Sunday 22 June 2014

The Gothic Imagination

2014 marks the 250th anniversary of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, usually celebrated as the first Gothic novel. The British Library will be celebrating the anniversary with an exhibition that opens on October 3 this year: Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the most comprehensive exhibition on the subject in the UK so far:

'Beginning with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, this wide-ranging exhibition explores our enduring fascination with the mysterious, the terrifying and the awe-inspiring. It also examines the long shadow the Gothic imagination has cast across film, art, music, fashion, culture and our daily lives.

Gothic literature began as a challenge to the rational certainties of the Enlightenment. By exploring the harsh romance of the medieval past with its castles and abbeys, its wild landscapes and fascination with the supernatural, Gothic writers placed imagination firmly at the heart of their work.

Through over 200 rare exhibits including manuscripts, paintings, film clips and posters, Terror and Wonder explores all aspects of the Gothic world. Iconic works, including Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the sinister fairy tales of Angela Carter and the modern horrors of Clive Barker highlight the ways in which contemporary fears have been addressed by successive generations of Gothic writers. Paintings, films and even a vampire-slaying kit add colour and drama to the story.

Terror and Wonder promises to be beautiful, dark, inspiring and haunting. Step into this world, if you dare.'

The British Library web site already contains a theme on the subject, including, of course, a page on Dracula and vampire literature (incidentally, they also have a page on Emily Gerard's The Land beyond the Forest). They have also made a youtube video on the Gothic in which Professor John Bowen discusses Gothic motifs while wandering around Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill House.

This exhibition follows hot on the heels of a Gothic film festival, Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film, arranged by the British Film Institute (BFI) in 2013. The BFI published a compendium, which is actually a delightful introduction to the world of Gothic film, its landscapes, architecture and inhabitants. In fact, this is probably one of the rare instances you will see me recommending a book on Gothic fiction on this blog, but the thematic approach to the subject as well as the host of experts who have contributed to it makes it a real treat, even for people with a more casual interest in the genre.

So the book includes essays on the relation between Gothic cinema and literature, architecture and art, with Martin Myrone, author of a nice book on Fuseli and contributor to the Tate exhibition on Gothic Nightmares back in 2006, noting that 'the relationship between the canon of Gothic literature of the 'classic' phase (c. 1760-1830) and the visual imagery of the same date is far from simple: the relationship of this early Gothic art and writing to modern cinema no more so.' Still, he later on concedes that 'nonetheless, there are parallels and resonances between Gothic literature of the 'classic' phase and precisely contemporary visual art, and between these and modern cinema,' accompanying his essay with a number of examples of these homologies, of which the most famous is, of course, Fuseli's Nightmare (see the Gothic Nightmares catalogue from Tate for numerous examples).

However many experts have contributed to the conpendium, they still are unable to solve the conundrum of pinning down what the Gothic 'genre' actually is. Myrone states that it is 'now often understood as, by definition, a trans-medial, genre-defying, migratory and polluting phenomenon, we should not expect homologies between Gothic productions in different media and eras need be predictable, explicit or orderly.' The paradox of how relatively easy it is to describe the Gothic 'landscape', while it seems almost impossible to define it, is what makes the compendium - cf. the title's nod to Joseph Conrad - a 'Grand Tour of the Gothic,' as Sir Christopher Frayling says in his foreword.

Sunday 8 June 2014

Vampyrismus & Magia posthuma

By chance, years ago I watched part of a programme on History Channel about vampires in which anthropologist Giuseppe Maiello from the Charles University, Univerzita Karlova, in Prague was interviewed about vampires. I recall contacting Maiello who responded that he had himself not seen that interview. At the same time I learned about the book he had written on vampires, Vampyrismus v kulturních dĕjinách Evropy, which had been published in 2004, and got hold of it to see what a Czech researcher would include in a book on this subject.

Now Maiello has published a new edition of the book, this time titled Vampyrismus & Magia posthuma, and the new title indicates the major addition that has been made in this edition: A Czech translation of Karl Ferdinand von Schertz’s Magia Posthuma has been added to the sources at the end of the book!

The new edition also includes a foreword mentioning some of the work that has been published since the first edition, as well as summaries in English, French and Italian that can be helpful to those of us who are not proficient in the Czech language. Furthermore, a number of illustrations have been added, in particular of some key persons, including one of Schertz, which is unfortunately not of the best quality.

According to the English summary, 'Vampyrismus a Magia posthuma [Vampirism and Magia posthuma] is an updated version of Vampyrismus v kulturních dějinách Evropy [Vampirism in the cultural history of Europe], which had first appeared in bookstores back in 2005. The book describes the phenomenon of Vampirism from an etymological, cultural-historical, ethnographic and anthropological point of view.

Up until now, the sources of the book were found primarily in the libraries of the Czech Republic. For this reason the book includes both classic examples from the literature of Western countries, transmitted through the intermediation of Abbot Augustine Calmet, as well as examples taken from the ethnographic literature of Central and Eastern European countries and the Balkans; lesser known or completely unknown to wider audiences and to western European and northern American specialists.

The second part of the book deals with the main theories on the origins of vampirism through the comparison between different cultures, and across temporal space, from classical antiquity up to the late nineteenth century. These theories concentrate on three areas: universal theories of the origins and prehistory of vampirism; theories (less probable) that derive vampirism by social and cultural changes that took place in modern Europe; and theories related to the analysis of agrarian cults and their struggles for the fertility of the fields.

In addition to other texts already published or translated into other languages, this is the first time that there is published in a modern language the Karl Ferdinand Schertz's study
Magia posthuma, which had been released only once in a printed Latin edition in 1704 (but which had the date 1706 written on the title page).'

Maiello has also published a paper on Schertz in 2012 in Slavica litteraria, Racionalismus Karla Ferdinada Schertze a Magia posthuma (Karl Ferdinand Schertz's rationalism and Magia posthuma). Written in Czech, it does however include an English abstract:

'Karl Ferdinand Schertz is at home a no well known author. On the contrary, his name is known around the world thanks to his work Magia posthuma, which was quoted by Augustin Calmet. Because of his not well available biography and books, Schertz is unfortunately wrong understood and around him circulate various rumors or negative critics. Karl Ferdinand Schertz was on the contrary highly cultured author, who could enjoy a good reputation among the european intellectuals of his time.'

The paper briefly deals with Schertz's life and works, and discusses his approach to magia posthuma, which in Maiello's view make Schertz more of a rationalist than a man of the Baroque period. Maiello actually finds that the rationalistic approach of Schertz is comparable to that of Calmet. Cf. what I have myself written in Vampirismus und magia posthuma im Diskurs der Habsburgermonarchie edited by Augustynowiz and Reber (or as part of Kakanien Revisited).

Giuseppe Maiello talks about vampires on this Czech talk show

I thank Giuseppe Maiello for providing me with a copy of his book. He informs me that the publisheres are considering publishing an edition in English.
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