The Gothic as Camp: Queer Aesthetics in The Monk
This article investigates how and why the Gothic can be described as camp. Examining the ascription of ‘camp’ by Susan Sontag and others to describe the Gothic, it suggests that the Gothic is camp because it is queer. Moving away from a reading of camp as a style stripped of its queer meanings (in particular the reading of the Gothic as camp because it is ‘theatrical’, ‘hyperbolical’ or ‘artificial’) a reading of camp is offered that uses queer theory which questions the naturality and authenticity of gender. In particular, Fabio Cleto’s idea of how camp represents a crisis of reading the signs of naturality can be applied to the Gothic’s use of the supernatural. The queer valency of Gothic writing, especially in texts such as The Monk, emerges in how the body can be misinterpreted. In The Monk, the voice and the gaze as conduits of desire and phobia are those signifiers of the body that are shown to disturb a sex-gender binary and to provoke a crisis of reading. This anxiety about seeing and understanding desire in not-so-easily visible bodies (like the supernatural) connects to socio-cultural anxieties about how reading gender to read same-sex desire is unstable in the early nineteenth century. An overview of how queer helps us to understand why the Gothic is camp is offered, and then a specific analysis of where the camp effects occur in The Monk is provided through a close reading.
The dividing line seems to fall in the eighteenth century; there the origins of Camp taste are to be found (Gothic novels, Chinoiserie, caricature, artificial ruins, and so forth). But the relation to nature was quite different then. In the eighteenth century, people of taste either patronized nature (Strawberry Hill) or attempted to remake it into something artificial (Versailles). They also indefatigably patronized the past. Today’s Camp taste effaces nature, or else contradicts it outright. And the relation of Camp taste to the past is extremely sentimental.
Sontag 56, 57
The above quotation from Susan Sontag argues that Gothic novels of the late eighteenth century are one of the sources for the idea of a camp taste. Sontag’s identification of Gothic writing as camp provides a springboard from which we can ask how far Gothic writing is camp and in what ways. One way is by thinking about how camp is queer, especially in how the body and its (mis)interpretation are represented in Gothic writing. In using a queer theoretical approach, I wish to contribute to a shift of critical focus from how traditional Gothic writers’ sexualities are manifested in their fiction, to how Gothic writing self-consciously plays out the indeterminacy surrounding same-sex desire in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. I look at The Monk as an example of Gothic writing that might be legitimately described as camp.
How can queer be used to articulate what is camp about Gothic? Eve Sedgwick’s definition of queer provides a helpful understanding of what queer can mean. For Sedgwick it is “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (Sedgwick 8). Queer bodies and behaviour problematize the links between gender and sexuality as identity categories, and queer is inherently ambiguous and resistant to categorization or, for some, even definition. However, one shared aspect of queer readings is their attempt to illustrate those instances where the expectations and patterns of gendered behaviour are overturned or under pressure. One of the more recent tasks of queer theory has been to investigate how far queer might be used to describe historical and geographically specific cultures previous to queer theory’s usual orbit of twentieth-century culture. Robert Tobin provides a definition of how a queer reading can be applied to late eighteenth-century texts. He argues:
Queering the eighteenth century means wrenching it from established contexts in order to read it against the grain of traditional readings and dissolving the accreted interpretations that stifle or avoid those textual passages that do not lend themselves to orthodox readings. Such passages might often suggest a queer sexuality, that is to say, sexuality divergent from the assumptions of present-day heterosexual norms.
Queer is flexible enough to be applied to eighteenth-century and Romantic Gothic writing and is a useful noun to describe men in the late eighteenth century and Romantic period who experience and express sexual desire for other men in ways beyond existing and imposed identity categories, like “sodomite” or “homosexual”.
So how is queer connected to camp? Instances of where camp occurs in the Gothic are, I argue, necessarily queer. One of the most essential elements of camp is how it forces its subject (in this case the reader) to think about how gender is constructed through a discourse about the naturality of the body. Camp overturns and reverses the expected meanings of the body; it brings into crisis the idea of a gendered behaviour that is “natural” and which forms the subject’s identity. Along with Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler is one of the most influential theorists to articulate how queer works in this way. She exposes how gender is constructed as a substantive category through psychoanalysis and philosophy, but argues that gender is in fact an effect of contingent social laws and attributes:
In this sense, gender is not a noun, but neither is it a set of free-floating attributes, for we have seen that the substantive effect of gender is performatively produced and compelled by the regulatory practices of gender coherence. Hence, within the inherited discourse of the metaphysics of substance, gender proves to be performative—that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed....There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very "expressions" that are said to be its results.
Butler 24, 25
The implications of Butler’s argument for de-essentializing rigid gender categories based on a causal relation between sex and gender (i.e. male = masculine, female = feminine) helped to shape the notion of queer readings as they evolved in the 1990s. Queer desire and practice refuses to be aligned along any one axis of identity; it refuses the idea of a monolithic, coherent identity. Annamarie Jagose comments that Butler “argues that those failures or confusions of gender—those performative repetitions that do not consolidate the law but that are, ... nevertheless generated by that law—highlight the discursive rather than the essential character of gender” [emphasis added] (Jagosé 84, 85). Gothic writing is often camp and queer at the points of “failure” and “confusion” of the readability and intelligibility of gender “identity”. As an example one might concentrate on moments in Gothic writing that overturn a heteronormatively gendered association of the mind with masculinity and the body with femininity – for example where men are represented in bodily crisis or seem to be threatened by the figure of an unstable gender identity, and where women are rational and logical.
To return to the opening definition by Sontag, the argument that camp is queer might seem far removed from Sontag’s notes about camp. Nevertheless her observation that “Today’s Camp taste effaces nature, or else contradicts it outright” resonates with a queer viewpoint of how camp works. A queer praxis actively attempts to deconstruct and subvert a received order of meaning about gender and nature. However, camp itself is contested among cultural theorists, and it would be difficult to argue that there exists a unified consensus of what Camp is and how it works. Sontag’s essay has been criticized on several points. Mark Booth argues that Sontag’s multitude of examples drawn from across different cultures and her synchronic approach does not help to delimit what camp is: “Sontag has difficulty in finding examples of things that, according to her criteria, are not camp” (Booth 68). Booth argues that one should sort her examples into two different, but related “camps”: “Camp people and camp objects (that is to say objects made by and for camp people) might then usefully be distinguished from people and objects, which, although not intrinsically camp, appeal to camp people – we might call them camp fads and fancies” (Booth 68). Whether or not the novels of Walpole, Beckford and Lewis are intrinsically camp is difficult to decide, as one could make an argument in each case for a camp personality or sensibility. As I have argued above, I wish to work to a more precise definition of camp as a queer discourse in the Gothic. This definition is one that moves away from looking at the theatricalised effects of the Gothic to an understanding that camp can be defined as being about the misinterpretation of the signifiers of gender. It is co-incidental that the points of revelation which expose the act of misinterpretation are often characterized in theatrical terms, i.e. as readers we experience these scenes as examples of intense emotions in dramatic staged settings. Instead, camp is present in the Gothic in how the misinterpretation of the body is foregrounded and how the body changes the order of things, not least how gender and desire are perceived and understood.
In this respect, Fabio Cleto’s deconstructionist position on how camp is queer is particularly useful for a reading of campness in the Gothic. Cleto’s reading of camp is informed by a post-structuralist theoretical viewpoint of how there exists a slippage between language, meaning and interpretation. In deconstructionist terminology, as a signifier, camp’s implied referent is not always “homosexuality”, with an always and forever stable “gay” signified. As a result of this instability that exists in this gap, camp is therefore queer:
But ‘queer’ in its potentially queering value does not invest just gender, but semiotic structures at large, the signs of domination moving in concert with sexual and non-sexual hierarchies, and the constitution of self-alleged naturality and univocity of the sign, in its relations of signifier, signified and referent, ... we are doing nothing else than stabilising in a universally consensual (and “natural”) code a sign [i.e. camp] that works on the crisis of codes and signs, and through these, of the cultural hierarchies that are inscribed in all “naturality of signs”.
[emphasis added] Cleto 19
Gothic writing can therefore be read queerly in that it frequently represents a crisis of reading the “relations of signifier, signified and referent” particularly when reading gender and desire. This crisis is located in the (mis)interpretation of the signifiers of the body, such as the gaze and the voice, so that opposite meanings or intentions are deduced and gender positions are reversed. As Cleto argues “camp works by contradiction, by crossing statements and their possibility of being”(Cleto 29). In particular, the principal semiotic that is in crisis in Gothic writing, and which queers it, is how we read the characters’ encounters with the supernatural. Signs that we interpret as real, natural and masculine/feminine (one of Cleto’s “cultural hierarchies”) turn out to be false, supernatural or feminine/masculine; they become inverted. Cleto’s metaphor for how camp works uncannily evokes the settings of Gothic writing. According to Cleto camp is “a queer twisted discursive building, the site of an improvised and stylized performance, a proper-groundless, mobile building without deep and anchoring functions, a building devoid of stasis” (Cleto 9). This description could apply to every castle, monastery or prison we find in Gothic writing. In these sites, gender is both performed and collapsing. The performance of gender in Gothic writing is hyperbolic, to the extent that it can be read as theatricalized and exaggerated. As I will show with The Monk, the misinterpretation of the body, especially through the voice and the gaze, are central to how Gothic novels open up questions about the concept of gender itself. It is the reversal of these codes of gender that makes a reading of The Monk into a camp experience.
On a superficial examination, one possible explanation for Sontag’s assertion that the Gothic is camp is that The Monk engages in fetishizing Catholicism that has been defined as a characteristic of camp (Booth 68). There is no serious attempt in the novel at verisimilitude of the structure of the Catholic Church, its rituals, or the lives of its saints. Instead, the paraphernalia of excess in Catholicism (its iconography especially) is treated as a background against which an excess of passion can be safely played out. It is perhaps no co-incidence that Catholicism has often appealed to many writers who are either queer, or around whom suspicion circulates, and who have fashioned themselves as Catholic, like Beckford and Byron. Nevertheless, I would like to move away from this kind of reading of camp as a sensibility, or as a taste for the decorative and the frivolous. Camp can be a taste, and it is closely connected to a parodic and comic effect, but it runs a risk of losing its queer currency, while at the same time seeming to depend on reading the author’s sensibilities into the texts. Instead, I would like to suggest that the Gothic expresses an aesthetic of camp as queer, or what I would like to term “queer-camp”.
In queer-camp, the idea of a true, stable, and consistent gender identity is always questioned, and Gothic writing marks the beginning (or perhaps even continues) this phenomenon. One of the most important ways that The Monk is queer-camp is how the “truth” of gender, desire and identity is always precarious and their constructions put on show for the reader. Expectations and knowledge about these social phenomena are played with until the very end of the novel. Throughout the novel, there is a concern about the authenticity of the body. This is represented in the body’s misinterpretation and misrecognition, and the potential for meaning to be “crossed” between individuals. The body is also shown to appropriate an entirely different and usually opposite meaning. As I indicated at the outset, one of the origins of the word camp, is “to cross”. Where this happens most frequently is in the realm of the gaze, and perhaps not surprisingly in the supernatural. The supernatural works as a metaphor for exposing the constructedness of the discourse of naturalized behaviour including sex/gender roles and desires. Before looking at this, it is worth looking at how the gaze is set up as a prerogative of masculinity.
In the public space of the cathedral, the gaze is signified as both masculine and sexual. As Don Christoval implies to Lorenzo: “the prioress of St Clare, the better to escape the gaze of such impure eyes as belong to yourself and your humble servant, thinks proper to bring her holy flock to confession in the dusk” (30; ch.i; v.i). The male gaze is later understood to sexualize the “body” of the convent as the Prioress refuses entry to Lorenzo: “She was shocked at the very idea of a man’s profane eye pervading the interior of her holy mansion, and professed herself astonished that Lorenzo could think of such a thing” (180; ch.v; vol.ii). The narrator tells us that Ambrosio is afraid that his gaze upon the women in his congregation will betray his sexual desire: “In spite of her beauty, he gazed upon every other female with more desire; but fearing that his hypocrisy should be made public, he confined his inclinations to his own breast” (203; ch.vi; v.ii). At confession “the eyes of the luxurious Friar devoured their charms” (206; ch.vi; v.ii). The opening of the novel also tells us that “The Women came to show themselves, the men to see the women” (11; ch.i; v.i).
The above examples indicate that the male gaze is figured as a silent, but public means of communicating sexual desire for women. Unlike the women who put their bodies on display, the character of Antonia refuses the gaze by remaining veiled. When she does unveil, the narrator suggests that looking involves a process of distortion in which the body can take on an opposite effect or shape in the mind’s eye: “The several parts of her face considered separately, many of them were far from handsome; but when examined together, the whole was adorable” (15; ch.i; v.i). This instability of perception is developed thematically in The Monk; one interpretation of the body can be turned just as easily into its opposite. Raymond makes a similar observation about the face of Marguerite, the wife of the bandit Baptiste, in the subplot: “Her countenance had displeased me on the first moment of my examining it. Yet upon the whole her features were handsome unquestionably” (89; ch.iii; v.i). Looks and expressions can also be misread, as well as faces. Raymond observes that Marguerite “bore such visible marks of rancour and ill-will, as could not escape being noticed by the most inattentive observer” (100; iii; v.i). He misinterprets her personality from her looks and only learns the meaning of them when he finds out her husband is a bandit who wants to kill him. The misinterpretation of authenticity occurs through facial expressions or reading the “countenance” in the eighteenth century as happens between Raymond and Donna Rodolpha when Rodolpha declares that she loves him. Her misinterpretation of the return of Raymond's desire, although comic, has its darker underside as Raymond indicates:
The baroness had placed those attentions to her own account, which I had merely paid her for the sake of Agnes: and the strength of her expressions, the looks which accompanied them, and my knowledge of her revengeful disposition, made me tremble for myself and my beloved.
120; ch.iv; v.ii
This narrative about determining the authenticity of someone's identity exemplifies an eighteenth-century preoccupation with verifying social and sexual identities to preserve the hegemony of male-female relations. Considering how we might think about “queer-camp”, the novel plays with those male-female bonds and structures by showing how (on the level of surfaces at least) there exists the possibility for the appropriation of characteristics by both sexes. It calls into question the existing structure of gender relations and this perhaps forms a part of the novel's terror. The sartorial representations of the misinterpretation of the body's authenticity and desire, and the ability for gender characteristics to be appropriated, mark the camp aesthetic of the novel, beyond its more obvious hyperbole, theatricality and misogynistic humour. As Cleto argues, transvestitism is a mode of gender performativity that is inherent to the idea of camp in that it plays upon the possibility for misinterpretation (Cleto 24, 25). In terms of direct transvestitism, Matilda fulfills this role most clearly.
Matilda consciously performs as a young male novice, Rosario, in order to pass in the monastery and to seduce Ambrosio. As critical discussion has pointed out, up until the point at which Matilda crosses over into being a woman, the exchanges between Rosario and Ambrosio can be read as a confession of the silent pains of homoerotic attraction in an age of repression (Tuite, “Cloistered Closets” and Blakemore, “Black Mass”). When Rosario reveals, or moreover declares, that he is in fact Matilda, a woman, Tuite perceives this as a closure of what I would describe as the queer narrative of the novel. Tuite argues that from this point onwards the text bifurcates into two structures of sexuality: “From the moment at which homoerotic desire is buried under a tableau of heterosexual libidinal excess, two distinct sexual economies are generated within the text: one of orgiastic excess, and one repressed or marked by the operations of the closet. These are the conflicting dynamics that mark the circulation of hetero- and homosexual economies, respectively” (Tuite [n. pag.]). In fact, it is not so easy to separate out these economies. It is the “excess” or supplementary quality of the heterosexual economy which undermines its description as “heterosexual”. These qualities of excess point instead to something that is queer, perhaps because it is camp. This is just as true for the subplot of Agnes and Raymond, as it is for the outcome of Ambrosio’s desire for Antonia. But Matilda is something more than female and a transvestite. She/He is queer because her identity and sexual desires remain irreducible, and She/He is always performing. As Tuite rightly points out though “This unveiling is in fact not an unveiling but a re-veiling in female costume, one step in an ongoing transvestist game by the Devil” (Tuite [n. pag.]). Matilda poses knowing that he will be tempted to look at her while she sings: “Ambrosio dared to look on her but once: That glance sufficed to convince him, how dangerous was the presence of this seducing Object. He closed his eyes, but strove in vain to banish her from his thoughts” (71; ch.ii; v.i). When Ambrosio discovers that Matilda is “the exact resemblance of his admired Madona [Sic.]”, he “doubted whether the object before him was mortal or divine” (73; ch.ii; v.i).
After Matilda’s declaration, Ambrosio’s self-control is undermined and he is placed in a position of powerless indecision, “He found it impossible”, “He was incapable”, “He was irresolute” (60; ch.ii; v.i). He thinks of her as a man, “He remembered, the many happy hours which he had passed in Rosario’s society; and dreaded that void in his heart which parting with him would occasion” (60; ch.ii; v.i) [emphasis added]. Aware of this, Matilda is able to put on the clothing of Rosario, or use her body to deceive him that she is still the Rosario he loves: “She had resumed the character of the gentle interesting Rosario: she taxed him not with ingratitude.... Matilda saw, that she in vain attempted to regain his affections, yet she stifled the impulse of resentment, and continued to treat her inconstant lover with her former fondness and affection” (221, 222; ch.vii; v.ii). Matilda’s persuasiveness, her arguments to convince Ambrosio to pursue his desire are also an example of her performativity and how in the wider context of the novel, women who speak are a threat to the power of men. After Matilda informs Ambrosio that demonic forces are helping her, she questions him about his claim to salvation in a barrage of questions:
Are you then God”s friend at present? Have you not broken your engagements with him, renounced his service, and abandoned yourself to the impulse of your passions? Are you not planning the destruction of innocence, the ruin of a creature, whom he formed in the mould of angels? If not of daemons, whose aid would you invoke to forward this laudable design?
230; ch.vii; v.ii
Matilda’s language is characterized here by the use of imperatives and rhetorical questions common to political orators or lawyers. Trying to persuade him further to visit Antonia's house, Ambrosio replies : “Oh! cease, Matilda! That scoffing tone, that bold and impious language is horrible in every mouth, but most so in a woman’s (231; ch.vii; v.ii). The contrast between Matilda’s “tone” and “language”, and her sex is what disturbs Ambrosio the most. The signifying power of her discourse associates her with masculinity because of the ideological associations of rhetoric with political oratory. Her speech makes her queer because she crosses over into Ambrosio’s territory. The image of Ambrosio sermonizing in the Cathedral resonates beneath Matilda’s speeches. In Ambrosio's unconscious, she represents a parodic version of himself, engaging in an activity that defines his vanity, pride and his masculinity. Matilda exchanges positions with Ambrosio in terms of his “eloquence” (221; ch.vii; v.ii), so that he becomes like one of the cathedral crowd who reflects on the sermons that Matilda gives him. Her rhetorical questions and posturing prompts him to self-questioning:
But a few days had passed, since she appeared the mildest and softest of her sex, devoted to his will, and looking up to him as to a superior Being. Now she assumed a sort of courage and manliness in her manners and discourse, but ill calculated to please him, ... he found himself unable to cope with her in argument, and was unwillingly obliged to confess the superiority of her judgement, ... But what she gained in the opinion of the man, she lost with interest in the affection of the lover. He regretted Rosario, the fond, the gentle, and submissive; he grieved that Matilda preferred the virtues of his sex to those of her own; and when he thought of her expressions respecting the devoted nun, he could not help blaming them as cruel and unfeminine.”
200; ch.vi; v.ii [emphasis added]
Ambrosio’s observation of Matilda’s gender indicates how her behaviour challenges and perplexes his ideas of the qualities men and women should have. It is implied that he is attracted more to the effeminacy of “Rosario” than to the butch “Matilda”. Matilda reverses those qualities, and the narrator observes that she consciously manipulates the language of desire for her own ends when Ambrosio grows tired of her: “the soft melancholy of her countenance and voice uttered complaints far more touching than words could have conveyed” (221, 222; ch.vii; v.ii).
However, I do not think we can invest this character with the political implications that camp possesses for some queer theorists who conceive of camping as a politically agentive act. It is never overtly expressed or implied that Matilda wants to openly subvert the order of gender relations. Nevertheless, Matilda does reverse the sexualized dynamic of the gaze as a masculine prerogative. The narrator describes how she looks at Ambrosio in sexual terms: “her eyes flashed with a fire and wildness, which impressed the Monk at once with awe and horror” (228; vii; v.ii). Ambrosio later compares the “timid innocence” of Antonia’s eyes to the “wild luxurious fire” of Matilda’s (209; ch.vii; v.ii). Matilda also manipulates the male gaze against Ambrosio, so that she becomes dominant in the power dynamic. She has a portrait painted of herself in secret that Ambrosio gazes upon and mistakes as a reverential image. As Lisa Mulman points out, for Ambrosio: “Seeing, for him, becomes a material rather than an interpretive act, disorganized and tactile rather than ordered and normative” (Mulman 101). When Matilda tells him she has a magic mirror in which she can make Antonia appear, Ambrosio disbelieves her and she tells him, “Be your own eyes the Judge” (232; ch.vii; v.ii). Surface reflections become realities and vice versa, so that it is difficult to “know” who is real and who is imagined. She also conjures up the image of Lucifer as a beautiful angel that Ambrosio is mesmerized by. The novel’s self-consciousness about interpretation makes it “queer-camp” in so far as it suggests that a knowledge of how men and women desire the opposite or same-sex is not delimited or circumscribed. It is also queer because it suggests that the binaries of masculine/feminine, the dead/the living are reversible. The concept of a fixed identity is disrupted in the novel. Ambrosio does not judge or interpret the vision of Antonia as an illusion. He is presented as a victim to his sensory perceptions, to his sensibility, in the manner that Ann Radcliffe”s heroines are victims of spectres that turn out to be solid living flesh, or wax. The novel implies that to look and to desire can sometimes be dangerous if the recipient of the look then, in turn, uses the gaze against its agent. Matilda poses herself knowing that he will be tempted to look at her while she sings: “But though he indulged the sense of hearing, a single look convinced him, that he must not trust to that of sight.... Ambrosio dared to look on her but once: that glance sufficed to convince him, how dangerous was the presence of this seducing object. He closed his eyes, but strove in vain to banish her from his thoughts” (71; ch. ii; v.i).
When Ambrosio discovers that Matilda is “the exact resemblance of his admired Madona! [Sic.]”, he “doubted whether the object before him was mortal or divine” (73; ch.ii; v.i). Theodore, Raymond’s page, relates a false narrative of the sexualized male gaze being punished by looking upon a statue of the Madonna. Explaining why he wears an eye-patch to the nuns of St. Clare he describes a symbolic castration for indulging in his desire: “I shall penetrate you with horror, reverend ladies, when I reveal my crime! ... At the moment when the monks were changing her shift, I ventured to open my left eye, and gave a little peep towards the Statue. That look was my last!” (247; ch. viii; v.ii).
Whether reading the novel as camp imposes a twentieth-century view is a debatable point, but Cleto’s argument does have a resonance for how Matilda embodies a performative identity particularly through how she manipulates the iconographic figure of the Madonna:
Camp thus presupposes a collective, ritual and performative existence, in which it is the object itself to be set on a stage, being, in the process of campification, subjected (by the theatricalisation of its ruinous modes of production) and transvested. The subject is, in that very same process, objectified into a prop, a piece of theatrical furniture, a pure mask, dressing up with other intentions, or with an irreducible ambiguity of intentions.
This kind of subject also fits how Ambrosio assumes the identity of the chaste preacher in front of his congregation: “The better to cloak his transgression, he redoubled his pretensions to the semblance of virtue” (196; ch.vi; v.ii). Only we are permitted to “see” the theatricality of his performance, just as Matilda remains a presence whose intentions and motives are ambiguous and “irreducible”.
The text continually disrupts for readers and characters the facility to read and interpret the signs of male sexuality, by transforming what is believed to be authentic and true about identity into the deceptive and false, and vice versa. As I have shown with how the gaze works, there is an overarching narrative in the novel around the artificiality of “truth” being present in visible, tangible experience; this is frequently related to a language of desire. The ideology that men occupy a dominant position over women in relation to desire is dislodged in The Monk. More often than not, men are left in doubt as to the reliability of their experiences, with the implication that it is not always easy to distinguish a man from a woman or vice versa. This is especially present in the narratives of the dream experiences of characters. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick questions whether the terror caused by dreams in Gothic writing can be explained by latent, repressed drives and desires surfacing into the dreamer’s consciousness. She argues that it is the retrospective discovery that the dream or vision (that which is apparently at the surface level) might be just as real or “deep” that is disturbing: “the Gothic dream is, far more schematically than the place of live burial, simply a duplication of the surrounding reality. It is thrilling because supererogatory. To wake from a dream and find it true, that is the particular terror at which these episodes aim” (Sedgwick, Coherence 28). Although I would agree that in The Monk terror is intensified because the supernatural does turn out to be real and not illusory, terror is also a consequence of the isolation of witnessing what others are blind to. The novel dramatizes the condition of the male subject as a solitary witness to an identity that cannot be proved to be either authentic or false, or feminine or masculine. The language of desire that these instances of “witnessing” are couched in, suggests that we can read them as refracting a late-eighteenth century need to monitor the body and its sexual desires and practices. “I can see it myself but no one else can” is the cry of many a male Gothic subject. It may express fears about the invisibility of queer bodies and desires in the late eighteenth-century because they cannot be approximated to any one gender/sex easily.
This occurs predominantly with Ambrosio in the novel, who is an isolated witness to the gender-bending activities of Matilda. But it also occurs with Raymond in the sub-plot. Jerold E. Hogle has discussed how the novel is preoccupied with reversing the expectations of readers and character’s beliefs about objects they believe to be true and authentic, into fakes or “counterfeits”: “there is no level in The Monk that is not a fake and a faking of what is fake already .... all passionate desire in this book is really aroused, intensified, and answered by images more than objects or bodies, by signifiers (to use the Sausserean term) more often than signifieds or referents” (Hogle [n. pag.]). I would argue instead that desire is shown to be problematic by how in the gap between the signifier and its signified (that is between the language of the body and the body itself, or its gender and sex) there exists the possibility for desire to be misdirected and mistaken. The relation of masculinity to active sexuality, and femininity to passivity, is reversed in the novel, even if this is not presented as a particularly emancipatory or a positive reversal for femininity. The masculinity of the observing male is always undercut and threatened by images and/or bodies that destabilize the opposition of masculinity/femininity. Raymond’s elopement with Agnes/The Bleeding Nun in the sub-plot is a prime example of this. Raymond’s narrative is, we remember, designed to strike fear into its male recipient, Lorenzo, to whom he is narrating the experience while trying to rescue Agnes from the convent. When Raymond is eloping with Agnes (in disguise as the Bleeding Nun from the castle of Lindenberg) no trace can be found of Agnes when the coach crashes. He explains how others think him delusional because there is no evidence to verify his story: “No signs of the lady having appeared, they believed her to be a creature fabricated by my over-heated brain” (139; ch.iv; v.ii). Agnes’s description of the nun’s sexuality as schizophrenic and anarchic, is a terrifying and disruptive image to a patriarchal conception of female sexuality as domestic motherhood. Agnes’s account of where the legend originates from also implies it is a historical construct “tis the invention of much wiser heads than mine” (123; ch.iv; v.ii). It is also “handed down from father to son” (123; ch.iv; v.ii). It is not passed on from mother to daughter as an emancipatory symbol of female sexual rebellion. Narratives hostile to the transgressive female body, whose sexuality and desires are aggressive and violent, form a symbolic chain circulated by men. The “holy man” at the Castle of Lindenberg narrates her incestuous sexual desire to The Wandering Jew, who in turn narrates the story to Raymond who then narrates it to Lorenzo.
In addition to the terrifying prospect of others discrediting his experience as merely delusional, the haunting in the bedroom positions Raymond as physically and emotionally powerless before a woman who imitates him:
My blood was frozen in my veins. I would have called for aid, but the sound expired ere it could pass my lips. My nerves were bound up in impotence, and I remained in the same attitude inanimate as a Statue [….] there was something petrifying in her regard. At length, in a low sepulchral voice, she pronounced the following words.
“Raymond! Raymond! Thou art mine!
Raymond! Raymond! I am thine!
In thy veins while blood shall roll,
I am thine!
Thou art mine!
Mine thy body! Mine thy soul!”
Breathless with fear, I listened while She repeated my own expression.
140; ch.iv; v.ii [emphasis added]
It is the imitative act of the nun and her ritualistic performance of visiting him each night to watch him that can be described as camp. “Breathless” connotes a subject position traditionally associated with femininity – silence. The male gaze is appropriated by the nun and Raymond’s powerlessness is connoted by his “impotence”, which suggests his experience of emasculation. The nun also uses Raymond’s “own” words against him. Raymond now occupies the feminine position of silence that occurs earlier with Donna Rodolpha whom he gags when she threatens to out his plan. Gender positions have been reversed in the nun’s echo of his earlier declaration of love in pseudo-Faustian demonic terms. Raymond becomes physically weakened and has “frequent fainting fits” (141; ch.iv; v.ii). His sensibility begins to control his behaviour and he becomes “the prey of habitual melancholy”, recalling Ann Radcliffe’s heroines. This haunting also dramatizes the paranoid, persecuted male subject whose masculinity is threatened by the appropriative act of the nun’s gaze. For a queer reading, this episode can signify the fear experienced by the straight male at the gaze of a subject whose gender ambiguity and desire the rest of society is perhaps unable to readily perceive “The ghost was not even visible to any eye but mine” (143; ch.iv; vol.ii).
Describing the Gothic as camp may be precarious. It may appear quirky to think of the supernatural in Gothic writing as a constituent of camp, because we tend to associate the supernatural with the emotions of fear and terror. Camp is popularly conceived of as being fun. It is usually thought to be about frivolity, style and superficiality, and not terror (although monstrosity has a part to play in camp in how the monstrous draws our attention to the surfaces of bodies). Nevertheless, camp as it is viewed and understood by some queer theorists, can be perceived as culturally and politically subversive, whether intentional or otherwise. Its marginality is in a dialogical and provoking relation to the authorized, official and normative discourses of behaviour, particularly that of gender. I have suggested that we might reformulate the term “camp” to “queer-camp” to describe how the Gothic is camp. Queer-camp is how the Gothic is self-consciously aware of the potential for the misinterpretation of the body, deliberate or otherwise, and that this points to a knowing look at forbidden desire in a period of silence and invisibility. This misinterpretation often occurs around the gaze, the voice, and occasionally with disguise and transvestitism. The categories of masculinity and femininity are shown to be unstable and this is an aspect of what is queer about the Gothic. This queer-camp aesthetic, which is not always easy to articulate and is fleeting, feeds into the ambiguity of whether the Gothic is a politically conservative or a reactionary cultural form.
Several biographies use a model of the author’s hidden secret to discuss the relationship of Gothic to ‘homosexuality’ to ‘prove’ the sexuality of the writers. See for example, Mowl, Horace Walpole and William Beckford, MacDonald, Monk Lewis and McCarthy, Byron: Life and Legend. A recent issue of Romanticism-On-the-Net contains a series of essays that are devoted to queering several canonical writers in the Romantic period. In their introductory essay, Michael O’Rourke and David Collings observe the definitional parallels between Romanticism and queerness: “Like queer, Romanticism is always messy, excessive, overspilling historical and corporeal boundaries. Like queer, Romanticism is resistant to the impulsion of the part of critics to define it, pin it down, place a cordon sanitaire around it” (“Queer Romanticisms” para. 4).
Alexander Doty argues that “some of the most exciting deployments of “queer/queerness” are related to the word’s ability to describe those complex circumstances in texts, spectators, and production that resist easy categorization, but that definitely escape or defy the heteronormative”. Doty, Flaming Classics (7).
See O’Donnell and O’Rourke, Queer Masculinities.
I am not arguing that ‘queer’ should only be applied to men; it could of course refer to a desire between women, which resists the derogatory implication of ‘tribadism’.
Robert Miles has described the Gothic as camp, and notes that Sontag is the first to use the term camp to describe the Gothic: the work of all three [Walpole, Beckford and Lewis] displays a recurrent interest in theatricality, with ‘camp’, pastiche, role-playing, excess, and androgyny – in other words, with a self-dramatising self-fashioning’ (“Ann Radcliffe” 45).
Butler comments: 'The cultural associations of mind with masculinity and body with femininity are well documented within the field of psychoanalysis and feminism'. Butler, Gender Trouble, (12).
As an example of how the reversal of gender can be used for queer political purposes, at the 2003 Pride march in London protesters carried placards depicting photographs of the Zimbabwean Prime Minister, Robert Mugabe, dressed up in a tiara, make-up and earrings and renamed, ‘Roberta Mugabe, queen of tyranny’. Mugabe is notorious for his abuse of human rights, particularly those of gay men and women.
Booth argues that ‘Camp is primarily a matter of self-presentation rather than of sensibility’ (“Campe-Toi!” 67). Booth traces the origins and etymology of camp back to seventeenth-century France, especially the court of Louis XIV and Versailles where “se camper is to present oneself in an expansive but flimsy manner (like a tent), with overtones here of theatricality, vanity, dressiness and provocation” (“Campe-toi! 75). Interestingly, he makes a comparison between the character of Vathek in William Beckford’s Vathek and Louis XIV: “the fearsome eyes of Vathek in William Beckford’s Gothick novel, capable of knocking people backwards with just a glance, are the fabled eyes of Louis XIV” (Campe-Toi! 75, 76). The characterization of excess and vanity in the Gothic could be explored, particularly in novels like Vathek and The Monk, and how they fit a definition of camp along the lines of a knowing self-presentation in front of an unsuspecting audience.
Hanson observes “Matthew G. Lewis, Ann Radcliffe, and Charles Maturin may have been expert at eroticizing Catholicism for English readers, even representing it as a paranoid and insidious social force, but the literary phenomenon of a priest who buggers boys against their will was decidedly French”. See Hanson, Decadence and Catholicism (303, 304).
There is not space to do so here, but one could examine camp and the parodies of Gothic. However parody is differentiated from camp in that it deliberately intends its effects to be that of laughter. I do not believe that Gothic writing intends to ridicule Shakespeare because the borrowing from Shakespeare often seems to be a burlesque of his plots.
Grantley argues that with camp “what emerges is a powerful sense of the provisionality of all appearances as an attestation of identity, a provisionality which allows for dramatic playfulness in the process of self-representation” See Grantley, (‘ “What means this shew?” 224).
Several studies have documented the vigilance that existed in the late eighteenth-century over identifying sodomy and the climate of suspicion this created. See McCormick Secret Sexualities and Crompton, Byron and Greek Love.
Meyer attempts to reclaim camp as a specifically gay cultural discourse, but as Cleto points out, he merely reverses Sontag's binary of ‘naive’ and ‘deliberate’ camp. Meyer's definition of 'queer' is in fact a gay, white, middle class, twentieth-century male, not an identity that all queer theorists would agree defines queer. See Meyer The Politics and Poetics of Camp and Cleto (“Queering the Camp” 17).
Hogle comments on Rosario/Matilda as an example of counterfeiting that closes down the homoerotic overtones of desire: “As Walpole does in thus tracing and erasing his own sexual preference from his book, Lewis both acts out and conceals that kind of desire, flirting with but finally resisting any “coming out” in the monk’s pursuit of counterfeits that definitely turn out to be leads worth of social and superhuman punishment” Hogle, (“Ghosts of the Counterfeit [n.pag] ).
Blakemore, Stephen. “Matthew Lewis’s Black Mass: Sexual, Religious Inversion in The Monk.” Studies in the Novel 30 (1998): 521-539.
Brewer, William D. “Transgendering in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk.” Gothic Studies 6.2 (2004): 192-207.
Booth, Mark. “Campe-Toi!: On the Origins and Definitions of Camp.” Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader. Ed. Fabio Cleto. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999. 66-79.
Cleto, Fabio. “Introduction: Queering the Camp.” Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader. Ed. Fabio Cleto. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999. 1-42.
Collings, David and Michael O’Rourke. “Introduction: Queer Romanticisms: Past, Present and Future.” Romanticism on the Net 36-37 (November 2004 -February 2005) <http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/2004/v/n36-37/011132ar.html>.
Crompton, Louis. Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th Century England. Swafham: The Gay Men’s Press, 1985.
Grantley, Darryll. ‘ “What means this shew?” Theatricalism, Camp and Subversion in Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta.”Christopher Marlowe and English Renaissance Culture. Ed. Grantley, Darryll and Peter Roberts. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1996.
Hogle, Jerold E. “The Ghost of the Counterfeit—and the Closet—in The Monk.” Romanticism on the Net 8 (November 1997) <http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/1997/v/n8/005770ar.html>.
McCormick, Ian. Ed. Secret Sexualities: A Sourcebook of 17th and 18th Century Writing. London: Routledge, 1997. DOI:10.4324/9780203360316
Miles, Robert. “Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis.” A Companion to the Gothic. Ed. David Punter. Oxford: Blackwells Publishing, 2000.
Mulman, Lisa Noami. “Sexuality on the Surface: Catholicism and the Erotic Object in Lewis's The Monk.” Bucknell Review 42.1 (1998): 98-110.
O’Donnell, Katherine and Michael O’Rourke. Queer Masculinities: Siting Same-Sex Desire in the Early Modern World. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Tobin, Robert. Warm Brothers: Queer Theory and the Age of Goethe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
Tuite, Clara. “Cloistered Closets: Enlightenment Pornography, The Confessional State, Homosexual Persecution and The Monk.” Romanticism on the Net 8 (November 1997) <http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/1997/v/n8/005766ar.html>.
|Auteur :||Max Fincher|
|Titre :||The Gothic as Camp: Queer Aesthetics in The Monk|
|Revue :||Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 44, novembre 2006|
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