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Messianic Nihilism in Gothic Horror: Walter Benjamin with Shelley and Poe

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journal contribution
posted on 13.12.2018, 06:19 by Ursula de Leeuw
This essay considers Walter Benjamin’s model of messianic time alongside the powers of horror in the Gothic tradition. This configuration illustrates a messianic nihilism; a profane relation in which teleological meaning is eternally derailed. I begin with a delineation of Benjamin’s theoretical framework, moving forward to its application in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” (1840). Benjamin’s messianic time counters the notion of history-as-progress, instead proposing the perpetual destruction of present conditions in the pursuit of unknown possibilities. In the Gothic, the messianic takes form in the dialectical image of horror; an image that at once contains and subverts history, thus emerging as unnameable. In Frankenstein, the monster embodies and enacts a messianic rhythm as a symptom of his alienation. In “The Man of the Crowd,” an unnameable figure disrupts the historical typology of the modern city, while simultaneously resurrecting the radical possibilities of the past. Ultimately, Gothic messianism evokes a profane illumination that promotes annihilation as a means to the infinite possibilities of the new.


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