- The Gothic Text
The Gothic Text is trained on a single, bewildering consequence of modernity: the astonishing fact of "mind." The modern historicizing school of Gothic criticism has tended to marginalize Immanuel Kant as a peripheral figure who could have had little impact on, and therefore relevance to, the ideological material narrated by the Gothic. In direct opposition to this critical tendency, Marshall Brown meditates on a fundamental consequence of Kantian philosophy: the defamiliarization [End Page 181] of mind. Although British empiricism had the capacity to render the mind passing strange, especially as it drove a sceptical wedge between sense data and things, it rested on a camera obscura model of mental functioning that reinforced naturalism. Thus, while one might question the relationship between the image cast on the mind's tabula rasa, and its source, the unintended consequence of the metaphor was to reinforce a model in which, as Richard Rorty puts it, "all the knowing gets done" under "the gaze of the unblinking Eye of the Mind" (cited in Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century [Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992], 55). Even for sceptics, the mind was a box in which sense data impinged on a receptive consciousness. By contrast, Kantian philosophy closed the shutter on the world of things. It ushered in a form of radical subjectivity in which the mind shadowboxed with itself, disconnected from anything graspable through "common sense." For Brown, the Gothic is the literary form that arose in astonished contemplation of this fact.
Brown begins his revisionist reading with three theses, each carefully designed to pick apart the critical consensus: Romantic Gothic fiction is not exciting ; Gothic novels are not Ghost Stories ; Gothic novels are not women's writing. Pace Henry Tilney, the Gothic is not designed to set one's hair on end, but is a ludic thought-experiment: the "gothic exists in a state of suspense—of questing and questioning—that we have come to call the fantastic" (9). For Brown, as for Todorov, the Gothic belongs in an uncertain halfway house, a stage in metaphysical history in which the mind stood mutely wondering before the Kantian rupture. As thought-experiments they have almost nothing to do with the gender politics attributed to the Gothic by a long tradition of feminist criticism. Indeed, the negative of the third thesis is just another expression of the parochialism that Brown sets out to dismantle. The Gothic is not circumscribed by gender, nation, or language, but is a pan-European form, stretching from the Urals to the Western plains, flowering along the trade and immigration routes that spread the Kantian revolution.
In his short second chapter, "Fantasia: Kant and the Demons of the Night," Brown lays down the true cornerstone of his book: "The greatness of the gothic—inseparable from the seeming frivolity of all its greatest exemplars—is not that it plays with terror and the limits of reason, but rather, precisely, that it plays with these things, that is, that it imagines them" (14). In The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (1980), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick advanced the influential thesis that live burial was the Gothic's master trope, its organizing grammar, or structure, where terror turned on one of two modalities: the dread of being cut off from others, whether literally, in a box, or figuratively, through the impediments of mind or language; and the dread of being invaded, of [End Page 182] not being able to keep contaminants out, whether rapacious banditti or destructive fantasies. In the live burial trope, barriers remain shut when we want them open, but stay open when we want them closed. Brown appears to sketch a similar dynamic when he argues that the Gothic imagines and plays with the limits of reason. He angles towards a "transcendental aesthetic" of a sublime beyond human psychology, which is to say, beyond Burke and his proto-Freudian reading of terror as the overturning of the ego. In explaining this transcendental aesthetic, Brown is teasingly cryptic. At the centre of this...