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Pithy: Or, Gothic Literature Within Modernity

Published in the Perth Gothic 'zine 'Broken Doll

Notable precursors to the modern gothic include the sensate and intellectual works of The Monk and Rabelais, the eeriness of the Italic renaissance The Castle Ontoria and the Islamic setting of the Castle Vathek. The modern gothic however owes the content of its literary tradition to the natural, social and personal philosophies that arose during the Enlightenment and Romantic periods that dominated eighteenth and early nineteenth century continental Europe. This period includes the rise of modern rationalism embodied in thinkers as diverse as Condorcet, de Sade, Diderot, Goethe, Kant, Rousseau and Voltaire, to name a few.

Part of this rationalism included the high narrative reflexivity to engage literary challenges on rationality itself, in a manner that challenged objective rationality via radical subjectivity. These were typically phrased in a manner that weakened the rationality of the individual and a metaphysical challenge. Such a theme is clearly evident in writers such a Shelley, Poe and Schiller.

The exception to this western European trend towards the gothic is England. Their contribution to the Enlightenment included thinkers as exciting as Hume and Smith. They were interesting enough to take the human condition of modernity, the individual consciousness confronted with a universe whilst understandable is devoid of meaning, to the labour-time used in the production of carrots over cabbages.

The gothic tradition didn't really appear in England until the Victorian period with a sudden and pronounced interest in spiritualism (it had however made its way to the United States - cf., Poe and the legend of Rip Van Winkle). It can be argued that it would have never appeared if it were not for the radical feudal socialism, or Christian anarchism, of William Blake, albeit with some help by pre-Rafaelite art and the paganism of Lord Dunsany.

Contrary to the continental (European) whose setting concentrated on a decayed traditional society, Blake confronted 'the dark satanic mills' with a Promethean political motivation:

"I will not cease this mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
'Til Jerusalem is buil'd here
In Englands green and pleasant land"

The Victorian gothic, the synthesis of industrialisation and spiritualism (e.g., Crowley, Theodore Parker), provided a populist opportunity for plot development characterised by ruling class sexual romances (albeit, only sexual by implication). The turgid narrative of Bram Stoker's, Dracula (saved by the inclusion of continental motif and themes and by Francis Ford Coppolla) bears unfortunate witness to this. A far more interesting presentation of the Victorian gothic in contemporary publications includes parts of the Nemesis The Warlock graphic novel.

More advanced in style, setting, theme, motif, narrative and characterisation is the radical industrialism in Czech literature, from the Golem, to Capeck, to Metropolis to the moment of paralysation of common sense - Kafka. Czech gothic dispenses with will all metaphysical nonsense except with the magic of machines and the fallibility of humans. It is undoubtable the precursor to cyberpunk and is indeed more insightful than most of that movement.

Turning to the United States, the initial gothic tales varied from the rationalist detective (Poe's 'Murder in Rue Morgue') to the fairytale (Rip Van Winkle). In time however, this combined with the mythic traditions of the indigenous Americans and the explorative cultural prediliction of the invaders. It is in this environment; Ithaqua (the Wendigo), Aztec temples, the ransacking of the Pyramids etc that the contribution of H.P. Lovecraft must be noted.

H.P. Lovecraft had a Nietzchean-atheistic approach to metaphysics and challenged the notion of knowledge protects one's sanity. Lovecraft constructed a consistent and disturbingly accurate history of axial religious beliefs as explanation for the alien horrors that lived on earth, in the stars, and beyond that cared as little to us as we do to the ant.

As the prophecies of William Blake were confimed across Eurasia and Northern Africa, gothic literature became temporarily unnecessary, except as witnessed by Ernst Junger's delight in the mixing of machines and blood. From Nuremberg to Kursk, from Nanjing to Hiroshima and Nagasaki the atrocity dialectic of modern reason and modern madness reached a new synthesis.

At this point a brief note must be made of what can be temporarily called 'space gothic', the deadly seriousness as humanity takes its first steps into space. Whilst special effects weakened the visual impact often to the degree of comedy by contemporary audiences, these narratives are content enhanced. With a real-world theme of the space race and the potential for nuclear war ever present, the dominant theme was the future of the human species. The confrontation with these extreme contingency problems led to the science fiction becoming the mythology of modernity (cf., Moorcock, Lem, Le Guin, Gibson and Iain Banks).

The literature that surrounds the contemporary gothic sub-cultures in advanced capitalism has not, of course, reached the artistic excellence that it has in clothing and music. Excellent contributions have been made by Rice and Brite, but it is yet to be seen whether the contemporary gothic can provide an extraordinary contribution to the history of literature. The key problem faced with authors labelled gothic is that the contemporary version is not generally expressive in literature but as living expressions. The most significant gothic motifs are those found whose characters do not engage in the subcultural expression. This remains true across the mythic (Burroughs) to the scientific (Ballard).

The future for gothic literature is quite uncertain. Potential content changes in social formation and social structures (e.g, means of communication, means of production, institutional base, mode of consciousness) present the literature with the possibility of a parody more incisive than Don Quixote. In this environment, although it may horrify many who associate with the either subculture, the democratic story-telling forms and simulation accuracy of roleplaying deserves further and future attention. It is of increasing likliehood that the future will judge our success not on the works of individual researchers but from multi-disciplinary research teams.

The significant contribution of the gothic to the existential questions that arise with the modern mode of consciousness defines its contribution within modernity as an epic. This includes the foresight to warn that in a universe where there was no moral metaverse reality could be manipulated with increasing amplification for good, evil and disaster. The symboitic relationship between the gothic and feminist production and interpretation underlines a reckless imperative of epistemephilia. These themes and all over literary qualities of the gothic work well in the world of advanced capitalism, global poverty, political corruption and corporate science. The writer who first understands the true horror of this narrative who will be most memorable.