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  • Rarefied Gothic
  • Peter Garrett

Marshall Brown's ambitious study of Romantic Gothic, The Gothic Text (Stanford, 2005), opens with three sweeping negative theses: "Romantic gothic fiction is not exciting. . . . Gothic novels are not ghost stories. . . . Gothic novels are not women's writing" (3–6). These are not so much claims to be argued at length as a tactic for redirecting attention. Instead of thrilling events, Brown dwells on retarding discursive features like Radcliffe's landscape descriptions; instead of supernatural sensationalism, he stresses philosophical reflection; instead of privileging questions of gender and sexuality, he asks us to consider Gothic as a more abstract investigation of the nature of the mind.

Brown's theoretical and historical paradigm for such investigation is Kant's transcendental idealism. Some of his later examples, like Balzac's The Wild Ass's Skin and Hoffmann's The Devil's Elixirs, can plausibly be read as responses to the stimulus of Kant and his followers, but Brown wants to establish not just such influence, but deeper affinities or "convergence" between Kantianism and the Gothic. His account is distinguished by its insistence on Gothic as an international mode (though in practice he considers mainly British and German writers, with only brief gestures toward American Gothic), but to make his case he needs to show how metaphysical impulses already animate Gothic fiction from its origins in the British eighteenth century.

Most of the first half of The Gothic Text is accordingly devoted to the odd coupling of Kant and Walpole, bringing them together by stressing less familiar aspects of each. With Walpole, this involves depreciating the features of The Castle of Otranto we usually think of as inaugurating the Gothic—its faux-medieval milieu, supernaturalism, and paranoid plotting—and instead foregrounding its representation of consciousness in indirect discourse. For Brown, "the true genius of Walpole's invention" is its "displacement inward" from "flamboyant—but silly—externals" to "the human inside of things," a move in which "the supernatural serves as a pretext for the focus on the [End Page 81] thoughts and feelings of isolated individuals" (28, 32). Historical evidence for this claim is offered in separate surveys of earlier uses of free indirect discourse and of theatrical ghosts, arguing that though Walpole didn't invent "psycho-narration," he used it more extensively and effectively than his predecessors, while his use of the supernatural is "a throwback, not an innovation" (61).

With Kant, this rapprochement involves a complementary tactic, skirting his arguments about the necessary conditions of experience to focus on the transcendental concept of "consciousness in general." Like the noumenal Ding an sich, Kant's transcendental ego is inaccessible to direct knowledge or reflection, but Brown probes this limit in order to "reconstruct . . . what would have been Kant's doctrine of the soul" (72). What he finds in the notion of abstracted consciousness is a haunted region whose features are mapped out in Gothic: "The exclusion of authentic selfhood from nature, the association of self-knowledge with passivity and mere continuity of existence, with a temporal experience compounded of stasis and frenzy, and ultimately with madness—this is the complex of characteristics that typify the gothic personality and that will also be found in Kantian philosophy" (73). As with Walpole, this reading receives twofold historical support: first in a survey of Kant's philosophical disciples that shows how they withdrew from encountering these limits and fled "the ghosts that haunt the edges of Kant's imagination," then in an investigation of the psychologists, physicians, and physiologists who were "the true inheritors of Kant's insights" in their accounts of "the soul organ, the definition of life, and . . . the evaluation of madness" (92).

Having developed this extended account of how "the gothic signifies . . . a portion of Kant" and "Kant likewise signifies the gothic" (79), Brown moves more quickly through a series of short readings that trace philosophical themes in Balzac and Hoffmann as well as Maturin and Godwin, followed by fuller analyses of Radcliffe and Mary Shelley. The latter two chapters provide the strongest demonstrations of how Brown's approach not only resituates Gothic fiction in intellectual history but helps to explain its imaginative power. In Radcliffe, he focuses on...


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pp. 81-84
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