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The Imperial Gothic

January 03, 2022

The Imperial Gothic


January 03, 2022

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  2. Moving from the Medieval to the Primordial Early Gothic fictions

    suggested that the present was always and already haunted by the European past. Although the English Gothic never lost its firm association with the medieval (the connection exists to this day), some Victorian writers began to shift the Gothic’s focus from historical reconstructions of European barbarism to contemporary delineations of “primordial” savagery. Creating supernatural tales of terror that focused on the threat “primitive” cultures posed to “civilized” societies, these writers created the imperial Gothic.
  3. Swallowed by the Civilizing Mission The imperial Gothic was not

    the first variety of supernatural fiction to be set in exotic locales. Early Gothics often relied on distant settings to give an otherworldly feel to their narratives. What renders the imperial Gothic unique is its conscious articulation of the the colonial project in that foreign setting. Like the adventure tale (which it darkly mirrors), the imperial Gothic fictionalizes the exploits of imperialism; unlike the adventure tale, it eschews the possibility of true heroism and literalizes the fear that colonial contact will do more to corrupt Western society than civilize “savages.”
  4. Defining the Rule of Darkness Patrick Brantlinger, the critic who

    coined the term “imperial Gothic” in Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914, argues that this fiction “expresses anxieties about the waning of religious orthodoxy [in the Victorian period], but even more clearly, it expresses anxieties about the ease with which civilization can revert back to barbarism or savagery and thus about the weakening of Britain’s imperial hegemony.” In other words, he claims that the genre reflects Victorian fears of degeneration. These fears, as we will see, were often articulated in sociologically defined evolutionary debates.
  5. Degeneration and Devolution Titularly concerned with the “origin” of the

    human cultures and races, some Victorian thinkers tried to create a “natural history” of humanity by studying interspecies conquest (as opposed to intraspecies competition, which was the real conflict behind Darwin’s theory of “natural selection”). Within this reconfigured evolutionary discourse, imperial domination was justified as the “survival of the fittest.” Like Darwin, these cultural commentators recognized that the current rulers of the globe may not remain the fittest to survive; unlike Darwin, they lamented the possibility of a cultural reversion and worked hard to stop racial and cultural degeneration.
  6. Variations of and on a Theme Admittedly, discussions of racial

    and cultural degeneration run through a variety of Victorian texts (from literature about the “New Woman” to works of science fiction and medical marvels), but they are particularly pronounced in imperial Gothics because these fictions thematize the “contamination” colonial contact can foster. According to Brantlinger, imperial Gothics are animated by fears of “individual regression or going native,” as well as by perceived threats of “invasion of civilization by the forces of barbarism or demonism; and the diminution of opportunities for adventure and heroism in the modern world.”
  7. Going Native In the imperial Gothic, there is no surer

    sign of cultural degeneration than a white character who has “gone native.” This character’s adoption of non-western mores and ways of life demonstrates both a failure of the civilizing mission and the vulnerability of western society, which can easily revert to savagery. Although it lacks a direct colonial referent (and hence cannot be considered a pure instance of an imperial Gothic), William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies also demonstrates how quickly civilized creatures can revert to bestial states.
  8. Barbaric Invasions Obviously, Victorians were afraid of what would happen

    to “us” if “we” went “over there,” yet they were equally afraid of what might happen if “they” (the colonial masses, the “swarms” of non-western peoples) came “over here.” This fear was most obviously played out in debates over immigration (debates which are still with us today), but it was also evident in imperial Gothics, which often included threatened invasions. H. Rider Haggard’s She, for example, centers on a “white queen” of Africa (Ayesha) who vows to vanquish the British monarch on English soil, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula offers the tale of an eastern despot who attempts to impress British subjects into his army of the night.
  9. Diminished Opportunities for Heroism Of course, the Victorians didn’t just

    fear cultural degeneration and barbaric invasion; they also lamented the “epic of concentration” in which they lived. Both Thomas Carlyle’s struggle against an eternal “Nay” and Tennyson’s dreamy invocations of the “Idylls of the King” were provoked by the belief that that mundane present could not live up to the heroic past. While recurrent references to a contemporary “bronze age” were neither individual to the Victorian period nor limited to discussions of their imperial conquests, the problem of colonialism did factor heavily in Victorian debates over the loss of heroism, as the shrinking world map seemed to suggest that there were no new places for adventure
  10. Diminished Opportunities cont’d The imperial Gothic’s thematic concern with the

    loss of heroism is necessarily informed by the “Scramble for Africa,” the last great imperial push of the 19th century. As the only “open frontier,” Africa was considered the last location in which adventure was possible. Unfortunately, the adventure Europeans discovered in Africa was far from heroic, in any sense of the term. Stanley may have found Livingston there, but the conclusions of many other African quests were not so felicitous. Many British politicians considered their country’s actions during the Boer Wars the epitome of imperial excess, and all of Europe was horrified by Leopold II’s brutalizaion of the Belgian Congo. As Conrad’s fiction attests, the “Heart of Darkness” wasn’t the African landscape—it was the “horror” of Western civilization itself.
  11. Thematic Aids Certain literary techniques, cultural ideologies, and narrative tropes

    helped writers implement the principle themes of the imperial Gothic. Relying on staging devices, sensationalized histories, articulations of anachronistic space, and manichean binaries, these authors were able to produce Gothic tales that thrilled their readers with delineations of the terrors of colonial conquest.
  12. Staging the “Savage” When imperial Gothics did represent colonial subjects

    (many fictions are notable for their almost exclusive focus on white protagonists in strange locales), they did so in stereotypical fashion. Readers were offered stock delineations of oriental despots, wild Indians, and animalistic Africans. Even when an imperial Gothic questioned the aims and ends of imperialism, it necessarily relied on racial “types” in order to do so, hence Conrad’s Africans are wild-eyed cannibals forced to feast on rotting hippo flesh. Like the tribal exhibits popular during the period, imperial Gothics staged native peoples in tableaux that conformed to occidental tastes for the exotic.
  13. Sensationalizing the Encounter If the “savages” were staged, so were

    the encounters protagonists had with them. Drawing upon tales of imperial anarchy—the slaughter that followed the Indian Mutiny of 1857, General Gordon’s fall at Khartoum—these tales tended to spin the most salacious stories of colonial conflict into supernatural narratives of racial degeneration. Although the fictions often paled in comparison to newspaper accounts (how could Haggard’s “empire of the imagination” trump the Black Hole of Calcutta?), these writers relied on the same sensationalist techniques that journalists used to cover native “crimes” against British subjects.
  14. Mapping Anachonristic Space In the imperial Gothic, stereotypical savages and

    sensationalized encounters were staged against temporally defined (foreign) settings. As Anne McClintock argues in Imperial Leather, imperial discourse figures “[g]eographical difference across space. . .as historical difference across time,” and the imperial Gothic exploits this figuration fully. When European characters travel to outlying colonies in these fictions, they necessarily take a “journey backward in time to an anachronistic moment in prehistory.” Holly and Leo, for example, discover not only the origins of Leo’s family, but of western civilization itself, in She.
  15. Maintaining the Manichean Allegory Although postcolonial critics would never argue

    that colonial discourse posits a dualist theology wherein the devil is considered coeval with God (true Manicheanism), they do suggest that imperial ideology is predicated on the binary of colonizer/colonized, and that this binary is coded in moral terms of “good” and “evil.” While imperial Gothics appear to trouble this binary opposition by demonstrating how imperial subjects can regress, they never actually undo the eternal conflict between “civilization” (“good”) and “barbarism” (“bad”). Like all of the literature Abdul JanMohammed discusses, the imperial Gothic “codifies and preserves the structures of its own mentality” instead “of actually depicting the outer limits of ‘civilization.’”
  16. Poised Forms of Subjugation As may be obvious, the imperial

    Gothic replicates forms of imperial subjugation even when it attempts to critique the strictures of imperialism. These fictions may gaze on the “Other,” but they do so only as a way to understand what that Other says about Western society. Given the fact that this racialized Other is itself an imperial projection, all imperial Gothics tend to be distorted and doubly reflected self-images.
  17. The Empire Writes Back Certain postcolonial writers have “written back”

    to the imperial Gothic by producing Gothic fictions of their own. These tales continue to render the colonial encounter in Gothic terms, but they trouble western culture’s narcissistic self- representation and dwell in the ambivalent cultural syncretism that the Manichean allegory necessarily obscures. Notable “postcolonial Gothics” include The God of Small Things, Heat and Dust, Shame and Wide Sargasso Sea.
  18. Post-Imperial Gothics? The relative ease with which Francis Ford Coppola

    was able to transfer Conrad’s narrative to the conflict in Vietnam suggests that there just may be room for a post- imperial Gothic as well. Of course, it remains to be seen if any imperial power can construct a Gothic that is necessarily “post” the legacy of its imperializing effects. Discourses surrounding current occupations in the Middle East and fears over the war on terror suggest that America may be creating its own peculiar contribution to the imperial Gothic as we speak.
  19. This is the end, Beautiful Friend This is the end,

    My Only Friend the end It hurts to set you free