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Numéro 20, novembre 2000

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005944ar

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A Companion to the Gothic. Ed. David Punter. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. ISBN: 0 631 20620 5 (hardback). Price: £60.00 (US$124.95).

Douglass H. Thomson

Georgia Southern University


Gothic criticism now functions as a "Gothic" form of discourse in its own right, compelled to reproduce what it fails to understand.

p. 223

1

Chris Baldick's and Robert Mighall's provocative attack on the state of Gothic criticism cleaves a sharp divide among the many and various attempts to "understand" the Gothic in this collection of critical essays on the subject. With something like the bemused detachment of Henry Tilney warning Catherine Morland about the perils—and just plain silliness—of over-interpretation, Baldick and Mighall find most of twentieth-century Gothic criticism "radically misguided" (p. 209), prone to melodramatic misreading, and marred by an elitist contempt for bourgeois complacency and patterns of consumption. Although critics, they argue, wish Gothic "novels to be excitingly subversive or, failing that, to be scandalously reactionary, the sad truth is that they are just tamely humanitarian: they creditably encourage respect for women's property rights, and they imply that rape, arbitrary imprisonment and torture are, on the whole, a bad thing" (p. 227). Theirs is a supremely progressive approach to the Gothic, finding it more a product of than a protest against Enlightenment rationalism and an endorsement of "Protestant bourgeois values as 'kinder' than those of feudal barons" (p. 214). One can only conclude from the spirited essay that Baldick and Mighall would offer a somewhat negative review of the volume in which their essay on "Gothic Criticism" appears. For many of the essays in A Companion to The Gothic do find the Gothic "excitingly subversive" or "scandalously reactionary" in ways that allow interpreters to articulate the abject or monstrous other haunting modern paradigms of progress and sanity. Take as a prime example this observation from David Punter in his editor's "Introduction" to the volume: " . . . Gothic has come to serve as a kind of cultural threshold, or as a repertoire of images that fatally undercut the 'verbal compact' on which, among other things, the modern state rests" (p. xiv). Here, indeed, is high drama: the Gothic no longer as a genre but as a proliferating repertoire of images, fatally undermining the premise of the modern state, a perfect instance of how, according to Baldick and Mighall, "Gothic criticism now functions as a 'Gothic' form of discourse in its own right."

2

A Companion to the Gothic does not declare a victor in what Punter calls this "exemplarily ruinous debate" (p. xiv), but the collection does on a whole richly articulate the vital range of contemporary "Gothic Criticism," both its insights and excesses. Some of the essays provide support for Baldick's and Mighall's revisionist view of the Gothic as an essentially Enlightenment phenomena in the service of individual liberties, set against such familiar agents of repression as aristocratic decadence, medieval Catholicism, and superstitious-laden versions of chivalry and inherited rights. In "The Political Culture of Gothic Drama," David Worrall provides detailed documentation of how these still largely neglected plays give voice to "artisan radicalism" (p. 100) and a sharp, often delightfully raucous, plebian dissatisfaction with the ruling classes. Ian Duncan's chapter on Scottish Gothic perceptively demonstrates how Hogg's close association of Scottish identity with folk traditions of the uncanny and the supernatural serves to counteract "assimilation to Britishness," "cultural anglicisation," and Scott's hugely successful reworking, and eventual renunciation, of the Gothic to accomplish precisely those ends (p. 71). Robin Sowerby in "The Goths in History and Pre-Gothic Gothic" provides a needed philological grounding for this slippery term and discovers not just the usual negative connotations (the barbarian, wild, uncouth—in short, visigothic) but a "fierce sense of independence and manly virtue" (p. 24) serviceable in definitions of the national character. In his chapter on "Irish Gothic," Victor Sage, whose valuable Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition (1988) understandably escapes Baldick's and Mighall's censure (and which, not understandably given its command of the subject, rarely appears in American criticism on the Gothic), carefully studies how two outsiders of Huguenot heritage, Maturin and LeFanu, reflect the unsteady history of the "Protestant position in Ireland" (p. 81) in their intricate formal re-workings of conventions from the Gothic tradition. In "The Gothic Heroine and Her Critics," Kate Ferguson Ellis (whose The Contested Castle [1989] also meets with Baldick's and Mighall's approval) generally sides with Ellen Moers' reading of the Female Gothic as an empowering literature for women against the more skeptical accounts of Michelle Massé and Elisabeth Bronfen. [1] Some of the essays in this line of Gothic studies address subjects more resistant to the trenchantly demystifying, "enlightened" approach of Baldick and Mighall. William Hughes' "Fictional Vampires in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries" (are their non-fictional ones we should know of?) tries mightily to follow Mighall's curious insistence that " a vampire is sometimes only a vampire, and not a sexual threat" (p. 147) but is largely unconvincing in its attempt to desexualize this Gothic predator—indeed, Hughes' concluding section on the homoerotic dimension of contemporary vampire literature suggests otherwise. Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik in their chapter "Comic Gothic" raise a strangely neglected issue of the too seriously treated genre noir, which has, after all, been the object of parody from its very inception. But we will have to wait on their book for a study of parody (as their note informs us), and they offer instead a perilously sanitized reading of how comic effects in du Maurier's Trilby (1894) work to mollify its anti-Semitism and homosexual paranoia. What might have been a perfect context for the Baldick-Mighall thesis, affording the light response of comic recuperation to the Gothic's more ponderously dark interpreters, thus goes largely unrealized.

3

One leaves these mainly British readings with a comfortable sense that the Gothic is not that strange of a thing after all: it tactically uses conventions of the supernatural to explore issues of national identity; knowingly advances the agenda and aspirations of a progressive and Protestant bourgeois; and saves its fiercest stigmatization for those forces opposed to progress. But many of the essays in A Companion to the Gothic begin with a by now more familiar and very different premise: the Gothic as a reservoir of disturbing images that undermine Enlightenment ideals, express the deepest fears of the emerging bourgeois (especially in terms of sexuality), and haunt modern myths of progress. While Baldick and Mighall find the recurrent notion of "fear and trembling in the bourgeois psyche" largely an invention of the "Whiggish melodrama of modernity in conflict with the dark age of Victorian repression" (p. 224)—"there is no evidence that [the middle class] sleeps less soundly after curling up with a titillating anthology of vampire tales" (p. 226)—contributors like Glennis Byron in her "Gothic in the 1890's" reach the opposite conclusion: "the transgressive monsters of Victorian fin de siècle" ("all" of who embody Kristeva's sense of the abject) "confront the reader with the spectacle of dissolution [and] repeatedly challenge the stability and integrity of the human subject" (p. 141). Her study of beast people, shape-changers, and doppelgängers in the fiction of Stevenson, Wilde, Machen and Wells convincingly demonstrates that "late Victorian Britain had become all too aware of the dark side of progress" (p. 132) and that scientific attempts to fix the limits between "normal" and "deviant" ontology were subject to terrifying reversals. Byron's and other essays in this line suggest that the Baldick-Mighall argument, while bracingly corrective, is too monolithic in the broad strokes of its polemic. This is especially apparent in Lloyd-Smith's solid essay on "Nineteenth-Century American Gothic" (Baldick and Mighall largely ignore the U.S. version), which concludes

The shadow of patriarchy, slavery and racism, as of Puritan extremes of the imagination and the political horror of a failed utopianism, fall [sic] across these works of American Gothic and direct its shape towards a concern with social and political issues as well as towards an angonised introspection concerning the evil that lies within the self.

p. 120

Heid Kaye's "Gothic Film" similarly discusses how the pliable cinematic adaptations of the Gothic's Big Three (the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, and Hyde) serve as registers of social upheaval, "embodying modern fears such as alienation, the horrors of war and sexually transmitted disease" (p. 185); especially lively is her likening of the Karloff monster's death leap to that of King Kong and, further referentially, to those of "Wall Street financiers after the stock market crash" (p. 185). And even when some of the more postmodern of the approaches verge on the "excitingly subversive," they yet convince. Steven Bruhm offers a very persuasive outing of "Stephen King's Queer Gothic" in his reading of The Shining. Gina Wisker's "Love Bites: Contemporary Women's Vampire Fictions" exuberantly celebrates recent literary femmes fatales, finding their "radical critique . . . reinvests the erotic with explosive critical power and valorises rather than demonises women's sexuality" (p. 177). These may be subversive readings, but one finds in them only a little of the melodrama and angst of which Baldick and Mighall complain; instead, Bruhm and Wisker emphasize the liberating potential of the ways contemporary writers refashion traditional Gothic tropes and characters.

4

That particularly modernist angst and postmodern focus on abjection is left to three of the more theoretically daunting of the essays in the Companion: Scott Brewster's "Seeing Things: Gothic and the Madness of Interpretation;" Punter's own "Shape and Shadow: On Poetry and the Uncanny;" and Jerold E. Hogle's "The Gothic Ghost of the Counterfeit and the Progress of Abjection." Brewster proceeds from the oft-noted observation that Gothic texts generate "an excess or overabundance of interpretation"—in his reading of Dracula, "an interpretative feeding frenzy"—to argue that Gothic texts "unground readerly authority" and bring the reader to the brink of madness: "Reading Gothic, we compulsively interpret random signs, haunted by the possibility that we may be deluded, that we have not seen enough or have seen too much" (pp. 285, 287, 291). Haunting is very much the theme of Punter's very deconstructive but strangely lyrical essay, in which Gothic poetry appears as a kind of elegiac trope for all attempts to make meaning of things: the Gothic uncanny "makes us feel that as readers we are not what, or where, we are supposed to be, that we are forever obstructed by the foreignness of language, even 'our own' language. Thus in every story we hear, in every poem we read, we experience also a haunting" (p. 203). The career of Punter perhaps (to use his favorite word) best represents the movement from traditional to deeply theoretical accounts of the Gothic, as he has proceeded from the tentative historical and conceptual framework of his still seminal The Literature of Terror to readings complexly grounded in deconstructive poetics (see among many recent examples his entry on "Terror" in Mulvey-Roberts' The Handbook to Gothic Literature [1998]). The writer leading the way to this New Gothic Criticism is Jerrold E. Hogle, who in his Companion essay returns to his familiar idea of "Gothic Counterfeit" to offer an amazingly ambitious essay in which this trope enables a reading of literary history from the middle ages to the present—and in which the slippages and simulacra characteristic of the trope allow him to subordinate and organize all of the conceptual approaches to the Gothic, especially psychoanalytic and materialist (two approaches very much at odds throughout the Companion):

By allowing such an emphatic conflation of beliefs and interplays of feeling, where ideologies and their symbols pull in different directions at once, Gothic fiction, with its ghosts of counterfeits, becomes a site into which widely felt tensions arising from this state of culture can be transferred, sequestered, disguised, and yet played out.

p. 296

One assumes that Baldick and Mighall would be sharply critical of these essays' appropriation of the Gothic to enact the high theoretical drama of late modernist poetics. But the essays ably represent the trinity of continental critics whose theory has recently complicated Gothic studies (Foucault in Brewster, Freud and his uncanny in Punter, Kristeva in Fogle). Furthermore, they provide a necessary point of reflection on the exponential growth of Gothic Criticism in the last two decades, which certainly has evinced "an excess or overabundance of interpretation."

5

Fortunately, the Companion does offer an essay whose breadth of critical insight comprehends and places in perspective the varying approaches of the volume. Fred Botting's "In Gothic Darkly: Heterotopia, History, Culture" begins the first section of the Companion, "Gothic Backgrounds," but in many ways provides a more effective overview of the volume than Punter's "Introduction" does. [2] Relying upon Foucault's notion of a heterotopia as a "counter-site" which can read in normative and utopian narratives how the "real sites of culture are 'represented, contested, inverted'" (p. 9), Botting can effectively study the contested site of the Gothic as both representation and inversion of history. From this generous viewpoint, which makes its case not through recent theory but through the abundantly contested site of its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century context (Hurd, Blair, Young, Sade, Matthias and others), we find that, on the one hand, the Gothic was read as 1) middle-class opposition to the "Oriental," an index for aristocratic abuse and decadence; 2) an evocation of chivalric ideals and a native past against the godless Jacobins; and 3) a figuring forth of the sublime that will be appropriated and elevated into high culture by the Romantic poets. On the other hand, historical accounts demonstrate clearly that the Gothic could yield, roughly respectively, the following antitheses: the Gothic as 1) a dangerous departure from realism and its Johnsonian moral aesthetic; 2) a metaphor for revolutionary excess (in Matthias and Sade especially); and 3) a scary indicator of a new, ravenous, and indiscriminant reading public. The Gothic is all these things, and the heterotopia of its first revival provides, in Botting's wise essay, an illuminatingly "dark mirror" for understanding the contested ground of its latest revival today.

6

In his essay on Radcliffe and Lewis (also in the "Backgrounds" section), Robert Miles provides the best exegesis of Botting's line of argument in contrasting the ways these seminal figures of female and male Gothicism foreground the interests of more recent critical theory: " . . . early female writers of the Gothic are primarily interested in rights, for their class, their sex, and often both together; whereas the early writers of the male Gothic are more absorbed by the politics of identity. . . . [T]he trajectories of the two strands take us, critically, to feminism and queer theory" (p. 45). Reading Botting's and Miles' judicious accounts in relation to Baldick and Mighall's more hard-line approach is instructive. Both "background" essays acknowledge a progressively bourgeois thrust to Gothic engagements with economic and gender issues, but both also insist upon its subversive power. For example, Miles perceptively reads The Monk as undermining " the system of justice that relies upon notions of fixed identity, upon standards of truth capable of distinguishing the natural from the unnatural" (p. 54).

7

The remaining essays to be briefly discussed follow Botting's line in "gathering" rather than in privileging critical perspectives—they are more of what one expects in terms of Companion-ship—but their very lack of edginess might disappoint some readers coming from their more thesis-driven counterparts. Clive Bloom's "Horror fiction: In Search of A Definition" is just that: a search that begins with the cryptic commentaries left to us by horror writers on their own craft, proceeds to Freudian and neo-Freudian explanations of this literature's hold on us, and ends in purposeful paradox, contrasting Stephen King's insistence on its conservative nature ("as Republican as a banker in a three-piece-suit") with Whitley Strieber's view that the genre "is the essential fiction of rebellion in modern times" (p. 165). Bloom, editor of the collection of essays Gothic Horror (1998), provides a valuable gathering of critical perspectives on "literature's own revenant genre" (p. 166) and lets the reader decide. So, too, does Julia Brigg's entry on "The Ghost Story," although one might question as too exclusive her assertion that ghost stories are "partly characterized by the fact that their supernatural events are left unexplained" (p. 123). Neil Cromwell's "European Gothic" overviews its dispersal across late eighteenth- and nineteenth century French, German, and Russian literatures. Lucie Armitt studies the Gothic's more recent dispersal and transmutation among such Magic Realist authors as Rushie, Allende, Patrick McGrath, and Iain Banks. Michelle MassŽ in "Psychoanalysis and the Gothic" charts three phases in Freud's developing idea of psychoanalysis ("Elements," "Structures and Themes," and "Systems") and tracks a similar evolution in the movement of Gothic criticism from interior readings to more intertextual and political interpretations. And Nora Crook's essay on Mary Shelley wisely, given the Frankenstein industry of the past few decades, also rests content with gathering the many complementary and conflicting approaches to Shelley's Gothic canon. The continuing story of "The Modern Prometheus" and its critics surely represents, in Botting's formulation, a heterotopia if ever there was one.

8

The obvious value of Punter's A Companion to the Gothic is its wealth of critical approaches—from good, old-fashioned "history of ideas" readings to the most sophisticated of recent theory. Indeed, it should more aptly be entitled "A Companion to the Gothic Criticism," given its emphasis on recent critical trends instead of the encyclopedic approach and organizing of primary bibliography typical of "Companions" (the volume only spottily discusses minor writers of the first Gothic phase and contains no general bibliography but does have an adequate index). The "exemplarily ruinous debate," as Punter calls it, that runs through the volume might suggest a cresting of the remarkable outpouring of recent Gothic studies and revisionings. But do not count on it. In its interweaving of various Gothic revivals, Punter's A Companion to the Gothic both exemplifies and helps explain the recent huge resurgence of critical interest in this once (but it now seems so long ago) maligned and marginal genre.


 

Notes

[1]

Ellen Moers, Literary Women: The Great Writers (New York: Doubleday, 1977); Michelle Massé, In the Name of Love: Women, Mascochism, and the Gothic (Cornell University Press, 1992); Elisabeth Bronfen, "Hysteria, Fantasy, and the Family Romance." Women's Writing: The Elizabethan to the Victorian Period 1 (1994): 171-80.

[2]

The Companion contains five sections: I. "Gothic Backgrounds;" II. The 'Original' Gothic;" III. "Nineteenth- and Twentieth- Century Transmutations;" IV. "Gothic Theory and Genre;" and V. "The Continuing Debate." But while the logic governing placement of individual studies in the primarily historical sections is fairly clear, some contributions seem a bit random in their assignation. Fogle's essay is in V but does not really "debate" anything and seems a perfect fit for IV ("Gothic Theory"); Punter does read some poems of Hardy and Plath, but his essay seems more suited to IV or V. Perhaps a quibble—but the volume's uncertainty on this score does reflect the Companion's overall uncertain positioning of historical and theoretical accounts of the Gothic.

Auteur : Douglass H. Thomson
Ouvrage recensé : A Companion to the Gothic. Ed. David Punter. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. ISBN: 0 631 20620 5 (hardback). Price: £60.00 (US$124.95).
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 20, novembre 2000
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005944ar
DOI : 10.7202/005944ar

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