for September 27, 2000

The Sublime

Burke, on the sublime: Obscurity

To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. (CD, p. 99)

Sublime: Diagram of Gothic implications, from Romanticism CD (Projects section)

Coral Ann Howells, Love, Mystery, and Misery: Feeling in Gothic Fiction (1995)

What Mrs Radcliffe aimed to provide was a stimulus to her reader's imagination freed from the restrictiveness of rational definition--a 'negative' as she called it in her essay on the Supernatural in Poetry: 'Obscurity, or indistinctness, is only a negative; which leaves the imagination free to act upon the few hints that truth reveals to it.' [CD, p. 149] Her fictional technique is very close to the 'judicious obscurity' in literature which Edmund Burke praised so highly in his treatise on the Sublime [Burke, on CD, p. 100]. . . . Her novels are pervaded by sublime images closely associated with feelings of fear and a kind of elation won through acute tension and anxiety. The affective power of mountain landscapes and dim twilit perspectives would have struck an answering chord in her eighteenth-century readers . . .(p. 32)

Udolpho, first view of castle (pp. 226-7):

Udolpho, pp. 226-7 Howells, pp. 35-36

Towards the close of day, the road wound into a deep valley. Mountains, whose shaggy steeps appeared to be inaccessible, almost surrounded it. To the east, a vista opened, that exhibited the Apennines in their darkest horrors; and the long perspective of retiring summits, rising over each other, their ridges clothed with pines, exhibited a stronger image of grandeur, than any that Emily had yet seen. The sun had just sunk below the top of the mountains she was descending, whose long shadow stretched athwart the valley, but his sloping rays, shooting through an opening of the cliffs, touched with a yellow gleam the summits of the forest, that hung upon the opposite steeps, and streamed in full splendour upon the towers and battlements of a castle, that spread its extensive ramparts along the brow of a precipice above. The splendour of these illumined objects was heightened by the contrasted shade, which involved the valley below.
'There,' said Montoni, speaking for the first time in several hours, 'is Udolpho.'

'Below' is an important word, not only in the aesthetic patterning of the passage but in its emotional patterning as well, for a great deal of the force of the castle as an image derives from its position 'above' the travellers. We have the sense of winding down into a dark enclosed space: a Gothic road is never straight, and the valley into which it leads is 'surrounded' by 'steeps' which are 'inaccessible'; the labyrinthine quality of the place is hinted at in the description of the valley as 'involved' in shade (surely a word with Miltonic overtones for Mrs Radcliffe). If we look carefully at the syntax we notice a very odd thing: the subject of every sentence and clause is non-human. It is a road, mountains, vistas, the sun, or indeed the castle--there are no human agents here at all. The environment is supreme and things have an active life of their own, imposing their own conditions upon the human beings who come there. This is more than the effect of impressionistic description; it is basic to the Gothic heroine's experience of the world. (p. 35)

Emily gazed with melancholy awe upon the castle, which she understood to be Montoni's; for, though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object. As she gazed, the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper, as the thin vapour crept up the mountain, while the battlements above were still tipped with splendour. From those too, the rays soon faded, and the whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskiness of evening. Silent, lonely and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign. As the twilight deepened, its features became more awful in obscurity, and Emily continued to gaze, till its clustering towers were alone seen, rising over the tops of the woods, beneath whose thick shade the carriages soon after began to ascend. In the next paragraph there is a shift to Emily's point of view, but the quality of her gazing has been altered by her knowledge that Udolpho belongs to Montoni. . . . In the 'solemn' duskiness, the castle takes on an 'awful' power as it rises 'silent, lonely, and sublime', a presence which 'frowns defiance'. The adjectives and the personification of the castle show the curious fusion that has taken place in Emily's mind between the attributes of the edifice and its owner, so that by the time the light fades there is no separation between the outer world and Emily's inner world . . . (p. 36)

Everything in Emily's make-up is an exaggeration of those negative responses which were often the only ones available to the late eighteenth-century woman who wished to preserve her own individuality. The danger for such a woman was that any ability she might have to act positively and spontaneously was liable to be corrupted by constant opposition and resistance from those around her. In Emily's case the corruption takes the form of her own prudential fears exaggerated to the point of neuroticism, and so often getting the better of her. It is characteristic of Emily that she is much more susceptible to Montoni's image than to that of her own true love Valancourt. (p. 50)

The semiotic as feminine

Diane Long Hoeveler, Gothic Feminism (1998)

Female gothic novels . . . appear to be set to music; they are in fact orchestrated by an acoustics of pain, toxic nostalgia, and desire. But when the female gothic heroine listens to music or produces it, she is not merely passively absorbing the strains. First of all, in valuing music the gothic heroine is displaying her professional femininity, as well as demonstrating her allegiance to an earlier mode of communication, a different language, the voice of the mother. And in validating that other tongue, the female gothic novelist asserts her sensibility, her cultured and trained appreciation of 'art': But most important, the female gothic heroine listening to music endorses a female tradition of communication, an oral, elliptical mode that precedes the written system of discourse practiced by her society. (p. 85)

A female-marked communication system--the gossip of servants, the tales and legends that have their own oral histories, the painted miniatures and portraits, as well as visual theatrics--struggles continually in these novels with a male-marked system--wills, letters, and legal documents. And as we might guess, the female system, based on the sensual eye and ear, is ultimately privileged and provides the heroine with her best and most complete access to truth and power in the nebulous gothic landscape in which she is forced to negotiate. . . .

The "haunting" quality of the music, the vaguely familiar voice and song that recur throughout the novel, represents the female gothic tradition attempting to carve itself out of the stone that was the sentimental and male-originated novel genre. As the first widely successful female gothic novelist, Radcliffe sought to write in a new style but in a manner that was also familiar to her readers. What was that voice they all thought they were hearing? What was the voice they all dimly remembered? Was it a public voice of female subversion or, more likely, a private voice that they had heard only within themselves and finally dared to speak? The whisper that is the female gothic in this novel, the middle section of the text, finally drowns out the sentimental overtures at the beginning and the end of the work. (p. 86)

. . . in the final analysis, Emily learns that music provides the key to understanding her identity; music is the epistemology that unravels and reveals the characters and identities ofValancourt and Signora Laurentini (aka the mad nun Sister Agnes). For the female gothic heroine, music is the subjective and feminine equivalent of reason and objective data; music does not lie. (p. 87)

Valancourt . . . proves his worth by handing out his last penny to the poor and taking a gunshot wound in the arm from the father of his beloved. In fact, Valancourt will be wounded twice by gunshots in the novel [p. 38; p. 588], in what reads very much as a sort of ritual punishment or taming of the male flesh. On the second occasion, after his disastrous foray in Paris, the wounding clearly suggests that he is being punished for his follies, but the first wounding by the father suggests something else--a ritualized passing on of weakness ("castration") from one generation to the next. The legacy that St. Aubert passes to Valancourt in that shot is the legacy of emasculation. Before Valancourt can be acceptable to Emily or her father he must be feminized, made as sensitive and delicate as St. Aubert himself is. The masculine flesh that led Valancourt to the gaming tables, to a courtesan's house, and ultimately to prison, is ritualistically excised in those two woundings. (p. 94)

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Document created September 27, 2000