Saturday, September 6, 2014

Horror Theory: The Spectre of Marxist Interpretation

“Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking [blood] from living labor.”

“The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products.  What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all is its own grave-diggers…”

—Karl Marx, Das Kapital (1867)

Though often disastrous when applied to politics or economics, Marxist theory has been fruitfully applied in other areas, in particular literature and sociology, yielding valuable insights about societies under duress.  It seems especially useful to apply Marxist notions to the cultural products of rapidly industrializing societies, both present and past.  José B. Monleon did just this in his A Specter is Haunting Europe:  A Sociohistorical Approach to the Fantastic (1990).  (The excerpt that I have is in Ken Gelder’s excellent 2000 anthology of horror criticism, The Horror Reader.)  His focus was on the literature of the early to middle 19th century, but his insights are applicable to much more recent work. 

Monleon sees in Marx’s famous opening line to the Communist Manifesto, (“A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism.”), a connection with the popular interest in séances and the supernatural that was prevalent at the time.  That Marx should use a supernatural metaphor to introduce the advent of radical socioeconomic change is significant.  Monleon suggests that bourgeois society’s struggle to assimilate the increasing power and political threat of the working class is mirrored in the transformation of gothic fantasy and horror literature into its more modern form.  This process began as a result of the tumult of the Industrial Revolution, but continues today.

According to the author, Gothic horrors were characterized by their otherness and separation from ordinary life; they were also easier to categorize as evil and unearthly.  Similarly, before industrialization, the poor and marginalized were often kept geographically apart from higher socioeconomic classes—an endeavor that continues today.  As always, the poor were seen as a source of crime, disease, ignorance and violence.  However, with increasing industrialization and urbanization, the poor and working class were brought into closer proximity to the middle and upper classes, causing increased friction, anxiety, and social instability.

In the mid-nineteenth century and beyond, Europe and America struggled to adapt to social changes brought by industrialization.  This often involved searching for ways to integrate and control economically displaced people emigrating to the cities.  While this was going on, fantasy and horror literature became increasingly introspective and ambiguous about traditional boundaries between reason and “unreason”. 

It seems that the collective social nightmare of managing the upheaval of industrialization was documented by the horror and fantasy writers of the time—in their dream journal of the Industrial Revolution.  Monleon believes that a progression can be seen in the literature of horror and the fantastic; what is fearful becomes internalized, even within the personality of a single character.  The social and economic conflicts of increasingly urban society become the fearful fantasies of a single individual’s psyche.  This internalization anticipates Sigmund Freud’s later explorations of the unconscious mind near the end of the nineteenth century.

Monleon provides several examples of this from stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein.  The Masque of the Red Death (1842) can be seen as a metaphor for the bourgeoisie (Prince Prospero) as it strives unsuccessfully to avoid the growing instability in its midst, (the Red Death—in Monleon’s use, almost a pun on the “Red Menace” of the early 20th century).  Perhaps The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) is not only symbolic of Roderick Usher's collapsing sanity, but a literal reference to the deterioration of ideas about private property and the stability of the economic system that supports them.

Monleon is on stronger ground when discussing the monster in Shelley’s Frankenstein, a creature made possible by technological advances and manufactured from component parts.  In some sense Frankenstein's monster is a creation of industrialization and the oppression of the working class.  But he is ‘out of control’, just as the instability and social strife created by rapid industrialization was beyond the direction of the ruling class. The novel raises many important questions about personal and social responsibility for the creation of “monsters” that are still relevant today.

The author notes that the depiction of monsters in the fantastic literature of this time period—early to mid-19th century—is typically a distortion or parody of the ideal human form as dictated by bourgeois standards.  Later this develops into the use of descriptive details suggestive of animalistic, racial, and proletarian qualities.  He gives the example of Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841).  Though not discussed by Monleon in this excerpt, it appears that by the early 20th century, ethnicity also became an important descriptor of monstrosity, probably reflecting fears of immigrants seeking a place in the new industrial economy.

Which brings us to H.P. Lovecraft and his colleagues, who documented the nightmares of early 20th century America during a time of great social and economic upheaval.  Along with Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and others, Lovecraft wrote during the Great Depression, a time when many were considering the feasibility of applying Marxist principles to resolving America’s social and economic woes.  Lovecraft was quite reactionary in this regard, and identified strongly with his lost bourgeois past, even as he exhausted his grandfather’s accumulated capital and approached poverty himself.  (To be fair, he adopted a version of socialism in his later years.)

The internalization of social anxieties about the rise of the proletariat (and its expansion by way of immigration) are reflected in several of Lovecraft’s stories, but especially in The Street (1920), The Terrible Old Man (1921), and The Horror at Red Hook (1927).  These have been discussed in earlier posts; see Architecture vs. Communist Hordes, 1. The Horrors of Growing Old, and The Horrors of Immigration.  The frequently autobiographical and introspective nature of Lovecraft’s fiction makes him an ‘n of one’ study of late Industrial Revolution social angst.  His example lends support to Monleon’s description above of the progression from external to internalized horrors as industrial society incorporates its social and economic upheavals.

Lovecraft of course neurotically resists the changes, clinging to his own idealized bourgeois past.  But his contempt for the poor and the different seems a form of self-hatred.  He had failed as a writer—the ultimate bourgeois entrepreneurship.  He was also unable to meet the expectations of his social class as a husband who could provide for or sustain a family in the new economy.  Had he lived much longer than he did, he would have exhausted his inheritance and joined the poor and working class—an ever present personal horror.  Yet, like Lovecraft, our contempt for the poor and ‘the other’ persists, as do our efforts to differentiate ourselves from them, and to live apart from them.  This is the source of some of our most spectacular nightmares.

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