Today my topic is that most enchanting, mysterious, and, I’m going to argue, revelatory of phenomenon: the Gothic. The term “Gothic” is most usefully and least problematically used to refer to an architectural movement which flourished during the High Middle Ages (from cC13th). In my head, and in many others who wouldn’t know what a flying buttress or an ogive is: the Gothic style is still the archetype in our heads of a cathedral. At the same time, the term (which arises here as a pejorative term from an age that had become enamoured with neo-classical architecture) also names, today, a literary genre some of whose most famous exemplars can be found on celluloid. But more than this, the Gothic is a metaphor for the modern world. It is a style that cannot be assigned to a definite period precisely because there is something about the Gothic that points to the limits of all periodising, to something ghostly or uncanny about time, as if time is out of joint.
The word Gothic, in its original and straightforward sense means simply Germanic, as in the expression “Gothic script”, or the reference to the Goths who so frequently threatened the borders of the Roman Empire. What is interesting about the term, is that it is often correctly associated with another equally evocative, but even more contested term: Romantic. When we juxtapose these two terms with each other we see something interesting: i.e. each term seems to point to the other from a different geographical vantage. Explaining: the term Romantic suggests that “Romances” are a product of the parts of Europe (France, Italy, Spain) whose languages were derived from Latin.
“Romantic” is thus an Anglo-German term, referring to a phenomena whose origins are associated with Italy, France, Spain, and particularly the high and latish Medieval Romances of Guillaume de Lorris and Chrétien de Troyes. And indeed, in pre-unification Germany, the motifs that we come to associate with the ‘gothic’ were associated with French and above all Italian progenitors both real and imaginary. In Latin countries, “Gothic” motifs were – as the name implies – associated instead with Germans: as if the ‘Gothic’ in fiction designated an egregious, ultimately barbarous Teutonic import.
But the most familiar sense of the word ‘Gothic’ is to be found in pop culture, where the term evokes principally the gothic novel or short story: an expression that should instantly bring to mind tales of vampires and werewolves, ghosts and goblins; nubile virgins in white nightdresses screaming their attractive heads off while telltale hearts beat beneath lace bodices and creaky floorboards. From this usage comes the self-designation of a black wearing Anne Rice reading youth subculture: “Goths”.
But what do ‘Goths’ and gothic novels possibly have to do with the ‘Gothic’ as the term is used in architecture? It is worth explaining. In architecture, the term ‘gothic’ tends to be used in relation to a definitively Medieval style, perhaps even to refer to the style that is supposed to define the Middle Ages. When Varsari, refers to this style of architecture as “Gothic” he is condemning the art of the Middle Ages as the art of a superstitious and barbarous age; an age that is brought to a close in the time and by the works of the artists (including Raphael and da Vinci) whose lives he will so charmingly chronicle.
Gothic: Notre Dame de Paris, largely built 1163-1240s
In the light of this, we might reasonably assume that ‘gothic novels’are ‘Gothic, insofar as they invoke medieval motifs of the spirit world, and thus recall ‘Gothic architecture’, the Gothic’ cathedral with its looming spires, crepuscular gloominess, punctuated, but not dispelled by light from stained glass windows. While this is a perfectly reasonable assumption, it is not, by any means, the whole story. To get to the real story, i.e. to really understand the philosophical dimensions of the word ‘Gothic’ we need to remember the term ‘neo-Gothic’, and the fact that throughout Europe in the C19th there is a surge of buildings (particularly churches and government buildings like the British Houses of Parliament built by Augustus W.N. Pugin and Charles Barry) that are made to look Medieval (Gothic) and thus like something that would have been execrated in the neo-classical C18th as much as by the C16th Florentine.To see the links between all the different senses of the word Gothic we need to have an idea of what prompted the Gothic Revival in which Pugin’s Houses of Parliament can serve as an exemplar. The Gothic revival is inextricably concerned with the rise of Romanticism, that nebulously defined, but nonetheless, earth-shattering, literary movement that owes its philosophical heritage to the Schlegel brothers Athanäum journal and that has its first efflorescence in English to Wordworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads.
But Romanticism also owes much to a man who was in many ways as much of a classicist as any of his other C18th contemporaries: the Sparta worshipping, Cato adoring watchmaker’s son Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau scholars will rightly protest that it is not right to call Rousseau a Romantic thinker without qualification. Nonetheless, it is Rousseau more than anyone else who most deserves the title of the progenitor of Romanticism, even if he bequeaths some but not all of his features to his intellectual progeny. Despite the fact that there are many reasons why we might not want to too hastily identify Rousseau as the first Romantic so many of his attitudes: his constant insistence on the importance of feeling over reason as a source of human action and community; on love as the highest state that can be achieved by the mutilated members of a mutilating society, his scepticism about C18th doctrines of progress and enlightenment and about the flourishing natural sciences all forge a path that – via the C18th cult of sensibility that Jane Austen is so fond of subjecting to elegant mockery – Romanticism will eventually use to reach its mountains, lakes, and the gem-filled mines in which the German tradition will see an externalisation of our unconscious nature.
Further: Romanticism is something that inflects all of mid- and late C19th thought. Even where it is most noisily disavowed (as in the works of Bentham and James Mill) it is still present as a powerful force to react against. Nonetheless, the feature of Romanticism that is most important for our coming to understand the Gothic, is Romanticism’s doubt about ideas of humanity’s progress through civilisation: specifically, the idea that modern science, technology, industry and commerce have made us happier, more free than ever before. It is true, of course, that there are defiant, Promethean motifs in Romantic thought (Shelley is the obvious example), but it is also true that for every Romantic thinker who writes a “Prometheus Unbound” there is another figure (Percy Shelley’s brilliant wife Mary) who writes a story, a poem, or an allegory about how Promethean ambitions unleash forces that are be beyond good and evil, and that have a tragic tendency to slip out of our control. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (an allegory of imagination and its products, of science and its attempts to conquer the world) is, of course, subtitled The Modern Prometheus, and if Mary shared her husband’s belief in a Promethean Revolt of the imagination, Percy Shelley must have also occasionally suffered doubts about whether the lightning unleashed by humanity would be harnessed in the name of the right (in his case social-revolutionary) cause.
One of the immediate effects of Romantic critique or Romantic ambivalence about ideas of progress is a marked tendency in Romantic thought to turn back to the past, not only to provide eternal archetypes of virtue and of vice, but to provide a vision of the future, of how the present might transcend itself and thus escape its ugliest or least bearable aspects. To simplify or to condense the profound reflections of a whole hosts of pamphlets, poems, and novels into a few glib sentences: the Romantic motif that runs through Ruskin, Carlyle, William Morris, Dickens, Balzac, Schiller, Percy and Mary Shelley is that the modern world is somehow scarred by unnatural divisions: reason has lost contact with the heart, the mind has lost touch with the body, the members of society have lost touch with each other, leaving Victorian society and its immediate predecessor like a man suffering from an electric shock: numb, stupefied, lost, desiccated caricatures of human beings.
In England, it is probably Carlyle who does more than anyone else to pioneer the Victorian love for Medieval architecture. The Middle Ages provide the artificially divided modern world with a vision of harmony, balance, and above all of the wholeness that the Victorians in particular will feel that they have lost in the very midst of the technological vindication of the doctrine of progress. The Gothic cathedral is not, like most C18th architecture the artificial deference of an isolated art (architecture) to an artificial classical lexicon: instead, it is, for Carlyle, a way of building that reflects a way of dwelling: the style is not approved of abstractly, but emerges naturally from the lives of the people who built it and worshipped in it: it is a worldview, a way of feeling about existence erected in stone and stained glass.
In France, Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris, did much to advance the case for Gothic architecture in a world of prevailing neo-classical sensibilities. In the novel, the cathedral is the living, breathing, heart of the city: not a monument to some classical image, but a part of its life, something that seems to sigh and groan the way the ordinary people of Paris do, something that soars heavenwards like their dreams, through whose windows light penetrates the darkness which is at once peaceful and melancholy but that also represents the dark place of the mind and the heart exemplified by Hugo’s remarkable villain Claude Frollo.
It is true that many of the pioneers of the Gothic (like Pugin in England) were eventual converts to Catholicism, or at least ‘high church’ Anglicans. But the Gothic Revival is not so much the result of Catholic revival in Protestant countries as the cause of all kinds of denominational musical chairs. When we look to all those English luminaries who went down the road from Anglicanism to Anglo-Catholicism and perhaps to “hardcore” Roman Catholicism, we very often see Romantic protest as the first way station on the journey back to Rome. From the belief that the age is divided against itself comes a belief that what defines the age (in its coldness, its calculation, its ‘bourgeois indifference) is what it most scorns.
Neo-Gothic: British Houses of Parliament, 1840-70.
Years of anti-Catholic animus in places like England pave the way for Catholicism providing precisely in English hearts the image of a faith, and of a world that seems desirable precisely for seeming so distant from the C19th industrial world that will be the constant stimulus for Romantic protest. To look on the Middle Ages as a time more harmonious less divided against itself than one’s own is potentially to look favourably on an idealised vision of the pre-Reformation Church (this gives some explanation as to why even a much later Catholic convert like Evelyn Waugh hated Vatican II, the vernacular mass and so on). But what is really going on here is that people were being moved to look away from their own time to an idealised past that was also seen by many converts might to provide an image of a more humane future. In Catholic countries, the defenders of the Gothic may well have been often Protestants.
At its most simple, the term ‘Gothic’ in architecture and in anything else is a term that “the moderns” use for the Medieval. But this definition is not quite right. This is because the Gothic is not simply the genre that deals with Medieval things (and thus the folklore of Medieval peasants with ghosts, vampires and the like). Instead, the ‘gothic novel’ is genre (whose heyday stretches from the C19th to the present) dealing with ghosts and other apparitions suddenly making an untimely appearance in a modern world that has long since disavowed belief in such things. Thus, the “Gothic” refers not principally to the Medieval, but to the intransigence, or the continuation of the Medieval in the modern world that is built on its ruins. The Gothic is therefore, in psychoanalytic parlance, about the return of the repressed: at the level of psychology, but also at the level of history.
This is why, a Gothic tale is not so much defined by the mere presence of goblins, werewolves and other sundry intermediary beings – beings that would have been standard fare for the German peasant of the C13th sitting beside her fire -- it is rather that the creatures of Medieval folklore start to break into the sober drawing rooms and cosy bedrooms of an age of Reason: demonic possession in an age of psychology, folklore monsters in the age of the triumph of the bourgeoisie, gods and monsters in the age of industrialisation, of railroads and robber barons, the age of capital and of Capital, of positivism, Darwin, Sherlock Holmes and the Crystal Palace.
Philosophically, in my thesis the importance of the Gothic lies in the way that it reveals a peculiar, but extremely important aspect of what Habermas calls the ‘time consciousness of modernity’. When Habermas uses this term he is, in the first instance, referring to Baudeliare’s idea that modern men and women experience time in terms of heightened moments of experience in which the ‘eternal becomes [manifest in] the instant’. One of the defining beliefs of our age is the belief in the importance of experience. Ours is an age of empirical science over a priori deduction, an age that lays moral and political stress on the idea that each person must find the truth on her own rather than have it told to her by an authority. As such, the modern world is an endless source of experiences: of shocks, revelations, moments of rapture. In fact our experience is so frequently overwhelmed by stimulus that we need to cultivate a degree of “desensitisation” simply to survive in the modern world: this is the ‘blasé attitude’ that Georg Simmel thought marked the mental life of the modern metropolis.
In the age of experience, we seek catatonia as much as we seek ecstasy: we are both overwhelmed to dullness (and thus perpetually in search of excitement) and overwhelmed to the point of shock (and thus in search of peace, rest, quiet.) Modernity, therefore, is the epoch (however nebulous its borders) which rejects above all things the ancient idea that the ephemeral is less real than the eternal. A concomitant of this idea is the notion that anything in motion is something less real than something at rest. But modern time-consciousness owes much to the modern ‘space-consciousness’ in the sense that we are heirs of the idea (mentioned in Bruno, and then demonstrated by Galileo) that we live in an ‘infinite universe’, instead of a ‘closed world’ (or cosmos): a universe where motion (as Hobbes said after visiting Galileo) is the natural state of things rather than the state of rest to which the ancients thought all motion strove towards. In the light of such things, what we call the “Gothic” names the anxiety of the modern consciousness of time, the fact that we are (as Nietzsche said) oppressed by a sense of history, even, and arguably especially at our most amnesiac. The Gothic is about the insistent memory but also about the glib forgetfulness of the modern world. Even more it is a representation of the way that the modern world fears (at least unconsciously) that all that it has left behind will one day catch up with it. The Gothic, with its unquiet dead, is a genre (and a style) concerned pre-eminently with ghosts. And what is a ghost, if not something that is ambiguously present precisely because its presence is also (dizzyingly) the presence of something past within the present? The ghost’s presence is a half presence, a ghostly presence.
The genre of the Gothic suggests a world haunted by a past that we would ratherhave forgotten, a “modernity” whose creation myth is a story of progress and enlightenment that nonetheless retains because of thissame myth uncomfortable, half repressed memories of violence, of repression: of terrible things that were done in order to bring theorder of reason and progress about. The Gothic, then is the ultimatesymbol of the anxiety of the modern world about its origins, about its past, and –following on from these -- about its future. It is an artefact of the emerging modern consciousness of time.
To explain this: if the term ‘modern’ is anything more than a linguistic shifter (like ‘this’, ‘now’, a term that could have been and in fact was used in the C3rd AD to describe the pagan world and then used of every epoch of itself) it must name some kind of rupture with that which went before. A sense of modernity is, therefore, a sense that something came before us with which we have now broken, that we are defined by what we have left behind in (but also as) our past. But the ‘Gothic’ is about that past catching up to us, it is the genre that is born from our anxiety about not being able to escape the past, from our sense that history is a nightmare from which we might never wake up.
In conclusion, I want to suggest that every instance of the word Gothic is to some extent an instance of the neo-Gothic: even the ‘originally’ Gothic (the properly Medieval as opposed to the Medievalrevived) is an image, for us, of the uncanny survival of lost (and indeed abandoned) things into our own forgetful epoch. A ghost, after all, is something that inappropriately survives its own death: it is that which remains restless in a state that should by rights be defined by rest. In the end, the Gothic provides us with the lesson put beautifully by William Faulkner, namely, that “The past isn’t dead; it’s not even passed.” Requiescat in Pace.
Guestblogger Mal would like to thank Professor Peter Otto of Melbourne University for his Gothic lecture several years ago. See Maladjusted's blog Drowning In Vitriol blog.