Academic journal article MELUS

Other(ed) Ghosts: Gothicism and the Bonds of Reason in Melville, Chesnutt, and Morrison

Academic journal article MELUS

Other(ed) Ghosts: Gothicism and the Bonds of Reason in Melville, Chesnutt, and Morrison

Article excerpt

Some few years before, a negro woman, who had incurred Legree's displeasure, was confined [in the garret] for several weeks. What passed there we do not say; the negroes used to whisper darkly to each other; but it was known that the body of the unfortunate creature was one day taken down from there, and buried; and, after that, it was said that oaths and cursings and the sound of violent blows, used to ring through that old garret, and mingled with wailings and groans of despair. (Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin 565)


Gothic representations of slavery, like Simon Legree's garret in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, imagine a social evil that has not been laid to rest. While the staged haunting of Legree's plantation predates the Civil War, gothic images of slavery recur in American literature to the present, marking the uncanny persistence of traces of slavery long after its abolition. One important reason that slavery continues to haunt the American literary imagination is its problematic involvement with one of the most authoritative strands of American culture, and Western culture generally: the rational discourse that comprises both abstract reason and empirical observation.

In the decades before and after the Civil War, the Western rational discourse in the United States lent prestige to "factual" genres like history writing. In its requirements for documentable evidence, the same discourse set limits on genres like the slave narrative (Olney 150). Gothic fiction may seem far removed from the normative genres: gothic images of slavery defy reasoned descriptions of that social institution, and imply that the truth of slavery is unspeakable within normative terms. Nonetheless, gothic representations of slavery often grapple with the dominant discourse they disrupt. In Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno," Charles Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman, and Toni Morrison's Beloved, gothic elements expose the complicity between a Western scientific world view and slavery; they reveal the distortions in the lens through which the rational discourse views the world, indicating the features of life and the lives of Others for which Western empiricism fails to account.

In recent years critics assessing the modern project have called attention to the link between the rise of Western science and the Western domination of other cultures, which is most visible in the slave trade. Many find that the conjunction is not accidental. Paul Gilroy describes slavery as the unacknowledged premise of the modern Western project (53-54). David Harvey traces the roots of the modern European project back to the Renaissance and the rediscovery of Ptolemaic maps that set the viewer in an abstract position

outside the globe (249). Renaissance maps, Harvey argues, also laid a uniform Euclidian grid over the earth, locating all places in a single space and allowing fairly accurate prediction of distances, even between places Europeans had never seen (246). Together, the construct of homogeneous space and an emergent concept of linear time, which linked cause and effect, produced a strong Western sense of control (Harvey 246). Harvey argues that Renaissance maps, whose viewer's gaze could command the entire earth, helped to shape a conception of nature as something to be dominated: "the conquest of space [the earth] requires that it first be conceived as something useable, malleable and capable of domination through human action" (254). A Western discourse that associates non-European peoples with nature places only a small step between the control of nature and the control of other peoples.

Much as Western maps abstract the viewer from the world and lay an abstract grid over diverse places, scientific experiments abstract a small part of nature from the multifarious interactions that naturally occur, as experiments lay scientific theory over natural events. Claude Alvares argues that while empiricism may be concerned with measuring "facts," it never measures facts as they are actually found in nature or history. …

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