Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction

By Steven Bruhm | Go to book overview

Conclusion

Burke knew that an empowered body -- in the form of an empowered body politic -- could defy the control of its master, and he feared this power. Wordsworth and Coleridge feared it too; Lewis and Shelley were ambivalent about it; Byron hoped for it. For each of these writers, & body holds a political strength that, rightly used, can destroy the old order. Yet this fearful, empowered body is also placed under attack: it is rent, dismembered, afflicted, diseased, maimed. Its power is put in check by pain. And this pain, moreover, can be another agent of a revolution that the Gothics and Romantics wanted to initiate or resist. Byron's revolutionary ideals, for example, required sympathetic identification with the visible, pained body; Wordsworth's conservatism, conversely, depended for its internal regulation and self-surveillance on the absence of the pained body, and relied instead on a body conjured by the imagination and thus regulated by it. Coleridge stood somewhere between Byron and Wordsworth, invoking the visibility of the pained body to further his Tory position. For Coleridge, as for Edmund Burke, the gratuitous spectacle of the pained body could, on the one hand, induce in its excesses a return to the proper order; on the other hand, it could exploit those excesses to destroy the order. There is no politics of the pained body here that is not contested and problematic at the same time that it is effective and forceful.

The political opportunism that circulates around the pained body in Romantic fiction thus expresses itself in the abstract social principles of partisan allegiance and aesthetic theory. But it also goes to the very heart of how one defines the self at the turn of the nineteenth century. Whereas the eighteenth-century discourses of sentimentalism had emptied out the self in an act of sympathetic identification (or, to follow David Marshall's thesis, isolated that perceiving subject in its failure to imagine another), Romantic fiction invokes the pleasures of pain -- and the pleasures of being horrified by pain -- as a way of constructing identity. I have tried to trace in this book a dialectical movement in tableaux of suffering from imaginative identification (I know how you feel), through appropriation of the isolating effects

-146-

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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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