Books: The Grotesque of Kayser, Bakhtin, and Relatives
GROTESQUES. Pictures wherein (as please the Painter) all kinds of odde things are represented whithout anie peculiar sense, or meaning, but only to feed the eye (R. Corgrave, A Dictionnairie of the French and English Tongues, 1611).
Factor de desorientación. El terror nos asalta con rigor precisamente porque se trata de nuestro propio mundo, de manera que la confianza que depositábamos en él [el mundo] no resulta ser más que una apariencia. Simultáneamente tenemos la sensación de que no podríamos vivir en ese mundo de repente transformado. No se corresponde con lo grotesco el miedo a la muerte, sino el pánico ante la vida. Y a la estructura de lo grotesco pertenece la abolición de todas las categorías en que fundamos nuestra orientación en el mundo. Desde la ornamentación renacentista hemos asistido a la plasmación de procesos perdurables de disolución: la mezcla de ámbitos y reinos bien distinguidos por nuestra percepción, la supresión de lo estático, la pérdida de identidad, la distorsión de las proporciones «naturales», etc. Y en la actualidad se han sumado a aquellas otros procesos más de disolución: la anulación de la categoría de cosa, la destrucción del concepto de personalidad, el derribo de nuestro concepto de tiempo histórico (Kayser: Lo grotesco en literatura y pintura).
KAYSER, Wolfgang Johannes. The Grotesque in Art and Literature (1957), McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966. The art of our own day shows a greater affinity to the grotesque than that of any other epoch. Modern novels, modern paintings and sculpture are replete with grotesque features. In this modern classic of criticism, Wolfgang Kayser traces the historical development of the grotesque from the Italian Reanissance (which originated the word "grottesco") through the "chimeric" world of the commedia dell'arte, Sturm und Drang, the age of Romanticism and nineteenth century "realism," to its modern forms in poetry, dream narration and surrealist painting (A).
Kayser's book on the grotesque touches its history, etymology and traditions. If you don't specialize in art or literature, his examples are sometimes hard to follow. There are parts of this book that are brilliantly illuminating, but other parts are like trudging through ankle deep mud. It's not that the book is inconsistent, it's that the examples Kayser chooses are so obscure that he has to explicate them and his summaries are hazy. Sometimes I couldn't even tell why he chose the examples that he chose. But when he's talking theory or history, he can be very inspiring. I found lots of quotable passages in the introduction and conclusion. Kayser suggests that the grotesque is grotesque only in as much as it is new and unknown, but as soon as one gets used to it, its grotesqueness tends to fade. Unfortunately Kayser's examples and descriptions lack the comic side of the grotesque almost completely (1+2).
BAKHTIN, Mikhail Mikhaĭlovich. Rabelais and His World, Indiana University Press, 1984. This classic work by the Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975) examines popular humor and folk culture in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. One of the essential texts of a theorist who is rapidly becoming a major reference in contemporary thought, Rabelais and His World is essential reading for anyone interested in problems of language and text and in cultural interpretation (B).
Bakhtin richly documents the range and scope of the popular-festive culture that is the hero of his book, its ancient roots, the vigorous life it enjoyed in the Middle Ages, its entry into important literature in the Renaissance, even the considerable traces of it that still survive after centuries of repression (Modern Language Quarterly).
The author rediscovers the spirit of the medieval carnival, a tradition that stemmed from ancient Greek and Rome: its function was to give a vent to people's death fear and anger over social injustice. "Everything was allowed" and for a short period of time the social taboos were erased. Fools and prostitutes were "crowned" to embody Kings, Queens, Pope, saints, monks and nuns. And the chosen ones were mocked, ridiculed, assailed, beaten, stoned, "dethrowned" and "impeached" (T. Elmanovich).
Bakhtin analyses the "Carnivalesque" and explores the sources of medieval popular culture that served Rabelais' language and purposes.
As for the significance of the individual in the Carnivalesque, Michael Lyons holds that one has only to look to the Fool. Bakhtin considered his first reading of Friedrich Nietzsche an epiphany and that German philosopher remained one of Bakhtin's most important influences throughout his writing career. The Fool, as an extension of the carnival, is the ultimate Nietzschean character. Able to move between worlds, he demonstrates the power of the individual to transcend societal norms. As Bakhtin explains, "the images of folk culture are absolutely fearless and communicate this fearlessness to all."
THOMSON, Philip John. The Grotesque, Routledge, 1972. Volume 24 of The Critical Idiom. A most clear exposition of the topic.
HARPHAM, Geoffrey. On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature (1982), The Davies Group, 2006. The concept of the grotesque appeared in the Renaissance when the word grottesche was first used as a name for a new, or a newly discovered, type of decorative art that incorporated human, floral, and animal elements, compromising a common-sensical distinction between the figural art of the center and the ornamental art of the margin. The richest undertanding of the grotesque, Harpham argues, derives from precisely such a confusion between margin and center, or between art that represents the world as conventionally perceived and the world as imagined in dreams, fantasies, or myths. Through discussions of pictorial art from the Paleolithic art of the cave, or "grotto" to more recent times, and of narratives of Bronte, Poe, Mann, and Conrad, Harpham argues that the grotesque should be seen as not as an artistic anomaly or aberration but as a "species of confusion" that structures the concept of art itself. A final chapter on the aesthetic theories of Kant, Hegel, Ruskin, and others tracks the ways in which the grotesque has haunted the thinking of the leading theorists of the Western tradition. Thus, accordig to Harpham, we should view the grotesque not as a marginal or aberrant form, but rather as a key to the Western artistic tradition which expands and enriches our understanding of art itself. Excerpt
KRISTEVA, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press, 1982. Uncanny. A hallucinatory journey to the limits of symbolization. The act of reading this book can be an excersize in facing or coping with abjection. Includes interesting and accessible literary analyses.
KURYLUK, Ewa. Salome and Judas in the Cave of Sex. The Grotesque: Origins, Iconography, Techniques, Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1987. The author explores the concept of the Grotesque and studies the literary and graphic work of Beardsley. Review by Stanley Weintraub: "Although Ewa Kuryluk has used, largely, Aubrey Beardsley's work--in words an in images--to represent a stage in the artistic use of the grotesque in Western culture, her real subject proves to be the mythmaking mind of Beardsley himself. [...] A log introduction on the origins of the grotesque as an outlet for antisocial impulses, and how the grotesque has manifested itself since the first cave drawings, is followed not by examining its use among fin-de-siecle writers and artists in general, but almost wholly as Beardsley employed it. [...] There is no question but that the grotesque dominates Aubrey Beardsley's art. The moving force of the grotesque world, Ewa Kuryluk tells us, was Eros. It was injected into landscape and architecture, and allegorized in different ways; it appeared as a winged boy or a horned satyr, a chevalier or a beast, a dwarf and an embryo who explored the female garden, isand or planet of love, a subterranean paradise. Further, she concludes, the artists of the grotesque, preoccupied as they were with death as well as with love, oscillated between sadism and masochism but had a stronger inclination for the second ("The Lens of the Grotesque," English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Vol. 31, No. 2, April 1988, p. 191-95).
ADAMS, James Luther, ed. The Grotesque in Art and Literature: Theological Reflections, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997. While there has been a growing interest in the use of grotesque imagery in art and literature, very little attention has been given to the religious and theological significance of such imagery. This fascinating book redresses that neglect by exploring the religious meaning of the grotesque and its importance as a subject for theological inquiry.
Review by Justin Torres: The Grotesque's Religious Implications (Washington, D.C., 1998). Standing always at the edge of society's consciousness is a group of artistic works that repel as they fascinate: the grotesque. Dismissed by the "respectable," and often condemned for their absurdity, incongruity, and perceived immorality, they nonetheless hold powerful sway in the popular imagination. Sordid pagan tales of incest and bloodletting, the medieval carnival, commedia dell'arte--these popular uprisings of the grotesque imagination reveal, through their marginalized position in the cultural scene, deep seated impulses that polite society has suppressed.
Yates surveys four major theoretical approaches to the grotesque-Wolfgang Kayser's grotesque as demonic "other," Mikhail Bahktin's edenic carnival, Geoffrey Harpham's notion of the grotesque as the process of becoming, and Ewa Kuryluk's feminist interpretation of the grotesque as an expression of subdued or oppressed "anti-worlds." Yates uses these theorists to identify major themes in grotesque art that speak to religious impulses: bafflement over the meaning of human existence; the dread of non-existence; man's ability to create; and our perception of the world as fallen.
Roger Hazelton's "The Grotesque, Theologically Considered" seems to express the central insight of this book: that the grotesque, like theology, forces us to reflect on mystery properly conceived. As Hazelton says:
"Mystery is not a synonym for residual ignorance which will be dispelled when the sciences get around to it. Neither can it simply be equated with the unknown or unknowable.... Theology and grotesque art ... find a certain affinity in a common persuasion that mystery remains a real and radical feature of our existing in the world-something not reducible to the aims and methods of technical expertise ... thus compelling other kinds of human response and acknowledgment."
For Hazelton, the grotesque, in expressing the mystery of Being recalls to us theology's enunciation of "that abiding, confiding trust and loyalty called faith." Also notable in this collection is Wolfgang Stechow's consideration of Hieronymus Bosch, whose Garden of Earthly Delights was placed by Spain's King Philip II at the altar of the Escorial. Bosch has long been a puzzle to art critics and the faithful alike. Praised by a Spanish monk at the time of its completion as a bold representation of man "as he is on the inside," the painting, with Dante's Inferno, ranks among the best commentaries of the grotesque nature of sin. The book also boasts an excellent examination of the gravedigger's scene from Hamlet and a previously unpublished play by Robert Penn Warren, Ballad of a Sweet Dream of Peace: A Charade for Easter.
The only disappointment in the collection is the essay that James Luther Adams wrote in the '70s before abandoning the project for a quarter century. "The Grotesque and Our Future" studiously avoids discussion of the deeper insights about man and religion the grotesque affords, instead confining himself to banal policy pronouncements. He quotes approvingly the call for a "revitalized United Nations" as the antidote to 20th century violence, a suggestion that gains a grotesque irony in the post-Sarajevo era. Surveying the cultural scene, he finds nothing more "typically and pathetically grotesque" than the spectacle of "the president's daughter tutoring two inner-city children at the White House." (One feels Dr. Adams has not looked hard enough.) Given the fact that we seem to be experiencing a uprising of the grotesque in popular music and movies--notice for example, Quentin Tarantino--this essay is a missed opportunity to discuss what the grotesque may say about our culture's future.
Still, in all, The Grotesque in Art and Literature is fascinating reading: well written, insightful, synthesizing various disciplinary approaches in an attempt to gain a view of the whole subject. Moreover, the subject of the grotesque may well become one of great interest to believers in the postmodern era. As American culture itself becomes more and more grotesque, there may be much insight to gain from art and literature that stands on the cultural edge and gazes back to the center.
CONNELLY, Frances S., ed. Modern Art and the Grotesque, Cambridge University Press, 2009. This volume examines how the grotesque has shaped the history, practice, and theory of art in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The grotesque has been adopted by a succession of artists as a way to push beyond established boundaries, to explore alternate modes of experience and expression, and to challenge the status quo. Examining specific images by a range of artists, such as Ingres, Gauguin, Höch, de Kooning, Polke, and Mona Hatoum, these essays encompass a variety of media, including medical illustration, paintings, prints, photography, multimedia installations, and film. This study brings into focus a range of subjects, styles, and theoretical viewpoints that have traditionally been marginalized in the standard narratives on modernism. It demonstrates how the grotesque in modern art directly ties into debates regarding the representation of race and gender, abjection and the Other, globalization, and appropriation. Excerpt
CONNELLY, Frances S. The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture: The Image at Play, Cambridge University Press, 2012. This book establishes a fresh and expansive view of the grotesque in Western art and culture, from 1500 to the present day. Following the non-linear evolution of the grotesque, Frances S. Connelly analyzes key works, situating them within their immediate social and cultural contexts, as well as their place in the historical tradition. By taking a long historical view, the book reveals the grotesque to be a complex and continuous tradition comprised of several distinct strands: the ornamental, the carnivalesque and caricatural, the traumatic, and the profound. The book articulates a model for understanding the grotesque as a rupture of cultural boundaries that compromises and contradicts accepted realities. Connelly demonstrates that the grotesque is more than a style, genre, or subject; it is a cultural phenomenon engaging the central concerns of the humanistic debate today. Hybrid, ambivalent, and changeful, the grotesque is a shaping force in the modern era.
Related terminology: absurd, alienation, ambiguity, ambivalence, bestiary, bizarre, contradiction, creatures, curious, decoration, deformation, dissonance, distortion, dream, drollery, exaggeration, freaks, grotesqueries, grottesche, horror, human oddities, humor, hybridity, imaginary, imagination, language, marginalia, materia confusa, monsters, nightmare, ominous, ornamental, paradox, ridiculous, strange, teratology, uncanny.