Horace Walpole – The Laughing Goth

It’s hard not to start with Horace Walpole (1717-1797) when researching the Gothic. His novella The Castle of Otranto he subtitled A Gothic Tale, and a few decades later critics, reviewers, and writers of Gothic stories pointed to him as a key influence. Lots of contemporary academic work still points to Castle of Otranto as the first gothic novel. Walpole was also a key figure in the architectural Gothic Revival of the mid- to late-18th century.

Once I started digging deeper in to Walpole’s writing and his life I was struck by a strong sense of recognition. Walpole’s most significant literary production were his letters. He was a prolific letter writer (the definitive collection runs to 38 48 volumes!) and in these letters he can come across as utterly contemporary. Part of this shock of recognition is also that he reads very queer. He reminds me a lot of John Waters. Arch, gossipy, smart, funny, bitchy, and not inclined to take himself seriously.

When Joseph Addison wrote dismissively of his fellow English he could have been writing about Horace Walpole (though slightly before Walpole’s time).:

“Our general Taste in England is for Epigram, Turns of Wit, and forced Conceits, which have no manner of Influence, either for the bettering or enlarging the Mind of him who reads them, and have been carefully avoided by the greatest Writers, both among the Ancients and Moderns. I have endeavoured in several of my Speculations to banish this Gothic Taste, which has taken Possession among us.” Addison, Thursday, June 19, 1712.

Walpole would take that Gothic taste and make it his own. He celebrated the epigram and wit, embraced anecdote, gossip, and witty one-liners. Walpole’s aesthetics weren’t driven by historical accuracy (though he was a noted antiquarian) but by personal joy, which included large doses of whimsy, humor, and absurdity.

Around the time he was renovating his Gothic chateau (Strawberry Hill House) his neighbors along the Thames were were also renovating. Walpole wrote:

“The country wears a new face; everybody is improving their places…. The dispersed buildings, I mean, temples, bridges, etc. are generally Gothic or Chinese and give a whimsical air of novelty that is very pleasing.”

This taste for whimsy and novelty is continually emphasized by Walpole but is often overlooked by his biographers. Perhaps by its utter ubiquity it’s not necessary to address.

In the following frontispiece commissioned by Walpole for his memoir of the reign of George II, Walpole is handing a sheaf of papers to Democritus, the laughing philosopher, and turning away from Heraclitus, the weeping philosopher. (The trope of having these two philosophers together (Heraclitus always weeping or sad, Democritus always laughing or happy) was common in this era.)

This frontispiece to Memoirs of George II shows Horace Walpole turning away from Heraclitus (the weeping philosopher) to had some pages to Democritus (the laughing philosopher). In the background is Walpole’s home, Strawberry Hill House.

(Holy Mackerel! As I am writing this I remember that Democritus is from Abdera! Horace Walpole is Abderitic!)

There’s an abundant amount of humor and whimsy in Strawberry Hill House, and his Gothic novella intoduces an absurd element in the second paragraph. The Castle of Otranto opens with a giant helmet falling from the sky and crushing the puny prince. A moment of absurd humor that would be noted by Andre Breton when he went searching for the forebears of surrealism.

Hmmm, I wonder if there are elements of humor/absurdity in post-Walpole Gothic lit I’ve missed? Probably? But I also suspect much of the tongue-in-cheek humor prized by Walpole evaporated from the genre as it developed later in the 18th century.

Happy New Year!

Hi all. I hope your new year is starting out well.

One of the tropes of blogging is to note how long it’s been since the last post and to make an earnest declaration to post more frequently moving forward. Let’s take that as a given and move on.

I’ve decided to make 2024 my Year of Gothic. Last summer I took a more-or-less random detour into Frankenstein and all things Frankenstein-related which sparked an interest in the gothic literature of the 18th and 19th century.

I’m allowing serendipity to guide my interests in this project. There are so many forking pathways to divert my attention and I believe this may occupy the whole of 2024.

Who even knows how much posting there will be this year. Not me! But with any luck I’ll share some of cool stuff I’m unearthing.

One pathway I won’t be exploring much is goth music of the late-20th century. Perhaps a post or two but I wager I’ll spend more time writing about elegiac poetry of the 18th century than Siouxsie or The Cure.

But that’s not for today. Today is to wish good health and much love to everyone. 2023 is gone and here’s to a better year in 2024!

An 18th-century engraving of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House

Austin Kleon’s Notebooks

Writer/artist/poet/collagist/speaker/inspiring internet dude Austin Kleon credits Lynda Barry with changing his artistic life.

Inspired by Barry and other artists, Kleon has developed his own notebook practice over the years. This guy is a really dedicated notebooker! He keeps THREE notebooks going at the same time (a logbook, a diary, and a commonplace diary). Here are his posts about his notebook practice.

In Syllabus, Barry recommends pasting/taping stuff into your notebook. She expects students to fill up 3 to 4 composition books over the course of a semester. Kleon similarly puts in lots and lots of stuff, from notes taken when listening to podcasts, to collages, notes to self, cartoons, doodles, & scribbles.

Here’s a more-or-less random example he’s posted online:

I notebooked from about 13 to 37, stopped from 37 to 53, and have been notebooking the last few years (~5ish). I don’t think I’ve ever completed the equivalent of 4 notebooks in a semester. (One a month?) I also wasn’t doodling, drawing, sketching, and scribbling so I’ll see if I can pick up the pace this cartoon sprummer.

Cartoon Number 1

First unforeseen challenge was trying to get my scanner to talk to my computer. I spent an hour doing network troubleshooting yesterday afternoon before giving up and deciding to use the scanner at work.

I didn’t want to ink over the pencil image in case I made a mistake. So, the following cartoon is inked over a photocopy of a penciled cartoon, which means there’s no pencil underlay to erase, which means it has a weird double-lining.

Anyway, this is my first attempt to create a cartoon avatar for myself.

Cartoon #1

Daily Diary

One of the reasons I wanted to return to Lynda Barry’s Syllabus is because I wanted to re-visit her daily diary method.

For this exercise you set aside 6 minutes and then spend 2.5 minutes listing things you did yesterday, then 2.5 minutes listing what you saw, then 30 seconds listing something you heard, and then 30 seconds drawing a quick sketch of something you saw.

I like the specificity of the of the exercise and how it helps me work at paying attention to the details in the world around me. After doing this for awhile I start to look for things for tomorrow’s daily diary. All of this helps build the attention muscles of the brain* (*brain may not have real attention muscles).

For example, here are some random papier-mache monster heads (Krampus!) I saw at the beer store yesterday. I can add that to my list of things seen, and maybe use it for a 30-second sketch.

In 2020 when I first read Syllabus I was not meditating. Now that I am I see how much mindfulness is built into Barry’s exercises. Her technique for getting the brain to slow down its chatter so the artist can pay attention to the page is to slowly draw a spiral.

That’s it.

Focus, draw a spiral, slowly, making the lines as close together as possible without touching. She starts the following writing exercise (a variation of the daily diary page called an x-page) with the spiral and a systematic awareness/relaxation technique to draw the artist away from their chatttering mind and into their body. (The embedded video is nearly a half hour – here’s a ~10 minute version.)

One of the mindfulness techniques I’ve adopted (also found in yoga) is this systematic scan of the body to locate tense spots, ease the tension, and to slow down the chattering mind. I also use the body scan as a way of helping me intentionally relax as I work on falling asleep at night.

Cartoon Sprummer

It’s summertime! Ok, not technically as far as hemispheres, axial tilt, and journeying around the sun, but culturally as spring semester ends and there are several toasty months until fall semester begins.

Today marks the middle of spring and I’ll be exercising my nascent drawing/cartooning skills by posting cartoons, sketches, drawings, etc. here on the blog until the middle of summer. (I wish we had a word for the times between the halfway points of seasons — sprummer?). I see this as near-daily to more-than-daily posts of, and about, cartoons and cartooning.

I attempted something similar to this in the spring of 2020 but the pandemic rearranged my brain (in a metaphorical/symbolic sense) and I dropped my drawing exercises.

My guide for this effort is Lynda Barry’s Syllabus. I read Barry regularly in the 1990s. Not by seeking her out, but because she was one of the random nutrients in my information diet at the time. She dropped off my radar at the turn of the century and popped back on my radar after she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2019.

As is the case with many adults, I’m embarrassed by my childish scrawls and crude drawings. Even as a child I never really went through a drawing phase. However, I’ve decided to trust in Professor Lynda and give it a shot for the next few months.

In between posts about cartoons and cartooning I’ll update you about my ASS (arbitrary stupid spirituality aka arbitrary spirituality system). Let the summer begin!

This Year’s Resolution

I am not one to pooh-pooh new year’s resolutions. I love them. Over the years I’ve had resolutions that changed my life in little ways and large. I’ve also had plenty that fizzled out before the first day of February. My resolution this year is to give myself permission.

I’m not exactly sure what that entails, but it’s my resolution nonetheless.

In June Jennifer bought me some ‘magic’ candles for my birthday. I’m not sure why candles promising harmony, or wealth, or creativity, or peace, or love delight me so much. Perhaps I’m charmed by the utter absurdity of an almost no-effort tool to change the universe.

One of the candles she gave me was Permission. My initial interpretation was to wonder what spirtual entity would give me permission if I burned it. Permission from whom? I let it linger while I burned the other candles. It was only in December it occurred to me — waitaminnit! This is not about getting permission from someone or something else, this is about giving myself permission! And so I decided to burn my permission candle at the beginning of 2023 and to make permission my 2023 resolution.

In 2023 I give myself permission to…

I doubt it will be only one thing for which I give myself permission, but the premise is promising and I’m looking forward to learning what sort of inhibitions might fall away.