A Deep Anonymous Murmur: The Gothic Subject of Thought (Part III)


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 III – A Deep Anonymous Murmur: The Gothic Subject of Thought

I: Turning the Gothic inside out

The conventions of the Gothic are doubly divided. The first division is the structural separation of inside from outside: In Eve Sedgwick’s account this inside-outside disjunction may structure thematic elements, such as the topography of the setting or the psychology of the characters, or it may describe the layered texts and narratives of Gothic fiction itself. In the preceding essay, I proposed that the Gothic’s inside-outside disjunction may also be read in epistemic terms, describing not only the dramas of characters navigating social space or fictions charting a textual topography, but also the inner and outer limits of the human subject. The inside and outside are in this sense not empirical markers of spatial or social division, but transcendentally interior or exterior to the faculties of the human mind. The transcendental outside is therefore “not just a matter of something being distant in space or time, but of something which is beyond our ordinary experience and conceptions of space and time itself” (Fisher 2016, 22).

The second division of the Gothic is generic, separating two modes of Gothic writing, and two types of Gothic plot. My study of Schopenhauer placed him within the context of only one of these traditions, namely that of Gothic horror or the masculine Gothic. In his investigation into the limits of knowledge, Schopenhauer writes a veritable Schauerroman—or shudder novel—that follows thought down through the catacombs of the noumena, where the seemingly discrete and free human subject is revealed as the puppet of a monstrous and exterior will. The end of self-knowledge for Schopenhauer is the horrified realisation that “‘we’ ‘ourselves’ are caught up in the rhythms, pulsions and patternings of non-human forces [and that there] is no inside except as a folding of the outside” (Fisher 2016, 11-2). The question then remains, if the outside has thus far signalled either horrified abjection or the ascetic embrace of death, what thinking subject can possibly pass through the Gothic topography and return to tell of it?

To continue from this impasse, I wish to make an argument for the other tradition of the Gothic—the feminine Gothic—over its masculine counterpart as the site of a far more productive encounter with the outside. As we shall see, with its typical focus on terror over horror, the feminine Gothic conventions are particularly well-suited to modelling an image of thought capable of communing with the outside. Unlike the masculine Gothic protagonist and his litany of horrors, the Gothic heroine’s  experience of terror does not destroy her but transforms her as a thinking subject. For this reason, I argue that the conventions of  the feminine Gothic work alongside the philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and Maurice Blanchot in their search for an image of thought irreducible to the stale interior of the human subject. So, before setting out to identify the image of thought implicit in Gothic terror, we must first return to more philosophical territory, to locate in Deleuze’s account of the genesis of thought the terror of an incomprehensible encounter with the outside.

II: Deleuze and the outside of thought

“Something in the world forces us to think” (Deleuze 1994, 139). Thought, for Deleuze, is never natural, and has its genesis not in the perfect exercise of reason but in the disturbance of that serenity. In fact, the philosopher is mistaken to “presuppose within us a benevolence of thought, a natural love of truth,” for any philosophy that makes this presupposition “arrives at only abstract truths that compromise no one and do not disturb” (Deleuze 2000, 16). To presume a natural right to thought and truth means a constant return to what is already known or what naturally follows from the known. Without being disturbed from this stupidity, the philosopher never truly thinks—they may contemplate perhaps, or even reason, but nothing is produced; nothing new is added or taken away from the equation, and philosophy becomes concerned only with giving the same answers to old problems.

But what is it which forces us to think? “This something is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter,” which is to say that it is something alien to us, capable of shocking us out of our safe interiority (Deleuze 1994, 139). The something which stirs thought doesn’t need to be anything in particular, and whether it be an unexpected event, a chance meeting, or a shocking discovery it never arrives in the form of an “object which can be recalled, imagined or conceived” prior to that encounter (Deleuze 1994, 139). In this respect the encounter is always sensible, in that it requires some action of the senses to detect it. In the moment of perception it confronts us with a brief panic of the senses—the encounter is not a gentle nudge toward thought, but a moment of terror: something has happened for which I was not prepared, and for which I must recompose myself to make sense of it.

There is a certain degree of negativity in the moment of the encounter, when it intrudes upon the passivity of the (un)thinking subject and puts it in contact with something utterly outside itself. As François Zourabichvilli writes, “the act of thinking necessarily puts subjectivity into crisis, and that necessity, far from fulfilling the wishes of an already constituted thinking subject, can only be conquered in the state of a thought outside of itself, a thought that is absolutely powerful only at the extreme point of its powerlessness” (2012, 52). The crisis of this encounter can only be resolved in the creative act of thought, which is to say in the subject’s alteration to accommodate the radical newness of the outside.

On these grounds, Deleuze is adamant that the encounter with the outside is irrational—being utterly alien to all pre-existent rationality—but that it is not without its own logic. “Irrational does not mean that everything is permitted, but that thought only thinks out of a positive relationship to what is not yet thinking” (Zourabichvilli 2012, 57). Far from being the product of a rational and premeditated line of reasoning, thought must emerge from this encounter with the outside. The subject of thought is no longer the centre of the process, which instead finds its genesis in the point of contact between that subject and what lies outside. Thought is then no longer something natural to us, but a product of a chance encounter that follows a logic exterior to the thinking subject: “it is not willed, it is involuntary” (Deleuze 2000, 95). Something grips us, perplexes us, and in the terror of that encounter thought begins.

III: Encountering terror

Within this complex of subject and encounter we may already detect shades of the Gothic’s inside-outside disjunction. The reasoning subject constitutes a stable inside to which thought is believed to naturally belong, while in fact the beginnings of thought are exterior and alien to that subject. In contrast to Schopenhauer, however, this divide is not a source of horror but a surface upon which the play of signs bring the inside and outside into contact. The disjunction between inside and outside isn’t so much resolved in this process as the inside is recomposed upon the outside. “Thinking displaces the subjective position: not the projection of the subject’s identity into things, but the individuation of a new object that is inseparable from a new individuation of the subject” (Zourabichvilli 2012, 65-6). The interiority of the thinking subject is disturbed by its encounters, and by the process of deciphering them it is drawn ever closer to the outside from which its power of thought derives.

In contrast to the annihilating encounters of horror, I wish to argue that Deleuze’s logic of the encounter is the same as that of Gothic terror, which both formulate a subject of thought capable of reckoning with the outside. Ann Radcliffe’s famous distinction between terror and horror— that “the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them”—has lent to terror a reputation of rationalism, typified in the naturalism of Radcliffe’s own novels which see the ghosts, curses, and mysteries that crowd their pages dispelled as figments of the overactive imagination (1826). In what follows, I wish to reclaim the force of the irrational which persists within terror, and which constitutes the grounds upon which Radcliffe’s own reasoned ideals are founded. What Radcliffe’s adoption of terror over horror makes clear, however, are the stakes of discerning between them: each composes a different subject, one which gains something from the encounter and the other which is destroyed under its strain (1826).

Following Radcliffe, terror and horror have traditionally been distinguished along affective lines. Terror is concerned largely with suspense and horror with shock: “the difference between  awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of  death and stumbling against a corpse” (Varma 1957, 130). Whereas horror disturbs the subject in a sudden visceral shock, terror is drawn out in uncertainty, as the subject is thrown into a state of tension waiting for the shock to occur. While horror’s dependence upon abjection places it on the border of the self, unincorporated into either the inside or the outside, terror exists within the disturbance of the mind, when its faculties are thrown into disorder. In this respect terror is associated with but not limited to encounters with the sublime: “Unlike horror, which threatens corporeal integrity—one’s being as a body—[terror or] the sublime overwhelms the self with the idea of an overwhelming power” (Williams 1995, 76). Unlike horror, which I have argued constitutes a limit to thought, terror has fundamentally to do with the workings of thought and its confrontation with its limits. 

In the experience of terror, as in Deleuze’s encounter, the mind is confronted with something far greater than itself and is spurred into action. This dynamic of thought and disturbance in terror has only been obscured by the fictions in which terror is restricted to a handful of moments in service of an entirely undisturbing plot. Whereas the horror plot finds its end in a tragic moment of destruction, the plot informed by terror tends to end in a comic resolution of opposites and the restitution of normality, usually involving the marrying off the novel’s heroine. But the typical end of the feminine Gothic plot, and its ambiguous relation to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century patriarchal norms, should not distract from the internal functions of terror within this wider framework. If the feminine Gothic novel ends in a state of renewed peace, it is only in contrast to the vacillations of the characters and text between extremes of mental and physical violence.

The power of terror lies not in the moment of its resolution, when the tension subsides and reason regains its foothold, but in the moment of panic that deranges the senses and pushes reason to its limits. If Radcliffe is correct that terror “expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life” it is not due to any capacity on the part of that soul or those faculties, but the new shapes and functions which they are forced to take on by the terrifying encounters into which they are plunged (1826). Although reason plays a determining role in the feminine Gothic plot, it is always subject to radical transformation and re-examination at the hands of what lies outside reason’s limited domain. The prototypical character of this plot is “driven by a need to fill in the lack perceived” and “who after a long search finds recompense for that loss in a new mode of experience” (Williams 1995, 150-1). This character, the Gothic heroine, is a subject shaped by her encounters, who is forced to take on new roles and new modes of thought by her terrifying conditions.

IV: On the Gothic heroine

A typical example of the Gothic heroine may be found in Emily St Aubert from Radcliffe’s own The Mysteries of Udolpho, whose journey takes her through hellish dungeons and trials of sensibility to uncover the eponymous mysteries of the castle in which she is held. At every turn, Emily is confronted with the terrors of a cruel and archaic world, and finds herself at the mercy of her chance encounters:

“Emily is impelled forward by forces beyond her control; her trials involve confronting the demands of cruel circumstances both natural and cultural. In the course of the action, Emily is separated from her parents, her home, her country, and her suitor Valancourt. Even when she is reunited with him, she must struggle with the fear that he has been corrupted by the wickedness of Paris, transformed into another Valancourt than the one she had loved. In the darkness of Udolpho she is even separated from herself, by being made to doubt her own reason, and in moments of crisis, by losing consciousness altogether” (Williams 1995, 163).

In Williams’ account of Radcliffe’s novel we discover the Gothic heroine as a decentred subject, composed and directed by forces from outside. These forces may be socially conditioned—taking the form of her family’s expectations or loss thereof, a wicked persecutor, or the broader structure of patriarchal control—or they may be the accidents of a blind and sublime nature. What these circumstances of persecution and chance amount to for the heroine is a separation from all sources of stability, including her family home and her security in her own sense of reason. The heroine is moved outside of herself and her world to encounter terror on the cusp of what lies beyond. Crucially, these encounters happen involuntary, as she is “impelled forward by forces beyond her control,” but this is not to say that the heroine is a passive observer of her own torment. In each encounter the heroine is confronted with the need for discernment, “to make valid discriminations, to ‘realize’ the validity of her perceptions” (Williams 1995, 165). Even as she is stripped of her agency in the world, and finds herself a prisoner inside walls both material and ideological, the heroine redoubles her intellectual efforts to decipher the esoteric messages that confront her.

The Gothic heroine’s task is to decipher what Deleuze calls the sign, or the object which sets off the thinking subject’s encounter with the outside. In his study of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Deleuze identifies a number of signs which provoke involuntary acts of memory, of imagination, and of intelligence on the part of the narrator. Throughout Proust’s Search are encounters with these particular and peculiar objects, which by pure chance set off a chain of associations toward remembrance and fantasy. Some of these encounters lead nowhere in particular, and still others force a recall of lost loves and wasted time, but each “does violence to thought, [and] wrests it from its natural stupor” to make sense of the encounter (Deleuze 2000, 97). In this sense, writes Deleuze, “to think is always to interpret – to explicate, to develop, to decipher, to translate a sign” (2000, 97). The subject of the encounter is not merely possessed by the outside, but made an apprentice to it. We encounter something which cannot be assimilated to what we know, which by its existence does violence to us, and we learn to follow it into the unknown only to find ourselves changed in the process.

Indecipherable signs are what fills the Gothic heroine’s mind and fuels her imagination, and it is the educative power of signs that drives the feminine Gothic plot. What has been identified as the rationalist core of terror is none other than this pedagogical component of the sign, which compels the beginnings of thought and transforms the heroine from a hapless innocent into one who can discern the true nature of her world. The discernment of signs is the feminine Gothic plot in its essence: “In contrast to the traditional male heroic narrative, [the feminine Gothic] plot confronts the heroine with a universe where one must not only know good from bad, but must also learn to perceive the often ambiguous distinctions between them—and further to perceive that one’s survival and salvation depends upon not depending upon appearances” (Williams 1995, 165). The signs which the heroine encounters may take the form of anything or nothing: the utterances of a madman or the declarations of a father; a fragment of parchment or a letter of love; the shadows that stalk a castle’s battlements or the eerie silence of the moors—what is essential to all is that they place the heroine in state of transport that she cannot resist but intensify and follow on its course to an outside.

Although this process leads to thought, it is, as in Deleuze’s account, neither rational nor voluntary. Each encounter sensitises the Gothic heroine to the appearance of other signs, initiating an unwilled and irrational descent into the depths of thought. The heroine loses some sense of her character, but becomes the site of an occult incantation to the outside. As Kate Ellis writes of the “four haunted protagonists” of Maturin’s The Fatal Revenge: “They are driven literally out of their minds by the thoughts that possess them; their waking lives have the unwilled quality of dreams, while their dreams propel them to act ‘involuntarily’” (1989, 169-70). In the suspended moment of terror, the imagination works freely from reason to posit all manner of possible solutions and outcomes, releasing a flood of speculation in which the thinking subject is swamped. The thought that springs from terror is never truly our own, and “the boundaries of consciousness,” which Ellis writes of “metaphorically as ‘the castle of the mind,’ become as permeable as Gothic ruin” (1989, 170).

The Gothic heroine gets outside herself in the delirium of thought, possessed by the “inconclusive signs” which “establish [an] occult communication between otherwise incompossible affects, percepts, and events” and which reveal to her the myriad of “real if hidden modes of existence” (Ramey 2012, 135). In the extremes of this delirium, the heroine takes on the role of a medium, who channels communiqués from the outside not to reveal some unknown truth, but to bring into thought all that yet remains unthought. The heroine comes to occupy the space which Blanchot reserves for “the speaking subject […] located within a deep anonymous murmur” (Deleuze 1988, 7). “It is within this murmur without beginning or end” that the speaking subject exists no longer as the “I” who speaks, but the indefinite one of “one speaks” or “she speaks” (Deleuze 1988, 7). Amidst the floating enormity of language and meaning, puppeteered by hidden agencies and overwhelmed by terror, the individual subject is scattered into the impersonal, inhuman outside from which it emerged.

Whereas in horror this intimate contact with the outside repels or destroys the subject, in terror the subject emerges to find herself intact but not unchanged. “In contrast to the male hero who changes the world, [the Gothic heroine] is herself transformed” by her encounters and her growing understanding of the forces which work about and through her (Williams 1995, 158). The Gothic heroine “is often almost literally reborn” in her terrifying encounters, “rescued at the climax from the life-threatening danger of being locked up, walled in, or otherwise made to disappear from the world” (Williams 1995, 104). What this experience affords her is a new perspective upon the world she thought she knew, and an exit from the safety of that world coupled with the newfound knowledge of the unthinkable universe which lie beyond. She encounters something utterly beyond the ken of her male counterparts, so caught up in “the cunning, orderly surface of civilizations, the nurturing horror that they attend to pushing aside by purifying, systematizing, and thinking” (Kristeva 1982, 210). The heroine works by way of occult communications, incomprehensible messages, and a positive hysteria, to discover herself the subject of thought from the outside.

Addendum: The Powers of Terror

Horror has long been the public face of the Gothic, to the point of spawning its own genre and inspiring the most notable works of Gothic philosophy. With respect to the writers of that philosophy, horror reaches its limits early, and for all its powers in evoking an “unthinkable world,” it can only present the unthinkable as a barrier through which we pass in frenzied self-annihilation or else turn back in shame (Thacker 2011, 1). Only terror takes us to that threshold and communes with what lies beyond. This encounter is not without its violence, but where horror ends in catatonic silence terror is all the more potent for the overflow of sensation, and the mad speculation it engenders in response. The suspended shock of terror is educational, but not edifying, with only an incidental reward for the thinking subject who may pass through its trials and emerge with some sense of self intact. Horror may transfix, but terror calls us closer, to bring the outside in: to let it inhabit us and expand us.

Is terror not an interiorisation of the outside? Or an assumption of irrational forces back into the limited domain of reason and the transcendental subject? Perhaps, but only in the sense that terror maintains two principles: reason is shaped by unreason, and the inside is only a selected outside. The logic of terror is always set in motion from outside—an outside which is no longer just the abhorred abject between self and non-self, but part of the structure of thought itself. As Anne Williams suggests, the feminine Gothic’s re-centring of thought from the male to the female subject “creates a new metaphor, a new ‘map’ of mind” in which “separation and transformation replace taboo and alienation as the prominent experiences impelling growth” (1995, 158). In other words, the two traditions of the Gothic arrive at two very distinct images of thought, although inextricably intertwined in their shared Gothic structure.

In her navigation of this involuntary thought, the Gothic heroine embodies the “modern subject split between sober rationality and poetic délire”—a split which the heroine pushes to the point where rationality is “overwhelmed by […] anorganic powers”  and delirium explodes in a “collective experience of the intensities of creation” (Ramey 2012, 201). As we saw in Schopenhauer, the Gothic’s inside-outside disjunction is crowded with hidden passageways, translucent veils, and horrifying leakages that establish correspondences and contact between the interior and exterior. But only in the feminine Gothic and its fiction of terror is this disjunction recognised as a wellspring of thought thrown upon the thinking subject from without.

As in Deleuze’s formulation of the encounter, in terror “the limit does not disappear, it changes nature […]  it is no longer a separating wall but a membrane or a filter that puts the terms it disjoins into communication” (Lapoujade 2017, 314-5). The porous disjunction of the Gothic becomes in this sense an “inclusive disjunction” which “no longer excludes [but] makes disparates communicate” (Lapoujade 2017, 315). The surface that separates becomes the most potent site of signification: like the heroine standing before the locked door of Bluebeard’s dungeons, we feel the inexorable pull of the unknown leading us on a journey of thought toward the outside. Compared to horror, terror is far more comfortable with this outside—not because it will ultimately be assumed into the domains of reason, but because these domains are themselves folds of an outside inward. Terror is only ever a thought from outside finding its way in: to possess us, derange us, and reshape us to better accommodate its alien whims.



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

Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault. Translated by Sean Hand. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1988.

Deleuze, Gilles. Proust & Signs. Translated by Richard Howard. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2000.

Ellis, Kate Ferguson. The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Fisher, Mark. The Weird And The Eerie. London: Repeater, 2016.

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

Lapoujade, David. Aberrant Movements: The Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. Translated by Joshua David Jordon. South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2017.

Radcliffe, Ann. “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” New Monthly Magazine 16, no. 1 (1826): 145-52.

Ramey, Joshua. The Hermetic Deleuze. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

Thacker, Eugene. In The Dust of This Planet. Alresford: Zero Books, 2011.

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.

Zourabichvilli, François. Deleuze: A Philosophy of the Event. Edited by Gregg Lambert and Daniel W Smith. Translated by Kieran Aarons. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

2 thoughts on “A Deep Anonymous Murmur: The Gothic Subject of Thought (Part III)”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s