1 Introduction
from Philip Thomson, The Grotesque. Methuen Critical Idiom Series, 1972.
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Beckett


Swift


Kafka

In Samuel Beckett's novel Watt there is a description of a remarkable family called Lynch, which reads in part as follows:
There was Tom Lynch, widower, aged eighty-five years, confined to his bed with constant undiagnosed pains in the caecum, and his three surviving boys Joe, aged sixty-five years, a rheumatic cripple, and Jim, aged sixty-four years, a hunchbacked inebriate, and Bill, widower, aged sixty-three years, greatly hampered in his movements by the loss of both legs as the result of a slip, followed by a fall, and his only surviving daughter May Sharpe, widow, aged sixty-two years, in full possession of all her faculties with the exception of that of vision. Then there was Joe's wife née Doyly-Byrne, aged sixty-five years, a sufferer from Parkinson's palsy but otherwise very fit and well, and Jim's wife Kate née Sharpe aged sixty-four years, covered all over with running sores of an unidentified nature but otherwise fit and well. Then there was Joe's boy Tom aged forty-one years, unfortunately subject alternately to fits of exaltation, which rendered him incapable of the least exertion, and of depression, during which he could stir neither hand nor foot, and Bill's boy Sam, aged forty years, paralysed by a merciful providence from no higher than the knees down and from no lower than the waist up, and May's spinster daughter Ann, aged thirty-nine years, greatly reduced in health and spirits by a painful congenital disorder of an unmentionable kind, and Jim's lad Jack aged thirty-eight years, who was weak in the head, and the boon twins Art and Con aged thirty-seven years, who measured in height when in their stockinged feet three feet and four inches and who weighed in weight when stripped to the buff seventy-one pounds all bone and sinew and between whom the resemblance was so marked in every way that even those (and they were many) who knew and loved them most would call Art Con when they meant Art, and Con Art when they meant Con, as least as often as, if not more often than, they called Art Art when they meant Art, and Con Con when they meant Con. And then there was young Tom's wife Magnee Sharpe aged forty-one years, greatly handicapped in her house and outdoor activity by sub-epileptic seizures of monthly incidence, during which she rolled foaming on the floor or on the yard, or on the vegetable patch, or on the river's brim, and seldom failed to damage herself in one way or another, so that she was obliged to go to bed, and remain there, every month, until she was better, and Sam's wife Liz nee Sharpe, aged thirty-eight years, fortunate in being more dead than alive as a result of having in the course of twenty years given Sam nineteen children, of whom four survived, and again expecting, and poor Jack who it will be remembered was weak in the head his wife Lil née Sharpe aged thirty-eight years, who was weak in the chest. (Grove Press edition, New York, 1959, pp. 101-2)
We may well ask ourselves what our response to this passage is, or ought to be. The question is likely to arise because chances are that the reader's reaction will be somewhat confused, or at least divided. He will presumably respond to the tragic, disgusting or deformed nature of the unfortunate Lynches with a certain amount of horror, pity—perhaps even nausea. On the other hand the undoubtedly comic aspect of the description will rather induce him to respond with amusement or mirth. Indeed, it may be difficult to resolve this conflict in response. Re-reading may serve only to reinforce what is essentially a clash between incompatible reactions—laughter on the one hand and horror or disgust on the other. In seeking to explain this peculiar mixture in our response, we might point to a similar clash in the text itself, between—on the most obvious level—the gruesome or horrifying content and the comic manner in which it is presented. And in searching for words to convey this clash we should probably come up—along with a number of other more or less accurate descriptions—with the word 'grotesque', if only on the vague basis by which the same word in phrases such as 'a grotesque scene' conveys the notion of simultaneously laughable and horrifying or disgusting. What will be generally agreed upon, in other words, is that 'grotesque' will cover, perhaps among other things, the co-presence of the laughable and something which is incompatible with the laughable.

A further point needs to be made about our reaction to Beckett's text. After the initial response to this passage, which as I have suggested will be essentially divided, the reader may well do one of two things as a further reaction. He may decide that the passage is more funny than horrifying, he may 'laugh it off' or treat it as a joke; alternatively, he may be indignant and regard it as an outrage to his moral sensibilities that such things should be presented in a humorous light. Both these secondary responses, if I may term them such, are highly interesting psychologically, and we shall have occasion to return to them. Suffice to say for the present that they both involve rationalization and defence-mechanisms, suggesting that the grotesque (assuming that this is in fact what we are confronted with) is hard to take, and that we tend to try to escape the discomfort it causes.

The reader who remains caught in his initial reaction or who does not allow secondary considerations to colour his response, may decide that nothing can be gained by regarding the above passage in isolation and that, if it were put in context, the tone of the whole thing and therefore one's response would be made clear and straightforward. Any reader moderately familiar with Watt, or with the work of Beckett in general, will of course know that this is not the case. On the contrary, the more 'context' one adds to a given passage the more uncertain one becomes.

One other potential misconception needs to be met at this stage. It may be felt, both in relation to the above passage and generally, that there is no point to the grotesque, that it is a gratuitous mixing together of incompatible elements for its own sake, or for no other purpose than to bewilder the reader. But while this may be the case with some instances of the grotesque, it is dangerous to generalize. Some of the most notable uses of the grotesque occur in the work of Swift, and here it is quite clear that the grotesque is being calculatingly employed in the service of something which has a definite purpose—satire, in the main. This. is the case, for example, with "A Modest Proposal," a piece which begins in seemingly innocent fashion with the speaker deploring the large numbers of neglected and unemployable waifs in Ireland, and, in the manner of a mathematician or an economist, presenting certain calculations intended to illuminate this sorry state of affairs. The initiated or discerning reader will fairly quickly see that Swift is adopting the tone and manner of the economist for a purpose: he is able to make good capital out of the contrast between this dry, pedantic manner and the horrifying conditions he describes. It is very doubtful, however, whether any reader is prepared for the proposal itself, which is presented with shocking suddenness:

I shall now therefore humbly propose my own Thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least Objection. I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy Child well Nursed is at a Year Old a most delicious nourishing and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or a Ragout.

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration, that of the Hundred and twenty thousand Children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for Breed, whereof only one fourth part to be Males; which is more than we allow to Sheep, black Cattle, or Swine, and my Reason is, that these Children are seldom the Fruits of Marriage, a Circumstance not much regarded by our Savages, therefore, one Male will be sufficient to serve four Females. That the remaining Hundred thousand may at a year Old be offered in Sale to the Persons of Quality and Fortune, through the Kingdom, always advising the Mother to let them Suck plentifully in the last Month, so as to render them Plump, and Fat for a good Table. A Child will make two Dishes at an Entertainment for Friends, and when the Family dines alone, the fore and hind Quarter will make a reasonable Dish, and seasoned with a little Pepper or Salt will be very good Boiled on the fourth Day, especially in Winter.

Here again one's response is likely to be confused. Horror will certainly be present in it, but surely also delight in the savage wit of Swift and a mirthful reaction to the utter incongruity between the appalling substance of the proposal and the reasonable, sober manner in which it is put. A full response to this text, I suggest, will not allow the mirth to be blotted out by the horror, or vice versa. Both will remain, in a state of tension. One might speculate, indeed, whether the comic element does not in effect make the whole thing even more shocking, even more difficult to stomach. An interesting point about the passage is that one's horror is not really diminished by the knowledge that Swift is not serious; that is, the intellectual awareness of what Swift is up to is unable to prevent the emotional impact of the proposal. This suggests that .the effect of the grotesque is at least as strongly emotional as it is intellectual. It is also worth noting that the incongruity mentioned above as comic is also the source of additional horror; that is, the grisly nature of the proposal is bad enough, but the mild and reasonable tone in which it is put makes it worse. This is important: it indicates that the extreme incongruity associated with the grotesque is itself ambivalent in that it is both comic and monstrous.

It may be objected that the notion of the grotesque so far advanced takes no account of an aspect which is felt by some people to be essential:  the aspect, namely, of eeriness. of the spinechillingly uncanny. While I am not at all sure that this is a necessary element in the grotesque, it may be expedient to consider now a third passage, from the beginning of Franz Kafka's story The  Metamorphosis

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were, armour-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed-quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

What has happened to me? he thought. It was no dream. His room, a regular human bedroom, only rather too small, lay quiet between the four familiar walls. Above the table on which a collection of cloth samples was unpacked and spread out—Samsa was a commercial traveler—hung the picture which he had recently cut out of an illustrated magazine and put into a pretty gilt frame. It showed a lady, with a fur cap on and a fur stole, sitting upright and holding out to the spectator a huge fur muff into which the whole other forearm had vanished.

Gregor's eyes turned next to the window, and the overcast sky one could hear raindrops beating on the window gutter—made him quite melancholy. What about sleeping a little longer and forgetting all this nonsense, he thought, but it could not be done, for he was accustomed to sleep on his right side and in his present condition he could not turn himself over. However violently he forced himself towards his right side he always rolled on to his back again. He tried it at least a hundred times, shutting his eyes to keep from seeing his struggling legs, and only desisted when he began to feel in his side a faint dull ache he had never experienced before.

O God, he thought, what an exhausting job I've picked on! Traveling about day in, day out. It's much more irritating work than doing the actual business in the warehouse, and on top of that there's the trouble of constant traveling, of worrying about train connections, the bed and irregular meals, casual acquaintances that are always new and never become intimate friends. The devil take it all! He felt a slight itching up on his belly; slowly pushed himself on his back nearer to the top of the bed so that he could lift his head more easily; identified the itching place which was surrounded by many small white spots the nature of which he could not understand, and made to touch it with a leg, but drew the leg back immediately, for the contact made a cold shiver run through him. (trans. by W. and E. Muir, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1963)

Whether or not this is felt to be eerie, I suggest that once again the crucial factor in one's reaction to it is the confusion between a sense of the comic and something—revulsion, horror, fear—which is incompatible with the comic. And here also, this confusion corresponds to a thorough-going mixture of incompatibles in the text. Gregor is a human being, but at the same time a monstrous insect; he thinks like a man, but has the human-sized body of a repulsive type of vermin (the English 'insect' does not render the nastiness of Ungeziefer in the original German). Gregor's matter-of-fact attitude and trivial thoughts stand in ludicrous—but somehow also terrifying—contrast to his monstrous predicament. There is a constant interplay, carried on for several more pages, between Gregor's banal worries about everyday matters and references to his terrible physical situation. Not least, Kafka's way of turning away from Gregor himself, after the initial startling paragraph, to indulge in a seemingly pointless description of the uninteresting room, and the cool, quiet, factual tone of the narrative in general, are extremely inappropriate.

As for 'eerie', we may well apply the word to such a passage, to cover a mixture of epithets like 'weird', 'frightening', 'mysterious' and so on. But I suggest that unless we take 'eerie' to contain also some suggestion of the comic—and this would be most unusual--it is not the most appropriate word, as it covers only one aspect of the passage. This must be the objection, indeed, to those views of the grotesque as something essentially uncanny and unnatural. There is a further danger here also, that one could be misled into associating the grotesque too closely with the fantastic. The relationship between the two is complicated, and we shall be obliged to dwell on it at a later stage, but it is interesting to note in the above passage that, however unnatural and impossible the metamorphosis which Kafka describes, it is narrated in an entirely realistic, indeed matter-of-fact fashion, as if it were a quite ordinary event. Kafka is at pains to prevent our taking his story on the level of a fairy-tale, horror-story, tale of the supernatural or fantastic, and he explicitly says 'It was no dream'. The story is not situated in the realm of the fantastic, and the reader does not respond to it in this way: on the contrary. We can take it, then, as likely that, far from possessing a necessary affinity with the fantastic, the grotesque derives at least some of its effect from being presented within a realistic framework, in a realistic way.

My insistence on the comic aspect of the beginning of The Metamorphosis should not be taken as an attempt to deny in any way the horror of Kafka's story. On the contrary, as mentioned earlier, the intrusion of the comic element, totally out of place and inappropriate, serves to increase the reader's sense of the frightful nature of these scenes. We feel that this mixture of horror and comedy is 'impossible', we cannot be reconciled to it, we may even feel it is indecent and indicative of a warped mind—but we are unable to shake off the profoundly disturbing effect which it has on us.

One further factor common to the three examples so far offered is worth noting, namely the physical nature of the events and descriptions presented—physical in each case in an immediate and vivid way. Beckett's diseased and deformed Lynch family, the very concrete details of Swift's proposal for serving up children at dinner, and Gregor's metamorphosis all involve the human body in a quite direct way, and we are probably safe in surmising that a good deal of the effect of these passages has to do with the palpable detail in which they are presented. Certain problems are raised by this, the most important being the possibility that our laughter at some kinds of the grotesque and the opposite response—disgust, horror, etc.—mixed with it, are both reactions to the physically cruel, abnormal or obscene; the possibility, in other words, that alongside our civilized response something deep within us, some area of our unconscious, some hidden but very much alive sadistic impulse makes us react to such things with unholy glee and barbaric delight. Just how far one can legitimately pursue this aspect of the grotesque is doubtful, but we may note that, at the very least, grotesque has a strong affinity with the physically abnormal.

 

1 Introduction | 2 The Term and Concept 'Grotesque': A Historical Summary | 3 Towards a Definition | The Grotesque and Related Terms and Modes | 5 Functions and Purposes of the Grotesque

Bibliography | Index