The Gothic Imagination: From Castle to Shipwreck
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The gothic is a term designating a style in medieval architecture, which inspired a mode of the imagination in the Enlightenment and Romantic era. This mode found its fullest expression in narrative, popularized by the gothic novel in the British Isles, before spreading across the continent and indeed across the globe. My talk starts with an overview of the gothic mode as conceived by modernity, involved heightened sensation, melodrama, the persistence of irrational forces and fantasies shaped by the tortured, claustrophobic architecture patterned on medieval cloisters, churches, and castles. While inspired by architectures of power from the feudal era, gothic spaces were adapted by the modern imagination to express haunted or otherwise uncanny features of other types of environments. An urban gothic proliferated in the 19th century across the globe, peopled by the ghosts of the marginalized and the displaced. In the United States, Southern gothic, as well as the suburban gothic are two examples of how the gothic travels: in the case of the suburban gothic, to rend the façade of middle-class banality and in the case of the Southern gothic, to express tormented race relations still shaping consciousness and history. The paper ends by adding to these familiar gothic topoi a form of environmental gothic: the underwater gothic, enabled by the invention of technologies to take human vision beneath the ocean and record it with film, which is the subject of my current research. It shows how the vista of the shipwreck fits the criteria for the gothic using James Cameron’s virtuosic sequence filming the historical wreck of The Titanic in Titanic (1997). Under the sea as well, the gothic confronts Enlightenment modernity with irrational forces – staging, however, not a form of human power but rather the menace to modernity of the indifferent, natural environment. This menace has an uncanny beauty as strange natural forms recolonize technologies that were the epitome of modern aspiration, and give an alluring afterlife to a tragic grave.