O’Malley, Patrick R. Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture Cambridge University Press, 2006 Link
He had a special passion, also, for ecclesiastical vestments, as indeed he had for everything connected with the service of the Church. In the long cedar chests that lined the west gallery of his house, he had stored away many rare and beautiful specimens of what is really the raiment of the Bride of Christ, who must wear purple and jewels and fine linen that she may hide the pallid macerated body that is worn by the suffering that she seeks for and wounded by self-inflicted pain.
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Even though the Gothic was supposed to be finished as a literary genre around 1800, Gothicism was a strong influence in nineteenth century English literature (and architecture). It drew on two strong cultural trends in English culture, Orientalism and anti-Catholicism, and linked both with sexual deviance, though in a broader definition than we would today. (E.g. we consider adultery unethical, but not deviant or perverse.) The nun, perhaps the original fetishized sex object character, stands for perverse sexuality in general, simultaneously over-sexed through the alleged overheated eroticism of Catholicism, and under-sexed for her celibacy. Nuns, peculiarly, became threatening to the Protestant/Anglican mindset of England.
It is the argument of this book that there is a persistent conjunction of tropes in Catholicism with those of nonnormative sexual expression or identity in the literary, artistic, and polemical culture of nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland and, further, that that conjunction reflects an ongoing contest over Britain’s sectarian purity as well as its sexual values. In particular, the Gothic, both architectural and literary, becomes a privileged rhetoric for the nineteenth-century coupling of Catholicism and sexual deviance…. Occasionally the concerns around the intersctions of religion and sexuality manifest themselves in approbation, in the argument that the intrudtion of variant religious and sexual expression might improve British social and cultural life. Much more frequently in the works under analysis here, the concerns are marked by anxiety, even hysteria, at the dangers that religious and sexual difference pose to British norms.
As the opening quote indicates, even Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray felt the seductive power of Catholicism, or rather the metonymic signs of it. Gray equates the vestments with luxury and splendor and with masochism and/or asceticism.
O’Malley notes that, “religious and sexual transgression… by the 1890s… function as metaphors for each other, an epistemological slippage that Gothic itself made possible.” (Pg. 4)
The Gothic is all about the past intruding into the present, the external intruding into the internal, and the primitive intruding into the modern. 19th century sexologists viewed deviant, non-productive sexuality as primitive, and directly compared it to animistic religions, hence the use of the term “fetish,” which originally meant “magical object.” Catholicism was also seen as a primitive form of religious belief, compared to Protestantism or the Anglican church, with all its complex rituals and vestments and imagery and emphasis on ecstatic experience instead of sober contemplation. The Oxford Movement tried to make the Church of England the sibling of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, setting up a situation of blurred boundaries between the self and a threatening Other.
As demonstrated in Laura Frost’s Sex Drives, sex becomes a medium or arena in which anxieties are played out and sometimes resolved.
For the Gothic novelists[…] Roman Catholicism and sexual deviance were each suggestive of the other. In The Mysteries of Udolpho, Radcliffe neatly conjoints the two in her description of the “Italian love” of Laurentini, the sinister adulteress and murderer whose erotic excess only finds its match in the convent in which she ends her days. And in Radcliffe’s later The Italian, the heroine Ellena is forced to “determine either to accept the veil, or the person whom the Marchesa di Vivaldi had… selected for her husband”. Both of Ellena’s alternatives – entering into the celibate but sadistic Catholic orders and marriage to the wrong person – represent kinds of rape, sexual violations threatening to the normative heterosexual union hoped for with Vivaldi, the Marchesa’s son.
Radcliffe’s Udolpho neatly describes a sexy nun, “The rays of the moon, strengthening as the shadows deepened, soon after threw a silvery gleam upon her countenance, which was partly shaded by a thin black veil, and touched it with inimitable softness. Hers was the CONTOUR of a Madona, with the sensibility of a Magdalen;”
Another Gothic classic, Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, links threatening Catholicism with masochism: “tales of ‘voluntary humility,’ of self-inflicted – fruitless sufferings.”
English xenophobia about Catholicism and its putative disordered sexuality centered around the confessional, which anti-Catholic rhetoric portrayed as an assault on the family and the state, an authority beyond law where anything could happen. In 1851, a London press reprinted an 1836 tract, titled The Confessional Unmasked, which based its attack on the anonymous confessional promoting sexual deviance. It misinterpreted an 18th century Catholic theologian as saying that the confessor must overcome all modesty of ladies. This is a natural setup for a “virtue in distress” scenario, vulnerable woman left alone with a man who will seduce or just plain rape her. Indeed, says the tract, the confessional makes any sexual act possible and forgivable.(Pg. 74-75)
(Ironically, The Confessional Unmasked was attacked under the Obscene Publications Act, even though its publishers didn’t consider it an obscene work.)
An 1858 Punch cartoon shows a shifty-looking priest accepting confession from a young, pretty Englishwoman, while in the background John Bull gets a whip ready. Whether it is for the priest or the woman is unclear.
The lives of monks and nuns were sites for even more sexual fantasies.
[Walter] Walsh [‘s Secret History of the Oxford Movement], for example, cites the account of a ritualist Benedictine nun, who like the heroine of Diderot’s novle, is stripped and beaten by the Mother Superior and aother nun: “Then I began to undress; but when I can to my vest, shame again overcame me. ‘Take that thing off,’ said the Mother Superior… A deep feeling of shame came over me at being half-nude.” On the one hand, Walsh lets the nun’s narrative of stripping and shame speak for itself in terms of the erotic investment of the sadistic Superior; on the other, he stresses the fact that, if internalized, this sadism – which he assumes to be inherent in the Catholic orders – itself becomes an eroticized masochism.
The word “pervert” itself could refer to both religious and sexual deviance, and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that it had a mainly sexual use. In 1871, an anti-Catholic tract named Dr. Pusey’s Insane Project Considered referred to “English perverts” who “delight to rub their necks against rusty chains. (Pg. 91)
Thus, the profusion of Catholic paraphernalia in Gothic fashion is wearing the symbols of the Other, both to separate oneself from mainstream, Protestant culture and to simultaneously emulate and parody the Other culture. Just as Northerners looked at the slave South and projected their sexual fantasies, and just as the West did the same to the Orient, Protestants looked at the Roman Church and projected their sexual fantasies.
I’m curious to know how this dynamic played out in countries other than England. We know that Sade performed sexual scenes parodying Catholic rituals, for instance, and there was Diderot’s erotic/Gothic novel La Religieuse. Maria Monk’s fevered anti-Catholic ravings were in Canada. But what about America or other European countries? Sacher-Masoch’s work seem to be more about the clash of nations and ethnicities than religions.
Even though the Gothic was supposed to have finished 200 years ago, it keeps recurring, which is fitting because Gothic is all about the return of the repressed. BDSM is about the return of ideas and symbols and relationships that have supposedly been abandoned in liberal history’s march towards Utopia.