Magazine article Modern Age

Horror and Eternity; Russell Kirk's "Gothic Mind" Expressed Itself in Original Ghost and Horror Stories Haunted by a Presence That Pointed to the Transcendent

Magazine article Modern Age

Horror and Eternity; Russell Kirk's "Gothic Mind" Expressed Itself in Original Ghost and Horror Stories Haunted by a Presence That Pointed to the Transcendent

Article excerpt

In April 1909, a relatively youthful Carl Jung paid a visit to Vienna to meet with the founder of the nascent field of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and discuss the paranormal. The master, being a materialist, rejected any notion of the para out of hand, of course. But then something strange happened. As Jung related in a later interview:

While Freud was going on in this way, I had a curious sensation. It was
as if my diaphragm were made of iron and was becoming red-hot--a
glowing vault. And at that moment there was such a loud report in the
bookcase, which stood right next to us, that we both started up in
alarm, fearing the thing was going to topple over on us. I said to
Freud: "There is an example of a so-called catalytic exteriorisation
phenomenon."
"Oh, come," he exclaimed. "That is sheer bosh."
"It is not," I replied. "You are mistaken, Herr Professor. And to prove
my point I now predict that there will be another loud report!" Sure
enough, no sooner had I said the words than the same detonation went
off in the bookcase.
To this day I do not know what gave me this certainty.

Horror is a fundamentally conservative literary genre, but one with a very clear demarcation line separating its adherents. We can call this divide "the bump," both after things which go bump in the night--or bookcases that go bump in the study--and our either Jung- or Freud-like reaction. The horror facing the entrenched materialist derives from the almost claustrophobic sense that "this is all there is." The world itself is gruesome and inescapable. The most we can hope for is temporary peace and, if not a complete shedding of all illusions, then at least the cultivation of those illusions that are of pragmatic use in shielding ourselves from the sick world. This kind of horror veers toward disgust and nihilism.

Another type of horror interprets the bump as a sign that Reality is more than we think it is. Perhaps it is even more than we are able to think it is. More than simply infusing contemporary positivist worldviews with a heady dose of metaphysical ambiguity, this brand of horror suggests that the foundation of the world isn't material at all. It spiritualizes the anodyne. It offers a partial glimpse at the mystery animating all existence. It tends not toward disgust but toward a revelation that confronts us with the Rilkean imperative to change our lives. Its demand is that we harmonize ourselves with the mystery.

Russell Kirk's horror, to use the term in its largest sense, might be one of the best examples of spiritualized, revelatory fiction. That alone would be an achievement. But through Kirk's work we are also better able to understand that other type of reaction to "the bump"--the materialist angst at the horror of existence--and to view it from such a vantage point that we can discern the common source from which both schools spring.

The peripatetic Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, disheveled and clownish gadfly that he is, does occasionally, perhaps inadvertently, utter a simple and obvious psychological truth. In his entertaining film A Pervert's Guide to Cinema, Zizek suggests in so many words that in order to understand what a horror story is actually about we must focus on what's happening outside the sensation of terror and spectacle of the paranormal. His advice makes for a useful scalpel in dissecting the psychological horror of Freud's "bump," in which the paranormal elements are either self-referential expressions of states of mind or allegorical renderings of disgust with the natural world. An example might be taken from John Carpenter's 1982 B-movie classic The Thing, in which a group of scientists isolated in Antarctica encounters an extraterrestrial organism that assimilates (kills) and mimics other organisms. The film is a classic of nihilistic horror, and using Zizek's scalpel it's easy to discern that what it's actually about is a general disgust at organic life itself. …

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