EESE 4/1997

Gothicism in Postmodern Anglo-American Narratives and Media

Hans Ulrich Mohr (Dresden)

The concept of Gothicism may in the first respect be related to the novels of horror and terror (Gothic Novels) which came into being in England shortly after the middle of the 18th century and which have been thriving ever since (e.g. Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto,1764; Matthew G. Lewis: The Monk, 1793; Mary Shelley: Frankenstein, 1814; Bram Stoker: Dracula, 1895; Thomas Harris: The Silence of the Lambs, 1988). Tales and narratives of terror have also come to dominate the world of the pictorial and electronic media of today. Originally Gothicism was a reaction to the socio-structural changes in the wake of the emerging Industrial Age. It was linked with concepts which had to cushion the social disorientations which had occurred through the impact of the new conditions and developments on the traditional models of reality and society. The notions and features of Gothicism which were created at that time are still present in many spheres of our postmodern culture. A research project in the field of literature and the media of the University of Bielefeld, sponsored by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, attempted to survey and analyse the many forms and functions of Gothicism in contemporary literature and, as far as it seemed necessary for an adequate assessment, the media.

The Boom in Delightful Horror

Investigations on juvenile media consumers made in the U.S.A. in 1993 found out that already in a two-hour daily dose of TV an adolescent is a person with 20.000 experiences of bodily harm, manslaughter or murder by the time he/she reaches the age of 18. In the year 1987 alone 105 horrorfilms were produced worldwide.

Cover of the videocassette: The Evil Dead I (1982).
It was produced by the then 20-year-old Sam Raimi. Its notoriety rests above all upon the horrible six minute finale, which is excessive, but not without irony. In Germany the film ran under the title Tanz der Teufel ('Dancing Devils') . It soon became a cult film despite being banned by the law authorities. In the meantime The Evil Dead II and III have appeared.

These films, however, are only the most striking aspect of an all-embracing 'secondary reality' provided by the media and characterized by its Gothic elements. It extends from the omnipresent TV to audiocassettes (favored by the 9- to 10-year olds, to videogames with strong elements of violence (such as Doom and its updates), certain cartoons, (war-)toys, certain fanzines, pornographic videos, dungeon & dragon role-plays and, of course, a large element of the popular music scene.

Cover of an LP by the Swedish Doom Metal Band Bathory. The apocalyptic landscape corresponds to the aesthetic categories of the Sublime, developed in the 18th century. It shows, however, a surrealistic element which goes beyond the definitions of the 18th-century Sublime. The caption Twilight of the Gods refers to Richard Wagner's opera Götterdämmerung. Bathory is the name of a Hungarian countess, who lived in the late Middle Ages and who, as the legends have it, used to take regenerative baths in the blood of slaughtered virgins. She is frequently mentioned in one (foul) breath with the transsylvanian count Dracula who is alleged to have once impaled 12,000 prisoners of war.

The aspect of horror and violence which is so prominent in those mass-produced forms of art has also become a pervasive element of all other forms of art up to the most sophisticated texts which require readers to have a particularly developed decoding ability. Fictional horror is an omnipresent aesthetic phenomenon. It frequently uses the effect of delightful horror (the German term 'Angstlust' sounds even more graphic), i.e. the experience of heightened self-awareness after an intensive experience involving an indirect threat to one's life. The most unusual variant practised today is what is called bungee jumping, a jump into the abyss which is stopped inches before the ground is hit by a a rubber rope attached to the body of the dare-devil. Such and other not quite so extreme forms of regenerating one's sense of identity are something which an increasing number of people seem to require nowadays. This is obviously the case because our social conditions exert a certain degree of functionalistic pressure together with an abstraction and de-emotionalizing of our world of living. In addition, other forms of regeneration of one's sense of identity, as for example through social ties or family coherence seem to have lost their effect under these pressures or have dissolved completely.

Gothic Style

In the Anglo-American cultural sphere forms of fictional horror are termed 'Gothic'. The word originated in the aesthetic discourse of the Renaissance in Italy. Around the middle of the 18th century the notion of Gothic style was used to describe a newly awakened interest in the medieval, barbaric or strangely exotic - in any case in non-classicist forms of art. The Goths were equated to the Vandals and were held responsible for a relapse into the barbarism of the Middle Ages, the historical section that lies between the accomplishments of classical antiquity and their rebirth in the Renaissance.

The Gothicism of the mid-18th-century was a reaction to the socio-structural changes of British society which occurred in connection with the rise of the industrial society. This style was developed from several sources with an emphasis on (late) medieval Gothic art by a progressive section of a group called the gentry, a composition of (mainly) lower nobility and upper middle class. Gothicism represented the taste of this group and its function was to express a new model of coherence and of meaningfulness in a world where the former model of reality and society had lost its significance. In the preceding epoch, i.e. roughly the first half of the 18th century the hegemonic gentry subscribed to a model of reality and society called Physico-Theology which was a synthesis of Isaac Newton's scientific discoveries and of John Locke's associationist model of the human mind and of a secularized form of Protestantism. This model viewed Nature as a vast machine working in clockwork fashion according to the laws of objective reason. Nevertheless, the social changes instigated through and legitimized by this model resulted in a three-fold revision of it, viz. it had to be irrationalized, aestheticized and historicized.

The Silence of the Lambs(1988).
Cover of the book by Thomas Harris. This novel as well as the film (released in 1992) occupied the # 1 position in the British and American sales charts. It combines the genre of 'crime, detection and mystery' in its thriller-variant with the motive of female emancipation and the sexually tinged exotic theme of the search for a cannibalistic, transvestite murderer. The unusual success of book and film may be traced above all to a structure of presentation which makes deep psychological appeals to a people divided on gender-issues and which ultimately manipulates a consensus between them.

The Shining (1977).
Cover of one of Stephen King's innumerable bestselling novels. The books written by this extremely prolific American 'King of horror' (who also writes under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) are so many that they already fill separate sections of American, British and German bookshops. Like most of King's books this text was made into a film, in this case by the famous Stanley Kubrick and starring Jack Nicholson. The Shining, i.e. telekinesis, telepathy, deals with the fate of a nuclear family which breaks up under the impact of our present-day society, especially the job situation. This topic was already constituitive for the 18th-century Gothic novel, although it was then addressed only in an indirect sense by placing the action in an aestheticized mediaeval setting. The place of a haunted castle is now taken by a vast hotel complex which is left deserted during the winter season.

Although the world could no longer be considered as 'reasonable', it could still be understood as permeated by a latent meaningfulness. This was evident, above all, in observing what happened in Nature, i.e. in landscape and in the history that occurred in such a landscape. This new model of reality made it possible for each individual of a certain degree of 'sense and sensibility' (significantly the title of a novel by Jane Austen) to perceive and to understand aesthetically and empirically the meaningfulness of the existing social order and the historical process in which one was involved. The repertoire of Gothicism stands for the complex and differentiated relatedness between external reality (Nature as landscape and as history) and individual experience (in terms of intellect and emotion or body). The new model of reality and society of which Gothicism is the most characteristic feature, was described primarily in terms of the aesthetic of the 'Picturesque and Sublime' (cf. the illustrations from Cole's The Course of Empire). All its features were soon taken up by all genres and provinces of art: in poetry, in drama, in travel writing, in architecture and in landscape gardening and painting. It found its widest range of expression in the Gothic Novel which, due to the invention of the 'circulating library' system, became the favourite of the newly emerging mass-reading audience.

During the 19th century the model of reality and society based on the aesthetic of the Picturesque and the Sublime lost much of its significance. This however, does not apply to the Gothic element in literature and the arts. The fact that Gothicism sets (a) body and psyche as well as (b) the world perceived in a multivalent relationship seems to have secured for it a perennial topicality. It is now a means of expression in all genres and spheres of a differentiated scene of artistic and literary production.

Two paintings out of five from Thomas Cole's cycle The Course of Empire (1836).
Cole lived from 1801 to 1848. He was born in England and founded what is called the Hudson River School of Landscape Painting. The first painting is entitled "The Consummation of Empire". It shows a successful highpoint of human civilization and cultural development due to a congenial domination over a Nature which may be described in terms of the aesthetic of the Picturesque and the Sublime. It represents the third stage of a historical development of a teleological but also of a cyclical kind which set out from an originally 'savage state'.

The other painting is entitled "Destruction" and it shows the destruction of that empire by the sublime forces of Nature. These forces are located either outside or inside man and they manifest themselves as decadence, the invasion of barbarism, a civil war, a whirlstorm, an earth- or a seaquake, a volcanic eruption. The chaotic, destructive aspect of the Sublime is frequently symbolized in 19th-century literature and painting as an atmospheric or oceanic vortex.

Gothicism and Postmodernism

The development of Gothic literature occurred, as it has been mentioned above, parallel to the development of the industrial society. It proliferated an aesthetic of effect in order to make possible the experience of a meaningful world for the individual. And as literary history shows, the mass reading public needed this offer in ever increasing numbers. For many people the burden, hardships and the disorientations in the wake of the industrial society were only bearable in that way. Today, however, we live in an era, which is almost unanimously called Post-Modernism or Post-Histoire or even the post-industrial age. Its onset is usually located in the late 1960s.

The term Postmodernism oscillates. It originated in the late 1950s but its present meaning goes back to the usage in architecture (especially by Charles Jencks, 1985) and it meant a turning away from Modernism, i.e. a style , a model of conceiving of reality which in the Anglo-American world was seen as following the final twitchings of Victorianism in the frist decade of the twentieth century and reaching well into the 1960s. Soon, however, it was recognized that a critique of Modernism, of its matter-of-factness and abstraction and of the high expectations it placed on curing the ills of society by helping individual psychology, implied a fundamental critique of the model of reality prevalent in the Industrial Age since its beginning in the 18th century. By deconstructing this concept, i.e. exposing the latent notions and presuppositions of which it consists, it became obvious that this reality, as any other, is a collective construct.

Conjoined with the hitherto prevailing concept of reality was a certain concept of history. History was considered as a development which, orientated at middle-class values and in line with the aspirations of the enlightened individual, moved progressively towards perfection. Today such an 'individual' is obsolete. It is no longer considered as an original source and as an authentic unit and force. Rather, it is considered as the overlapping of a multiplicity of social institutions. History is no longer expected to bring about a fundamental change in the human situation. No social class or group, neither the middle class nor the working class, can claim to possess an authentic blue-print for an emancipated society.

Reviewing the historical repertoire of art, it becomes clear that art can no longer insist on its metaphysical quality. It is nothing but the outcome of group-specific attempts to create a meaningful world. It is not part of a metaphysical substance. It is only the correlative of the conditions under which it was produced, that means, in any case, it is a function of the economic and material conditions.

Today we live in a world-wide society which receives its impulses for development by the high potential of differentiation provided by the economy. In contrast to former epochs it has no over-arching model of reality. Nevertheless it is held together by a network of electronic communication which surrounds the globe like a second atmosphere. It provides the mechanical and functional coordination of human activities. The (sub)system of mass communication proliferates incessant and incessantly varying offers for a meaningful world and for placing the individual in it. But these offers do not provide an ideological message except that they are suffused with the message that they are rooted in a society which is under the domination of the economic subsystem and which creates and produces all kinds of goods as individual and collective problem solvers.

In an era where overarching concepts have lost their significance, the narcissistic reference to the body has become the last ideological resource. But this could not be the case without the preceding narcissistic damage done to human self-esteem and identity. According to Christopher Lasch's book The Culture of Narcissism (1979), this is obviously a collective predicament of our times.

Cover of the American writer Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow.
Pynchon has created the hitherto most complex representations of postmodern society. The title of this book refers to the two outstanding discoveries of the famous mathematician and natural scientist Isaac Newton, vz. the law of gravitation and the prismatic effect. Both discoveries provided extremely important preconditions for the development of the industrial society, the 'project of modernity'. Pynchon's novel exemplifies the fundamental contradictions of industrial society by telling the history of a man who is modelled upon Wernher von Braun and who experiences the culmination of industrial society in the paradox of high-tech (V 2- rocket, space technology) on the one hand and concentration camps on the other. The (adequate) German translation of the book (publ. by Rowohlt Publ.) bears the florid title Die Enden der Parabel ('the ends of the parable/ parabola') because the translator (as he admitted to me (H.U.M.) found Pynchon's title somewhat meaningless.

Postmodernism and the Reader's Creativity

At the opposite end of the scale of reaction to this situation stands creativity, as the act of an in-depth remodelling of the (narcissistically disturbed) psycho-physical personality. In fact, the more serious literature of our age almost urges its readers to participate in the creation of the multiple meaning of its texts, more activiely than in any previous epoch. Reality may be beyond authentic representation but it can be made consistent and meaningful for the individual reader. This is just what those literary texts, that are composed of fragments, incoherent details of unprocessed information, collages and complex layers of meaning, demand. The present-day writers that should be mentioned here are Thomas Pynchon (Gravity's Rainbow, 1973), Robert Coover (Gerald's Party, 1985), Richard Brautigan (The Hawkline Monster, 1978), Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse 5, 1969); Raymond Federman (Double or Nothing, 1971), Ronald Sukenick (Blown Away, 1986). The multi-layered potential of meaning in their texts corresponds with the high degree of differentiation of our postmodern society and it reflects the impossibility of concluding the search for meaning. Nevertheless, it offers the reader the possibility of experiencing him-/herself intensively as a creative individual and thus being able to come to grips with a complex and elusive reality.

Cover of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1969),
a novel by the English fantasy virtuosa Angela Carter. This text may be classified as an 'open' (semantically multivalent) allegorical parable. The text proceeds as the narration of the journey of Desiderio, the protagonist, who sets out to investigate the machinations of Hoffman, a magician. It combines several allegorical devices and it deals with ideas and concepts in the shape of stylized events and actions. The name Hoffman is of course a reference to the grotesque and fantastic tales of the German romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. The more the narrative progresses, the more it becomes clear that man in his/her social behaviour, even in his scientific endeavours, remains bound to the programme of his given instinctual drives and structures, although they may be encodable in many variations. The text demonstrates, without becoming mystical, the existence of a mysterious life (energy) source in which man participates and which also determines his existence.

The Function of Gothicism in Postmodern Literature

Gothicism plays an important role in this context. Unlike the mass media of our society that propagate the narcissistic self-referentiality of the allegedly autonomous body, these writers consider the body as void of an ultimate meaning, as malleable and open for any kind of utilization. The body is seen as dependent on the shaping or deforming influence of the subjective or collective consciousness. Therefore these writers are concerned with the discovery and articulation of authentic relationships between body and consciousness - irrespective of taboos. The narrative technique they employ may appear incoherent but it aims at suspending the collective construction of perceiving and conceptualizing with which we define our every-day world. These texts re-establish the fundamental existential openness of man towards reality and in this way they make it possible to experience an at least momentary identity between ( a) body and consciousness and (b) reality. This is an act of transcending the 'modern' world we have collectively created and which we increasingly come to experience as indifferent to the question of meaningfulness.

Of course, such narratives take into account the postmodern experience of the "ending of history", which, in fact, is only the ending of the notion of a teleological, perfectionist history and of the idea that the middle-class individual is able to shape or even invent history.

Autobiographical and causal-linear narration can only survive in ironical form, i.e. as a narrative that, at the same time, denies its legitimacy. This is the reason why the (proto-)genre of the 'failing autobiographical confession' achieves a special significance in our time. In most of the cases it recapitulates an atrocious deed of its (fictional) narrator in which bodily and intellectual volition were intensively intertwined. However, these persons do not succeed in achieving an understanding or a definition of their psycho-physical condition at the time of the crime (e.g. Walker Percy: Lancelot, 1969; John Banville: The Book of Evidence, 1989). Another variant of the failing autobiographical confession is the attempt to come close to the motives of a person who lived in a pre-modern, viz. pre-industrial world, e.g. in Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor (1985), Graham Swift's Waterland (1983) and Nigel Williams's Witchcraft (1987).

A further feature of postmodern writing is the recourse to myth. This kind of a 'master narrative' has always presupposed body and consciousness as intertwined. The many-facetted narrative of myth provides a matrix of patterns of events which has been sedimented in the course of human history. In this way a possibility is provided to articulate what seems to escape representability. Under the condition of postmodernism such narratives adopt the form of open, multivalent parables which include many facets and references to present-day and former concepts and modes of expression as, e.g. in Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1969) and in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot '49' (1966).

Close to mythical narration is Science Fiction, especially when the myth of scientific progress is questioned. It can also be used for a questioning of the existing colonization of body and consciousness from a feminist, an ecological etc. point of view, as for example in Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1975), in John Graham Ballard's Crash (1975), Margaret Atwood's Surfacing (1985), Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and in Sally Miller Gearhart's The Wanderground (1980).

Cover of John Graham Ballard's novel Crash (1975).
This text, like its predecessor The Atrocity Exhibition (1969), demonstrates that even the high-tech world of Postmodernism must be seen as an off-shoot or even as a protrusion of the human central nervous system. Therefore our world, technically and intellectually advanced as it may appear, has not solved or even overcome the problem of the contradiction between and at the same time of the interdependence of intellect and body. Rather, it has, on the basis of this structure, developed into a monstrous, self-destructive scenario.

A similar strong interest in Gothicism is shown by our present-day multiculturalism. Ethnic groups and communities who are participants inour postmodern society in a colonized role concretely and/ or in a figurative sense, stake out their claims in narratives with a strong Gothic element. These groups and their writers experience a tension between the conditions offered by mainstream society and their personal need for a meaningful world in a particularly strong way as they seem to be caught between an ethnic life-style and the functionally differentiated however inconsistent and indifferent world of postmodernity. Writers like Toni Morrison (Beloved, 1987), Ishmael Reed (Mumbo Jumbo, 1972), Alice Walker (The Color Purple, 1982), Maxine Hong Kingston (Woman Warrior, 1976) and Wilson Harris (The Four Banks of the River of Space, 1990) illustrate this.

From the beginning of the Industrial Age, Gothicism had the function of verifying for the individual the experience of a reality conceived in terms of the Picturesque and the Sublime, an experience that helped to accept the burden inflicted by the advance of industrialization. Because of its intensive possibilities for an aesthetic of effect, Gothicism survived even in the Postmodern Era. In the mass communication system it serves the narcissistic need for stabilization. On the other hand it makes possible the problematization of the concepts and ideologies behind the industrial society, such as patriarchy, racism, substantialism (belief in the active intervention of metaphysical forces in history). In doing this it also thematizes our knowledge about the plasticity of the body-mind relationship and about the multivalent links of man with reality. It is a mode of understanding and probing the world with the knowledge that our social order is the result of a collective construction that articulates our instinctual drives and negotiates between them(cf. the approach of the sociologist Hans-Peter Dreitzel). Stripped of its formerly implied ideologemes, Gothicism appears as an expression of our awareness of the hazards of social construction in face of the fundamental impossibility of authentic interhuman communication (cf. the works of the sociologist Niklas Luhmann)


A former version of this article has previously been published in Forschungen an der Universität Bielefeld. We are grateful to the Informations- und Pressestelle der Universität Bielefeld for allowing us to republish this work.