A post-mortem on Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:59

    Gothic by Richard Davenport-Hines (North Point Press, 438 pages, $15) You might hope that a study of grotesque tropes and morbidity in esthetics would plot the degeneracy of these forms, from their original functions to their lazy appropriation by unlettered twits. You'd want an acute examination of craft and form instead of the easy, predictable and worthless why-are-we-so-obsessed line. You'd hope for an understanding of the difference between unwholesome excellence and dark drivel. This is unfortunately not to be found in Richard Davenport-Hines' Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin, a work rife with flimsy categorizations, deficient in analysis and void of critical distinction.

    The only portion of Gothic that may teach something to aficionados of the subject is its first and by far the best researched third, detailing the medieval revival craze in gardening and architecture during the mid-17th through the 18th centuries. While this trend did pave the way for the English Gothic novel, so much of what Davenport-Hines recounts here is only tangential to the rest of the book that it's as if he began writing a history of British landscaping since the mid-1600s and then changed his mind. It would seem less so if the other chapters of Gothic were expanded to match this level of thoroughness. As it stands, the quality of research and comprehension declines steadily in its second two-thirds.

    A work this clustered with references ought to be more inclusive of superior examples of its idiom, and not merely the crowd-pleasers and catalysts. There is enough on painting to make the exclusion of Arnold Bocklin and especially Caspar David Friedrich seem downright bizarre. Count Jan Potocki's The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, arguably better written than any novel discussed at length in Gothic, is conspicuously absent. And given Davenport-Hines' exhaustive inventory of seemingly every English poet before Stoker who wrote something (no matter how bad) to do with vampires, his omission of Thomas Lovell Beddoes?the tragic, suicidal surgeon of the early 19th century who coded his homosexuality in brilliantly autumnal and deliberately archaic verse?is inexcusable.

    Any scholarly book of more than 400 pages will contain a few errors, but Gothic has some that must lead one to question the esthetic sensibility that went into writing it. Item: A poor-quality collage made from various antique sources by the artist "Satty" for the 1975 publication of The Annotated Dracula (an obvious paste-job, with inked-in blood droplets) is presented in the plates section as "a wood engraving for an edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula." More telling: Davenport-Hines attributes the films Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula to Andy Warhol, who in fact had no creative association with them?his name was merely added to the titles during their initial releases for publicity reasons. Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula were actually directed by Paul Morrissey, and they mark his mastery (especially in Blood for Dracula) of a sophisticated deadpan tone, which is often strong enough in the films to supplant conventional burlesque humor altogether. Davenport-Hines finds no merit in Morrisey's work, however, and worriedly states: "Nevertheless, despite Warhol's trash and [playwright Charles] Busch's camp, vampires retain some cultural gravity"?as though vampires need special protection and are not fictional apparatuses to be used by artists as they see fit.

    The rest of Gothic's exploration of film is similarly erratic and lacking. The spotlight on James Whale is certainly apt, though the focus on his gay subtexts overwhelms the assessment. David Lynch isn't out of place, but nothing fresh is said about Blue Velvet here. Davenport-Hines is happy to report on the "Goth" elements of Hollywood crap like The Terminator and Batman, but he neglects the most important (and influential) filmmaker to work exclusively within the Gothic genre: Mario Bava, director of Black Sunday (La Maschera del Demonio), Blood and Black Lace (Sei Donne per L'Assassino), Kill, Baby?Kill! (Operazione Paura) and Lisa and the Devil (Lisa e il Diavolo), to name just a few.

    Despite such grievous lacunae, space is found in Gothic for (of all movies) Star Wars?because its villains (supposedly) recall Gothic fiction, it influenced fashion and "some of the costumes are Goth." Perchance, but to argue for the prominence or influence of the Gothic esthetic in Star Wars is in a way an argument against its perseverance: Star Wars is such a tacky, pious fest of unexamined kiddie-dualism that any Gothicisms it may contain have been so diluted as to lose all consequence.

    Gothic's examination of music is as shallow as any discerning reader could fear. Where, one might ask, are the 20th-century composers who put medieval structures and dissonant, melancholic harmonies to significant use, such as Berg, Schnittke or Penderecki? Surely they deserve notice, if music is to be addressed. But all too predictably, we get only the lame "Goth" bands, those prosaic titans of 1980s corporate mope-pop, the poster deities of quasi-disaffected suburbanites afraid to go too far: the Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, etc.?suggesting that Davenport-Hines did not look beyond his local Sam Goody (or its British equivalent) when researching the subject.

    For no better reason than that they were dubbed "Goths" by the British rock press (as if they'd know), Davenport-Hines posits these tepid acts (spearheaded by the Cure) as the musical inheritors of a morbid intellectual tradition. He construes the emasculated quality of their slick, derivative fashion/sound as "submissive," though it most strongly conjures their submission to record company execs. "Schlock has always been a part of Gothic too," he states in his exordium?but schlock needn't be this dull. He attempts to demonstrate the Cure's "unassailable" cultural position by citing Poppy Z. Brite's enthusiastic appraisal of Robert Smith's mouth in her depiction of a fictional blowjob, but this proves little: the passage is only an example of the unfortunate habit of many fiction writers (especially since the 80s) to invoke pop stars and their lyrics with unironic reverence, resulting in prose about as reflective as voyeuristic journalism, bad porn and bumperstickers.

    But better coverage of rock tunes, or even film, would not ultimately rectify the book's intrinsic flaws. A major one is Davenport-Hines' aim to provide a thematic umbrella to identify the Gothic genre through the ages, which hits a snag early on with his decision to call its practitioners "Goths," or adjectivally, "Goth." "Goth" and "Gothic" are two related but very different terms. It is not overliteral to distinguish carefully between them.

    While it is true that the ruin-fabricating aristos of the 18th century would jokingly refer to themselves as Goths on occasion, the joke implied not a real affinity for illiterate barbarians, but for the medieval esthetic likened by its detractors to the Goths?Gothic was originally a derogatory term. High Gothic art (if fairly assessed) lacks classical influence, but is not barbarous. And the orgiastic Romans of antiquity were just as guilty of "twisted and punished desires, barbarity, caprice, base terrors and vicious life" as the Goths. The difference: Greco-Roman culture, even in decline, was a literate culture that extolled intellectual refinement, albeit often to perverse ends. Goths were anti-intellectual: We learn from Zonaras through Gibbon that the Goths who sacked Athens chose not to burn the Grecian libraries, reasoning that book-learning would keep the Greeks from mastering war. Goths did not and never would have involved themselves in nonutilitarian art. Enough about them was diametrically opposed to the Gothic style that the two should not be confused. And their utterly warlike nature made them anything but "submissive," though it must be said that Davenport-Hines' cherished yet arbitrary submission motif applies only occasionally to the specimens he attempts to graft it onto.

    Davenport-Hines often proves capable when detailing the antecedents and cultural significance of his subjects, but he becomes overreliant on descriptive flourishes that are more cosmetic than insightful. His major critical point regarding literary craft?that bad Gothic writers have no command of tone?is hardly illuminating. The novelist Patrick McGrath "depicts tumult, evil, monstrosity, disease, madness, horror and death with hallucinatory menace." Yes, but so does a good Mexican masked-wrestler flick. None of the claims made about cute-animal-lover Robert Smith's lyrics (they "appeal to people who feel suffocated in hopelessness or crushed by helplessness") paint him as more deserving of the Gothic mantle than Tammy Wynette.

    The author of Gothic wants very much to consolidate a great assortment of artists and disciplines by bestowing on them unifying characteristics that, considered individually, are not specifically Gothic. The subject of transmission and usurpation of property, for instance, dominates 19th-century novels, from Balzac to George Eliot to Dostoevsky, and is in no way peculiar to Gothic. "Inversion," whether syntactic or narrative, is used by all sorts of authors, Gothic or non-, for ironic purpose or to achieve distance. The withholding of sentiment to exemplary effect can be found in Kubrick's measured distance and Nabokov's cold, superbly insolent narrative tone. Evasiveness in literature was mastered by the Symbolistes, culminating with Mallarme. For a voice that "ceaselessly insist[s] that there is much that should make us ashamed," check out Don Rickles. Old Starsky and Hutch episodes abound in gay connotations?but then, some of Huggy Bear's threads might be Goth.

    Davenport-Hines would of course unearth a thesis if he could establish that an appreciable number of "Gothic" works share all of these themes, but he cannot. Instead, said themes surface and disappear sporadically throughout the opus, just as they might with equal dynamism in histories of satire, romance or German children's books. The strongest, most recurrent theme?the Hegelian master-servant paradox?is too ubiquitous, too visible outside of the Gothic sphere, to sustain a case. Gothic's shaky foundations instead confirm that those individuals who have put Gothic conventions to meritorious use have been artists with diverse aims, not a unified body. The proletarian morbid may choose safety in numbers, but they're another cauldron of chaff.

    Davenport-Hines' assessment of current "Goth" and "Vampyre" culture is pure hyperbole. Sidestepping the fact that these vapid, uniformly attired urchins have chosen to dissent in sheeplike throngs (instead of get on with the rather more difficult task of individuality), he tacks sophisticated motives onto their alienation shtick and so erects a sham castle of wishful thinking. He finds news that a herd of teen Goths were arrested for getting stoned in Disneyland to have "an odd aptness" because Disney represents sentiment and "a value-system which Goths spurn." Elsewhere we find: "It can seem at times as if evil and death have become their toys or fashion accessories; but the new Goths are not playing with evil: they are trespassers wandering disruptively over the neat turf of suburban conventions, graffiti artists disfiguring the antiseptic walls of the factual mentality, hecklers with a discordant idiom pitched to jangle the nerves of authority." Such claims contain all the erroneous zeal of a lonely widower projecting personality traits onto a cat.

    Because, in fact, the cookie-cutter nonconformism of Goth is Disneyland with play fangs, suburbia with coffin-shaped Tupperware. Like Tim Burton films, Goth points to spooky-kitsch redecoration instead of actually subverting or exploring established paradigms in any depth. The outsider-against-suburbia cliche is, in the end, a fundamentally suburban convention?a mainstream wish-fulfillment device that was seamlessly incorporated into 1990s advertising for use in tv spots for Club Med and 4x4 trucks. Extra buckets of sadness or self-abuse do not sufficiently change the equation.

    Goth's cheesy "glorification of suffering" makes it hardly the anti-Oprah vehicle that Davenport-Hines seeks. On the contrary, it plays directly into the post-Titanic culture of emotional content in lieu of substance; of entertainment with "heart." Garden-variety Goths are anything but unsentimental: their music, blurry art and (so help me) poetry websites are all larded with enough badly articulated sorrow to make them today's alterna-descendants of Margaret Keane's big-eyed waifs and Red Skelton's sad-faced hobo clowns. But more reprehensibly than these unacknowledged forebears, they mix in sophomoric mysticism and facile, pretentious art-lit references (to pre-Raphaelite painting, decadent poetry, expressionism, etc.) with their processed angst-food. This veneer of erudition should be recognized as stick-insect subterfuge instead of applauded by hack cultural theorists.

    If this work does serve a purpose, it is to identify contemporary Goth(ic) as an establishment?a moderate, complacent, self-congratulatory establishment with its own status quo and its own sacred cows. An establishment that should and will be dismissed by genuine individuals, esthetes and artistic visionaries. Just in case they haven't already. Grotesque imagery, morbidity and cruelty are tools that will continue to be employed by authors and artists who have use for them. But to understand their profound applications, we'll have to look elsewhere.