The atrocious eternal return
On aesthetic repetition and the reiterative gestures of gothic form.

Art historian Wilhelm Worringer’s treatise on gothic form is a study of compulsion. In his 1911 text Formprobleme der Gotik (Form in Gothic), Worringer describes the gothic as an aesthetic scheme that is mobilized (and animated) by impulse. According to Worringer, gothic form is not shaped by cognition or rational thought. It ruptures the sensuous and organic temperament of classical art. Symmetry and balance collapse. Gothic form does not seek a compositional equilibrium. It possesses a structure and vitality that transcends (that shatters) the classical order. If the classical line embraces proportion and fixed ratios, the gothic line perverts them. It is a ‘linear fantasy which, in the terminology of the materialistic theory of art, is described as interlaced ribbon or plaited ornament’.[i] Gothic lines are entwined and enmeshed. Knotted into one another.

Worringer extends the allegory. In attempting to elucidate this distinction between the gothic line and the classical line, Worringer presents a speculative case study by tracing the different gestures of a hand that fulfills the dictates of classical form and a hand that gives shape to the gothic.

Supposing we were to play the part of the hand that arouses the gothic line,

The will of our wrist will certainly not be consulted: the pencil will move wildly and violently over the paper and instead of the beautiful, round, organically tempered curves, there will be a hard, angular, ceaselessly interrupted, jagged line, of the most powerful vehemence of expression. It is not the wrist which spontaneously creates the lines, but our violent will for expression which imperiously compels the wrist movement. Once the initial impulse for motion has set in, it cannot be allowed to follow its natural tendency to run out of its own accord, but must always merge into a renewed impulse for movement. …. We have an impression that we are being coerced by some alien, imperious will. We are made aware of all the processes of suppression of the natural tendency for movement. At every break, at every change of direction, we feel how the forces suddenly checked in their natural course are blocked; how, after this instant’s arrest, they pursue, with a momentum increased by the obstruction, a new direction of movement.[ii]

This imagined scene of metaphoric draftsmanship exposes an important characteristic of the gothic aesthetic scheme. Implicit in the compositional logic of the gothic form — as enacted by Worringer’s disembodied hand — is its reliance on a ‘renewed impulse for movement’. The gothic line is not simply defined by its angular propulsion and erratic geometry, it is defined by its repetitive resurgence. In other words, gothic form emerges out of repeated impulse-based gestures. It speaks through spasm.

The fact that gothic form depends on perpetuated gestures resonates with the intrinsic formal properties of the gothic line. As Worringer asserts, the gothic line plays out the linear fantasy of the ‘interlaced ribbon or plaited ornament’. In a plait, two lines entwine and snake around each other. They embrace but never collide. Their endpoints never meet. Like a double helix or a spiral staircase, plaited lines extend outwards in opposing directions. Unless interrupted, they carry on in this manner ad infinitum. Theirs is not a linear trajectory but a tidal one. It ebbs and flows, forever alternating between decline and ascent.

And so it is with the cultural reiteration of gothic form itself. Since the proliferation of gothic art and architecture in the 12th Century, gothic form has been resuscitated in different guises across the timeline of aesthetic evolution. A victim of ‘renewed movement’, gothic form transcends the temporal specificity of its art historical context.

Of these periodic reassertions of gothic form, few hold as much cultural cachet as the neo-gothic revival that was German expressionist cinema. In the inter-war years UFA, Germany’s national film production company, rivaled Hollywood in the calibre and volume of its output. The silent films produced in this era re-populated gothic castles and turned medieval motifs into overtly stylized visual tropes.

This thematic tangent is indebted to film scholar Laleen Jayamanne. It is her work on German expressionist cinema that draws attention to the resonance of Worringer’s analysis of the gothic form and its convulsive genesis within the fictive construct and formal mannerisms of these films. What follows re-articulates her line of inquiry, disseminated during her time as a lecturer at the University of Sydney, so that further tangents may be woven (or plaited) into the investigation.

Through German expressionist cinema, the gothic ornament attained mobility. It was no longer confined to the stasis of the art object or the architectural form. Cinema gave gothic form a new means of gesticulation.

Having already been narrativised, thanks to 19th Century literature and the cultivation of the horror genre, the gothic ornament was encrypted within the villainous and monstrous personas that terrorized these films. One need only think of the hunchbacked Count Orlock creeping up the stairs in FW Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu with his outstretched fingers and elongated limbs, made all the more sinister by the exaggerated shadows that preceded him. Orlock is the gothic line made corporeally manifest. His physique is hyperbolically angular.

The gothic villain has been acculturated and absorbed into the archive of the easily recognizable cultural trope. However, it is the women in these films who exhibit a more potent gestural translation of gothic form, as Jayamanne has argued. Preyed upon by the villains, these women are inert and denied narrative agency. Their subjugation is often not simply a consequence of base gender dynamics but is precipitated by supernatural forces. Induced into trance-like and semi-hypnotic states, these women are routinely suspended in stupor. Their narrative inertia is filtered through their physical inertia.

As semi-conscious agents of the transcendental and the occult, these women relinquish control over their bodies. In their disembodied state, they metaphorically re-enact the gothic impulse according to Worringer’s allegorical analysis. The hand that gives shape to the gothic line is — you will remember — ‘coerced by some alien, imperious will’. Its impulsive movement is governed by a non-tangible force. It stems from, as Worringer phrases it, ‘a psychical, spiritual activity of will, far removed from any connection or conformity with the complexes of organic sensation’.[iii] The trance that enfolds the women in German expressionist cinema is a localized (and literalized) synecdochic proxy of the gothic ‘will to form’.[iv]

That the gothic ‘will to form’ finds itself reanimated in the gestures of these filmic bodies is fitting. For if gothic line is premised upon convulsively reiterative gestures, it is an inherently cinematic phenomenon. Inscribed on the looped celluloid of the film reel or the concentric grooves of the DVD (or, if we were being honest, the labyrinthine matrix of 1s and 0s in the computer) are gestures and movements that repeat themselves again and again. Each time a film is played, the bodies that populate its scenes perform the same routine. The trance begins anew.


And just as the gothic aesthetic has been reiterated and remixed throughout cultural and art history, the women in German expressionist cinema have been duplicated and mimetically resurrected in other films. The possessed girl in the Exorcist with her semi-transparent nightgown and her projectile vomit is perhaps the most blunt re-staging of this entranced persona.

Worringer extends his study of the gothic ornament to an analysis of gothic architecture. The pivot turns on the gothic cathedral with its sinuous spires that propel themselves upwards on such severe inclines.

If we cast a glance at the Gothic cathedral, we see only a kind of petrified, vertical movement from which every law of gravity seems to be eliminated. We see only an enormously strong upward movement of energies in opposition to the natural downward weight of the stone.[v]

This is an architecture of propulsion — of force — rather than matter.

Gothic architecture embraces the acute angle. Classical architecture, with architraves and pediments that obey the dictates of geometric refinement, affirms the solidity of the stone that it is composed of. Its thickset columns valorize the pedestals on which they stand. Weight and material presence. These buildings exalt their foundations. Not so the gothic cathedral. Here, architectural form pushes against the material reality of the stone. It reaches upwards and out of its substructure. The stone of a gothic cathedral is ‘entirely released from its material weight, (such) that it is only the vehicle of a non-sensuous, incorporeal expression, in short, here it has become dematerialized’.[vi]

Just as those hypnotized and entranced women relinquish control over their physical bodies, so does the gothic cathedral. In both, movement and form exists in spite of physical materiality. The women renounce control over their limbs as the cathedral renounces the weight of its stone. Disembodied / dematerialized.

The sight of a Gothic cathedral does not impress our minds as being a display of structural processes but as an outburst of transcendental longing expressed in stone. A movement of superhuman force carries us up with it into the intoxication of an endless willing and craving: we lose the feeling of our earthly bonds, we merge into an infinite movement which annihilates all finite consciousness.[vii]

An intoxicated unconscious: a trance.

French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot was instrumental in shaping and defining the clinical discourse that encased studies of female hysteria in the 19th century. Charcot was responsible for revising the classification of hysteria as a physiological condition unique to women (a gendered handicap) and promoting its status as a psychological disorder, effectively opening the door to the theory of the unconscious (Freud was, in fact, his student). Working with the hysteric patients at the Salpêtrière institution in Paris from 1862 onwards, Charcot focused his attention on the postures and gestures that are mobilized during a hysteric fit. His research methodology was a mode of sustained observation.

I am not in the habit of advancing things that aren’t experimentally demonstrable… I am nothing more than a photographer; I inscribe what I see.[viii]

In analyzing the modulation of the hysteric’s body as it convulsed Charcot sought to anatomize the condition and decode its mannerisms. His studies were facilitated by the camera. Not only was Charcot a metaphoric photographer, inscribing his observations, but he enlisted photography as a scientific task force. The photographs taken under Charcot’s direction at the Salpêtrière are haunting. Their subjects — women in institutional care — are the objectified victims of a kind of medico-voyeurism. Writhing in tangled sheets, their bedclothes loose around their bodies, they are sexualized in their midst of their malady.

As Georges Didi-Huberman acknowledges, the spasms recorded by the camera were semi-performative gestures that satiated and surrendered themselves to instances of ‘provoked observation.’[ix] The fits were staged — induced through hypnosis so they could be photographed on cue. These are scenes of ‘synthesized hysteria’ and ‘simulacra, nothing more’.[x] Charcot himself admits as much:

The hypnotic state is but an artificial or experimental nervous state, the multiple manifestations of which appear or vanish according to the needs of the study, as the observer fancies.[xi]

Through hypnosis, Charcot would re-create the hysteric seizure so that each gesture could be codified. The body of the hysteric possessed an ‘incredible plastic submission[xii] that ‘allowed the hypnotic phenomenon itself to be truly made into a tableau, in the exact image of the model that had been fabricated to account for the hysterical attack’.[xiii] The hysteric is made to perform her own neuroses for the clinician. Her body becomes a puppet.

Charcot’s methodological strategy was designed to deliver a systematized catalogue of the hysteric’s movements. He was accruing an alphabet of physiology. Photography allowed Charcot to break the dance of the seizure down into its constitute parts (or poses) like the sequential frames on a strip of celluloid. The images would then be grouped and arranged in grids. The seizure was compartmentalized yet also inscribed with proto-cinematic movement in the manner of an Eadweard Muybridge locomotion study. Charcot used these photographs to draw up diagrams and charts that delineated each posture. His project relied on the presumption that the gestures of hysteria were not unique or unpredictable but repetitive and choreographed.

Like the bodies of the women in German expressionist film (or, for that matter, any cinematic body), Charcot’s patients were expected to perform the same routine again and again. In their induced and hypnotized state — enveloped in ‘a symbolic dance, almost a trance’[xiv] — these hysteric women also reanimate the gothic form. Their clenched and contracting hands are the metaphoric compatriots of those hands that coax the gothic line into being.

These women were condemned to repetition not just while in the throws of an ‘attack’ but within the very power-dynamics of the hospital. As Didi-Huberman notes, their sexualization within the context of medical study had very real consequences. Many of these women seduced their doctors. The symptoms of hysteria were often provoked by repressed sexual desire and any illicit interaction between patient and clinician reignited the trauma.[xv] The cycle would start again.

In Adolfo Bioy Casares’ 1940 novella The Invention of Morel we find another kind of cyclical desire loop.[xvi] The Argentinian writer, a collaborator and close friend of Jorge Luis Borges (who wrote the novella’s preface) reinvigorated the genre of ‘fantastic’ literature. With a genealogy that moves through Robert Louis Stevenson and Cervantes (and which sidesteps most Modernist prose), ‘fantastic’ literature, as Borges defined it, allowed for the interjection of the magical and the metaphysical into otherwise linear storylines. While narratives may be derailed by preternatural elements, the logic of causation remains intact.

The Invention of Morel centres on the plight of a self-exiled protagonist seeking refuge on a secluded island to escape imprisonment for an unidentified crime. The island is unoccupied, it’s terrain allegedly infected with a virus that eats human skin. Undeterred, the protagonist makes himself at home. But the island isn’t uninhabited. A group of people, dressed as if they were living in the 1920s, appear suddenly one day and populate the once empty buildings. Tea for two is played on the record player over and over again as the insipid backdrop to their seemingly endless garden party.

At first, the protagonist hides and observes these unexpected guests from afar. He notices a woman — Faustine — who returns each evening to a rocky outcrop to watch the sunset. He falls in love with her.

When the protagonist finally plucks up the courage to introduce himself she looks straight through him. They all do. None of his island companions can see him. They cohabit the same space but not the same time. Their worlds do not bleed into one another. He does not exist in their narrative.

We soon learn the mechanics of this temporal intransigence. His fellow island dwellers do not possess corporeal bodies. They are mere projections.

Many years ago, Morel — a scientist and one of the guests on the island also infatuated with Faustine — developed a recording device capable of transcribing sensory data in its totality. It is a camera that also records tactile form and olfactory output.

With my machine a person or an animal or a thing is like the station that broadcasts the concert you hear on the radio. If you turn the dial for the olfactory waves, you will smell the jasmine perfume on Madeleine’s throat, without seeing her. By turning the dial of the tactile waves, you will be able to stroke her soft, invisible hair and learn, like the blind, to know things by your hands. But if you turn all the dials at once, Madeleine will be reproduced completely, and she will appear exactly as she is… sounds, tactile sensations, flavors, odors, temperatures, all synchronized perfectly.[xvii]

Years ago, Morel lured his group of friends to the island and secretly recorded their activities for a week. Ever since, their simulacral counterparts have been re-enacting these events on a loop. Our protagonist, the interloper, is thrown into their projected reality.

Morel never discloses the fact that his recording device is a death trap. Once a subject has had their ‘image’ immortalized, their body begins to erode and eat itself. In sacrificing his friends, Morel ensured that he could spend eternity with Faustine.

She, like all her companions, is trapped in a purgatory of repetitive gestures. Like the cyclical trauma of the hysteric, her perpetual performance is fuelled and consumed by the male gaze. She has no control over her body — no agency — but is trapped in a pseudo-cinematic trance. Her life has become a loop of celluloid caught in a projector. It is a fictive reiteration of gothic form.

I began to realize that the words and movements of Faustine and the bearded man coincided with those of a week ago. The atrocious eternal return.[xviii]

The novella was inspired by Bioy Casares’ obsession with the silent movie star Louise Brooks. An American, Brooks spent most of her career working in Europe, specifically Germany. She starred in GW Pabst’s films Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl (both 1929) — two milestones of German expressionist cinema. She was Bioy Casares’ Faustine. In this embedded cultural reference we witness another reassertion of the densely knotted lineage of the gothic form.

The large building that is populated by Morel’s projections is consistently referred to as ‘the museum’. This label is perplexing. There are no display cabinets or exhibition hangs. It confuses the protagonist, who freely admits that ‘it could be a fine hotel for about fifty people, or a sanatorium’.[xix] We eventually discover that it is Morel who is responsible for this ambiguous nomenclature.

The word museum, which I use to designate this house, is a survival of the time when I was working on plans for my invention, without knowing how it would eventually turn out. At that time I thought I would build large albums or museums, both public and private, filled with these images.[xx]

Of course. The Museum.

A museum is the natural repository of the gothic form. It is a place where temporal chronologies can be perverted and cultural trajectories can be intertwined. A place for the convulsive resurgence of aesthetic schemes that perpetuate themselves. The site of the atrocious eternal return.

It is here that the projections play out the vicissitudes of the gothic line, fulfilling Worringer’s thesis through the ceaseless (and perverse) pattern of their performance — replaying that final week over and over again.

When once the natural barriers of organic movement have been overthrown, there is no more holding back: again and again the line is broken, again and again it is forcibly prevented from peacefully ending its course again and again diverted into fresh complications of expression.[xxi]

The gesture re-stages itself. The knot gets denser.


[i] Worringer, Wilhelm (trans. Sir Herbert Read). Form in Gothic. New York: Schocken Books. 1964 p 40
[ii] Ibid p 42-3
[iii] Ibid p 43
[iv] Ibid p 38
[v] Ibid p 106
[vi] Ibid p 106
[vii] Ibid p 108
[viii] Quoted in: Didi-Huberman, Georges (trans Alisa Hartz). Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. 2003 p 29
[ix] Ibid p 19
[x] Ibid p185
[xi] Quoted in: Ibid p185
[xii] Ibid p 192
[xiii] Ibid p 194
[xiv] Ibid p 223
[xv] Ibid p 175
[xvi] Bioy Casares, Adolfo (trans. Ruth LC Simms). The Invention of Morel. New York: New York Review of Books. 2003
[xvii] Ibid p. 70
[xviii] Ibid p. 41
[xix] Ibid p 14
[xx] Ibid p 76
[xxi] Worringer Op.cit p 41

Originally published in Das Superpaper, Issue 32, 2014