2. The Term and Concept 'Grotesque': A Historical Summary
from Philip Thomson, The Grotesque. Methuen Critical Idiom Series, 1972.
















The three passages offered above and the discussion of them reflect, necessarily, a contemporary understanding of the grotesque. I have tried to keep to examples of and notions about the grotesque on which there is general agreement among modern writers on the subject, although this is not easy. But a discussion of the grotesque cannot afford to ignore the historical development of the word 'grotesque' and its usage, and the various previous concepts of what is meant by the term, particularly as some of these older notions are still accepted (rightly or wrongly). The application of the term in the eighteenth century is likely to be markedly different from its use in the nineteenth, and both can be expected to be different from our present usage. These past uses of the word, however, can be extremely helpful in reaching our own understanding of the grotesque, even if we decline to take them over in toto. It is even possible to gain valuable insights into our subject from earlier conceptions which we completely reject. Accordingly, it will prove helpful to suspend at this point our consideration of the three examples presented in order to trace briefly the development of the word and concept 'grotesque'.

Literary terms, particularly those denoting categories and modes of writing, are constantly in need of repair and renewal. They become worn, their application becomes loose or distorted by a variety of factors ranging from over-subjectivity on the part of the individuals using them to the particular tastes of a given historical era. The grotesque has suffered even more than most from this inevitable variation, perhaps because of its radical and extreme nature; indeed, only recently has there been agreement on whether 'the grotesque' is a valid and meaningful term at all. Despite some notable, but isolated, attempts in the nineteenth century to define the nature of the grotesque, it was not until the appearance in 1957 of the book by the late German critic Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, that the grotesque became the object of considerable aesthetic analysis and critical evaluation. Where previous ages had seen in it merely the principle of disharmony run wild, or relegated it to the cruder species of the comic, the present tendency—one which must be welcomed as a considerable step forward—is to view the grotesque as a fundamentally ambivalent thing, as a violent clash of opposites, and hence, in some of its forms at least, as an appropriate expression of the problematical nature of existence. It is no accident that the grotesque mode in art and literature tends to be prevalent in societies and eras marked by strife, radical change or disorientation. Although one runs the risk of succumbing to clichés when one regards the past forty or fifty years as just such an era convulsed by momentous social and intellectual changes, it can nevertheless be fairly said that this is an important contributing factor in the present artistic situation, where the grotesque is very much in evidence. Even a quick random sampling of what is being currently produced—with such names as Harold Pinter and Joe Orton in England, J. P. Donleavy and John Barth in the U.S.A.,  Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco in France, Günter Grass in Germany and Friedrich Dürrenmatt in Switzerland—will attest to the extent to which the grotesque has become a favoured mode in world literature. This is not to speak of the other arts, where a similar situation prevails.

The grotesque is not of course a phenomenon solely of the twentieth century, nor even of modem civilization. It existed as an artistic mode in the West at least as far back as the early Christian period of Roman culture, where there evolved a style of combining human, animal and vegetable elements, intricately interwoven, in one painting. The German art historian Ludwig Curtius quotes the comments of the Roman writer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, writing during the reign of Augustus, on this new style:

. . . For our contemporary artists decorate the walls with monstrous forms rather than reproducing clear images of the familiar world. Instead of columns they paint fluted stems with oddly shaped leaves and volutes, and instead of pediments arabesques; the same with candelabra and painted edifices, on the pediments of which grow dainty flowers unrolling out of robes and topped, without rhyme or reason, by little figures. The little stems, finally, support half-figures crowned by human or animal heads. Such things, however, never existed, do not now exist, and shall never come into being. . . .

For how can the stem of a flower support a roof, or a candelabrum bear pedimental sculpture? How can a tender shoot carry a human figure, and how can bastard forms composed of flowers and human bodies grow out of roots and tendrils? (Quoted by Kayser, p. 20)

Two things are worth noting about this description. First, the main characteristic of this style is the confusion of heterogeneous elements, the interweaving of plant, animal, human and architectural forms. It is also strongly implied that Vitruvius finds this confusion both monstrous and ludicrous. Second, the attitude of the worthy Vitruvius is one of indignant rejection. He, the classical-minded critic, is outraged by the willful disregard of the principle of mimesis or realistic reproduction of the familiar world, and by the transgression against the laws of nature and proportion. It is an attitude towards the grotesque which has been common ever since, particularly in ages where classical notions of art and literature prevail.

Murals of the kind described by Vitruvius first came to light around 1500 in the course of excavations in Rome. From grotte (Ital. 'caves', thus by extension 'excavations') came the adjective grottesco and the noun le grottesca, denoting the kind of painting discussed above. The word grotesque occurs in French as early as 1532, and is used in English as well before being replaced around I640 by grotesqueEarly usages of the word in English are restricted to the antique paintings and to the imitations of this style which became popular in the sixteenth century, particularly in Italy (cf. the grotesques of Raphael). The extension of the word 'grotesque' to literature and to non-artistic things took place in France as early as the sixteenth-century (Rabelais uses it with reference to parts of the body), but in England and Germany only in the eighteenth century. With this extension 'grotesque' took on a broader meaning. In particular its association with caricature—a topic much discussed by eighteenth-century aestheticians led to what Kayser calls a loss of substance in the word, meaning the suppression of the horrifying or eerie qualities of the grotesque and a corresponding over-emphasis on the ridiculous and bizarre. Arthur Clayborough, in his book The Grotesque in English Literature (1965), also notes this development:

The word grotesque thus comes to be applied in a more general fashion during the Age of Reason and of Neo-Classicism--when the characteristics of the grotesque style of art—extravagance, fantasy, individual taste, and the rejection of the natural conditions of organization' are the object of ridicule and disapproval. The most general sense which it has developed by the early eighteenth century is therefore that of "ridiculous, distorted, unnatural' (adj.); 'an absurdity, a distortion of nature' (noun). (p. 6)
These pejorative connotations of the grotesque persisted, alongside the original technical meaning of a particular type of painting, into the nineteenth century and indeed to a large extent into the twentieth. Even those writers well-disposed towards the grotesque tended to treat it as a vulgar species of the comic, closely allied to the burlesque and to caricature. In Germany, both Justus Moser in Harlekin oder die Verteidigung des Grotesk-Komischen (Harlequin or The Defence of the Grotesquely Comic, 1761) and F. Th. Vischer in his Aesthetics of 1857 deprive the grotesque in this way of its more serious qualities. The same may be said of John Addington Symonds (Caricature, the Fantastic, the Grotesque, 1890 ) and Thomas Wright (A History of Caricature and Grotesque in Literature and Art, 1865), although the latter does not entirely deny the presence of the horrifying or disgusting in the grotesque. Another German, Heinrich Schneegans, whose Geschichte der grotesken Satire (History of Grotesque Satire, 1894) concentrates largely on Rabelais, likewise treats the grotesque in terms of ludicrous exaggeration.

Kayser and others have rightly objected to this view of the grotesque as exaggerated buffoonery or the ludicrously fantastic on the grounds that it fails to take account of the many instances of a co-presence of the ludicrous with the monstrous, the disgusting or the horrifying. Whether these instances are to be found in the paintings of Bosch and Brueghel or in Goya's Disasters of War, in the writings of SwiftBlake, E. T. A. Hoffmann and even the more savage passages of the usually jolly Rabelais, they cannot be explained, or even usefully apprehended, by reference merely to outrageous exaggeration.

It is perhaps easier for us, living in the second half of the twentieth century, to make this criticism and insist on a component of horror or something similar in the grotesque. It may be said that our notion of the grotesque is conditioned by the many examples from modem and contemporary literature of the comic inexplicably combined with the monstrous, of the interweaving of totally disparate elements, producing a strange and often unpleasant and unsettling conflict of emotions. Yet there are several writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who emphasize the serious and powerfully unsettling nature of the grotesque. These writers include such unlike natures as John Ruskin and Victor HugoFriedrich Schlegel and Walter Bagehot, but they all have in common the tendency to see in the grotesque something more than outlandish exaggeration or wild burlesque. Even the classical-minded Victorian Bagehot, who makes no bones, in his essay "Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning; or, Pure, Ornate, and Grotesque Art in English Poetry" (1864), about preferring pure to ornate and both to grotesque art, is ready to admit the legitimacy of the grotesque as a kind of negative example, the other side of the coin to the beautiful and sublime. For Ruskin, on the other hand, some types of grotesque, in the hands of noble men with true spiritual awareness (Dante, for example), are great, and may take their place with all but the very highest examples of art. In the chapter entitled "Grotesque Renaissance" in The Stones of Venice (1851-3) Ruskin distinguishes between 'noble' or 'true' grotesque and 'ignoble' or 'false' grotesque, the former being associated with the realization of man's tragic and imperfect nature, the latter with willful frivolity. Although we would perhaps reject the moralistic overtones of Ruskin's analysis, his work is noteworthy for the stress he places on the playful or sportive element in the grotesque. All grotesque art is for him partly a product of a specially strong urge to play, invent, manipulate—to experiment, we might say.

We may note two further points of interest in Ruskin's essay. He insists on the combination of the ludicrous and the terrible in the grotesque, and he associates the latter element with horror, anger or awe at the human condition. Just how the two elements—the ludicrous and the terrible—come to be combined is not made very clear, but it is interesting to observe that the idea of the terrible, specifically the metaphysically terrible, crops up again in Kayser's notion of the grotesque.

Ruskin was by no means the first to emphasize the play element in the grotesque. The German Romantic theorist Friedrich Schlegel, in his Gespräch über die Poesie (Conversation on Poetry, 1800), had spoken of the fecund imagination which the grotesque manifests, and from his theoretical writings in general it is clear that playfulness is an important ingredient in all those things the Romantics praised: as well as the grotesque and the 'arabesque' (the distinction between these is never made clear), the ironic, the paradoxical and the fantastic. Indeed for Schlegel all these modes—if we may call them such—overlap. Kayser, referring to the earlier Schlegel fragments in the first volume of the Athenäum, summarizes:

According to fragments 75, 305 and 389, grotesqueness is constituted by a clashing contrast between form and content, the unstable mixture of heterogeneous elements, the explosive force of the paradoxical, which is both ridiculous and terrifying. (p. 53)
Friedrich Schlegel makes approving reference to the German novelist Jean Paul (Friedrich Richter) as a grotesque writer. Interestingly Jean Paul, in his own theoretical work Vorschule der Ästhetik (Primer of Aesthetics, 1804), has a section dealing with what he calls 'die vernichtende Idee des Humors' (the annihilating idea of humour), by which he means that type of humour which is painful, awesome, which knows of evil and the abyss. Jean Paul thus adds a further factor to Schlegel's analysis of the grotesque, emphasizing the dark and terrible nature of some kinds of humour. Both his novels and his theoretical writings place Jean Paul firmly in the tradition of satanic and black humour—a tradition which continues to produce some of the best examples of the grotesque.

The most sustained Romantic discourse on the grotesque comes not from Germany but from France. Victor Hugo's preface to his drama Cromwell (1827), intended as a programme for a new (i.e. Romantic) kind of literature, is devoted largely to a discussion of the grotesque as the characteristic mode of modern—as against pre-Romantic—art. Much of what Hugo has to say has already been touched on above in connection with other writers on the grotesque, but we should note his insistence that the grotesque, transmitted through the medium of comic drama, is to be the hallmark of literature henceforth. Hugo thus removes the grotesque from the fringes of artistic creation to a position of centrality, stressing the infinite variety in the comic, the horrible and the ugly—the latter is especially important to him—compared to the narrow confines of the beautiful and sublime. It is also worth noting that Hugo associates the grotesque not with the fantastic but with the realistic making it clear that the grotesque is not just an artistic mode or category but exists in nature and in the world around us.

This last point—an extremely important one, for it shifts the grotesque into the realm of realistic as against fantastic art—is also made by G. K. Chesterton in his book Robert Browning (1903). Chesterton asserts, as Clayborough puts it, 'that the grotesque may be employed as a means of presenting the world in a new light without falsifying it', i.e. that it may be a function of the grotesque to make us see the (real) world anew, from a fresh perspective which, though it be a strange and disturbing one, is nevertheless valid and realistic. This is a notion which gains importance in the twentieth century and one which will bear examination when we come to the concept of alienation.

Chesterton looks at the grotesque in three ways: as a reflection of the real world, as an artistic mode and as the product of a certain kind of temperament. The latter consideration involves of course psychological analysis and speculation, an approach which brings obvious dangers with it as one must rely on getting at the grotesque through the mental make-up and artistic temperament of the author. However, several attempts of this kind have been made, the most notable being Clayborough's use of Jungian psychology to analyse the grotesque elements in Swift, Coleridge and Dickens. Clayborough operates with two pairs of opposites: progressive and regressive, and positive and negative. Progressive art is associated with a predominance of the conscious mind in the creative process, regressive art with a predominance of the unconscious. Positive art is art where no inner conflict is felt, where the presentation of truth or reality proceeds harmoniously, negative art the opposite. For Clayborough, the two kinds of art which have the most affinity with the grotesque are the regressive-negative and the progressive-negative, the former being linked with subjective, non-directed grotesquery (surrealism is mentioned in this connection), the latter with grotesquery used as a tool of satire or as a shock tactic.

Though it would be unkind to say that Clayborough's terminology confuses rather than illuminates, his treatment of the grotesque really amounts to no more than a re-statement, in different terms, of the fairly well-established fact that the grotesque is essentially disharmonious, depending on conflict of some sort, and that it may be either the expression of a profound sense of dislocation and alienation or employed as an aggressive device in the service of satire and the like.

The most thorough attempt to define the nature of the grotesque is Wolfgang Kayser's book, which comes to the following conclusions:

The grotesque is the expression of the estranged or alienated world, i.e. the familiar world is seen from a perspective which suddenly renders it strange (and, presumably, this strangeness may be either comic or terrifying, or both).

The grotesque is a game with the absurd, in the sense that the grotesque artist plays, half laughingly, half horrified, with the deep absurdities of existence.

The grotesque is an attempt to control and exorcise the demonic elements in the world.

Kayser thus offers not so much a definition of the grotesque as a list of overlapping properties. We may object also to the somewhat melodramatic over-emphasis on the 'demonic', which totally removes the fearsome aspect of the grotesque to the realm of the irrational—almost of the supernatural. But the real value of his book is greater than his conclusions may indicate. In particular, he was the first to insist that the grotesque can be seen, must be seen if it is to be meaningful as an aesthetic category, as 'a comprehensive structural principle'. The implication of this, which Kayser himself does not always follow, is that there must be a certain pattern peculiar to the grotesque, a certain fundamental structure which is perceivable in the grotesque work of art and its effect, as there is in parody, say, or to take a more complicated example—in irony.

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