Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 1, Or The Return of Mina, Plus Others

So as the last novel we read for my Gothicism course, we chose Alan Moore's graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 1, which is a work rich with allusions to Victorian literature, and because of its employment of famous literary characters, there is a great deal of Gothicism floating around.

First, and most obviously, we return to the exploits of Mina Murray from Dracula, now divorced, disgraced, and employed by a shadowy branch of military service. She returns here as leader of the League, a collection of various heroes and villains from Victorian literature: Allan Quatermain, the Great White Hunter; Captain Nemo, Scourage of the Empire; Hawley Griffin, Invisible Man; and Dr Jekyll, with Mr. Hyde in tow. Mina is the leader because she "has experience with monsters," i.e., the abhuman and the Other. Each of her subordinates, with the possible exception of Quatermain, has something specifically Gothic about them.

Furthermore the overreaching plot, especially the confrontation with Moriarty, brings to mind the human Gothic that we found in Bleak House and Northanger Abbey; we are confronted with a perfectly ordinary man as the antagonist, while the Others and the abhumans become the heroes of the work; quite a turn around from Dracula.

The Chinese Devil Doctor, however, relates to the sense of Orientalist fears to the east that plagued England during the Victorian era, as well as the sense of foreboding that permeates Dracula. That we find ourselves constantly in opium dens, crowded sidewalks, underwater, underground, and in the bat-like aerial ship seems a very codified use of the urban Gothic's restriction of space; meanwhile, the constant crush of people in the city street reinforces that element.

All right, so that wraps up the blog for the time being. I hope to continue on this summer, as I've just received a copy of Dracula: The Un-Dead, which is supposed to be the official sequel to the classic novel. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dracula or, So Totally About Mina, OMG, Did You Hear About Her?

So this week I read Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, which, I'm gonna level with you, is one of my favorite books of all time. It is, of course, the most important vampire book ever written--the most famous, the most adapted, and the most beloved of the genre. It is so famous that we encounter the same problems with it as we did with Frankenstein: we know "the story" so well that we neglect the novel.

But the story of Dracula isn't quite what we expect it to be. Even Nosferatu, the first film adaptation (even as bootlegged as it was) changes, subtracts, and re-imagines what the novel is about. The vampiric "rules" as we understand them, don't apply to Dracula. So every time that he appears in later works, he must be dealt with; in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he's adept a gypsy magic, in other works, he's just ancient.

There's a whole list of issues that Dracula brings up: the first, and arguably most accessible, is the issues with invasion and foreignness. We have the invasion of the Oriental danger--it's no accident that Dracula is from Eastern Europe, i.e., THE EAST--fought off by our stalwart and trusty Englishmen.

Then, we have issues of gender in Victorian, and arguably contemporary, society. Mina is ignored by the "big brave men" and finds herself under attack by Dracula--even though she's the one transcribing the damn novel.

Finally, we have issues of sexuality. The contemporary understanding of sexuality--Freud--leads the reader to some very awkward conclusions about Dracula's method of drinking--and sharing--blood. Mina's very erotically-charged encounter with Dracula makes for a lot of intellectual fodder.

All right, for serious lastly, Dracula remains one of the most pop cultural vampires. Why? The Victorians read the book as a purely adventure story, yet modern (and some contemporary) readers recognized the novel as a work of "literature". And even as the novel is read as literature, it enters the mainstream. Why? For one, it is a better telling of the Carmilla story (although, sadly, without lesbians), i.e., Overcoming the Monster. For another, Dracula's sexiness [even though he is sooo unsexy] calls out to both the Victorian sensibility and the Postmodern sensibility--that is, the era of Science is a fan of the un-scientific.

So, as a finale of sorts, next week, we will continue our exploits with Mina in Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), which is a graphic novel starring many of our Victorian (and Gothic!) heroes,

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Picture of Dorian Gray, or 'Twere Beauty, Killed the Beast

So this week, I read The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), the only published novel of the great Oscar Wilde. Not only is it one of his most famous works, but a great many of his quotable quotes comes from this book, and the preface outlines his aesthetic and artistic theory. Nevertheless, for a work that defines art and beauty, the novel seems to be saying quite a few pointed things about Hedonism.

Dorian, of course, retains his outward, youthful appearance as his portrait shifts and alters with time, not only aging instead of Dorian, but also absorbing the ugliness that is the byproduct of sin. In removing the consequences of action, the portrait allows Dorian to act only in pursuit of pleasure, regardless of its effect on those around him. In doing so, Dorian both experiences the supernatural, Gothic element of the work, while allowing himself to become the abhuman figure--as monstrous inwardly as the portrait is outward.

Furthermore, though the novel contends that art must hide the artist to be successful, the underlying gay subtext of the novel leads me to conclude that Wilde is, in some ways, rather close to the surface. Not only does the adoration of Dorian by Basil and Harry seem at least homoerotic, the fact that the majority of lives ruined by Dorian are men cannot be overlooked. Even the description of Dorian's short friendships with other men calls to mind romantic interludes. The stereotypically dandyish behavior that Dorian exhibits doesn't help in this regard.

The novel is also greatly concerned with art and the meaning of art. Whether it is Wilde speaking directly in the preface, or the art theories espoused by Basil or Harry, or the vast differences between Sybil's acting abilities, the treatment of art as valuable for it's own sake is a foremost theme. Dorian's various obsessions in the midst of his societal prominence point toward the enjoyment of art for art's sake, rather than for a didactic or moralistic reason.

As for the Gothic, we again have the motif of the portrait showing the truth, something of a throwback to Otranto and the like. We have also an anti-hero figure; Dorian's slow, tragic fall, I would argue, prevents him from being a Byronic Hero. There is the supernatural element, coupled with a scientific reasoning. It is interesting that, as usual, the supernatural seems to come from a reality of angels and demons. We also have the corrupting influence of the city, albeit in a smaller dose than in Dickens. Rather than concerning itself with the horrors of the Victorian Age, the novel satirizes the upper class avoidance of the topic.

So next week, we'll be reading Dracula (1897), one of my all time favorite books, as well as viewing both Nosferatu and "Buffy vs. Dracula."

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wuthering Heights, or Heathcliff is Such a Bastard, Amirite?

So this week I read Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847) and watched the Masterpiece Theater version from 2009. First off, there's literally only one worthwhile person in the whole book, and that's Nelly, our narrator. Every other character is either incredibly evil (Heathcliff) or spoiled (Cathy, Linton, Edgar, Isabella Cathy II...). And it becomes incredibly difficult to understand why Heathcliff and Cathy's relationship is so romanticized. I mean, she dies halfway through the book! It's hardly about her. And Heathcliff is such a terrible person that he can hardly be termed a Byronic hero at all. I mean, the Byronic hero is meant to earn redemption through his or his lovers actions, right? If we take Rochester as our quintessential Byronic hero (which he is) then Heathcliff doesn't count.

Which leads me to my next question: who is supposed to be the protagonist of this novel? Nelly? Lockwood? Don't get me started. They're the perfect narrators. And every other major character is only around for half the novel, or is Heathcliff. And while Heathcliff certainly creates conflict and makes the story unfold, those are hardly the actions of a protagonist, really. Villains act, while heroes react. But there's nobody to react against Heathcliff.

So Cathy, meanwhile, is a madwoman in the attic character. Even disregarding the fact that she literally goes mad, her obsession with Heathcliff--they're sharing a soul especially--is incredibly off-kilter. Furthermore, she is constantly being contained by the Grange or the Heights, both as a child and as an adult. Her daughter's cloistering amounts to almost the same treatment.

I think one of the major themes that runs through the novel is that evil begets evil. Everything that Heathcliff does (that anybody else does) is a reaction to the wrongs done to them by others. And given this theme, the very abhuman-human nature of Heathcliff should be examined in detail. More than once we have him described as a fiend or demon--his actions certainly correspond. The other abhuman-humans we've encountered (I'm thinking specifically of the vampiric Tulkinghorn from Bleak House) have corresponded to their Gothic roles even without the need of the supernatural.

All and all, though, this is a fabulous book. So long as you don't bring the baggage that Twilight would saddle you with. Next week, we'll talk Oscar Wilde and The Portrait of Dorian Gray.