Gothic Lit: Is it religious?

Someone recently asked me if I thought there were any ties between religion/mysticism and gothic lit.

It’s an intriguing question! But I’d say there are virtually no ties between religion/mysticism/spirituality and gothic lit—at least not the friendly sort. But let’s define some terms. Any decent professor would do the same. These are my own, BTW, cobbled together off the top of my head.

The Ambrosian Rite
  • Religion: an organized body of belief about the ultimate meaning of life, often involving religious professionals (priests or the like). Although a religion may also be a worldview like humanism or atheism that denies the existence of Absolute Being, when I speak of religion here I’m assuming belief in deity.
Giovanni Bellini, St. Francis in Ecstasy
  • Mysticism: a worldview that believes human beings can and do experience union with Absolute Being. A mystic is someone who enjoys or seeks this union. Since mysticism is a life choice with serious spiritual discipline, it doesn’t easily lend itself to gothic lit. (Can you imagine a gothic novel about Saint Francis?)
Mexican Deer Dance
  • Spirituality: personal/individual search for and experience of Absolute Being, including ritual practices. Spirituality is often part of religion.

Clear as mud?

David Hume and Adam Smith

Gothic lit has its roots in a backlash against the Age of Reason during the 18th-19thcenturies, when irrational, passionate, and supernatural aspects of human life began to explode into popular fiction. Gothic lit has gone in and out of vogue over the years since then, and today is often divided into horror and romance. Its most obvious elements are endangered females, villainous tyrants, “gothic” architecture/haunted ruins, paranormal phenomena, a sense of dread, and melodrama. Want more? The Internet will satisfy your every need.

I said relations between religion/spirituality and gothic lit aren’t friendly, because their purposes are at odds. A religion seeks to preserve its beliefs and institutional structure, and sometimes grow through missionary activity. Religions don’t take criticism or ridicule kindly, nor do they appreciate literature that extols what is to them sin and evil. Spirituality, while individual and personal, expresses the deepest yearnings of human souls—and human beings don’t like having their deepest experience cheapened and belittled, or questioned, either. Not that gothic lit inevitably does any of these things, but since it’s deeply rooted in anti-establishment (ie, anti-organized-religion) themes, it often does.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Take the paranormal—visions, psychic powers, the occult, vampires, etc. Look them up in any thesaurus and you’ll find them equated with devilry and black arts. It may not be PC, but religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (which make up much of Western religion) tend to consider the paranormal evil. Let us never forget the Burning Times. Yet gothic lit often relies on the occult both for its villains and heroes. To make matters worse, the villains (and heroes) are often clerics who have fallen into unspeakable evil—which religious institutions don’t like to admit happens, and certainly don’t want romanticized where it does. But since an essential part of gothic lit’s appeal is playing off cultural taboos, institutional anathemas are often just good press.

In short, while gothic lit may be full of possibly “spiritual” themes and entities, it’s usually neither religious nor spiritual. Notice I say “usually.” There are always exceptions.

Here’s the problem: good, evil, right, wrong, and sin are finally judgments we make from behind a screen of invisible cultural and personal preconceptions—Christian, Vodun, or Atheist. Human beings can’t help it. Please don’t think I’m saying here that everything is relative and anything goes; check out the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights for my position on that! No, I’m talking about how we pronounce judgment on everything that is Other.

Which brings me to the heart of the matter: gothic lit and spirituality (as opposed to religion) don’t have to be antagonistic. Yes, vampires are evil. But does that mean that spirituality isn’t part of a vampire’s existence? Take Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, for example. Can’t we as human beings hold ideas in our minds “as if,” without passing a priori judgment?

I didn’t realize that I was writing a gothic mystery when I wrote This Madness of the Heart because I’d bought into cultural stereotypes that disparage “gothic” fiction as something vaguely nasty and predictable. When I wrote Madness, I wrote what I knew, and what I know is spirituality opening up unexpectedly in the midst of everyday reality. I wrote about fear, and violence, and bigotry, and hate, all meeting along borderlands of spiritual reality . . . and discovered I’d stepped into “gothic” space.

Mea culpa. I have no excuse. No dewy-eyed fainting damsels, no emotional excesses, no human sacrifices. Just fiction that overlaps action and drama with spiritual vision. Gothic lit.

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*An earlier version of this post was written by Blair Yeatts for http://www.cerebralwriter.com/blog

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