Notes on the translational Gothic
Or, how the weird enters the world, part two
The term “Gothic” is marvelously, if disconcertingly, fluid, designating at times both barbarian horde and proto-nationalist regime, pagan chieftain and Christian theocrat, aesthetic atrocity and high art; thus to speak of the “translational Gothic” is to speak of both the wild mutations possible through “infidel” translation and the wild translations implicit in the survival of the term Gothic itself. John Ruskin describes the Gothic as “the rough mineral … submitted to [the analysis] of the chemist, entangled with many other foreign substances, itself perhaps in no place pure, or ever to be obtained or seen in purity for more than an instant.” He nevertheless thinks that this instant — knit into the mess of centuries — is definable, much like Walter Benjamin’s faith in a translation that only momentarily, fleetingly touches upon the meaning of the original — or the meaning of “originality,” for that matter.
Neither Greek nor Roman. Outside of official language of empire. A place of language mutation and hybridity, where official language meets the strange needs of the “outside.” And this outside, which would once be a geopolitical reality, would ultimately at the height of Gothic aestheticism become the extimate region of ghouls, vampires, weird consistencies — the outside coming in, returning, or rather outside and inside complicated as time trumps space, slow mutation overcoming formal consistency, one becoming its other, death perceived in life, stranger implicit in neighbor and neighbor stranger and stranger. Once thought to originate in the word “Getic” — a region in present-day Romania where Greeks and Romans (including Ovid, poet of the violence of mutation occulted in the forms of nature) were sent to exile.
An aesthetic form which, in the case of literature, is said to have “poeticized” the novel. That is, Gothic style provided a kind of rarefied swerve to the otherwise punctilious world of fact or plausibility. “The great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life,” complained Horace Walpole in his apologia for his hoax, The Castle of Otranto, which kicked off the Gothic genre with a fake Italian translation (of this, more later). Hawthorne would call this swerve “the romance” — “mingling the Marvelous” with the novel’s “very minute fidelity.” And many would consider the Gothic a form of the decadent, what Arthur Symons called “that learned corruption of language by which style ceases to be organic and becomes, in the pursuit of some new expressiveness or beauty, deliberately abnormal.” We might take issue with the line drawn here between the purely organic and impure stylistics, given that the Gothic may elude the organicism of the author but thus become organic with a vengeance, exploring other, more challenging, carbon-based fancies — from the electrocuted “vermicelli” of Mary Shelley (itself a scientific “mistranslation”) to the varieties of inconceivable Lovecraftian goo.
The translational Gothic, at heart perhaps doomed to fail or bent on failing, is a way to know what is other than oneself. Self-translation through the language of the other, or gnosis of death, subjectivity giving way to the “vibrant materiality” of objects that testify to stranger echos of submerged temporalities. This is one of the main ways in which the weird has made its way into the world …