P. Aaron Potter
Holy Dread: the Theology of Supernatural Literature
Nineteenth century literature has often been read as a failed quest for the transcendental. The Romantic poets’ explicitly declared their interest in escaping the limitations of their own time and circumstances in favor of the pursuit of universal moral and aesthetic principles. Victorian authors, while they often treated subjects arising from their particular socio-economic circumstances, often framed their responses to these subjects in terms of moral and aesthetic standards which they also presented as universal or timeless. Studies of nineteenth century literature have traditionally been informed by some consideration of the transcendentalizing nature of their subject, and the degree to which these attempts to advance universal principles fail or succeed.
Recently, however, this critical perspective has come under heavy fire from new-historicists and other critics who insist that interpretations of nineteenth century texts must rely less upon the self-declared (and possibly self-deceptive) objectives of the literature, and more upon the socio-economic matrix from which the texts emerged. Jerome McGann, for example, has charged that readings which interpret the Romantic in terms of their approach to the infinite are essentially flawed, and that Romantic studies must begin with an awareness of the degree to which nineteenth century politics, economics, and other temporal circumstances are deeply inscribed in the literary products of the period. Similarly, Marxist, feminist, and post-colonial critics of Victorian era works have questioned the degree to which the over-essentializing pronouncements of previous scholars must be reconsidered in light of previously ignored historical tensions which inform the production of literature. These debates are closely related to current controversies regarding canonicity, and the degree to which certain texts have been historically privileged, as exemplars of universal literary values by virtue of the very aesthetic standards which these works helped to establish. Thes historicity of these very "universals" must be recognized -- or so new-historicists would insist.
Both critical perspectives possess certain strengths with relation to my project. I wish to suggest that, within certain boundaries, the transcendentalizing arguments of nineteenth century literature can indeed be read as a product of their particular historical moment. For the purposes of this project, I will focus upon the nineteenth century literature of the supernatural, arguing that it is this material which is most explicitly transcendental and, contrarily, the most historically informed. Nineteenth century authors who included familiar supernatural signifiers (angels, for example) in their works were aware that doing so would necessarily evoke significant connotations in their readers with respect to the dominant spiritual tradition -- the Christian church, its cosmology and theology. The literature of the supernatural was also, therefore, necessarily the literature of transcendence. However, I wish to argue that several nineteenth century authors, aware of the eroding authority and applicability of the established church, and of the need for an alternative foundation for spiritual and moral value, used the literature of the supernatural as a ground wherein they might interrogate its authority, and/or suggest alternative ontological approaches to their spiritual dilemmas, approaches which might respond more relevantly to the challenges of the age.
It is hardly necessary to point out that the nineteenth century was characterized by the radical disruption of established institutions. Indeed, it has become something of a commonplace to refer to the Romantic and Victorian periods as an age of transition, when the previously unquestioned hegemonies of church and state were, for the first time, seriously questioned and faced with alternate systems of belief or action. And while it is true that all historic periods are fraught with change, it may convincingly be argued (as it has been by critics such as Walter Houghton) that the nineteenth century is the first era to demonstrate true self-consciousness of its own mutability. Certainly the drastically unstable economic landscape, the vigorous, even violent, interaction with other cultures, the metamorphosis of the roles of women, and other social pressures produced a previously unparalleled measure of social criticism in many textual venues. Issues of the day were explicated and critiqued with furious, almost frantic enthusiasm, by authors, statesmen, and others invested in either side of every debate.
That consciousness of social instability should be expressed literarily is no surprise either, and a great deal of recent criticism has focused upon delineating the boundaries of these debates as they were played out in both the overtly artistic productions of the literati and in the forums of the daily newspapers and essay columns. Feminist, post-colonial, and other critical approaches have re-examined the works of the nineteenth century in terms of the conflicts between sub-cultures and the dominant paradigms of the church and state, while post-modern and deconstructive approaches have often focused upon the degree to which even the staunchest believers in the transcendental bear witness to the instability or arbitrariness of their positions. A common facet of these critical approaches, however, stems from the nineteenth century's development of subjectivity itself. The ability of the individual to place himself or herself in opposition to, or in support of, a particular institution denotes a romantic departure from previous era's conceptions of the self as essentially defined by relationships with institutions and establishments. In many ways it is this reformulation of the self as the apprehending subject, rather than the object of institutional subjects, which characterizes nineteenth century thought and production.
However, much recent consideration of nineteenth-century subjectivity has focused upon the degree to which various subcultures and individuals defined themselves in opposition to the very institutions which they repudiated. Deconstructionists might well argue that such discursive opposition itself simply re-inscribes the authority of the privileged establishment. We might imagine the methodology employed in such an argument as similar to that outlined by Harold Bloom in Anxiety of Influence, in which he asserts that the poet’s attempt to break free from the intellectual and discursive domination of his predecessors merely reduces the poet to an echo of previous discourse. In this way, for example, the very intensity with which Shelley defines himself in opposition to the orthodox Christian church merely emphasizes his acknowledgment of the church’s influence and authority, even to the determination of the language in which spiritual discourse may take place.
In addition to conceding the influence of Christianity, any consideration of the transcendental aspirations of nineteenth-century literature must acknowledge the many studies of the role of classical mythology plays in these texts, particularly in the works of the Romantic poets. However, for the purposes of this project I wish to define supernatural literature as distinct from the use of classical mythology, which was, in many ways, too remote from the lives of nineteenth-century readers to seriously interrogate their spiritual convictions. And, as stated above, texts which invoked Christian iconography within its accepted signification often failed to present genuine alternatives to established ontology. Instead, I wish to focus upon texts which incorporate supernatural elements of folk-beliefs and/or those which present Christian iconography in a manner that deviates radically from any possibility of orthodox interpretation. It is particularly in the appropriation of such metaphysically invested signifiers that we may most readily apprehend the nineteenth century’s relationship to both its spiritual past and its projected spiritual future.
Supernatural literature, as Coleridge famously points out in the Biographia Literaria, was an arena in which the transcendent could be re-engaged with the temporal and human in unfamiliar ways:
...it was agreed that my endeavours should be directed to persons
and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer
from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth
sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing
suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith.
– Biographia Literaria, Chap. 14.
M. H. Abrams has contended that the principal object of such Romantic re-engagement with transcendence was an attempt to harmonize between traditional Christianity and emerging individualistic humanism:
...[The] retention of traditional Christian concepts and the traditional
Christian plot, but demythologized, conceptualized, and with
all-controlling Providence converted into "logic" or dialectic that
controls all the interactions of subject and object, gives its distinctive
character and design to what we call "Romantic Philosophy."
– Abrams, 91.
However, Abrams’ position is distinct from, and in many ways antithetical to, my own. Throughout Natural Supernaturalism, for example, Abrams is concerned with the presentation of the Christian story and mythos through a secular symbol set (for instance, in his extended discussion of The Prelude) -- a pattern which he believes betrays an underlying reliance upon the strength of the Christian cosmology in the minds of nineteenth century writers. In contrast, I find interesting the extensive use of the Christian symbol set to tell increasingly secular stories. The enigmatic world of the individual mind is an extraordinarily attractive one to the English Romantics, and there are constant attempts throughout the Romantic movement to delineate the workings of the mind and the conflicts which animate it. However, many of these presentations rely heavily, even exclusively, upon Christian symbology -- angels and devils, the cross and crucifixion, and so on. The symbols, already invested with meaning in the traditional (predominantly Christian) venue are re-invested with utterly new, often secular, meanings by poets. Rather than, as Abrams would have it, the re-presentation of Christianity through secular means, such works present a newly secular world-view through the appropriation of Christian symbols. Instead of presenting a "demythologized" Christianity, many nineteenth century works use the Christian symbol-set to mythologize secular humanism and other philosophical alternatives to Christianity.
Supernatural literature provided a unique opportunity to appropriate the signifiers and symbols of established religion and reinvest them with new connotations by mixing Christian iconography with folk-beliefs and figures which were acknowledged as mythical in origin. Through association with such material, the validity of established Christian signifiers was seriously undermined. Yet, the incorporation of folk-beliefs also lent the poet’s work the authority and satisfaction of national myth -- a distinct advantage during a period marked by imperialism and its attendant xenophobia. Those Christian symbols which were appropriated by supernatural literature were often associated with the Catholic church, which served to further threaten the legitimacy of any orthodox Christian interpretation of their significance to an Anglican audience.
Supernatural literature was not only used to critique the dominant hegemony in the religious sphere. The self-consciousness noted by Houghton and others suggests that nineteenth-century writers utilized conventional signifiers for decidedly unconventional purposes. The supernatural literature of previous eras usually reflected and reinforced social mores; in the nineteenth century, it could critique these social values and practices as well, with the additional weight of supernatural authority. In Beowulf or The Tempest for example, supernatural agencies serve to reinforce the authority of the ruling classes, while in A Christmas Carol, the supernatural serves as a social critique of the economic elite. This is possible because, in a society which has become self-conscious of the degree to which its institutions are predicated upon mere convention, rather than divine authority or inescapable, natural logic, all signs are available for reappropriation and re-inscription -- and it makes sense that any attempt to establish a new social or spiritual paradigm or ethical system would appropriate the symbol-sets which are already associated with spiritual authority.
Throughout this project, I would like to propose a number of arguments. First, that the social turbulence of the nineteenth century began to undermine the authority of orthodox Christianity, making it both possible and desirable for authors to suggest alternative approaches to spirituality and ethics. Second, that contrary to the heretofore prevailing arguments of scholars such as Abrams, the reaction of nineteenth century authors was not the re-presentation of Christianity through secular means, but the presentation and "mythologization" of a newly secular world-view through the appropriation of Christian symbols and other supernatural signifiers. Third, that the appropriation of Christian iconography and folk-belief lent significance and credibility to emerging secular philosophies by virtue of their antiquity and recognizability. Fourth, that as the nineteenth century progressed, the meaning of these signifiers became increasingly subjective, to the point at which works of literature had to define for their audience the meaning with which these signifiers were to be invested. Fifth, that the freedom with which supernatural literature employed metaphysical signifiers sped the rate at which these signifiers lost their mythological authority. And finally, that by the end of the nineteenth century, the process of dissassociation between supernatural signifiers and their original meanings had progressed so far that they were ripe for commodification, effectively stripped of their original transcendental significance and connotations. Supernatural literature of the transcendent had become the literature of the marketplace, a cultural commodity.
I believe that the best way to prove these arguments is through a series of close readings of texts which I consider most clearly representative of the stages of this process of appropriation and re-inscription. By selecting a broad range of texts, from the early Romantic to the late Victorian periods, I hope to not only provide clear evidence for my arguments, but to emphasize the gradual nature of the process as well.
I will begin with a reconsideration of Coleridge, the Romantic poet who has often been considered the most overtly, conventionally Christian. I would like to comment briefly upon Coleridge’s explicit theological declarations in his prose essays, as well as in poems such as "Religious Musings" and "The Eolian Harp." I would then like to contrast these declarations with an extended discussion of "Christabel," a poem which engages Christian (largely Catholic) iconography with the vaguer supernatural elements of folk-beliefs, vampire lore, and related motifs in the manner which I have previously described. I argue that even as Coleridge struggles to reconcile himself with Christianity, he consistently betrays a serious mistrust of its institutions in his evocation of Christian symbols. While he seems content with, even insistent upon, invoking the symbology of the Christian church, his poetry expresses a theological skepticism which seems most comfortable in its elucidation of what might be best characterized as transcendent mysticism, or even occasional secular humanism -- a position which begs for a re-evaluation of Abrams’ and others’ assertions that Coleridge’s and other romantics’ projects ought be read primarily as a secularization of Christianity. I would like to stress that I see this equivocation as part of the Romantic tradition, incorporating as it does such diverse elements as Wordsworth’s occasionally unsettling oppositions of orthodox Christianity and the sublime, and Blake’s alternating visions of bliss and apocalypse. Ultimately, the literature of the supernatural in this period is the literature of division, of uncertainty, the undermining of traditional institutions, and the appropriation and inversion of established symbolic structures.
In chapter two, I will shift my argument to one of the Romantics considered most critical of spiritual (or any) orthodoxy: not Shelley, whose revolutionary enthusiasm was so often played out in classical arenas which were far from revolutionary, but Byron, whose work often seems removed from the dialogue of church and revolutionary altogether. In Manfred, Byron presents what seems to be an entirely subjective mythology, a "supernatural" story in which all the supernatural activity is subsidiary to the inner conflicts which motivate the protagonist. While it is possible to argue that this merely makes clear the degree to which Manfred’s search for absolution and self-determination reflect the nineteenth-century drive towards subjectivity and introspection, I propose that Byron’s choice of a supernatural setting is not merely perverse, but political. Manfred’s complete self-control in the face of supernatural agencies refutes the authority and significance of an external theological establishment. In this re-inscription of the Faust myth, Byron’s hero finds that he is unable to sell his soul to either the Devil or the church, but only to himself. This poem partakes of another significant aspect of late Romantic supernatural literature, its association with an emerging national mythology -- an aspect which will become even more central over time.
Chapter three begins a consideration of Victorian approaches to supernatural literature by expanding upon the potential of the supernatural as the signifier of internalized conflicts. The ghosts which haunt Brontë's Wuthering Heights have usually been interpreted as reflective of the repressed sexual desires of its characters. As useful as this sort of Freudian criticism is in narratological terms, I find it insufficient for explaining the supernatural aspects of this novel. The supernatural figures and tropes are not merely incestuous, but effective: in addition to directly eliciting reactions from the characters in the novel, the way in which other characters appropriate and interpret those reactions themselves becomes important. As in Manfred, the supernatural appears here as a representative site of internal struggle -- but it also becomes a language with which characters communicate with one another and with a larger community. Over the course of the novel, an economy in supernatural signifiers develops in which characters exchange information and influence through the performance of the supernatural itself. In political terms, it is important to note that in this new economy it is the signifiers of orthodox Christianity which are valued the least, and those which reflect temporal and secular desires which are valued the most. Even as the supernatural signifiers are leeched of their "conventional" meaning and value, yet another alternative cosmology is established: one in which the essential rewards are neither life-everlasting nor self-determination, but the fulfillment of desire.
In chapter four, I would like to forward Bram Stoker's Dracula as an ultimate illustration of this commodification of the supernatural in the nineteenth century. Dracula has occasionally been interpreted as reflective of an imperialist Christian resistance to foreign "paganism," and as a paean to the emerging powers of science and reason over superstition. However, the novel accomplishes this in a contrary fashion by associating and investing both English nationalism and science with supernatural powers, a radical appropriation of the very notion of what can constitute the supernatural. Dracula also insists that supernatural powers are explicitly local phenomena, a notion which reinforces my argument that supernatural literature during this period becomes deeply invested in both subjectivity and national mythology. Most centrally, Dracula completes the process of the commodification of supernatural signifiers in this era. Christian and supernatural symbols are bought, sold, and exchanged in an arena which fails to acknowledge that they are much more than tools which happen to be effective in completing secular tasks -- certainly not that they are essential components of the religious identities of their wielders. Even as the protagonists profess their orthodox religious sincerity, Christianity and folk-superstition are treated as interchangeable, completely comparable phenomena, divorced from their original significance, and only trotted out as yet more systems of currency to be mastered.
Finally, in chapter five I will touch briefly upon the manner in which modern authors and audiences have inherited this approach to supernatural texts by considering a single supernatural signifier, the vampire, and the ways in which it is exchanged, interpreted, appropriated, and projected. I choose to focus upon the figure of the vampire partially because it can be readily seen that most modern vampire texts have inherited many of their tropes from a single nineteenth-century work, Stoker's Dracula, and partially because recent scholarship has exposed the peculiar indeterminacy of the figure, and the degree to which it can be appropriated for diverse purposes. I would like to suggest that while they differ in the associations and connotations which they bring to the figure of the vampire, many modern vampire texts retain the essential characteristics of nineteenth-century supernatural fiction: the inefficacy of the orthodox church, except as a manner of lending the weight of antiquity to narrative conventions, and the importance of the individual apprehension of the infinite as an alternate spirituality to Christian redemption.
- Abrams, M. H. Natural Supernaturalism / Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1971.
- Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ernest Hartley Coleridge, ed. London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1961.
- Frye, Northrop. A Study of English Romanticism. New York: Random House, 1968.
- McGann, Jerome J. The Romantic Ideology / A Critical Investigation. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 1983.