Wednesday 25 July 2018


Anyway, enough ersatz commentary. Let's have some more ersatz commentary!

It's easy, amongst the blood feuds and boycotts and the wall-to-wall saturation of 'alt.chixxxx', to forget where the pulse of the gothic movement is. Often it seems we are trapped in a perpetual cycle of self-deprecation, flatulence and failure. For every great record or triumphant piece of art there are many more slices of casual sexism, cheap sensationalism, and an Alt-Fest. But surely, beneath the velvet coat of the gothic facade, there is something else going on?

Beginning with the roots of the gothic revival with 'The Castle of Otranto' and the explosion of gothic literature it inspired, the gothic has always wrestled with the legacy of the enlightenment and its position in a confusing, newly industrialised world. Its origins were confused, combining a contrived classicism with an extravagantly aristocratic bearing. But what was it trying to get at?

First, what was at the heart of gothic culture was an opposition to the tyranny of irrationality and unaccountable power. From the hooded torturers of the inquisition to the living death of the nunnery, to the despots of remote castles or even the uncontrollable forces of science itself, the gothic pitches the forces of reason against the 'old' forces of dictatorial, patriarchal power. The protagonists in gothic fiction find themselves as the force of a liberal, modern mentality in a world that is archaic, barbaric and medieval in its mentality. Crucially, it is the democratic rights of women, children, and the poor which the gothic advances as they struggle against these (literal) 'dark forces'.

Second, what is evident from the application of gothic principles into reality is the extent to which these principles were put in practice. From Bryon's speech in the Lords in favour of the Luddites and his activism in Greece, to de Sade's role as a section head in the French Republic who refuse to sign a single death warrant, to the socialism of the Shellys, these principles of social radicalism and political progress were the leitmotif of a movement which described a terrible monstrosity in theory, but expounded a principled enlightenment in practice. The horrors of the gothic were not the expression of a morbid, nihilistic irrationality, but quite the reverse.

And the third, lastly, was the breaking of social taboos in areas around liberties in sexual behaviour and political rights. The libertines of gothic fiction, whether exotic princes or villainous Byronic nobles or even undead Transylvanian aristocrats, practice a philosophical and liberating nihilism which rises above (or at least rails against) the established social behaviours of bourgeois society. However, and crucially, the gothic doesn't use this to propose the kind of irrational horrors that we subsequently witnessed in the twentieth century but is instead an expression of the sexual rights and political ideas that we fought to win, and are still fighting to defend, today.

So this is the ideological framework that the gothic movement works within: modern, liberal, progressive, but invoking the irrational as an expression of our personal and political horrors. It is this which we need to move to maintain, and to build upon. It won't do to fall down the same trap door of conspiracy theories, intolerance, prejudice and oppression which were the very conditions which the gothic rebelled against. It won't suffice to allow our own feelings of elitism to separate us from the impulses which the gothic movement represents.

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