Gothic America

The Halloween season is an appropriate time to talk about Gothic. At Boston College, where I teach a course in this literature, I kid my students that what we are engaged in in class is not just the Enlightenment, but equally the "Endarkenment"-the notion that what may appear as the light of day-open, clear, reasonable-may also contain things hidden in obscure shadow. For example, the fact that, while the world at BC may seem bright, with the Eagles now 7-0 and ranked near the top of the football charts, the country is racked with an endless war which is bankrupting the nation for generations to come.

In fact, the notions embedded in gothic literature can explain much of what we as a nation are experiencing. Gothic literature as a form began to be written about the time of the American revolution, and the father of the American novel, the now-forgotten Charles Brockden Brown, was a gothic novelist. The roots of America lie deep in the roots of gothic.

Gothic literature was a response to the prevailing Enlightenment Rationalist principles upon which our country was founded. ER assumed not only that "all men are created equal", but that this is a reasonable and agreeable, rational observation. Further, our Founding Fathers separated church and state because kings rule by divine right, which was considered not rational. If I say, for example, that God told me to fully fund health insurance for everyone in the country, you'd be hard pressed to argue rationally against my conviction. So we keep the worlds separate; secularism for the government, and religion on our private time.

Gothic writers saw a problem with that: they, being some of the first psychological writers, assumed that humans are composed of two sides: rational and irrational, secular and religious, scientific and superstitious. Further, they declared that the more one tries to run away from one's 'other side', the more one runs into it-what Freud later called the "Return of the repressed".

So gothic explains not only Larry Craig but the war in Iraq. For the former, it says that when one condemns gays, one will (in some form) produce the very gayness in oneself that one is trying to flee via condemnation. On a national level, call other people "terrorists" and deny that you are a terrorist (in some form), and produce the very terrorism you are trying to eradicate. In short, as Pogo said, "we have met the enemy and he is us." Or, as (Bill) Clinton said, there is no longer an us and a them, there is just an us.

So what's the cure, if there really is terrorism out there? Do we just hug terrorists? No-that would be dangerous, not subtle, and reenacting the mistake. Gothic says that we begin with an assumption that we are all connected. If this is so-if the terrorists are, in some way, "US", then we must look simultaneously outward to bin Laden, and inward to our own national security letters and wiretapping, to see where terrorism might lie. This way of proceeding terrifies the logical mind, be it conservative or liberal, because it risks undermining one's moral stance; if anyone can be a terrorist, how am I to stand against terrorism? Yet, dangerous as this method of proceeding is, it's the only way to not make the fundamental mistake of forgetting that because we are all humans, we are all capable of becoming what we condemn. To say "capable of becoming" does not mean we are terrorists, but that, because we could be terrorists, that notion will slow down our rush to judgment and war, will weaken the boundary we would really rather keep between us and them.

We can learn from reading pretty much any gothic story what the result of not proceeding this way will be: a blind lashing out at what we consider to be "the other", only, like Edgar Allen Poe's William Wilson, to find that when we do lash out, we have killed ourselves. We fight terrorists over there, and end up bankrupting our image in the world and our pocketbook. Gothic says this is inevitable and predictable.

We're told by our leaders that it's a scary world out there, with terrorists. It's scarier, says gothic: by definition, once we say the terrorists are 'those' people 'over there', we have entered upon the repression and denial which will only make the inevitable return that much worse. Halloween was a time from ancient traditions not when scary ghosts from 'the other world' appeared, but rather as a time when the boundary between the daylight and the night worlds was temporarily suspended, so that we might see that the two are linked. What's scary is not just the presence of ghosts; it's the realization that the ghosts are us, in another form. Boo.

Thomas Kaplan-Maxfield is the author of the gothic novel "Memoirs of aShape-shifter."

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