Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"The End of History": Identify and Dissolution in Apocalyptic Gothic

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"The End of History": Identify and Dissolution in Apocalyptic Gothic

Article excerpt

"The discourse on 'endism,'" Christopher Horricks argues in an essay on Baudrillard and the millennium, "consists of opposing views held by two groups. There are those who either mourn or deny the death of Enlightenment values, and so attempt to maintain their foundations irresponsibility of the postmodernists.... Others are instead counter-Enlightenment, and support a radical rethinking of value and the claims of history. In short, there is a theoretical and philosophical struggle over the end of history, and therefore the meaning of the millennium." (1)

Arguments about the value and meaning of history are hardly new. Writers in the eighteenth century already questioned the "Enlightenment" view of history and looked for ways to reimagine its force and reconsider its ends. Jacobin thinkers in the 1790s, especially, thought it fit to challenge the accepted view of history and offer a radical alternative. For William Godwin, that alternative takes a fascinating form. In his unpublished essay "Of History and Romance," he addresses the question of history in similar terms:

The writer of romance then is to be considered as the writer of real history; while he who was formerly called the historian, must be contented to step down into the place of his rival, with this disadvantage, that he is a romance writer, without the arduous, the enthusiastic, and the sublime license of imagination, that belong to that species of composition. True history consists in a delineation of consistent, human character, in a display of the manner in which such a character acts under successive circumstances, in showing how character increases and assimilates new substances to its own, and how it decays, together with the catastrophe into which by its own gravity it naturally declines. (2)

Godwin is arguing about different versions of history, but he is doing so in a context in which a threat to established values is palpable. His desire to turn to human character is a measure of his willingness to engage in millennial thinking about history. Even more important for the purposes of this essay is the outcome of this rethinking: Godwin equates history with the growth and decay of an individual being, and in doing so he implicitly argues for the contingency of events and the "catastrophic" conclusion to human endeavor. This is a radical perspective on history, to be sure, but it is also a radically new conception of the meaning of human experience itself. Godwin might pay narrative lip service to the value of human life, but in a novel like Caleb Williams, he dramatizes a portrait of human "decay" that is difficult to avoid and impossible to resist.

In this essay I would like to discuss three works that in very different ways challenge Enlightenment notions of history and deconstruct narrative so as to say something radical about the meaning and value of subjective experience. Identity itself becomes an issue here, as do the ways it can or cannot be historically realized. These works push at the limits of identification in order to discover what lies beyond. The works I am considering--Caleb Williams (1794), The Last Man (1826), and Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)--are uncannily millennial precisely because they refuse to accept the status quo and seem to desire instead the kind of cataclysmic dissolution that millennial thinking often implies. Emerging as they do from that final decade of the eighteenth century and early and late in the nineteenth century, they tell an important story about the function of apocalyptic Gothic fiction at a time when sexuality and sexual identity were beginning to have a particular cultural valence. These works are not so m uch reflections of developments in the history of sexuality, I would claim, but rather they represent episodes in an ongoing process of reassessment and revaluation that produces a radical rethinking of the meaning of identity and its function in post-Enlightenment culture. …

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