The history of things that go bump in the night

gothic: four hundred years OF EXCESS, HORROR, EVIL AND RUIN

By Richard Davenport-Hines

North Point Press/FS&G

438 pp., $35

The Gothic is somewhat difficult to define precisely, but as one Supreme Court Justice famously said of obscenity, we usually know it when we see it. Moldering old castles, dungeons, ogres, ghosts, and vampires are Gothic. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is not.

The original Goths, Richard Davenport-Hines reminds us, were 5th-century European barbarians who pillaged, looted, and generally wrought destruction. The term Gothic is also applied to the great cathedrals of the later part of the Middle Ages. Davenport-Hines's book is about a tradition that he identifies with the former sort of Goth: all things atavistic and scary, violent, lurid, extreme, and excessive.

Davenport-Hines locates the origins of Gothic sensibility in the 17th-century Italian artist Salvador Rosa. He painted gloomy pictures of ruined landscapes inspired by the devastation wrought by the eruption of Vesuvius in 1631.

The inauguration of the Gothic novel per se, however, was essentially the work of a rather charming and civilized 18th-century Englishman with a keen sense of humor: Horace Walpole, son of the British prime minister Sir Robert Walpole. Among the many pleasures of Davenport-Hines's lively and richly researched book is his engaging portrait of this man who wrote "The Castle of Otranto" and built himself a gem of a Gothic revival castle known as Strawberry Hill.

The Gothic, Davenport-Hines explains, emerged as a kind of counter-force to the Enlightenment. As the bright sunlight of reason spread, seeming to banish the murky shadows of superstition and fear, the Gothic arose to fill the gap, to remind us of dark, irrational passions stubbornly unsusceptible to reason.

Davenport-Hines wends his way through a veritable forest of Gothicism, from the pleasantly chilling to the downright sickening: artists like Piranesi, Fuseli, and Goya; notorious figures like the Marquis de Sade; writers like Monk Lewis, Ann Radcliffe, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Brockden Brown; filmmakers like David Lynch; rock bands like the Cure, "splatterpunks"; outrageous artists like Britain's Chapman brothers, known for their use of animal corpses.

Although Davenport-Hines writes with style and panache, his book does not manage to evade the aesthetic problem imposed by so exhaustive a treatment. When one's subject is "excess" and "extreme," too much of a bad thing eventually begins to pall.

This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that Davenport-Hines writes as an avid fan and defender of the Gothic in all its manifestations, especially its most sadistic and antihumanistic. Indeed, he ends with a paean to a pair of British artists who've gained notoriety for art consisting of mutilated bodies.

He proudly subscribes to the school of thought that believes art's purpose is not to improve us, but is rather to make us uncomfortable. (Just how many people living in the late 20th century are feeling all that comfortable that they require this kind of shock treatment?)

Not surprisingly, Davenport-Hines overstates the importance of the Gothic as a reaction or counter-force to the Enlightenment. What about the much broader, more genuinely imaginative and humanistic counterforce of Romanticism?

Also, his championship of the Gothic is riddled with intellectual inconsistencies. It relies on name-calling rather than reasoned argument. Those who venture to criticize or object to the glamorization of pain and violence of artistic expression are called "prudish" or "demotic." He's quick to denounce "puritans," "religious fundamentalists," and other "repressive" forces on the right, but is happy to champion a credo that he proudly admits is "anti-democratic," "aristocratic," "reactionary," and "fascist"!

The English Romantics grappled with the legacy of the Enlightenment and the bitter lessons of the French Revolution. Yet, though some of them dabbled in Gothicism, their greatest work transcended it. Indeed, Keats's "Ode on Melancholy" begins by urging those in search of the powerful emotional state of melancholy not to waste their time with Gothic paraphernalia.

In a passage quoted by Davenport-Hines, Lady Holland in 1798 had this to say about the passion for sensationalism then prevalent in Germany and Britain: "The same dull apathy of character that demands something extraordinary to rouse it subsists in both countries...."

Rather than being a precious vestige of resistance in a materialist age, the persistence of the Gothic, particularly in its more decadent forms, suggests a coarsening rather than a heightening of sensibility.

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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