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Dangerous bodiesHistoricising the gothic corporeal$

Marie Mulvey-Roberts

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780719085413

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719085413.001.0001

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Conclusion: conflict Gothic

Conclusion: conflict Gothic

(p.221) Conclusion: conflict Gothic
Dangerous bodies

Marie Mulvey-Roberts

Manchester University Press

‘I is another.’1

Arthur Rimbaud, letter to Paul Demeny, 15 Mary 1871

‘… a new modus legendi: a method of reading cultures from the monsters they engender.’2

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Monster Culture: Reading Culture (1996)

Corporeality has been used by the Gothic to express horror of the Other, whether it be through the body of the Catholic, Caribbean slave, femme fatale, Jew or enemy soldier. The construct of the monster is a declaration of war on individuals, who are demonised for their marginality and whose bodies are overlaid with fear and danger. The title of the final chapter, ‘The Vampire of War’, echoes the phrase, ‘the fog of war’, alluding to the difficulty of decision-making in the midst of conflict.3 This expression goes back to Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military analyst, who declared in his monumental book, On War (1832): ‘War is the realm of uncertainty.’4 Within the Gothic realms of uncertainty, lack of clarity can extend to determining friend from foe or self from Other. As we have seen, this can manifest in the shifting metaphor of the vampire, applicable not only to the enemy but also to soldiers and their leaders, men and women on the home front, war veterans, those involved in the armament industry, regimental prostitutes and the forces of imperialism. During her keynote at a Gothic conference in Poland, Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet paraded a number of subgenres, including battlefield Gothic, which are contained (p.222) within the burgeoning genre of War Gothic.5 It is a banner under which the category of vampirism and war is readily mustered.

Invariably the Gothic arises out of conflict. As the Marquis de Sade observed, the Gothic novel emerged from the horrors of the French Revolution. He expressed particular admiration for Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, which can be read as a gory map of the Terror and the anti-clericalism blighting France from 1793 to 1794, a process continued by several of his imitators.6 Yet this was by no means the bloodiest conflict within living memory. A longer-lasting and more global conflict with a much greater death toll was the Seven Years War, which Winston Churchill famously described as the ‘first world war’.7 The year after it ended in 1763, Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, in which a castle is haunted by a giant suit of armour, serving as a suitable metonym for war.8 As Angela Wright points out: ‘The Castle of Otranto is linguistically and generically freighted with the effects of the Seven Years War.’9 Significantly, the first instance of supernatural terror is the crushing of Manfred’s son by a giant helmet, a symbol of how large the recent memory of war loomed. Bearing down on nations, war crushes those in its path, as surely as did Prince Alfonso’s helmet.10 The relationship between war and the Gothic novel has been inextricably linked from the start of this literary tradition and continues in The Old English Baron (1778), which its author Clara Reeves regarded as the literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto. Her description of the inside of a suit of armour, found to be stained with blood, turns out to be more realistic and abject than Walpole’s gigantic spectral version.

The year before his novel appeared, an appeal for Catholics to be allowed to enlist in the British army was rebuffed. Shock waves from Henry VIII’s fissure with Rome over two hundred years earlier were still resonating, and indeed the Dissolution of the Monasteries can be seen as the unspoken horror in Castle of Otranto. Similarly, The Monk is a response to the desecration of the Catholic Church in France. In many ways, the French Revolution and the Henrician English Reformation brought about the destruction of a Gothic world in Britain and France, which Walpole and Lewis sought to recapture imaginatively through Gothic fiction. As a literature dealing with oppression, the Gothic novel is a political genre encrypting the return of the repressed, as well as pointing towards what was to come.

Hauntology, an evocation of the revenant, opens up a way of looking at the spectres lying ahead. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can be read (p.223) as a warning against future anarchy being unleashed on the world as a result of the man-made monster of slavery. Her scientist hero is increasingly apprehensive that, if his male and female monster were to depart to a remote desert in the New World, they would ‘thirst’, vampire-like, to propagate ‘a race of devils’, foment terror and endanger ‘the very existence of the species of man’ (pp. 170–1). Similarly, fears of rebellion in the New World were not far removed from the minds of Shelley’s contemporaries. This prospect of massacres, machetes and dismemberment coalesces in the incipient dangers posed by Frankenstein’s female creature as a mother of monsters. The body of the female monster is a cabinet of curiosities, whose body parts, like those of the Hottentot Venus, lend themselves to fragmentation.11 Once torn apart, Shelley’s potentially dangerous female is rendered safe, until reintegrated by later novelists in the form of, for example, Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, Elizabeth Hand’s bride of Frankenstein, Pandora, or Fay Weldon’s she devil who, in order to take revenge on her unfaithful husband, defies her maker by remaking herself anew, not just psychically but also through plastic surgery.12

The use of surgery as an instrument of pacification rather than empowerment, demonstrated by the sexual surgery carried out by Isaac Baker Brown, was symptomatic of the war on women waged in the operating theatre. Bogus medical theory and practice underpin this surgical misogyny. Read as a medical novel, Dracula can be seen to mirror some of these attitudes to women, including the construction of the femme fatale, at a time when gender roles were in the spotlight and under the scalpel. While a limited number of contemporary cognoscenti readers might have picked up on this surgical subtext, the general reader is unlikely to have registered it consciously. Likewise, German audiences watching the vampire in F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu would not have identified this hairless creature with a Jew in the first instance. But within the context of an anti-Semitic gestalt, the encroaching accumulation of Jewish stereotypes, such as the exaggerated nose, long fingernails, enlarged ears, shuffling gait, black attire and blood-sucking tendencies, are likely to have crept up on them, as stealthily as Count Orlok mounts the stairs on the way to his victim’s bedroom.

The body is a potential site of monstrosity for those who do not fit into the body politic. Irregularity and the grotesque have been associated with the architecture of the Gothic and are also indicative of wayward flesh and its deformities. The monstrous body provides a battleground on which good versus evil can play out for perpetuity. Monsters are a rupture in the fabric of society, which can itself become monstrous, imperilling existence or making (p.224) it merely monotonous, like the lives of the human pistons in Lang’s film Metropolis.The Gothic has even been co-opted by the forces of oppression, as when George Canning used the monster in Frankenstein to sway Parliament from agreeing to the immediate emancipation of slaves. Religious persecution, racism, misogyny and war are responses to bodies considered dangerous by the controlling institutional bodies of the Church, medical profession and state. Throughout history, the body has had to endure being tortured by the Inquisition, enchained by slavery, mutilated by castrating surgeons or victimised by the vampirism of war and persecution. The endangered or dangerous body lies at the centre of the clash between victim and persecutor and has generated tales of terror and narratives of horror, which function to either salve, purge or dangerously perpetuate such oppositions.



(1) Arthur Rimbaud, letter to Paul Demeny, 15 May 1871, in Complete Works, Selected Letters, trans. Wallace Fowlie (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1966), p. 304.

(2) Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, ‘Monster Culture (Seven Theses) (extract)’, in Speaking of Monsters: A Teratological Anthology, ed. Caroline Joan S. Picart and John Edgar Browning (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 15.

(3) See The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), a documentary directed by Errol Morris.

(4) Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 101.

(5) This took place during the ‘All That Gothic: Excess and Exuberance’ conference held at the University of Lodz, Poland, 9–11 October 2014.

(6) Musäus’ ‘The Elopement’, which appears to have been Lewis’ primary source for his Raymond and Agnes sub-plot in The Monk, is set during the Thirty Years War.

(8) I owe this point to Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet.

(9) Wright, Britain, France and the Gothic, 1764–1820, p. 8. Wright indicates how Ann Radcliffe’s final novel, Gaston de Blondeville (1826), reveals an ‘enduring fascination’ with ‘the historical circumstances of the Anglo-French conflict’, p. 14.

(10) The language of warfare is deployed even in the first preface.

(11) I owe this point to Zofia Kolbuszewska.

(12) See Fay Weldon, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1983).