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Everybody Expects the Spanish Inquisition OR Happy Birthday “Monk” Lewis

July 9, 2014


Matthew “Monk” Lewis, one of the great one hit wonders of literary infamy, was born today in 1775,. Happy Birthday to him. The Monk was the sensation of a sensational decade, and one of the most 1790s novels ever. Lewis took a look at the concept of the Mediterranean Catholic Gothic, and really threw the kitchen sink at it.  The fact that it was the only novel that the appalling John Thorpe cared for in Northanger Abbey – is telling.

The Monk offers torture, tyranny, incarceration, necromancy, Satanism, nudity, incest and, above all, a prescent discussion of the psychological dangers of sexual repression. Let nobody suggest that Sigmund Freud was the first person to argue that sexual repression might have unforeseeable and destructive by products. Because back in the 1790s, Lewis created Ambrosio, as someone who is so tightly wound up that when he snaps, he snaps big time.  Ambrosio offers the gisly spectacle of the supreme failure of sublimation, someone who’s inability to acknowledge his own appetites becomes responsible for his own abject surrender to those appetites – someone whose rigid piety terminates (with a kind of hypnotic inevitability) with complete surrender to Satan.

The Monk also reminds us (in advance of Michel Foucault) that repression is productive, that repression creates discourses about sex. There is, after all, nothing sexier than repression, nothing more tantalising and exciting than sexuality ruthlessly and yet inefficiently suffocated.  It’s a book about potential energy, and the moment when everyone runs around in panic shouting “she’s gonna blow”!

Ambrosio is a volcano and The Monk is all about what happens when you try to put a small suffocate an impending eruption. It’s not great literature, and Jane Austen makes it clear that it’s on the very vulgar end of Gothic literature in Northanger Abbey. But Monk Lewis pushed the logic of Gothic to a point of perhaps necessary extremity. Happy Birthday to him.

(I have belatedly, very belatedly, realised that Monk Lewis and Ann Radcliffe shared a birthday.  Spooky.  Now wouldn’t that be the best joint birthday party ever?)


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