New Criticals

To name a few, there is the literature of marvelous bewilderment (Italo Calvino, Angela Carter), the literature of the infinite self (James Joyce, Marcel Proust), and there is the literature of wildness and fear, the Southern Gothic, as practiced by Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy. A preference among these is not nearly as important as an understanding.

First: I think of John Ruskin, who wrote about the development of the Gothic aesthetic in architecture, and praised the barbarousness in its character, the wildness that gave the style its name. The appellation Gothic was meant, in the Renaissance, as a deprecating assessment of its darkness and brutality. Yet it had become, by the nineteenth century, a denotation of alluring weirdness. Notre-Dame, or closer to home, St John the Divine, have the hallmarks of the style: stone-ribbed vaults, supported by huge columns and flying buttresses, and walls almost entirely set in stained glass.

Notre-Dame’s main portal contains a stonecarved scene of Christ enthroned, surrounded by angels and saints. Just below his feet stands the everlasting figure of human vanity, Satan, with scales in hand, weighing mortal sins and taking the unrepentant away to hell. The Gothic, for all the holy glow of light and metaphors for Christ’s redemption of the world, does not consign the fouler things to go unseen. Death, naturally, but sin as well, in the form of grotesques, demons and impossible beasts, stand ever ready to remind the poor parishioner of the fragility of salvation.

In a de-christianized context, the gruesomeness can seem out of place in any art; with salvation and damnation made academic, the ghoulish apparitions hanging from the pinnacles of bell towers seem mere remnants of an older, less enlightened order, before civilization rounded off the edges. In an age of woefully obvious CGI, no howling beast can cross the uncanny valley to threaten us in our sleep.