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All Roads Lead to England: The Monk Constructs the Nation

  • Marie-José Tienhooven

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  • Marie-José Tienhooven
    University of Rochester

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The Gothic is frequently read in terms of transgression and punishment. Although my reading also makes use of that dialectic, I try not to assume that transgression occurs whenever an outwardly rational individual taps the irrational depths which are part and parcel of the human make-up. Rather, I wish to contextualize Freud, to ask who specifically punishes whom in what manner and for what reason. In the paper that follows, I intend to suggest that Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796) performs the English nation. This nation lacks a unitary identity; however, rather than dedicate itself to difference, a reformed political leadership, now culturally (or at least outwardly) middle class, pretends to unity, and builds unity, through the hierarchical appropriation of a colonized Other.

Liah Greenfeld distinguishes between the nation as a "sovereign people" and the nation as a "unique sovereign people." [1] As a "sovereign people," the nation comes into being in sixteenth century England, because Henry VIII's breach with Rome means that rather than pre-nationalist Catholics he will rule free and equal Englishmen. In other words, the nation enters the (modern) world as a democracy, although of course in the sixteenth century England lives through the first only of what will prove a series of democratic revolutions. Despite its limited immediate success, the nation as a democracy, because it defines the "people" as the bearers of sovereignty, is potentially an all-inclusive political community. The "people" have no narrowly defined national meaning; to the extent that they are English historically, their Englishness is not necessarily geographically bound and is thus, implicitly, available to the world. "A nation coextensive with humanity," writes Greenfeld, "is in no way a contradiction in terms." [2]

A "sovereign people," however, does not exhaust the meanings of the word "nation." At virtually the same time that the English transform into a "sovereign people," they develop as a "unique sovereign people." That is to say, the word "nation" in addition covers any territorial, historical, political, ethnic, religious and linguistic identities, to name a few, which the English claim distinguish them from the French, say, or from the Spanish. English uniqueness is thus constructed negatively and it directly contradicts popular sovereignty. It colonizes where a democracy, in theory, includes even the genuinely, specifically (but misnamed) Other. Uniqueness, therefore, requires maintenance. It must be established—and established again, and again—in the face of (imputed) difference.

Although "the original, non-particularistic idea of the nation" lingers, since the later sixteenth century the nation has been most readily interpreted as a collectivity with a very specific identity. [3] Thus, Homi Bhabha presupposes a "unique people" when he distinguishes between a "pedagogical" articulation of the nation and a "performative" one. The former approach casts the nation-people as the "historical 'objects' of a nationalist pedagogy"—that is, the uniquely English absorb, from the powers-that-be, the currently preferred version of the national genesis. At the same time, however, the nation-people are "the 'subjects' of a process of signification"—that is, they perform the nation, construct it, by imposing coherence on "The scraps, patches and rags of daily life." [4] In the process, they cannot help but notice that daily experience is, indeed, fragmented, that the certainty of the past does not reach into the present. Whenever the performative thus disrupts the pedagogical, Bhabha argues, the nation reveals the heterogeneity of its people, causing the constructed Otherness of other nations to disintegrate as well. [5] Arguably, these moments of becoming, or of coming undone, throw the English back on their potential as Greenfeld's "sovereign people," their potential for radical democracy.

That Greenfeld's and Bhabha's analyses of nationhood are relevant to The Monk is fairly obvious. For one thing, Lewis's is a gothic novel and as such per definition concerned with building the nation. After all, the same sixteenth century which applies the word "nation" to a "sovereign people" as well as a "unique people" sees the first flowering of the Gothic, with the publication of Spenser's Faerie Queene . Richard Helgerson argues that Spenser's romance stands at the beginning of an ancient-medieval dialectic, which causes England to understand and represent itself as either Greek or Goth through the early twentieth century. [6] Prior to The Faerie Queene , for over four hundred comfortable years, the English monarchy had referred to Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (1136) for "proof" of the common descent from the Trojans of both the Britons and the Normans. On the authority of their Greek ancestors, the Norman kings ruled Britain rightfully, while from their British predecessors they inherited the right to rule it absolutely. However, no sooner does Henry VIII set his modest and yet momentous step on the road toward popular sovereignty than Gothic enthusiasts begin eagerly to chip away at the national myth which had served the crown so well. Gradually, Brutus and King Arthur give way to Anglo-Saxonism, or Gothicism, which dictates that the English are instead a Germanic people, and the rightful inheritors of Germanic liberties located crucially in a putatively age-old Saxon parliament. [7]

It follows, then, that Lewis's choice of a genre is overtly a political choice and that he effectively promises to uphold the "traditional" liberties of the English people against usurpers who, if they are not literally of foreign extraction, at least have acquired the now-foreign taste for absolute rule imported into the country by William the Conqueror. Clearly, since it defines itself against an Other, Anglo-Saxonism aspires to the myth of a "unique people." At the same time, however, because it upholds parliamentary prerogative as its central tenet, it almost inevitably refers back to and keeps alive the slightly older idea of the nation as a "sovereign people." For the English, therefore, the question of individual freedom and independence stands out as an issue peculiarly vexed. No wonder that in the decade following the French Revolution professional and lay politicians alike anxiously debate whether England has already, and to general satisfaction, recovered her "old Gothick constitution," or whether further reform is in order.

In critical discussions of the 1790s, Edmund Burke and William Godwin typically occupy extreme and antithetical positions. Burke sits on the—newly "conservative"—right. In his opinion, England has reconnected with the freedoms of her native, gothic past first through the Magna Carta and then, definitively, through the Glorious Revolution. At the end of the eighteenth century nothing remains to be done, unless it be to discourage the "swinish multitude" and (to continue) to grow organically. By contrast, limited royal authority and an elitist parliament make little impression on Godwin. His gothic villain is not (in the first place) the aspiring English Jacobin, tradition's most recent enemy, but (gothic) tradition itself. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and its fictional follow-up Caleb Williams (1794) both contend that man must dispense with (external) government altogether, because its medieval mystifications inhibit the free exercise of reason and so undermine individual autonomy. Attaché to the English embassy in The Hague and future Member of Parliament Matthew Lewis gets the message. He admires Caleb Williams to the point of recommending it to his mother—"It is in a new style, and well written"—but he also warns her: "Unluckily, the Author is half a Democrate (sic)". [8]The Monk bears out its author's social position and his stated conservatism even as it rejoices in the revolution so dreaded by Burke.

Because the gothic Monk proposes the (gothic) nation, and because it presents that proposal in gothic form—the novel has been assembled out of inner tales assembled out of inner tales and so on—it convincingly demonstrates the explanatory power of Bhabha's theory of "the nation split within itself. [9] "The History of Don Raymond, Marquis de las Cisternas" may serve as an example. All his life, Raymond has been the object of a nationalist pedagogy. He has grown up, after all, with the ghost of his (half-)brother Gonzalvo, who incurs their father's wrath when he secretly marries Elvira Dalfa, daughter of a Cordova shoemaker. That Gonzalvo's offense has national dimensions follows from the fact that to escape paternal revenge the rebel must literally leave the country: he exiles himself to Cuba, where he and two of his children perish of diseases whose only specification is that they are Indian. Though dead before the novel opens, Gonzalvo speaks through his ballad "The Exile," in which he laments at great length his banishment from his "native Spain," or "the land where all my wishes centre." [10] Elvira passes the poem on to Lorenzo de Medina, who considers eloping to Hispaniola with the shoemaker's granddaughter. No matter if once the Indies may have (also) spelled liberation, or even liberty: unequivocally, Gonzalvo and his widow instruct later generations not to repeat their mistake.

The Marquis teaches Raymond not only through the story of his brother; he also tutors him directly. For example, although it seems as if the Condé embarks on an eighteenth-century Grand Tour, to put the crown on an eighteenth-century education, the young nobleman had better make sure not to come back an accomplished cosmopolitan. Rather, the Marquis orders his son and heir to disguise himself as the private gentleman Alphonso d'Alvarada so that his travels may include some "mixing with the lower classes of society." The idea is that "by observing how the vassals of Foreigners are treated, [Raymond will] learn to diminish the burthens, and augment the comforts of [his] own." The assignment is an odd one. On a first reading, it assumes that foreign cottagers fare better than Raymond's and that interaction with them will teach him how to spread happiness in Spain. However, considering that Raymond must expect to be "an eyewitness of . . . sufferings," the real motive behind the assignment seems to be to induce in him the wish to improve the living conditions of his peasants because their foreign peers fare worse. [11] Foreign misery will renew the pride he takes in Spain, which in turn will make him want to preserve and defend—and die defending—the differences between his own nation, where even the masses enjoy (comparative) prosperity, and the nations of inferior others.

For all that his father may educate Raymond as to what is expected of him, the latter must also perform the nation. Such is most conveniently done abroad. After all, the performative, while it hardly requires a foreign setting, accords well with literal strangeness, because the fatherland, at least in theory, is homogenous and whole. Abroad, Raymond faces the annihilation of his identity as he repeatedly risks his life. Thus, in France, he almost dies at the hands of the beastly Baptiste, who grows fat robbing and killing travelers—foreign travelers in particular. [12] Surely it is fortunate that Marguerite outwits the husband enforced on her and stabs him to death. The former victim of "[her] passions" who abandoned herself to her love for an aristocratic outlaw subsequently returns to a virtuous life as the mother of her sons and her father's comfort in his old age. [13] Marguerite's pedagogy reminds Raymond that murder, or on a less literal level, exclusion of the alien, precedes a safe return home.

Armed with Marguerite's pointed example, Raymond proceeds to the Bavarian Castle of Lindenberg. In these classically gothic surroundings, he indulges in a forbidden passion for Agnes de Medina only to find himself haunted by Donna Rodolpha, whose illicit and unrequited love for him causes her to pursue him with hired assassins; and by the Bleeding Nun, in life Beatrice de las Cisternas, mistress and murderess of an earlier Baron of Lindenberg. That the transplantation of these Spanish women into an alien, German environment explains their violent passion follows from the repentant Nun's request that Raymond return (with) her bones to Spain, after which she will bother him no more. The Wandering Jew, in the meantime, while he serves to initiate the specter's exorcism, functions more importantly to embody approval of her Spanishness: he represents the ultimate foreigner, whose life without any geographical or temporal borders evokes in him "fury, despair, and malevolence." [14]

At this point, it seems appropriate specifically to name the qualities that combine into Spanishness. Strangely, perhaps, according to the characters actively engaged in its construction, Spanishness in many respects approaches middle-classness, as it finds expression in domesticity and (the illusion of) democracy. Certainly, the monastery and the convent, in that they lock men and women into separate buildings, provide an apt metaphor for an early version of the ideology of separate spheres. Passion has already been shown to be foreign to the uniquely Spanish national; the preferred alternative, it now turns out, is celibacy. Celibacy spreads even to marriage. Agnes displays the correct attitude in her final speech to Raymond:

But let not my Husband, because He once conquered my virtue, doubt the propriety of my future conduct. I have been frail and full of error: But I yielded not to the warmth of constitution; Raymond, affection for you betrayed me. I was too confident of my strength; But I depended no less on your honour than my own. I had vowed never to see you more: Had it not been for the consequences of that unguarded moment, my resolution had been kept. [15]

Not only do these lovers refuse to recognize (spent) sexual passion, but Agnes would not even have consented to marry Raymond if she had not found herself to be pregnant. Children alone legitimate marriage—on them the nation's survival depends. [16] Thus, the national interest explains why Lorenzo, when at last he catches up with a happy ending, marries a woman named Virginia.

Lorenzo's marriage commands attention for yet another reason: it constitutes an equal alliance. By contrast, had the nephew and heir of the Duke of Medina married the mixed-class Antonia Dalfa, he would almost certainly have had to confront avuncular disapproval. Daniel P. Watkins interprets the transfer of affection, hesitant though it may be, as Lewis's apology for a social tradition which puts all power in the hands of high-born men. Lewis's "just society," Watkins argues, "is one in which aristocratic men rule the public world." [17] While other marriages, such as Agnes and Raymond's, and Elvira and Gonzalvo's, do lend some support to this interpretation, it is worth noticing that each of these unions, whether happy or unhappy, supplements chastity with mutual affection. Clearly, a cultural shift has occurred from the aristocratic marriage of interest to the middle-class marriage for love. Gonzalvo, Lorenzo and Raymond all desire what may be called a proto-domestic woman: they fall in love not with power or property but with virtue; that is, with sense, simplicity and self-control. [18]

From virtue, it is but a small step to merit. Spain, to put it differently, as it is summed up in its monastic communities, has institutionalized democracy. Ambrosio may be a foundling, but his uncertain descent does not prevent his rise to the top of his profession. He secures his position, moreover, by means of an election. Though Ambrosio's career is sufficiently unusual to attract public attention, it yet goes with, rather than against, the cultural grain. Following his example, Theodore also might have climbed the monastic ladder. In fact, had unmitigated virtue been the boy's genuine desire, and had it been attended with continued success, he would have outdone Ambrosio. With Theodore, after all, there is no chance even of noble birth: he presents himself to the nuns in the guise of a beggar. The most remarkable aspect of his triumph, however, is that he achieves it despite the fact that he speaks Spanish with an accent. That his obtrusive Frenchness fails to disturb the prioress testifies to the potential inclusion into the (unique) nation of people (initially) uniquely Other.

All of this is not to deny that rank still matters. Indeed, its lingering importance had best be read as only partially symbolic proof of the limited radicality of middle-class democracy. Some Spanish are more Spanish than others, so to speak. Cracks open up within Spain that the wanderers appear to suggest exist only outside it, between Spain and other, lesser nations. And then again, the wanderers do no such thing. If anything, their absence from home destabilizes or decenters the unique nation even further. Borders are reaffirmed, but their very existence demands that they be crossed again. Borders seem less than absolute for Theodore, who shows up in France, in Bavaria, and in Spain. And in spite of Marguerite, and of the Bleeding Nun, Raymond again wanders from virtue almost as soon as he makes it back to Madrid. In fact, so false proves the willed, sharp distinction between Spain and not-Spain, or between Self and Other, that Raymond sins in the metropolitan heart, in the garden of the Convent of St. Clare.

In the adjacent Abbey garden, the eponymous monk Ambrosio duplicates Raymond's fall. However, unlike Raymond, Ambrosio goes native, so to speak. As he succumbs to lust, murder, rape, incest, and increasingly satanic witchcraft (and as Lewis—Monk Lewis—succumbs to pornography), redemption recedes before him, whether it be in the shape of timely repentance or in the shape of the guards with the pardon whom Satan reports reach the condemned monk one minute after he surrenders both body and soul (but "The Father of Lies" delights in (psychological) torture). The question is how to interpret Ambrosio's rush to damnation. Of course, after 1776 and 1789, sex(ual release) had become a popular metaphor for political emancipation—for revolution. [19] Arguably, however, in The Monk sex is more than just a metaphor: it is revolution. As the inverse of chastity, of virtue, of the publicly conformative behavior that translates into merit—sex is, in a word, un-Spanish. Yet, in The Monk , sex (as revolution) also somehow, sometimes, rings true. How must this truth be assimilated? Is Ambrosio a hero? Does he deliver a valid critique of the limitations of Spanishness? Does he oppose national identity as such? Is he, possibly, the individualist envisioned by Godwin, who breaks out of the institutions that imprison him, and whose moral honesty integrates him into a society of equals?

On a few occasions Ambrosio does indeed echo the Godwinian philosopher—in his (early) declaration that "Man was born for society," for example, or in his reliance on the creative potential of science. [20] It does not take long, however, before science becomes witchcraft and Ambrosio, the man of reason, gives himself over to the gratification of his senses. Lewis parodies Godwin, then, but not without multiple demonstrations of the latter's claim that (institutional) repression is what creates the monster of (compensatory) revolution. Thus, the monks who raise Ambrosio from infancy deserve much, perhaps all, of the blame for corrupting the monk's original good nature—for turning him into "the model of virtue, and piety, and learning":

Instead of universal benevolence He adopted a selfish partiality for his own particular establishment: He was taught to consider compassion for the errors of Others as a crime of the blackest dye: The noble frankness of his temper was exchanged for servile humility; and in order to break his natural spirit, the Monks terrified his young mind, by placing before him all the horrors with which Superstition could furnish them. [21]

In this scenario, unique Spanishness equals repression, and repression breeds revolution. [22] Revolution, however, even if it originates in apparently legitimate grievances, always falls short of a solution—in Godwin, and certainly in Lewis. Revolution is itself repression, as the victim becomes the victimizer, as Ambrosio suffocates his mother and rapes and then murders his sister.

Lewis diminishes Ambrosio's attractiveness in myriad ways. First, in the absence of Godwin's search for the middle ground of anarchy (or of radical democracy, yet to be fully theorized), Lewis's remains a relentlessly binary world. Spanish nationals who persist (for too long) in un-Spanish behavior—Gonzalvo and his son Ambrosio, but also the Bleeding Nun and Donna Rodolpha—die an untimely and often unnatural death. Frequently, moreover, it appears as if they deserve their fate because they have killed or otherwise injured (seeming) innocents, of whom the hapless Antonia, of course, ranks as the prime example. Innocents kill also, but they kill criminals, which is how they (re)establish their innocence. Thus, Marguerite finishes off Baptiste, while the Inquisitors must be commended both for deciding to light the fire under Ambrosio and for granting him a pardon (if indeed they do forgive). In short, Lewis loads the dice. Ultimately, he presents the difference between Spain and alien nations not as a subtle distinction between victims victimizing and victimizing victims, but as a stark choice between life and death, innocence and crime, or the mundane world his readers know and, inevitably, love; and the supernatural horrors they might find fascinating, but which in the end they had rather master.

To these narrative links between series of (false) dualisms, Lewis adds imagery intended also to undercut revolutionary heroism. Thus, long before Satan makes an appearance, and before Matilda takes on the role of Mephistopheles, another demonic being haunts The Monk whose initial appeal never endears him permanently: the vampire. This fiend of folklore perfectly suits Lewis's nation-building purposes. Originally a foreigner and always a social outcast, the vampire is simultaneously a relative or a lover: in his doubleness, he reflects a "unique people's constitutive instability. As James B. Twitchell points out,

The vampire never wantonly destroys—in fact, his initial victims are preordained; they are those whom he loved most when alive. The initial victims are friends and family who, of course, recognize the vampire as one who was loved and trusted. This recognition is important, for the vampire cannot pick and choose on his own; rather he must be picked, 'invited' into the relationship. The victim, not consciously realizing that the friend or relative is the devil in disguise, understandably and ironically obliges. [23]

In other words, the Spanish homebody takes to entertaining the alien because the alien is family—familiar—kin of the Self: Raymond invites Beatrice, for example, "the great Aunt of [his] Grand-father"; Ambrosio invites Matilda, his "son" and future lover; and Antonia invites Ambrosio, the unknown brother who would also respect her or at least take her to bed. [24] Following the first encounter, however, Raymond, Agnes, Ambrosio, Antonia and Lorenzo all fall sick; their condition worsens as the alien(ated) lover attempts definitively to suck them into eternal exile. Neither in the myth nor in Lewis, then, do the enervated victims have a need for further exploration; on the contrary, they inspire friends as well as readers with (thoughts of) rescue missions. The goal becomes recovery—of the past, of former healthy selfhood. In short, rather than imagine multiplicity, Lewis counters potentially promising, vampiric moments of coming undone with, again, his universe of binarisms, in which the mythic poles this time are wholesomeness or disease—wholeness or dis-ease.

In the struggle against revolution, Lewis relies most heavily on his gothic setting. Implicit so far, but hardly hidden, has been the observation that the middle-class democracy, with its penchant for domesticity, describes late eighteenth-century England, not medieval(ized) Spain. Yet, The Monk unfolds in Madrid in a time, puns Anne Williams, "benighted as well as 'beknighted'": why, if not to ensure that the past and the foreign and the foreign past absorb all that is alien to the modern English nation? [25] All Lewis's readership has to do is to heed The Monk 's survivors, to appreciate their stories as "nationalist pedagogy" and repeatedly also to engage "the performative," to construct the nation out of (its) fragments, and (for as long as possible) to ignore the cracks opening up between ill-fitting pieces. To be sure, English readers must cast out the domestic heroine with the foreign villain, but then the villain dominates the novel. The Monk 's very title proves his love of power—as if there is only one monk and all know who he is—and hence his contempt of gothic democracy. This autocrat cannot, must not, be English. It comes as a relief, therefore, to realize that he answers to the description of a stereotypical Spaniard: Ambrosio is a lascivious, criminal Catholic, at home in "a city where superstition reigns with . . . despotic sway." [26] Numerous characters in supporting roles confirm this picture of Spain as a nation of Others.

The gothic villain, then, though he gives The Monk its gothic flavor, does not the gothic nation make. He exists so that English (and Anglophile) readers may exile him, in his past as well as present incarnation(s). That is, Ambrosio shoulders the guilt of the Roman Catholic Church, which (temporarily) displaced the native (Christian and then Protestant) English Church, and of the entire Norman Conquest. He represents the invasion of authoritarian values, which are not, nor ever have been, authentically English values. For the sake of historical continuity, and because Goths are manly folk, who will not be subjected, Catholicism and royal supremacists were eventually driven out of the country. Parliament prevailed. The foreign always presses against the borders, though, and now, in the late eighteenth century, another invasion seems imminent—in the shape, not of a democratic majority, but of the single-minded mob. At the very moment that Ambrosio rapes Antonia in the vaults underneath the Convent of St. Clare, Lorenzo, above ground, replays a scene from the French Revolution. Inadvertently, he leads "his Countrymen," whom he would "free . . . from their monkish fetters" into an orgy of slaughter and destruction—the unholy destruction of property. [27] Like Ambrosio, Lorenzo recalls the Godwinian rationalist—he hates superstition—but if Ambrosio meets with (occasional) ridicule, Lorenzo, the indirect cause also of Antonia's murder , stands corrected. [28]

At every opportunity and with all its rhetorical might, The Monk upholds a series of dualisms which benefit—which are—the late eighteenth-century English nation. In this nation, the aristocracy yet retain political power, admitting into their midst only the token man of merit, but culturally they have undergone a reconstruction which, in spite of the novel, will contribute to periodical soul-searching as to the achieved versus the required extent of popular sovereignty. Articulated pedagogically, this historically-determined, late eighteenth-century nation dates back to the dawn of time. Its population descends from the Goths, a free people with a parliamentary tradition who were also chaste, virtuous and proud: altogether worthy, even (racially) superior, ancestors. Articulated performatively, however, the late eighteenth-century English nation becomes, in Bhabha's words, "a liminal signifying space that is internally marked by the discourses of minorities, the heterogeneous histories of contending peoples, antagonistic authorities and tense locations of cultural difference." [29] This split nation must work—and work hard—to exclude usurpers, past and present, foreign and domestic, who rightfully deny that the current political and cultural configuration is the ideal and indeed the only possible form of social existence. The Monk participates in this work. It constructs colonized Others to buttress a metropolitan Self, while foregoing one opportunity after another to draw out difference. It does not always succeed: no narration projects one meaning only. However, if Lewis, with considerable gusto, dramatizes England's fragmentation, he also insists that England must and can be One. In Lewis's gothic novel, the coherent national text may be a monster, cobbled together out of select and yet largely random subtexts, but at least it is an English monster and preferable, therefore, to the horrors found abroad.

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