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The Gothic is a Lazarus Experiment yet unwritten

In the previous blog post, I took a thorough look at contemporary gothic fashion designers to follow. However, this week I have decided to evaluate Dickens’ reworking of the parable of the Rich Man and The Lazarus Experiment in his A Christmas Carol.

This tale, while not explicitly referencing the parable, has obvious parallels with it and largely echoes its moral. It rejects the ability of the revived dead, or the simple supernatural, to offer redemption and dispense with doubt. It continues, however, to provide the hope of redemption and renewal through direct revelation to those willing to accept this disclosure. The hope is inherent in the parable – if the Rich man’s relatives could believe in that revealed by Moses and the prophets, then they could be redeemed.

It is explicit in A Christmas Carol as Scrooge accepts the revelation and becomes a changed man. Margaret Oliphant – who was a Scottish novelist and historical writer – in her story The Beleaguered City, offers a more direct and a less optimistic reworking of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus than we see in Dickens. This blog post will explore how this story’s investigation of the Lazarus parable ties into a larger gothic trend investigating the possibilities, and limitations, of the “supernatural”, to point to the divine and provoke useful change.

In The Beleaguered City, the dead return to the town of Semur, ejecting the living inhabitants. It is never clear exactly what precipitated this occupation of Semur. Perhaps it was the closing of the sisters’ chapel, perhaps the profane shouting of the drunkard Jacques Richard and his cry that ‘L’argent c’est le bon Dieu’ or perhaps only the lack of religion or faith among the inhabitants. For whatever reason, the ghosts came back on behalf of the living to communicate a message linked to repentance which is never entirely clear. The problem is that many of the living cannot hear them and their “message” is not being communicated. Apparently referring to the Lazarus passage, the ghosts, lamenting that they are not heard, say with sorrow, “Do you forget what was said to us?” and, “We were warned, we were warned.” They cry, “They cannot hear us, or they will not hear us,” thus concisely and despairingly making clear the two insurmountable reasons for the doubt found in both the parable’s wealthy men and among the inhabitants of Semur – the inability to access the spiritual and the disinclination to do so. The link to the parable is reinforced when the spirits finally give up on influencing the living themselves and, in an inversion of the parable, send a human messenger, Paul Lecamus, to the people outside. In doing so, the ghosts quote from the biblical text, saying “Neither will they believe – though one rose from the dead” as they finally accept or admit their failure. It becomes apparent that they left heaven with license but without commission as they dejectedly admit, “Must not all fail that is not sent of the Father?” They ran off with a hope they had themselves created rather than with a hope given by God as to the success of their mission.

The story, so far, seems to fasten indirectly with the parable: the returning dead are incapable of provoking change or repentance in the living. The story, however, does not end there and we are tantalized with a seeming refutation of the parable. Ambassadors of the living enter the town of the dead and they feel compelled, by emotion or conviction, to rush into the church and say mass. The dead leave, the living re-enter, the church is full of worshippers both men and women. It would appear that the town has been spiritually renewed and that the dead have been successful. However, a closer inspection undermines any idea of true spiritual change or renewal. While saintly characters, like Louise Marie Madeleine Fontaine, were able to hear the dead and were spiritually comforted by them, their characters did not change but simply had their existing spiritual and religious beliefs confirmed.

This is a “positive” spiritual “stasis” which is echoed more negatively throughout all levels of society and belief. The mayor summarizes the situation thus: “After this we returned to our occupations, and life was resumed under its former conditions in our city.” The upturn in church attendance soon went back to normal. People begin to ask themselves if it was not a delusion. The degenerate men primarily return to their degeneracy and the upright men, such as the mayor, continue to eschew religion, considering faith itself to be “a submission of intellect.”

The ghosts leave thinking they have succeeded but the moment of religious feeling aroused in the inhabitants when surrounded by the dead lasts little more than a moment. As Lecamus explains, “They are not as gods… nor are they all-knowing, all-wise, like the good God.” In other words, they are not infallible and they got it wrong. They thought to return could change the path of the living and it could not. They were also incapable of adequately assessing the apparent spiritual renewal for what it was, that is, a moment of emotion without redemptive depth. While Dickens’ story ends with hope, Oliphant’s narrative leaves us with despair. The returned dead do not succeed in their task. More than this, however, religion (Revelation itself) is seen, in its Catholic guise, at least, to be equally inadequate. Church attendance, prayer, and worship are all incapable of affecting change in the hearts of the town’s citizens. Furthermore, the Priest is one of those who cannot see or hear the dead. He is cut off from the spiritual and it is to him that others look for access to the unseen, the spiritual, the divine. While salvific faith is possible, see Madame Dupin, change is depicted as out of reach. In a reflection of the electionist Calvinist theology Oliphant grew up with, the elect remains elect and the damned, damned.

In Dickens and Oliphant, we find clear echoes of or references to the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. They both act out a “Lazarus Experiment” by sending the dead to the living in the text to pose questions about the ability of the returning dead to provoke spiritual redemption and personal change. The relevance of an understanding of the Lazarus parable and the idea of a Lazarus experiment goes beyond understanding its use in these specific texts. This is because the Lazarus parable has a wider relevance in the genre than echoes in a particular book or indirect references to it.

The gothic, and most notably the ghost story, is a reworking of or a challenge to the parable’s assertion that the dead (the supernatural) cannot produce faith, redemption or change. In the 18th century, interest in ghosts was fuelled by Christians (notably John Wesley and the Methodists) appealing to ghost sightings as shreds of evidence of God. Similarly, the Gothic, particularly in its 18th and 19th-century incarnations, summons to the spirit, the demon and the returned dead as proof of the transcendent, the supernatural and even the divine.

Both Dickens and Oliphant’s work offer evidence of this trend beyond their explicit references to or reworking of the Lazarus parable. Elizabeth MacAndrew suggests that Dickens incorporates “the supernatural in his predominantly social novels to highlight man’s spiritual side.” Similarly, Oliphant used her ghost stories to work through questions about life after death, faith, and redemption. In doing so, Dickens and Oliphant echo the techniques and tendencies of gothic literature from its 18th-century origins to at least the mid-20th century to point to a reality beyond the material world, the possibility of a spiritual realm and, in many cases, the authority of a Christian world-view.

The Gothic, in its use of supernatural machinery to point to the existence of a reality beyond this world, is one great “Lazarus Experiment”: the attempt to raise God with the dead. Or, if not God, then, at least, the existence of the Other, the transcendent, that which is beyond this material world. If we follow the parable to its conclusion, though, is the gothic doomed to fail in any such attempt? In the Ghosts of the Gothic we have but a pale imitation of a pale imitation of life – a ghost of a ghost, if you will. Does that make them stronger or weaker than the dead who cannot convince? The parable suggests that it is in scripture, in written revelation, that we find salvation. Certainly, the written form gives the gothic specters a permanency missing from “spiritual manifestations” themselves.

They can be read or met with, again and again, their challenge or their message reiterated afresh with every reading. However, these fictional specters have not even the pretense of reality to them and surely this must damage their cause? What then is the Gothic: the written revelation of the other or a graveyard of counterfeit dead with no power to convince the living? The Gothic is a Lazarus experiment whose results are yet unwritten.

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