Sunday, 5 December 2010

A short(ish) history of the philosophy of the Gothically inclined

Morning, readers! Thanks for the comments, and just for visiting, as my stats are getting insanely high. =) I needed a bit of cheering-up this morning so thanks, guys, for putting a smile on my face.

So today I'm going to talk about that old chestnut, the Goth worldview (or mindset, outlook, or philosophy - whatever, you know what I'm talking about!). I touched on it briefly in an early post, but as the philosophy behind Goth is clearly a big part of what we are, not to mention WHY we are what we are, I thought I could spare the time to go into a little more detail.

Source: Photobucket
Let's re-cap a little - what IS the Goth worldview? You could say that it is the one thing, running deeper than fashion and even music, that partly defines a Goth. You will find whole forums, blogs and websites (including this one, I guess) devoted to working out what makes a Goth, 'Goth' - as in, what attracts these particular people to this music, this fashion, this scene?

This worldview is a way of thinking, of (surprisingly) looking at the world, adopted either deliberately, or as our natural state. It's what sparked within us that love of Halloween, of spooky things, of black lace and moonlit nights, ravens and romantic poetry, cemeteries in the snow and red, red roses. (And ray guns, of course, if you're a cybergoth.)

This dark outlook has appeared again and again throughout history - most noticeably during the Romantic Period and of course the Victorian era. Let's jump in the Wayback Machine (you know what - I have been itching to type that sentence for ages) and take a little look at some examples of the Goth philosophy through time.

The Visigoths and Ostrogoths
No, calling oneself a Goth does not mean, "OMG, you guys, I am totally a descendant of an ancient barbarian tribe from pre-Medieval Germany, for reals!!!" Otherwise there would be rather less Goths (or possibly more - admittedly I know very little about genealogy). But this is where the name of our subculture originates from, and thusly deserves a mention.

Take a Bite, the net.Goth handbook, says about the Goth tribes, "We like to think of them as a bunch of axe wielding, psychotic, rather good looking men and women, dressed in black, riding mighty war horses into battle, and eventually (axeidently) setting fire to Rome and bringing about the collapse of civilization and then going out for a beer. Philosophically speaking we have the beer and the desire to strike terror into the hearts of mortal man in common."

If you're still living at home this may not be the best example of Goth philosophy to show your parents, but it is a beginning, of sorts. However, I would like to point out that the outlook of most modern Goths probably involves less pillaging and setting things on fire (although the thing about the beer may be true).

Moving on.

Medieval times (aka the Dark Ages)
Many of today's Goths have a strong interest in Medieval times - from the legends of King Arthur (how many Goth girls don't have a 'little black Morgan le Fay dress' hidden somewhere in their gloomy wardrobes?) to the real-life tales of knights in shining armour and other romantic ideas of chivalry, alongside the accompanying darkness of superstition and plagues, at a time when the Church was in direct and brutal opposition to the old Pagan religion. Goth's idea of this time period may also be more fantastical, incorporating swords, sorcery and dragons to an era already rife with myth.

In many cases romanticism is the backbone of Goth philosophy - courtly love, the romanticised idea of death, etc. The Medieval period brings us legends of magic and the supernatural, which combined with Goth's tendency towards a strong imagination and love of the fantastical makes it easy to see why this period holds such fascination for so many of us. It is a blending of darkness and light combined with fantasy - an intoxicating combination that could be used to describe Goth itself.

The Romantic Period
This portion of history was filled with pure decadence - absinthe, opium, flowing shirts and poetry. The Goth love of opulence and decadence is still very much in effect (absinthe-scented or flavoured perfumes and lip balms are common in the Goth scene - I like Absynthe by Christian LaCroix at the moment - as is the drink itself, albeit minus wormwood, the original ingredient which made it so dangerous (and infamous). It contains the neurotoxin thujone, which had a nasty tendency to send people mad. Opium-themed scents are also popular.), and of course, there are those in the scene that do partake in hedonistic indulgence of both the legal and the not-so-legal kind. (While quite a few Goths are anti-drugs, like any other scene there are those who do like to melt their brains on the weekend...)

The Romantic Poets are described by Take A Bite (yes, them again) as having 'a strong sense of individuality within the identity of their peer-group'. Sound familiar?

The Victorian Era
The Victorian period is often thought to be more inspirational to the aesthetics of modern Goth than its philosophy, but I disagree. Whilst the Victorians did their best to act stiff, stern and aristocratic, they had a certain gleeful morbidity which shows in much Victorian artwork and in various forms of entertainment (particularly for the lower classes) such as the Penny Dreadfuls and freak shows.

Also, many of the books that are said to define the Gothic genre were written during this period, such as Bram Stoker's Dracula. And who could forget Queen Victoria, devoted wife and mother who wore mourning black for FORTY years after the death of her beloved husband?

I would say that our philosophy takes on board Victorian-style playful morbidity (for how different is collecting fake skulls to collecting Penny Dreadfuls?) and combines it, in some cases, with their aristocratic elegance. Death was never far away from the Victorians - you could almost say that it dogged their every step. Many Victorian mourning traditions live on in the Goth scene today - not just after death, but at all times. For example, the wearing of black, and veils. Some Goths I know write on black-edged stationery - this was used in Victorian times to give notice of a death.

The Lost Generation
As a commentor below helpfully pointed out, my jumping about through history completely missed the 'Lost Generation' of the 1920s, a term used either to describe a group of writers including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein who were known for rejecting the typical values of the American post-war society. It is also sometimes used (particularly in the United States) to describe the entire generation that came of age during this time.

Following the carnage of World War I, these writers and young people were disillusioned by the news of all the good, innocent youths who had perished on the front line, and they felt that society had become intolerant and unspiritual. They no longer had faith in traditional moral guidelines - 'if you do good, good things will come to you' - and were thereby 'lost'. The writers of the Lost Generation often criticized materialistic American culture in their stories.

As MissGracie points out in the comments below, "Goth and punk have a similar cynical, somewhat angsty, outlook."

Angsty? Us?

Anarchy in the UK
Well, if it wasn't for punk - and more particularly, post-punk - then the Goth scene in its current form would never have come about. Something which strikes me as strange is the fact that many of what we consider the 'original' Goth bands shun the Goth label, and even the scene itself... perhaps underlining the fact that Goth is one of the most isolated and unaccepted alternative subcultures, even today.

Punk is famed for its wild energy and anarchistic attitudes (something in common with the Ostrogoths and Visigoths perhaps?). These anti-conformist qualities are still visible today in some areas of the Goth scene, for example DIY and in some cases offensive fashion (e.g. fetish, offensive slogans), and fashion and music styles such as trad Goth and deathrock, but on the whole we don't seem to have borrowed overmuch from the subculture from which we originated.

Goth and punk nowadays are two very different scenes. Like distant cousins.

Dandy highwaymen
New Romantic is related to Goth by way of aesthetics - the visual drama and flamboyance of this scene and its members (e.g. Adam Ant) lending to the appearance of Goth in its current form. But there again is the underlying philosophy - a penchant for dramatics, and a love of beauty in all its forms (particularly the most unusual).

Goth itself
One of the most suprising elements of both Goth culture and philosophy is its cheerfulness and sense of humour. From the bounciest of perkygoths to the dry wit of Goth-club-fashion-snarking, Goth is actually quite a light-hearted subculture, perhaps balancing out the darker elements of its own philosophy.

Is it natural for some people to be more, shall we say, Gothically inclined? Yes, I think so. Just as in the Romantic Period some people were drawn to writing despairing, hopelessly romantic poems of unrequited love, and during the Victorian Era some toyed with ouija boards, holding seance parties in darkened rooms; in modern society, well, some people are Goth. Some seem to just be naturally drawn to 'darker things'.

Goth is dramatic, decadent, opulent, anti-conformist, fantastical, romantic, and most of all - fun. Goths tend to be people who can appreciate these qualities and both enjoy and admire the dark twist that Goth's black-tinted lenses put on life. Perhaps Goth would not be considered quite so shocking and possibly repellent to mainstream society if it was more widely known or acknowledged that fragments of what makes up Goth culture have been noticed, enjoyed and even celebrated throughout history.

Listening to: In the Winter Garden - Rising Shadows (that's a link for free download...)


MissGracie said...

You could also mention the "Lost Generation" of the 1920s. They criticized and mocked the superficial, materialistic culture in the 20s and bemoaned how terrible it all was. I would say that Goth and Punk have a similar cynical, somewhat angsty, outlook.

ultimategothguide said...

Thanks very much, I will do so =)

Nox Artemis said...

Hiya Amy!
Now, the one thing that gets me going (and I don't mean that I get insanely enraged or anything, but it's a topic that I research often) is how people seem to put this barrier up between the era of Romanticism and the Victorian era, since all that the Victorian era really was was a reign of certain European monarch which focused on political and social changes more, while Romanticism was an actual aesthetic movement that spanned over the reign of several monarchs, including that of Queen Victoria. Yet, people tend to lump the fashion styles of the Georgian and Regency Eras into a single category called "Romantic", usually disregarding their views on death, while the Victorian era, although unique as any era of fashion, gets the credit for creating this morbid outlook on life, even though the Georgian/Regency era had much of the same outlooks on death(which was to, basically, dramatize and romanticize death). But I suppose the mid to late 1800s was most remembered for its focus on death because Queen Victoria was the one who made it popular (the 19th century style of mourning is often called "hysteric mourning" XD).

So, shouldn't Victorian goth be, in the least, regarded as a subset of the romantigoth, since the views on death and decay became a key theme in Romantic era music, paintings, and literature?

Alas, this is a pretty open-ended topic, and I don't go coo-coo nuts over it, but it is something I ponder about often. :) (Didn't mean to sound lecture-y, as what I just rambled about probably wasn't even what you were getting at. XD)

ultimategothguide said...

@ Nox Artemis - intriguing! I have to admit I'm not hugely well educated about the Georgian and Regency eras; but funnily enough I have always thought of Victorian Goth as a subset or at the very least a close relative of romantigoth, and I'm sure that I must have read such somewhere for me to hold this view.

But yes, I agree, and I may brush up on this topic as I think it's worth doing a full post about at some point. Thank you!

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