19. Matthew Lewis’s ‘The Monk’: Seeking intercourse with the Devil

For a long time I’ve believed that the wellspring of all horror stories may be located in the Latin: timor mortis conturbat me. But in my stray thinking about the gothic tradition while I was at work on The Possessions of Doctor Forrest it did begin to occur to me that I was somewhat blinkered – that another opposing but equally compelling allure of horror might be a form of masochism, an actual desire on the part of the writer (and reader) to be haunted, brutalised, tortured and finally consigned to some awful yawning pit.
A big part of this shift in my thinking was the re-reading (after a gap of 20 years or so) of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), upon which I felt all of my old amazement at the stunning luridness and lubricity of this cornerstone work of the gothic. Lewis was young, 19, when he wrote the novel, and he wrote it fast – in the space of ten weeks. There may be some correlation between the pace of a work’s conception and its subsequent immediacy and potential appeal. The Monk is racy as hell, for sure, and it was hotly consumed by ‘scandalised’ readers.
Its protagonist is Ambrosio, the very model of a whited sepulchre, a handsome and ostensibly pious monk of Madrid whose preaching draws crowds at a grand Capuchin church and who presides with seeming rigour over a nearby gothic monastery. Within himself, though, Ambrosio is a seething mess of repressed desire – one particular portrait of the Madonna, all ‘golden ringlets’ and ‘snowy bosom’, gets him highly excited/transported. And yet, as Lewis describes him, Ambrosio’s cloistered existence has left him unable quite to distinguish between the sexes, which is certainly useful to the novel’s plotting. He then conceives of a passion for a cowled and withdrawn young novice named Rosario who turns out to be a female, Matilda – not only the lovely doppelganger of his adored Madonna but a girl who desires him most dreadfully.
Still, Matilda has to do a fair amount of brazen temptation, and her diligence in the task of making Ambrosio succumb to fleshly pleasure sends a clear signal that she is not what she appears to be. The Monk is a novel in which Evil is forever shifting forms and rules in order to triumph over Man. Good is certainly a presence in the book if only by dint of its milieu, and Ambrosio’s stormy conscience is given a fair old airing. But finally (to paraphrase the movie version of Eco’s The Name of the Rose), he cannot resist the temptation to penetrate. He’s gagging for it, really – dying to fall, falling to die. And so after making free use of Matilda he quickly tires of her, fixates instead on the pious and ravishing 15-year-old Antonia – whereupon Matilda, with suspicious magnanimity, regains Ambrosio’s interest by promising him that by dark magic Antonia may be his.
This, for me, is the best part of the book: Matilda shedding another skin, shifting from the subservient role of Ambrosio’s breathless prey to the ‘bold and impious’ one of the monk’s dark sentinel:

“Why shrink you from me? I understand that enquiring look. Your suspicions are right, though your terrors are unfounded… Like you I shuddered at the thoughts of Magic: Like you I had formed a terrible idea of the consequences of raising a daemon… I dared to perform those mystic rites which summoned to my aid a fallen Angel. Judge what must have been my joy at discovering that my terrors were imaginary: I saw the Daemon obedient to my orders, I saw him trembling at my frown, and found that, instead of selling my soul to a Master, my courage had purchased for myself a Slave.”

You will not be surprised to hear that Ambrosio succumbs again, and again and again, and in due course is delivered by his own iniquities into, first, the clutches of the Spanish Inquisition and, second, the talons of Lucifer. With Ambrosio’s soul in his pocket the triumphant Lucifer has a number of grim revelations with which to further flay the monk, one being that ‘Matilda’ was never anything but a ‘a subordinate but crafty spirit’ in Satan’s employ, an emissary who assumed the earthly form most likely to bewitch Ambrosio.
Some character, then, this Matilda. There’s been a lot of contemporary scholarly discussion about ‘her’ transgressive/transgender identity/status, and for sure she is many things within the text. But I would have to agree with those critics who attribute this protean quality more to the inevitable flaws in Lewis’s plot carpentry – given the speed at which the book was assembled – than to some express wish on Lewis’s part to undermine the patriarchal epistemes of the novel…
The great Luis Bunuel and his regular screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere dreamed of collaborating on a film of The Monk but in the end Carriere’s screenplay was shot without distinction by a lesser director. I rather wish Bunuel had been around to contemplate a movie of The Name of the Rose, which treats the monastic repression of sexuality with rather more elegance. Let me finish by returning to that (quite worthy) film made in 1986 from Eco’s novel. The following exchanges between the Franciscan monk William of Baskerville and his assistant novice Adso of Melk are as in the clip below.

Adso: Master? Have you ever been in love?
William: In love? Huh. Many times.
Adso: You were?
William: Yes, of course. Aristotle, Ovid, Virgil…
Adso: No, no, no. I meant with a…
William: Oh. Ah. Are you not confusing love with lust?
Adso: Am I? I don’t know. I want only her own good. I want her to be happy. I want to save her from her poverty.
William: Oh, dear.
Adso: Why “oh dear”?
William: You are in love.
Adso: Is that bad?
William: For a monk, it does present certain problems.
Adso: But doesn’t Saint Thomas Aquinas praise love above all other virtues?
William: Yes, the love of God, Adso. The love of God.
Adso: Oh… And the love of woman?
William: Of woman? Thomas Aquinas knew precious little, but the scriptures are very clear. Proverbs warns us, “Woman takes possession of a man’s precious soul”, while Ecclesiastes tells us, “More bitter than death is woman”.
Adso: Yes, but what do you think, Master?
William: Well, of course I don’t have the benefit of your experience, but I find it difficult to convince myself that God would have introduced such a foul being into creation without endowing her with *some* virtures. Hmm…?

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