Wednesday, July 11, 2007

What is Gothic literature?

That which we classify as "Gothic" is a subgenre of the Romantic movement of the 19th century. Beginning in 1764 with Horace Walpole's novel The Castle of Otranto, the movement quickly grew to encompass a large body of works in novel, short story, poetic, artistic, dramatic, and (in the present day) cinematic forms.

Originally, what we call "Gothic" in terms of architecture(generally the cathedrals of the 12th-14th centuries, or from about 1150-1350 +/-) was called the modern or French style by its contemporaries and was highly admired by all. In essence, Gothic architecture is the introduction of light and height to the churches through the use of flying buttresses, pointed arches, ribbed vaulting and stained glass windows. The idea was for the church to actually become a medium between Earth and Heaven through its height and the heavenly light brought in by the use of so many windows(think of Notre Dame de Paris or Notre Dame de Chartres as your best representatives of this style. This new architectural style was originated by Abbot Suger, who wrote of his design for St. Denis (the first church rebuilt in this style): "Man may rise to the contemplation of the divine through the senses" and also, "[the churchgoer would be] transported from this inferior to that higher world." (Strickland, 45) In essence, I think this accounts for the idea of "Gothic" as dealing so much with the sublime and with the senses. Clearly, the fact that it originated as a Catholic architectural style influences the presence of Catholicism within so much Gothic literature, even if by the time the Gothic movement began this presence seems generally to be in a negative light due to numerous negative occurences with the church by that point.

It was Giorgio Vasari, the famous art critic of the Renaissance, who termed this style "Gothic" and this was meant pejoratively; he was indicating that it was crude and barbaric, like the Goth tribes that invaded the Roman Empire and eventually settled much of western Europe. Vasari and his followers were great admirers of the classical style (symmetry, generally geometrically shaped - rectangular, circular - the use of the columnic orders (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian) and of arches and the rotunda. They felt that the medieval style was clumsy and cumbersome in comparison to the symmetrical perfection of the Classical style. In fact, Vasari's opinion was so highly regarded in Italy that the Gothic style never really made it there, and instead the Italians continued to follow a more Classical architectural style - good examples include Brunelleschi's Dome and Foundling Hospital, see links below.

Which brings us to the question of a "Gothic" Middle Ages - in actuality, there was no such thing, except insofar as the descendants of the Goth invaders of the Dark Ages were settled in Europe. The term was coined by a 16th century art critic who wrote disparagingly of a type of architecture of which he was (clearly!) not fond. But by the eighteenth century, this term had become the commonly used one to speak of the architecture of this time, and so by "Gothic" we mean both these substantial, light, airy, tall cathedrals with their architectural innovations (and by association the world in which they were created) AND the fleeting, nomadic, unsophisticated and uncultured lifestyle of the Goth tribes that invaded Europe; this in my mind becomes the essence of the debate - which "Gothic" do we mean when we are writing about Gothic literature? Because it seems Walpole fits under both categories - there is an airiness about his style as well as a darkness, innovation as well as a fleeting, unsettled feeling, the use of unsophisticated (by the standards of his time) prose and that of the medieval romances. So in this analysis, then, to call something Gothic is to indicate a built-in paradox.

Additionally, I feel that "Gothic" by the eighteenth century - perhaps by Walpole and his circle, even - has become somewhat bastardized, so that it refers in a blanket style to the entire era in which Gothic architecture flourished, and not simply to the architecture Vasari was criticizing...if we look at Strawberry Hill, for example, it's not technically "Gothic" and yet it is still classified as "Gothic revival". So that brings up the question of what was considered Gothic in the 18th century, and I think it appears that Gothic had become somewhat synonymous with medieval overall.

In terms of the nostalgia that is so prevalent in much of gothic literature - we as a race seem always to romanticize those that have gone before. In a way, the "Gothic" came out of this very longing - Vasari et al feeling nostalgic for the Classical era destroyed by the barbarians that brought about the Gothic style. So it seems that each generation has a favored past generation to which it looks for inspiration and/or comfort. By the 18th century, I think the overuse of Classical elements in architecture across the board (in terms of architecture: Chiswick House, St. Paul's Cathedral, Bath, etc.; in terms of literature: the "classical" plays following Aristotle's/Horace's unities of such playwrights as Racine and Corneille, for example) would naturally lead to a desire for "Something Else" and, if we turn naturally to the past for inspiration, then returning to Gothic (medieval) ideas would certainly be appropriate at that point.

The Gothic is also comprised in large part of events dealing with the idea of the sublime. First seen in Walpole's work, but expanded and adapted to the gothic tradition by Ann Radcliffe in The Mysteries of Udolpho, the philosophical ideas of Edmund Burke in particular on this subject became a way of incorporating the beautiful and unknowable supernatural world within the novel. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), Burke writes:

HATEVER is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. Without all doubt, the torments which we may be made to suffer are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasure which the most learned voluptuary could suggest, or than the liveliest imagination, and the most sound and exquisitely sensible body, could enjoy."*

And also:

"When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience."**

Then, from Plato's Symposium: Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may.

Longinus, who was Burke's primary influence in this subject, wrote about the poetic sublime:

"Longinus: "On the Sublime"

Longinus, writing in the classical historical tradition says that the sublime implies that man can, in emotions and in language, transcend the limits of the human condition. Longinus's approach is contradistinguished from Plato's declaration of poetic inspiration as dangerous divine madness or the poet as liar. Yet like Plato, Longinus feels that the human was the art or technical aspects, while the sublime was the "soul" or that which eluded our experience of art. (emphasis mine) In order to understand the sublime, we must have some notion of what exists beyond the human, empirical experience. Longinus explains that this "beyond" is comprehended in terms of metaphor, or in terms of what is absent from the empirical world. Our sense of the sublime is an illusion, which draws the reader to new heights, to the realization that there is something more to human life than the mundane, the ordinary. In fact, the sublime entails a kind of mystery. The sublime is that which defeats every effort of sense and imagination to picture it. It is that whose presence reduces all else to nothingness. It can be defined and described only in symbolic terms, which ironically defies the pictorial arts to sketch it. It remains only for the art of the metaphorical language of poetry to give the suggestion of the sublime.

Longinus's contribution to conceptions of the beautiful/sublime also includes the poet's "joining" with this vision of greatness. We gain a greater sense of freedom, by our sense of our capacity to join in this greatness. Hence when we speak of Longinus we think of verbs such as "transport," "transcend," "awe-full," "flight," "amazement," and "astonishment." One particular quotation summarizes this idea: "For, as if instinctively, our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard."

Longinus centers also on figurative language, discussing the great writers of the past and their importance, our "possession 'by a spirit not one's own. . . . The genius of the ancients acts as a kind of oracular cavern, and effluences flow from it into the minds of their imitators." He holds Plato up as a model and an ideal of great literature, thereby answering and defending Plato's style against his critics. The decline of letters in his day is due not to despotism, but slavery to pleasure and greed. He shows us that great thoughts have been uttered by men of the past and can be uttered again. Sublimity becomes, for him, the source of the distinction of the greatest poets and prose writers, something like a thunderbolt that could strike anywhere. Because of his belief in sublimity, he also believes in the privileging of mental processes. He holds in an almost mystical way that the composer is identified with what he describes; and because of the excitement of the moment of inspiration, the hearer or reader is also a participant in the feeling of sublimity. And so it was that Longinus first brought passion and the concept of readerly complementation to the study of literature."***

Finally, the Gothic tradition is also one that deals with the ideas of gender and of transgression. Donna Heiland summarizes these elements in the introduction to Gothic and Gender. In terms of transgression, Heiland writes: "Gothic fiction at its core is about transgressions of all sorts: across national boundaries, social boundaries, sexual boundaries, the boundaries of one's own identity" (3). In terms of gender, she points out that "from their origin in the eighteenth century, gothic novels explored the workings of patriarchal politics through an aesthetic based in the subjective realities of sensibility and the sublime" (5).

So... what is Gothic literature? Gothic is a genre that is at once cohesive and divisive, a unification of elements and a paradox. It incorporates themes of eternal conflict and importance to the human condition - relationships, gender, patriarchy, nostalgia, and the sublime. Most importantly, it looks away from the present to the past and from what is obvious and scientific towards an inner world that is at once liberating and imprisoning, and forces the reader to engage it on its own terms, and not those of social and cultural conditioning. It defies categorization and explanation!

Good resources for general information on Gothic architecture are Marilyn Stokstad's Art History, 2nd Ed. Vol. I(2002) and Carol Strickland's The Annotated Arch(2001); Stokststad's Volume 2 of the Art History title also deals (VERY) briefly with Gothic revival architecture, and there are several more subject-specific books I can point you to if anyone is that interested, just ask.

** Ibid.


R.King said...

I was just looking for some inspiration for an essay in school I think this piece has really provoked my thoughts deeper into the idea of the term Gothic and how Gothic architecture and Gothic literature truly parallel in the idea of transgressive boundaries. Beautiful article.


Dżoana said...

Thank you for this article. Truly a pleasurable read.

James Nesten said...

Dan Zukovic's "DARK ARC", a bizarre gothic modern noir dark comedy called "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different..." in Film Threat, was recently released on DVD and Netflix through Vanguard Cinema (, and is currently
debuting on Cable Video On Demand. The film had it's World Premiere at the Montreal Festival, and it's US Premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival. Featuring Sarah Strange ("White Noise"), Kurt Max Runte ("X-Men", "Battlestar Gallactica",) and Dan Zukovic (director and star of the cult comedy "The Last Big Thing"). Featuring the glam/punk tunes "Dark Fruition", "Ire and Angst" and "F.ByronFitzBaudelaire", and a dark orchestral score by Neil Burnett.


***** (Five stars) "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different...something you've never tasted
before..." Film Threat
"A black comedy about a very strange love triangle" Seattle Times
"Consistently stunning images...a bizarre blend of art, sex, and opium, "Dark Arc" plays like a candy-coloured
version of David Lynch. " IFC News
"Sarah Strange is as decadent as Angelina Jolie thinks she is...Don't see this movie sober!" Metroactive Movies
"Equal parts film noir intrigue, pop culture send-up, brain teaser and visual feast. " American Cinematheque