The Art to Seeing and Seeing as Art in Dark Fantasy

misty canyon with sharp cliff and lonely tree iin Delika

Dark fantasy has got me thinking about my soul. Not in the spiritual sense, or the metaphysical, or even the poetic. But in the aesthetic sense. Let me see if I can make sense of what I mean. We all know the saying, the eyes are the window to the soul. (“The eye is the lamp of the body” Matt 6.22.) Either way you spin it, the turn of phrase is poetic to be sure. But what if the reverse were true? What if we have it backwards and the soul actually captains the eyes, directing them to see? Alters the idea of “seeing,” doesn’t it? 

Dark fantasy, horror, the sublime, the fantastic and the creepy challenge our ways of seeing and essentially our soul. But from where do these strange tales come? We certainly find demons haunting the literary landscape well before the first gothic novel. Antiquity is filled with dark figures, manipulating man’s sight for their own means; and Dante’s pit of hell is abundant with perverse and perverted embodiments and bodies blinded to present-day happenings as punishment for polluting their souls; and we could ask Doctor Faustus. He’d tell us a thing or two about losing his soul. Once he’d sold his, he lost all perspective, wallowing in a vat of empty knowledge and blind amusement, playing parlor tricks with Mephistopheles until the devils came for payment, to flay and tear his flesh to pieces …

I’m getting off track. I wanted to talk about our ways of seeing and how they’re tied to the soul.

Literature, like the visual and plastic arts, demands we see what is before us and make sense of what we see. Literature that finds itself on the darker side makes greater demands on us, expecting us not only to see, but also to illuminate what we see. Seeing, in fact, has always been a part of gothic fiction. Take Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as example – that poor creature, monster that he is, is terrorized by how others see him. Until the De Lacey siblings discover him, papa De Lacey, blind to the horror in front of him, is content to converse with his gracious and compassionate guest. Readers can readily sympathize with the creature because we don’t have to look at him. We need only imagine his abhorrent figure, which is not the same as witnessing it with our eyes, our soul. Anyone who doubts Mary Shelley challenges our ways of seeing hasn’t read the same text as me (which is very well a possibility, but that’s for a different post).

Shelley works with sight but also the sublime, a mere by-product of her luscious prose and the time in which she wrote (hanging out with poets like Percy and Byron couldn’t have hurt, either). Frankenstein is evocative of, and reliant on, the terrifying landscape in which its characters live—it is Nature, with a capital N. For her, the grandeur of the Swiss Alps and the mystery of the glaciers satisfy, but we know even greater majesties of fear—we ride in airplanes and launch rockets into space. Can you imagine how mad Victor would think our science? We understand the sublime viscerally, though we may not know it. The sublime is about seeing, and yet it’s also about feeling fear upon that sight. Standing on a precipice, looking over the edge, into an abyss, that’s sublime; walking into a room we know is haunted … wait, I digress again. Surely it’s my prerogative to do so, no? 

I’m certain a faculty bathroom in the college where I used to teach is haunted. I used to feel it every time I went inside, and it thrilled me to test the eeriness of the atmosphere. I was always alone in there, despite its row of stalls, and I swear each time I walked in the lights flickered just a little. And when I’d see the black garbage bag that’s been wrapped on one of the sinks for repair—every time—I’d hesitate. Like a shadow in the corner of my eye I know is there but don’t want to see. Then there’s the sound the room made, the low hum that came from somewhere far beyond the vents, some place like the bowels of a nineteenth century madhouse … But hold on, this wasn’t a unique experience. I used to live in The Dakota on the Upper Westside of Manhattan. You know the building where Rosemary’s Baby was filmed? I lived alone in the maid’s quarters on the empty and desolate eighth floor, but my only bathroom was one floor up and even more desolate. It was the size of a summer camp latrine. Spooky stuff, I tell you, especially since I’m one to drink a cup of tea before bedtime …

Okay, back to the sublime—sight and soul. I’d say it was the Romantic poets who really got the sublime, the terror and darkness of grandeur. For Longinus, the sublime was great and lofty rhetoric, grand thoughts; and the kind of sublime Kant refers to is that which enlists tall oaks and lonely shadows rather than flower beds and low hedges; night is sublime, day is beautiful; the sublime moves and the beautiful charms. But it’s Burke who says it best: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime … terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime.”

When I think of terror, I immediately think of sight. What I see (or don’t see, perhaps an even more frightening scenario). Whether it’s bathed in darkness or blown out with light, temporary blindness and visual disorientation stimulate the imagination.

Back to the Romantics who as it goes adopted Milton’s Satan and made him their son, their poetic hero and inheritance, the discarded and unforgivable wretch who warred on his maker. Did you ever wonder how we came up with the Byronic hero? The lonely and sublime figure walking on life’s precipice? Lord Byron, in fact, made no small contribution to dark fantasy. He’s rumored to have penned The Vampyre: A Tale (1819), a short story about a bloodsucker who drains the life from everyone he encounters. But we shouldn’t disregard Polidori, who may very well have written it as fan fiction to Byron’s Fragment of a Novel. And then there’s Lermontov’s “The Demon,” a poem also inspired by the great Lord Byron. His poetry is dark in ways we may not have seen before: 

Her eye (I’m very fond of handsome eyes)
Was large and dark, suppressing half its fire
Until she spoke, then through its soft disguise
Flash’d an expression more of pride than ire,
And love than either; and there would arise,
A something in them which was not desire,
But would have been, perhaps, but for the soul,
Which struggled through and chasten’d down the whole.

What is that something that arises in those dark eyes, the thing the soul chokes before it escapes? Pity or fear? Horror? The sublime? 

We are haunted not only by what we see, but how we see, if we see. When frightened, we say, “Did you see that?” Apparitions are things we build out of thin air; they just magically appear, forged in the shadowy corners of our imagination. The noun “apparition” first appears in 1500, used as “unclosing” in reference to Heaven, and to epiphany, as in The Epiphany, when the Christ child is revealed to the Magi. It comes from late Latin, referring to “an appearance” or “attendants” and is first recorded in 1600 as meaning a ghost. Appearance versus apparition; the one is expected, the other startles. The haunting of an apparition seems to have its roots in antiquity, as poor Narcissus is tortured by the apparition he sees in the lake. He doesn’t know his own reflection, cursed as he is. But the disappearance haunts him more terribly than its appearance.

Dark fantasy deals in haunted sightings, and E. T. A. Hoffman has mastered this. The Sandman (1816) is all about “The eyes! The eyes!” as Mister Coppola calls out to potential buyers of his lenses. Coppo is Italian for eye-socket and Klara, of course, symbolizes clarity. “Things are as we see them,” has never rung more true as it does in this short story, for even the reader can’t tell if Nathanael is mad or imagining the memory of Coppelius or Coppella. The eyes are of importance here, for they determine how we see, what we see and what our eyes appear to be. How much more may be said of the soul?

And then there’s Guy de Maupassant’s Le Horla (1887), a particular favorite of mine. The story entails a psychological splitting of the self embodied in the spirit, or as some say in madness. The narrator is haunted by a passing vessel out in the harbor and the feeling that arises from seeing it. He is more frightened by the invisible spirit since he can’t tell when it’ll appear. And of course Maupassant can’t help tipping his hat to vampirism when his narrator doesn’t see his reflection in the mirror. 

But Poe so beautifully questions sight in the Oval Portrait. If you haven’t read this short masterpiece, you must—you really must! I won’t spoil it for you, but I think it could be a thesis for my current ramblings: There is an art to seeing and seeing is an art; dark fantasy encapsulates both most readily. 

So dark fantasy takes me to visual art because, well, quite frankly, I think painters and writers are kinfolk. Just as the painter asks his viewer to see his canvas, so too does the writer appeal to her reader’s sense of sight—only her paints are language and her canvas unlimited. But how again do we get to the soul? If you’ve ever seen a painting that has taken you out of the space in which you stood, sucked you into its landscape, or forced you to look, “To see!” by the very strength of its design, you’ve met your soul. It’s the thing that’s forced your eyes to feast on the visual offering, to sacrifice your common sense to the imaginative caves of the mind, to spill blood on the page so you may pass the feeling along to a reader—any reader, willing to swim in the depths of your darkness. 

Now I leave you with a few lines from Phoebe Cary’s “Dove’s Eyes,” to ingest as you see fit:

There are eyes half defiant,
Half meek and compliant;
Black eyes, with wondrous, witching charm
To bring us good or to work us harm.

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