Gothic as the Brainchild of the Eighteenth-Century

Gothic as the Brainchild of the Eighteenth-Century
Copyright © Photograph by Bernadette Newberry

This article features essays that develop this line of inquiry, focusing on how the Gothic attempts to matter in concrete and critical ways, and mapping its rhetorical and aesthetic strategies of intervention and narration, affect and influence. The pun in the title of this volume — “Gothic Matters” — is intended to acknowledge both the material concerns of the Gothic as a genre and the continuing relevance and value of the cultural work performed by the Gothic, for instance; why it matters.

The Gothic is the brainchild of the eighteenth-century, an eminently modern aesthetic mode, obsessed with the cultural changes that were remapping Europe and North America. Born in the wake of the first global war — the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War) — the Gothic quickly became associated with violent and sensational plots, an aesthetics of emotional extremes, graphic depictions of bodily injury, and finally, the revolution itself. Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, famously linked the Gothic to the political violence of the era when he suggested that Gothic novels were the “necessary fruits of the revolutionary tremors felt by the whole of Europe.” More recent observers and scholars of the Gothic have noted its inherently political and reformist bent, often tackling controversial social issues such as the social control of women, aristocratic privilege and class power relations, as well as traditional institutions including the church, the prison and the family. The body was inevitably at the centre of these explorations: its pain, discipline and control at the heart of the Gothic’s critical concerns.

If revolutionary politics were the most obvious cultural context for some observers, the larger tectonic shifts in epistemology and moral judgment were also at stake. Changes in science, in political philosophy, and cultural values all impacted the Gothic, bringing with them a fascination with cultural relativism, the complexities of social justice, and a new self- awareness about history. The Gothic staged and interrogated these questions with its narratives of cultural otherness, excessive revenge, and repressed or buried crimes that reverberated throughout family lines and local legends. Inherently sceptical of the Enlightenment values that nevertheless underpin its critiques of traditional institutions, the Gothic interested itself in alternative epistemologies such as folk culture, family legends, and rumours. A genre of the forgotten, unspoken and buried, the Gothic gave voice to characters that normally had no voice or weight in society. Although often subversive, the Gothic was not inherently or inevitably so, and more conservative or even paranoid and reactionary formations exist, most notably what critics recently have come to call the Imperial Gothic, which uses the rhetoric of monstrosity to depict racial and colonial others.

Nevertheless, the most interesting cultural work of the Gothic is linked to its creative explorations of the non-normative aspects of human life, such as the body in its queer, raced, gendered and physical materiality. It is no coincidence that many of the following essays focus specifically on the body and its subversive materiality. The volume opens with two essays that take up the issue of the body specifically within the context of the French Revolution. The first, by Agnieszka Łowczanin, examines representations of female bodies in Matthew David Lewis’ ‘The Monk’ and argues that they serve as interventions in the debates around revolutionary violence taking place in England at the time. Making connections between the real-life treatment of Marie Antoinette and some of her entourage, for example, and the description of women characters in Matthew Lewis’ novel, Agnieszka Łowczanin shows that Matthew Lewis expresses ambivalence about mob violence as well as contemporary conventions of femininity. The second essay continues with the French Revolution as a backdrop for the early Gothic and takes up the work of Giovanni Aldini on freshly executed corpses. Giovanni Aldini was the nephew of Luigi Galvani — the Italian physicist known for his work on galvanic electricity — and the better known of the two in England, travelling across Europe with widely publicised experiments on the dead. In her essay on Giovanni Aldini, the guillotine, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein,’ Kristen Lacefield argues that the novel can be better understood concerning the complex cultural meaning of the guillotine. Specifically, this instrument came to represent the double-edged nature of three cultural developments: the intrusions of modern science into natural biological processes, the emergence of materialist theories in science and medicine, and the sensational reports of revolutionary violence in France.

The next essay crosses the Atlantic and examines an autobiographical work by one of the great American Transcendentalists, Sarah Margaret Fuller Ossoli. Monika Elbert shows how Sarah Margaret Fuller Ossoli’s ‘Memoirs’ reveal a writer haunted by a younger sister’s death and the memory of her strict and overbearing father, who travels to the Great Lakes on a Romantic search for wholeness, only to discover a Gothic landscape of capitalist waste and Indian genocide. Monika Elbert uses an EcoGothic approach in order to focus on Sarah Margaret Fuller Ossoli’s representations of nature as terrifying and savage on the one hand, but also a victim of the rapacious advances of greedy settlers. In a nuanced critique, Monika Elbert analyses the ambivalence and complexity of Sarah Margaret Fuller Ossoli’s depiction of a Gothicized nature and demonstrates the usefulness of the Gothic as a trope to evoke the painful but creatively generative alienation of being an exceptional woman in the nineteenth century. Finally, Monika Elbert shows that Sarah Margaret Fuller Ossoli’s journey through the landscape of the Great Lakes is as much epistemological and political as it is physical and emotional.

Karen E. Macfarlane’s essay continues the volume’s investigation of how the Gothic navigates through shifting regimes of knowledge and specifically the epistemological anxieties that were inherent to the colonial enterprise. The body is once more the epicentre of this network of mappings — a charged interface between the classificatory ambitions of the Victorian era and the many aspects of the unknown and unclassifiable that regularly beguiled it. Focusing on stories by Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard about mysterious and disembodied hands, Macfarlane examines the uncanniness that accompanies a colonial reduction of the other to a commodified object. The next essay continues to explore the Gothic epistemologies generated by dismembered and disarticulated bodies. Neil Forsyth’s ‘The Tell-Tale Hand,’ with its obvious allusion to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ begins with Sherwood Anderson’s story ‘Hands’ from Winesburg, Ohio, and takes us on an extraordinary journey through the work of Caravaggio and Rodin, twentieth-century horror cinema, the Swiss hand surgeon Claude Verdan and the discoveries of contemporary cognitive science to explore some of the uncanny aspects of the embodied self. A theme that runs through the essay is the disjunction between what we know with our minds and what we know and do with our bodies, an epistemological gap that the Gothic has eloquently and forcefully thematised across a range of artistic media.

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