Tuesday, May 15, 2012
The Gothic In Genesis
The Gothic in Genesis In the Gothic genre of literature, we see many things that sort of have to happen. Death is necessarily a part of the story whether it is a sort of off-screen happening or we read the passage where our favorite character dies. This death can be something ordinary, like a heart attack. It can be explainable, like a murder. It can also be an uncanny happening, like in the Japanese-originated horror film The Ring. When we talk about the uncanny here, I must refer to Sigmund Freud’s meaning of the term. In his essay on the subject, Freud offers a working definition of what he means by uncanny: “It is undoubtedly related to what is frightening—to what arouses dread and horror; equally certainly, too, the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general. Yet we may expect that a special core of feeling is present which justifies the use of a special conceptual term. One is curious to know what this common core is which allows us to distinguish as ‘uncanny’ certain things which lie within the field of what is frightening.” (Freud) What are some examples of this “uncanny”? And how can we master an understanding of it? Is it completely supernatural like The Haunting of Hill House or Dracula? Can they be explained away by empirical means like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle does in his Holmes stories or like Dupin in Murders in the Rue Morgue? Are the deaths just heinous, like in many of Poe’s short stories? These questions are just subsets to the larger question of “Can we trust the narrator telling the story?” And then the biggest question this essay will deal with: Does the Christian doctrine of original sin have anything to do with this? In this essay, I hope to make a way for the classic monsters to have dialogue with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In doing this, I hope to show that these stories are directly tied to what Christians refer to as the Fall and show the uncanny and taboo as a result of that fall from grace. First we should denotatively define a few terms. The first of which is sin. Sin is defined in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine as, “any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.” (Grudem 490). The next is “The Fall”. Grudem moves this along in four phases. He says, “First, [man’s] sin struck at the basis for knowledge, for it gave a different answer to the question, ‘What is true?’ Whereas God said Adam and Eve would die if they ate from the tree (Gen. 2:17), the serpent said, ‘You will not die’ (Gen. 3:4)… their sin struck at the basis for moral standards, for it gave a different answer to the question ‘What is right?’ God had said that it was morally right for Adam and Eve not to eat from the fruit of that one tree (Gen. 2:17)… their sin gave them a different answer to the question, ‘Who am I?’ The correct answer was that Adam and Eve were creatures of God, dependent on him and always to be subordinate to Him as their creator and Lord… all sin is ultimately irrational. It really did not make sense for Satan to rebel against God in the expectation of being able to exalt himself above God.” (Grudem 493) What Grudem is laying down here are the attributes of the Fall and of sin; the deterioration of knowledge, deterioration of morals, deterioration of reason, and irrationality. Grudem adds, “Though people sometimes persuade themselves that they have good reasons for sinning, when examined in the cold light of truth on the last day, it will be seen in every case that sin ultimately just does not make sense.” (Grudem 493) This idea reflects some very Gothic ideas, particularly the unreliable narrator, and their irrationality, and identity crises. We will get into that later. For now, let us examine some of Genesis and pick out some Gothic ideas. To remind us of what Freud said in his essay, we will look for these certain things. “It is undoubtedly related to what is frightening—to what arouses dread and horror; equally certainly, too, the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general.” (Freud) In Genesis 3:7, Eve has just given the fruit to Adam and both have eaten of it. The Bible says, “The eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths.” This scenario is the start of a great fear that will overtake the humans. After eating the fruit, they became aware of their nakedness and shame. They were violating taboo. Taboo, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, meaning, “a social or religious custom prohibiting or forbidding discussion of a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.” The next verse is a verse of sheer terror for the humans. “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the Garden. But the Lord God called to the man said to him, ‘Where are you?” I remember as a boy hiding from mother or father when I messed up and they knew it. I always knew I was in trouble when they knew what I did and where I was without me telling them. I can equate that terror to this terror. The only difference is that this terror is of a more eternal variety. This wasn’t a minor offense they committed. It was of huge importance. This sin they committed bore the hatred and wrath of God that He bears toward sin. Christian mystic and author A.W. Tozer writes in his book The Knowledge of the Holy: “Since God’s first concern for His universe is its moral health, that is, its holiness, whatever is contrary to this is necessarily under His eternal displeasure. To preserve His creation God must destroy whatever would destroy it. When He arises to put down iniquity and save the world from irreparable moral collapse, He is said to be angry. Every wrathful judgment in the history of the world has been a holy act of preservation. The holiness of God, the wrath of God, and the health of the creation are inseparably united. God’s wrath is His utter intolerance of whatever degrades and destroys. He hates iniquity as a mother hates the polio that takes the life of her child.” (Tozer 106) So when Adam and Eve hide and see visions of a beaten and bloody Jesus taking on God’s wrath for our redemption from sin, or of Sodom and Gomorrah, it is easily understandable why they hide. Of course, the Bible doesn’t say they saw visions, but the impression is made. They knew they were dead in sin. So how does this point take us to the monsters of the Gothic? Culler can help us in this by showing us how we see ourselves. In chapter 8 of his book, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Culler takes us into the crux of identity. He proposes that there are three things to consider. The first being the “I” in the question “who am I?” The second are the given and social aspects, according to origins; male or female, black or white, British or American and so on. Finally, coming all of these to make what is known as “identity” (Culler 109). Culler says that, “The dominant modern tradition in the study of literature has treated the individuality of the individual as something given, a core which is expressed in word and deed and which can therefore be used to explain action: I did what I did because of who I am, and to explain what I did or said you should look back at the “I” (whether conscious or unconscious) that my words and acts express. ‘Theory’ has contested not just this model of expression, where acts or words work by expressing a prior subject, but also the priority of the subject itself… The question of the subject is ‘what am “I”?’ Am I made what I am by circumstances? What is the relation between the individuality of the individual and my identity as member of a group? And to what extent is the ‘I’ that I am, the ‘subject’, and agent who makes choices rather than has choices imposed on him or her?” (Culler 109-110) These questions become important when analyzing the actions of the narrator or character in a story. Can this narrator help it? Is he or she a product of their environment? And how subject is that environment to the Fall? In order to understand this more deeply, I will highlight two works by two great Gothic authors. I will bring one critical passage out of each and analyze it in light of the uncanny, identity and how the Fall relates to it. In The Masque of the Red Death, Poe writes about a man named Prospero and his thousand noble friends. As a terrible plague tears through the land, he and his nobles are locked away into his castle to be kept safe. Inside the castle is a constant party. There are seven rooms in which the guests party. They are specifically colored. The seventh room is a black room with a singular red light. In this room is a black clock. When this clock chimes, the guests stop dancing and the orchestra stops and all is silent, except for the ringing of the clock. However, when the ringing is done everything resumes as if nothing had happened. One night as the party is going on the bells for midnight chime and all is quiet. All is still. And then it stops. Prospero and some nobles notice a figure with robes like a funeral shroud, a mask that resembles a Red Death victim and an overall menacing demeanor. At this tense moment is where we will look to our first scene. “When the eyes of Prince Prospero fell upon this spectral image (which with a slow and solemn movement, as if more fully to sustain its role, stalked to and fro among the walzters) he was seen to be convulsed, in the first movement with a strong shudder either of terror or distaste; but in the next, his brow reddened with rage. ‘Who dares?’ he demanded hoarsely of the courtiers who stood near him- ‘who dares insult us with the blasphemous mockery?’ Seize him and unmask him- that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!’” (Poe 133) Looking through our three lenses, we can immediately see that this is an uncanny scene, that this Prince has some identity issues going on, and that sin in the character of Prospero has played a vital role in his imminent demise. Prospero is facing the personification of the Red Death, the plague from which he is hiding. As far as this story is concerned, this is Death itself. Prospero has built this castle, stuffed a thousand noble guests into it, and has distracted them for the very point of avoiding death. He’s obviously seen death, he knows what it does, and as man he has an intrinsic fear of death. It is unfamiliar and this plague brings it, so he has taken every precaution to prevent its entry: and it gets in anyway. The Red Death’s uncanniness isn’t in what it is. It isn’t in what it does. In this particular instance, the Red Death is uncanny because it has breached all walls and fail-safes to infect this castle and that is the fear that Prospero has tried to hide in his party. It is a mysterious and deadly being. Prospero also has some elements of identity as a theory. He is a bold and robust man, as Poe calls him. It would see that he lacks reverence for what he sees before him. When we take a look at the story at large, it is about Prospero and his party to escape the Red Death. But at what cost? At the cost of the poor. He hides away from the people of the outside as well as the Plague, leaving them to their own devices. From what we can see, Prospero is not only prosperous but he is also fully of pride. He has the means to help others but only helps the few. Prospero is, at his core, the epitome of pride in this story. And we have already examined one example of pride: Lucifer’s rebellion against God. Orthodox Christianity regards pride as “the one sin to rule them all”. And as Satan is its originator, it seems only right. But is that the only condition we see here? Pride is a condition to which Prospero can be associated. Gluttony and greed are also sins that can be attributed to, not only Prospero, but the other nobles as well. Sin plays a great part in the setting and plot for this story. It tells about the arrogance of man, the depravity to which man will sink to escape death, and the fact that death comes to us all. We all know the story of Frankenstein and his monster. Shelley’s horror story is one of the staples of the literary canon across genres. The monster is as deprived as one can be. It doesn’t even have a name! It commits violent acts. However, who is the real monster in this novel? Is it The Monster? Or it is Victor Frankenstein? The doctor wanted to craft life; to scrape it out of the dredges of mortality and end God’s monopoly on creating life. When he created The Monster, though, he detested it. Why? We look to the key passage below. Walton recounts The Monster’s reaction to finding Victor dead. “… Never did I behold a vision so horrible as his face, of such loathsome, yet appalling hideousness. I shut my eyes involuntarily, and endeavored to recollect what were my duties with regard to this destroyer. I called on him to stay. He paused, looking on me with wonder, and, again turning towards the lifeless form of his creator, he seemed to forget my presence, and every feature and gesture seemed instigated by the wildest rage of some uncontrollable passion. ‘That is also my victim!’ he exclaimed; ‘in his murder my crimes are consummated; the miserable series of my being is wound to its close! Oh, Frankenstein! Generous and self-devoted being! What does it avail that I now ask thee to pardon me? I, who irretrievably destroyed thee by destroying all thou lovedst. Alas! He is cold; he may not answer me.’” (Shelley 187) The Monster is clearly mourning his creator. But we start at base. The Monster, itself, and the means by which it came to life are at the top of the list of uncanny things in this novel. I would place The Monster’s mourning for its master it a very close second, though. If we look at the relationship between Victor and The Monster, we will see that he really had to need to desire forgiveness of his creator. “I started from my sleep with horror, a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window-shutters, I beheld the wretch- the miserable monster whom I had created.” (Shelley 39) In many ways, The Monster is the benevolent double to Frankenstein. The Monster desires the forgiveness of his creator, when in actuality it should be Victor Frankenstein who desires forgiveness from The Monster. The Monster realized his depravity but Victor never made such a discovery. He made life and then he made a monster out of it. That is uncanny. I’ve asked my parents what scared them most about raising us. Growing up in a poor home, it was never fears of provision or of having shelter. It was raising us correctly. The uncanny fear of raising a child, or in this case a new life, into a monster permeates this tale. The Monster is never named. It is often called ‘Frankenstein’, but this is incorrect. Victor never named his creation. What is in a name? We commonly find our identities in our names. “My name is Stephen Neil McCleskey.” That is the “I”. “I am a musician.” That is what I do. “I have a Western European heritage from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England.” Those are my origins. If we put those together in an introduction, we would read, “My name is Stephen McCleskey, I play music, and my family originated in the UK.” But what would The Monster say? If there is no foundational “I”, that is, a name; then there can be no identification. If there is no base foundation, it is impossible for there to be a structure there. The Monster lacks that basis. This is one of the most tragic and remembered identity crises in the literary canon. Victor Frankenstein holds a certain level of pride. But that is not where I will focus here. That is something that must be recognized because where sin is, pride had to have been planted. The story of Frankenstein and his monster, though, is a parallel of Genesis 3. However, Victor is not playing God in this staging. He is the part of the serpent. Frankenstein believed he could create life just as God did. He was prideful in that endeavor. However, he steps into the role of Lucifer when he indirectly questions the creation’s identity. He doesn’t give it a name. He calls the creation to call into question who it is, what it does, how it should behave, and then, and only then, did the creation finally become The Monster. This is the story of the human fall in 1818! If Frankenstein were an evil force at work, which a deep reading would suggest, then The Monster would have to be playing our role as humanity. Some of the greatest questions teenagers and young adults have are existentially based. “Who am I?” “What do I do?” etc… Victor did not leave those questions alone though. He answered them in his silence and in his actions towards The Monster. Understand that this allegory breaks down when The Monster asks for Frankenstein’s forgiveness. But in the relational dynamic of Frankenstein and his creature, and how his creature became a monster it is the same story as how we ourselves became monsters. Reading this novel is like looking in a mirror. Humanity is a race of monsters, but we were made that way by having things twisted by an outside force according to the Genesis story. In the course of this essay, I have described the “uncanny”, Original Sin, taboo, and how the Gothic is related to the story of Genesis and the Fall of Man through those key terms. My hope has been to maybe open up a new door of study; to fight back against the rhetoric that states that the Christian canon is outdated. Whether someone believes in God or not, these accounts recorded in the Bible are fresh for interpretation and reinterpretation from a literary sense. Just because something is not agreeable to someone does not mean we can simply throw things away as we please; no one will agree with everything. It is impossible. But, we can learn through the Bible, and a good theoretical lens, why things may be the way they are on a philosophical level. Bibliography Freud, Sigmund. The ‘Uncanny’. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, 217-256, 1919. Print. Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1994. Print. Crossway Bibles. Genesis. The Holy Bible. Belgium: Good News, 2001. Print. "Taboo (taboo)." Definition for Taboo. Web. 10 May 2012.
Tozer, A. W. Knowledge of the Holy. London: Harper and Row, 1961. Print.
Culler, Jonathan D. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan, and Leer David Van. Selected Tales. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Marilyn Butler. Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.