Monday, October 08, 2012

Memento Mori

I'd say one of the great influences on my writing, and heck, world view, is the Gothic. The very notion of The Gothic begins with Gothic architecture, that delicious, overwrought style of construction emerging in the late medieval period. Think of Notre Dame, and you think of the very roots of "goth." The term itself wasn't applied to the style until a renewed interest Greco-Roman Classicism triggered a sneering criticism of these medieval works--the word itself comes from the Goths, a bunch of Scandinavian tough guys who kicked a lot of Roman ass.

Here are some words I draw from that summary of Gothicism: ornate, dark, medieval, anti-classical, bloodthirsty, Catholic Church, afterlife, death, demons, hell, saints, fasting, holidays, law-abiding, punishment, superstitious, supernatural, Inquisition, torture, confession, gargoyle.

For me, those are the flavors of The Gothic. Damn, but they are delicious! Those spices have mixed and remixed over the years to give us some of the lasting wonders of art, literature, and other cultural artifacts. But some of the most delightful creations emerged in the 1800s, when a blossoming scientific scene, a muscle-flexing British empire, and a sudden amoral explosion of industry collided to create the wonderful Victorian period.

If Victoriana makes you think primarily of Steampunk, I'm sorry. It should make you think of ornate houses and cushions dripping with fringe. The Victorian period used wood trim and fringe to achieve the same lacy, overblown wonders that the medieval builders created from stone. And with Queen Victoria's long mourning for Prince Albert setting a sort of standard, the popular culture of the time was focused tightly on the morbid--carrying locks of lost loved ones' hair was pretty much de rigueur, and collecting items associated with death was fashionable. This means Victorian home decorating was a fascinating marriage of your grandmother's doily collection and your deranged uncle's taxidermy collection. I love it. Luckily for my husband, I also enjoy Mid-Century Modern and am allergic to dust, which limits my willingness to collect Victoriana. Nonetheless, someday I will shop Madame Talbot's Victorian Low Brow to my heart's content.

The Victorian obsession with death makes a lot of sense. Medicine hadn't quite vanquished the common ailments, so most people had a much more intimate experience with death. If you made it to adulthood, you were not only  lucky, you had also probably already attended a great deal of funerals. But new developments in science offered up plenty of hope to not just fight death, but actually overcome it. The ground was ripe for greedy pseudoscientists with an interest in the afterlife. Victorians paid good money to attend seances. They adored ectoplasm. And since they collected lots of dead body parts (I don't think it's a coincidence that Egyptology was really taking off during that time period--what good Victorian wouldn't adore owning their own mummy? Or at least visiting one at the British Museum ...), it made sense that the two hobbies might collide. One of the most delightful examinations of Victorian interest in collecting the dead is Colin Dickey's book Cranioklepty. Run, go read it.

All about science. And creepy stuff. Read it.

Part of the beauty of Victorian decor is the memento mori, the small arrangements focused on death that remind us that we, too, will die. Sure, reminding yourself that you will die sounds depressing, but I find that when I think on my mortality, I am more inspired to live well, to spend my short time on Earth as wonderfully as I can. I'm also inspired to do my best to extend that mortal coil as much as possible. That's why I'm going to leave you to go do some writing and to make one of these delicious, healthy kale salads. Because if there's anything that can help you live forever, it's kale. And that's no pseudoscience!

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