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Shakespeare, and the Secularization of Gothic Mediations

Shakespeare, and the Secularization of Gothic Mediations
© Photograph by Sara Salcedo Art

The performative gothic and Gothicized music accomplished a significant amount of cultural work during the late eighteenth-century throughout Europe, and this chapter will examine that period by focusing on three major influences on the secularization of the gothic uncanny: the resurgence of Shakespeare as the premier author of the violent and supernatural; the destabilization of the notion of didactic virtue by Sentimentality; and the rhetorical classification or codification of the emotions as the source for a new concept of human subjectivity and spirituality.

Along with the latter trend, there is a pronounced tendency during this period to structure erotic and filial affections in new, secularised ways, and, concurrently, to nostalgically present the father as a sublime figure who once presided over a lost time of innocent purity.

By idealising the bourgeois family as a secularised version of a religious community, complete with a divinely inspired paterfamilias and docile children-worshipers, the sentimental ethos prepared the imaginative way for the domestication and secularisation of religious sentiments. Also, in constructing Sentimentality as a pan-European ethos that advocated universalist, progressive ideals like cosmopolitanism or the “feeling heart,” the Coeur sensible, that could emote in recognisably familiar ways across borders and classes, the secularising imaginary attempted to ease the transition from a providential worldview to an individualised, modern one.

As Jerome McGann has noted, sentimentality can best be understood as “the body in the mind,” while the discourse of sensibility “ emphasises the mind in the body” (7). Both ideologies, however, were predicated on the belief that “no human action of any consequence is possible — including ‘mental’ action — that is not led and driven by feeling, affect, emotion” (McGann, 6). But finally, the central question that needs to be posed is, how can a culture define “goodness” if transcendent religious beliefs and traditions no longer supply its citizens’ codes of conduct? What does it mean to inhabit a “disenchanted” world?

It is necessary to note at the outset that another source of chronic instability in gothic criticism relates to the relationship between the gothic and the sentimental novel and sensibility in general.

As many critics over the years have asked, is gothic to be understood as merely an offshoot of the literature of sensibility? Is gothic a debased form of the sentimental novel? Is it a derivative style spiced rather heavily with sex and death? Or does it use the codes of sensibility in productive ways?

For critics like Elizabeth Napier and Terry Castle, the gothic’s hackneyed uses of the conventions of sensibility are just another aspect of its popular and lower-class characteristics. Instead, this study argues that one of the ways that we can see the ambivalent secularising process in action is by examining one of the sentimentality’s most dominant tropes, the damsel in distress or more specifically, the Cordelia figure who redeems her father. In these works, the concept of human flourishing is shifted from a transcendental register (the fate of the holy family) to a mundane one (the fate of the bourgeois nuclear family), where the family politics in question are largely determined by the historical ascent of the middle class.

Sensibility and sentimentality would be examples of cultural practices that served to entrench Taylor’s notion of ambivalent secularization because both of them sought to advance the core beliefs of Providential Deism: “a sense of impartial benevolence, or purely human sympathy,” and the embrace of the “ordering project” or the social control agenda, as well as the “dispelling of mystery” so that there could be a “kind of equilibrium between our goals and our moral abilities” (Taylor, 261). Within the framework of this background, the virtuous female is a figure of especial value because she embodies the virtues that define the bourgeois conception of the ideal form of mundane human flourishing.

To return here to Taylor’s secularization theory, the romantic period is for him unique in human history because these crucial intellectual and spiritual “transitions” achieved their full modern expression around the beginning of the nineteenth-century. During this period, human subjects began to assume that they had a choice between whether they would locate their humanity and happiness (“fullness”) within the transcendental (the “era of naïve religious faith”) or in the quotidian realms (“the self-conscious”). However, because this choice was so stark, a middle ground emerged to ease the transition, and for Taylor, this middle ground was the development of what he calls “Providential Deism,” a compromise formation between traditional Christianity and the newly emerging secularism that was too extreme for all but the elite to embrace.

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