Home / Literature / Novels / Madness, Mimicry and Scottish Gothic Borderline

Madness, Mimicry and Scottish Gothic Borderline

Madness, Mimicry and Scottish Gothic Borderline
© Photograph by Olesya Nabieva

The madness of Scottish Gothic — it is all the same difference. When you read James Hogg’s ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, you can not help seeing double. The haunting footfalls of this text of shadows can be heard behind other recent Scottish narratives that encounter the familiar face of an uncanny, second self. This article will draw on Julia Kristeva’s concept of “borderline” experience, a feature of psychotic discourse, to examine the representation of madness, split personality and sociopathic behaviour in James Hogg and in one contemporary, muted form of Scottish Gothic, John Burnside’s ‘The Locust Room’ (2001). For Julia Kristeva, the borderline patient is split between the positions of actor and spectator, “a manipulator of seeming, a seducer who uses masks which remain more or less foreign to him” and “a commentator, a theoretician, a commander of signs”.1 Just as the borderline case shifts between the roles of actor and “impresario”, so the analyst must mimic, or inhabit, borderline experience, oscillating between detachment and involvement. The uncertain task for the analyst is “to propose theoretical fictions in order to […] push back the frontiers of ghosts, visions, experiences of possession.”2

For Julia Kristeva, this work of fiction “relieves” a metalanguage haunted by its counterpart, psychosis, which speaks a language that knows no outside. By imitating the borderline patient’s “latently aesthetic discourse”, the analyst/writer/reader can “play” a role at the edge of madness without lapsing into the abyss.3 As John Lechte observes: “Writing […] brings to the fore the very tenuousness of borderline subjectivity. For writing is simultaneously a gesture which objectifies and the act of an actor.”4 Julia Kristeva’s articulation of borderline experience has suggestive and challenging implications for an understanding of literature that “presents” us with madness, delusion or psychopathological disorder. We should look at borderline discourse neither as a clinical definition, nor a therapeutic response to cases of “possession”. Rather, it is a conceptual category that enables us to read how Gothic stages madness from the inside and the outside, in terms of a split between metalanguage and performance, conviction and uncertainty, remoteness and proximity.

Many of the main characteristics of borderline experience — a concern with authenticity and the proper name, fractured temporality and truth and delusion — are clearly evocative of James Hogg’s ‘Private Memoirs’. At every level, James Hogg’s text is riven by questions concerning legitimacy, coherence, and the distinctions between the “inside” and “outside” of the self. Like its main protagonist, the text is constructed from irreconcilable parts. First, there is the dispute about authorship; then there are its narrative frames (the found manuscript, the editorial insertions, the refusal of the Ettrick Shepherd to participate as character/producer of narrative); then there is James Hogg’s position in the Scottish literary establishment. As Ian Duncan points out, James Hogg understood himself emerging from pre-modern, largely pre-literate rural folk culture, its authentic primitivism distinct from a politically aware rural working class of south-west Scotland associated with Burns. James Hogg’s concern with delirium, paranoia and obsession expresses his critical engagement with post-Enlightenment modernity and with rural traditions, his sense of being inside and outside both of these temporalities.5

For James Hogg, psychopathology and modernity are interlinked. As such, ‘The Private Memoirs’ charts an unsettled state in several senses. Robert Wringhim’s theological fixation is “removed from a living cultural tradition, which provokes his disastrous psychological splitting”, and the novel narrates “the futility of ‘union’ as a state of collective or psychic being”.6 et immediately prior to the Act of Union (1707), James Hogg produces a borderline narrative of a Scotland that will not join, a union that will not quite take. As Duncan observes, the romance desire in Scottish Gothic “evokes […] demonic forces expelled from the modern order of nature, whose return threatens a reverse colonisation — rendering the present alien, unnatural, fatal, exposing its metaphysical emptiness”.7

In a double sense, ‘The Private Memoirs’ is possessed of the name: it involves not only legal, familial and sexual usurpation, but also demonic possession. The novel yearns for and yet maintains no faith in the name. We might think of the duplication of names across generations, and all the questions of legal entitlements this raises: a succession of George Colwans inherit the Dalcastle estate, yet it is Robert Wringhim, the namesake of his guardian/father Rev. Robert Wringhim, who becomes the dubiously legitimate Laird. Lady Dalcastle refuses her marital name, and rejects her firstborn son George Colwans; George Colwans is abjected, a child of no maternal origin, but one who is nevertheless a legitimate heir. Rev. Robert Wringhim and Lady Dalcastle are both “children of adoptio” — a phrase that suggests not only their elect status but also an orphaned state that is visited upon their next generation. Robert Wringhim is granted an official title, but for him this is a name that merely estranges and leaves him desolate. Julia Kristeva’s remarks on the relation of abjection to the borderline experience prove peculiarly apposite to Robert Wringhim’s predicament: “the borderline patient, even though he may be a fortified castle, is nevertheless an empty castle.”8 We might term Robert Wringhim an empty (Dal)castle. Though bearing the name of — perhaps — his biological father, Robert Wringhim is denied a “proper” paternal name, despite being subject to the Law. “The Proper Name” is a mark of plenitude and absence, a thing of nothing that “opens up a cascade of signifieds”: it constitutes the scar in borderline discourse between unnameable meaning and the empty signifier.9 For Lacan, it is only when the subject realises that the Nom-du-Père is the non-du-père, a mirage, and acknowledges this split between the empty signifier and the cascade of signifieds, that there can be awareness of how he or she is situated in relation to the Symbolic Order. In contrast, psychosis constitutes the foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father: there is an absolute faith in the sign, even if this faith rests on a hollow centre.10 Unsurprisingly, then, Gil-Martin withholds his name and does not acknowledge his “parent”.11

As Julia Kristeva observes, the sacred, like the proper name, is “constructed over a void”: this is a terrifying, abyssal but ineluctable possibility for a creed that valorises self- possession and absolute conviction.12 As Julia Kristeva observes, the sacred, like the proper name, is “constructed over a void”: this is a terrifying, abyssal but ineluctable possibility for a creed that valorises self- possession and absolute conviction.12 The antinomianism that the Rev. Robert Wringhim preaches constitutes a “closed” system, one that absents the Elect from moral law. Yet this system leads Robert Wringhim to damnation since he cannot stand outside it and can only fulfil its remorseless logic. Predestination becomes the counterpart of madness. Gil-Martin first appears to Robert Wringhim when he has been declared Elect. Gil-Martin is “cast” in Robert Wringhim’s way: a verb with theatrical associations, but which also suggests a lure, a mould, a twist of the eye. Gil-Martin’s sideways glances always implicate the observer in a scene of criminality or evil. No one stands outside his influence, and everyone accepts his role as a dissembler, demon familiar, a figure of magnetic attraction and insidious sympathy. One hardly needs to recount the multiple instances of doubling in the novel to show how Gil-Martin functions as the ghost in Robert Wringhim’s machine. As Mr Blanchard, a “pious divine but of the moral cast”, warns Robert Wringhim, predestination jumbles religion and revelation into chaos. Even Robert Wringhim comments that Gil-Martin’s equivocal, crooked counsels suggest a “great mind led astray by enthusiasm, or some overpowering passion” (204) — an unwitting moment of self-analysis. In the main, however, it is Robert Wringhim’s inability to read signs that ensures his downfall. He hatches his plans with Gil-Martin amid clouds, hazes and visions, laments at one point that “I was a being incomprehensible to myself” (182), and fails to decipher the “strange script” (124) of Gil-Martin’s book. His diabolical tutor holds out the promise of a secret truth at once open to and withheld from, the initiate. Revelation and radical uncertainty are the twin poles of Robert Wringhim’s borderline condition, a condition that reproduces Robert Wringhim’s own demonic pursuit of his brother George Colwans, who feels himself the victim of nameless, motiveless vengeance and judgement. Indecipherability haunts the antinomian creed; the elder George Colwan observes that Rev. Robert Wringhim splits “the doctrines of Calvin into thousands of undistinguishable films” (15). When Robert Wringhim is trapped in the weaver’s looms, it is the perfect figure for his madness; he is trapped in a device for separating and connecting threads.

Julia Kristeva, ’Nom de mort ou de vie’ (‘Name of Death or of Life’) [1981], trans. John Lechte, in John Lechte, ed., ‘Writing and Psychoanalysis: A Reader’ (London: Arnold, 1996), p. 110.
Ibid., p. 116.
Ibid., p. 110.
John Lechte, ‘Writing and Psychoanalysis’, p. 104.
Ian Duncan, ‘Walter Scott, James Hogg and Scottish Gothic’, in David Punter ed., A Companion to the Gothic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 77.
Ibid., p. 78.
Ibid., p. 71.
Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York, Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 49.
Julia Kristeva, ‘Name of Death’, p. 111.
On the foreclosure of the paternal function in Gothic, see Ed Cameron, ‘Psychopathology and the Gothic Supernatural’, Gothic Studies, 5/1 (2003), 11–42. In his brief discussion of ‘The Private Memoirs’, Cameron comments that ‘[w]hile the father function is literally foreclosed in young Wringhim’s universe, it returns as the reified word of God’. Rejected by his father, Wringhim is never separated from the Other’s desire, and ‘he is constantly bombarded by the Other’s enjoyment in the form of the discourse of predestination’, p. 36. Yet it is the recurrent yearning for the return of the paternal function – in the form of Rev. Wringhim, Gil-Martin, God, the Word – rather than its total absence, that produces the fatal split in the text. As my argument suggests, Wringhim cannot understand, but is compelled to interpret, a field of enigmatic signs that mimic his divided consciousness. On the relation between reason and revelation in The Private Memoirs, see J. Faflak,‘“The clearest light of reason”: Making Sense of Hogg’s Body of Evidence’, Gothic Studies, 5/1 (2003), 94–110. Faflak notes that, in the novel’s ‘crisis of comprehension’, the ‘failure of philosophical contemplation’ gives way to psychoanalysis, which is in turn ‘haunted by its own indeterminacy’, p. 100.
James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner [1824], ed. John Carey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 129. All subsequent quotations are taken from this edition. Page numbers will follow in parentheses in the body of the text.
Julia Kristeva, ‘Name of Death’, p. 115.


Notify of