Sublime Drag: Supernatural Masculinity in Gothic Fiction

By Gentile, Kathy Justice | Gothic Studies, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Sublime Drag: Supernatural Masculinity in Gothic Fiction


Gentile, Kathy Justice, Gothic Studies


If we read Horace Walpole's originary Gothic tale, The Castle of Otranto (1764), in light of the influential first-century treatise Peri Hypsous, translated as 'On the Sublime',1 we may be struck by how blatantly Walpole disregards Longinus's prescriptive guidance on achieving sublime effects in literature. To take an obvious rhetorical excess, Walpole indulges in 'tasteless tumidity' (78) to enhance a recurring supernatural element, the physical proportions of his aggrieved ghost, Alfonso, with his giant helmet and grotesquely engorged armoured limbs. Given Longinus's admonition, 'evil are the swellings, both in the body and the diction, which are inflated and unreal, and threaten us with the reverse of our aim', that is 'puerility', rather than sublimity (78), we might think that Walpole set out to flout classical rhetorical guidelines, considering his claim that 'I have composed it [the novel] in defiance of rules, of critics, and of philosophers'.2 'On the Sublime' goes on to caution against over-strained hyperbole and 'fabulous' speech that 'breaks into every kind of impossibility' that has a 'strange and alien air' (87). Longinus ascribes many of these extreme tendencies to a wrong-headed 'pursuit of novelty in the expression of ideas which may be regarded as the fashionable craze of the day' (79), a pursuit that Walpole enthusiastically embraced in creating a template for Gothic conventions.

In Sir Walter Scott's 1821 introduction to The Castle of Otranto he acknowledges the clanky supernatural machinery and the occasional anachronisms while defending the sensational effects as legitimately reflective of the setting and culture during the superstitious age of chivalry and feudalism. Scott suggests that Walpole succeeded in winding up the feelings of his readers until 'they became for a moment identified with those of a ruder age' (122). He would seem to contest Longinus's rhetorical prescriptions in praising the novel's evocation of the sublime, 'The moonlight vision of Alfonso dilated to immense magnitude, the astonished group of spectators in the front, and the shattered ruins of the castle in the back-ground, is briefly and sublimely described' (126).

More recently, David Morris credits Walpole with creating sublime effects through rhetorical strategies of repetition and exaggeration which serve to invest the Gothic sublime with the 'emotional intensities and narrative freedoms' of poetry.3 However, readers who take up the novel today, without an understanding of the literary and historical context when Walpole first set the stage in 1764, are unlikely to be awed by the sublimity evoked by Walpole's dilative Gothic effects. With the aid of gender performance theory, however, I propose that we reconceive Walpole's flagrant breaches of rhetorical and literary decorum as constituting the first fully tricked-out Gothic drag show. As the epitome of Gothic effects, the most awe-inspiring and terrifying scenes in the novel are transformed through rhetorical and supernatural enhancement into sublime drag. While theorists of the sublime, most significantly Longinus, Burke, Kant, and Lyotard, have privileged the sublime experience above all others, Walpole and his Gothic descendants have countered this authoritative philosophical discourse with novels that expose literary sublimity as a kind of Gothic male drag show.

Judith Butler speculates on drag as a theoretical conception of gender in Bodies that Matter:

To claim that all gender is like drag, or is drag, is to suggest that 'imitation' is at the heart of the heterosexual project and its gender binarisms, that drag is not a secondary imitation that presupposes a prior and original gender, but that hegemonic heterosexuality is itself a constant and repeated effort to imitate its own idealizations. That it must repeat this imitation, that it sets up pathologizing practices and normalizing sciences in order to produce and consecrate its own claim on originality and propriety, suggests that heterosexual performativity is beset by an anxiety that it can never fully overcome . …

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