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Metamorphoses of the Sublime: From Ballads and Gothic Novels to Contemporary Anglo-American Children's Literature

Metamorphoses of the Sublime: From Ballads and Gothic Novels to Contemporary Anglo-American Children's Literature. Kamila Vránková. České Budějovice: Jihočeská univerzita v Českých Budějovicích – Pedagogická fakulta, 2019. 167 pages (paperback).

In Metamorphoses of the Sublime: From Ballads and Gothic Novels to Contemporary Anglo-American Children’s Literature, Kamila Vránková sets herself the ambitious and intriguing task of tracing the affective and generic tendencies of the sublime over the course of centuries, tracking the concept’s evolution and various literary manifestations. Vránková draws on criticism from the Anglosphere, but the Czech scholar also works extensively with Eastern European thinkers who may be fresh for some readers. Her critical approach was often pleasantly surprising for me; Vránková chooses, for example, to work with John Goldwaite’s typography of fantasy (open, circular and closed)* rather than Farah Mendlesohn’s (portal-quest, immersive, intrusion, and liminal),** which had been almost-ubiquitous on the UK conference circuit for some years. It is useful to see such assumptions and frameworks questioned. Exploring what other concentrations of one’s discipline are up to and gaining familiarity with the referential coordinates of various countries’ scholarship is good practice; it can put one’s work in touch with broader conversations and invigorate it. The increasing international availability of such scholarship presents us with an opportunity worth taking advantage of.

The book opens with a dense philosophical examination of the evolution of the sublime over time. Vránková locates the sublime’s roots in rhetoric, touches on key thinkers like Burke and Kant, and then glosses modern treatments. This material is somewhat opaque to the non-specialist. While I certainly learned from it, I would have appreciated more communicative prose and sharper distinction between the stages of this development process. This chapter also introduces an element that troubled me throughout the book. Vránková is insistent on a conception of the ethical sublime (not in the sense of ‘an ethical question’, but in the sense of ‘a positive moral action’), because sublimity inherently involves a relation between the self and the Other. Her chapter ‘Searching for the Other: Ethical Aspects of Fantasy Adventure in Contemporary Anglo-American Fiction for Children’ relies particularly heavily on this contention. But is the sublime encounter, or are its after-effects, in and of themselves reparative ethical relations?

One can see why the claim would appeal, working as it does to centre and legitimise this research subject—but other thinkers, for example psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, who wrote extensively on foundational encysted Otherness and child-rearing as a transmission of trauma***, have not so readily associated encounters with the Other with intrinsic moral good. The burden of proof, then, is with Vránková, whose rather apolitical work is consistently interested in engaging with the Other but very seldom with the other: the marginal, the subaltern, etc. It is somewhat reminiscent of trendy ‘queer theory with no queers’. The chapter on Hawthorne, while an interesting introduction to his less familiar work, takes the rather traditional line that guilt and haunting in the American Gothic are all due to the emotional framework of Puritanism. This side-steps a serious engagement with guilt, memory, hauntedness, occupied land, an ongoing native genocide and slavery. Hawthorne does not need to have been consciously preoccupied with this responsibility for it to have inflected his concept of sin just as much as his religious milieu did. For me, the Other leitmotif never developed the referential groundedness of Aishwarya Subramanian’s postcolonial scholarship on Otherness in similar texts.****

The chapter on ‘Lenore’ ballads was well-researched but would have benefitted from a few sentences’ synopsis of the core narrative being iterated. As this is a comparative literature monograph, many scholars (self included) come to it unfamiliar with several of the texts discussed. I understand it is difficult to figure out which international audiences are familiar with which texts, but while in Middle Europe ‘Lenore’ ballads had a long half-life, they are no longer often studied or read in the UK or US. As far as synopses go, better safe than sorry? Vránková goes on to treat Frankenstein (1818), Wuthering Heights (1847) and Jane Eyre (1847), but without much close reading of how they generate sublime affects (a good deal of Australian and UK history of the emotions research has come out in recent years, which might have contributed something here), the monograph can feel rather bitty, more like a collection of somewhat thematically-conversational papers.

Nothing is more tedious than asking a book about x why it is not a book about y, as though the ideal book is some kind of monstrous gesamtkunstwerk. But even so, it is odd to read a book about the sublime and gothic in primarily-British fantasy fiction and never once encounter Peake, even in the form of a dismissal. It is equally odd to encounter a chapter on children’s time-travel fantasy that does not mention the huge influence of television, from Doctor Who to Moondial, especially given that the book is treating Diana Wynne Jones, who borrows elements and affects from Doctor Who in her Chrestomanci series. I cannot really get behind a treatment of gothicism in Harry Potter and Series of Unfortunate Events that does not trace that trajectory via Dickens (or at least the popular-memory reception of Dickens, via BBC dramatization) at all. Often Vránková attributes things (like the technique of juxtaposing the unbelievable fantastic with a wealth of corroborating detail to the gothic) that are more properly (per Aisling Byrne’s Otherworlds*****) inherited properties of the Medieval Romance. I am perhaps harsh on this collection, but then Vránková has been working for over a decade, judging by when some of the papers herein were first published—and they have, to a chapter, been previously published and peer reviewed. Thus I think it is reasonable to expect more from each extensively-developed piece. There is a wonderfully promising concept here, and I commend Vránková's ambition and scope accordingly, but I do not feel it has been given due justice.

Work Cited

*Goldthwaite, John. “The Natural History of Make-Believe, A Guide to the Principal Works of Britain, Europe, and America.” Utopian Studies 8.1 (1997):173-174.

**Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Wesleyan University Press, 2013. Project MUSE

***Laplanche, Jean. Essays on Otherness. Ed. John Fletcher. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

****Subramanian, Aishwarya. "There and Back Again: Imperial and National Space in British Children's Fantasy". 2018. Newcastle University.

*****Byrne, Aisling. Otherworlds: Fantasy and History in Medieval Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Erin Horáková
University of Glasgow