Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Grotesque Doubles

For the last few weeks I have been thinking about the grotesque in terms of doubling; specifically, how the notion of grotesqueness is made use of in Western cultural texts that are consumed with dichotomies. The comics I'm looking at for my current chapter really highlight the subjective, culturally situated nature of the grotesque, because the story-arc is arranged about a racial dichotomy: white hero/black grotesque.

This scenario mirrors what Paul Hoch (1979) describes in White Hero, Black Beast. Fictional tales, Hoch argues, historically portray the battle between heroes and villains as

"a struggle between two understandings of manhood: human versus animal, white versus black, spiritual versus carnal, soul versus flesh, higher versus lower, noble versus base. These all correspond to the basic moral dichotomy that was assumed in order to provide legitimacy for the first hierarchical societies: the superior morality and manhood of 'civilised' and 'noble' upper class white heroes in contrast with 'barbaric' and 'base' lower class villains" (p45).

'H' for Hero indeed. These tales require the annihilation of blackness via whiteness, in order to confirm the masculine power of the (super)white male:

"despite the awesomeness of the threat, white heroes duly bring down the black beast; and thus mind eventually triumphs over body, civilisation conquers nature" (p49).

Superboy looks more pink than white here... but that's another story.

It seems clear to me that this hero/beast dichotomy says a great deal more about whiteness than it does about blackness. The 'white hero' depends upon the idea of the 'black beast' to maintain his own self image, his own sense of value and power. Hoch quotes Satre (from the Preface to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth) on the first page:

"... the European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters."

I would add 'grotesques' to this list of creations.

These binaries are complicated, however, by a tendency to see the (presumably white?) self as doubled, as containing a hidden "dark" side. Jung's concept of "the shadow" is interesting in this context, for he argues that the human mind is divided:

"there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is" ("Psychology and Religion" (1938) p131).

Jung conceptualises this "shadow" as a raging monster within:

"The individual seldom knows anything of [the shadow]; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster; and each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster's body, so that for better or worse he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow-side of human nature"("On the Psychology of the Unconscious" (1912) p35).

The character of Two-Face is an explicit representation of this imagined dynamic:

In this context, the white hero's battle appears to be fundamentally with himself:

"The hero's main feat is to overcome the monster of darkness: it is the long-hoped-for and expected triumph of consciousness over the unconscious" ("The Psychology of the Child Archetype" (1940) p284).

Let's face it... the thing in the mirror is pretty mesmerising for most creatures.

Ouch! I'm sure there is a lesson in there somewhere.


  1. You might find the current Blackest Night cross-over from DC of interest - due the influence of "evil"/Black rings (like the Green lantern rings, but not green!) all past DC heroes and villains who have died are resurrected as evil 'Dark Lanterns' who are a bit like evil doppelgangers. Sounds a bit like what you're talking about, I think. :)

  2. Thanks Tama, sounds interesting! I'll check it out.

    Came across a Batman miniseries called Jekyll and Hyde recently where the idea of the double was thoroughly worked over... Two-Face invented a drug that 'released the shadow' and forced people to access their 'dark side.' Really deserves its own post :)