4  The Grotesque and Related Terms and Modes
from Philip Thomson, The Grotesque. Methuen Critical Idiom Series, 1972.











De Gaulle








We have spoken of the grotesque as the unresolved clash of incompatibles, one of which is some form of the comic, and also as the arnbivalently abnormal. The first is a rather abstract definition, referring to the pattern or structure fundamental to the grotesque; the second is concerned more with the content of the grotesque. Both, however, are simply different ways of talking about the same thing. It may be of some help at this stage to Consider the grotesque in relation to certain other modes and categories, in order first to establish where the dividing lines are and second to see what variations there may be in the basic grotesque pattern outlined so far.

The Absurd | The Bizarre | The Macabre | Caricature
Parody | Satire | Irony | The Comic

'Absurd', like 'grotesque' has suffered from excessive and lax Use for some time. Both terms are often applied to something which is merely ridiculous, highly eccentric or stupid. If one insists on the strict meaning of 'absurd'—'opposed to reason'—it is clear that this will not always fit the grotesque. What complicates matters is that 'the Absurd' has, since Camus, become a term with wide implications, and that the use of the word in 'Theatre of the Absurd' has extended its meaning still further. A. P. Hinchliffe (in his discussion of the absurd in The Critical Idiom series) goes into the matter in detail, but We may note for our purposes that the modern use of the absurd' in the Context of literature (especially of the drama) brings it very close to the grotesque, so much so that the theatre of the absurd could almost as well be called the 'theatre of the grotesque'. Certainly the plays of BeckettIonescoAdamovGenetPinter and so on are a veritable treasure trove of the grotesque. We should probably be hard put to decide between 'grotesque' and 'absurd' to describe such characters as Lucky and Pozzo in Waiting for Godot, the Orator in Ionesco's The Chairs, and Madame in Genet's The Maids, or to characterize scenes like the emergence of Nagg and NeIl from their ashbins in Beckett's Endgame or the brain-washing episode in Act II of Pinter's The Birthday Party, where Stanley is interrogated by Goldberg and McCann:

Goldberg: Do you recognize an external force ?
Stanley: What?
Goldberg: Do you recognize an external force ?
McCann: That's the question!
Goldberg: Do you recognize an external force, responsible for you, suffering for you?
Stanley: It's late.
Goldberg: Late! Late enoughl When did you last pray ?
McCann: He's sweating!
Goldberg: When did you last pray ?
McCann: He's sweating!
Goldberg: Is the number 846 possible or necessary ?
Stanley: Neither.
Goldberg: Wrong! Is the number 846 possible or necessary?
Stanley: Both.
Goldberg: Wrong! It's necessary but not possible.
Stanley: Both.
Goldberg: Wrong! Why do you think the number 846 is necessarily possible ?
Stanley: Must be.
Goldberg: Wrong! It's only necessarily necessary! We admit possibility only after we grant necessity. It is possible because necessary but by no means necessary through possibility. The possibility can only be assumed after the proof of necessity.
McCann: Right!
Goldberg: Right? Of course right! We're right and you're wrong, Webber, all along the line.
McCann: All along the line!
Goldberg: Where is your lechery leading you?
McCann: You'll pay for this.
Goldberg: You stuff yourself with dry toast.
McCann: You contaminate womankind.
Goldberg: Why don't you pay the rent?
McCann: Mother defiler!
Goldberg: Why do you pick your nose ?
McCann: I demand justice!
Goldberg: What's your trade?
McCann: What about Ireland?
Goldberg: What's your trade?
Stanley: I play the piano.
Goldberg: How many fingers do you use ?
Stanley: No hands!
Goldberg: No society would touch you. Not even a building society.
McCann: You're a traitor to the cloth.
Goldberg: What do you use for pyjamas ?
Stanley: Nothing.
Goldberg: You verminate the sheet of your birth.
McCann: What about the Albigensenist heresy ?
Goldberg: Who watered the wicket in Melbourne?
McCann: What about the blessed Oliver Plunkett?
Goldberg: Speak up Webber. Why did the chicken cross the road?
Stanley: He wanted to -he wanted to -he wanted to. ..
McCann: He doesn't know!
Goldberg: Why did the chicken cross the road?
But the choice between 'absurd' and 'grotesque' for such scenes represents a false alternative, for there is no reason why all of these should not be absurd (in the sense in which the word is currently applied) and grotesque at the same time. There is, however, a crucial difference between the two terms. We have seen that the grotesque can be reduced to a certain formal pattern. But there is no formal pattern, no structural characteristics peculiar to the! absurd: it can only be perceived content, as a quality, a feeling or atmosphere, an attitude or world-view. The formal means of presenting it are many and varied: the absurd can be expressed through irony, or through philosophic argument, or through the grotesque itself. In connection with the latter possibility, we should note that consistent perception of the grotesque, or the perception of grotesqueness on a grand scale, can lead to the notion of universal absurdity.

The difference between the bizarre and the grotesque is mainly one of degree. The grotesque is more radical and usually more aggressive. Kayser expresses the difference by calling the grotesque more dangerous: the bizarre, he points out, can be used synonymously with 'very strange', 'outlandish'—it lacks the disturbing quality of the grotesque. Here one again of course runs into the problem of subjectivity: what is grotesque to one person may be only bizarre to another. But the difference in degree, as a statement of principle, is none the less valid, and Kayser's point is surely a good one. We are unlikely to find anything very disturbing in the following poem by Robert Graves:

Dr Newman with the crooked pince-nez
Had studied in Vienna and Chicago.
Chess was his only relaxation.
And Dr Newman remained unperturbed
By every nastier manifestation
Of pluto-democratic civilization;
All that was cranky, corny, ill-behaved,
Unnecessary, askew or orgiastic
Would creep unbidden to his side-door (hidden
Behind a poster in the Tube Station,
Nearly half-way up the moving stairs),
Push its way in, to squat there undisturbed
Among box-files and tubular steel-chairs.
He was once seen at the Philharmonic Hall
Noting the reactions of two patients,
With pronounced paranoiac tendencies,
To old Dutch music. He appeared to recall
A tin of lozenges in his breast-pocket,
Put his hand confidently in—
And drew out a black imp, or sooterkin,
Six inches long, with one ear upside-down,
Licking at a vanilla ice-cream comet—
Then put it back again with a slight frown.
Most people, I think, would call this bizarre, not grotesque. But just to illustrate how one man's bizarre can be another man's grotesque—this is one of six poems which Graves groups under the general title 'Grotesques'. Of course, the dividing line may in any case be very difficult to draw, and one can point to a number of works where the bizarre turns into the grotesque for a brief moment. We can describe this process in technical terms in the following way: something which is very strange, and perhaps ludicrous as well, is made so exceedingly abnormal that our laughter at the ludicrous and eccentric is intruded on by feelings of horror or disgust; or, a scene or character which is laughably eccentric suddenly becomes problematic, and our reaction to it mixed, through the appearance of something quite at odds with the comic. We may observe this phenomenon in an example from Tristram Shandy:
That this Ambrose Paroeus was chief surgeon and nose-mender to Francis the ninth of France, and in high credit with him and the two preceding, or succeeding kings (1 know not which)—and that, except in the slip he made in his story of Taliacotius's noses, and his manner of setting them on—he was esteemed by the whole college of physicians at that time, as more knowing in matters of noses, than anyone who had ever taken them in hand.

Now Ambrose Paroeus convinced my father, that the true and efficient cause of what had engaged so much the attention of the world, and upon which Prignitz and Scroderus had wasted so much learning and fine parts—was neither this nor that—but that the length and goodness of the nose was owing simply to the softness and flaccidity in the nurse's breast—as the flatness and shortness of puisne noses was to the firmness and elastic repulsion of the same organ of nutrition in the hale and lively—which, tho' happy for the woman, was the undoing of the child, inasmuch as his nose was so snubb'd, so rebuff'd, so rebated, and so refrigerated thereby, as never to arrive ad mensuram suam legitimam,—but that in case of the flaccidity and softness of the nurse or mother's breast—by sinking into it, quoth Paroeus, as into so much butter, the nose was comforted, nourish'd, plump'd up, refresh'd, refocillated, and set a growing for ever.

I have but two things to observe of Paroeus; first, That he proves and explains all this with the utmost chastity and decorum of expression—for which may his soul for ever rest in peace! . . . (Everyman edition, London, 1956, pp. 169-70)

What begins as a merely eccentric and bizarre account of a theory of nose shapes and sizes becomes perhaps somewhat disturbing with the mention of the infant nose sinking into the breast 'as into so much butter'. It would be too much to say that this image is monstrous, but there is something unsettling about the confusion between animate and inanimate, between the female breast and a lump of butter (perhaps the association of butter with milk, in the context, adds to this), and about the suggestion that the nose actually feeds upon the breast. But the feeling is there only for a moment; instead of developing the image further in the direction of grotesquery, as he doubtless could have, Sterne—and this is typical of him—returns to his whimsical style, with assurances that Paroeus expounds his theory 'with the utmost chastity and decorum of expression'.

Two further things are worth noting in passing about this passage. The first is that any writer whose natural element, so to speak, is the whimsical, the slightly off-key and eccentric, almost inevitably drops into the grotesque mode from time to time. (Diderot is another who immediately comes to mind: Le neveu de Rameau and Jacques le fataliste both present wonderfully eccentric—and occasionally grotesque—characters.) Once again, the dividing lines are difficult to draw, and there are many who regard these works of Sterne and Diderot as grotesque not only in places but through and through.

Second, the confusion between animate and inanimate referred to above recalls an important feature of the original grotesque paintings described by Vitruvius and imitated by Renaissance painters: the interweaving of plant, animal, human and architectural forms, so that a stone pedestal would become the torso of a human figure with curling plants for arms and an animal's head. It also brings to mind those theories of the comic, principally Henri Bergson's in Le rire, which attempt to locate the source of laughter in the perception of living things, especially human beings, as inanimate, and conversely also in the perception of inanimate objects as alive. Bergson's is a rather narrow and one-sided definition of the comic, and Kayser is closer to the mark when he classes this kind of confusion as one of the basic grotesque techniques, and mentions in this connection the puppet or marionette. Certainly there is something potentially grotesque about marionettes, automatons and the like. Human-like, animated yet actually lifeless  objects, they are apt to be simultaneously comical and eerie comical because of their imperfect approximation to human form and behaviour, eerie probably because of age-old, deep-rooted fears in man of animated and human-like objects. Conversely, a human being giving the appearance of being a marionette or robot is likewise grotesque: comical and strangely disturbing at the same time. Hence also the common description of dead bodies: 'The body lay in a grotesque position'—i.e. in a position normally only assumable by marionettes and dolls, with limbs and head in unnatural positions.

It should be clear from what has been said so far that the macabre and the grotesque frequently overlap. One would have difficulty, for example, in deciding on the one or the other term to describe the following death scene from Günter Grass's novel The Tin Drum. The dwarf hero Oskar, surrounded, together with his parents, by Russian soldiers in a cellar, hands back to his father Matzerath the latter's Nazi party pin:

Anyway, he grasped. I was rid of the thing. Little by little, fear took possession of Matzerath as he felt the emblem of his Party between his fingers. Now that my hands were free, I didn't want to see what Matzerath did with the pin. Too distraught to pursue the lice, Oskar tried to concentrate on the ants, but couldn't help taking in a swift movement of Matzerath's hand. Unable to remember what I thought at the time, I can only say in retrospect that it would have been wiser of him to keep the little coloured lozenge in his hand.

But he wanted desperately to get rid of it, and despite the rich imagination he had shown as a cook and window dresser, he could think of no other hiding place than his mouth.

How important a trifling gesture can be! That little move from hand to mouth was enough to startle the two Ivans who had been sitting peacefully to left and right of Maria and make them jump up from the air-defence cot. They thrust their tommy guns at Matzerath's belly, and it was plain for all to see that Matzerath was trying to swallow something.

If only he had first, with an adroit finger maneuver, closed the pin. As it was, he gagged, his face went purple, his eyes stood out of his head, he coughed, cried, laughed, and all this turmoil made it impossible for him to keep his hands up. But on that point the Ivans were firm. They shouted at him, they wanted to see the palms of his hands. Matzerath, however, was preoccupied with his windpipe. He couldn't even cough properly. He began to dance and thrash about with his arms and swept a can of Leipzig stew off the shelf. My Kalmuck, who until then had been quietly looking on, deposited me carefully on the floor, reached behind him, brought something or other into a horizontal position, and shot from the hip. He had emptied a whole magazine before Matzerath finished suffocating. (trans. by Ralph Manheim, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1965, pp. 386-7)

This, like so many other passages in the novel, is prevented from being simply horrifying (but at the same time, paradoxically, made more ghastly) by several things which cut across the horror. Apart from the ironic implications of Matzerath's swallowing the party pin (in the associations with 'swallowing the evidence' and 'his shame choking him') there are numerous touches which introduce a comic element which is utterly at odds with the horror of the scene: touches such as '. . . despite the rich imagination he had shown as a cook and window dresser' and particularly the sentence 'He began to dance and thrash about with his arms and swept a can of Leipzig stew off the shelf'.

But is this macabre rather than grotesque? One might well want to answer that it is both, and that the macabre, if one understands it as the horrifying tinged with the comic, is a sub-form of the grotesque. Strictly speaking, macabre means 'pertaining to death' and it is only in comparatively recent usage that it has developed the connotation 'gruesome yet funny' (through association with 'macabre humour', 'macabre joke'). And it is still true that the gruesome element in the macabre considerably outweighs the comic. Often the latter represents not a confusing quality but a heightening of the horrible or gruesome: that is, the strange comic tinge is used to increase sensitivity to gruesomeness which, presented unadulterated in large doses, may dull our responses. In any case, the macabre seems to lack the balanced tension between opposites which is a feature of the grotesque. But this may be splitting hairs. What is one to do with, for example, the protracted murder scene at the end of Nabokov's Lolita?

The grotesque has always been strongly associated with caricature, and even placed in the same category by some theorists, notably those who saw simple distortion as the basic principle in grotesque art. Caricature may be briefly defined as the ludicrous exaggeration of characteristic or peculiar features. A major distinction from the grotesque as we have sought to describe it at once becomes clear: in caricature there need be no suggestion of the confusion of heterogeneous and incompatible elements, no sense of the intrusion of .alien elements. The difference can be felt plainly in one's reaction. One laughs at a caricature because a recognizable or typical person or characteristic is distorted ( or stylized) in a ridiculous and amusing way—that is, a peculiar feature is exaggerated to the point of abnormality. It is a straightforward, uncomplicated reaction to something which has a straightforward function and clearly discernible intention, whereas one's reaction to the grotesque is essentially divided and problematic. It only becomes difficult to distinguish between caricature and the grotesque (and then the distinction is academic) when the caricaturistic exaggeration becomes extreme or develops into exaggeration for its own sake. Thus a sketch of the late General de Gaulle in which the nose is made disproportionately large would be a caricature; but if one increasingly exaggerates the size of the nose until the point is reached where it appears that the rest of the face is entirely subservient to and controlled by the nose (the tail wagging the dog, as it were), then this is likely to be a grotesque caricature. Not only has the normal relationship of face to nose been reversed but the nose has taken on an almost autonomous quality and so to speak assumed a separate existence. In other words there is a norm for caricaturistic exaggeration—a norm of abnormality. When this norm is exceeded, the caricature is no longer simply funny, but disgusting or fearsome besides, for it approaches the realm of the monstrous. Many of the caricatures of DaumierGrandville or ofGeorge Grosz are of this kind.

In literature particularly it is not just the degree of distortion or exaggeration which determines whether we find the caricature simply funny or disgusting besides. Obviously, the manner in which the caricatured person or feature is presented is a further important factor. Thus Shakespeare's Sir Andrew Aguecheek strikes us simply as ridiculous and comic; the fop is not seen as threatening or disgusting, he is harmless. Malvolio on the other hand may well appear grotesque, at least on occasions, because he is not only ridiculous, but presented also as being malevolent. Clayborough has attempted to show that a number of Dickens's characters with pronounced caricaturistic features (Clayborough calls them 'eccentric' characters) are grotesque. While harbouring serious doubts about the broadness of his application of 'grotesque' one can see clearly that many of Dickens's figures Clayborough mentions Mrs Gamp, Fagin, Uriah Heep, Quilp, Mr Micawber and several others—are at least on some occasions grotesque. One character not mentioned by Clayborough is Mrs Pipchin from Dombey and Son, who is described as follows:

This celebrated Mrs Pipchin was a marvelous ill-favoured, ill-conditioned old lady, of a stooping figure, with a mottled face, like bad marble, a hook nose, and a hard grey eye, that looked as if it might have been hammered at on an anvil without sustaining any injury. Forty years at least had elapsed since the Peruvian mines had been the death of Mr Pipchin; but his relict still wore black bombazeen, of such a lustreless, deep, dead, sombre shade, that gas itself couldn't light her up after dark, and her presence was a quencher to any number of candles. ...She was such a bitter old lady, that one was tempted to believe there had been some mistake in the application of the Peruvian machinery, and that all her waters of gladness and milk of human kindness, had been pumped out dry, instead of the mines. (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1970, p. 160)
If Mrs Pipchin is a grotesque caricature, her parlour is likewise grotesquely reminiscent of some monster's abode:
It was not, naturally, a fresh-smelling house; and in the window of the front parlour, which was never opened, Mrs Pipchin kept a collection of plants in pots, which imparted an earthy flavour of their own to the establishment. However choice examples of their kind, too, these plants were of a kind peculiarly adapted to the embowerment of Mrs Pipchin. There were half a dozen specimens of the cactus, writhing round bits of lath, like hairy serpents; another specimen shooting out broad claws, like a green lobster; several creeping vegetables, possessed of sticky and adhesive leaves; and one uncomfortable flower-pot hanging to the ceiling, which appeared to have boiled over, and tickling people underneath with its long green ends, reminded them of spiders—in which Mrs Pipchin's dwelling was uncommonly prolific, though perhaps it challenged competition still more proudly, in the season, in point of earwigs. (ibid., pp. 160-1)
Parody is often involved with the grotesque in an interdependent relationship of which it can be difficult to determine whether it is a case of parody being used as a grotesque device or vice versa. A parody (or travesty, or burlesque—for our present purposes we may lump them together) which is taken to extremes that is to a point where the conflict between parody and original, or between content and form, becomes intolerable—we might call a grotesque parody, and the grotesqueness may even blot out the parodistic intent. Similarly, grotesque elements are frequently used incidentally in parodies, especially where the intention is savagely aggressive. On the other hand, parody is a favourite device of the grotesque writer. But here again the relationship is that between the essential and the incidental: parody is used occasionally, to help achieve an overall grotesque effect. Bert[olt] Brecht's poem 'Legend of the Dead Soldier' is a good example of this interdependent relationship between parody and the grotesque. It is a poem in conventional ballad form, relating the wondrous 'legend' of a soldier in the First World War. He has been killed, but, since the Kaiser needs more men, is dug up from his grave and brought back to life, ministered to by a nursing sister and a cleric, supported by two medical attendants, has his stinking remains dressed in the German flag (a superbly grotesque touch) and is finally led in triumphant procession, cheered on by the local populace, back to the front. The term one would want to use to best describe the nature of the poem would be grotesque satire (of which more later), but parody is (used throughout in a supporting role. Thus the ludicrous contrast between the traditional ballad form, conventionally used for stirring tales of adventure, and the actual horrifying and sordid content is heightened by numerous parodistic touches which are all at the same time grotesque. The ballad as a conventional genre very much associated with patriotic themes is by this process dragged in the mud, made to look grotesquely inappropriate, while Brecht's merciless satire on the war-machine and its insatiable need for more cannon-fodder is also highlighted by some memorable pieces of grotesquery.

The same kind of interdependent relationship is found often between satire and the grotesque. The satirist may make his victim grotesque in order to produce in his audience or readers a maximum reaction of derisive laughter and disgust; and a grotesque text, on the other hand, will frequently have a satirical side-effect or score satirical points, naturally enough when one considers that the grotesque by its very nature is aggressive and aimed discomfiting in some way. But again the crucial factor separating the grotesque from satire is the confusion of incompatibles in work and effect. Unlike the satirist, the grotesque writer does not analyse and instruct in terms of right and wrong, or true or false, nor does he attempt to distinguish between these. On the contrary, he is concerned to demonstrate their inseparability. Satire (and we are of course talking about model cases) aims at two reactions from the audience: laughter, and anger or disgust, but it aims to produce these separately. The grotesque, as we have seen repeatedly, produces a confusion of reaction. Normally in satire there is an alternation, or at least a distinction, between the ludicrous smallness )which excites derisive laughter and the gross evil which arouses anger. The grotesque writer would present ludicrous smallness and gross evil as being one, indistinguishable, and strive for a reaction in which laughter and anger figure simultaneously and with equal force.

The above distinction between the grotesque and satire has been made somewhat baldly for the purpose of clarity, but it should be clear that the satirist who uses the grotesque as a tool, a shockweapon, must be careful. There is a danger that the didactic point he wishes to make may be obscured for the reader by the nonplus-sing, disorienting and generally overwhelming effect of the grotesque. The grotesque is in this sense anti-rational and not conducive to the grasping of satiric points. Should it be used indiscriminately it is apt to dominate the attention of the reader and possibly confuse him. Heinrich Schneegans, referring principally to Rabelais, has described this tendency of the grotesque to 'take over' a text:

The grotesque satirist exaggerates at first only for satiric purposes. But it is in the nature of this kind of powerful, extreme satire that its exaggerations burst through all limits. The grotesque satirist becomes intoxicated with his own creation. Gradually he loses sight of the satire. The exaggerations which he had at first unleashed in full awareness of their purpose become more and more wild, until they get out of hand, obliterating like a turbulent stream everything around them. (Geschichte der grotesken Satire, p. 248, my trans.)
It would require a long example to properly illustrate this process, but the passage from Humphry Clinker quoted above (pp. 25-6) may be a case of it, and readers of Rabelais will doubtless recall innumerable instances where a scene which begins in a straightforwardly satiric fashion rapidly develops into a wild romp—one can sense Rabelais delightedly creating more and more fantastic and outlandish complications—until very soon the original point is lost from view. The following extract from a poem by Swift may also illustrate this tendency of the grotesque to take over our attention.

A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed

Corinna, pride of Drury Lane,
For whom no shepherd sighs in vain;
Never did Covent Garden boast
So bright a batter'd strolling toast!
No drunken rake to pick her up,
No cellar where on tick to sup;
Returning at the midnight hour,
Four stories climbing to her bower;
Then, seated on a three-legg'd chair,
Takes off her artificial hair;
Now picking out a crystal eye,
She wipes it clean, and lays it by.
Her eyebrows from a mouse's hide
Stuck on with art on either side,
Pulls off with care, and first displays 'em
Then in a play-book smoothly lays 'em.
Now dextrously her plumpers draws,
That serve to fill her hollow jaws,
Untwists a wire, and from her gums
A set of teeth completely comes;
Pulls out the rags contrived to prop
Her flabby dugs, and down they drop.
Proceeding on, the lovely goddess
Unlaces next her steel-ribb'd bodice,
Which, by the operator's skill,
Press down the lumps, the hollows fill.
Up goes her hand, and off she slips
The bolsters that supply her hips;
With gentlest touch she next explores
Her chancres, issues, running sores;
Effects of many a sad disaster,
And then to each applies a plaster:
But must, before she goes to bed
 Rub off the daubs of white and red,
And smooth the furrows in her front
With greasy paper stuck upon't.
She takes a bolus ere she sleeps . . .
Swift's exposure is so savage, his desire to wound, disgust and (deride so powerful, that, paradoxically, we are apt to respond more to the grotesqueness of his description than to the point he is making. What remains most clearly in one's mind after finishing the poem is not the insight into the true nature of apparently beautiful maidens but the overwhelming impression of the grotesqueness of the details. Of course, in this case where the satire is uncomplicated we can readily, at least on a moment's reflection, penetrate to Swift's 'message'; but where satire is at all complex and subtle, the grotesque can be a disruptive and distracting force. In Rabelais, this usually takes the form of the genuinely satiric being abandoned in favour of the grotesquely bawdy or scurrilous. Thus one of the many send-ups of learned medical discourses, the discussion in Book I, Chapter 13 of Gargantua and Pantagruel on methods of—to use a very un-Rabelaisian euphemism—anal cleanliness, very quickly loses any point beyond the monstrous and comic invention of more and more unlikely methods; and in the episode described in Book 2, Chapters 21 and 22 concerning the Parisian lady to whom Panurge takes a fancy Rabelais hardly pursues the satiric point regarding the lady's (apparent) virtue at all, preferring once again to indulge his liking for the obscene and grotesque, having Panurge sprinkle the unfortunate woman's garments with the ground-up pudendum of a bitch on heat, with the following outrageous results:
Panurge had no sooner spoken than all the dogs in the church ran up to the lady, attracted by the smell he had sprinkled on her. Small and great, big and little, all came, lifting their legs, smelling her and pissing all over her. It was the most dreadful thing in the world.

Panurge made a show of driving them off, then took leave of her and retired into a chapel to see the fun. For these beastly dogs pissed over all her clothes, a great greyhound wetting her on the head, others on her sleeves, others on her backside; and the little ones pissed on her shoes; so that all the women who were thereabouts had great difficulty in saving her.

At this Panurge burst out laughing, and said to some of the gentlemen of the city: 'I think that woman's on heat, or else she has recently been covered by a greyhound.' (trans. by J. M. Cohen, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1963, pp. 243-4)

The implications of the term 'the satiric-grotesque' are thus not so simple as many critics who employ it seem to consider. If I have perhaps overstressed the potentially disruptive nature of the grotesque in the preceding discussion, it was only to make clear some of the problems associated with the use of the grotesque as a satiric weapon, and to point out that, while the grotesque is often found in satiric literature, one does well to remember its essential distinctness. It is of course clear that clever satirists—Swift himself figures large among them—are able to extract a maximum of effect from their use of the grotesque without in any way diminishing the strength of the overall satiric point they wish to make. Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One provides numerous examples of the successful harnessing of the grotesque to a satiric purpose. Here is the hero making arrangements to have a 'Loved One' prepared for 'leave-taking' in Whispering Glades:
'Let us now decide on the casket.’

They went to the show-rooms where stood coffins of every shape and material: the nightingale still sang in the cornice.

'The two-piece lid is most popular for gentlemen Loved Ones. Only the upper part is then exposed to view.'

'Exposed to view?'

'Yes, when the Waiting Ones come to take leave.'

'But I say, I don't think that will quite do. I've seen him. He's terribly disfigured, you know.'

'If there are any special little difficulties in the case you must mention them to our cosmeticians. You will be seeing one of them before you leave. They have never failed yet.'

'We had a Loved One last month who was found drowned. He had been in the ocean a month and they only identified him by his wrist-watch. They fixed that stiff,' said the hostess disconcertingly lapsing from the high diction she had hitherto employed, 'so he looked like it was his wedding day. The boys up there surely know their job. Why, if he'd sat on an atom bomb, they'd make him presentable.'

'That's very comforting.'

'I'll say it is.' And then slipping on her professional manner again as though it were a pair of glasses, she resumed.
'How will the Loved One be attired? We have our own tailoring section. Sometimes after a very long illness there are not suitable clothes available and sometimes the Waiting Ones think it a waste of a good suit. You see, we can fit a Loved One out very reasonably as a casket-suit does not have to be designed for hard wear and in cases where only the upper part is exposed for leave-taking there is no need for more than jacket and vest. Something dark is best to set off the flowers.' (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1969, pp. 39-40)

Waugh manages here to achieve his satiric aim—the exposure and comic deflation of the Californian 'way of death' with all its euphemistic vulgarity—with devastating effect, because what is grotesque is his target itself: Whispering Glades, its staff and its customs are all simultaneously comic and ghastly. Waugh brings out both aspects to the full, but never so that his satiric point is obscured.

Some aspects of the relationship between the grotesque and irony have been touched upon. It is clear that, like the satirist, the ironist too may very well reach for the grotesque as a weapon from time to time. But, again like the satirist, he must use it judiciously or he may find that it takes over and the irony goes by the board. Irony is (primarily intellectual in its function and appeal, and the grotesque primarily emotional. This is somewhat baldly stated, but essentially true nevertheless. The impact of the grotesque is characteristically one of a sudden shock, which is likely to stun, bewilder or nonplus—the mind takes a few seconds to function dispassionately again. Irony, on the other hand, depends very much for its effect on the reader's being given the chance intellectually to make distinctions and connections. In the extreme case, the grotesque writer will deliberately prevent a rational and intellectual approach to his work, demonstrating that the intolerable and inextricable mixture of incompatibles is a fact of life, perhaps the most crucial one. The ironist places the incompatibles also in some kind of relationship, but it is always a relationship which can be 'worked out'. Much of one's pleasure in irony comes after all from detecting it.

Having said this it is necessary—as was the case with satire—to add that dividing-lines are uncertain and relationships shifting. Clearly, there is such a thing as grotesque irony. Swift's Modest Proposal is an example of this. The piece on the whole is satire through irony—common enough—but it is irony of a particularly savage kind. So savage, in fact, so extreme and so radically presented, that it is inevitably very close to the grotesque. And certain parts of the tract are undoubtedly, taken by themselves, grotesque. One has been quoted earlier in particular the initial disclosure of just what the proposal entails is monstrously grotesque: 

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 Ragoust.
Up to this point the reader has been intellectually regaled by Swift's irony and made morally indignant by the point of it: the exposure of the inhuman conditions in Ireland. These two responses have not, however, constituted a conflict. As with all satire—and this is satire, by means of irony—one can experience amusement and delight at the cleverness of the exposure at the same time as indignation at the evil thus uncovered, without feeling these to be in any way contradictory. Swift's role as the efficiency-minded economist, earnestly setting out the problem to be solved in careful statistical terms, is amusing because we see that it is a parody of those dry impersonal schemes for dealing with pitiable human problems, and didactically effective because the inhumanity of such schemes and their authors is thus exposed. But when this role leads to the advancement of cannibalism as an economic remedy, amusement at the cleverness and appreciation of the direction of attack are suddenly joined by a third response, horror, which conflicts with them. It is essentially the element of exaggeration, the sudden radicalizing, which is the crucial factor in this.

Although we know that the 'I' of the tract is a fictitious, assumed one, a persona or role, and that Swift is being ironic, the sheer enormity of the proposal for cannibalism horrifies us, so that, for a moment, we are uncertain of our response, uncertain of how we are to take this. It may even be that at this moment our knowledge that the '1' is an ironic device is submerged, or suspended, and we react in a way as though the proposal were being put seriously, so powerful is its brutality and so sudden its announcement. A powerful emotional impact has been created, conflicting with the standard response to irony. This accords entirely with Swift's purpose: the proposal serves to jolt the reader, alarm and horrify him with a sudden reminder that this is no joking matter. It is a common enough Swiftian technique: he screws the irony and satire tighter and tighter till a point is reached where one's laughter becomes mixed with revulsion and horror. Once a certain degree of exaggeration—or radicality—has been reached we find ourselves confronted with irony that has become grotesque. It is only the continual inclusion of pointers to the ironic nature of the whole that prevents the grotesque from 'getting out of hand', to use Kayser's phrase, and obliterating the point. In this sense we must see A Modest Proposal as an example (and a very fine example) of the grotesque used within an ironic-satiric framework: among the blows in Swift's repertoire, the grotesque supplies the belly-punches.

Swift's tract contains of course basically only one type of irony, though it is the kind which most often displays affinities with the grotesque. Apart from this, the type of irony usually referred to as cosmic or universal is the most likely to become grotesque. A world-view based on the notion of infinite irony (A is ironized by B is ironized by C, and so on ad infinitum)  or of mutual irony on a grand scale (we perceive that A is ironized by B, but the presence  of a third factor C might well reverse this, and so on), necessarily implies also notions of universal grotesqueness and universal absurdity. At this level the distinction between irony, the grotesque and the absurd becomes a rather pedantic distinction between different aspects of chaos.

On the whole, however, what was earlier established as the crucial distinction between irony and the grotesque holds true: irony depends on the resolvability, intellectually, of a relationship (appearance/reality , truth/untruth, etc. ), while the grotesque presents essentially the unresolvability of incompatibles. Generally, it is not difficult to separate irony and the grotesque unless the irony is particularly strong and unexpected—in other words, unless a high degree of exaggeration or radicality , and the concomitant emotional shock, however short-lived, are involved. A monstrously ironic situation or statement may be felt to be grotesque because of the sheer enormity of it. Much of the irony in Kafka is of this kind.

The relationship of the grotesque to the comic is a matter of some controversy. As mentioned earlier, modern writers on the grotesque are almost unanimous in their insistence on the essential comic element in the grotesque. An exception may be Clayborough, but since he operates with different categories (Jungian) it is difficult to see just where he stands on the comic. Kayser is likewise evasive, but seems in the end to accept the necessary presence of the comic in the grotesque. In the present study I have taken the view that there is almost always a comic element in the grotesque (although it may be obscured and in some circumstances denied by rational afterthought). This accords with the historical development of the term, with the majority of modern commentators and with everyday usage. The latter is often a dubious guide where aesthetic terms are concerned, but it is interesting that 'grotesque' in everyday speech usually refers to something which the speaker finds simultaneously funny and repulsive, be it a politician's speech, an extremely bad production of a play, a public scandal or a piece of interior decoration. If the epithet 'grotesque' is used then the politician's speech does not simply provoke the anger or contempt of the person concerned, but arouses also. his sense of the ludicrous; the bad production is so bad that it is not just appalling but comic; the indignation one feels at the scandal is mingled with an appreciation of its farcical nature; the interior decoration is nauseating because of its tastelessness but at the same time comic because of its ineptitude. It is significant too that the word is only used in reference to extreme situations and events. One has recourse to it when 'appalling', 'disgusting' etc. are not powerful enough or do not cover the extra quality perceived: this extra quality being the comic, in opposition to and in conflict with something incompatible with it.

It may perhaps be objected that the insistence on the comic as, so to speak, one half of the grotesque unnecessarily narrows the term, and that it is enough to speak of the paradox of attraction/repulsion to characterize the conflict which is basic to the grotesque. Certainly this paradox may be felt in many, perhaps all, instances of the grotesque, but as a defining factor it is surely inadequate. One needs to dig deeper and specify what may constitute the attraction and what the repulsion. And it is difficult to go past the comic as the source of attraction. If one tries to substitute, for example, something like the fascinating one will find, I suggest, that actually the fascination which the grotesque has about it is itself usually traceable to the peculiar mixture of the comic with something quite un-comic. One can test this on suitable passages from the kind of uncanny tales associated with Edgar Allan Poe and E. T. A. Hoffmann, those tales of the weird and the supernatural which are strangely disturbing. In Hoffmann's The Sandman, for example, there are numerous passages which one feels are grotesque but which, one might say, have no comic content at all. But let us have a closer look at one such passage. Nathanael has fallen in love with an "automaton, by name Olimpia, constructed by Professor Spalanzani, and marvels at her perfect beauty and evenness of temperament. Entering Spalanzani's house one day, he hears a fearful hubbub coming from the study:

Nathanael rushed in, impelled by some nameless dread. The Professor was grasping a female figure by the shoulders, the Italian Coppola held her by the feet; and they were pulling and dragging each other backwards and forwards, fighting furiously to get possession of her. Nathanael recoiled with horror on recognizing that the figure was Olimpia. Boiling with rage, he was about to tear his beloved from the grasp of the madmen, when Coppola by an extraordinary exertion of strength twisted the figure out of the Professor's hands and gave him such a terrible blow with her, that Spalanzani reeled backwards and fell over the table among the phials and retorts, the bottles and glass cylinders, which covered it: a].these things were smashed into a thousand pieces. But Coppola threw the figure across his shoulder, and, laughing shrilly and horribly, ran hastily down the stairs, the figure's ugly feet hanging down and banging and rattling like wood against the steps.

Nathanael was stupefied—he had seen only too distinctly that in Olimpia's pallid waxed face there were no eyes, merely black holes in their stead; she was an inanimate puppet.

Even though one has realized by this stage of the tale that Olimpia is in fact an automaton, the scene of two men indulging in a tug of war with a human-like figure, and particularly of Coppola (with his associations with the fairy-tale sandman) lugging this figure down the stairs with its feet clattering against the steps, is disconcerting, perhaps even frightening if one enters into Nathanael's view of things. But it is surely also irresistibly comic, not least because of the slapstick nature of the brawl. I would go further and suggest that, in so far as Nathanael's collapse into madness, which occurs immediately after this scene and again at the end of the tale, is felt to be grotesque, it is because one's sense of the comic is aroused as well as a feeling of horror and pity. Manifestations of insanity, particularly those involving maniacal laughter, are often grotesque, because insane behaviour is abnormal in the particular way spoken of earlier: it can be comic and frightening or pitiable at the same time. G. Wilson Knight, in a well-known essay from The Wheel of Fire entitled 'King Lear and the Comedy of the Grotesque', refers to Lear's madness in these terms, and points out that the impact of the play would be considerably less without the cruel, grim comedy which accompanies the tragic action.

Yet while we may be fairly certain that somewhere in all examples of the grotesque there is a comic element, there are cases which seem to prevent a completely valid generalization. In C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, there is a brief description of a painting:

There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skillfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could feel that hair.
I think most people would call this grotesque, but is there a comic element here—if not in the description, then in painting imagined visually We are on shifting ground here, for the answer one tends to get to questions like this is: ‘Well, it depends on . . . We should perhaps attempt at this stage to clarify the nature of laughter, in so fu as it is present, as a reaction to the grotesque. Theories of the comic and of laughter are legion, and the subject has become the concern, not  just of aestheticians and philosophers, but, since Freud's study The Joke and its Relationship to the Unconscious (1905), also of psychologists. The matter is complicated, in the case of the grotesque, by the presence of one cause of laughter which one might not admit to be connected with the comic. This is the purely defensive laughter with which a person seeks to ward off emotional shock or distress. In its extreme form, this sort of laughter takes on overtones of hysteria; but even in a milder form, the nervous laugh, it cannot be properly seen as a reaction to the comic. Laughter purely in defence means that the person concerned does not find anything comic in whatever causes it. Whether his reaction is a conscious attempt to 'laugh off' something which distresses him extremely, or whether it is an involuntary physiological reaction need not concern us. We must merely insist that one laughs 'naturally' at the grotesque because one perceives the comic element in it. But even this kind of laughter is not 'free' or undisturbed; the simultaneous perception of the other side of the grotesque—its horrifying, disgusting or frightening aspect—confuses the reaction. Thus one may well laugh at the grotesque in a nervous or uncertain way but it is because one's perception of the comic is countered and balanced by perception of something incompatible with this. One may not know whether to laugh or not, but the mere fact that one is in doubt points to an awareness of comic possibilities.

It is clear that this means that any discussion of grotesque texts, if one is to show that they are grotesque, and why, must include the uncovering of comic patterns and structures. One must be able to see why a piece of literature is not just horrifying or disgusting or frightening, but comic as well. Whereas the reasons for the horrifying or frightening qualities of a text are usually obvious, the source of its comic effect may not be so clear. This is likely to be the case with those instances of the grotesque which are particularly brutal and hideous. Here there is the added factor of indignation and outrage in some readers' reactions to be taken into account. The German poet Gottfried Benn, in his angry young man stage, wrote some particularly nasty poems set in the dissection room of the morgue. One is entitled 'Little Aster':

A drowned beer carter was heaved onto the table
Someone or other had clamped a dark light lilac aster
between his teeth.
When, entering from the chest
under the skin
with a long knife I cut out the tongue and palate,
I must have bumped it, for it slid
into the brain lying alongside.
I packed it into his chest-cavity
with the sawdust stuffing
when we sewed up.
Drink your fill in your vasel
Rest in peace
little aster! (my trans.)
This, one might say, is diabolical and satanic, but it is also a joke. The joke involves the arousing of lyrical expectations in the reader by the title, the subsequent destruction of these expectations by the sordid first line, then the justification of the title after all—a grotesque justification. Finally, it involves the application to the flower of sentiments normally reserved for dead people (whereby 'drink your fill' carries especially horrifying connotations), and a pretended sentimentality which is also grotesque in the circumstances. A response to the poem which does not include the perception of this joke aspect is, I suggest, not a full one. Worse, and this is our principal concern here, is the refusal to see the comic element in the poem, or the refusal, having seen it, to acknowledge its impinging, as the comic, on one's awareness. The latter—the suppression by the civilized and moral sensibilities of a first, immediate sense of the comic, is understandable perhaps, but should be recognized for what it is.

In drawing attention to the rather complex nature of the reader's reception of texts which carry a powerful emotional impact which may cause defence-mechanisms to cloud the initial spontaneous response, I have introduced once more the psychological question. We might ask ourselves, to pursue this line of I inquiry for the moment, what are the psychological factors involved in what I have described as the classic response to the 1 grotesque: the experience of horror (or disgust, or anger) and amusement (or glee, or delight) at the same time, the laugh which dies in the throat and becomes a grimace, or which is tinged with mild hysteria or embarrassment? The feelings of horror or disgust are psychologically straightforward, but what are the implications of laughing at a ghastly joke of the kind contained in Little Aster , or at one of the more drastic 'sick jokes', that contemporary popular form of the grotesque? Delight in seeing taboos flouted, a sense of momentary release from inhibitions, intellectual pleasure at seeing the joke, at perceiving the comic element, all are present. But there is also present, at least in many instances, a sadistic pleasure in the horrifying, the cruel, the disgusting. One of the most interesting writers on the grotesque, the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, makes this primitive pleasure a corner-stone in his con grotesque. For Bakhtin—and one finds it difficult to disagree with him—the grotesque is essentially physical, referring always to the body and bodily excesses and celebrating these in an uninhibited, outrageous but essentially joyous fashion. The carnival, that favourite popular arena for the indulging of physical excess, is seen by Bakhtin as the grotesque event par excellence, the place where the common people abandoned themselves to exuberantly obscene excesses of a physical kind. One can see a whole popular tradition of the grotesque here, ranging from the ancient satyr-plays to the commedia dell'arte (cf. Jacques Callot's marvellously grotesque illustrations of commedia dell'arte characters and scenes), with important links with dramatists as far apart as Aristophanes and the 'pataphysicist' Alfred Jarry, creator of the monstrously grotesque Ubu figure. It might be objected that Bakhtin's view of the grotesque is idiosyncratic and narrow (he develops it principally in connection with Rabelais, to whom it applies very well), but his insistence on the physical nature of the grotesque and on the primitive delight in what is obscene, cruel and even barbaric is quite justified. We would only wish to add that this delight constitutes only one possible aspect of the response to the grotesque.

The often intensely physical nature of the grotesque is logical when one recalls that the term was originally applied to the visual arts. Although the extension of 'grotesque' to the verbal arts occurred fairly early, the word has always been applied to the visual rather than the purely verbal. There is nothing abstract about the grotesque. I do not know of a grotesque piece of music, nor does it seem likeley that the term could be legitimately applied to music, except in a very extended sense. But that possibly most visual of all art-forms, the film, there are countless examples of the grotesque. Among the well-known contemporary film-makers (who are, collectively, as given to the grotesque as their writer colleagues), Federico Fellini perhaps stands out: his Satyricon, for example, is an outstandingly and consistently grotesque film.

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