5 Functions and Purposes of the Grotesque
from Philip Thomson, The Grotesque. Methuen Critical Idiom Series, 1972.









Aggressiveness and Alienation | The Psychological Effect |
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.

Because of the characteristic impact of the grotesque, the sudden shock which it causes, the grotesque is often used as an aggressive weapon. One finds it frequently in satirical, parodistic and burlesque contexts, and in pure invective. The shock-effect of the grotesque may also be used to bewilder and disorient, to bring the reader up short, jolt him out of accustomed ways of perceiving the world and confront him with a radically different, disturbing perspective. There is probably an element of this in all instances of the grotesque, but in some cases it is most marked. Many of the uses of the grotesque in contemporary literature have this function. This effect of the grotesque can best be summed up as alienation. Something which is familiar and trusted is suddenly made strange and disturbing. Much of this has to do with the fundamental conflict-character of the grotesque, with the mixture of incompatibles characteristic of it. The sudden placing of familiar elements of reality in a peculiar and disturbing light often takes the form of the flinging together of disparate and irreconcilable things, which by themselves would arouse no curiosity. A rather simple illustration of this—but no less striking for that—would be Lautreamont's example of a sewing-machine and an umbrella together on an operating table.

The function of the grotesque becomes problematical when we focus our attention more narrowly on its psychological effect, and particularly when we address ourselves to the question of whether the grotesque has a liberating or an inhibiting, tension-producing effect. In the discussion of the difficult role of the comic in the grotesque it was pointed out that laughter at the grotesque is not 'free', that the horrifying or disgusting aspect cuts across our amusement: the guffaw becomes a grimace. But one can also describe this the other way round and say that our response to the horrifying is undercut by our appreciation of the comic side of the grotesque. This would suggest that the grotesque does serve to bring the horrifying and disgusting aspects of existence to the surface, there to be rendered less harmful by the introduction of a comic perspective. Kayser has put forward this view, and his notion about the grotesque 'exorcising the demonic' amounts essentially to the same thing. Similarly L. B. Jennings, in The Ludicrous Demon (1963), speaks of a 'disarming mechanism at work' (p. 15). In an article entitled 'Defining the Grotesque: An Attempt at Synthesis' (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Summer 1970) Michael Steig tries to formulate this paradox of the grotesque: that it both liberates or disarms and creates anxiety. Steig's point of departure is the definition by Thomas Cramer (Das Groteske bei E. T. A. Hoffmann, 1966): 'the grotesque is the feeling of anxiety aroused by means of the comic pushed to an extreme', but conversely 'the grotesque is the defeat, by means of the comic, of anxiety in the face of the inexplicable' (p. 26, Steig's translation). Working with the Freudian notions of taboos, regression and infantile fears, Steig arrives at his own psychological definition of the grotesque:

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)
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 LearIn 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)

They are near Dover. Edgar persuades his father that they are climbing steep ground, though they are on a level field, that the sea can be heard beneath:

Gloucester: Methinks the ground is even.
Edgar: Horrible steep. 
Hark, do you hear the sea?
Gloucester: No, truly.
Edgar: Why, then your other senses grow imperfect
By your eyes' anguish. (iv. 6. 3)
Gloucester notices the changed sanity of Edgar's speech, and remarks thereon. Edgar hurries his father to the supposed brink, and vividly describes the dizzy precipice over which Gloucester thinks they stand:
How fearful
And dizzy 'tis to cast one's eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the
                                                      midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles. Halfway down
Hangs one that gathers samphire—dreadful
trade; ... (iv. 6. 11)
Gloucester thanks him, and rewards him; bids him move off; then kneels, and speaks a prayer of noble resignation—breathing that stoicism which permeates the suffering philosophy of this play:
O you mighty gods!
This world I do renounce, and in your sights
Shake patiently my great affliction off.
If I could bear it longer and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out. (iv. 6. 34)
Gloucester has planned a spectacular end for himself. We are given these noble descriptive and philosophical speeches to tune our minds to a noble, tragic sacrifice. And what happens? The old man falls from his kneeling posture a few inches, flat, face foremost. Instead of the dizzy circling to crash and spill his life on the rocks below—just this. The grotesque merged into the ridiculous reaches a consummation in this bathos of tragedy. (The Wheel of Fire, pp. 170-1)
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.

Yet it would be wrong to single out this very severe form of the grotesque as being intrinsically more valuable than others. Indeed that type of grotesqueness at the other end of the scale, so to speak, may well have claims equally valid: that is, the playful or capricious grotesque. It is likely that the play-urge, the desire to invent and 'experiment for its own sake, is a factor in all artistic creation, but we can expect this factor to be more than usually strong in grotesque art and literature, where the breaking down and restructuring of familiar reality plays such a large part. In addition, highly inventive and imaginative, as well as strongly experimental, literature seems to gravitate towards the grotesque. The names of Rabelais and Sterne should once again be mentioned here as representative cases, and modem experimental literature is full of the grotesque. The brothel scene from Joyce's Ulysses is a prime ) example. In connection with experimental literature the question ) arises as to what extent modern experimental techniques—stream of consciousness, point of view, the use of film techniques, proliferation of disparate styles and so on—themselves are related to the creation of the grotesque. Not only the work of Joyce poses this question, but also the modem American novel from Faulkner to John Barth. And, to conclude this particular list with a novel which is awe-inspiring not only for its stylistic techniques but for its radical exploration of the human mind, Elias Canetti's Auto-da-fe is one of the greatest examples in modernity of what we might call the grotesque of mad invention.

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.

The grotesque may be 'purposeless' in another sense: it may not even be intended. Examples of the unintentional or involuntary grotesque abound, in literature and art as well as in life. Even great writers are guilty of the occasional monstrous miscalculation or mis-expression, though few authors enjoy the distinction of being famous solely because of consistently and comically atrocious and thus grotesque—work, which is the fate of the German poetess Friederike Kempner. John Cleveland went somewhat astray when, in 'Fuscara; or the Bee Errant', he described a lady's bare hand as r being 'tender, as 'twere a jelly glov'd'. And such a great and dignified figure as Rainer Maria Rilke was capable, in the fifth Duino Elegy, of describing a young acrobat thus:

Aber der junge, der Mann, als war er der Sohn eines Nackens
und einer Nonne; prall und strammig erfullt
mit Muskeln und Einfalt
(But the young one, the man, as if he were the son of a neck
and a nun: tautly and robustly filled
with muscles and simpleness.) (my trans.)
'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, to the 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,
False queen of my heart,
You vowed 'neath the stars
From me you'd not part.
When I'd cooee to thee
From under your window,
You'd throw me a kiss,
Oh, faithless Totlinda!
I paid for your shingles,
Your wines and your dinners;
With rapture you'd call me
A saint among sinners.
My God, can it be
That I am forsaken?
Or is it a dream from
Which I'll awaken?
My heart pitter pats;
I'm filled with emotion
Totlinda, adieu.
I'll Jump into the ocean.
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 this out:

A Woman's Revenge Oh Wilfred why do you shun me
Appealed a woman as her blue eyes met his own
Begone Ileen said the artist
My love for thee like a bird has flown.
A cry broke from the lips of the unhappy Woman
The false deceiver had ruined her life
As he turned with contempt towards his easel
Into his side she plunged a knife.
'Twas a fatal thrust his brow turned livid
As he sank convulsively to the floor
She had fulfilled her deed of revenge and horror
Into a pool oozed the victim's gore.
Not 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

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