What has happened to the Gothic? Since the 18th century, flickering occasionally in and out of fashion, the Gothic genre has offered an aesthetic with which to examine the darker aspects of life. Whilst Bram Stoker’s Dracula is still read and appreciated, and Robet Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari still watched (to a lesser extent perhaps), contemporary culture does not seem to acknowledge a use for the Gothic.
To some extent, the Gothic relies upon antiquated values: aristocratic opulence, superstitious belief, and often xenophobia or even racism (Van Helsing’s fear of Dracula is at least partly based on the otherness of Eastern Europe). However, I think the real reason we find it hard to engage with the Gothic in contemporary life is because it relies on uncertainty. What lies behind the veil? Ann Radcliffe’s mammoth novel The Mysteries of Udolpho literalizes this metaphor – or perhaps is the source of it. Around 500 of its 700 or so of pages rely upon the reader wondering, along with the protagonist Emily, what lies behind an eerie veil she once glimpsed in a castle. To read and enjoy the novel requires an extended period of waiting, obsessing and pursuing – we must replicate Emily’s experience. The experience depends upon the ability to pursue what will inevitably be an anti-climactic ending.
The problem with this kind of narrative, or aesthetic experience, is that we are not used to waiting for answers anymore. With the click of the mouse, they dangle accessibly in a web of revelation. Why wait in suspense, why hover in uncertainty, a potentially painful and frustrating ordeal, when we can relieve and extinguish the experience immediately? This attitude, however, overlooks the fact that in that liminal moment of mystery and suspense, other ideas reveal themselves and a new kind of experience arises. There is more to knowledge and understanding than a means to an end.
Art historian Lawrence Rinder discusses the “atmosphere of fear” in the work of Gothic artist Luc Tuymans. Such an atmosphere is “impalpable and omnipresent” and so the aesthetic experience extends beyond the space of the image. The mystery of the image amounts to a lot more than its constituent parts, a bit like the veil and the object behind it that Emily pursues in Udolpho.
The reason I am talking about the Gothic is not to analyze Radcliffe’s writing or Tuymans’s art, but because I have (re)discovered some eighties electro-gothic music. A former McGill student alerted me to a record label Minimal Wave and their eponymous compilation album, The Minimal Wave Tapes. Some tracks are more overtly Gothic than others, but I feel that this genre seems to encapsulate a sort of dark, yet playful, unknowability. The use of early synths (often cheap and cheap-sounding) created a new wave of experimental music. I am tempted to call it the technological Gothic or the Gothic of technology. This music – at once dance-able and technologically advanced (at least for the 80s) – is an appealing way to establish a place for the Gothic in contemporary life. The tracks provide no obvious “answer” – there is rarely a chorus which culminates in some kind of climax – but instead an eerie feeling of emptiness and the attempt to fill it with words and electric drum beats. Here, Das Kabinette’s track “The Cabinet” is accompanied by a wonderful scene from Wiene’s film, an apt fit as the lyrics recount the film’s narrative. It is quite an amazing combination of artistic products from 1919 and 1983.
One of my favourite tracks from the eighties Gothic resurgence is undoubtedly “Warm Leatherette” by The Normal. I would not immediately describe this track as Gothic, but its content and form are that of fear intermingled with desire. Its minimalist and imagistic lyrics describe the erotic experience of driving a car and crashing it. Influenced by JG Ballard’s novel Crash, the track captures an urban void, the terrifying yet addictive experience of driving on endlessly long roads, thrusting oneself violently close to death. As Ballard has claimed in interviews, if we really wanted to live, we wouldn’t drive – there is a suicidal element to turning the key. Trent Reznor (from Nine Inch Nails) and Peter Murphy (from Bauhaus) produced a version of the track which further suggests this type of contemporary experience as a Gothic one. “You can see your reflection in the luminescent dash.”
The renewed enthusiasm for Gothic inspiration is still continuing (Esben and the Witch, Zola Jesus), but I feel like there must be a more interesting direction than what these bands offer. Anyone have any suggestions?