Fringe History and the Art of Gothic
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.
10/23/2014 06:08:26 am
The two movements seem to be separate entities, with fringe science fiction and action stories being more of a modern reflection of our times than neo Gothic, like Nightmare Before Christmas, the Batman movies in 1989 and 1991, and currently a little in the animated Book of Life, 2014. It appears Gothic now is just a long standing fad where it has kind of lost the original meaning, so now it's just dress up and look spooky. That new show looks interesting though. If anything, shows like Ghost Hunters and the found footage movies are a descendant of the Gothic, more so than Chariots of the Gods? which is more of fictional history speculation book in the guise of something important, almost like it's supposed to become philosophy but the subject is too far out for that to happen. The DaVinci Code uses Gothic places, but it not itself Gothic. It dresses up in spooky clothing too. Batman is dark because he scares bad guys that way. He is not dark because he is trying to send a deep meaning. Is Jack Skellington from Nightmare Before Christmas sending some sort of message? Probably not. Interesting idea.
10/23/2014 06:49:50 am
Fringe history isn't Gothic (usually). I was trying to say that the cultural milieu that created Gothic in the 1700s had some of the same issues that sparked modern fringe history. I am not claiming fringe history is itself Gothic.
10/23/2014 07:17:00 am
The sloppy style _is_ the aesthetic. Why do you think Behold a Pale Horse continues as a conspiracy theory ur-text?
10/23/2014 10:04:19 am
Name recognition. It's not like it would have been less popular had it been better written.
10/23/2014 10:17:52 am
The kitchen sink data-dump nature of the book is so stereotypical of the conspiracy theorist because there is some truth to it. Jason mentioned Chariots of the Gods, but it very similar in the same sense: there is a basic conceit, but it is just one "anomaly" after another.
10/23/2014 10:33:55 am
In that case, could you explain what you mean by "solidly fashioned" and "slick"?
10/23/2014 11:34:44 am
Given what we're talking about, probably anything that's had a pass by an editor.
10/23/2014 11:49:55 am
Okay. I thought it had something to do with narrowness, which I can see being a turn-off if popularity requires being all things to all crazies, which in turn favors all-bases-covered info dumps. Combined with general lack of talent and self-criticism, the result is what we have.
10/23/2014 10:29:46 am
You make a very interesting point, Spooky. At first I was going to say that I found it hard to think about their methodology as an aesthetic, but then you brought up the documentaries and their similar grab bag mentality. I was going to object that they don't have an artistic or architectural program, but then I remembered Mystery Park, which is also a random assortment of clashing styles. Perhaps "incoherence" is an aesthetic program after all, one that draws on the trappings of history and scholarship and uses those trappings in a haphazard and unsystematic way. If that's the case, then Mystery Park would be the new Strawberry Hill!
10/23/2014 10:35:58 am
The pattern is certainly there (see Book of Howth for an old-timey example).
10/23/2014 12:04:21 pm
Paradoxography is an ancient genre. Contemporary fringe literature of the kind we're discussing is basically paradoxography with a side of revelation.
10/23/2014 07:22:32 am
"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."
10/23/2014 08:09:23 am
There's an actual point of cross-over, though: Robert E. Howard. His stories were, of course, heavily influenced by the Gothic (particularly by way of Lovecraftian horror). They offered a re-imagining of the distant past, full of curses, spirits, and unseen terrors. Take out the well-muscled protagonists, and you have Otranto.
10/23/2014 10:22:29 am
There are certainly cross-overs and borrowings; my point was just that the fringe isn't a direct descendant of the Gothic the way, say, modern horror fiction is.
10/23/2014 11:27:22 am
Roger that. Just supplementing what you said, not trying to contradict it.
10/23/2014 10:08:28 am
Never seen James Macpherson's name associated with the Gothic before...
10/23/2014 10:23:40 am
Graham-Dixon takes a broader view of the Gothic that partially conflates it with what I'd probably call Romanticism. Macpherson is certainly a Romantic, and Graham-Dixon folds that into a broader set of Gothic-infused ideas.
10/23/2014 09:28:50 pm
I'm a huge fan of Andrew Graham-Dixon - quite a few of his series are available on Youtube. He's an art historian with that rare ability to communicate complex ideas simply to a mainstream audience, and not only that he's entertaining, funny from time to time and seems like one of the good people. He's done series on the art of Britain, the USA, Italy, Spain, Russia, as well as one-offs on war artists and other specials on his favourite painters and works. His tour round the Riksmuseum in Amsterdam is fantastic.
10/25/2014 05:03:09 am
All of his shows are good, as far as I can tell. His documentary on German art is flawless, and he did a good job tracing the life and art of Caravaggio. The new Gothic Revival show is on my list of weekend viewing (on BBC iPlayer - don't own a TV).
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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