Pale were the lips I saw,
Pale were the lips I kissed, and fair the form
I floated with, about that melancholy storm.
From “A Dream, after reading Dante’s Episode of Paolo and Francesca”
by John Keats
We can see them from time to time walking even in the streets of Czech cities. They are usually young, dressed in strange, mostly black clothes with determinedly grim and sad expressions on their faces. They have strange interests and flock together to engage in them. They call themselves goths and carry with them the cultural baggage left to them by generations of artists, writers and enthusiasts that preferred the world of darkness to the world of light and chose to create and live in it. The gothic tradition has lasted more than two hundred years – and that only if we count it from the beginnings of the gothic novel – and it has attracted a huge following during all those years. In late 1970’s these followers eventually proudly professed and founded the gothic subculture. Later this first impulse was slowly evanescing, but it was revived with new strength in early 1990’s. This subculture soon spread all over the globe and it still exists today, although in some countries, like the US, UK and Germany, its influence is greater than in others.
Goths might be almost invisible in this country and the echoes of the gothic literature almost imperceptible in Czech literature, but they have been an omnipresent shadow in the culture and society of the US for more than twenty years now. Yet it is as if nobody really sees them; as if they were really living ghosts without substance. They are there, though, and even if their numbers certainly rise and fall with different fads of fashion, they have never completely disappeared from the scene since their emergence as a subculture.
The gothic in American literature has been acknowledged, researched and endlessly discussed about, the gothic elements in American cinema and art as well. However, the avid followers of this trend that freely decided to actually live according to the gothic aesthetic go largely unnoticed and even unrecognized. So far, they have been only noticed in times of trouble at high schools as a possible “bad influence” on violent or suicidal teenagers. Although there are goths in all parts of the US (if we are to believe the lists of gothic clubs and events and the nation-wide concern about them) and the subculture has been around quite long enough to prove that it is not only a temporary fashionable whim, this interesting cultural phenomenon has not been investigated yet nor fully introduced into the field of American Studies.
The main goal of this diploma thesis, then, is to put together basic information about the gothic subculture in the US with special attention to the latest developments and actually prove its very existence and relevance. Since the topic is very broad, we have to narrow it down. We have to choose only some basic aspects of the subculture, describe them and analyze them. First, we need to explain the meanings and cultural connotations of the name of the subculture, so that we can begin to understand what the name implies in Anglo-Saxon context and what is therefore inseparably connected to the subculture. Also, in order to introduce the topic, we have to present a brief history of the term and of gothic subculture itself based on available sources.
If we want to bring a fuller picture of the subculture and prove its vitality, it is also necessary to somehow include the actual people that it is concerned with – the American goths, to show that there are really people in the US that identify themselves as goths. Although our subject of study is not available to us for direct investigation, in other words, we simply cannot interview American goths in person, we can still make American goths talk to us through their writings published on the internet. These texts will show us, as well as the interviews would, what goths are really like and how they see themselves.
Gothic internet has been only growing, since internet first began to be used by the public, and it has become an integral part of the subculture by now. Therefore there is a plenty of diverse material for the study of the subculture available there. In fact, this diversity and huge quantity of the materials is a problem by itself. There are so many kinds of websites and so many forms of expression that goths use, that it might get easily confusing. Therefore, in order to make the thesis as clear and comprehensible as possible, it was necessary to sort the material from the internet and find the form that would be most useful for our purposes. It was not gothic poetry, gothic fashion tips, gothic music nor gothic humor. It was the texts that goths wrote about their own subculture that proved to be the perfect material for the study. The main reason is that they are not only sources of information (rather unreliable, though), but more importantly, they show us what goths think about themselves or even – and that is the trickiest part - how they want to be presented and perceived.
Four such texts were chosen and they are presented in full in the appendices together with screenshots of the respective websites and illustrative photographs of gothic bands. Four might not seem too many, but as all of the texts contain not only straightforward information, but also hints and significant omissions etc., there is still enough to analyze. The authors of these texts express their opinions about the subculture and they all make their own choices as for what to include or only allude to and what approach to take. This is the only aspect of this line of research that is significantly different from actually doing interviews. It is them – goths – who decides what they will talk about. We have no benefit of even asking all of them the same questions. Therefore we have to handle the texts with caution because, like all texts, they can manipulate the readers. We will be looking at each text in turn and try to analyze it in terms of content, style and possible hidden meanings. We will also compare them and find any common themes in them. With the help of these texts written by American goths, we can try to understand better what it means to be a goth and how goths themselves interpret the subculture and its origins.
Another reason why internet plays such an important part in this work is that there are almost no writings of academic standard on gothic subculture available. And if there are, they are not suitable for us for various reasons. It is only natural because the gothic subculture is only a minor subculture and although its peculiarity and uniqueness should have drawn the attention of scholars of different fields right from the beginning (for there exists a great interest in the literary gothic as mentioned above), it simply did not happen. However, before starting the actual analysis, some of the works that served as an inspiration or, on the contrary, showed a way that should not be taken should be mentioned.
Despite the general lack of interest in the gothic subculture, in recent years, several authors and even scholars dedicated themselves to the study of it. There are several works that attempted to map the subculture and although they are quite extensive, they still failed at provoking any sort of greater academic debate or receiving recognition. One exception is Paul Hodkinson’s book Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture. He conducted a research that involved interviewing more than a hundred British goths. Although his book is mainly focused on the gothic subculture in the 1990’s in the UK, Birmingham area, Hodkinson asks some important questions about the nature of the subculture and about the people who join it. Hodkinson actually became an expert on the topic, so far the only one that is recognized in his academic field.1 The only problem of this book is that the research was done in the UK and even though the gothic subcultures in different countries have many things in common, we cannot apply conclusions (especially those involving specific problems like the media portrait of goths) made about the subculture in the UK on the subculture in the US. Therefore we cannot use this book directly as a source, but only as a reference.
Another, less serious, attempt to explore the gothic subculture is the book Hex Files: The Goth Bible by Mick Mercer. He also wrote several more books, each of them dedicated to a slightly different aspect of the subculture. Mercer is focused on putting together as much information about the subculture world-wide as possible, creating a sort of gothic catalogues. His books are meant for the use of goths themselves, when they are looking for more information about the subculture in general or specific information about gothic clubs around the world etc. Although his work is very thorough, it is not based on seriously conducted research like Hodkinsosn’s and therefore not of real use for us. It can serve us as a guide, though.
Probably the most suitable in terms of direct connection to the American gothic subculture is a website called “A Study of the Gothic Subculture: An Inside Look for Outsiders.”2 It is again a sort of a catalogue of information about the subculture, sorted and accessible. The author, Alicia Porter Smith, started it as an answer to the critique of the gothic subculture that appeared in the local press of Salt Lake City area in 1990’s. Her project slowly grew bigger over the years and got to cover most, if not all, topics that the outsiders or even parents of young goths might be interested in. The best thing about it is that it is solely focused on American goths and it even deals with their relationship with the media, although mainly with the local press of the city of Smith’s residence. Smith claims that the contents of the website are based on research, but there are no interviews with goths or surveys, so the reliability of the facts she presents is doubtful. Therefore we cannot use this website as a valid source of information either, but only as another text written by a goth, although more extensive and serious than the texts chosen for analysis.
Searching for academic texts on gothic subculture, we will find that except for the above mentioned works, which are quite recent, there is nothing of any interest coming from 1990’s or earlier, except for newspaper articles here and there. The earliest serious texts or essays about gothic subculture and all cultural aspects of it are to be found in Gothic: Transmutations of Horror in Late Twentieth Century collection of writings, published to accompany an exhibition of contemporary gothic art in Boston, 1997. All the authors, including Joyce Carol Oates and Patrick McGrath, are interested in some aspect of the gothic and their essays are very insightful on the nature of gothic elements in culture. The gothic subculture itself resurfaces in several of the articles as something that has been around for some time and it is taken for granted that the readers know about it. Among the pictures of the exhibits, we can even find photographs of goths, so the readers can see real goths and gothic fashion in the book too.
Christoph Grunenberg, the author of the introductory essay3 and the editor of this collection, describes the gothic subculture quite in detail and relates it to all the other gothic art forms, as if the life-style – as he calls it - was a peculiar art form in itself. There is also a very interesting analysis of the roots of gothic rock “Bela Lugosi’s Dead and I don’t Feel So Good Either” by James Hannaham that traces it back to blues, the connection being the expression of pain. He then tries to find the reasons why this changed into the inclination towards outward theatricality and grotesqueness in gothic rock bands and gothic subculture in general. Hannaham’s observation about why goths insist on extravagant and provoking clothing, in other words, on showing their inner turmoil even on the outside, quite contrary to the blues singers, is simple, but goes straight to the core of the whole subculture: “They’ve dealt with their feelings of alienation from society by reinventing themselves as ‘monsters’.”4
This explains why fashion is so important for goths and also why they seem to be proud to be so different. Hannaham is suspicious, though, about their sincerity. However, one of his other arguments actually contradicts this suspicion because it shows that in a peculiar way goths use this “monstrosity” as a protection shield. It could also explain – especially to the critics of goths – how goths actually maintain their mental health intact and do not all end up committing suicides while dealing with death and horror as their main themes:
Goths, by turning death, madness and violence into archetypes, de-personalize their connection to horrific events. They position themselves as reporters or tour guides to the macabre, rarely its victims.5
That means that by focusing on the darker side of life and immersing themselves in thinking about death and other such morbid themes, they become insensitive to it and detached from it and therefore it does not horrify them and cannot hurt them anymore. All these ideas, although very enlightening, are applicable on gothic subculture in general and therefore we cannot say that these essays could really help us in getting to know American goths in particular. All in all, this book can be an inspiration for further research as it touches upon many topics related to the gothic subculture and it is one of the proofs that subculture was a vital force in the 1990’s.
Another relevant work written in 1990’s is a study of a subculture that exists simultaneously to the gothic and also embraces the darker side of life , but it differs from it in its emphasis on masculinity and aggression – the subculture of heavy metal fans. The book is called Metalheads: Heavy Metal music and Adolescent Alienation, written by Jeffrey J. Arnett. He interviewed a hundred young heavy metal fans from Atlanta and Cambridge (Mass.) and made conclusions about this subculture. His general observations on American teenage life are very much to the point and some of them could be applied to gothic subculture (at least to its teenage segment) as well such as:
American adults encourage their children toward independence, self-sufficiency, and individualism from an early age…for some adolescents, independence easily becomes loneliness, self-sufficiency may shade into isolation, individualism may take an alienated form.6
Arnett also uncovers other quite contradictory tendencies in how American parents bring up their children and teenagers. On one hand, they teach them to be individualistic, as mentioned above, but on the other hand, this partially takes the control over their children out of their hands. It is not only the parents, but the whole society that acts out such a contradiction: “Americans admire people who defy social expectations and social demands, who express their individuality to the fullest and seem not to care what others think.”7 Arnett expands on this idea of conflicting pressures as one of the possible reasons why teenagers seek escape from it.
After following this line of argument, he suddenly switches and turns his attention to the individual characteristics of the heavy metal fans he interviewed. He concludes in the end that the main reason why young people join such a subculture is not the educational style of American families or anything else outside the individual, but high “sensation-seeking” disposition of such adolescents. Also it remains a mystery, why Arnett is looking for a culprit rather than just trying to understand the phenomenon. Still, his work brings a lot of interesting ideas and materials that thanks to the closeness of these subcultures could be applied to gothic subculture as well. His research is also the only one done solely in the US and related to American culture and society. It could be a model for a similar research about gothic subculture. The only problem of Arnett’s approach is that he is looking at metalheads from a moralizing point of view and sees their subculture as threatening.
All these above described materials served as an inspiration and reference for this thesis. As we can see, information and ideas are rather scattered all over them. They also cover a whole range of themes and are of varying quality and reliability. Any of these themes could be individually researched, but before digging deep into the details we need to see the subculture in from an overall perspective. Since the gothic subculture is also quite an unknown and unexplored topic, there are also too many ways we can take to study it. Therefore we have to limit ourselves to some basics of the topic, which we did by focusing on the American gothic self-reflective texts on the internet.
Finally, it is also important to establish the terminology that will be used in this thesis. In the materials above or on the internet, we can find many terms and expressions that describe that “something” we are dealing with here. The goth “something” is referred to as life-style, outlook, aesthetic, community, urban tribe, gothdom, fashion statement, gang, scene etc. However, the term that is employed most frequently is subculture. From the etymology of the word, we might interpret it as a culture existing within another, larger culture. It does not oppose the larger culture such as is the case of counter-culture. We will also come across a debate whether gothic subculture should not be actually viewed as a counter-culture. Since there is a rather pejorative connotation attached to the term “subculture” (as in “drug subculture”) in English, the term is not strictly neutral either. Nevertheless, the original meaning is so close to what we need and it is so frequently used in other sources that the best will be to keep it too.
The meanings and Origins of the word “gothic” and the history of the gothic subculture
Before we start looking closely at the gothic subculture as it exists in the US today and as it was in the 1990’s, it is first necessary to explain the meanings and origins of its name, the cultural heritage it carries, especially in the Anglo-Saxon context, the special connotations it has in English and the way it became associated with this specific subculture. It will help us to understand the essence of the gothic subculture itself as well as its unique role within the American culture and society as a whole.
The word “Goth” or “Gothic” (at that time the form was “Guton” or “Goton”) was first recorded in the second half of the first century AD. The classical historians Pliny the Elder, Tacitus and Ptolemy mentioned in their works a Germanic tribe of this name that about the turn of the epoch resided south of the coast of the Baltic Sea. Their mythical homeland was supposedly the Gotland island, hence their name. They were renowned warriors, famous for their courage and “barbaric” cruelty. During the seven hundred years of their stormy recorded history they moved almost ceaselessly around Europe, waged war against other tribes and Roman Empire. They famously sacked the city of Rome, creating their kingdoms on the ruins of other civilizations. Goths contributed to the fall of the Western Roman Empire and troubled the Eastern. In 4th century AD, Goths became divided into Visigoths (Western Goths) and Ostrogoths (Eastern Goths) according to the part of Roman Empire where they were settled at that time. The last stronghold of their power – the Visigothic Kingdome on the Iberian Peninsula – was destroyed by the Muslim invaders in 711 AD.8 After the fall of their kingdoms, Goths as a nation or a tribe disappeared from European history for several centuries and only their name and ill fame survived.
Later, in the Renaissance period, Giorgio Vasari, an art historian from Florence, decided to use this tribe’s name to describe the architectonic and artistic style that was predominant throughout Europe between 12th and 15th century. He assumed wrongly that it originally came from Germany. Therefore - his assuming continued - it must have been the descendants of Goths who invented it. Besides, in Italian the word “gotico” meant and still means “barbarous” or “non-classical”9, so it was also sufficiently derogatory for his purpose. However, the truth is that it was the Cistercian monks in France who built the first buildings featuring the characteristic “Gothic” pointed arch and only later this style spread to Germany. Vasari found the gothic architecture coarse and confused and preferred the more refined and logical architecture of the Renaissance. His followers adopted his opinion, so that gothic architecture was condemned to centuries of neglect and was rehabilitated only in the Romantic period that discovered its beauty.10
The allure of the gothic spirit lay dormant for some time, but then the second half of 18th century saw the great and quite sudden rise of medievalism in England and the rest of Western Europe (Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria was built under the same influence). Family mansions, houses and churches were built in imitation of the gothic style, paintings of knights commissioned, and collections of medieval poetry published. The emblematic figure of this period was Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) who forged medieval ballads. When the fraud was discovered and he had no further success as a poet, he committed suicide, thus becoming a hero for the up-coming Romantic generation.
It is widely believed that medievalism was a reaction to neoclassical adherence to Greek and Roman models and to the Enlightenment in general. The classic models as a source of artistic inspiration were exhausted at this point and Middle Ages with their aura of mystery, chaos and at the same time romance seemed an appropriate substitute in accord with the new, less optimistic, spirit of the age. Moreover, the second half of 18th century was also full of ideological and political turmoil e.g. the French Revolution that first introduced the seeds of doubt about the redeeming power of human reason that had been the main focus of the previous era. The medieval craze went deep and lasted long. Nobody can say exactly when or if it ceased to exist at all because there is still a considerable number of Middle Ages enthusiasts in the world to this day, the most obvious among them being the historical reenactment societies11 and medieval fairs organizers.
Even at its beginning, medievalism was able to spur the emergence of new genres and new ideas about literature and art. In general, the focus now shifted to the individual and his/her psyche and emotions. The genre that was most closely connected to it was the gothic novel that appeared almost simultaneously with the new gothic architecture. Medievalism also heavily influenced the Romantic Movement in its themes and concerns. The images that it supplied kept their hold on poets well into the 19th century e.g. Lord Alfred Tennyson and his ballads.12
This renewed interest in medieval history and literature inspired many authors, among them John Keats in “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” to use medieval setting in their works. However, the afore mentioned new and specific literary genre – the gothic novel – used the features of gothic architecture and settings to the fullest in order to explore the deep recesses of the human psyche. The first English gothic novel was The Castle of Otranto, published in 1765 by Horace Walpole. The novel was a great success and Walpole had numerous successors such as Clara Reeve, Anne Radcliff, Matthew Gregory Lewis etc.13 However, the most famous of these early novels is undoubtedly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein(1818) written at the time when the tide of the gothic novels was already past its climax. It was so brilliant in using the gothic literary vehicle to hint at many problematic issues that it has never ceased to interest the readers and literary critics to this day.
The gothic novels typically featured a horrific story set in some secluded and old or exotic place such as a castle or a monastery, involving an innocent heroin, villain, and sometimes, but not always, some supernatural force or evil. In its themes it is mainly concerned with human capacity for evil and the manifestations of the subconscious such as dreams or hallucinations etc., but also with the position of an individual within the family and the society. At this stage, the term “gothic” was no longer only a name for the architectonic style of pointed arches or an infamous barbaric tribe, but it also described the bizarre and gloomy atmosphere of these books.
It was not long before the gothic influence reached the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and it began to thrive in the US. Charles Brockden Brown (1771 – 1810) who was America’s first professional writer also introduced the gothic novel into American literature. As castles and ruins were simply non-existent in America, Brown had to find equally gothic setting for his novels in the American landscape - a forest or a secluded estate.14 Apparently, America was a fertile ground for such literature and since then works by a number of important and critically acclaimed authors have been described as essentially gothic. The authors were ranging from the classics like E.A. Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James to “Southern gothic” authors like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty.
The first gothic novels were widely read and books of this type continued to reappear during the 19th century both in the UK as well as the US. This meant that the commercial success created steady demand for gothic literature and therefore many authors began to write it. The genre slowly deteriorated into a kind of popular entertainment that was represented in the UK by writers like James Malcom Rymer (Varney the Vampire, 1845), Mary Elizabeth Braddon (“Good Lady Ducayne,” 1896), Bram Stoker or Sheridan Le Fanu (Carmilla, 1872),15 but it still continued to attract even the highly accomplished writers, especially in its themes.
In the US, the bridge between the first gothic works and contemporary popular literature was provided by H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and his tales of psychological as well as supernatural horror such as “The Call of Cthulhu” or “The Rats in the Walls.”16 There were many American authors that continued to write in the same vein during the first half of 20th century. Their stories were still described sometimes as gothic, although the direct connection between gothic architecture and literature was at this time all but gone. The term gothic was usually only used to express the extreme and bizarre quality of these stories. Contemporary American bestseller writers such as Stephen King, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz or Tanith Lee follow in the footsteps of this tradition, but they introduce many new devices of their own and successfully blend different genres and styles. One of the reasons why they actually became best-selling authors is that horror and gothic horror fiction is still widely read in the US and its huge popularity is one of the cultural peculiarities of America.
Although the early English gothic novels have attracted masses of readers, we cannot condemn them as mere entertainment because, on the other hand, the themes and techniques they developed were an important inspiration for authors of high standing. Their offspring was, among others, Robert L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) or, in 20th century, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979). They continue to challenge the creativity of many new authors until today.
Even though the English gothic novel flourished mainly in late 18th and early 19th centuries, it had a long lasting impact on literature, mainly in the English-speaking world, but also in other countries, even in the Czech lands. The mysterious “romanettoes” of Jakub Arbes or the short story “The Vampire” by Jan Neruda both contain gothic elements. Gothic motifs, imagery and atmosphere come ever so often back to life even in art and literature of the 21st century (Miloš Urban’s Stín katedrály is a good example of this in Czech context).
The same enthusiasm for all things medieval that preceded the birth of the gothic novel also caused the new popularity of gothic architecture. Horace Walpole himself rebuilt his house on Strawberry Hill in gothic fashion and this eccentricity received a lot of attention from his contemporaries. From roughly 1730 until 1930 British and American architects were very keen on using different gothic architectonic features on public and private buildings. This style or rather movement was called the Gothic Revival,17 which is yet another cultural phenomenon connected with the term.
When the film era came, the popularity of gothic stories influenced the filmmakers as well. Horror films were produced already at the earliest stages of silent cinema. The first horror film was probably made by the Frenchman Georges Meliés in 1896 and it was called “Le Manoir Du Diable.”18 It was a story about the devil as the name suggests. However, undoubtedly, the most famous silent horror film is F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens,”19 which is in fact an unauthorized version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The introduction of such gothic images into films meant that also this new artistic discipline was included among the vehicles of expression where the spirit of the first gothic novels could be preserved and further developed.
Again for some time the word “gothic” had not been employed to describe something new until the late 1970’s. Then it appeared in several music magazines in the UK and musicians and journalists used it to describe the new direction which some bands’ such as Siouxsie & the Banshees, The Cure, Joy Division, and Bauhaus music was taking after the punk movement and music slowly began to decline. It is not clear whose idea it was to use this word for the first time to describe this new musical style, but it stuck and the musical genre is since then called gothic rock. It is believed that the name was chosen because the music was close to the gothic novel and its gloomy atmosphere. The fans of this music were the first goths who gradually created a whole subculture that soon ceased to be only centered around music.
The architectonic style is related to gothic rock and its subculture only via the gothic novels and their spooky castles and crumbling churches. The gothic architecture and other medieval paraphernalia are still present, though, in fashion and design created by goths. The very originators of the word – the Gothic tribe – have almost no connection with the subculture, but the name. You could find many detailed analyses of what the gothic rock music is like, but the simplest one is that it is based on punk in simplicity of melodies and instruments, but it is softer, gloomier, and atmospheric and you can usually dance to it. The lyrics tend to be quite sophisticated, philosophical or just sad and melancholic.
Gothic rock opened the door and through this door many new dark genres of rock music entered the scene such as new romantic, death rock etc. This trend seems to continue even until today, the newest invention being the gothic metal (bands like the Finnish HIM). Heavy metal - although quite dark as well - had different origins and from the beginning developed separately, although almost simultaneously with the gothic subculture. Therefore this ideological fusion has been made possible only recently.
However, gothic rock was not the only musical genre that became involved in the development of the gothic subculture. There was also a different kind of music evolving separately from rock music during the 1970’s. It was the electronic music represented for instance by the German band Kraftwerk. Although it was very different in essence from rock music, its somewhat impersonal and detached, thus not very optimistic, nature, made it perfect for the potential mixing with gothic rock influences, which occurred roughly in early 1980’s. Early on it was not really the music itself that was being mixed, but it was the themes and gloomy feeling, but later the guitars and synthesizers came together as well.
This possibility to mingle with other genres was probably the main reason why the gothic impulse that was brought about originally by gothic rock was successfully carried on by different and new genres and bands. This way, the subculture that originated from it managed to survive the “shallow 80’s” and it was revived again in early 1990’s in the US. The exact cause of this revival is not known, but probably it was a strange mixture of political situation in the world, fin de siècle anxiety, deepening of teenage cultural alienation and general exhaustion of contemporary popular culture. The revival of the gothic rock and gothic rock influenced music gave birth to a new wave of gothic subculture in the US and elsewhere, which consequently widened its influence all across the cultural spectrum even more than the first goths of the late 1970’s had managed. Elements of this culture permeated the US general popular culture and embedded itself in the consciousness of American public.
This new gothic subculture that was revived in the early 1990’s still exists in many European countries (including Czech Republic), but especially thrives in Germany – country with strong Romantic literary tradition of its own. Other “gothicized” countries include Australia, Japan, South America (Argentina and Chili), Mexico and, most importantly, the US. We can get the best overview of the diffusion of gothic communities all over the world, when we look at The International Gothic Club Listing,20 a constantly updated list of clubs with gothic events. The list of American clubs is especially long and it shows that even now, more than fifteen years after the second revival, the subculture still has a strong following in the country.
All the members of the subculture worldwide share some common ground (the common knowledge of gothic music, literature and films), but on the other hand, they might differ greatly from country to country or even city to city in their customs, opinions or appearance. Goths developed their own literature, fine arts, comic books, fashion, performance art and much more, but they also revived and rediscovered many older genres, writers and artists such as the Romantic and Victorian poets and old horror movies. The subculture derived its name from gothic rock, and its members are usually called goths. There are other variants like freaks, spooky kids, grufties in German, siniestros in Spanish, but all these are only used locally or individually. The best and probably the only comprehensive description of the subculture with some authority on American popular culture so far is to be found in St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture:
Although members of this youth subculture may differ in their own definitions, goth can be
characterized by a fascination with all things otherworldly, from vampires to magic and beyond. Like
punk, goth comprises a musical genre as well as an attitude, represented by somber acts like Bauhaus,
Dead Can Dance, Christian Death, and Faith and the Muse. Often perceived by the general public as
little more than “kids who wear black clothes,” the goth scene is in fact a fusion of attitudes stemming
from the sublime emotion of Romantic poetry, the macabre images of decadent Victorian poetry, and
the contempt for normative bourgeois complacency found in the punk movement. While it is true that
goth has been centered around themes of death and morbidity, what often goes unnoticed is goth’s sense
of humor – albeit a decidedly black one.21
We can see now that since the time when the word “Gothic” or “Goth” was first ever recorded, it acquired several other meanings in different languages apart from being a name of a tribe. Nevertheless, as the gothic novel was essentially an English genre, the meaning of the word in English was much more influenced by this fact than in other languages. To illustrate the difference between what the word means for a person from an English-speaking country and a person of different, but still European origin, we can look at Czech and English dictionaries and encyclopedias. We will see that it can mean much more for an American or English person than for a Czech person.
English dictionaries and encyclopedias in general contain more meanings and collocations of these words than the Czech ones. However, they often vary greatly in what they choose to include or exclude. The different years of publishing can be the cause because words and their meanings naturally evolve, but this does not always apply in the case of “gothic.” Some recent dictionaries surprisingly retain older meanings and fail to list the new ones.
The derogatory meaning of these words, close to the old Italian use that Giorgio Vasari made immortal applying it to medieval architecture, appears in some of the chosen dictionaries. Goths as a tribe must have gained quite an ill fame because their name came to mean in English “uncivilized or ignorant person” or “barbarous, uncouth”22 or “rude, uncivilized, or ignorant person, esp. one who destroys works of art. “23 So it seems almost synonymous in meaning to the name of Vandals, another infamous warrior Germanic tribe, whose name is now widely used to describe persons that destroy art and public property. This meaning, although archaistic, is still listed in a dictionary published as late as 1996.24
All the consulted dictionaries almost invariably mention the gothic architecture and art, Gothic language and gothic novel and horror films. The Encyclopedia Britannica published in 2002 lists all of these, but it does not include the subculture or the rock music style. It is quite unexpected with such great authority on general knowledge that it did not mention the gothic subculture as it has existed since the late 1970’s. Only the Macmillan English Dictionary also published in 2002 omits the “barbarous” meaning and adds:
2. Goth or Gothic a type of modern popular music that is loud and has a strong beat
2a. a type of fashion first popular in the 1980’s, in which people have black clothes, black hair, very white make-up and dark lipstick
2b. someone who wears Goth fashion and listens to Goth music
Macmillan acknowledges the new meanings and describes them quite accurately, but it is still considerably late, the subculture having emerged more than twenty years previously. However, it is now clear that at least some language experts already accept this new meaning and this way also acknowledge the existence of the subculture itself.
All these different dictionary entries relating to “Goth” or “Gothic” illustrate the complexity of cultural connotations of that word in English. The fact that it still acquires new ones is evidence of its frequent use and continuous adaptation to new circumstances. Another interesting fact and proof of constant reassessing of this word is that the usage of capital letters is inconsistent in these dictionaries. The logical solution is to write capitals only in cases when the word really has anything to do with Goths as a tribe,25 but it is difficult to establish the borderline where the “tribe” meaning ends and “non-tribe” meanings begin. The line is very fuzzy. Even members of the gothic subculture sometimes like to use capitals to underline the fact that they feel they are an “urban tribe”, but there is no rule for that either.
We have seen that the English dictionaries tend to vary greatly in their definitions, but the Czech dictionaries and encyclopedias are consistent in one thing: They all contain much the same definitions and explanations of “gothic” and there are only a few. The Czech Slovník cizích slov, 1994, and Akademický slovník cizích slov, 1995, explain only gothic architecture and art and Goths as a tribe, but do not mention anything else. Only the new encyclopedia Nové Universum, published in 2003, adds the gothic novel to the list. There is apparently nothing else worth mentioning that exists in the Czech context and could be put in a dictionary. Therefore, we have a right to assume that an average Czech person will associate the word “gothic“ only with the architectonic style or the medieval Germanic tribe and only an educated person will remember the gothic novel. On the other hand, for an English or American person it is connected to the architectonic style as well as to the horror literature, films and other works that became part of everyday culture for them. They can also remember that it meant “barbarous,” but this meaning does not appear in Macmillan, neither in Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (1995) so it seems that it is slowly disappearing. In other words, in Czech the word is usually used only in classroom, but in English it can be heard also in the street.
In conclusion we can infer that Czech and English-speaking people must inevitably have a different idea about the meaning of “gothic,” if we their dictionaries as evidence. Although Romanticism, medievalism and gothic novel also had influence in the Czech lands (remember the castle Hluboká and the poet K. H. Mácha), it apparently did not catch Czech people’s attention and remained only an academic, hence neutral, word.
Exactly for these reasons, the name of the gothic subculture implies much more meaning to an English-speaking person. It sounds more sinister and gloomier in an English-speaker’s ear. It encompasses all that is dark, mysterious and exalted. The name of the gothic subculture defines it most distinctively for its members as well as for the public. The name itself already implies certain concepts (and unfortunately also misconceptions) for the public, while members of the subculture deliberately impersonate these concepts. The name is thus truly “nomen omen.”
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