When women have worn black, she writes, "the have often been laying claim to the larger dignity, graver sorrow, more legitimate power, stronger personal impact, more honorable humility, and more effective wickedness of men."
We should reflect on these contradiction when we think about what it means to be a goth, or as some call it &mdash without any racist connotaions &mdash "a darkie." The history of goth culture is by no means unambiguous. The word "goth" as we use it now gained currency in the '80s. Many music fans and critics trace the movement's origins back to the Batcave, the London club where the decor was reminiscent of '60s horror flicks. But underground, post-punk bands like Bauhaus, the Damned, Joy Division, and Siouxsie and the Banshees had incorporated this aesthetic before the Batcave was recognized as the center of the movement. Broadly speaking,the lyrics of these bands expressed themes of death, destruction, and darkness, as well as the romantic themes of love and loss. But the music was forward- looking: it continues to draw from what music critic Joshua Gunn calls a "limited model repertoire. It emphasizes minor chords; sparse, minimalist rhythms; and slower tempos."
A distinct fashion sprang from this music. Goth fans and artists are drawn to the look &mdash the pale faces; the corsets, ruffled shirts, and mouming jewelry &mdash of the Victorian era, when sex and death danced a more synergetic dance than they do today. One irony of Victorian bereavement was that black clothes worn by widows announced to the public both loss and arousal. "A widow," Lurie writes in The Language of Clothes, especially a young one, was assumed to be in a state of heightened emotionality that made it easier for her to be taken advantage of. Her supposed willingness to be consoled &mdash to become a Merry Widow &mdash was the subject of many low jokes."
So it's fair to say that the goth aesthetic and credo were present in Western culture long before the '80s. Many of the local' goths whom I met late last year are self-described aesthetes and are engaged, on an amateur level at the very least, with literary and art history. Today's goths, of course, are not ancestors of the goths &mdash the Christian, Germanic tribes who attacked the Roman Empire beginning in the Third Century &mdash but their roots go deeper than one might suspect. In fact, goths often cite their interest in history in order to distinguish themselves from their brethren, fetishists (let's say sexual experimenters) and industrialists (the so-called rivetheads who listen to a music that is harder and, well, more industrial than their own).
Stephany Hurtt, 21, is the movie reviewer for the Velvet Rag, a new, locally run website devoted to the San Diego goth scene. "Goths," she told me in December, "are into roman tic ideas, like Victorianism. The industrialist/rivethead are into the new music, and the fetishists are more into cutting-edge fashion. It's just that we are stuck into the same scene."
Kym Kostos, editor-in-chief of the Velvet Rag, said "Goths are unique individuals who think for themselves and don't follow the 'norm' of what society believes that everyone should. We're writers, musicians, doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists."
Kostos, 30, added, "I have a close and dear friend of mine who totally decks out in goth garb. If you ever met him, you would think he was the freakiest goth you had ever met. But you know what? He's a neurologist. Yes, a brain surgeon. He works at Harvard doing research. But people wouldn't bother to look deeper than that. It's sad, but it' s reality.
Another local goth, 38-year-old Mike Jurke, received a Ph.D. in physical anthropology from the University of Zurich six years ago. Jurke agrees that a regard for history sets goths apart. "I have to say that I believe the goth scene is on average more educated than most other scenes, largely due to the influx of college students who are somehow attracted to this dark mix of subculture and entertainment," he told me in December. "I welcome the dialectic discussion of the past in this circle as it promotes a broader view of reality and is certainly conducive to an openness for things out of the norm. To understand ourselves, the other, the world how it is, we have to explore many different realities."
Victorianism is not the only historical moment that informs the scene. The ambitious historian may trace the genesis of the goth subculture back to the 17th Century when the English playwrights John Ford and Robert Burton popularized the notion of melancholy &mdash the condition of having too much black bile, which caused a disease characterized by sullen behavior and a propensity to anger and violent outbursts; The Grid, for instance, picks up on the historical aspects of blackness, both sartorial and psychological. In it Murphy plays a kind of Hamlet, whom we might call the first fully developed goth. To mourn for his father, Hamlet wears what he calls the "customary suits of solemn black." At one point, his mother asks him to remove his "inky cloak. " Hamlet is melancholic, nocturnal, and, according to his father's murderer anyway; suffers from "unmanly grief." He contemplates skulls, not to mention suicide. Hamlet, the literary critic Harold Bloom has written, is "a nihilist," "spookily posthumous," and "splenetic." He "transcends maleness" and seeks a "wild freedom." His consciousness "is wider and more agile than divinity has manifested, as yet."
Prince Hamlet, Bloom concludes, "is the intellectual's intellectual: the nobility, and the disaster; of Western consciousness .... It cannot be overstated that Hamlet has no creed, whether social or religious .... What Hamlet does have is an enormous sense of his own burgeoning inner self, which he suspects may be an abyss."
During a conversation at an IHOP in El Cajon, Carnell brings up Hamlet. Carnell is the moniker of the 40-year-old copublisher of Carpe Noctem; a locally published magazine of national repute that serves as a venue for goth writing, art, and interviews. Talking about the history of goth, he says, "If you look back at Joyce, Dickinson &mdash and Hamlet. Yes, he was totally the first goth! Walking around in black clothes, talking to skulls, talking about should I kill myself, People get melancholy, People ask, 'Who are we? What are we?' "