Matthew Lewis and the gothic horror of obsessional neurosis.

Author:Cameron, Ed
Position:Viewpoint essay

Initially, it may seem that the only connection between Tony Shalhoub's hit USA Television Network program Monk and the Gothic is reducible to the fact that the television show shares it title with Matthew Lewis's infamous 1794 Gothic novel. However, on a second examination of the detective series, one may notice that the actor who plays Captain Leland Stottlemeyer, Ted Levine, is the same actor who in The Silence of the Lambs played Buffalo Bill, that most horrific of all gothic villains. But, on a much deeper level, there exists, oddly enough, a connection between Shalhoub's titular character's particular psychopathology--obsessional neurosis--and the very narrative structure of Lewis's early gothic novel. Just as the staging of obsessional neurosis underlies the huge success of Monk, The Monk can be read as symptomatically produced by obsessional neurosis.

Consistent with most obsessional neurotics, Tony Shalhoub's "Monk" often finds himself in a self-made paradoxical situation. For instance, he obsessively inspects public equipment--mailboxes, parking meters -just to make sure the world is functioning properly. However, this inspecting, in turn, causes him to reach for a handi-wipe in order to remove any germs from his hands. Both actions, nonetheless, stem from the same cause. He neurotically opens the mailbox to make sure no envelopes have been prevented from dropping into the box, and he touches the parking meters either to make sure they are functioning or because he obsessively needs to touch x amount (usually an even number) of parking meters while passing by because in his twisted mind this wards off anxiety. And he wipes his hands free of germs because those germs might bring a certain amount of unwanted distress into his life. Both actions are obsessive attempts, using the language of psychoanalysis, to keep the Other from enjoying at his expense. They are both attempts to appease the Other (figured as he who is controlling the order of the universe), so that the Other does not terrorize poor Monk by throwing the universe out of joint. (1) Although Monk only superficially utilizes obsessional behavior to gain a few laughs, which the audience enjoys at Monk's expense, obsessional neurosis seems to play a deeper structural role in Matthew Lewis's Gothic narrative.

The Psychic Origins of Gothic Terror and Horror

The 1790s mark the period of the mature development for the English Gothic novel. Tantalized by the possibilities she found in Horace Walpole's inaugural and immature Gothic romance, Ann Radcliffe focused in her Gothic fiction primarily on what she found to be the more sophisticated literary devices of terrifying scenes and mysterious occurrences. Her writing cuts through the chaotic supernatural display of The Castle of Otranto in an attempt to salvage the "explained supernatural" as the only device necessary for the genre. By creating terrifying scenes whose full explanation was deferred until the end of the novel, she crafted hysterical narratives, if you will, where sense was completely severed from affect. In this manner, Radcliffe's narratives thematically and subliminally point to their own inability to "say it all." Begrudgingly influenced by the works of Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis attempted to improve on a genre that he felt did not go far enough. As far as Lewis was concerned, Radcliffe's novels basically cheat the reader in the end. She is able, through her use of suspense, to lure the reader into a captive state only to pull the rug out at the last minute by displaying the rational reason behind the supposed supernatural occurrences that the reader finds so intriguing. His literary reaction to Radcliffe parallels a nineteen-year-old man's reaction to being rebuffed by a woman. Radcliffe, in a sense, teases, tantalizes, and leads on young Lewis only to deny him his desire in the end. Lewis, therefore, decides to write his own Gothic novel in order to do without the Other sex. Like the true obsessional neurotic, he will search for what he wants without involving the Other's desire.

The Monk goes to the opposite extreme of Radcliffe's narratives. Where Radcliffe appears to hold everything back, Lewis's novel offers everything in its obscene presence. His technique turns the Radcliffean terror of suggestion into the horror of demonic rape, incest, and murder. According to Fred Botting, Lewis describes "in lurid detail the specters that Gothic fiction had previously left to the superstitious or explained away" (76). In so doing, Lewis disregards and often even parodies the sentimentality found in Radcliffe's work. Borrowing from the crassness of German writers like Lorenz Flammenberg and Karl Grosse, Lewis offers the reader a pornographic Gothic in which the previously ambiguous supernatural is now given in all its obnoxious presence. What was formerly left hidden, half-revealed, and suggested now takes center stage in the sensationalism of excess. Where Radcliffe's narratives did not give enough, Lewis's novel simply gives too much. Radcliffe refined and perfected the one aspect of Walpole's inaugural Gothic novel that she felt worth salvaging, and Lewis resurrected and cultivated another aspect of Walpole's narrative for which he felt a strong affinity. Together they split Walpole's work--castrated it, if you will--and developed it into its mature generic status by the end of the century. (2)

Lewis's reaction to Radcliffe's Gothic and his development of Walpole's Gothic machinery can be explained by the Freudian structure of obsessional neurosis as a strategy of dealing with a foundational lack, keeping in mind that aesthetic productions, especially overtly sublime ones, are always a means of demarcating the contours of some lack in our symbolic economy. According to Bruce Fink's distinction between hysteria and obsessional neurosis as the two forms of neurosis, the breast in breastfeeding is the sight where the infant initially has all its immediate needs satisfied. At first the infant considers the breast as merely part of himself. (3) It is not, of course, until separation from the mother that the infant realizes that its main source of satisfaction comes from a source outside itself. Once this separation happens in the development of the infant's life, it realizes that the breast can never be possessed in the same unimpeded manner again. Therefore, the object that now is lacking becomes eroticized. How the infant deals with this initial loss, this separation, how the child finds a substitute for the mother and thereby completes the Oedipus complex, determines the difference between the obsessional neurotic and the hysteric --the difference between being aligned on the masculine or feminine side of sexual difference. For the hysteric, separation is overcome as the subject constructs herself as the erotic object that substitutes for the loss suffered by the Mother, or the Other. In fantasy, she becomes that which can complete the Other. This is why the hysteric's desire is always the desire of the Other. Radcliffe's narratives illustrate this structure by creating worlds that are in themselves incomplete and inconsistent. The universe that the Radcliffean Gothic heroine inhabits is a world of the "non-all" (to use the terminology of Jacques Lacan), an open-ended universe that creates an unsettling effect on both characters and readers. (4) In the end, Radcliffe's strategic use of the "explained supernatural" illustrates how the incompleteness that allows for even the surmising of something supernatural is inherent to and endemic to our symbolic economy itself.

The obsessional, however, tries to compensate for his initial loss in another way. Separation is overcome by the obsessional by eroticizing the breast itself as the object that functions as the cause of his desire. This fantasy allows the belief that the object, which is now eroticized, can reproduce the original plentitude of satisfaction. But, as Fink notes, the obsessional refuses to acknowledge that the breast is part of, or comes from, the Other, or bears any relation to the actual woman who becomes his sexual partner. This is why on the masculine side of sexual difference in his formula of sexuation, Lacan writes masculine sexuality with his matheme for fantasy ($a, the lacking subject in relation to the fantasmic object that causes him to desire). The man aims for the woman but only comes up with the object. This, I will argue, is the role of the supernatural objects within the horrific narrative of Lewis. Since feminine sexuality is "non-all" in relation to the signifier, Radcliffe offers narratives that structurally cannot offer it all. Since masculine sexuality strives for it all and only comes up with the object, Lewis's narrative begs to be read as offering supernatural objects in all their vulgar presence as materializations of the more definable enjoyment associated with the obsessional neurotic. The supernatural entities and horrific gore scattered throughout Lewis's Gothic novel aesthetically represent libido outside the body. Since in hysteria one is confronted with affect without sense, without any reason for the affect (the repressed returns on the body), Radcliffe's use of terror as a supposedly supernatural fear where one is frightened without knowing what one is frightened of works perfectly in delimiting a feminine Gothic aesthetic. Since in obsessional neurosis one has meaning without affect (the repressed returns in thought), Lewis tidies up any confusion or indeterminateness in his story line by giving the reader an actual supernatural realm. His narrative lacks the refined suspenseful tone of Radcliffe's because, by offering the supernatural in all its unbelievable existence, Lewis's narrative remains virtually without affect. Once the narrative establishes a supernatural realm, wonder becomes obsolete and irrelevant. The characters and readers simply know immediately why such strange...

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