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Neophilia and nostalgia

The trouble with gentrification

Lisa Mullen

This chapter examines narratives about uncanny objects which disrupt private domestic space, focusing in detail on two novels: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1948) and Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue (1953).

Both authors were interested in a domestic gothic in which lost, dazed and traumatized characters must negotiate with the things they chose – or chose not – to surround themselves. Bowen’s novel – and the short stories she wrote concurrently and published as The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945) – depict the domestic spaces of wartime as stripped of personality and affect, while the people who haunt them are made spectral by the abolition of the present tense in a city under aerial bombardment, which leaves only ‘a grinding-together of past and future’.

The abolition of temporal order inspired narratives about superannuated objects which push insistently through the membrane of linear time in order to trouble the present. Eerie antiques become reservoirs of authenticity and value, and Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue is read as a critique of post-war gentrification, and the disruption of value and history that it entailed. The gentrified and haunted chaise longue weaponises its own narratological power, and the gothic intimacy it achieves attests to the change that took place in the relationship between women and things in the mid-century.

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Series:

Edward Legon

Moving beyond oral culture, this chapter identifies a rich vein of what is referred to as mis-commemoration after the Restoration: the failure to live up to the government’s expectations of behaviour on the anniversaries of the regicide (30 January) and the Restoration (29 May). Various explanations are offered for mis-commemoration, such as dissenting quibbles with episcopacy and Anglican worship, the extent to which the days accentuated political and religious protest, concerns about the extent to which the anniversaries were used to lambast Dissenters, and, drawing on previous chapters, disagreement about the Royalist interpretations of the recent past to which the days lent themselves.

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Mid-century gothic

The uncanny objects of modernity in British literature and culture after World War II

Lisa Mullen

Mid-Century Gothic defines a distinct post-war literary and cultural moment in Britain, lasting ten years from 1945 to 1955. This was a decade haunted by the trauma of fascism and war, but equally uneasy about the new norms of peacetime and the resurgence of commodity culture. As old assumptions about the primacy of the human subject became increasingly uneasy, culture responded with gothic narratives which reflected two troubling qualities of the newly assertive objects of modernity: their uncannily autonomous agency, and their disquieting intimacy with the reified human body.

This book offers original readings of novels, plays, essays and cinema of the period, unearthing neglected texts as well as reassessing canonical works. The post-war decade has often been defined either as the bathetic terminus of high modernism, or as the stiflingly hidebound context from which later countercultural and avant-garde movements erupted. Yet historically, this was an important and resonant cultural turning point, as still-fresh war trauma intersected with new paradigms of modernity. By looking beneath the surface of its literature and culture, it is possible to resurrect a sense of this decade as a moment of urgent cultural crisis, rife with repressed tensions which could only be expressed in a gothic mode.

By bringing these into dialogue with mid-century architecture, exhibitions, technology, and material culture, Mid-Century Gothic provides a new perspective on a notoriously neglected historical moment, and paints a picture of a decade roiling with intellectual and aesthetic upheaval.

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Machines and spectrality

The gothic potential of technology

Lisa Mullen

This chapter presents a new reading of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and unearths its latent gothicism by examining it within the context of the mid-century philosophies of the mind, scientific experiments in neurology, and the technological applications of cathode-ray imaging.

The chapter begins with a discussion of how new types of telepresence began to disrupt spatial and temporal order in the mid-century, producing an uncanny effect that supercharged both material objects and abstract images with gothic possibility. Via an analysis of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) as a meditation on the links between radio, spectrality and neurology, the chapter proffers a detailed examination of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as a mid-century gothic text. It shows how the panoptical medium of the novel’s telescreens challenges the recursive historicism of old objects.

The mind control of the Thought Police is considered in the light of mid-century theories of mind, including the philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s empiricist description of consciousness in The Concept of Mind (1949), and the work by the neurologist William Grey Walter, and the thought experiments of Jacques Lacan, and Alan Turing’s computing breakthroughs.

Finally, the chapter returns to the cathode-ray screen as a domestic object, tracing the way television invaded and disrupted private space, and critiqued its own uncanny technological agency.

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Lost in translation

Migrant bodies and uncanny skin

Lisa Mullen

The 1946 exhibition of artefacts from the newly excavated Sutton Hoo ship burial presented the grave-goods as the cenotaph of a chieftain whose body was missing. New questions arose for a generation scarred by the absence of those killed in the war: if the residual charisma of long-buried objects could even fill in for an absent king, what kind of power might be invoked by the objects of modernity, which surrounded and interpellated the post-war consumer?

While the Sutton Hoo hoard evoked the pharoahic glamour of status and wealth, exhibitions mounted in the early 1950s by Barbara Jones and the Independent Group challenged the verticality of aesthetic systems of taste and value. Jones’s 1951 exhibition of popular art, Black Eyes and Lemonade at the Whitechapel Gallery, brought mass-produced objects – sweets, retail packaging, souvenirs, kitsch – together with unsettling one-offs like taxidermy specimens and tattooing patterns, into the space of art.

Skin is also made uncanny in Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, in which a mid-century post-colonial gothic emerges via the hypervisibility of newly arrived people of colour. A new sense of home and what it means to belong in a city is also elaborated in the work of the Independent Group, and in Lorenza Mazzetti’s film Together.

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Edward Legon

This chapter locates seditious memories in legal records and government papers. In doing so, the ways that sympathies for Parliament and the Republic were expressed in England and Wales are outlined. These include justification of, identification with, and nostalgia for opposition and resistance during the 1640s and 1650s. They are also shown to include ‘prospection’, or the imagination of the restoration of Parliamentarianism and republicanism in the future. The chapter finishes by demonstrating that seditious memories are likely to be representative of a wider body of opinion after the Restoration.

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Introduction

‘Remember the Good Old Cause’

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Edward Legon

This chapter situates the book within existing historical interest in how the wars and revolution in Britain between 1637 and 1660 were remembered during the remainder of the seventeenth century. It is argued that existing work has largely overlooked the diversity of opinions about the civil wars and, thus, the existence of a wellspring of alternative, pro-Parliamentarian and pro-republican ‘seditious’ memories. In order to uncover these seditious memories, the chapter suggests moving away from Restoration print culture to evidence of oral culture, such as can be found in legal records and government papers.

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Introduction

‘The world of things’: an introduction to mid- century gothic

Lisa Mullen

The introduction begins with a sketch of the 1951 Festival of Britain exhibition on the South Bank, describing how this politically disputed and semantically overdetermined space was emblematic of the mid-century decade which produced it. A playground of ideas and disruptive potential, it told stories about unruly objects that modelled a kind of categorical recalcitrance by which subjects, too, might reassert their autonomy within the overwhelming discourses of commodification and reification which prevailed in mass culture.

T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), is cited as an example of the stagnant schema of cultural hierarchy which mid-century gothic opposed, and which this book will dismantle. A discussion of the dialogical relationship between gothicism and modernity situates the book in relation to Freud’s Unheimlich, Lukács’s concept of reification, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s defense of enchantment in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie. This section lays out the principal qualities of mid-century gothic: the troubling agency, and the uncanny intimacy, of the objects of modernity. These ideas are then put into practice in a radical reading of Marghanita Laski’s sentimental 1949 novel Little Boy Lost.

Finally, the introduction asks: how would the norms of society be redrawn by the upheavals of the post-war moment? Would value and authenticity lose their meaning? Would codes become illegible? Would objects break free of the present and begin to bleed history?

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Conclusion

Burying the good old cause

Series:

Edward Legon

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Conclusion

Beyond the mid-century

Lisa Mullen

What became of mid-century gothic? As the 1950s progressed, its warnings about alien objects capable of infiltrating and intervening in the human realm were soon drowned out by the normative bellow of advertising and mass culture, and a new appetite for distracting pleasures took hold. An early example of this attitude can be seen in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954). Jim Dixon’s epiphanic yet tautological realisation that ‘nice things are nicer than nasty ones’ marks the moment when this turn begins in British literature. Non-commodities like rubble, junk and bombs recede from view; Dixon’s proto-countercultural rebellion is expressed in terms of a restless need for hedonic fulfillment which was arguably less subversive than the mid-century’s emergent critique of consumer desire.

Dixon is the archetype of a generation unhaunted by postwar trauma, and his insistence on grasping the available pleasures of the now is traced through Roland Barthes’s Mythologies (1957), Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964), and Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker.

Contemporary culture is increasingly alert to the power of autonomous digital objects, and uncanny agency and alien intimacy continue to focus our anxiety wherever the animate and inanimate become intermixed or interchangeable.