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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

“Monk” Lewis, Mr. Coleridge, and Popular Taste

Matthew Lewis’ The Monk has been popular since its publication over two hundred years ago. A contemporary American may recognize the pleasure it yields as a “good read” and its secure place in the “Gothic novel” chapter of literary histories while feeling that the very qualities that make it enduringly popular bar it from what critics may regard as the more sublime higher reaches of Parnassus. Coleridge’s early review of the book [1] defines its strengths and weaknesses with considerable insight but his analysis is marred by his expressed distaste for the norms of popular art. Coleridge looks with condescension on characteristics that belong to popular art, failing to understand that reaffirming people’s received ideas is as great a part of literature as challenging them, and that the “cheap thrills” of the book are appropriate to its genre.

Coleridge’s essay does open with a consideration of the book’s widespread appeal, noting that “the horrible and the preternatural have usually seized on the popular taste, at the rise and decline of literature. Most powerful stimulants, they can never be required except by the torpor of an unawakened, or the languor of an exhausted, appetite. The same phaenomenon, therefore, which we hail as a favourable omen in the belles lettres of Germany, impresses a degree of gloom in the compositions of our countrymen.” One wonders whether this unabashed nationalism and condescension toward literary popularity can be unrelated to envy of the younger author’s higher sales.

After all, in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth had explained his own role in his collaboration with Coleridge as the description of “incidents and situations from common life,” though he sought “to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect.” In a clear division of labor, while his colleague sought to heighten the everyday, Coleridge took the opposite role of rendering believable “persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic.” [2] Coleridge’s own use of the fantastic, the miraculous, the sensational and the exotic, not to mention his enthusiasm for German literature might have made Coleridge a likely natural advocate for Lewis, yet his review of The Monk is decidedly ambivalent, and Coleridge strays toward hostility on the very point at which his ideas are least supportable. [3]

He suggests (with a rhetorical shudder of horror) that Lewis shows signs of being less than an orthodox Christian, based primarily on the novel’s passing ironic comments about the Bible’s tales of immorality. Coleridge is greatly concerned about this though, for some reason, he provides a reference to what strikes him as the dirtiest passage in scripture (Ezekiel XXIII). Probably the one line in the review that has attracted the greatest amount of attention is his claim that “the Monk is a romance, which if a parent saw in the hands of a son or daughter, he might reasonably turn pale.” Coleridge doubtless had in mind the not only the waggish comments on sexual themes in the Bible but also certain seduction scenes in the novel itself. Yet Monk’s jest about the Bible was flippant if daring and the author had, after all, consistently catered to British religious opinion in depicting Catholicism as superstitious and corrupt and foreign lands as realms of injustice and tyranny.

In the first place, Coleridge is of course out of step with contemporary standards which would find neither the religious opinions nor the erotic scenes (more often implied than enacted) objectionable. Further, many readers would consider Coleridge himself far from averse to the use of an appeal to the sensational. The more significant problem with this stricture, however, is that it belies the popular character of Lewis work, and the book was immensely popular. It went through edition after edition, both authorized and pirated, and inspired stage and film adaptations as well as an opera. Almost apologetically, Coleridge says that he has only come to write about the book because of “the unusual success which it has experienced.”

The reading audience, predominantly bourgeois and largely female, may have indeed been intrigued by the claims of Coleridge and the book’s other opponents. Lewis’ biographer drily notes that, the public had heard that The Monk was “horrible, blasphemous, and lewd, and they rushed to put their morality to the test.” [4] Indeed, criticism so abashed the author that he apologized to his family and his readers and expurgated later editions in a response to the opprobrium.

While high art often interrogates and challenges received ideas, popular literature typically reinforces them. To be truly popular a work may flirt with transgression in a titillating manner, but it must ultimately strengthen rather than overturn the reader’s preconceptions. While it is true that the redoubtable Marquis de Sade (whose Justine may have influenced Lewis and who may have been influenced in turn) [5] wanted to think Lewis’ book “revolutionary,” but in fact the author’s subsequent disavowal of such an aim was no more than candid.

Perhaps the most intensely erotic image in the entire book is the “daemon” conjured by Matilda: “It was a Youth seemingly scarce eighteen, the perfection of whose form and face was unrivalled. He was perfectly naked: A bright Star sparkled upon his forehead . . .” [6] Yet in spite of this clearly homoerotic image in a book full of cross-dressing and androgyny, the issue of homosexuality in lived experience never arises. This pattern is paradigmatic for The Monk as a whole. A sexy youth is a moment’s marvel. A joke about religion is only a joke. In the end, once the reader has relished scenes of women subjected to ravishment and naked appetite, the vicious suffer for their sins, Ambrosio most dramatically.

The reader thinks about Lewis’ attitude in parliament and in private business toward slavery. While claiming an enlightened “modern” attitude and opposing slavery at home, the inheritor of sizable Indies plantations wished to maintain ownership of his own slaves. In the end, though more liberal than some, he took his position with the ruling class.

Carnival thrill houses and horror films likewise must provide carefully regulated safe fear for people’s amusement in precisely the same way that sentimental stories like “tear-jerker” movies evoke strong but shallow levels of emotion. Lewis’ extravagant evocation of the supernatural as spectacle has a different character sixty years after the statute against witchcraft was repealed, when most educated people no longer believed in ghosts or sorcerers or raising the devil. Lewis may achieve Guignol-style shocks (such as Agnes holding the body of her baby), but he never rises to the true tragedy of Marlowe’s Faustus. Ambrosio, in contrast, can excite only curiosity and perhaps, from the soft-hearted, pity. He is a singularly weak diabolist, constantly wavering and acting more out of impulse than decided will.

Ambrosio’s character strikes Coleridge as deeply implausible, and here he has a point. He finds the transition from a “man who had been described as possessing much general humanity, a keen and vigorous understanding, with habits of the most exalted piety” into “an uglier fiend than the gloomy imagination of Dante would have ventured to picture” altogether incredible. To Coleridge the monk’s character lacked a sufficient “semblance of truth . . . to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith.” [7] It is surely a fact that Ambrosio is a two-dimensional slave to the narrative, though this is generally the case in popular genres (and in folk stories where character depth is nonexistent).

The enjoyment of naughty stories that conclude with the most conventional of morals extends from the account of hot times in Sodom in the medieval Pearl-poet’s Clannesse through Moll Flanders and Reefer Madness. Coleridge faults this technique, claiming that Lewis has gone too far. “The sufferings which he describes are so frightful and intolerable, that we break with abruptness from the delusion, and indignantly suspect the man of a species of brutality, who could find a pleasure in wantonly imagining them.” Such righteous indignation only flare the higher if the indignant reader is aware of his own participation in sado-masochistic pleasure.

Coleridge says that in a book like The Monk “the order of nature may be changed wherever the author's purposes demand it . . . For the same reasons a romance is incapable of exemplifying a moral truth.” He might more generally have said that a romanced cannot support a theme implying something about lived experience, as it need not coincide even with a single person’s impression of reality. With the inclusion of supernatural cause and effect, “all events are levelled into one common mass, and become almost equally probable, where the order of nature may be changed wherever the author's purposes demand it.” This allows a certain irresponsibility for which the compensating value must be neither more nor less that its “having given pleasure during its perusal,” what moderns might call a beach or an airplane book. With the same envious condescension a professor might use in ridiculing Stephen King, he comments on the cheapness of the Gothic: “the public will learn . . . with how little expense of thought or imagination this species of composition is manufactured.” “Figures that shock the imagination, and narratives that mangle the feelings, rarely discover genius, and always betray a low and vulgar taste.

Vulgar it may be in the literal sense, but, as Seldes said, outstanding popular art is far preferable to mediocre high art. Though Coleridge conceded that Lewis displayed “an imagination rich, powerful, and fervid,”(and that last adjective suggests pathological excess), he failed to understand the role of popular literature. People have always demanded such work, filled with sensation as contemporary popular movies are filled with cars crashing through windows and glimpses of naked breasts. Such pandering does indeed correspond to themes that reinforce rather than challenge the reader’s ideas, but this, too, is an important role of art. Popular art like Lewis’ The Monk transmit culture no less than oral folk-tales in preliterate societies. Though powerful art always contains ambivalences, mysteries, and contradictions, such cues suggesting a critical attitude toward what “all the world” thinks have only recently come to the fore in the narratives people have always invented to occupy their leisure. The Monk is indeed unrealistic and sensational; these are appropriate generic characteristics. It titillates readers into thinking it transgressive while in fact reinforcing their pre-existing opinions.

1. Coleridge, review of Matthew G. Lewis, The Monk, The Critical Review, Feb. 1797, pp.. 194-200. Oddly Coleridge in this review refers to the main character as Antonio, not Ambrosio. Subsequent references to this same review will not be separately noted.

2. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Ch. XIV.

3. There is little doubt that Wordsworth would have shared Coleridge’s opinion of The Monk. In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads he frames his project in direct opposition to what he considers the coarsening of taste which he attributes to urbanization and which has resulted in a “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation.” He would surely have considered Monk one of those writers have supplied the public’s desire through the “application of gross and violent stimulants.”

4. Peck, Louis (1961). A Life of Matthew G. Lewis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 28.

5. Horner, Avril. European Gothic: A Spirited Exchange 1760-1960. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 39 ff.

6. Chapter 7.

7. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Ch. XIV.

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