A Very German Story



A few thoughts about Popular Revenants: The German Gothic and Its International Reception, 1800-2000, edited by Andrew Cusack and Barry Murnane (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012)


Here is as straightforward an argument as Adorno ever made: If you wish to find an art that is adequate to mass death—an art, that is, that can do right by the Apache in the 1880s and the Armenians in the 1910s and the Palestinians now—you have a few different options. You might consider a documentary and testimonial art, one that gets the word out, peeling back blankets of denial and obfuscation and palm-bearing oblivion—a “photograph of the disaster” was Adorno’s name for such a thing. That might do, but better would be an art capable of giving voice to anguish and not just of tabulating it—an art that rather than producing a set of paraphrasable propositions about suffering actually made its audience ache, a sorrowing art, then, literature as paid mourner. Better still would be an art of “incomprehensible horror”—this is still Adorno—and on the simple grounds that a tale of terror is more likely to rattle you than an exposé or maudlin vignette. Nothing will go as far to dent our perception of Adorno as fussy Brahmin than his embrace of Gothic literature, this one precious genre that puts violence on display and allows it to be horrible. The enormities of empire and a capitalism-without-pretenses do not in fact require that we abandon all of our storytelling conventions, that we start art over again from gory scratch, since we already have at our disposal a narrative form that forces us to say who is dying and how and at whose hands: scary movies and the weird menace of the pulps. Such is the art due Guatemala in the 1980s or the biped chattel of a former Alabama. They keep telling you that you can’t write poetry after Auschwitz, but no-one ever said you couldn’t re-make Blood Feast.

But then perhaps Adorno’s argument is after all not so very straightforward. It has always been possible to think of horror stories as an exercise in truth-telling and consciousness-raising, with fear functioning as the bearer of moral judgments, usurping the role that sentimental fiction more typically reserves for tears. Sometimes you cry in the face of something you know to be wrong, something whose wrongness does not need to be argumentatively demonstrated to you. And sometimes, equally, you blench or panic, and you do so, when watching a film, not because you fear for yourself, but because you fear for another; at such moments, yours is an ethical fear, not panic, but companic. Slasher movies simply make more sense if you approach them as stunned enquiries into male violence, rather than as grisly cheerings of same. And yet the horror art that Adorno is proposing as commensurate with fascism and occupation and your administered life does not, in fact, work that way; it is no longer on the continuum with activist journalism or moral sense theory. The “radically darkened art” that Adorno is proposing must do something more “than merely protest”; we need an art, rather, that “has taken the disaster into itself” and that “identifies with it,” an art, indeed, that “has defected to the enemy”—not horror, but gonzo horror. If we follow this line, we will actually have to relinquish most ghost stories and vampire movies for being plain-vanilla Gothic. Horror fiction, which respectable readers usually think of as out-there and round-the-bend, now stands accused of having never gone far enough. The Gothic is itself scared of something, permanently recoiling from its own dismal consequence.

A counter-intuitive argument, no doubt. So why might a person come to this conclusion about the Gothic? In what aberrant circumstances does horror fiction itself seem squeamish? Such is the utility of one collection of recent scholarly articles about weird fiction in Germany; the dozen contributors to Popular Revenants make clear just how much timorous philosophizing the rubric of the Gothic makes possible. This dispersed volume’s uniting arguments are threefold: that horror fiction is cosmopolitan; that it broadcasts enlightenment (and not the demonic counter-enlightenment you might have expected); and that it does so in perpetuity, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (and so not just in the decades of a flourishing and self-conscious Romanticism). Let’s take each of these claims in turn.

The Gothic is cosmopolitan. The volume is subtitled “The German Gothic and its International Reception,” and its biggest innovation is right there after the colon. It has to be said: “The German Gothic” is a puzzling term, though not much more so than the designator “Gothic” by itself, since this last was originally an ethnic and geographical term (a name for the Germanic tribes of central and eastern Europe in the period of the Roman Empire), which then mutated into a periodizing term naming not peoples but centuries (a name for the Middle Ages almost anywhere in Europe), before mutating again to describe a group of eerie, late eighteenth-century novels whose most famous examples are set in neither the Middle Ages nor Germany. The problem in the present case is that “Gothic” is a word that some English readers once used to describe fictions that struck them as in some ill-defined sense “Germanic,” but then this last word is one that no German writer (or literary historian) can meaningfully self-apply, since one rather expects German writing to come across as Germanic. All German literature is Gothic, and the term “German Gothic” thus becomes a redundancy, akin to calling a novel “Teutono-Allemanic.” But then German literary history has for that very reason never really taken to the term, preferring to speak of Schauerliteratur or Räuberromane or more recently of Horrorliteratur. There is no gotische Literatur, or if there is, it involves twig-writing on amulets and might have been invented by Odin. And yet from out of this muddle, the editors of Popular Revenants have managed to extract an argument or affirmative program. They know that the term “German Gothic” is largely their own creation, and they know, too, what a casual reader is likely to miss—that the term “Gothic” makes this literature in some sense less German and not more so, flagging the affiliations between uncanny writing in German and such writing in other languages, especially English. E. T. A. Hoffmann becomes in the uptake more of a French writer than a German one. In 1786, a German novelist translates from the English an extravagantly plotted historical romance and goes on to write a few novels of her own in that acquired vein. In the 1790s, these are translated into English in turn, by which point they get to count as echt deutsch. Popular Revenants is never more convincing than when establishing the Gothic as a pan-European mode and when establishing the brief centrality of Germany to a literature that you might have remembered as being set mostly in Spain and Italy. For a few decades in the early nineteenth century, when readers were eagerly buying “tales of the northern nations,” it was not uncommon for an English novelist to claim that a novel was hers when it was actually translated from the German or to claim that it was a translation from the German when it was actually hers: “A Very German Story.” The term “Gothic” might be ethnic-tribal, but a nationalist account of Gothic literature will not do. Victor Frankenstein travels to Bavaria and Scotland and the Arctic; the Transylvanian noble stows away on a ship bound for the Yorkshire coast; nineteenth-century Gothic novels were themselves on the move, widely translated and written in many languages anyway. The most famous thing the ancient Goths ever did was cross the Danube.

The Gothic is enlightened. This claim is also true and might even be truer than you think. Nearly the first lesson that any student of the Gothic learns is that the genre comes in two forms: the supernatural kind, in which the bogeys and demons are real, and the demystifying kind, in which the goblins all turn out to be Jesuits. We know to call that second kind of Gothic enlightened, but the first is hardly less so, and both wobble with paradox. The villains of the demystifying Gothic are those who use terror to shore up their authority—priests, political operatives, gaslighting Machiavels—but then the ranks of such fear-preachers would have to include Gothic novelists themselves, who find themselves saying both that there is nothing to be scared of and that one should stand aghast at anyone who tells you different. That you should fear those who try to instill fear into you is a sentiment that will always indict its speaker. The supernatural Gothic, meanwhile, might seem irrational or anti-scientific, in that it asks its readers to credit a still occult world, and yet the heroes of such fictions are typically out to defeat everything magical, to reduce the paranormal back to the normal, and whenever they succeed the enchanted Gothic outs itself as disenchantment by other means. Protestants and liberals and London lawyers learn just enough Church Latin to make the vampire go away. Even counter-enlightenment is made to serve the purposes of the enlighteners.

For current purposes, the important point is that this last sentence could serve equally well as a summary of Popular Revenants, whose authors tell us more than once that Schauerromane were products of “the late Enlightenment” or that the Gothic was “firmly rooted in a dominant strand of [the] late Enlightenment.” It’s just that the wisdom that the literary critics have extrapolated from these strange fictions still sounds a lot like counter-Enlightenment: that the “supposedly solid enlightened subject” is easily “deranged”; that humans have difficulties “thinking of themselves as coherent subjects”; that the Enlightenment itself needs “testing out.” One of the volume’s major aims is thus to undo the distinction between Enlightenment and Enlightenment critique, simply by reassigning to the former the insights of the latter. Adorno and Horkheimer took something rather like this to be one of enlightenment’s most alarming features—that rational argument would be impossible to outrun, that even opposition to enlightenment would be obliged henceforth to offer itself as enlightenment. Popular Revenants takes this obligation to be a virtue, and the Gothic of its making comes to us as a basically Kantian exercise—that’s the “late” in “late Enlightenment”—an enlightened culture’s candid reflection on its own limits and failures. Kafka and Poe cordially request that you not overdo it with the Diderot.

The Gothic is not a period in literary history, but an enduring strand that runs throughout modern storytelling. Nearly half the volume’s contributions have been arranged in service of this point, demonstrating the persistence of the macabre in the German realism of Wilhelm Raabe or Theodor Fontane; in the German modernism of early twentieth-century Prague or Weimar cinema; in postmodern novels of German reunification (by Christa Wolf and Irina Liebmann). It is perhaps confounding that the editors would think it needful to relitigate a case already made by sundry historians of supernatural fiction. Indeed, an English-speaking reader is more likely to have been told at some point that it was realism, and not the Gothic, that has been strangely absent from German literary history—that what the German nineteenth century lacked was an Austen or a Dickens or a Balzac or a Zola, some realist so formidable that I can count on your knowing their name. Anyone reading in translation might even get the impression that German literature has only ever been fantastic, an unbroken sequence of plays about the devil, stories about robot women, and novellas about bug-men, with the not-quite-literary, but wholly Gothic, figures of Wagner and Nietzsche occupying the late nineteenth-century slots where one might have expected to find Flaubert and Tolstoy.

So why tell us all over again that the Gothic has never gone away? The collection’s three main claims have to be considered together: The German Gothic has been cosmopolitan, enlightened, and perpetual. Taken singly, none of these observations is wrong, but conjoined they present an image of the Gothic as accommodating and ecumenical, at home in every literary style and period, mediating an accord between enlightenment and counter-enlightenment, itinerant across Europe to ensure the peace of nations. What the editors have done, then, is crafted a Gothic wholly without conflict or adversary, a horror fiction that wants to be everybody’s friend. And then that, tailored to our prejudices, is the squeamish Gothic that Adorno was trying to identify and surpass. It is also a Gothic remodeled on the example of critical theory itself, an international conversation about the impasses and injuries of the rationalized world—international, but with Germans taking the lead. It’s just that this confluence both confirms many of Adorno’s core arguments and oddly robs them of their force. In Popular Revenants, we read that the Gothic is amenable to “transfer,” like money into a bank account or executives reposted to Singapore. We are told that other Europeans have always undertaken a “commerce with German letters.” A Gothic commodity of this kind has precisely not gone over to the enemy, but is obligingly doing the work of the neo-Kantian angels. German monsters cross borders, but only in the manner of Berlin philosophers guest-lecturing at American universities. A horror fiction this worldly and liberal-minded betrays its own anxieties and above all its fear of the provincial: the dialect tale, the hatchet-waving redneck, the untranslated book. Here, then, is my proposal, a general one, a learnable method, not confined to Popular Revenants: Whenever someone offers you a definition of the Gothic, invert it—say clearly what this version of the Gothic is not, what it is rejecting or cannot accommodate. Strip the Gothic of what a given critic thinks makes it respectable and in that negation you will find a second Gothic, a horror prime secreted in its spooky base. If someone tells you that the Gothic is cosmopolitan and enlightened, it’s not so hard to figure out that they are scared of something, which is that it is neither. But then of course the idea of a multinational and semi-illuminated Gothic is not simply an error. Sometimes the cosmopolitans who wear their enlightenment lightly really are the scary ones. In British West Africa, colonial administrators thought it was their job to protect indigenous societies from precipitate modernization and ruled them tenaciously to that end. The team-leaders of a bohemianized capitalism don’t like the old corporate managers any more than Adorno himself did; they will speak to you of “flexibility” and “creativity,” and what they will mean is that you are going to have to be accommodating, adaptable; that you can never say no; that you will never stop working. If you make horror fiction sound like a measured version of critical theory, as this book does, then it is only a matter of time before readers will think to ask where critical theory has been most horrifying. Somebody, somewhere feels stalked by ghastly Habermasians.

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