GROTESQUE

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Nahum 3:5-7: "I am against you," declares the LORD Almighty. "I will lift your skirts over your face. I will show the nations your nakedness and the kingdoms your shame. I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle. All who see you will flee from you and say, `Nineveh is in ruins--who will mourn for her?' Where can I find anyone to comfort you?"

Ezekiel 23: 16-22: As soon as she saw them, she lusted after them and sent messengers to them in Chaldea. Then the Babylonians came to her, to the bed of love, and in their lust they defiled her. After she had been defiled by them, she turned away from them in disgust. When she carried on her prostitution openly and exposed her nakedness, I turned away from her in disgust, just as I had turned away from her sister. Yet she became more and more promiscuous as she recalled the days of her youth, when she was a prostitute in Egypt. There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses. So you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when in Egypt your bosom was caressed and your young breasts fondled. Therefore, Oholibah, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will stir up your lovers against you, those you turned away from in disgust, and I will bring them against you from every side--

As a literary technique, the grotesque focuses on the use of the bizarre, the absurd, the caricatured, the ugly.  Often, the grotesque in literature looks closely at the irrational and the tragic elements of human life.  It seems bent on asking us to consider the deformed and abnormal.  As such, the grotesque in the hands of many authors is essentially naturalistic and nihilistic.  It posits a universe without order. Humanity as a category is emptied of its worth and wisdom.   However, it may also be Christian in its study of human fallenness.  If the technique of the grotesque may distort, it may also heighten awareness, forcing one to become more aware of the consequences of folly and misery.  Flannery O'Connor wrote:

To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.  [. . .] I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is Christ-haunted.  The Southerner, who isn't convinced of it, is very much afraid  that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. [. . .] In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature. (44-45)

In O'Connor's sense, the grotesque awakens the reader by its very distortion.  It paints one part of humanity in gargantuan and twisted ways.  We are caught off-guard, but in being so, we are reminded more deeply of what humanity should be, of what God intended it to be, of what it can be again.   The category of the grotesque succeeds only because we have some intuition of what the normal might be.   It is often intensely fleshly in its bodily preoccupations, but that pus-filled, sexually deviant portrait also calls us back to the holy embodiedness that God gave us as his creation.  Equally, the grotesque is often carved out from the fragments of minds gone mad.  Yet again, it stirs up memories in us of what a truly harmonious and holy mind and spirit must be like.  The grotesque, to return to O'Connor's language, is always haunted.

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Central Insight: By its use of distortion, the grotesque forcefully reminds us of what the normal (even unfallen) would be like.

Suggestions for Application: Uncover the normal or ideal model that gives a grotesque plot or description its power.  Even better, show how the grotesque is seeking to communicate that ideal to us.

O'Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. London: Faber and Faber, 1972.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding