaic necessity of the “catharsis” of “demons”, either momentary events or longer term psychological traumas, it is often dark. The natural world was a terrifying place for the naked monkey to live and Picasso said that the tribal creation of art was about exorcism. Surely this is no less true of the modern world with its alienating megalopoli. Gothic darkness is therefore ever-present in culture on the creation side, but it is also apparent in reception: audiences thrill to the sensational, terrifying, exciting, supernatural, bizarre. The darkness in culture in terms of both creation and reception assures the, ironically, somewhat spectral survival of the gothic. This chthonic aspect of life and the unconscious might be exacerbated by the roots of contemporary gothicism in the mountains, tundra and forests of northern Europe; the Norse gods and heroes are the patron saints of the gothic, which should not blind us to their analogues from all other places on the planet. Which goddess, for instance, is more terrifying than Kali?
So what is the gothic? In a nutshell, it is a cultural form of thanatophilia, the love of death and the opposite of eros and biophilia, the irrational urge to cripple and/or extinguish life, that was named as a central human desire and motivator by Freud, but which was strangely unexplored by him. In Greek mythology, Thanatos, son of Nyx (goddess of the night) and the brother of Hypnos (sleep), resided in the underworld as the personification of death. According to Freud’s hypothesis in Beyond The Pleasure Principle, the instincts of life, which are self-preservation and sex, are in conflict with the death instinct, the drive towards extinction and undifferentiation, which is more powerful than the pleasure principle, and explains the “repetition automatism” whereby sufferers mechanically repeat traumas. Thanatophilia in the gothic typically manifests as the return of the repressed, the manifestation of repressed anxieties, Derrida’s hauntology. For Derrida, the past never disappears, but is always revenant, reappears, so as to stretch the present into the past and future: “Without this non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present, without that which secretly unhinges it, without this responsibility and this respect for justice concerning those who are not there, of those who are no longer or who are not yet present and living, what sense would there be to ask the question “where?” “where tomorrow?” “whither?”” (Derrida 1994: xix). To return to Freud, thanatophilia relativises the present moment; mortality haunts the present. In other words, there is no such thing as anachronism; the present is always bearing the past.
Edgar Allan Poe, one of the masters of gothic fiction, called this thanatophilia the “perverse” by which he meant the desire of all beings to return to God. In Eureka we find Poe anticipated a “big bang” scientific theory prior to the scientists: our universe has spun from unity to diversity, that all of creation has been thrown into the unnatural condition of multiform particulars. But Poe’s description is decidedly oriented to his own spirituality; for example, he states that all spiritual and material manifestations of the universe are but individuations emanating from the unity of the Godhead, and that these spiritual and material individuations “perversely” long for, and eventually return to, that divine unity, which Poe thought to be the “natural” condition of the universe. Upon reunification, God recreates the universe in another horrendous explosion, initiating the next expansion sequence. Poe called this compression and expansion of the universe the heartbeat of God. Poe believed that only in dissolution, in death, can the longing for unity imprinted on all matter and spirit be satisfied. Poe’s belief in the perverse caused him to transcend traditional morality, instead searching out this radical impulse which he believed ruled the dark side of human behaviour and explained why criminals, for instance, would perversely keep returning to the scene of the crime or give themselves up, even though this ran counter to self-interest.
So thanatophilia in the gothic, and particularly in the fiction of Poe, issues in the characteristic return of the repressed in the guise of the living dead, the dead in life, phantoms, ghosts, spiritualism, vampires and other undead; in other words, with time and cyclicity. We see this again and again in Poe’s fiction; think of the man who gives himself away in "The Tell-Tale Heart" for a classic example. This gothic thanatophilia allows us to experience death in a virtual form so that we are able to deal with thanatophobia via a kind of catharsis. Accepting the omnipotence of time, we are able to experience extinction, at least vicariously, and feel our mortality in all its devastating somatic force and sociohistorical ramifications. In this sense the gothic is an offshoot of the death cults that arguably gave birth to Judeo-Christianity, concerned as these monotheisms are with death and resurrection.
ï»¿Derrida, Jacques. 1994. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge.
Freud, Sigmund. 1961. Beyond The Pleasure Principle. Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth.
Poe, Edgar Allan. 1848. Eureka: A Prose Poem. New York: Putnam.
(This is an edited extraction from a published paper: “The Postcolonial Gothic: Time and Death in Southern African Literature.” Journal of Literary Studies 24. 4 (Dec 2008): 1-18.)
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