5 March 2021
Radcliffe and Paradoxical Terrors
The sky splits open, roads and traffic driving out from the clouds. Buildings unfold, brick giving way to brick, lines slicing parallel and symmetric. Slices of reflections texture the air. “You are now inside the mirror dimension, ever present but undetected. The real world isn't affected by what happens here. We use the mirror dimension to train, surveil, and sometimes to contain threats. You don't want to be stuck inside here…” (Derrikson, Doctor Strange).
This alternate universe, the mirror dimension, is a world founded on paradoxes and infinite loops, doors opening to doors opening to doors. The physics of this dimension disregard outside reality. Without the proper gateway, one is forever stuck in its eternal loops. The mirror dimension is somewhere and nowhere all at once, space lying vulnerable to manipulation. This is not just the setting of today’s sci-fi juggernauts, the playground of comic heroes and spacemen, but the setting of Radcliffe’s late eighteenth-century novel, A Sicilian Romance.
Paradoxes of the novel’s universe first read as comedy. As the hunt for Julia whisks the duke, her nonconsensual fiancé, and the reader beyond the walls of the Mazzini castle, a number of deeply ironic instances occur. The most obvious of these is the duke’s mistaking of another young lady and cavalier to be the missing Julia and Hippolitus (Radcliffe 94). This is the first of many misrecognitions to occur throughout the novel. These repeated misrecognitions weave a narrative world of bottomless identical plots. At first glance, the irony is comedic. But when these universal paradoxes are thoroughly explored, a mess of terrors emerge. The physics of the novel leave boundaries between binary oppositions in ruins, complicating whether happiness and virtue are achievable in this universe at all.
The first terror is time. Throughout the novel, the same pacing of scene is utilized — the never-ending door. This is seen, quite literally, as Ferdinand explores the secret passages of the castle (45-47), stumbling upon locked door after locked door, the tension repeatedly ebbing and flowing, but never allowed to crash and break. The pacing of the novel itself follows a similar rhythm. The plot of conquest keeps hidden persons a breath away and then suddenly far. The plot of escape keeps the heroine seconds from being captured and then suddenly safe. With this rhythm, Radcliffe’s universe is one of constant built-up and unsatisfied tension. Time is stuck in this continuous loop. If linear time is defined by a progression of the plot, by a finite beginning and ending, then the progression that the novel refuses to give implies linear time ceases to exist altogether. There is no startpoint and endpoint. There is only a perpetual middle that, as supported by this universe of infinite, identical plots, extends beyond the individual circumstances of the protagonist and the novel-proper. A day is equal to a week is equal to a year due to the structure of pacing. Time is shaped into an apeirogon, the infinitely-sided polygon. Past, present, and future are not sequential but feed into each other. The barriers between them are eradicated.
On the surface, infinite time fabricates itself as a gift. Eternalism, the notion of an everlasting and unchanging existence, can induce fantasies of immortality. There is a human obsession with prolonging and preservation. Yet, the looped plot exhausting itself in the universe of the novel is a nightmare painted in the pastel colors of daydream. This is because any condition made infinite, even one that appears pleasant at first, will inevitability torture its subject by stagnation and restriction. This is seen in the nature of the duke’s pursuit of Julia, where his condition (always being on the verge of finding her) undergoes constant repetition and eventually finds no resolution. “To pursue Julia, when no traces of her flight remained, was absurd” (95). He is forced to return to where he started, to Mazzini, “ignorant and more hopeless than he had left…” and where “the anguish of his mind equalled that of his [wounded] body” (95). The loop of his condition leads the duke nowhere and leaves him tortured by greater physical and emotional anguish. This is because a condition made infinite is incarceration.
The absence of linear time, then, restricts mobility. In A Sicilian Romance, the characters travel beyond the gates of the Mazzini castles yet never seem to go anywhere else. No matter how far the characters travel, Mazzini is where they perpetually arrive: “Julia gave a short account of the preceding adventures, and of her entrance into the cavern; and found, to her inexpressible surprize, that she was now in a subterranean abode belonging to the southern buildings of the castle of Mazzini!” (175). Despite having ventured far from home, Julia winds up back to the very place from which she is running. The length of every road and the depth of every cavern leads to Mazzini. It is not only time, then, that has been manipulated into this terrifying apeirogon, but space, leaving all characters forever trapped within the bounds of this dark chateau, in the nightmares and unsettling cries that lie within its walls. The characters have no agency over space. There is no domain that lies outside of the problems and villains that taunt them.
This paradox of space complicates the line between interiority and exteriority. The interior, which is meant to be private, safe, and peaceful, is penetrated by the dangers of the exterior world, leaving no space reserved for relief. The exterior space is revealed to be the interior. The terrors from which Julia runs, namely patriarchal control and marital rape, are revealed to have no outside. Everything lies within their realm. There is no place to run or hide because every space is Mazzini, making it everywhere and nowhere all at once. Home, which is meant to act as a refuge, is a notion absent due to the physics of A Sicilian Romance. The space of the novel is a prison that gives the illusion of freedom, mobility, and choice, and it is perhaps this facade that makes it all the more terrifying. One perceives they are moving somewhere when in reality they are stranded in place. Roads are essentially treadmills, tiring the energy of the characters but bringing them nowhere.
Interiority and exteriority are not only violated in matters of space. The boundary between interior and exterior is also destroyed in matters of relations, in terms of the foreign and the familiar. As the duke sets out on his search for Julia, there are instances where he sees the foreign in the familiar and the familiar in the foreign. First, in the cave of banditti: “But what were the emotions of the duke, when he discovered in the person of the principal robber his own son!” (86). And later, on the banks of a river: “But what was the disappointment — the rage of the duke, when in the person of the lady he discovered a stranger!” (94). In the first instance, the duke discovers his son is the leader of banditti, the familiar in the foreign. In the second, he discovers the maiden he has been pursuing is not Julia but a stranger, the foreign in the familiar. The language Radcliffe uses is identical, the sentence structures mirrored. One revelation is a reflection of the other. In the same way relief is denied through the infiltration of the interior sphere, it too is denied in the broken comforts that familiarity otherwise promises. Familiar and stranger are one in the same. Foreign enemies know one with the intimacy of a friend.
Not only is there no variation of space, but there is no variation of individual. Instead, the narrative is left with empty character archetypes: the fleeing maiden, the cruel father, the noble cavalier. Every young woman is Julia. Every duke is her father. And every chivalrous nobleman is Hippolitus (including Julia’s brother, Ferdinand). The familiar face becomes lost in a sea of banality and therefore cannot be distinguished, just as the face of a stranger is unrecognizable in a crowd. The universe of the novel is therefore not only immobile but profoundly isolated.
The complete lack of boundaries among time, space, and relations gives the underlying terrors of the novel, predominantly the ghostly traumas of patriarchy and sexual violence, free reign over its universe. Terrors assumed to be external are made profoundly more frightening when revealed to lie not in the exterior, but within close proximity all along. These terrors become more inescapable, as they are revealed to be the foundations that make up the very social fabrics that make up not only the setting, but the nature of the characters. To defeat these terrors would at some level require a defeat of the self. The threat is not the monster under the bed, but rather the one with you in the sheets.
If these terrors are given so much power then what does one make of the novel-proper’s conclusion? Are the characters ever really able to be happy? Foremost, one must define happiness in terms of the novel. Happiness is established as “a pleasing, lasting effect” that stems from wisdom and virtue (20). The key is in the word “lasting,” which implies that happiness must be a pleasure that is eternal or, at the very least, long-term. “Lasting” becomes evermore difficult to recognize and obtain with the abandonment of linear time. Because this narrative world is a composition of the same plot repeating, then there can be no lasting sense of peace and closure. Of course, the novel-proper ties up the physical book with a sugary-sweet ending, with the lovers reunited and the villains perished and all of the virtuous characters moved far from Mazzini with their respective happily ever afters. But, as stated before, this paradoxical universe portrays all women as fleeing women and all dukes and counts as vice-ridden men perpetually pursuing. In terms of the material book, there is an ounce of cheap and packaged satisfaction. But in the universe there will always be a protagonist running from terrors that are already everywhere all at once.
If past, present, and future are simultaneous or non-existent periods altogether, then Julia is running from the duke at the same time she is married to her lover. Hippolitus is “dead” at the same time he is reunited with Julia. Therefore, one can hardly call the pleasure of this “ending” lasting. On the contrary, their pleasure is quite temporary. Pleasure is momentary in the apeirogonous nature of time and in this isolated space, fashioned into a section of an ever-looping mobius strip. Pleasure constantly faces build-up and then destruction, always without the catharsis of climax or tangibility. There is no genuine reward because the terrors are perpetual. There is no safety and there is no comfort. There is no happiness if one is defining it as a lasting effect.
But the novel gives multiple faces to happiness. Happiness is also heavily intertwined with the notion of virtue. “Happiness has this essential difference from what is commonly called pleasure, that virtue forms its basis” (20). A Sicilian Romance established happiness and virtue as cause and effect, declaring itself a “striking instance of moral retribution” (199). Because they are relationally cause and effect, the absence of happiness might be mistaken to imply the absence of virtue. However, doing so would overlook all of its physics previously mentioned which have no ability to allow for ripe conditions of lasting happiness. The “no effect indicates no cause” notion would only be valid in a space with linear time. After taking into account the structure of tension, the time-loop spanning over the eternal efforts of the characters against vice, virtue is then not necessarily absent but stuck in this karmic test. The time loop means that the fundamentals of causality, that cause (virtue) is not mutually exclusive to effect (happiness), do not exist. Virtue and happiness can still stand as cause and effect without codependency. The absence of happiness does not equal an absence of virtue. The implications of casualty become manipulated with the paradoxical nature of time. The narrative universe does not function by cause and effect, by effort and reward, “but [by] trial of their virtue” (199). This trial is never-ending. Virtue is being exercised over and over again, but the time-loop forever denies the satisfaction and reward of happiness. Therefore, the definition of virtue can no longer find its basis on its effect (happiness) and must be based elsewhere. Because it cannot be distinguished by its effect, it must be distinguished by its opposition. The answer to virtue is, oddly enough, vice.
Virtue and vice are bound as black and white forces that push and pull each other throughout the novel until one dominates. The material of virtue and the material of vice are therefore adjacent. Virtue makes up vice and vice makes up virtue. Their values become interdependent and non-intrinsic. This can be seen in the use of vice to carry out virtuous justice, specifically in the fates of the marquis and Maria de Vellorno, whose “deaths marked the consequences of [violent and luxurious passions] and held forth to mankind a singular instance of divine vengeance” (194). The intervention of divine virtue is enacted through forces of vice, through the anguish and deaths of the unvirtuous. The perpetual exercise of virtue then requires the perpetual temptations and trials of its opposition, vice. In these cruel and corrupt figures one finds the world haunted by vice: In the marquis of Mazzini, it is patriarchal control, malice, and murder. In the duke, it is sexual violence and pride. In the countess Maria de Vellorno, it is infidelity, vanity, and manipulation. It is only in contrast to these vices that the virtuous aspects of the righteous figures can exist: innocence, purity, chivalry, service, and mercy. The existence of the good and innocent figures (predominantly Julia, Hippolitus, and Ferdinand) relies on the existence of cruel and corrupt figures. In essence, the ghosts of vice must always loom to bring out virtue, and virtue can never rest in the effectless void of this mirror dimension. We are stuck in this “labyrinth of vice,” where “we can seldom return, but are led on, through correspondent mazes, to destruction” (184-185). The novel itself acknowledges the maze-like structure of its tension, in which no one will get out. It is a fight that will never have a resolution.
It is not just the binary opposition of virtue and vice that melt together. All binary oppositions melt together. Interior and exterior. Familiar and foreign. Virtue and vice. In the mirror dimension, all reflect each other to the point of indistinguishability, merging into a chaotic narrative universe devoid of any boundary. It is this ambiguity, the absence of any safe place, that reinforces the terrors of vice by giving them free rein and limiting the agency of all. The paradoxical terror is horrifying through its impulse to abide by no law or nature. As a result, there is no definite weapon or medicine against these terrors. The novel’s principle of happiness as a lasting effect cannot be obtained.
In the mirror dimension, we see glimpses of our own. What Radcliffe offers us in A Sicilian Romance is a revelation of the nature of our boundaries: our naturalized boundaries, our societal boundaries, and our personal boundaries. The existence of these boundaries is too often assumed to be inherent and solid. These fabricated and socialized boundaries appear to keep monsters at bay and provides one with a false sense of control. In so doing, these boundaries often blind one from a fundamental need for self-reflection. They make us overly confident in the morality we tell ourselves we exercise every day, yet often fail to truly examine or test. It is in a space without these boundaries that the novel shows us the sharp proximity of our loves and fears. In everything one fears there is something to be loved, and in everything one loves there is something to be feared.
There is significant use of discomfort; it forces one to recognize the renounced other. It exposes the interdependent nature of our own universe, which we have and continue to cut into arbitrary pieces. In many ways, we function like the characters of A Sicilian Romance, in that every day our virtue is tried by repeating encounters with vice. However, we have an advantage. We are within a linear timeline that allows us to experience effect, that holds the conditions for the catharsis of broken tension and for happiness. Perhaps not happiness that is “lasting,” but happiness that is tangible.
Radcliffe, Ann. A Sicilian Romance. Oxford's World Classics, 1790.