3 Towards a Definition
from Philip Thomson, The Grotesque. Methuen Critical Idiom Series, 1972.







Disharmony | The Comic and the Terrifying | Extravagance and Exaggeration | Abnormality | A Definition | The Satiric and the Playful Grotesque

Before an attempt is made to further define this pattern, however, it may be helpful to summarize the main points to emerge from the preceding survey. It is obvious that 'grotesque' does not have a constant meaning, but we may distinguish certain recurring notions about it. In so doing, we shall try to move closer to an adequate modern definition of the grotesque.

The most consistently distinguished characteristic of the grotesque has been the fundamental element of disharmony, whether this is referred to as conflict, clash, mixture of the heterogeneous, or conflation of disparates. It is important that this disharmony has been seen, not merely in the work of art as such, but also in the reaction it produces and (speculatively) in the creative temperament and psychological make-up of the artist.

Writers on the grotesque have always tended to associate the grotesque with either the comic or the terrifying. Those who see it as a sub-form of the comic class the grotesque, broadly, with the burlesque and the vulgarly funny. Those who emphasize the terrifying quality of the grotesque often shift it towards the realm of the uncanny, the mysterious, even the supernatural. There are naturally a good many positions between these two poles, but, apart from a few exceptions in earlier periods, the tendency to view the grotesque as essentially a mixture in some way or other of both the comic and the terrifying ( or the disgusting, repulsive, etc.) in a problematical (i.e. not readily resolvable) way is a comparatively recent one. We should emphasize the last part of this description of the grotesque: the special impact of the grotesque will be lacking if the conflict is resolved, if the text concerned proves to be just funny after all, or if it turns out that the reader has been quite mistaken in his initial perception of comedy in what is in fact stark horror. The unresolved nature of the grotesque conflict is important, and helps to mark off the grotesque from other modes or categories of literary discourse. For the conflict of incompatibles, fundamental though it be, is not exclusively a criterion of the grotesque. Irony and paradox depend on this sort of conflict or confrontation, and all theories of the comic are based on some notion of incongruity, conflict, juxtaposition of opposites, etc. We shall later investigate more closely the distinctions between the grotesque and these other modes, but we may confidently take it that the lack of resolution of the conflict is a distinguishing feature of the grotesque.

Of course, the mixture of the comic and the terrifying may be disproportionate, so that we have a case of a basically comic text with a very slight element of the frightening, or vice versa. In such cases the use of the term 'grotesque' may be debatable. In Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood there is a description of the would-be poisoner Mr Pugh planning to rid himself of his nagging wife:

Alone in the hissing laboratory of his wishes, Mr Pugh minces among bad vats and jeroboams, tiptoes through spinneys of murdering herbs, agony dancing in his crucibles, and mixes especially for Mrs Pugh a venomous porridge unknown to toxicologists which will scald and viper through her until her ears fall off like figs, her toes grow big and black as balloons, and steam comes screaming out of her navel. (J. M. Dent, paperback edition, London, 1962, p. 63)
Do we feel here that the element of terror exists, or is present strongly enough to seriously conflict with the overall comic mood? Conversely, is there a comic element in the following scene from Joseph Heller's Catch-22 where the pilot McWatt is 'buzzing' a bathing beach?
He studied every floating object fearfully for some gruesome sign of Clevinger and Orr, prepared for any morbid shock but the shock Mc Watt gave him one day with the plane that came blasting suddenly into sight out of the distant stillness and hurtled mercilessly along the shore line with a great growling, clattering roar over the bobbing raft on which blond, pale Kid Sampson, his naked sides scrawny even from so far away, leaped clownishly up to touch it at the exact moment some arbitrary gust of wind or minor miscalculation of McWatt's senses dropped the speeding plane down just low enough for a propeller to slice him half away.

Even people who were not there remembered vividly exactly what happened next. There was the briefest, softest tsst! filtering audibly through the shattering, overwhelming howl of the plane's engines, and then there were just Kid Sampson's two pale, skinny legs, still joined by strings somehow at the bloody truncated hips, standing stock-still on the raft for what seemed a full minute or two before they toppled over backward into the water finally with a faint, echoing splash and turned completely upside down so that only the grotesque toes and the plaster-white soles of Kid Sampson’s feet remained in view. (Corgi paperback edition, New York, 1964, p. 359)

We may even focus the question more narrowly and put it slightly differently: does Heller's reference to ‘the grotesque toes' imply only a terrifying unnaturalness, or an element of comedy as well—a comedy so ghastly that we scarcely dare to give it the name?

It has always been generally agreed that the grotesque is extravagant, that it has a marked element of exaggeration, of extremeness, about it. This quality has often led to the association of the grotesque with the fantastic and fanciful. But we should be careful here: what Vitruvius and sundry later (mostly disapproving) classical-minded writers call the fantastic does not necessarily accord with our modem notion of it. As we noted previously, if 'fantastic' means simply a pronounced divergence from the normal and natural then the grotesque is undoubtedly fantastic. But if, as we surely must, we insist that the criterion be whether the material is presented in a fantastic, or realistic way, then we are more likely to conclude that, far from possessing an affinity with the fantastic, it is precisely the conviction that the grotesque world, however strange, is yet our world, real and immediate, which makes the grotesque so powerful. Even The Metamorphosis, in which the central event is 'impossible', will, as we have seen, bear this out.

Conversely, if a literary text 'takes place' in a fantasy-world created by the author, with no pretensions to a connection with reality, the grotesque is almost out of the question. For within a closed fantasy-world, anything is possible. The reader, once he is aware that he is confronted with such a closed world, accepts the strangest things without turning a hair, for he is not being asked to understand them as real. Gerhard Mensching, in a dissertation entitled Das Groteske im modernen Drama (The Grotesque in Modem Drama, 1961), rightly emphasizes this distinction:

No matter how inventive the author of the fantastic is, he will mostly keep to the perspective of the unreal (or anti-real). The fantastic world remains closed. It may be only through the inclusion, or omission, of a single piece of information at the beginning of the text, but there will be between author and reader a certain mutual understanding about the level at which everything is to be taken. The assumption, for example, that there are certain people who have the ability to hover in the air, could be the starting-point for a fantastic story of a humorous, uncanny or fairy-tale nature. But as long as the narrative perspective is retained unbroken it will be pure fantasy. Such a story might become grotesque, not because of some extraordinary bizarreness of invention, but because of the alternation or confusion of different perspectives. The hallmark of the grotesque in the realm of the fantastic is the conscious confusion between fantasy and reality. (p. 37, my trans.)
Mensching pinpoints here a very interesting source of the grotesque: the disorienting and even frightening, but also potentially comic, confusion of the real with the unreal. One has only to look at the relevant paintings by BoschBrueghel or, in the twentieth century, surrealists such as Max Emst and Salvador Dali, to recognize this.

We can get further with the quality of abnormality or unnaturalness (for it is essentially this which, as I have suggested, most earlier commentators meant when they talked of the 'fantastic'). It should be clear that the reaction outlined above as the classic reaction to the grotesque—the experience of amusement and disgust, laughter and horror, mirth and revulsion, simultaneously, is partly at least a reaction to the highly abnormal. For the abnormal may be funny (this is accurately reflected in the every-day usage of 'funny' to mean both 'amusing' and 'strange') and on the other hand it may be fearsome or disgusting. Delight in novelty and amusement at a divergence from the normal turns to fear of the unfamiliar and the unknown once a certain degree of abnormality is reached. Mirth at something which fails to conform to accepted standards and norms gives way to fear (and anger) when these norms are seen to be seriously threatened or attacked. This is a paradoxical matter, and we can perhaps make it clearer by taking the example of very small children (good guinea-pigs because their reactions are still spontaneous and uncomplicated) to whom one makes grimaces which increasingly distort the face. The child will laugh at the face pulled only up to a certain point (presumably, while it is still sure of the face as a familiar thing); once this point is passed, once the face becomes so distorted that the child feels threatened, it cries in fear. It is the thin dividing line between the two reactions which is of interest to the student of the grotesque, or, to put it more precisely, the situation where both reactions are evoked at the same time, where both the comic aspect of the abnormal and the fearful or disgusting aspect are felt equally. If we consider the three passages discussed before, we notice in each case a high degree of abnormality in what is being presented, and in each case this abnormality is a source both of the comic and of the disgusting or fearful: most clearly in Watt, where we are dealing with actual physical abnormalities, but it is true also for the other passages.

A further example may help to clarify what has been said about abnormality as an essential ingredient of the grotesque. In Smollet's Humphry Clinker, we are told of a 'famous Dr L-n' who, upon hearing complaints of the stench caused by river mud, launches 'into a learned investigation of the nature of stink'.

He observed, that stink, or stench, meant no more than a strong impression on the olfactory nerves; and might be applied to substances of the most opposite qualities; that in the Dutch language, stinken signifies the most agreeable perfume, as well as the most fetid odour,...

. . . that the French were pleased with the putrid effluvia of animal food; and so were the Hottentots Africa, and the Savages in Greenland; and that the Negroes on the coast of Senegal would not touch fish till it was rotten; strong presumptions in favour of what is generally called stink, as those nations are in a state of nature undebauched by luxury, unseduced by whim and caprice: that he had reason to believe the stercoraceous flavour, condemned by prejudice as a stink, was, in fact, most agreeable to the organs of smelling: for, that every person who pretended to nauseate the smell of another's execretions, snuffed up his own with particular complacency; for the truth of which he appealed to all the ladies and gentlemen then present: he said, the inhabitants of Madrid and Edinburgh found particular satisfaction in breathing their own atmosphere, which was always impregnated with stercoraceous effluvia: that the learned Dr B-, in his treatise on the Four Digestions, explains in what manner the volatile effluvia from the intestines stimulate and promote the operations of the animal economy; he affirmed, the last Grand Duke of Tuscany, of the Medicis family, who refined upon sensuality with the spirit of a philosopher, was so delighted with that odour that he caused the essence of ordure to be extracted, and used it as the most delicious perfume: that he himself (the doctor) when he happened to be low-spirited, or fatigued with business, found immediate relief and uncommon satisfaction from hanging over the stale contents of a close-stool, while his servant stirred it about under his nose. . . . (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1967, pp. 45-6)

We may well call this passage extravagant, outlandish and indecent (all epithets commonly used in relation to the grotesque) but, as suggested earlier, we shall understand better the special quality of it and similar passages if we work with the more objective term 'abnormal'. The preposterous doctor and his eccentric ideas are so divergent from the norm that they excite both our laughter and our disgust.

The essentially abnormal nature of the grotesque, and the direct and often radical manner in which this abnormality is presented, is responsible perhaps more than anything else for the not infrequent condemnation of the grotesque as offensive and uncivilized, as an affront to decency and an outrage to 'reality' and 'normality'—or, expressed in the less obviously moralistic language of aesthetic criticism, as tasteless and gratuitous distortion or forced, meaningless exaggeration. People's reaction to the abnormal varies enormously: the conservative man will tend to dismiss it in the above manner, the person who delights in the unusual and the novel will rather be fascinated. This is one reason why one person will find the kind of examples quoted in this book simply nauseating or horrifying, another simply funny, and a third (but I suggest this category is by far the largest) both things at once.

The preceding discussion of the role of the abnormal in the grotesque should not be allowed to dominate our notion of the phenomenon as a whole. The abnormal is a secondary factor, of great importance but subsidiary to what I have outlined as the (basic definition of the grotesque: the unresolved clash of incompatibles in work and response. It is significant that this clash is , paralleled by the ambivalent nature of the abnormal as present in the grotesque: we might consider a secondary definition of the grotesque to be 'the ambivalently abnormal'.

It has been fairly common practice to distinguish several varieties of the grotesque, in particular to set apart the 'satiric-grotesque' from the purely playful, purposeless or ornamental grotesque. This raises the question, to be examined more thoroughly in a later section, of the aims and functions of the grotesque. It is clear that between the employment of the grotesque purely as a weapon of satire and its use as fanciful decoration (as in the original grotesques uncovered around 1500) there is a whole range of possible functions which the grotesque may fulfill. Moreover, it is not always easy to decide what the primary purpose of a piece of grotesquery is: for example, in the passage from Humphry Clinker just given, is the grotesque employed solely to ridicule the doctor and his ilk, or do we sense something extra—a dwelling on and savouring of the ludicrous and the nauseating for their own sake, perhaps? On the other hand, is the following passage from Browning's Caliban upon Setebos, which Bagehot quotes as an example of the grotesque, mere indulgence in the ludicrously ugly, or is it (given the context of the whole poem) indicative of a profoundly tortured and agonized view of man and nature?

. . . Will sprawl, now that the heat of day is best,
Flat on his belly in the pit's much mire,
With elbows wide, fists clenched to prop his chin.
And, while he kicks both feet in the cool slush,
And feels about his spine small eft-things course,
Run in and out each arm, and make him laugh;
And while above his head a pompion-plant,
Coating the cave-top as a brow its eye,
Creeps down to touch and tickle hair and beard,
And now a flower drops with a bee inside,
And now a fruit to snap at, catch and crunch. . . .
The other question one asks oneself about this passage is: Is it really grotesque at all? By the criteria we have so far established it seems a very dubious case, and the suspicion is strengthened that what Bagehot, in company with many critics of his time, classed as grotesque, was simply somewhat bizarre and 'vulgar'.

Something more needs to be said at this point about the exaggerated, extreme and radical nature of the grotesque. Critics through the ages have commented on this, some unfavourably (the classical-minded in the main, since a sense of proportion and a measured dignity were values they found overturned by the grotesque) and some with unconcealed delight (Hugo, Chesterton and Bakhtin, notably). It is its radicality which marks the grotesque off from related categories such as the bizarre. Clearly, also, it plays a considerable role in the impact of the grotesque. Further, it should be noted that this radicality exists in both substance and presentation: in the subject-matter presented and in the means employed in the presentation.

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