I recently watched the first episode of the BBC’s fascinating three-part documentary Art of Gothic, written and presented by art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, and it was a wonderful look at the influence of the Gothic on the arts in Britain in the late eighteenth century. As you might have guessed, what Graham-Dixon calls “Gothic” art, we here stateside prefer to term Gothic Revival or Neo-Gothic, to distinguish it from the period that succeeded the Romanesque in the Middle Ages. The documentary featured gorgeous photography and a cultured and urbane narration that skillfully and insightfully examined the origins of the dark and gloomy moment of terror that overtook Britain at the end of the Enlightenment.
I was particularly pleased that Graham-Dixon’s view of the Gothic almost entirely agreed with the view of Gothic horror I put forward in my Knowing Fear, and he managed to present more than a few points that I wasn’t familiar with. That said, the most interesting facet of the Gothic discussed was one that sparked in me the realization that fringe history shares more than a little in common with the Gothic explosion of the 1700s.
As Graham-Dixon discusses, the Gothic was an emotional, irrational reaction against the Age of Reason, an attempt, he says, to “re-enchant” the world through seeking out alternative ways of expressing a connection to a divine spirit that science and philosophy had determined was an active supernatural presence in the physical world. Graham-Dixon notes that the poetry of the so-called Graveyard Poets read like incantations, and they drew on a dark reflection of Christian imagery. Similarly, Neo-Gothic architecture reached back to the Catholicism of the pre-Reformation period, when mysticism and the supernatural were imagined to have settled like a fog over the landscape.
At the philosophical level, fringe history shares much in common with the Gothic reaction, though neither as popular nor as influential as the Gothic. The many varieties of fringe history react against and rail against what they call “materialism,” but which is essentially a fig leaf covering an anger at the lack of evidence for the supernatural and the paranormal. But the parallels go much deeper than that.
Graham-Dixon discussed the way Gothic ideas were not entirely respectable to the mainstream of British society, and for that reason they were cloaked under the guise of history. Horace Walpole, for example, presented the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), as a translation of a medieval Italian manuscript. The Romantic poet James Macpherson fabricated the “ancient” poetry of Ossian, and a teenage boy perpetuated a hoax in which he faked the collected works of a medieval monk. The fetishizing of ancient texts—and their fabrication—is another area in which fringe history and the Gothic share much in common. I’m sure we don’t need to rehearse the list of fakes that make up the fringe history milieu, from the Tucson Artifacts to Stanzas of Dzyan, or the many ways in which fringe historians use ancient texts to create and re-create a magical past.
The Gothic was very much about creating a fictitious past that had contemporary uses. The medieval world imagined by Gothic artists was not the actual world of the Middle Ages but a fantasy land, a representation of political and social ideas that stood against the dominant ideology of the day and could safely express dissenting views and serve as outlet for anxieties. Similarly, the ancient past of fringe history, despite its advocates’ assurances to the contrary, is also a fantasia, an attempt to re-enchant history and reintroduce the supernatural and the paranormal in a number of explicit or rationalized forms.
But what differs between the Gothic and modern fringe history is that the (Neo-) Gothic was an aesthetic movement primarily, not a historiographical movement. Gothic encompassed architecture, art, poetry, and fiction. Fringe history permeates fiction to be sure, but it does not have an aesthetic—the Da Vinci Code is hardly an innovation in style, and while Chariots of the Gods has served as template for countless imitators, it isn’t really a template for a new genre as much as it succeeded in spite of its sloppy style.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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