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The Ghost of the Counterfeit—and the Closet—in The Monk

  • Jerrold E. Hogle

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  • Jerrold E. Hogle
    University of Arizona

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When Robert Miles in his book Gothic Writing rightly sees a "pattern of false leads" [1] in Matthew Lewis' The Monk , he doesn't tell the half of it. Like others who have recognized the same motif, he doesn't expose how far or how deep that pattern goes—or enough about why it arises —within the novel or in its literary, economic, and cultural foundations. [2] In point of fact, there is no level in The Monk that is not fake and a faking of what is fake already. It is not just that the abbot Ambrosio falls in lust with the picture of the Virgin in his cell [3]and that the picture turns out to be a portrait of Matilda, the succubus who comes to him in her own succession of deceptive veils, starting with that of the boy-novice Rosario. [4] It is also, in the first place, that 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. Ambrosio shifts his lustful desires from Matilda to Antonia only when he is "pursued . . . to his Cell . . . by Antonia's image" after hearing a petition from her in the Capuchin chapel, [5] and that shift becomes an actual pursuit only after Matilda has shown him another image: "the scene" of Antonia undressing in a magic "mirror of polished steel". [6] Don Raymond, in his turn within the novel's subplot, pursues the Agnes he loves first through the screen-figure of her mother, who views him as her lover all too readily, [7] and then behind the image of the Bleeding Nun visualized in a "drawing" at the Castle of Lindenberg, [8] the figure which finally appears to him as the "animated Corse" itself when he thinks he is fleeing Lindenberg with Agnes in a Bleeding-Nun disguise. [9]

Moreover, each such image appears as part of a surface, itself a set of deceptions, covering what turns out to be an even deeper and more hidden deception. By the end of The Monk , we find that even Matilda, not to mention all the different forms she takes, has been a false lead among a great many contrived and manipulated by Lucifer, himself a great shape-shifter, to entrap Ambrosio into such irredeemable sins as the rape and killing of Antonia, actually his sister, and the very sexual murder-in-bed of her mother Elvira, actually his own mother too. [10] On top of (or really beneath) all this, the "bedrock levels" of existence in this novel when all veils seem stripped away turn to out to be blatant textual allusions—parodic signifiers of other signifiers—as when Ambrosio slowly expires on a craggy riverbank during what is explicitly a seven-day inversion of the Creation in the Bible, [11] a "Genesis [in] reverse". [12]

Confronted as we are with all this fakery by Lewis, who even puts forward a crafted and crafty self-image in a verse Preface modelled on horace, [13] it is not enough for us to say 200 years later that The Monk simply shows the reduction of reality for Lewis to "textuality" and "appetitive surface" [14] or that the "world of The Monk is theatrical" at all points "because every word and act is a work of art, and every work of art a pretense". [15] We even stop too short if we rest, as several have, on Lewis' Anglican-Protestant castigation of the sensual artifice in Catholic icons and of what can happen when one accepts a Catholic script for existence that both includes such enticing figures and condemns the feelings they arouse. These readings of Lewis' book are accurate, but they do not fully explain the wider cultural and literary context that the novel plays out. After all, The Monk is the most extreme enactment up to 1796 of what the "Gothic Story," so named by Horace Walpole, could include and achieve particularly in its use of signs pointing to signs. Walpole's The Castle of Otranto in 1764, which Lewis quite directly echoes in his play The Castle Spectre in 1797, [16] began the so-called "Gothic" mixture of genres in earnest, especially when Walpole added that label in his Second Edition, [17] by presenting all the ghosts of past sins in his story as walking signifiers, the signs of fakes, from the spectre of a figure who steps out of a portrait (much as the Bleeding Nun will seem to for Raymond) to enlarged mobile fragments of an effigy that stands atop the tomb of Otranto's first Prince in the central crypt beneath the Castle. [18]

Even the "explained" Gothic ghosts in the novels of Ann Radliffe, whose rationalized sentimentality Lewis tries so hard to counter in The Monk , were usually, as in that wax corpse placed within a frame at Castle Udolpho, [19] the very sorts of deceptions that Lewis intensifies in his tale. They were portions of a general Radcliffean pattern [20] in which all perceived existence is "spectralized" in painted or ghostly representations that keep us from any real contact with a natural or physical "other." Though Walpole and Radcliffe are certainly as anti-Catholic as Lewis, they lead into The Monk by configuring all the referents of all words and images in their "Gothic" worlds as finally and blatantly counterfeits of a counterfeited life. Far more than actual people or objects, these signifiers recall the portraits of his father and uncle that Shakespeare's Hamlet shows his mother, using the term "counterfeit" to describe them, in the play that is the principal source for Walpole's "Gothic" and much of its immediate progeny. [21] What does it mean, then, that Lewis' deepest and ultimate levels of existence in The Monk are counterfeits in a Gothic tradition by then only three decades old—or that they are, more precisely, ghosts of what are already counterfeits from earlier textual sources that go at least as far back as Shakespeare? [22]

I want to argue that Lewis' daemonic novel has the shocking force in our culture that it still does, not because of the sexual license or the use of German sources in it so fervently attacked at the time, but because it enacts and thus partially exposes a particular cultural agenda of both its time and today that underlies and motivates what I call "the ghost of the counterfeit" in the rise of the Gothic during the later eighteenth century. This agenda is an ideological endeavor to fashion a viable selfhood for the class-climbing, mostly bourgeois person that employs hollowed-out signs of more antiquated Western power-centers (ghosts of counterfeits) as ways to market or "sell" the acquisative and uncertainly grounded self in an increasingly capitalist world verging on the full arrival of mechanical reproduction. As Andrea Henderson and E.J. Clery have recently shown in the early Walpolean Gothic without saying much about The Monk , the Gothic as a form of fiction and theater arose after 1750 to help rising Western middle-class and some higher-class readers deal ideologically with the conflicting attractions of "two modes of personal valuation," one of them "based on social rank and blood lines, reflecting an older and more static [land-based, aristocratic, and priest-dominated] order and the other based [supposedly] on individual merit and associated with capitalist-class imperatives and the growing strength of the market economy". [23]

I would add, with some help from Jean Baudrillard's Symbolic Exchange and Death , that this economically- and class-based tug- of-war was already under way during in the era of Shakespeare. The valuing of signs precisely as counterfeits became prominent at that time, as Baudrillard shows and we can see in the use of "counterfeit" in Hamlet , because there could coexist in that use of symbols two wishes of the rising classes in the Renaissance: a longing for older, supposedly unchangeable grounds of status on which all signifiers might be based (the part of the counterfeit that seemed "true" and "grounded" by medieval standards) and a desire to transfer the signs of older powers to members of the rising mercantile orders who could now possess them without having inherited them (the aspect of the counterfeit that is rhetorical, uprooted, and fake). [24] When the neo-Gothic in the eighteenth century reworks this highly theatrical Renassiance sense of the sign, as Otranto did by its author's own admission, [25] it both leaves behind and intensifies the conflict in the sign viewed as counterfeit—thereby creating the "ghost of the counterfeit" —at a time of increasing capitalism and an expanding mass market dominated more and more by acquisitive investors, entrepreneurs, and retailers. The Monk , I contend, both within and against its use of discredited old (and Catholic) icons, plays out the consequences of this social transition as they occur in the personal quest for a higher-class selfhood. Lewis shows with great force how, in this quest, many incohate visceral desires gain their direction and objects from simulacra of counterfeits that cannot fulfill the self-completions they claim to offer their worshipers. Desire becomes aroused by once-meaningful counterfeits now turned into exchangeable simulations of former domination that seem to offer the self greater powers of independence but actually subject that self to the conditions and controlling ideologies of the middle-class market. The Monk remains frightening, as well as Gothic, because it tells us so much about what we both want and want not to confront: the ways we desire and are kept from desiring in the modern capitalist world that had largely, if not completely, come into being by the end of the eighteenth century.

Both Ambrosio and Don Raymond as Lewis renders them, we find, are embroiled in self-marketing to the point of facing what that effort really entails in the Spanish Renaissance (the place and time of the novel's setting) and in the late eighteenth century (the time of the novel's composition by a young English diplomat at the Hague). [26] Ambrosio, always seeking but unsure of his possibly high-class origins, [27] becomes the supreme performer of the most marketable Catholic scripts and postures of his age so as to be the "matinee idol" of a highly acquisitive audience, all of whom come to church mainly to show off their social and economic standings. "To seek for true devotion" among any of them, we are told at once, "would be a fruitless attempt", [28] even though they all offer counterfeit postures of devotion, the first of many fakings in the book of what have become the "ghosts" of behaviors that once had meaning for people. On Ambrosio's side, too, his apparent ability to manipulate these spectral forms and his consequent rhetorical success prompt "splendid visions of aggrandizement" in his mind's eye, [29] as though he were a class-climbing entrepreneur engaged in "Renaissance Self-fashioning" and later bourgeois self-marketing. At the same time, Lewis' monk becomes the prisoner of the symbolic assumptions in the hollowed-out forms he uses, to the point where he is pulled into the fear and self-punishment demanded by the very religious images that he finds sensually attractive. To use faked images from the past for acquisitive ends as though these icons really contained some of the powers once granted to them—powers thereby made available, it seems, to later class-climbing users of them—is to be pulled into the very pasts that such users try to rise beyond in employing ghosts of counterfeits. The relative sexual freedom encouraged by the capacity to redirect outmoded figures, as Ambrosio restyles the portrait of the Virgin, is interdicted by the symbolic prohibitions attached to the very symbols being used. Raymond confronts the same paradox when he and Agnes try to use the Bleeding Nun to cover their escape from sexual constraint only to find that the totality of history and moral injunctions carried by that figure forces them into even harsher forms of the very confinements by past dictates that they keep trying to avoid. [30] Even within a cultural order increasingly distant from old alliances of symbols and meanings, the codes by which that person chooses to "market" himself or herself turn out to be restrictors of the desire apparently encouraged by the more and more bourgeois free enterprise in which the old symbols are now being used.

This entire oxymoronic condition of being, moreover, is intensely "Gothicized" in an additional way when The Monk takes another tendency of Gothic writing further than it had ever been taken before. The combination of sensual attraction and moral interdiction in the sign pulled back and forth between older meanings and marketable effects is made most intense in this novel, somewhat as it is in The Castle of Otranto , when it is placed at the deepest physical level of the novel's world, here the cryptic depths beneath the Church of the Capuchins. It is not only that the majority of the most venal sins take place near that level, where Ambrosio rapes and kills his own sister [31] and Agnes is nearly starved and her infant done to death on the orders of a sadistic Prioress. [32] There is the monk's and Matilda's summoning of Lucifer at the deepest level of all, at which point this Daemon is sold to Ambrosio in an exaggerated version of the way Matilda is marketed to him through the picture of the Virgin and the figure of Rosario. Lucifer first appears in a form of angelic "perfection" (as in images of the Virgin) but also as sensuously "naked," as a repository of promised wealth (his limbs being wreathed in "Circlets of Diamonds"), and as a young man exceedingly "beautiful" to Ambrosio (as Rosario is earlier). [33] The other side of this Janus-faced figure later turns out to be an "Apparition" with talons for feet and "living snakes" for hair[34] —a Gryphon and Medusa all in one—but the duplicity and multiplicity behind all of Lucifer's possibilities remain consigned to Hellish catacombs beneath the public eye and day-to-day consciousness. Using the tradition of Satan as both Fallen Angel and self-disguiser, Lewis has taken the pursuit of sensuous bodies, increased wealth, and even young men in his class-climbing hero, along with all the castigations of sin in the Catholic icons that Ambrosio worships, and positioned their most extreme forms in an underground and a sort of unconscious within which they seem to be removed from social and even personal life above ground. This removal is actually deceptive, as Lewis makes us see, since the violence in these depths is very above ground in Ambrosio's bedroom murder of his mother [35] and the turning of the Prioress's sadism against her when she is torn to pieces by an angry mob after her deeds have been partly misrepresented to the public. [36] Even so, The Monk intensifies its "Gothic" mode to the point of showing that the post-Renaissance pursuit of identity through marketing the self with ghosts of counterfeits can be further counterfeited and covered by being consigned to a distant and private depth that can even be labeled "low" and "evil" despite its activities being basic to conscious existence. One way in which The Monk anticipates the later production of the Freudian "unconscious" to account for symptoms of middle-class life, as Lowry Nelson, Jr., Leslie Fiedler, and Peter Brooks have shown it to do, [37] is the novel's way of "throwing off" into a nether region—or "abjecting," as Julia Kristeva would say in Powers of Horror—the actual, mixed, and very fluid process of middle- class quests for identity through counterfeits as though that process were not the dominant mode of self-formation it is and as though it were morally monsterous when it displays itself too directly.

For The Monk to reveal and conceal so much about the middle- class process of self-formation by the end of the eighteenth century and since the Renaissance, after all, is for Matthew Gregory Lewis to half-disguise and half-expose many aspects of his own middle- to upper-middle-class life. As the son of a rising politician-father but also of a beloved mother who fled from her marriage more openly than some, [38] Lewis was perpetually betwixt and between in his social position, quite like Ambrosio behind his rhetorical facade, even though that character turns Lewis' self-division over his parents into a complete ignorance of who they are for most of the novel. Such insecurity in Lewis is surely one reason why he was frequently irritating in his continuous and slightly obsequious social climbing and so was often name-dropping, according to Sir Walter Scott, "always [with] dukes and duchesses in his mouth". [39] At the same time, however, being so much of an outsider just within the boundaries of "inner" social circles, Lewis could take an ironic view of rising middle-class pretensions such as his own, as The Monk clearly shows from the very beginning. In this connection, he could also be both satirical and guarded about the semi-concealment of his homosexuality, the preference he may have revealed in his attachment to the younger William Kelly and in Byron's sense that he constantly "fill[ed] up his table with young enseigns". [40] In Ambrosio's brief homosexual attraction to Matilda as Rosario and the way it recurs "in the depths" when he sees the "beautiful" adolescent Lucifer—moments presented as both scintillating and sinful— Lewis' Monk does recast that ambiguous moment in Walpole's Castle of Otranto when Prince Manfred, ostensibly pursuing a woman with whom he can sire an heir, encounters Frederic, Marquis of Vicenza, and the Marquis finds himself "accosted by [a] Manfred, who, flushed by wine and love, had come to seek him , and to propose to waste some hours of the night in music and revelling". [41] As Walpole does in thus tracing and erasing his own sexual preference in and 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 false leads worthy of social and superhuman punishment. Matthew Lewis is both the class-fixated "insider" inclined to condemn Ambrosio's excessive class-crossing, the author who appears in Daniel Watkins' Marxist article on this novel, and the ambivalent closet-gay outsider struggling to be and not be what he is in George Haggerty's insightful account of the sadly constricted but visible homosexuality throughout much of the eighteenth-century Gothic.

The flagrant emphasis of "Monk" Lewis' novel, then, on self-creation and the cultural repression of the self, all within the pursuit of identity using ghosts of counterfeits, comes from how acutely aware Lewis was and how much he disguised or buried of the conditions within which self-definition was constructed in the 1790's by people of his class, especially those as uncertain as he was about the precise "grounds" and sanctions of his rising yet also marginalized status. In the ways The Monk displaces these obsessions and fears onto ghosts of counterfeits recalling late medieval and Renaissance settings, thus abjecting them "back there" while playing them out as well, it points more than any Gothic novel of its century to how this whole method of identity construction was getting under way even in the 1400's and how hyperbolic extensions of Renaissance self-fashioning through Catholic icons could therefore speak to and cloak the struggles and abjections involved in forming a self at Lewis' own moment. For him to "come out" with any hope of middle- and upper-class endorsement was to style himself with the aid of recast symbols from older orders, some of them Germanic, and to find that those symbols demanded the suppression, the "undergrounding" in the middle-class market, of the very passions and desires that they might be used to fulfill. The Gothic ghosts of what was already counterfeit since the Renaissance, given these conditions, could articulate desires of the self not connected with those signifiers in the past but also had to present those same longings as interdicted by old standards now being employed to sustain middle-class hegemonies and newer ideologies of bourgeois family life. Like his Ambrosio, Lewis had to let his passions out and put them back in the closet by the same fake means of self-articulation. On one level, the result in The Monk , as Wendy Jones says, can be the apparent drawing of a definite cultural line between "good" and "bad" desire, leaving some of Lewis' own desires on the "bad" side. [42] But on the level I have tried to suggest here, that line is very hard to draw because the same Gothic ghosts of the counterfeit are used to point in both directions. Whether we choose to emphasize its more conventional or more subversive tendencies, an anomalous condition quite typical of the Gothic, The Monk after 200 years remains a novel in which we are still able—or can still refuse—to confront the ongoing struggle, Lewis' and ours, to craft a rising middle-class self with the most marketable signifiers left over from the past.