Modernism’s ‘Gothic Moment’ and the ‘awareness of mutability’


A Companion to the GothicIntroducing the complexities of Gothic literary history for his 2001 Companion to the Gothic, David Punter poses the question:

“Where might we […] locate the ‘Gothic moment’ in modernism? Or might we prefer to see in modernism precisely that movement of the mind that seeks to exorcise the ghost, to clean out the house, ruined though it may be, and assert the possibility of a life that is not haunted as it situates itself resolutely in a present that strains towards the future?” (pp.iix-ix)

Placing the Gothic in context of contemporary literary criticism, Punter goes on to write:

“…perhaps what Gothic and much contemporary criticism share is indeed an overarching, even a sublime, awareness of mutability, an understanding of the ways in which history itself, and certainly narratives of history, are not stable, do not constitute a rock onto which we might cling – indeed, as Gothic has always sought to demonstrate to us, there are no such rocks, there is no sure foundation. Thee is, to paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, only distortion – slips of the tongue, tricks of the eye, which ensure that what we see is always haunted by something else, by that which has not quite been seen, in history or in text – just as Gothic itself, we might say, consists of a series of texts which are always dependent on other texts, texts which they are not, texts which are ceaselessly invoked while no less ceaselessly misread, models of méconnaissance in the form of lost manuscripts, of misheard messages in cyberspace in the attempt to validate that which cannot be validated, the self-sufficiency, the autonomy of a textuality that is already ruined beyond repair.” (p.x)

Interestingly, having considered briefly the importance of the word to the Gothic (and I hope I’m not taking his concluding statement too out of context here), Punter ends his Introduction with the following suggestion:

“…perhaps […] archaism in some form, and especially in its pre-verbal form, is everything; perhaps we might be driven to think that Gothic, even in its most bourgeois forms – and there have been plenty of those – remains popular, remains current, because it gives permission. Quite what it gives permission for is, inevitably, never known, cannot be predicted in advance, and cannot be owned in words; perhaps there is no pre-set programme that Gothic will ‘turn on, in any of the senses of that phrase. But if Gothic has come to serve as a kind of cultural threshold, or as a repertoire of images that fatally undercut the verbal compact’ on which, among other things, the modern state rests, then more than ever it deserves and needs to be investigated. And I hope that these more political and, indeed, dangerous questions, questions that cannot be endstopped, as the unconscious cannot be endstopped, at the boundary of the word, will be in readers’ minds as they survey the material discussed in this book and the critical questions raised in the course of what remains an ongoing (even if exemplarily ruinous) debate.” (p.xiv)

Ref: (italics in original) ‘Introduction: The Ghost of a History’ pp.iix-xiv, Ed. David Punter (2001) A Companion to the Gothic. Blackwell Publishers: Oxford


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