All was silent in the Arts and Social Studies Library … until this year’s first CRECS event, ‘Shadows & Sandmen: Things that go CRECS in the night’, brought Gothic Romanticism into the, thankfully brightly lit, room.
Keith Chapin, of Cardiff’s School of Music began the night’s proceedings with a talk introducing us to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1808), suggesting that we might consider Beethoven to be a Romantic, rather than a Classical composer. A pivotal point of this argument being the engagement with the critic E.T.A. Hoffman, a contemporary of Beethoven whose seminal review of the Fifth Symphony referred to the instrumental piece in particular as ‘awake[ning] that infinite yearning which is the essence of Romanticism.’ To illustrate this idea, Keith allowed us to immerse ourselves within the music by playing us a section of the symphony. The building crescendos emphatically demonstrating Hoffman’s suggestion that the music ‘unveils before us the realm of the mighty and the immeasurable’—bringing to my mind at least Burke’s definition of the sublime. Keith invited us to consider that in pondering the ‘awe’ provoked by Beethoven’s music in 1810, Hoffman was drawing on an early nineteenth century fascination with the Gothic. Opening out the discussion to consider the genre of music more generally, Keith asked how we see ‘mood’ and ‘emotion’ as differing, and how we might consider music as being seen to channel or, indeed, to stimulate them? Pondering how vocal and instrumental music work differently, Keith summarised that Hoffman saw instrumental music as more capable of fostering ‘vague’ and sublime feelings.
Our second speaker, Anthony Mandal, of Cardiff’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy, turned our attention once again to E.T.A. Hoffman, but this time as a man of letters, and his most enduring of creations ‘Der Sandmann’ (The Sandman), the first of a collection of stories he published in the collection Die Nachtstücke (The night pieces, 1817). After a brief recap of the story—literally eye-popping!—Anthony opened the discussion with a consideration of central Hoffman was to German/late Romanticism, while simultaneously pointing out that ‘Romanticism’ falls differently across national borders. Anthony invited us to consider the different elements that inform the Gothic genre, such as the focus on the folklore and supernatural that is so prevalent in British Gothic. He compared this to the interweaving monstrous and satirical/comic aspects of ‘The Sandman’, in the form of the automaton Olimpia, and postulated that this might subvert our traditional view of the Gothic. Now, as promised, Anthony drew on Freud’s essay on the uncanny and commented on how Freud used the fear associated with losing one’s eyes and the troubled father figures relationships in Der Sandmann as an exemplar of castration anxiety. As a summary, Anthony noted that the uncanny ‘draws from the deepest recesses of our domestic lives’, the key to this reading being the notions of repetition and doubling that are so ubiquitous to the genre of the Gothic and a prevalent feature of ‘The Sandman’.
The final speaker, Emily Blewitt, who has just recently submitted her English Literature PhD, delivered a talk on ‘maternal monsters and benevolent surgeons: delivering Frankenstein’. As a beginning, Emily quoted Ellen Moers’ seminal feminist reading of Frankenstein which described it as ‘female birth myth’ which, she suggested, drew on Shelley’s ambivalence about motherhood. Under this reading, Emily commented that Frankenstein’s experiment can be seen as an act of ‘monstrous maternity’, both in the creation of the creature, and the later fear of creature and his wife procreating that leads to Frankenstein destroying the female mate. Emily suggested that such a reading could draw from societal anxieties of the advance of science and male midwifery. Building on this, Emily asked how monstrosity infiltrates medical texts surrounding childbirth, such as William Hunter’s Anatomia Uteri Humani (The Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures, 1774)? To illustrate this discussion, Emily showed us an example of such images and argued that the efforts in striving for realism added to the monstrosity, an interesting consideration for how we engage with the Gothic as a genre. To draw the discussion to a conclusion, Emily returned to Frankenstein to suggest that Percy Shelly invited us to read the novel as a sort of mental labour: ‘We think we can bear no more and yet more is to be borne.’
The floor was then opened to questions from the audience, prompting a consideration on why the Gothic can still inspire such fear within us, the consensus amongst the panel being that as a genre it draws on societal fears and in exploring them in narrative form gives us a safe environment to explore such fears. This was our cue to retire upstairs for wine and nibbles and to consider, from the safety of the library, what threads of anxiety run through our society today and how these might be represented in fiction.