restricted access Twilight of the Virgin Idols: Iconoclash in The Monk
Abstract

ABSTRACT:

Scholars have often been puzzled by gothic fiction’s ambivalent attitude towards the Enlightenment. Some have linked it to the effort to emancipate individuals from superstition, which is represented as a form of despotic social control, while others have seen it reflecting new cultural concerns about the limits of merely rational knowledge. Nowhere is this ambivalence more apparent than in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, a novel that, in addition to its virulent anti-Catholicism and hostility towards superstition and idolatry, also features critical allusions to the anticlerical violence that shook France during the Terror. This article seeks to explain these contradictions by approaching them through Bruno Latour’s notion of the “iconoclash,” a term he uses to describe the interpretive uncertainty that so often surrounds the act of breaking of images and icons. For Latour, iconoclastic critique of all kinds is always followed by a period of regret and reconstruction, during which the iconoclast begins to recognize the valuable mediating role played by the objects destroyed. In The Monk, this regret focuses on the consequences of smashing the idol of virginity, which is represented as both an empty shell that oppresses those who worship it and a valuable instrument for binding together a society and composing the mind. Latour’s framework makes it possible to see that the gothic’s politics are neither modern nor anti-modern, but “nonmodern.” It exposes hidden truths or smash idols not in order to liberate some long-repressed, authentic human nature, but rather to stress the need for the constant revision and renewal of the mediating images and icons that make collective life possible.


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