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Memento Mori

Exploring the true meaning of Romanticism and the Gothic through historiography, philosophy, and literature.

Having a look at the historical unfolding of western culture since antiquity reveals an interesting trend: popular cultural movements seem to oscillate between two ideals. These overarching ideals are juxtaposed against each other, with all given cultural shifts occurring in reaction to the previous norm. The ideals in trend establish what should be prioritised and how we should approach our internal and external worlds.

Text and Image: Miranda Tate

The ideals in vogue during a period in history will colour the societal consciousness and lend a general direction to life in terms of philosophy, culture, and the arts. The dichotomy alluded to above is the question of whether to approach life through the mind or the heart, through the lens of emotion, or empiricism. Every historic era has favoured one or the other, with Romanticism occupying a unique position of convergence by adopting elements of both. In Romaticism’s literary wing, the Gothic, and in its philosophical influences in the work of Nietzsche, a case can be made that the most fitting approach to life leaves space for subjective and objective analysis.

In terms of history, we see this question played out in the rhetoric and logic-based philosophy of Antiquity, then shifting towards the Middle Ages, which has become to be considered a time devoid of reason, particularly by the great thinkers of the next cultural shift: the Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment began in the 17th century and followed a transitionary period known as the Renaissance. It prioritised and placed above all else the empirical approach to life, the use of our senses and logic in addressing the world through a critical scientific lens to produce objective knowledge. European philosophers embraced a return to the ideals of antiquity. Therefore, they reflected on the Middle Ages with disdain, and labelled it with the pejorative term ‘Gothic’. The term Gothic was applied to the entirety of the cultural happenings of the roughly 1,000 years between the end of the Age of Antiquity with the Fall of Rome and the beginning of the Age of Reason, which drew Europe out of the Dark Ages.

The culture of the Middle Ages was one that was coloured by emotion, with religion as the ultimate societal structuring element. Death was normalised due to the Black Plague and the religious atmosphere of the time. With the prevalence of Christianity, as a strict moral and social code that gave instructions on how to live to avoid the endless suffering of Hell, death was centred as a concept of daily life. As a theme, it was central to the arts, and the visual and literary language of this time illustrates the relationship the people of the Middle Ages had with death. Death was digested in an imaginative, superstitious way and became personified as a social actor. A popular genre of paintings and illustrations was called Danse Macabre (French for dance of death), an allegorical depiction of the universality of death. Memento Mori (Latin for remember that you too must die) was a genre of motifs that attached symbolic meaning to regular items to serve as reminders of the inevitability of death. This digestion and direct approach to death perhaps psychologically aided the people of the Middle Ages to integrate death as an element of their collective consciousness. By culturally addressing death, the ultimate unknowable, and normalising it, it took power and fear away from the concept.

The Enlightenment prioritised the empiric mind as a tool for the production of knowledge. Ideals of this era formed the bedrock of modern western life. Logic, the empirical senses, and principles such as liberty, individualism, and the separation of church and state, were centred. In reaction to this, a new movement arose. Romanticism followed the philosophy of the Enlightenment as a natural foil to it. In contrast to empiricism, Romanticism emphasised a return to nature. By incorporating the Enlightenment's ideal of individualism with this, Romanticism proclaimed the importance of the individual, subjective and emotional experience of life. It adopted what the Enlightenment had discarded, a subjective appreciation of beauty, the unknown, and phenomena unexplainable through empirical means.

Pessimism of the Energetic

The subjective-objective dichotomy appears in the work of the philosopher Nietzsche. He was influenced by the philosophy of German Romanticism, particularly in his youth, a central concept within this philosophy being that of the sublime. The sublime is understood as the foil to the Enlightenment philosophy’s construction of beauty, which considered it as something that could be understood by being measured and quantified through concepts such as order and proportion. Romanticism thinkers appreciated the value of experiences and stimuli that inspired awe and perhaps even terror. The sublime encompassed the beauty of being met with the unknowable, the grand, a vastness that suggested unpredictability and endless possibility. In Romantic art, this appears as the image of a man turned away from the viewer, peering over a sprawling landscape, such as in the infamous painting by Casper David Friedrich titled Wanderer above the Sea Fog.

Nietzsche wrote about the approach one should have with the sublime, the way one should meet the undeterminable, irrational elements of life that have the potential to cause terror and suffering. Nietzsche does not advocate fleeing these experiences, instead, he suggests a better approach, which is to learn to live with these experiences and develop the ability to find a path to gratitude. This concept is called the ‘Pessimism of the Energetic’; the idea that we can confront the difficulties of life and nonetheless draw fruit from them, through the task of redefining how we experience them. Nietzsche proposes that the skill of an open and flexible mindset will lead one to be able to integrate experiences of any nature. ‘Pessimism of the Energetic’ shows us that what is needed is a synthesis of the heart and mind, the ability to approach our lived experiences through empirical means as well as through the heart. To thrive we must be able to face the uncertainty of life and handle being unable to completely resolve or explain all our experiences through an empirical approach. Nietzsche's ‘Pessimism of the Energetic’ mirrors the Gothic approach to the sublime.

The Gothic

Within Romanticism, themes of death and the macabre of the Middle Ages were revisited in literature. This was the Gothic literary movement of the mid-late 19th century, first beginning in England before inspiring writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Emily Dickinson in America. Perhaps the most well-known of the American Gothic writers is Edgar Allan Poe. In the Gothic, the sublime is approached in a unique way, with a darker tinge. The macabre influences the sublime to produce an atmosphere with a haunting, eerie tone that pervades the writing and builds narratives around the protagonist's experience with extraordinary experiences. In the Gothic, the supernatural is addressed indirectly, focusing more on our fears towards it. The supernatural is alluded to, but the focus is on our experience, attitudes, and reaction towards it. Therefore, the Gothic provides an opportunity to acquaint ourselves and become comfortable with uncomfortableness, raising our tolerance for it while lessening our anxiety. Engaging with the Gothic, through literature and art, can serve as a tool to build the skills to engage more deeply with the uncomfortable aspects of life, excepting that not all things can be rationally understood.

As an example, in Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Fall of the House of Usher, it is shown to the reader that if one cannot handle the emotions that arise from encountering uncertainty, then one will be controlled by that uncertainty. In the story, an unnamed narrator visits a former childhood friend, Roderick, who with his twin sister, Madeline, are the sole occupants of their manor. Their vast estate enrobes the characters in a gloomy, decrepit atmosphere that haunts Roderick, who appears in an agitated mental state that deteriorates quickly as he is plagued by a sense of inevitability of his own downfall. A counterpart to her brother, Madeline is physically ill and dies shortly after the narrator's arrival. Roderick and the narrator entomb her in a vault within the walls of the house temporarily. Following her death, Roderick's superstitions about the house grow and he enters a state of complete hysteria, roaming the house and staring into nothingness.

Roderick is oppressed not by a physical illness or haunting perpetrator, but by an inner fear of the superstitions he holds. He is not threatened by the physical properties of the house, nor is he in mortal danger by the eerie nature of the house atmosphere, instead, he is arrested by his mental construction of the house. Therefore, it is not the fear, but the fear of the fear that leads to Roderick's decay. In his preoccupation with the sense of inevitable downfall that is plaguing him, he outwardly affirms this, prematurely ruling Madeline dead and entombing her. By the end of the novel, as the narrator attempts to calm Roderick's nerves by reading a book aloud, Madeline throws open the door, bloody from clawing her way out of her coffin, and casts herself upon Roderick, who dies of fear. The Fall of the House of Usher shows the reader that what harms us is not the unknown, which appears scary, but our inability to accept and address its discomfort. History and literature show us that we stand to benefit from sitting with the sublime, macabre, experiences that lie outside of a strictly empirical understanding so that they do not ultimately arrest us with fear.

If we must be able to empirically explain all phenomena and experiences then, in that narrow approach, we lose the nuance of understanding the thing itself, in our ability to engage with it, and in engaging with the full spectrum of lived experience. What is needed in our mindset is an openness that synthesises both mind and heart, the empirical with the emotional, and the arts with the sciences. As much of the human condition, that which separates us from robots and other animals is this chasm, the nuances and complexities that arise with no apparent objective truth to them. This is the space of moral and ethical dilemmas, interpersonal communication, major life decisions, love, and art. This is the space of all the choices and conundrums we meet where there is no objective truth that makes the decision for us. To address our internal turmoil, and interpersonal dependencies, and gain an understanding of ourselves in a vast world, we must consult both our mind and heart, ultimately finding a subjective truth fashioned from our synthesised values.

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