Christine Berthin, Haunted Language in the Gothic

Posted by Laura Kremmel on July 11, 2010 in Reviews tagged with , , ,

Berthin, Christine. Gothic Hauntings: Melancholy Crypts and Textual Ghosts. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Reviewed by Laura Kremmel, University of Stirling

Unsurprisingly, in her text about the elusive and multi-layered nature of language in Gothic literature, Christine Berthin’s Gothic Hauntings: Melancholy Crypts and Textual Ghosts does not actually discuss the Gothic ghost story. Rather, it looks at several of the genre’s core texts in order to analyze types of haunting on different levels of reading experience, from hidden connections to lingering death in the plot itself to the more-complicated sifting through semiotic ghosts. In the introduction, she says simply, “The purpose of this book is to explore, through the Gothic tradition, [the] shift from the figure of the ghost as narrative device to spectrality as literary trope and a critical tool” (1). She takes a genre that easily depicts ghosts, both figurative and literal, and shows how the hauntings she finds in these texts are actually part of the way most scholars look at all literature. In other words, though it is most effective to discuss Gothic for her purposes of the transgression of language and the “night-side” of fiction, all literature is haunted if looked at in this way, and literary analysis is a way of “bringing back the dead” (6).

In her short introduction, Berthin discusses the nature of haunting and literature, citing several theorists and their different definitions, focusing mostly on Derrida and Abraham and Torok, in order to claim that language is “caught in an endless movement of sliding and deferral in which the ultimate referent always recedes and retreats” (3). She makes particular use of Abraham and Torok’s theory of repression and “the secret” that has been inherited from a lost object and comes to haunt the individual in such a way that language and discursive meaning become the haunting grounds through encryption. She, thus, applies melancholy and morning in the form of Abraham and Torok’s theories of introjection (“working through the loss”) and incorporation (“morbid denial of the reality of death”) to the media of literature and art and its actual, sometimes deliberate, failure to assuage loss through clear and cathartic communication (7).

In chapter one, “Transgenerational Haunting: The Subject as Other,” Berthin engages with Freud’s Totem and Taboo and the subject’s culturally inherited repression of secrets through The Castle of Otranto. Though she discusses the actual presence of the ghost and the burden of fathers’ secrets on their sons in the plot, she focuses on the hidden clues in the language itself that betrays these secrets. For example, the scene in which Isabella and Theodore open the trap door is full of words that signal secrets related to Alphonso and Theodore’s grandmother’s marriage secret: “iron ring,” (wedding ring) “spring of the lock” (wedlock, offspring). Taking up Abraham and Tork’s theories, she discusses the residue left by the secrets on the characters, their actions, and the language used to describe them that records the unconscious“mechanics of transmission” between the parent and the child in the novel (21). She moves on to discuss Laplache’s theory of enigmatic signifiers, uncanny messages within language that are separate from the intended meanings through an analysis of Villiers’ L’Intersigne.

Moving on from the sins of the father, chapter two, “Discourse and Its Other: The Figural and the Real” retains the idea of inheritance and relates it to the “return of the dead and their legacy to the living” (34). Relying heavily on both Zizek and Lacan’s theories of the Real and its exclusion from language and on Deleuze’s language of schizophrenics, she discusses the unspeakable within language, language’s ability to turn the body into a collection of signs, and language that comes straight from the body. She illustrates these theories with an analysis of the madness of language in Gautier’s Onuphrius. In this chapter, which includes the most concentrated amount of theory in the text, Berthin also discusses Lyotard’s Discourse, Figure on the Other within discourse and the haunted space of Garret Stewart’s “phonotext,” the messages within language that can only be heard, not read.

Chapter three, “Gothic Poetics,” returns to an analysis of the Gothic’s emphasis on unspoken secrets and use of the fantastic, according to Todorov, as a method of distortion that opens up the possibilities of language and meaning. Focusing on the fantastic and its creation of ambiguity of and in the text, Berthin looks at Lewis’s The Monk and Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho as “displaying anti-discursive forces” that “attack the symbolic from all fronts” (63). Gothic literature, she says, complicates linear narrative in its residence in the past, even when it takes place in the present, which disallows any kind of “progress” within the text and maintains the power of haunting. She looks at the specifics of language in these two texts, particularly the haunting abilities of catachreses and naming and aspects of the uncanny, abjection, and melancholia on the levels of both language and within the plot itself.

Chapter four, “The Melancholy Crypt of Frankenstein” focuses entirely on an analysis of the secrets within Mary Shelley’s text. According to Berthin, Victor suffers from the unspoken melancholia caused by his mother’s death, connecting the birth of the creature to this death as a kind of attempted rebirth. She looks at aspects of incorporation and melancholia in the language of the text and in Victor’s own failure to recognize these connections and the consequential clandestination that haunts many of the characters and involves the reader in an unstated secret.

Berthin continues her focus on individual texts with chapter five, “Secretions and Secretaries: The Secret of Dracula,” which looks at the text itself and its obsession with the creation of texts within it to create a series of crypts that outlive the bodies that create them. This chapter looks at the creation of texts and records as turning humans in to machines, of separating bodies from their language, making the spreading of data an inherited and haunted process. She likens the different types of record making to the vampire they contain and connects the act of writing as a type of vampirism in its own right and vice versa.

The last chapter, “The Raising of the Dead: Art and Melancholy” continues this focus on haunting forms of media and creating records, this time visually through photography and painting. Berthin discusses Barthes’s Camera Lucida in conjunction with the film Proof and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as using the visual as a way to reach beyond language. Through photography, the living can access the dead through their images, and, as such, taking photographs becomes a symptom of melancholy. Her discussion of Woolf focuses on painting and the connection between creation and access to a lost object.

This text, overall, is extremely useful as an introduction to the theories regarding melancholy, mourning, and loss as it references many different theorists and offers an extensive bibliography. Her use of Abraham and Torok, in particular, could be misconstrued without prior knowledge of their text, The Shell and the Kernel as she often references their work but seems hesitant to stray from her own argument in order to provide background information. Berthin does not always explain some of these theories clearly, but the repetition of her main method for looking at texts and finding hauntings within their language is helpful in this regard. The strongest chapters are the ones that focus on just one or two main texts as she looks at the different layers of haunting. This format presents a much more complete picture of how breaking apart the language supports and reinforces the haunting within the plot and provides a more convincing argument for some of the “hidden” stories that speak the unspeakable.

The idea of looking at literary analysis as detecting the secrets and hauntings within the text in all of these different methods seems most relevant in the chapter about Dracula and the formulation of texts and readers within the text itself, but I question the relevance for the actual analysis of looking at our role as critics this way. Though certainly interesting to think of interpretation as working with a haunted text (as all texts are, according to Berthin), does it change or add to the actual outcome of that analysis in a major way? I found myself asking this a few times and questioning the implications of some of her dissections of language within individual texts. That having been said, the text overall offers some valuable new directions for the relationship between written and visual media and the presentation of language in relation to its creator and to those it reaches as well as being one of the few critical texts dealing with the direct connection between melancholy and the Gothic.

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