Enlightenment and the Gothic

Enlightenment and the Gothic September 7, 2006

Enlightenment was not only a movement of illumination through reason but a movement of exposure, an effort to bring light to all the dark and secret places of European society. Foucault noted in an inverview: “A few haunted the latter half of the eighteenth century: the fear of darkened spaces, of the pall of gloom which prevents the full visibility of things, men and truths. It sought to break up the patches of darkness that blocked the light, eliminate the shadowy areas of society, demolish the unlit chambers where arbitrary political acts, monarchical caprice, religious superstitions, tyrannical and priestly plots, epidemics and the illusions of ignorance were fomented.”

The Enlightenment’s hostility to the church and its institutions, and to the ancien regime was fueled in part by this suspicion and fear of darkness: “The chateaux, lazarets, bastilles and convents inspired even in the pre-Revolutionary period a suspicion and hatred exacerbted by a certain political overdetermination.”

Gothicism was the flip side of the Enlightenment obsession with exposing, because if there is nothing lurking in the darkness then illumination and exposure are pointless: “Gothic novels develop a whole fantasy-world of stone walls, darkness, hideouts and dungeons which harbour, in significant complicity, brigands and aristocrats, monks and traitors. The landscapes of Ann Radcliffe’s novels are composed of mountains and forests, caves, ruined castles and terrifyingly dark and silent convents. Now these imaginary spaces are like the negative of the transparency and visibility which it aimed to establish.” The Enlightenment endorsement of “opinion” has a similar source, being “a mode of operation through which power will be exercised by virtue of the mere fact of things being known and people seen in a sort of immediate, collective and anonymous gaze.” The conflict of the age might be stated as that between the Panopticon and the convent, between Bentham and Ann Radcliffe.

And this deepens the significance of Henry Tilney’s rebuke to the Gothicized Catherine Morland (in Austen’s Northanger Abbey ) when he catches her snooping around his mother’s room: “Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”

Austen appears to perceive, however dimly, that the passion for exposure depends on a prior fear of the darkness; that Enlightenment is fueled by a Gothic imagination. And through Tilney, she rebukes the entire “age of Reason.”

Browse Our Archives