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Stranger than a Sicilian Romance: The case of science


I probably wouldn’t even be writing about Ann Radcliffe and Sicilian Romance, hadn’t it been for Stranger Things. She’s desperately moralizing and her otherwise brave heroine has a ludicrous tendency towards fainting. True, her scenic depictions are vivid, but the plot is quite predictable. What made it an interesting read was the inevitable comparison with a contemporary representative of the horror genre, namely Stranger Things, that I happened to watch simultaneously.


Considering the almost two hundred and twenty years that have elapsed between the two works, the similarities are striking: Both manifest the emancipation of womanhood within the confines of their respective societies, and the more I think of it the more I find it shocking that we’re still having this debate. In both cases, the revolutionary idea is women having an opinion of their own and taking action on their own, with the buzz cut being a visual bonus of Stranger Things.


Another similarity unsurprisingly lies in the imagery. The dark woods, forever representing the subconscious, are strewn with awe-inspiring edifices: Castles, underground passages and vaults in the case of Radcliffe, replaced by vast, equally rambling governmental buildings and sewer pipes in Stranger Things. Similar settings can be traced of course in almost all Gothic and Neo-Gothic fiction and I wouldn’t expect anything less for the creation and sustenance of the corresponding atmosphere.


There is great difference, though, on the plane of ethics and rationale. Radcliffe, having faith in the era of logic and science that was just starting to bud, leaves no room to imagination. An explanation is provided for every shady occurrence and the boundaries between good and evil are clear and immediately connected to consequence. Virtue is rewarded and there’s straightforward, gut-wrenching moralization, as e.g. in the closing lines: “[...] those who do only THAT WHICH IS RIGHT, endure nothing in misfortune but a trial of their virtue, and from trials well endured derive the surest claim to the protection of heaven.”


On the other hand, Stranger Things is more 'medieval’ – if I may be excused for a relatively loose use of the term. The rigidity of Radcliffe’s moral code gives way to blurred boundaries. Beyond ethics, this also applies to reality: Paranormal phenomena are being legitimized as results of scientific experimentation, and backed up by scientific theory (e.g. parallel universes). The seemingly solid basis of such phenomena serves the important function of validating the feeling of horror in a much desensitized (and more critical) audience.


It is interesting to note that, in Sicilian Romance and Stranger Things the function of logic and science is reversed: Instead of denouncing the paranormal, with logic as the main tool, Stranger Things uses science to verify precisely such phenomena. Considering how popular both works have been in their respective time, and thus supposing they resonate with common trends in thought, one can only wonder what this reversal implies for our contemporary relationship with science and logic. It seems that science, after going clean from superstition and embracing the canon of factual truth from the 17th century onwards, is now opening the door to the metaphysics that fuelled its fire in the ancient and medieval times. This could mean real progress and a leap in our understanding of the world. However, before our new enlightenment, it remains to be seen how science and logic will be manipulated, in an era when everything seems possible again.


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Wednesday, 07 September 2016 22:20