Subterranean Passages: The Gothic Structure of Thought (Part II)


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 II – Subterranean Passages: The Gothic Structure of Thought

According to Eve Sedgwick’s The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, the Gothic form is composed of three principle components—the inside, the outside, and what divides them. The inside and outside may be geographical, architectural, moral, or psychological, just as the boundary between them may be composed of brick, earth, fabric, or something more socially malleable. The present essay proposes that this inside-outside disjunction may also be conceived transcendentally, as a means of describing not only empirical instances of isolation and repression but also the grand enclosure of the transcendental subject away from “the unthinkable and unspeakable regions beyond possible experience” (Fisher 2001, 223). Additionally, with this tripartite topography of the Gothic in mind, there remains the question of how these elements interact with one another, and how their composition in the Gothic scene develops into a model of thought. What follows are five principles on the workings of the inside-outside disjunction accompanied by examples from Schopenhauer to lead us through the dark passageways of thought, toward a final horrific confrontation with the outside.

First Principle:
The inside-outside disjunction extends to the level of thought.

As we have seen, the Gothic structure depends upon the isolation of an interior from an outside to which it has some natural connection. “This something can be its own past, the details of its family history; it can be the free air, when the self has been literally buried alive; it can be a lover; it can be just all the circumambient life, when the self is pinned in a death-like sleep” (Sedgwick 1986, 12). What unites these disparate scenes is a common spatial structure which extends to the level of the text itself: “They are Gothic as written language ‘is’ Gothic: they recreate parallel representations at a distance from the original, subject to more or less frightening distortions” (Sedgwick 1986, 63). Gothic writing in Sedgwick’s account is a structuralism avant la lettre in the manner in which it conceives of language itself as a prison-house, which limits the very elements available to the Gothic imaginary and determines the form which their expression takes. If Gothic fiction is filled with unspeakable sights and unknowable secrets, whether in the form of things too monstrous to describe or gaps in what descriptions are possible, it is because the lacunae are built into the structure of knowledge itself. What we know and are able to know are only ever selected fragments of a much vaster whole.

This formulation of knowledge as product of the inside-outside disjunction finds its clearest philosophical expression in a contemporary of the Gothic writers, Arthur Schopenhauer. The central problematic of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is borrowed from Kant in the form of the division between phenomena and noumena, or the mental representations we make of the world and the fundamentally unknown world outside. Schopenhauer writes that “all knowing is essentially a making of representations,” but that these subjective representations “can never be identical with the being-in-itself of the thing outside” of oneself (WWR2 194). In a typically Gothic fashion, the phenomena which we experience remain the distant and distorted copies of the thing-in-itself, or what Schopenhauer calls the Will, of which “a certain something remains hidden from us as being quite unfathomable” (WWR2 194). At every turn thought confronts these limits, discovering itself sunk in “an abyss of incomprehensibilities and mysteries for our searching consideration and investigation” (WWR2 195). What remains to us of these mysteries are only representations, thrown against the interior of the thinking subject like shadows upon a sheet held between two objects.

Second Principle: The surface that divides is as significant as the depths.

Although the Gothic form is defined by its structural division between what is interior and what is exterior, this divide is never just a site of mute privation, and brings with it a whole productive machinery that keeps the scene in motion. In contrast to the depths of feeling within and the depths of mystery without, there remains “an influential family of Gothic conventions, congruent with one another in important respects and resistant to any psychological reading based on the primacy of depth” (Sedgwick 1986, 154). In fact, what composes the Gothic scene is never truly the depths over which its character’s obsess, but the fact of division itself, and the surfaces which maintain the rift between the Gothic subject and its desired exterior object.

It is in this context that the veil takes its place as a central metaphor for Sedgwick’s Gothic imaginary. In its literal appearance in the Gothic novel, the veil functions as both a porous barrier and potent surface of inscription. This is to say that the veil never truly hides what it covers, and sometimes even mirrors it—as when the whiteness of the veil communicates the virgin purity hidden beneath—or else works to shape the encounters had across that surface: the woman beneath the veil is desired precisely because she is veiled, but the man who lifts the veil may just as easily find a smiling corpse beneath. “The self expressed or explored by these conventions is all surface” and the presence of the veil—or by extension the mask, the shroud, and the forged or assumed identity—is what “presides over the establishment of the self” (Sedgwick 1986, 154-5).

The language of veiling recurs throughout both volumes of The World as Will and Representation, where the structure of the veiled subject is carried into a properly philosophical territory. The most noticeable instance of the veil in Schopenhauer is his adoption of the Buddhist “veil of Maya” to describe the illusions of phenomena which hide the noumena. Our isolation from true knowledge of the thing-in-itself “lies not in the defectiveness of our acquaintance with things, but in the very nature of knowledge itself,” so that “therefore they appear as through a mask. This mask enables us always merely to assume, never to know, what is hidden beneath it; and this something then gleams through as an inscrutable mystery” (WWR2 195). What transfixes the knowing subject is not the noumena themselves, but the fact of division from them and the Gothic play of surfaces through which perception and understanding attempt to find and unlatch the mask, the veil of illusion, which keeps subject and object apart. Philosophy then follows the same “quest for the numinous” by which Devendra Varma characterises the Gothic novel, which is driven “by an awestruck apprehension of Divine immanence penetrating diurnal reality” (1957, 211).

Third Principle: The inside corresponds to the outside.

None of this is to say that the division between the inside and outside is either stable or absolute, or that their connection through the surface is the only point of contact. After establishing the “immutable” terms of the relationship between the inside and outside, Sedgwick’s second goal is “to show that both the identification of center with self and the programmatic symmetry of the inside-outside relation are finally undermined in the same texts” (1986, 13). The veil’s eerie presence of absence is just one of the means by which parallels and correspondences are established between the inside and outside, without ever making them merely equal partners or fixed locations within the Gothic topography.

In fact, it is another means of correspondence between the interior self and exterior will which Schopenhauer discovers, and which produces his greatest break with the absolute phenomenal divide of Kantian philosophy. Having admitted to the veracity of Kant’s argument that “no one can recognize the thing-in-itself through the veil of the forms of perception,” Schopenhauer turns the Kantian centring of the subject upon its head. The will is outside and other to ourselves, but it also composes us, and the thinking subject must admit that “in fact he himself is it” (WWR2 182). Or, in one of the more overtly Gothic passages of The World as Will and Representation, we find this correspondence of the inside to the outside made explicit:

“So far I agree with Kant. But now, as the counterpoise to this truth, I have stressed that other truth that we are not merely the knowing subject, but that we ourselves are also among those realities or entities we require to know, that we ourselves are the thing-in-itself. Consequently, a way from within stands open to us to that real inner nature of things to which we cannot penetrate from without. It is, so to speak, a subterranean passage, a secret alliance, which, as if by treachery, places us all at once in the fortress that could not be taken by attack from without. Precisely as such, the thing-in-itself can come into consciousness only quite directly, namely by it itself being conscious of itself” (WWR2 195).

The Gothic topography twists in upon itself: no longer is the will a vast outside, but the hidden interior of a dark and secluded castle; the thinking subject transforms from the pious (or amorous!) devotee of the veil into a rogue sent to invade the fortress of the noumena. How shall the walls be scaled, if they are the senses themselves? How should the fort be taken, if its interior remains unspeakable? Like a tragic hero sent to unwittingly assassinate his own father, the knowing subject attempts to gain access to the thing-in-itself without realising that he himself is composed from this outer will, that by this secret alliance he could enter—or re-enter—the fortress at the gate.

The inside corresponds to the outside, in that they remain connected to one another by dark magic and hidden passages, so that the knowing subject’s attempts to know the will are also the will’s attempts to becoming conscious of itself. Within the outside, an inside is composed—within the inside, the outside remains. In her study of De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis, Sedgwick sees “an X within an X” as the “verbal formula” that describes the correspondence of the inside within the outside (1986, 20). The interior redoubles the outside, or contains nested interiors such that the horror of the live burial trope (and its attendant structural equivalents: the dream as burial, language as burial, etc.) stems not from the mere fact of privation or separation, but “the sameness of the separated spaces” and their uncanny parallels (Sedgwick 1986, 20). In Maturin’s Melmoth a prisoner locked in “a vault beneath a monastery,” obsesses with the accurate measurement of time, so that “the privation of natural time engenders a new and roughly corresponding system” (Sedgwick 1986, 20). So too in Schopenhauer does the knowing subject, locked hopelessly within the transcendental bounds of perception, discover the outside manipulating the interior from without.

Fourth Principle: The attempted reunion of inside and outside is an act of violence.

The discovery of a secret alliance between the inside and outside does not lead to a natural reunion of the two, but in fact only increases the pain of separation. Although arbitrary, the isolation of the inside becomes the most natural thing, and one enforced “in direct proportion to [its] arbitrariness” (Sedgwick 1986, 34). In Schopenhauer, an individuating principle (principium individuationis) maintains the boundary between self and will, and brings the phenomenal veil of Maya down upon the thinking subject. This subject is then caught in a double bind, in which its growing self-knowledge and understanding of the will’s subterfuge is accompanied by its increased awareness of the phenomenal torments in which it is trapped: “in proportion as knowledge attains to distinctness, consciousness is enhanced, pain also increases, and consequently reaches its highest degree” (WWR1 310). Knowledge itself becomes a form of violence done to the knowing subject, which lies bereft at the foot of the will without the means of ever fully passing beyond the veil.

What actions remain for the knowing subject who perseveres and attempts to take the final step from merely knowing to fully grasping the will? “For characters within these conventions, to be active is either to impose an arbitrary barrier or to breach one, a breach that is transgressive and attended by violence at the threshold” (Sedgwick 1986, 34). Once again the knowing subject must chart the subterranean passages which smuggle it past the melancholy knowledge of phenomena toward an absolute and annihilating knowledge which is nothing but the knowledge the will has of itself through and as the knowing subject. “The will itself cannot be abolished by anything except knowledge [and only] in consequence of this knowledge can the will abolish itself, and thus end the suffering that is inseparable from its phenomenon” (WWR1 400).

Two forms of violence await the knowing subject at the threshold of the will: firstly, a constrictive pain of knowing the illusory nature of phenomena; secondly, the liberatory violence of the will releasing itself from the bounds of the interior subject. Far from resolving the disjunction between inside and outside, the reunion of the subject and will is the greatest violence of all, that abolishes the subject who would dare lift the veil which maintains its individuality. As Sedgwick writes, “the barrier between the self and what should belong to it can be caused by anything and nothing; but only violence or magic, and both of a singularly threatening kind, can ever succeed in joining them again” (1986, 13).

However, this violent transgression of the threshold between interior and exterior, and its attendant destruction of the principium individuationis, is not to be condemned. For in its negativity it contains the mystical truth of Gothic horror. “In an ecstasy of communion the Gothic spirit makes humble obeisance before the great Unknown; fear becomes acceptance, and senseless existence fraught with a dark, unfathomable, sacred purpose” (Varma 1957, 15). The reunion of interior and exterior can only be achieved on the outside’s terms, quelling the violent struggle with phenomena and letting the subject slip away from itself and back into the surrounding darkness. In terms written with a remarkable libidinal charge, Schopenhauer conceives of the reunion of subject and will as a submission, and an opening of the former to the latter: “When this penetration occurs in all its force, it produces perfect sanctification and salvation, the phenomenon of which are the state of resignation previously described, the unshakable peace accompanying this, and the highest joy and delight in death” (WWR1 397-8).

Fifth Principle:
The outside corresponds to the inside.

Within the pages of The World as Will and Representation the knowing subject is led like the hero of a Gothic novel through a vast mysterious castle, made to endure trials of suffering and solve riddles of the intellect, and at the end comes face to face with the shrouded figure which he has followed through the dark—casting away the veil he finds only himself, or rather, himself as other. Beneath the shroud is his own cold and deadened face staring back, no longer the individual which he mistakes himself to be, but a vessel of the unknown forces which roam those halls. But even in death, this is not the end of our hero’s tale. Staring into the abyss within himself, it is not only he but the castle walls which begin to crumble. In his moment of dissolution, of his assumption back into the will from which he originally sprang, the knowing subject sees the whole world dissolve with him:

“[With the abolition of] the highest phenomenon of will, the weaker reflection of it, namely the animal world, would also be abolished, just as the half-shades vanish with the full light of day. With the complete abolition of knowledge the rest of the world would of itself also vanish into nothing, for there can be no object without a subject” (WWR1 380).

In one final, apocalyptic moment, the voluntary extinction of the human species by means of “complete chastity,” “asceticism,” and the “the denial of the will-to-live,” is warped through the Gothic’s topographical rift to produce disproportionate effects (WWR1 380). The correspondence of the inside with the outside, by which occulted connections may be formed from across the dividing barrier, is accompanied by the redoubled horrors of an outside which corresponds to the inside. When the self-abolition of the knowing subject becomes a universal law, and the will comes to its own annihilating self-knowledge, the phenomenal world collapses not from without, but from within. Repeatedly, the Gothic conventions see “conditions outside the imprisoning wall simply duplicate conditions within,” as when its victims are released from one prison into the hands of new captors, from out of a traumatic encounter into a state of catatonic silence, or out of a burning monastery into the mob outside (Sedgwick 1986, 21). So too, at last, does Schopenhauer see the end of the phenomenal world spiral out from the knowing subject’s most intimate contact with the outside, revealing the hidden presence of the will in all things at the moment in which they fade into darkness: “no nightmare is ever as terrifying as is waking up from even some innocuous dream to find it true” (Sedgwick 1986, 13).

Addendum: The Limits of Horror

Having sketched out a provision structure of Gothic thought, some qualifications are in order. Self-abolition and “delight in death” is the stated goal of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, but there remain moments of ambivalence within his writing, where the letter of his philosophy diverges from the affective terms used to describe it (WWR1 389).  These moments are most commonly related to the tangled nexus of the self and its uncertain relationship to the outside which both composes and dissolves it. As convinced as Schopenhauer is in the primacy of the will, the suffering of the phenomenal world, and the mystical delight in self-denial, the bare and pulsating materiality of the will never ceases to disgust him and to fill him with dread. In what follows, the structural conventions of the Gothic will be exchanged for more bodily terms—matter and disgust—to examine the affective charge that fills Schopenhauer’s writing, and to reveal the role that horror plays in limiting his search for thought from the outside.

Why asceticism? Why must self-denial take the form of a specifically bodily denial? To answer this the role of the body in Schopenhauer’s thought must first be characterised. In his discussion of nonhuman life, Schopenhauer works backwards from those forms of life nearest to human reason down to the natural forces of the earth. Beginning with animals, he does not dispute that they may possess knowledge and motives, but argues that their capacity for these things are diminished and fragmentary. “Where it is not guided by any knowledge,” the animal will remains active, driving the creatures by instinct to work according to a plan which “remains entirely unknown to them” (WWR1 114). The spider spins a web and the bird constructs a nest, but this unthinking activity takes place without any participation of learned or reasoned knowledge.

In plants, where knowledge is totally absent, life is driven entirely by what appears to be a “blindly urging force,” which is only another manifestation of the will (WWR1 117). The leap from vegetation to the “phenomena of the inorganic world” is not great, for we see all things in nature “act according to universal, immutable laws, in conformity with which there take place the movements of all those bodies, such bodies being entirely without organs, and having no susceptibility to stimulus and no knowledge of motive” (WWR1 117). From the instinctual crafts of animals, through the automatic pulsations of organs and plants, down to natural laws that govern gravity, magnetism, and electricity, “it is everywhere one and the same—just as the first morning dawn shares the name of sunlight with the rays of the full midday sun—it must in either case bear the name of will” (WWR1 118).

From the top of this chain of being down to its base, the will finds expression in myriad forms, but is never absent. Even at its heights, where human knowledge is capable of turning upon itself to give reason and motives to its motions, the body which it inhabits “is merely the will’s own becoming visible” (WWR1 399). “Even in us the same will in many ways acts blindly; as in all those functions of our body which are not guided by knowledge, in all its vital and vegetative processes, digestion, circulation, secretion, growth, and reproduction” (WWR1 115). Schopenhauer here provides intimations of the abject quality of the will, which is both a part of oneself and disturbingly other from that self. The abject is defined by Julia Kristeva as that which is neither object or subject, inside or outside, which is utterly foreign to the “I” while remaining in physical proximity: “It lies there, quite close, but cannot be assimilated” (Kristeva 1982, 1). The unconscious processes of the body are the natural home for the abject and its attendant taboos governing contamination and containment—the spilling of blood, genital secretions, bodily waste: all are products of a body which is never truly one’s own.

In an odd coupling of examples, both given as instances of involuntary movement in the body, Schopenhauer associates sexual arousal with the urge to vomit:

“The occasion of an erection is a motive, as it is a representation; yet it operates with the necessity of a stimulus, in other words, it cannot be resisted, but must be put away in order to be made ineffective. This is also the case with disgusting objects which stimulate the desire to vomit” (WWR1 116).

The presence of the will in the human body is conceived in invasive and shameful terms: its theft of autonomy from the self “cannot be resisted” and so the revolting member “must be put away” to sap it of its potency. It is no coincidence then that the example which follows is one of nausea, not only in Schopenhauer’s all too suggestive link between the objects of sexual interest and physical revulsion, but also in the manner by which nausea works to recompose the subject in a moment of disturbance. As Kelly Hurley writes of nausea in works of Gothic body horror, it “throws the subject back into the immediate and unmistakable experience of his own body,” or what Kristeva calls “the body-ego, remade in the contractions of disgust” (Hurley 1996, 51). Disgust “strengthens and polices” the boundaries of the subject, as a brief moment of blind revulsion which negates and expels the object of its displeasure (Ngai 2005, 335). Like the heart beneath the floorboards in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Schopenhauer’s description of the will equivocates between its powers of compulsion and revulsion, obsessing over its dark influence while desperately trying to put it away from sight.

This is not to repeat Nietzsche’s critique of Schopenhauer, that his philosophy errs for having remained “under the spell and delusion of morality,” but a question of what role Schopenhauer’s prudery plays within the wider mechanisms of his philosophy, and of the pre-philosophical causes (whether psychologically or textually structured) which shape his thought (2002, 50). Schopenhauer’s asceticism is not merely moral, but pulled into ambivalence by the incompatibility of the philosophical and affective terms in which it is expressed. Whereas Schopenhauer’s broader philosophy proclaims an asceticism which delights in death and the return of this illusory world to the unmediated will, the written description of the will is overloaded with disgust and a desire to maintain some subjective integrity within a larger flux of bodily self-abolition. It is with this ambivalence in mind that I wish to return to the Gothic proper, and the role which disgust and self-denial play in the larger discourse of horror—best illustrated by a final passage from Schopenhauer, giving his reasons for an ascetic lifestyle:

“Asceticism shows itself further in voluntary and intentional poverty, which […] is to serve as a constant mortification of the will, so that satisfaction of desires, the sweets of life, may not again stir the will, of which self-knowledge has conceived a horror” (WWR1 381-2).

Schopenhauer’s philosophy doesn’t only conform to the structural conventions of the Gothic, but thematically replicates the core movements of a specific mode of the Gothic. The term which brings all of this into focus is horror.  Horror is summoned in the experience of the abject, and it is what motivates the ascetic to mutilate his body as a means of quelling the intimately alien will. It is thus apparent that far from being an affective flourish to Schopenhauer’s philosophy, horror is an essential component of that philosophy: Horror is the formula through which disgust at the body is translated into a renewed fervour for self-denial, which drives the knowing subject toward the will as thing-in-itself by avoidance of the omnipresent abjection of the will as oneself.

The determining presence of horror in Schopenhauer’s philosophy allows the limits of Gothic horror conventions to be made clear. For all its potency as an aesthetic form, and for all its capacity to shock with glimpses of the outside, horror is never truly a force of the outside. Rather, the functioning of horror is always dependent upon a relatively stable inside, and if it allows contact with the outside it is only to locate leakages and contain them. What Schopenhauer discovers outside the human subject, in the depths of the will, is an inhuman existence in which “nothing is left but Things: forms rent from within by their own heterogeneity, and always in the process of becoming-Other” (Hurley 1996, 9). Horror is nothing other than the complex of frenzied speculation and affect felt by the subject as it is unwillingly dissolved back into this chaos of the outside.

In this way, horror can only go so far, and if by means of his subterranean passages and occult correspondences Schopenhauer is smuggled out of the world of phenomena to stand at the threshold of the noumenal universe, it is horror that sends him trembling back to the secure interior of the transcendental subject. “We sense that It includes us, but we [know we] cannot know It, since to admit It is to become It and to become It is to cease to be who we are” (Fisher 2001, 234). To return to the question, why asceticism? It is because Schopenhauer’s knowing subject is a subject bound to the conventions of Gothic horror, that spurns the abject in all its forms, and cannot but vomit at the sight of itself (“it” as self). Self-knowledge begets horror, and the paroxysms of horror keep the knowing subject locked in a downward spiral of self-denial

Having outlined a structure to Gothic thought and encountered the limits posed by horror, it remains to be asked: what subject is actually capable of thinking through this structure? Fortuitously, horror is not the only mode of the Gothic. As Anne Williams argues, the “Gothic tradition has two plots, two sets of narrative conventions, two tales to tell about the desires and fears of the self in the world—tales determined by the gender of that self” (Williams 1995, 96). What the masculine line of the Gothic—the tradition of Gothic horror—both lacks and abhors is an essentially coded as feminine: call it the will, the sublime, or the symbolic mother, it is the alien and abject other, all too generative, fecund, which overflows and overpowers the boundaries of the self. “The horror of the abyss, attributed to woman. Loss of identity—death” (Irigaray 1991, 91).  In the following essay the other line of Gothic conventions, the feminine Gothic and its tales of terror, will allow us to see the Gothic structure of thought from another perspective—a perspective which does not recoil at the threshold, but attempts by other means to channel thought from the outside.

Part III…



WWR1— Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. Vol. 1. Translated by E F J Payne. New York: Dover, 1966.

WWR2— Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. Vol. 2. Translated by E F J Payne. New York: Dover, 1966.


Fisher, Mark. “Gothic Materialism.” Pli, no. 12 (2001): 230-43.

Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Irigaray, Luce. Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche. Translated by Gillian C Gill. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Kristeva, Julia. The Powers of Horror. Translated by Leon S Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Edited by Rolf-Peter Hortsmann and Judith Norman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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

Varma, Devendra P. The Gothic Flame. New York: Russell & Russell, 1957.

Williams, Anne. Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

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