The Powers of Terror: Toward a Gothic Image of Thought (Part I)

Snake-bound Osiris figurine at the Museo Nazionale Romano (Terme di Diocleziano).

Part I – The Powers of Terror: Toward A Gothic Image of Thought
Part II – Subterranean Passages: The Gothic Structure of Thought
Part III – A Deep Anonymous Murmur: The Gothic Subject of Thought

Part I – The Powers of Terror: Toward A Gothic Image of Thought

They told me that the night and day were all that I could see;
They told me that I had five senses to enclose me up;
And they enclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red, round globe, hot burning,
Till all from life I was obliterated and erasèd.
(Blake, “Daughters” 53-7)

The Gothic formula isn’t hard to spot. Characters cycle through a handful of archetypes: the wicked priest, the young lovers, the veiled virgin and the men who covet her, the demonic seductress, the wandering damned, and the list goes on. At the level of plot much is the same: imprisonment, live burial, profaned sanctity, hidden parentage, broken taboos, and shocking reveals are all to be expected. But what unites these disparate elements under the single and pre-eminently recognisable title of the Gothic? In The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick proposes an answer to this question in the formulation of a “particular spatial model” which unites the core structures and themes of the Gothic style. This spatial model is comprised of three components, “what’s inside, what’s outside, and what separates them,” which severs the individual self from something crucial to it (Sedgwick 1986, 12). This desired object can lie outside the self, or it can be hidden impossibly within, what is essential is the third component, the force or barrier which imposes that separation. Prisons, veils, and secret identities all come naturally to this structure, as all have to do with the intimate yet severed relations between insides and outsides.

The passage from William Blake’s “Visions of the Daughters of Albion” quoted above is a typical example of this spatial dynamic. The speaker is Oothoon, “the soft soul” who wanders in search of her pious lover Theotormon only to be set upon and claimed by the slave-master Bromion. In vengeance, and deaf to Oothoon’s pleas, Theotormon binds she and Bromion back to back in a cave, over which he sets his watch. Already among the surface elements of the poem are identifiably Gothic tropes: subterranean imprisonment, the rapture of passion, the slow creep of guilt, and the secret pact among men to constrain feminine desire. But what lends a specifically Gothic tenor to these elements is the layered spatiality of the text, in which the focus is not simply the fact of imprisonment, but the additional psychological torment of the self “blocked off from something to which it ought normally to have access” (Sedgwick 1986, 12). In Oothoon’s lament, we discover that her enclosure is manifold, as she is enclosed five times by her senses, once again by the “narrow circle” about her brain, and once more—implicitly—by the ideological bondage of “they” that told her “the night and day were all that [she] could see.” Only once this psychic imprisonment is established is Oothoon’s heart—now “a red, round globe, hot burning”—lowered into “the Abyss” that marks the final outer barrier to mirror the many interior rifts in her own inner space.

Sedgwick’s reading of the Gothic is a structuralist one, and brings with it an attention to the ways that language not only shapes thought, but shares or even determines its structure. In Sedgwick’s account, language itself becomes live burial, as the Gothic novel spirals inward through nested narrators, twisted plotlines, and the proliferation of lacunae in its fictive texts, memories, and dreams. If the characters of the Gothic are trapped within this spatial nexus, then so are the texts themselves and those who find themselves snared in their attempts to decipher them. In this manner, the conventions of the Gothic may be read on multiple levels, two of which are explicitly formulated by Sedgwick: the first being the “thematic” or fictive level in its dramatisation of literal or figurative imprisonment, and the second “structural” or linguistic level with its recurring phrases, tropes, and narratives hovering between what is within and what is without (Sedgwick 1986, 170 n. 2).

Keeping in mind Blake’s image of the thinking, sensing self sunk within itself, we may posit a third epistemological valence to the Gothic, for which the spatial model not only charts the limits of the inaccessible and the unspeakable, but also the unknowable that lies impossibly out of reach. Just as the provision of the second structural layer of the Gothic furnishes explanations concerning the workings of the first fictive layer—Why the preoccupations with burial, with depths, with waking dreams? What keeps these disparate elements together?—the third epistemic level follows from the second, as a means of typifying the thought proper to the Gothic’s contorted language (if we are to take seriously the injunction that the unconscious is structured like a language, what mind may spring from this structure?).

In short, I propose that the Gothic’s spatial model may be read as what Gilles Deleuze termed an “image of thought” or the preconscious set of assumptions made about thought, which determine in advance the possible forms of thought. The Gothic is no stranger to the shock of finding oneself, upon the exit from one’s imprisonment, in the clutches of another, greater prison, and so we may be forgiven for not heeding Deleuze’s warning against “opposing to the dogmatic image of thought another image borrowed” from some more hospitable source (Deleuze 1994, 148). The Gothic image of thought contains its own limits, preoccupations, and sites of ideological enclosure distinct from those of philosophy’s traditional image of thought, but no less constrictive for this fact. But still there remains the Gothic’s obsession with the darkness, untruth, and outside which cannot be assimilated to thought, while nonetheless playing an essential role in the genesis of thought. It is in this fact that the proposed Gothic image of thought stands far closer to Deleuze’s desired “abolition” of image than it does to the dogmatic image of thought (Deleuze 1994, 148). As we shall see, under the conventions of Gothic horror and terror, thought is never anything but the play of space upon the subject, without a fixed centre or natural beginning, which is born from irrational encounters with the outside. 

The first part of this essay will attempt to codify the Gothic image of thought in a series of propositions on the inside-outside divide and its role in structuring thought. These propositions will be made with reference to the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Representation, in whom we find not only a contemporary of the Gothic novelists but a kindred spirit in the speculative study of all that disturbs the boundaries of the self. As we shall see, Schopenhauer’s writing not only plays readily into many of the Gothic tropes already mentioned, but unknowingly reveals the logic of horror that maps the thinking subject’s exterior limits. Like Oothoon in her cavern, Schopenhauer discovers himself multiply bound: not only by the veil of the senses that shroud his world in darkness; not only by the desires that well up from his body to tempt his mind; but additionally, with true horror’s tell-tale pangs of nausea, Schopenhauer realises that he is nothing but a skin floating in the depths—what is inside is only a momentary involution of the outside.

The second part takes up the thinking subject as its focus, beginning with Deleuze’s account of thought’s genesis. Against philosophy’s traditional image of thought, in which there is a natural link between the thinker, thought, and the good, Deleuze argues that thought must be torn “from its natural torpor and notorious bad will,” and that something “forces us to think” by confronting us with an encounter which “escape[s] all recognition” (Deleuze 1994, xvi). I argue that this logic of the encounter is the same as that which structures Gothic terror, in which the mind is startled into action by some involuntary shock, and is made to scramble to make sense of what it has stumbled upon. Long derided as a paranoid or hysteric, the Gothic heroine is thus the foremost figure of thought in the Gothic, as a subject perpetually recomposed by the trials of terror, and made fit by this test to channel thought from the outside.

Part II…



Blake, William. The Complete Poems. London: Penguin, 1977.

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Translated by Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. New York: Methuen, 1986.

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