A EUROPE TORN BETWEEN TWO LOVERS
Hoeveler, Diane Long. Gothic Riffs: Secularizing the Uncanny in the European Imaginary, 1780-1820. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2010. Print.
REVIEWER: Garrett C. Jeter
- 1 Summary
- 2 Analysis
- 3 Hoeveler's Argument, Negative Capability, and Doublethink
- 4 Understanding the Gothic and its Role in History
- 5 Chapters: Detailed Looks at Cultural Works
- 6 Clear and Cogent
- 7 Solid Treatment of Diverse Media
- 8 Possible Future Directions: Expanded History
- 9 Conclusion: Refreshing Psychological Approach
Using the work of Charles Taylor's A Secular Age (2007, Belknap Press of Harvard UP), Hoeveler argues that Gothicism arose in Europe ca. 1800 because of rapid, disorienting cultural change. Culture was shedding old, premodern beliefs in the supernatural in favor of modern trust in the natural world, but such transformation came at a cost: psychic confusion and trauma. Gothic works, reflected in diverse literary and stage productions, brought a therapeutic and comforting healing to the European mind as it ambivalently placed trust in transcendence and magic on the one hand and science and secularism on the other. Such productions retold one or a few narratives repeatedly ("riffs") and ritualistically. All of this change occurred within the historical context of the rise of the new bourgeois middle class and its values of self-reliance and rationalism.
Hoeveler's Argument, Negative Capability, and Doublethink
John Keats coined the term negative capability to describe “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” George Orwell later used the word doublethink to describe the mind’s ability to hold and believe two contradictory ideas simultaneously. Hoeveler addresses internal conflict in Gothic Riffs, but, unlike Keats and Orwell, examines it on societal and cultural levels. Riffs is about contradiction, doubt, and uncertainty on a European scale; Gothicism thrived around 1800 because Europe, experiencing major, traumatic cultural upheavals as it proceeded towards modernity, found its collective mind divided in allegiance between the premodern supernatural and “modern” natural. Literature and the arts increasingly favored and inculcated the values of a nascent bourgeois and were abandoning the animistic ways of the lower class. A maturing Enlightenment civilization was experiencing its own form of teen angst as it faced the question whether to believe in ghosts and fatalism or science and self-reliance. Through ritualistic retellings (“riffs”) of a few universal narratives in literature and the arts, European culture was able to confront this psychic dilemma. Hoeveler’s argument is a plausible and accessible look at how cultural production reflected an anxious time for European culture.
Understanding the Gothic and its Role in History
Riffs is both a tribute to what Hoeveler considers a misunderstood field of study and a rethinking of the psychological drives behind its popularity, employing as its methods both historical context and psychohistorical and psychosocial approaches, including class and religion. Her mission is to remove perplexity in the Academy about a misunderstood genre. As an “unwanted stepchild” of Romanticism, the Gothic was “quietly ignored, tucked away like some odd family relation that was better off kept in an asylum” (229). When scholars rediscovered it, she asserts, bewilderment ensued: “[W]hen the gothic was brought into the light of day, dusted off, and scrutinized, critics were confused about exactly what they were examining” (229). Scholars of Gothic aesthetics will find Riffs an admirable effort in shedding light on an erstwhile dark corner of literary studies. Relying significantly on Taylor's work and vocabulary, Hoeveler argues against conventional understanding of the Gothic. Far from being a reaction against secularization and modernization, the genre actually embraced both processes, marrying them to beliefs in the supernatural in what she calls “ambivalent secularization,” a psychic experience in which the culture believed both in the natural and the supernatural simultaneously as way of both imagining its relationship with each other and the cosmos (“the imaginary”) and of achieving “fullness” of life. Riffs follows a path that diverges from current scholarly perceptions of the Gothic; where researchers previously divorced the genre from any relationship with the era’s emerging rationalism, Hoeveler positions it inside of that phenomenon and offers a new argument: rationalism had an uneasy friendship with superstition and faith.
Chapters: Detailed Looks at Cultural Works
Hoeveler approaches this ambivalence through two broad areas of cultural production: stage and writing. Chapter 1 describes the revival of Shakespeare’s work as paradigmatic for violence and supernaturality; the use of Sentimentality to create an ideal of secular, bourgeois virtue; and how theater instilled the concept of emotion as universal, “real,” and somatically producible. Chapter 2 treats “rescue operas,” which incorporate the tropes of wrongful imprisonment of the innocent and ultimate liberation as didactic instruments of bourgeois values of self-reliance. Hoeveler takes us through ghosts and phantasmagoric shows in Chapter 3 as culture’s ways of negotiating historical transformation between belief in transcendence and attachment to the natural world. The last subject of theater, melodrama, in Chapter 4, recalls Chapter 2’s tropes of unjust disinheritance and inculcation of secularized bourgeois ideology. Chapters 5 and 6, respectively, treat folk-ballads, which straddle the passing oral and emerging writing cultures, with the condemnatory yet allured reactions of poets such as Wordsworth, and the chapbook, which through circulating libraries replaced a fatalistic lower-class “lottery” worldview with the bourgeois “investment mentality” of self-reliance. Treatments of different media are sufficiently and believably explored in satisfying, detailed length.
Clear and Cogent 
Hoeveler writes an easily followable argument with crystal clarity, blending Taylor’s work almost seamlessly with detailed examination of aesthetic productions in a thorough attempt to understand how cultural disquiet permeated the era’s stage and text. Riffs’ strength lies in Hoeveler’s ability to demonstrate plausibly how both spheres could reflect a collective desire to retain a belief in supernaturality even in the face of attacks from forces of rationalism. Scholars of Gothicism will come away from her work with a different, even deeper, understanding of how this unease penetrated into diverse cultural works that sought to resolve this conflict. Her treatment of media is extensive; addressing four Gothic “technologies,” she weaves into discussions of page and stage the growing tendency of aesthetics to favor bourgeois middle-class conceptions of Protestant virtue and to expel working-class magical, superstitive thinking. Her argument is cogent; any culture that experiences dramatic external change is bound to confront psychic struggles as it abandons old paradigms of thinking for newer ways, feeling the painful birth pangs of mental transformation. Taylor’s work serves as a credible, plausible foundation that she uses to extend her inquiry into aesthetics, expanding on his work even while she employs his vocabulary.
Solid Treatment of Diverse Media
Her inquiry rests chiefly in multimedia, and here the extensive support for her thesis well satisfies. Riffs examines the presence of circulating libraries and the impact of rising literacy among the lower class (and how they interacted) in treating the chapbook, linking these two phenomena credibly with the bourgeois agenda of inculcating the masses with civic values.Using Taylor's term "Providential Deism" (an attempt to bridge old faith and modern rationalism), Hoeveler demonstrates how the "rescue opera" married traditional ideas of divine intervention and justice with bourgeois ideologies of self-help and loyalty to church, state, and family; the same motif recurs in the melodrama, particularly as it employed mute characters to act out narratives resolving in just restoration of wrongly deprived inheritance. Riffs incorporates study of common topoi across many media; particularly engaging is treatment of the motif of sacrifice--virginal, blood, communal, or altruistic--which occurs in the rescue opera and the ballad. Readers with interests in how "ambivalent secularization" influenced diverse cultural "technologies" and productions will find Hoeveler's treatment thorough and solidly founded. How these technologies interacted with their historical context is a fertile next step in research into Gothicism.
Possible Future Directions: Expanded History
Hoeveler's work offers promise in extending and applying this inquiry into how major developments in philosophy, law and governance, even significant events, might have infused literature and other cultural productions with this ambivalence and angst. Riffs contains an important message on how aesthetics cannot escape being a product of diverse historical, cultural, political, economic, and religious forces and pressures; some areas are a fertile field for further exploration and probing. Historical forces and philosophy impact cultural works; Locke’s treatises, the Glorious Revolution, and two major revolutions incorporated issues concerning power. Hoeveler's examination of Deism invites further study of this religious phenomenon as a rationalistic challenge to traditional Christianity (she addresses the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that shook a confident belief in a rationalistic universe).
Conclusion: Refreshing Psychological Approach
Although at times Riffs may paint European cultural anxiety monolithically with a broad brush-stroke, those who favor psychoanalytic and psychohistorical approaches to literature will find a new perspective on a culture and a period in birth-pangs; those with interests in cultural history will come away with a new understanding of Gothicity. Riffs works at a transcendent level, preferring to treat a whole, not just individuals. While her approach is not Freudian (he appears, though), Hoeveler places Europe on the couch for a session and even treats Riffs as memory-regression therapy. Commenting on Coleridge’s Memory-figure, who alternates between numbness and shock at what She must witness, Hoeveler remarks that his “vision of Memory haunted not only his own consciousness, but … European society at large” (1). Riffs is a literary and psychological archaeology dig, an attempt to recover an entire culture’s and era’s Memory and how that Remembering manifested itself, sometimes painfully, through aesthetics.