and Alienation | The Psychological
Tension and Unresolvability | "Playfulness" | The Unintentional Grotesque
While we can make some useful generalizations about the purposes to which the grotesque may be put it is clear that the range of possible functions is very broad. Indeed, some instances of the grotesque serve no purpose at all apart from a purely ornamental or personal one. The poems by Robert Graves called 'Grotesques', of which one was quoted earlier, have no function except the fulfillment of a whimsical and capricious desire to invent something bizarre and eccentric. We might class many of the grotesque passages from Tristram Shandy in this category as well, although often Sterne makes satirical points through his use of the grotesque. The same may be said, as we have seen, of the work of Rabelais, whose grotesquery is sometimes satirically oriented, sometimes indulged in out of a spirit of sheer exuberance and a love of the scurrilous and extravagant.
The grotesque involves the managing of the uncanny by the comic. More specifically: a) When the infantile material is primarily threatening, comic techniques, including caricature, diminish the threat through degradation or ridicule; but at the same time, they may also enhance anxiety through their aggressive implications and through the strangeness they lend to the threatening figure. (b) In what is usually called the comic-grotesque, the comic in its various forms lessens the threat of identification with infantile drives by means of ridicule; at the same time, it lulls the inhibitions and makes possible on a preconscious level the same identification that it appears to the conscience or super-ego to prevent. In short, both extreme types of the grotesque [i.e. the predominantly threatening and the predominantly comic] ...return us to childhood—the one attempts a liberation from fear, while the other attempts a liberation from inhibition; but in both a state of unresolved tension is the most common result, because of the intrapsychic conflicts involved. (pp 259-60)TENSION AND UNRESOLVABILITY
While one may not agree with some of the details of Steig's definition—in particular with the use of the word 'uncanny'—this seems a fairly plausible explanation of the psychological function of the grotesque. In particular, it accounts in psychological terms for the essential paradox of the grotesque: that it is both liberating and tension-producing at the same time. Moreover, the comic element in the grotesque is itself seen as having a dual function, exciting both 'free' and inhibited or defensive laughter. Here is a possible answer to the difficulty, discussed earlier, of pinning down the precise nature of laughter at the grotesque, and an explanation also of the frequent element of hysteria in full and spontaneous reactions to the drastically grotesque. Finally, Steig's psychological definition of the grotesque fits with and extends the structural definition offered earlier, which describes the grotesque as the unresolved clash of incompatibles in both work and effect.
We may not need such a technically psychological
concept adequately to appreciate the grotesque in all cases. Often the
precise nature of the conflicting elements in a work of art, and the nature
of our divided response to it, are perfectly perceptible on the surface-level.
But in these cases the grotesque is no less perplexing and disconcerting
for that. For example we are aware of the
tragic, even terrifying nature of the burial scene in Hamlet and
(though perhaps less directly) of the porter's scene in Macbeth,
aware at the same time of the comic aspect of these scenes, and deeply
affected by the inextricable mixture which prevents us from taking them
simply one way or the other and thus—since it seems part of man's nature
to be satisfied only with what is certain and clear-cut feeling content. Even
more telling is the similar mixture of the tragic and terrifying with the
comic in numerous scenes of King
Lear. In the essay mentioned earlier
by G. Wilson Knight, "King Lear and the Comedy of the Grotesque,"
the point is made that not only are tragic pathos and ridiculous nonsense
intermingled most clearly in the storm scenes with Lear, Edgar in his role
of 'poor Tom', and the fool, but that even the barbarously cruel events
of the play are not devoid of a kind of comedy that these days we would
call 'black': 'Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell His way to
Dover' is Regan's comment after Gloucester's eyes are put out. The effect
of the grotesque here is to screw even tighter the cruelty and tragedy:
one's reaction to Regan's remark would not be so intense were it not expressed
in the form of a witticism. And how are we to react, if not with a maximum
of pity and with a sense of the comic which only increases the piteousness
to the brink of the unbearable, to the blind Gloucester' s mock death?
Wilson Knight describes it as follows:
They stumble on, madman and blind man, Edgar mumbling: . . . five fiends have been in poor Tom at once; of lust, as Obidicut; Hobbididance, prince of dumbness; Mahu, of stealing; Modo, of murder; Flibbertigibbet, of mopping and mowing; who since possesses chambermaids and waiting-women . . . (iv. I. 58)It is the merging and intermingling of comedy and pathos which is the crucial factor in such scenes. We have to do here not with tragi-comedy in the normal sense—where a clear distinction or alternation between the comic and the tragic takes place, each keeping to its appointed realm as it were—but with the grotesque fusion of the two. Tragi-comedy points only to the fact that life is alternately tragic and comic, the world is now a vale of tears, now a circus. The grotesque, in the form it takes in a play like King Lear, has a harder message. It is that the vale of tears and the circus are one, that tragedy is in some ways comic and all comedy in some way tragic and pathetic. This is perhaps the most profound meaning of the grotesque, at least of that type of the grotesque exemplified by Lear but characteristic also of such dissimilar writers as Kafka and Beckett.
Examples of the purely playful grotesque are difficult to find, not surprisingly since we need some sort of drastic aspect in order to feel the presence of the truly grotesque. But even authors who indulge in seemingly harmless imaginative fun can sometimes intrude into their work rather drastic elements. Those readers inclined to peruse such nursery favourites as Alice in Wonderland a little more closely than is normally the case may perhaps have found the occasional example of the grotesque. Indeed, 'nonsense literature' is a field where one comes across unexpected flashes of the grotesque, usually to forget them because the context is so harmless. Edward Lear's verses may seem tame, but a glance through a collection of modern limericks will serve to bring home the fact that this popular form of nonsensical (and of course off-color) invention is a mine of the grotesque. The Germans, who have always retained in their notion of the grotesque the element of capriciousness which Vitruvius railed against in the 'original' grotesques, class their most famous nonsense poet, Christian Morgenstern, as a grotesque writer. But Morgenstern's playfulness—like Carroll and Lear, he is fascinated by language and its vagaries—has a serious side to it. He is on record as claiming that man's basically unsatisfactory relationship to his fellows, his society and the world in general stems from his being imprisoned by language, which is a most unreliable, false and dangerous thing, and that one must 'smash language', destroy man's naive trust in this most familiar and unquestioned part of his life, before he can learn to think properly. Morgenstern's brilliantly witty games with words are thus, seen from this point of view, devious devices of alienation, and at their most radical succeed in producing in the reader a strange sensation—making one suddenly doubt one's comfortable relationship with the language—not unlike the sense of disorientation and confusion associated with the grotesque. This does not occur often, but frequently enough to give one second thoughts about the so-called purposeless, i.e. purely playful, grotesque.
Aber der junge, der Mann, als war er der Sohn eines Nackens
(But the young one, the man, as if he were the son of a neck'The son of a neck and a nun' is such an extravagant, not to say monstrous, notion that even though we know, or deduce from the context, what Rilke means—the union of muscular strength and simple grace—we are not able to accept the figurative expression. The two things brought together are so disparate, their combination so impossible, that we withdraw from the poetic world and see the image as both obscene and ridiculous. Imagined visually and as with all bad metaphors the literal meaning overpowers the figurative—these lines recall some grotesque detail of Bosch's 'Millennium'. Much the same is true of Cleveland's grotesque hand: the image produces the opposite of what is presumably intended because the notion of jelly covered by a glove, unattractive and bizarre enough by itself, becomes both ludicrous and nauseating when compared to the soft hand of a lady. Possibly poets are more prone to these lapses than others. Poetry is the genre which is most concerned with intense expression and metaphorical language, and many a poet, in the search for the striking phrase or novel image, has over-balanced into the ludicrous and monstrous.
The most consistent exponent of the unintentional
grotesque I am aware of, however, is not a great poet. Joseph Tishler was
a semi-literate contributor, under the nom-de-plume of Bellerive,
Sydney Bulletin throughout the first half of this century.
His poems were printed in the so-called ' Answers Column', which was as
Douglas Stewart says in his introduction to The Book of Bellerive 'a
kind of poetic pillory', where the most atrocious 'artistic' contributions
to that journal appeared. One of Bellerive's finest gems is 'Totlinda':
Totlinda, Totlinda,No doubt 'emotion' and 'ocean' have been rhymed countless times, but never, I submit, with such devastating effect.
The stage melodramas so popular in his youth
seem to have been a great source of inspiration for Bellerive. We might
reflect that the melodrama has certain paradoxical affinities with the
farce, at least for a modem audience, and thus may provide plentiful examples
of the grotesque. Certainly the melodrama as described by Bellerive bears
A Woman's Revenge Oh Wilfred why do you shun meNot all of the memorable examples of the involuntary grotesque come from poetry. But, leaving aside the drama where the added factor of performance introduces other difficulties, prose fiction is less likely to produce good examples of unintentional grotesquery because possible instances of it are seen in a larger context which usually diminishes, if not dissipates entirely, the impression of grotesqueness. The following passage from Lady Chatterley's Lover, taken in isolation, would strike many as grotesque:
He had brought columbines and campions, and new-mown hay, and oak-tufts and honeysuckle in small bud. He fastened fluffy young oaksprays round her breasts, sticking in tufts of bluebells and campion: and in her navel he poised a pink campion flower, and in her maidenhair were forget-me-nots and wood-ruff.'That's you in all your glory!' he said. 'Lady Jane, at her wedding with John Thomas.' And he stuck flowers in the hair of his own body, and wound a bit of creeping-jenny round his penis, and stuck a single bell of a hyacinth in his navel. (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1960, pp. 237-8)
Some people, indeed, would aver that this is grotesque no matter what the context, pointing to the ludicrous nature of the scene (and the play made with 'forget-me-nots') but also to its tasteless nature—tasteless not because it offends against sexual taboos or decorum, but aesthetically tasteless, blatant and crass. Others, and they are perhaps the majority, would say that the quoted passage, at least in context, is touching, descriptive of a genuine and simple emotion which needs no defence. We are thus back with the eternal problem bedevilling discussions and definitions of the kind involved in literary studies: subjectivity and the inevitable variation in reader reception.
But, when talking of the unintentional or involuntary, we also become embroiled in the problem of establishing intention generally. This is not a serious difficulty with the instances of the involuntary grotesque cited here, I suggest, but it is an extremely vexatious one when we come to examples, which may strike us as grotesque, from earlier ages or alien cultures. Are we justified in regarding totem-poles as grotesque when it is highly likely, indeed in many cases certain, that their creators did not feel this way about them? What was the function, and effect on whoever the were made for, of the famous stone figures on Easter Island figures which the man accustomed to the values and criteria of Western civilization might very well class as grotesque? Even medieval gargoyles pose this problem. Those stone monsters which strike us today as both hideous and ludicrous were perhaps only hideous (or, conceivably, only ludicrous) to medieval man with his different appreciation of the world. There is considerable agreement among art critics and historians that the grotesque figures and objects which crowd Hieronymus Bosch's paintings are symbolic and not to be taken on the surface-Ievel: does this mean that we are responding wrongly to such paintings if we see these figures and objects as grotesque? The simplest, and perhaps only practical, answer to these questions is that we are compelled, at least on one level, to view such things with the eyes of modern man and to respond to them accordingly. But we do well to remember that in the matter of aesthetic categories the classification is very much in the eye of the beholder, however much, by a process of consensus, comparison and argument, we may be able to establish certain guidelines