Text: Donald H. Ross, “The Grotesque: A Speculation,” Poe Studies, June 1971, vol. IV, no. 1, 4:10-11


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The Grotesque: A Speculation

Washington State University

For philosophers, scholars, and critics alike the grotesque has always presented itself as a problem in definition. But the grotesque has remained impregnable to conventional critical approaches. So intractable, in fact, has the grotesque proven to be that some theorists, in frustration perhaps, have assigned enigma itself to be the essence of it.

Admittedly, the efforts of scholars have produced significant and provocative commentary by way of definition, in particulat two recent works, Wolfgang Kayser’s Das Grotesque: seine Gestaltung in Malerei und Dichtung (Odenburg, 1961; The Grotesque in Art and Literature, trans. Ulrich Weisstein [Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1963]), and Arthur Clayborough’s The Grotesque in English Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965). Using an inductive method and historical generalizations, Kayser has given us perhaps a definitive description of the groresque effects; and Clayborough, employing Jungian concepts in psychology, has offered a fascinating hypothesis on the sources and varieties of grotesque expressions in art and literature. Both works are admirable and [column 2:] indispensable to any student of the grotesque, but both writers have failed, as others before them, to provide a comprehensive and stable focus for examining the grotesque. Such attempts have had only limited success, I believe, because the grotesque penetrates much deeper into our sensibilities than we have traditionally assumed, and because our efforts at definition are little more than attempts to force the grotesque into some tractable form using concepts that are already familiar and comfortable to us.

Initially, the grotesque must be freed from the tacit assumption that it is immovably lodged between the poles of some recognizable dualism. This conviction is endemic to all discussions of the grotesque either as the point of departure or as the conclusion. Although the particular dualism, philosophical or aesthetic, may vary from the tragic and the comic, good and evil, real and ideal, natural and unnatural, the ugly and the beautiful, the ridiculous and the sublime, the presence of a dualistic system has marked all discussions of the grotesque.

It is not difficult to account for this state of affairs. The grotesque, as it emerged in artistic form, and then became an object of intellectual interest, was most evident as a visual phenomenon, characterized by the simple technique of juxtaposition of inharmonious parts, some real, some imaginary. These contrary parts came from one or another of the accepted dualisms of the artists ’ time and culture. Unfortunately, the verity of the eye has led to two questionable conclusions: 1) that the raison d ’etre of the grotesque is the psychological shock achieved by the amalgam, mixture, blend, or fusion of the poles of a dualism; and 2), that because of its “hybrid” nature, the grotesque could not be a true artistic mode, aesthetically unique and integrated, reflecting a weltanshauung that had as much potential for artistic development as the tragic and comic modes.

An attempt must be made to establish the grotesque as an artistic mode sui generic. The philosophical matrix of Western civilization is weakening, and we are beginning to realize that our heritage of Greek and Judeo-Christian thought is so tyrannically dualistic that the modern world may not be able to survive under it. The great challenge to our traditional philosophical dualisms is existentialism, less in its formal or pedagogical manifestations perhaps than in its “popular” form, that is, in the concepts which have filtered down into the consciousness of artists and ordinary people. This popular existentialism is making modern man increasingly skeptical of all dualisms, preparing him to consider the possibility that existence is possible without a belief in those a priori dualisms which force him into decisions and actions that are defined as opposites or contraries. The significance of this development for the present discussion is that it may make possible a new epistemology for the grotesque. Freed from the compulsion to perceive by dualistic concepts, we may explore the grotesque with the hope of discovering it as a unique and unalloyed mode of human expression. Like the tragic and the comic, it may possess an artistic spectrum bounded only by the creative capacities of its producers.

Looking at the problem aesthetically, it appears that the first step in reconsidering the grotesque is to enlarge [page 11:] our emotional apprehension of it. The “shock” effect has received far too much attention in our appreciation of the grotesque. Those persons with a strongly dualistic manner of thinking and responding may, of course, feel that this is the only appeal of the grotesque and be content with that. Added often to the shock effect, however, is the sense that the grotesque presents the alien or estranged world, that is, experience which lies outside of what we admit as normal, integrated experience. Whatever the basic reaction of the perceiver, shock or estrangement, the source of the response is some learned dualism.

It would be foolish to deny that shock and estrangement can and do play a role in our present response to the grotesque, but the question to be asked is whether that role is any more significant than the role of sound in music or taste in eating. In short, our customary tendency to restrict our response to the grotesque to a visual or visceral level may be preventing us from allowing it to assume the cerebral state that we accord to the tragic and comic.

Perhaps the most pressing question is simply this: if creative err as we know it, excluding the grotesque, is propagated by the dynamics of one dualism or another, then what can be the nature of a creative act which eschews such a foundation? A richer understanding and appreciation of the grotesque may lead us toward an answer, for a major function of the grotesque, even in its superficial aspects, is to mock dualistic concerns, to disparage all polarities by encompassing them in a larger framework. Thus the grotesque is set off from the tragic and the comic by its capacity to take the perceiver to a position that is beyond the agony of catastrophe and the hope of rebirth. Because of this characteristic, it comes to occupy a unique position in regard to human ethics and artistic taste in that it eschews the very elements which constitute them. Examined on larger, supra-dualistic grounds, the grotesque might appear to exist solely to deride dualism and so prove dependent upon it. Or, I suggest, there may be discovered its integral laws, sui generis, its essential relation with all irony, paradox, and enigma in art, and its function as a means of escape from the tyranny of dualisms.  


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1971]