The Erotics of Loss

Jad Smith
Eastern Illinois University

As much a revisionist historiography of the history of sexuality as a wide-ranging genre study of gothic literature, George Haggerty’s Queer Gothic (Illinois, 2007) begins with a gripping suggestion: that perhaps “the history of sexuality is not as constricting as it has sometimes seemed” (5).   From the outset of his book, Haggerty posits early gothic fiction and drama as the primal forebear of late nineteenth-century psycho-sexology, and his own, more spacious conception of the history of sexuality results from a keen sense that gothic excesses not only anticipate but also complicate the narrow “sexological thinking” characteristic of Sigmund Freud and his contemporaries (19).   Rather than gaze backward at the gothic through the dissecting lens of the clinic, Haggerty chooses instead to “look forward from the eighteenth century,” speculating that theories of sexuality derived from gothic fictions “would be more varied, more sexually complex, less heteronormative, and more polymorphously perverse than any thus far considered” (5, 19).   As such, he attempts a “nonteleological” or “queer reading” of gothic that refuses to put it merely in the service of prevailing historical fictions of the psycho-sexual subject, especially those bound up with late nineteenth-century family romance (10).   Haggerty’s argument wends its way forward from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles and, despite its unwieldy scope, produces compelling results.   Haggerty makes a convincing case that gothic fiction acts as a testing ground for theories of sexuality and, further, that these Gothic experiments—even though they at moments foreshadow or overlap with psycho-sexology—exhibit an emotional valence and expansive sexual logic quite their own.

Haggerty’s main contribution to the broader revisionist project he outlines early in the book consists in his formulation of a theory of the “erotics of loss.”   For Haggerty, loss functions in the gothic as a conspicuous mark of unrealized personhood, one which implicates normative culture in the undoing of queer desire.  As a trope of excess, the erotics of loss registers a failure of subjectivity brought on by a “cultural system that commodifies desire” at the same moment that it “renders it lurid and pathological” (10).   This inscription of loss means that gothic novels reiterate (hetero)normative fictions—for instance, of the family—with a difference, that they call attention to the disavowals and internal contradictions upon which the status quo depends. It also preserves what is lost “in a form that means it will be found—if ever it is found—with a specifically gothic mode of recognition” (34).   If recent studies such as Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender and Lee Edelman’s No Future theorize queerness as a practice of non-identity capable of disturbing or even undoing social norms, and resituate discussions of gender and sexuality within the context of “persistence and survival,” then Haggerty points toward the gothic novel as a historical locus of such political struggle.[1]   For him, the gothic novel “shimmers with subversive potential,” and his particular brand of identity politics refuses the critical foreclosure of its radical energy (10).

Haggerty divides his book into three parts, and the first, “Gothic Sexuality,” primarily offers up examples of the erotics of loss in the works of Walpole, Matthew Lewis, Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Dacre, and Mary Shelley, among others.   Haggerty’s shrewd rereading of The Castle of Otranto , which renders Conrad’s mangled corpse the key to interpreting the novel, proves the highlight of this section.   According to Haggerty, if Conrad’s grisly death sets the plot in motion, it also introduces loss as the premise of the action and allows Walpole to turn the gaze back on the normative culture that makes Conrad’s failure as a subject a fait accompli .   Conrad dies, after all, for his father Manfred’s sins, as does Matilda, and their plight, made all the more poignant by Matilda’s long suffering and ghastly, sexualized death at Manfred’s hands despite her near-masochistic concessions to paternal authority, only underscores that the “normativity of paternal power is itself the perversion,” the root cause of such abjection and loss (25).   Walpole rewrites the family as a dysfunctional power structure, as a breeding ground of sadism, eroticized violence, and unrealized personhood; and as Haggerty points out, this queering of the fantasy of normative culture extends even to the resolution of the marriage plot, which finds Theodore and Isabella bonding over the dead Matilda and founding their relationship on this figure of loss.   From Haggerty’s perspective, the uncanny restaging of loss throughout the novel embroils normativity in an abjection it at once creates and denies, and encourages the reader to return to and linger upon the initial site of loss: “If Conrad had lived—that is, if that vaguely homoerotic pact between father and pitiful son had been allowed to survive—the structure of family, of community, and of culture would have been different” (22).

The second part of the book, “Gothic Culture,” consists of three chapters in which Haggerty delineates specific ways in which gothic writers turn wider cultural fictions to their own ends.   In the first of these, which concerns the “horrors of Catholicism,” Haggerty focuses on Lewis’s The Monk and William Henry Ireland’s The Abbess , and demonstrates that these novels couch otherwise unspeakable sexual transgressions within conventional anti-Catholic narratives in order to give them representation (83).   In the second, Haggerty contends that hypertheatrical gothic dramas such as Walpole’s The Mysterious Mother , Lewis’s The Castle Spectre , Joanna Baillie’s De Montfort, a Tragedy , and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci destabilize fictions of “domestic regularity” with wild spectacles of loss, victimization, and undone personhood, even as their impulse to identify and classify sexual transgressions anticipates the normalizing project of psycho-sexology (107).   Haggerty ends this section with a chapter on the apocalyptic gothic, here represented by William Godwin’s Caleb Williams , Mary Shelley’s The Last Man , and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde .   In it, he argues that these novels adapt the language of millennialism to the gothic genre and, despite their distinctive conceptions of identity and history, invariably situate male–male desire at the threshold of cultural disintegration.   These novels afford male love no other figure than loss, for in their idiom, love between men, “properly articulated and fully identified, can only mean the end of history” (128).

Whereas the first two parts of Queer Gothic show how the rumbling intellectual currents of the literary gothic prefigure later developments in psycho-sexology, the final section of the book, “Gothic Fiction and the Queering of Culture,” investigates how gothic conventions “are reimagined after an age of sexology and psychoanalysis renders so much gothic material either delusional or pathological or both” (4).   Considering a selection of late gothic fiction spanning the 1890s to the 1990s, Haggerty provides further evidence that the gothic novel should hold a special status in the history of sexuality.   The structure of his book, in fact, lays emphasis on the complexity of the conversations about sexuality in gothic fiction both before and after the bottleneck, so to speak, of psycho-sexology.   Fittingly, in the first chapter of this section, Haggerty describes how Henry James and Shirley Jackson carry on a dialogue both with psycho-sexological and earlier gothic traditions in their novels The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House .   This triangulation of ideas not only brings about a thick description of “hysterical response” that Freud himself could envy, it also leads to a nimble refashioning of the gothic heroine, in particular by making the “cultural terms” of her victimization clear (149).   Haunted by an intimacy always already lost because heteronormative culture precludes it, James’s and Jackson’s heroines embrace the death drive as the only figure of their desire.   The second chapter moves on to analyze the closet as a figure of loss in James’s The Ambassadors and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley , eventually pausing to reflect on Anthony Minghella’s film adaptation of the latter. If the closet forces James’s Lambert Strether and Minghella’s Tom Ripley to rechannel their desires into normative identification, they experience their success at doing so as a loss, as a failure to realize their homoerotic desires in an “open and healthy way” (184). Highsmith’s Ripley, by contrast, achieves no such self-knowledge and engages to the end in a “flight from himself” (184). Haggerty concludes this section with a chapter examining “how the homoerotic bonds that surface everywhere in Rice’s Vampire Chronicles function as a part of the self-consuming culture that has produced them” (186). In Haggerty’s view, Rice’s novels queer culture in the sense that they open up a voyeuristic but ultimately safe space within culture for the consumption of the sexual other:

Rice’s vampires express culture’s secret desire for, and secret fear of, the gay man, the need to fly with him beyond the confines of heterosexual convention and bourgeois family life to explore unauthorized desires and at the same time taste his body and his blood, to see him bleed and watch him succumb to death in life. (187)

Haggerty maintains that while Rice superficially bestows credibility on alternative sexualities, her fictions actually marginalize same-sex desire as a corrupter of culture and enemy of the family.

Queer Gothic at times reads like a series of loosely connected essays, but the type of ambitious prospecting work Haggerty undertakes in trying to establish the relevance of gothic fiction to the history of sexuality both deserves and rewards a generous reading.   His provocative critical vision, which brings historiography and genre study into an uneasy and productive relation, lays the groundwork for thinking of gothic fiction as a queer genre defined by its immanent conceptual engagements with the sexual subject.


[1]   Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York and London, 2004), 4. See also Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham and London, 2004), 1–32.