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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 17, février 2000

After Romantic Ideology

Sous la direction de Michael John Kooy

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005901ar

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David Punter, Gothic Pathologies: The Text, the Body and the Law. Houndsmills: Macmillan Press, 1998. ISBN: 0-333-65802-7. Price: £47.50 (US$65).

Steven Bruhm

Mount St. Vincent University


1

David Punter's Gothic Pathologies: The Text, the Body and the Law is a rich work of critical bricolage. Part Zizek and psychoanalysis, part neo-Jungian myth-study, and part materialist historicism, the book meditates on a wide range of Gothic texts in an attempt to develop two projects. The first of these projects is a theory not just of the Gothic but of modern textuality: Punter sees the Gothic as the perfect field for considering the relationship between textuality and loss, a "textuality as loss" (p. ix) where "loss" is meant both historically and psychoanalytically. "[I]n the context of the modern," Punter writes, "Gothic is the paradigm of all fiction, all textuality" (p. 1) in that the Gothic foregrounds the loss of history (through its fictional recapturing, which is also a fictional replacement) and the loss of the readerly self, since the same signifying laws that encode/displace history encode/displace the centrality of the reader's being. To this Punter links his second project, a politics of Gothic that would utilize its paradoxes for some sort of social change. He educes from the Gothic "an experience of friction, of homelessness, of disanimation which encourages a notion of animation on a 'different' site . . . which might involve accepting different depths, different sinkages, [and] which would produce in us a sense of a root of soul" (p. 220). This "sense" of root of soul—different from the Christian humanist soul—engages us in a complex, nuanced theory of otherness, one which Gothic Pathologies then links to political—through ontological—change.

2

To show us what is at stake in this complexity, Punter locates the Gothic within a number of intersections. One is the body. In his reading, the body is vulnerable, fragile, and subject to dissolution—as is the body in psychoanalytic fantasy or desire—and at the same time excessive and inchoate, proliferative, with too many significations. It is the always already traumatized Oedipal body whose unspeakable threat of loss paradoxically produces overdeterminations, significations we read as desire. This overdetermined body is part of another intersection, another signification: the body in the Gothic is also ubiquitous and inescapable; it is always there for the law to work on, yet it is also always there before the law, prior to it. The body is that upon which the law must work but also from which the law, as a regulatory machine, takes its mandates (the body, in other words, tells the law what it must arraign). But given this dense, complex set of meanings attached to the body, the law which acts upon it is no simple agent either. It is equally intersected. On the one hand, the law is an ungrounded tautology—"the law is the law; and it is so because that is the law" (p. 43)—an agency requiring no external authorization, no founding body, but rather works by citing its own authority; the law has no "natural" power (thus Judith Butler's discussion of the law's "citationality" in Bodies that Matter). [1] On the other hand, power in Punter's definition has "real" effects in that it "will contain the world of order and consign the rest of experience to the dark places and the wilderness" (p. 44). The law stabilizes chaos, and can do so only if it stabilizes bodies—that is, if it imagines bodies in abstraction, permitting no differences between them, differences for which it would have to adjust itself and thus fracture its power as law. In order to work on the body, then, the law must disavow it, reduce and deny its complexities of signification. But by a psychoanalytic and deconstructive logic (the primary methodology of Gothic Pathologies), Punter argues that this disavowal of the body, of desire, renders the body all the more dangerous and uncontrollable; it produces of the body ghosts who are always before or beyond the law. Thus, the intersections of the Gothic that reticulate power— demonstrated by the law's cruel and tyrannical exercizes (and exorcizes) upon the body—in the end dramatize how the law paradoxically sets up the conditions for its own frustration.

3

Gothic Pathologies is not a book of close textual readings; the reader looking for sustained analyses of this or that narrative will be disappointed. However, a couple of Punter's readings can clearly illustrate the complex usefulness of the argument I have just summarized. For example, there is the case of Percy Shelley's early novel Zastrozzi (1810). Here power operates on the body by way of the hero Verezzi whom the text forbids to look upon his arch-rival Zastrozzi and Zastrozzi's villainous consort Matilda. Punter reads this as a kind of traumatic primal scene: the ingenuous youth cannot gaze upon the adult lovers the way a child cannot bear to think of the inaugural moment of sexual law-making. The result in both Gothic hero and child is repression, and in Verezzi's case a kind of numbness or somnabulism that carefully harbors a secret of which even he is not aware. As for the paternal Zastrozzi, he takes up that contradictory position that Punter wants to underline in the Gothic: as a purveyor of the law, Zastrozzi is both the figure of order and limit (the "thou shalt not") and the monstrous, deformed avatar of chaos and dissolution. He is both the law and its thorough destruction; or better yet, he is the law as destruction. And the effect of this Oedipal primal scene, Punter argues, haunts the Gothic from the late eighteenth century to the contemporary moment of Stephen King and Robert Bloch. This haunting takes the form of yet another paradox in which, on the one hand, the good guys win, we are safe, and bourgeois values triumph; while on the other hand we continually attempt to reassert our presence (arguably the bourgeois project) as we are continually haunted by absences, and imprisoned by a past primal scene that must (and cannot be) returned to and which can only be repetitively re-visited in the future. We must forget that which we are compelled to remember if we are to mature, that is, if we are to take up our position within the law. [2]

4

While one of the strengths of Punter's book is his keen eye for the destabilizing effects of moments such as the primal scene, he is elsewhere not immune to the lures of the law. In Gothic Pathologies, the Freudian primal scene initiates deconstructive aporias by inaugurating conflicts that are assumed to be specifically heterosexual ones: Verezzi, for example, is read as battling the father for the desirous affections of the mother (Matilda) while Stephen King's Kevin must abject the maternal in order to found his adolescent identity as a man. But we must not allow the Freudian spin on the primal scene to stabilize it too thoroughly, for there is no guarantee that the law will work only for the production of heterosexuality, however contested. In the King novella Punter analyzes (The Sun Dog of 1990), Kevin, like most of King's young male protagonists, imitates/identifies with the father in a way that is not only anti-Oedipal but is also actually wrapped up in a desire for the father's masculinity. [3] Indeed, the rival in this triangle is not Kevin's mother—who is all but absent from the tale—but Reginald "Pop" Merrill, an older man clearly in competition with the father for Kevin's affections, his energies, the dark side of his body, and whose nickname "Pop" purposely foregrounds the problem of desire between father-figures and sons. As Punter only briefly acknowledges at the end of his book, the normative thrust of compulsory heterosexuality is by no means the only field upon which the law produces—and controls—desire; it also initiates a whole other dynamic of identity destabilizations. And there are number places where Punter might have taken this up: in Stephen King surely, but also in Frankenstein (the focus of Punter's chapter 3) or Robert Bloch's novel Psycho (chapter 8), whose Norman Bates is excessively homophobic for reasons never adequately explained, a Norman Bates who gets transmogrified into the film's queerly resonant Anthony Perkins character who says nothing of homosexuality one way or another.

5

Now I do not think David Punter should have included a queer reading of these Gothic narratives, that he should have written the book I would have written (the tacit thesis of so many book reviews). While I often find the Freudian project to exclude too readily the possibilities of queer frissons, I have also wanted to show how Punter's paradigms can be lifted out of their context and applied to other modes of criticism. The queer texts above clearly betray the fascination with a homoerotic scene whereby the law of compulsory heterosexuality is transgressed, but this resisted law ultimately returns to establish its order through the dissolution of the other's body and ego—through death (as in the case of Victor Frankenstein and the creature [perhaps], through a symbolic death by ego-displacement (as in Norman Bates, who "becomes" his mother), or through the sheer mundane process of maturation (Kevin in The Sun Dog) where the boy grows up and happily (?) takes his place in the heterosexual matrix. Thus does Punter tacitly refute the violently normalizing and delimiting thesis recently put forward by Chris Baldick and Robert Mighall that Gothic criticism has mindlessly sold out to bourgeois academic theories of disruption and subversion (a thesis that is itself an exercize in tyrannical law-making). [4] Punter does happily claim his place in the "transgression" camp—whose original pack leader was arguably the Marquis de Sade—but he pushes that hermeneutic further, resisting it on two fronts. First, any idea of transgression must be tempered by a consideration of reader projection, in which the fantasies (sometimes social, sometimes phantasmatic) of the reader invest themselves in and distort the workings of the law in any narrative. Second, and related, is the problem of anxiety that Gothic narrative produces between the body, with its spectrum of desires and engagements crying out for expression regardless of consequence, and the law, which not only curtails some desires but initiates others. The Gothic invites the reader into a sympathy with the devil (the monster, the tyrant, the historical ghost, the queer) but then checks that sympathy with an imperative to respect the law, even though that "respect" is dis-respectful, generating cruelty and violence in another place. The law disavows bodily pleasure, but more importantly—and here is Punter's intensely political engagement—it disavows the pleasure it takes in disavowing bodily pleasures.


 

Notes

[1]

Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York: Routledge, 1993) p. 107.

[2]

And here one thinks of the imaginary friend Tony's prediction for young Danny Torrance in Stephen King's The Shining: "You will remember what your father forgot" (Stephen King, The Shining [New York: Penguin, 1978] p. 420).

[3]

Stephen King, The Sun Dog in Four Past Midnight (New York: Penguin, 1990) pp. 581-732. For a fuller discussion of the problem of father-son desire, see my "On Stephen King's Phallus, or The Postmodern Gothic", Narrative 4.1 (January 1996): 55-73; and "Picture This: Stephen King's Queer Gothic", Blackwell Companion to the Gothic, ed. David Punter (Oxford, GB: Blackwell, 1999) pp. 269-80.

[4]

Chris Baldick and Robert Mighall, "Gothic Criticism", Blackwell Companion to the Gothic pp. 209-28.

Auteur : Steven Bruhm
Ouvrage recensé : David Punter, Gothic Pathologies: The Text, the Body and the Law. Houndsmills: Macmillan Press, 1998. ISBN: 0-333-65802-7. Price: £47.50 (US$65).
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 17, février 2000
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005901ar
DOI : 10.7202/005901ar

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