Tag: Gothicness

Review: The Waste Land

The Waste Land is a wondrous and entirely unexpected thing which I acquired for the princely sum of 20p at my local library: a graphic novel retelling of T.S. Eliot’s seminal Modernist poem by Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson. It seems there are two editions of this gem: issues with Eliot’s estate meant a second edition had to be published – it’s this edition I’m reviewing here – which couldn’t quote any of the original poem; not that this seems to have affected the general parodic quality of the piece.

Anyway. The story, such as it is, follows a hard-boiled noir detective, Chris Marlowe (an escapee from a Raymond Chandler novel, or a seventeenth-century playwright, or both), as he searches for his missing business partner, Mike the Minoan, in Eliot’s Unreal City: London, though a disconnected and fragmented version of it. (“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.”)

A Goodreads reviewer, Liam Guilar, suggests that Marlowe’s search for his partner in Waste Land London is a performance of the search for meaning with which befuddled first-time readers approach Eliot’s poem – “the irony being the only coherence the poem has to offer is the reader’s search for it.” This is a brilliant and elegant reading which, frankly, I wish I’d come up with myself. (There are also interesting resonances here with the theme of the Grail quest Eliot threads half-heartedly through the poem.)

So Rowson renders Eliot’s text as place – specifically, as a nightmarish version of London, identified mainly (as it is in the poem) by the River Thames, curling its symbolic, stinking way through the text’s heart. Marlowe is literally a stranger in this city; in the first chapter of the book he’s knocked out and shipped across the Atlantic to London, and we see it through his stranger’s eyes – the caricature grotesquerie of Rowson’s art style rendering it larger than life and half-unrecognisable. As another Goodreads reviewer pointed out, rather less insightfully, “the story seems to jump all over the place.” Well, yes. That disconnection is pretty much the whole point of both texts: Eliot renders it linguistically, as a breakdown of cultural touchstones, a scattergun range of quotations and intertexts that don’t relate to anything, “a heap of broken images” with no shaping connective tissue; Rowson renders it narratively, in a search that doesn’t make sense with a solution that “is no solution” (Guilar again), and spatially, in a London that doesn’t look quite like our London, teetering on the edge of the familiar, and populated by anachronistic historical figures: Queen Elizabeth I in a modern-looking crowd on the banks of the Thames, Joseph Conrad in a London pub.

That spatial rendering is rather Gothic, in the sense that Rowson’s London looks and works a lot like the huge, impossibly rambly castles and country homes in Gothic literature – like Gormenghast and Manderley and the Navidson house. These Gothic spaces are uncanny: they take the familiar, ordered space of the home and render it unknowable, unmappable, architecturally impossible. The Gothic as a mode is often associated with the bourgeoisie, but here Rowson’s making a connection with Modernism too; a connection that’s always been latent, because if the Gothic disturbs the rational space of the home then it also, simultaneously, disrupts the rationalism of the Word – the Western Christian construct of the written word as holy, always true, a perfect window into the thoughts of men. The Gothic, characterised by linguistic excess (there’s a reason all those eighteenth-century moralists were appalled by the idea of young ladies reading The Mysteries of Udolpho), by sentence structures that you can get lost in just as you get lost in the corridors of the castles they describe, conceals and reveals the void at the heart of all things, especially at the heart of Western rationalism. And that’s something Eliot’s Waste Land, not to mention Modernism at large, is also urgently concerned with: “the centre cannot hold”, as Yeats wrote just three years before Eliot published The Waste Land; Western morality and thought has become a haunted house, the shared cultural and religious touchstones we used to have in common dissolved and vanished. “I can connect/Nothing with nothing.”

Why is this important? What does it add to our understanding of The Waste Land?

Something which I do find suggestive about Rowson’s treatment of the poem – which links back to Guilar’s point above about the search for coherency in Eliot’s poem constituting the only coherency the poem possesses or can offer – is that, for readers familiar with the original, it becomes a way to navigate Rowson’s text; we decode Marlowe’s search for Mike the Minoan by spotting the references to the poem, a self-reflexive circle which points out the essential meaninglessness of critical approaches to The Waste Land. The poem by its very form denies meaning, even obfuscates it deliberately; that’s ultimately what Rowson’s parodic treatment brings us to realise.

I still love Eliot’s poem, and you get the sense that despite his mockery Rowson does too. His graphic novel treats it as the cultural touchstone it (ironically) is nowadays, and yet it also uncovers and deflates the nihilism that lies behind its artistic vision (and, by extension, the artistic vision of much of today’s literary establishment). It seems sort of pointless to write anything else about The Waste Land – Rowson’s said everything there is to say. Which is good value, for 20p.


Theatre Review: Sleeping Beauty, a Gothic Romance

Who eats an apple a stranger gives ya?/And who needs a man to save and kiss ya?

Whitney Avalon

Sleeping Beauty is, on the whole, an obnoxious fairytale whose main female character is literally unconscious for basically all of it and which essentially entitles men to go kiss sleeping strangers with impunity.

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, a kind of modern ballet retelling of the story which just finished its run at the Sadler’s Wells theatre in Islington, does little directly to alleviate the original’s obnoxiousness, and I just want to flag that up before I begin. It’s still irritatingly sexist. But the interests of the tale lie in quite a different direction, and that’s where I want to go in this post.

The subtitle of Bourne’s ballet is “A Gothic Romance”. Although it’s difficult to define precisely what Gothic is – partly because it tends to be used as a synonym for “horror” – for me what characterises the mode (and, not uncoincidentally, many of my favourite novels) is a certain baggy quality to prose, a hypnotic form of overwriting, of semantic satiation, which both conceals and reveals the lacuna at the centre of existence, where words cannot go; the indescribable, circled by a whirlwind of text trying frantically to compensate; the unbridgeable gap between signifier, the Word (which for the purposes of this post, following Lacan, I’m going to call the Symbolic), and signified, that which is (Lacan’s Real).

The Gothic, then, would seem to be an explicitly textual mode, the province of the novel and the short story. But Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, dance though it is, certainly feels Gothic, especially in its second half, filled as it is with vampiric fairies, predatory gentlemen and symbolic sexual entrapment.

That last one is important, by the way, for two reasons. One: the Gothic, especially in its early incarnations, is obsessed with sex. Think of Dracula, of Udolpho, of Rebecca: these are novels about virginal young women locked up by sexually possessive older men, and this Sleeping Beauty is no different, seeing as it does its Aurora stolen away by the evil fairy’s son Caradoc. Two: sex in these novels is only ever symbolic, manifesting itself as the threat of a forced marriage, as rhododendrons and roses blooming in the garden, a dapper vampire stealing into a young woman’s bedroom at night, pricking her neck with his teeth. (And, yes, that’s a metaphor.)

That’s probably partly because we can read sex as a manifestation of the Real, an essentially primal act which disturbs our civilised self-image. It’s the fade-to-black which lies behind romance narratives; it’s one of the lacunae upon which the Symbolic teeters in those hyper-unstable Gothic tales. One of the functions of the Gothic is to reveal just how unstable our symbols really are; it’s one of the reasons why those novels are so unsettling and so threatening.

(The other major manifestation of the Real is, of course, death, which is random and irrational and impossible to make sense of. It’s not a coincidence that the threat of death is often inextricable from the threat of rape in the Gothic, and even before that the concepts are linked – in Shakespeare’s time the word “death” also meant, ahem, “climax”.)

So this gives us somewhere, finally, to start with Sleeping Beauty. (Yep, this is going to be a long post. Feel free to go make a cup of tea or something. I just did.) Of immediate and arresting interest is how the story is framed, right from the beginning: “Once upon a time,” projected subtitles read – vaulting us, of course, straight into the symbolic, metaphorical, textual land of the fairytale – a king and a queen have no child. They make a pact with the evil fairy Carabosse to gain a child “to call their own”. The text is specific about this last part: “to call their own”. Calling, naming, is framed as a way of symbolically integrating a child into a family which may not be really hers; there’s a suggestion that Aurora is actually born, or made, or whatever, in a storm, aligning her initially with the chaotic natural forces of the Real, only to have her subsumed into the Symbolic of palace life.

Thereafter, the show enacts a sort of gradual degradation of the apparently benign function of the Symbolic. Three of the four acts are structured around specific ceremonies: a christening, a coming-of-age, and a wedding.

The christening, as we know from the original fairytale, is partially a disaster: in a profane parody of the good fairies’ blessing of Aurora, the evil fairy Carabosse curses her; but the king of the fairies, Count Lilac, manages partly to undo the curse. The Symbolic is damaged, but not irreparable.

The coming-of-age scene is interesting. We see Aurora, identified, remember, with the Real, forced mostly unwillingly to participate in social custom, dressing up in restrictive clothing and dancing with eligible gentlemen, though she manages to scandalise the guests by taking her shoes off and dancing out-of-pattern (out of symbol). And she is forced by her parents, we assume in the name of social politeness, to dance with the predatory Caradoc, a symbolic courtship consummating in her pricking her finger on a glass rose and falling asleep for the requisite hundred years (a symbolic death, we note).

One beat which Bourne adds to the story, though, is the fact that Aurora has by this point already met her True Love, Leo, a gardener visually excluded from the royal circles in which Aurora moves and therefore outside the story’s Symbolic. Extending the couple’s association with the Real is the interesting fact that, refreshingly, Aurora and Leo seem to enjoy a fairly physical relationship, their expressive and passionate dance a world away from the carefully controlled social dancing of the coming-of-age scene. What’s particularly significant about this, in comparison to Gothic novels, is that it suggests that it’s not, actually, the act of sex that’s threatening and damaging; it’s the existence of the Symbolic which mystifies it and conceals its purpose and allows predators like Caradoc to entrap their victims. (Is this, incidentally, why Aurora’s parents are barren?)

It’s a theme that’s picked up in the final act: the wedding. Aurora, still not fully awake after her hundred-year sleep, is kidnapped by Caradoc and taken to his psychedelic Evil Fairy Court, there to marry her in another profane parody of a traditional sacrament. The point of this scene is that it’s symbolic; the show makes it very clear that there’s nothing actually stopping Caradoc from having his way with the unconscious Aurora (which is infuriating, and when will male creators stop fridging female characters, but that is by the by), but his lust is manifested symbolically, because, as we have seen, Caradoc is a creature of the Symbolic. It’s a scene that makes a beautiful contrast, tonally and visually, with the final scene, when Leo and Aurora are finally reunited: they step outside time (signalled throughout the show by projected dates: 1890, 1911, 2011 and “Last Night”), backed only by the stage-curtain concealing the lavish stage-sets. Significantly, there is no wedding-scene (remember, Gothic tales and fairytales both always end in weddings); they go to bed together, and the show is surprisingly frank about why – they return to the stage with a child. It’s a victory, as I read it, of the Real over the Symbolic, a victory only pointed up by the surprisingly weak closing subtitle: “And they lived happily ever after.” That phrase, of course, doesn’t begin to describe it; the story has moved on from the closeted symbolism of text, the wordlessness of dance setting the fairytale free.

A Gothic Romance, indeed.