Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction

By Steven Bruhm | Go to book overview

3. Spectacular Pain: Politics and the Romantic Theatre

I

When Emily St. Aubert drew back the mysterious curtain in Udolpho's passageway, she beheld a wax figure that represented a human body. This representation immediately invoked the freezing effect of horror, yet later betrayed itself as a stage prop, a piece of theatre. Similarly, when Words- worthian travelers came upon the gibbet in the Salisbury Plain series, they became increasingly more removed from a suffering body that might entrance them in cold, stony horror. The previously theatrical body, rendered visible in A Night on Salisbury Plain for its emotive, even pedagogical effects, is gradually consigned to the wings, made not to exist but in the theatre of the mind. For Wordsworth, the Gothic theatre had the same effect as the excessive sights of suffering that afflicted Emily St. Aubert. He recalls moments of theatrical spectacle from his youth:

but when I think
Of these I feel the imaginative Power
Languish within me; even then it slept
When, pressed by tragic sufferings, the heart
Was more than fall; -- amid my sobs and tears
It slept. ( Prelude VII, ll.467-472)

Despite the effects of tragic representations of suffering -- or precisely because of them -- the imaginative, intellectual power is laid to sleep. Watching suffering is incompatible with thinking about it, and the suspicion of theatre is analogous to the suspicion of viewing, or even imagining, the spectacular, pained body. As Mary Jacobus argues, theatre for Wordsworth forces too much response; staged "tragic sufferings" force a numbing self- protection, or what got called in Salisbury Plain a "trance" ( 'That Great Stage'354). In response, Wordsworth places the phenomenon of suffer-

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Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Introduction xiii
  • 1. Pain, Politics, and Romantic Sensibility 1
  • 2 - Imagining Pain 30
  • 3. Spectacular Pain: Politics and the Romantic Theatre 59
  • Intermezzo 92
  • 4. The Epistemology of the Tortured Body 94
  • 5. Aesthetics and Anesthetics at the Revolution 120
  • Conclusion 146
  • Notes 151
  • Works Cited 165
  • Index 175
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