Academic journal article Text Matters

Convention, Repetition and Abjection: The Way of the Gothic

Academic journal article Text Matters

Convention, Repetition and Abjection: The Way of the Gothic

Article excerpt

Gothicism has survived in various guises for over three hundred years as a potent cultural form. Throughout this period its authors have managed to find a "scope within a narrow set of conventions narrowly defined" (Kosofsky Sedgwick 11) to retain its formulaic coherence and consistence while extending it beyond literature, thus demonstrating its plasticity and contributing to its generic hybridity. All this means that a reservoir of recognizable and repeatable features which have constituted the nature of Gothicism from its onset in the late eighteenth century is an effective combination holding a powerful aesthetic, emotional and intellectual appeal for its followers and audiences. Such repetition of well-defined and thus predictable elements could have easily turned them into nothing more than "rather hackneyed conventions and then into objects of satire" (Botting 45) and the genre would not continue to thrive if mere repetition governed the distribution of its "narrow set of conventions."

In the introduction to Difference and Repetition, "Repetition and Difference" (1968, English translation 1994), Gilles Deleuze suggests that repetition is "a necessary and justified conduct only in relation to that which cannot be replaced," because it concerns "non-exchangeable and non-substitutable singularities" (1). Applying Deleuze's concepts to the field of literature helps us understand why, while remaining indispensible exponents of this recognizable and sustainable genre, not all manifestations of Gothicism end in pastiche and parody. Deleuze pins down something specific in repetition, namely, the principle of "theft and gift" and the transformation this implies: what is repeated becomes modified, and the repeated incorporates a necessary "gift" of novelty (1). For him,

[d]ifference is included in repetition by way of disguise. . . . This is why the variations . . . must not be understood on the basis of the still negative forms of opposition, reversal or overturning. The variations express, rather, the differential mechanisms which belong to the essence and origin of that which is repeated. (Deleuze 17)

Surveyed chronologically, Gothic fiction can be seen as subscribing to this principle in three different ways. Firstly, it has been applied to the repetition of its motifs. For example, Burkean obscurity is translated and focused into the motif of the veil in Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), then repeated by M. G. Lewis, "stolen" and bestowed with new qualities in The Monk (1796). Secondly, the principle of "theft and gift" can be seen at work on the level of plot, as is the case in J. S. Le Fanu's "Carmilla" (1872), the pivotal assumptions of which are repeated and rewritten by Bram Stoker in Dracula (1897). Thirdly, the Deleuzean principle operates on the level of what Kosofsky Sedgwick calls characteristic Gothic preoccupations, or conventions (9-10), like the supernatural. This emerges with the tangible Walpolean plumed helmet appearing in broad daylight in the courtyard of Otranto, which, though incomprehensible, is immediately identified by the domestic servants in the narrative, to then evolve into the evanescence of Radcliffe's blurry shadows, unidentified, unearthly noises and intriguing mysteries, all plausibly explained at the end of her narratives. In successive Gothic fiction it proceeds to epitomize Otherness in the form of Shelley's patched-up Monster, the product of the superhuman mind and inhuman solitary determination of Victor Frankenstein, to be later embodied in human-turned-subhuman vampires, the bodies of travellers that nocturnally return from the undiscovered country. And with the twentieth century's new technologies and possibilities for adaptation, the principle of "theft and gift" begins to operate in a much more conspicuous manner as cinema has not only adapted but also spawned strings of responses to the original historical Gothic texts, creating a territory where Gothic motifs repeat, echo and cross-resonate in new and complex ways. …

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