May 21, 2019

The Draw of the Gothic

“To understand the literary Gothic – to even begin to account for its curious appeal, and its simultaneous qualities of seduction and repulsion – it is necessary to undertake a little time travel. We must go back beyond the builders putting the capstone on Pugin’s Palace of Westminster, and on past the last lick of paint on the iced cake of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House; back again another six hundred years past the rap of the stone-mason’s hammer on the cathedral at Reims, in order to finally alight on a promontory above the city of Rome in 410AD. The city is on fire. There are bodies in the streets and barbarians at the gates. Pope Innocent I, hedging his bets, has consented to a little pagan worship that is being undertaken in private. Over in Bethlehem, St Jerome hears that Rome has fallen. ‘The city which had taken the whole world’, he writes, ‘was itself taken.’ The old order – of decency and lawfulness meted out with repressive colonial cruelty – has gone. The Goths have taken the Forum.

The term ‘Gothic’ was first used as an insult, and writers of the genre have always had a reckless disregard for either praise or blame. At first, however, the insult was levelled not at a work of literature, but at the brutally ornate architecture of gargoyles and buttresses which distinguish the great cathedrals of the Medieval age. During the renaissance, Giorgio Vasari – an Italian scholar with a taste for the white facades and polite proportions of Classical architecture – found himself within a vaulted cathedral, and was appalled. It was, he said, all confusion and disorder, a ‘deformed malediction’ that ‘polluted the world’. It was as barbarous an act of social and aesthetic rebellion as the work of the Germanic tribes that tore down the last of the Roman Empire. It was, in fact, Gothic.

In 1764, when Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto – a slim, absurd novel that mingles romantic fantasy with violence and transgression – he subtitled his work ‘a Gothic story.’ He knew what he was about. The reader would not encounter in those pages the moral rigour of Daniel Defoe, or the psychological realism of Samuel Richardson. They would find instead a vast plumed helmet that appears out of the blue to crush a young suitor, followed by a hysteric procession of ghosts, cruelties, lusts, improbable vanishings and labyrinthine pursuits. Its effects were like those of the cathedrals: too large, too impolite, too ill-mannered; seeming both to enlarge the reader’s imagination and to speak to their most concealed and furtive desires.”

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