My Spring semester has already begun. I’m formulating reading lists for my courses, which is always an obsessive pursuit: do I pick Matthew Lewis’s notorious The Monk or Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya? What about a Gothic Romance? Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is clearly some kind of apotheosis of the modern Gothic, but perhaps Wuthering Heights is of greater historical interest? Hasn’t everyone already read Wuthering Heights? Why do I keep assuming anything at all about what students have read? What happens when heights wuther?
Ideally, a Humanities course on the Gothic would cast a wide net, encompassing not only canonical texts but pushing to the limits of the Gothic. Loosely construed, the Gothic could include novels, poems (“Christabel” or “The Goblin Market”), music, painting, architecture, gardening, and film over the course of, say, half a millenium and across several continents– Europe, obviously, and Asia and America, though Africa presents a problem.* It all depends on what we mean by the term itself, and formulating a viable definition relies, in turn, on how we use categories such as genre, mode, style, and discourse. Wallowing in these kinds of open-ended questions– We might ask, “What is a genre?”– is, essentially, the purpose of this project. Ultimately, you pick a subject in order to ask questions which have no definitive answers; it is in the attempt to arrive at this horizon that the work gets done.
Recently I heard someone say that the purpose of the Humanities as a discipline is to think about how people have thought about what it means to be human. There is no inevitable moral benefit to this line of inquiry, unfortunately. Studying philosophy and literature and history will not make you an ethically superior person. After all, some of the Nazi elite were great humanists, after a fashion, in that they possessed a thoughtful appreciation of certain cultural works. On the other hand, Hitler, a mediocre artist with a keen fashion sense, cherished the kitsch nudes of Ziegler (“the master of German pubic hair”) even as he deplored and destroyed some of the great paintings of European Modernism.
*If there is a case to be made for an African Gothic wouldn’t it emerge from the heart of darkness that was European colonialism? Imagine the barracoons at the Bight of Benin, tin pots and cloth traded for captives, King Leopold, “the wild and gorgeous apparition” of Kurtz’s mistress, the Scramble, Black Water Fever, hand-chopping, Chinese Gordon’s severed head placed at the Mahdi’s feet.