In Gothic Darkly Backgrounds: Heterotopia, History, Culture

Fred Botting

Fred Botting

The Enlightenment, which produced the maxims and models of modern culture, also invented the Gothic. Moreover, the Enlightenment can itself be considered a reinvention, in the sense that the neoclassical values dominating British society in the eighteenth-century constituted a conscious recovery and redeployment of ideas gleaned from Greek and Roman writers. After the Renaissance, the classical tradition was associated with civilised, humane, and polite civic culture, its moral and aesthetic values privileged as the basis of virtuous behaviour, harmonious social relations, and mature artistic practices.

Eighteenth-century writers liked to refer to their present as “modern” and thus distinct from both a classical antiquity appreciated in its historical continuity and a feudal past regarded as a barbaric and primitive stage, the dominance of which had been discontinued. Such an overarching remodelling of cultural values required an extensive rewriting of history.

Here, the word “Gothic” assumes its powerful, if negative, significance: it condenses a variety of historical elements and meanings as opposed to the categories valued in the eighteenth-century. In this respect, “the real history of ‘Gothic’ begins with the eighteenth century,” when it signified a “barbarous,” “medieval,” and “supernatural” past (Longueil, 1923, 453–4). Used derogatively about art, architecture, and writing that failed to conform to the standards of neoclassical taste, “Gothic” signified the lack of reason, morality, and beauty of feudal beliefs, customs, and works.

The projection of the present onto a Gothic past occurred, however, as part of the wider processes of political, economic, and social upheaval: emerging at a time of bourgeois and industrial revolution, a time of Enlightenment philosophy and increasingly secular views, the eighteenth-century Gothic fascination with a past of chivalry, violence, magical beings, and malevolent aristocrats is bound up with the shifts from feudal to commercial practices in which notions of property, government, and society were undergoing massive transformations. Along with these shifts, ideas about nature, art, and subjectivity were also reassessed. “Gothic” thus resonates as much with anxieties and fears concerning the crises and changes in the present as with any terrors of the past.

The rejection of feudal barbarity, superstition, and tyranny was necessary to a culture-defining itself in diametrically opposed terms: its progress, civilisation, and maturity depended on the distance it established between the values of the present and the past. The condensation, under the single term “Gothic,” of all that was devalued in the Augustan period thus provided a discontinuous point of cultural consolidation and differentiation.

With the publication of ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764), “Gothic” also emerges as a critical term (Longueil, 1923, 453–6). And fiction, as a fabricated history, appears as a crucial condition of this emergence. Horace Walpole’s novel, the first “Gothic story,” introduces many of the features that came to define a new genre of fiction, like the feudal historical and architectural setting, the deposed noble heir and the ghostly, supernatural machinations. Walpole’s two prefaces also allude to work of antiquarians with which he was familiar: the “translator” of the story claims it was printed in Gothic script in Italy in 1529 but originates at the time of the Crusades.

According with one theory of the origin of romances promoted by antiquarians, the historical background is used to defend the text against contemporary accusations that it may encourage error and superstition: such beliefs are appropriate to the dark ages in which they were written (Walpole, 1982, 3–4).2 The need to judge romantic and feudal productions according to their own, rather than classical, rules of composition had been advanced by writers like Richard Hurd a few years earlier.

Hurd’s ‘Letters on Chivalry and Romance’ (1762) also follows antiquarians in locating Shakespeare within a native, Gothic tradition. Not only are the dramatic force and the supernatural and mysterious devices of this recovered imaginative genius of English poetry used by Walpole, but he is proffered as an exemplary literary figure in the second preface to the story.

The literary and fictional background to the Gothic revival is clearly manifested as an artificial or fabricated aesthetic phenomenon. Jerrold Hogle notes how ‘The Castle of Otranto’ is embroiled in various levels of counterfeiting: a fake translation by a fake translator of a fake medieval story by a fake author, the novel turns on a false nobleman unlawfully inheriting both title and property through a false will and attempting to secure a false lineage through nefarious schemes.

The centrepiece of the story, too, is fabricated from a fake Gothic castle. Strawberry Hill, Walpole’s country house in Twickenham, was designed as a Gothic edifice and built using a variety of architectural and decorative styles, which, Hogle notes, “divorces artefacts from their foundations” and thereby separates substance from representation (Hogle, 1994, 23– 5).

Diane Ames notes the literary and fantastic basis of Walpole’s construction: “this whimsical congregation of analogies is not an attempt at archaeological truth in the manner of nineteenth-century Gothic buildings, which failed to achieve it. At Strawberry Hill there are no failures, only fictions.” The building, moreover, was composed using “artificial materials,” like papier-mâché (Ames, 1979, 352–3). Indeed, the priority of representations over actuality is evinced in two anecdotes about Strawberry Hill: in one, Mrs. Barbauld is reputed to have arrived at the house asking to see the castle of Otranto; in the other, Lady Craven is said to have sent Walpole a drawing of the castle of Otranto in Italy. He, however, denied all knowledge of this building, claiming to have taken the “very sonorous” name from a map alone (Summers, 1931, 79).

The artificiality that surrounds the historical and cultural origins of Gothic productions remained a site of both criticism and emulation in the course of the eighteenth-century. Old romances, ballads, and poetry, recovered by scholars like Percy, and decaying, medieval ruins were perceived in a new and more favourable light as sombre but picturesque and sublime additions to cultural and natural landscape.

The new taste for productions of the Gothic ages also found an outlet in numerous fabricated artifacts from the past: James Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’ (1760) was the most famous work of fake Scottish antiquity, but eighteenth-century poetic appeals to the spirit of the Celtic bards were common in the works of Thomas Gray, William Collins, and Joseph Warton. Ruins, too, sprang up across the countryside to decorate the gloomier or more rugged corners of estates, while Walpole and William Beckford, at Fonthill Abbey, built their own Gothic mansions.

The taste is satirised neatly in an exchange from ‘The Clandestine Marriage’, a drama by Colman and Garrick: a rich merchant, showing an aristocratic guest around his estate, remarks of some ruins that “they are reckoned very fine ones too. You would think them ready to tumble on your head. It has cost me a hundred and fifty pounds to put my ruins in thorough repair” (Summers, 1931, 80).

The emphasis on the cost of the ruin and the respective status of host and guest signal the cultural and commodity value of this relic of a feudal past within the commercial world of the eighteenth-century: rather than inheriting wealth in an aristocratic manner, the merchant has bought his property from the profits of trade, and along with it the ruin of feudal practices as well. In restoring the ruin, moreover, the merchant not only displays the supersession of an economy based on land ownership by that of commerce and the mobile property of credit, but proudly displays it as a sign of his fabricated continuity with the past.

The history in which Gothic circulates is a fabrication of the eighteenth-century as it articulates the long passage from the feudal orders of chivalry and religiously sanctioned sovereignty to the increasingly secularized and commercial political economy of liberalism.

“Gothic” functions as the mirror of eighteenth-century mores and values: a reconstruction of the past as the inverted, mirror image of the present, its darkness allows the reason and virtue of the present a brighter reflection.

In Foucauldian terms, this version of the Gothic mirror operates utopically as “the inverted analogy with the real space of society” (Foucault, 1986, 24). Hence, the mirror, a “placeless place,” enables self-definition through “a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself” and produces a sense of depth and distance in “the virtual space that opens up behind the surface” (24).

The utopic mirror of eighteenth-century Gothic history, however, not only delivers a sense of discontinuity through inversion and distancing, but also allows for a perfected reflection, an idealization of elements of the past and the establishment of a continuity with the present: here the myth of the Goths appears as a “product of fantasy invented to serve specific political and emotional purposes” (Madoff, 1979, 337).

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