Thursday, October 7, 2010

Browning Vs Chesterton: Round Two

Welcome to the second installment of the Browning vs Chesterton blog quest. This round brings me to my main objective: the grotesque.

I finished up part one with the author's description of Browning's work as "a strange animal walking backwards." As this amusing image suggests, his work wasn't precisely in step with the trends of the time. Chesterton explains that many underestimated Browning's true skill due to the presence of unconventional "literary vagaries" that did not fit into accepted models of poetic verse. Both content and structure were equally perplexing, for Browning "no sooner had a new idea than he tried to make a new form to express it" (136).

These unusual arrangements were often met with critical consternation or (perhaps worse) a patronising benevolence. For Chesterton, however, these anomalies represent not a failure, but a revolution, a form that is "absolutely original"; "a new field of poetry" (48).

And what was this new field?

"The actual quality, the actual originality of the form is a little difficult to describe. But its general characteristic is the fearless and most dexterous use of grotesque things in order to express sublime emotions" (48).


All hands on deck. Confirmed sighting of grotesque. I repeat, the grotesque is present.

But what does Chesterton mean by "grotesque things"? It isn't what you might think.

He provides "A Lover's Quarrel" as an example, specifically these lines:

See, how she looks now, dressed
In a sledging-cap and vest!
'Tis a huge fur cloak---
Like a reindeer's yoke
Falls the lappet along the breast:
Sleeves for her arms to rest,
Or to hang, as my Love likes best.

To which I would respond:

What is grotesque about a vest?
Perhaps monsieur he speaks in jest?
Said yoke's not even of an egg,
no mention of a hairy leg.

Sorry. Getting carried away. What I mean to say is that this poem does not display those elements commonly associated with the grotesque, such as physical metamorphosis, hybridism, ugliness or scatology. Instead we see a gentle examination of a loved one's attire; the domestic intricacies of her dress.

Yet Chesterton insists that the grotesque is applicable to these lines.

"The general accusation against Browning in connection with his use of the grotesque comes in very definitely here; for in using these homely and practical images, these allusions, bordering on what many would call the commonplace, he was indeed true to the actual and abiding spirit of love" (49).

This is poetry based on realism. The material, rather than the ethereal. It emphasises the physicality of love and its sensations. Objects, not abstracts. For Chesterton, this is in part what signals the presence of the grotesque.

Things get clearer in chapter six ('Browning as a Literary Artist'), where he emphasises the uniqueness of Browning's contribution while laying some elegant snark upon those critics who have failed to appreciate it. The practice of literary and artistic criticism more generally is also put under the microscope:

"The usual way of criticising an author, particularly an author who has added something to the literary forms of the world, is to complain that his work does not contain something which is obviously the speciality of somebody else...

It cannot be too much insisted upon that at least three-quarters of the blame and criticism commonly directed against artists and authors falls under this general objection, and is essentially valueless...

[Authors] are blamed for not doing, not only what they have failed to do to reach their own ideal, but what they have never tried to do to reach every other writer's ideal" (139).

According to Chesterton, critics have been entirely mistaken in their analysis of the grotesque in Browning:

"They believe that what is ordinarily called the grotesque style of Browning was a kind of necessity boldly adopted by a great genius in order to express novel and profound ideas. But this is a mistake. What is called ugliness was to Browning not in the least a necessary evil, but a quite unnecessary luxury, which he enjoyed for its own sake" (139-140).

Another example is given, this time lines from Nationality in Drinks (describing a kitsch German jug which probably looked a bit like one of these):

Up jumped Tokay on our table,
Like a pygmy castle-warder,
Dwarfish to see, but stout and able,
Arms and accoutrements all in order;
And fierce he looked North, then, wheeling South,
Blew with his bugle a challenge to Drouth,
Cocked his flap-hat with the tosspot-feather,
Twisted his thumb in his red moustache,
Jingled his huge brass spurs together,
Tightened his waist with its Buda sash,
And then, with an impudence nought could abash,
Shrugged his hump-shoulder, to tell the beholder,
For twenty such knaves he should laugh but the bolder:
And so, with his sword-hilt gallantly jutting,
And dexter-hand on his haunch abutting,
Went the little man, Sir Ausbruch, strutting!

What defines Browning here is "the swing, the rush, the energy of the preposterous and grotesque"; the poem exhibits "energy and joy, the father and the mother of the grotesque" (148).

At this point Chesterton suggests a theory regarding "the general function of the grotesque in art." In terms of grotesque studies this is one of the most important sections, for it sets out his particular vision of the grotesque in terms of both specific texts (the poems) and a wider philosophy.

For Chesterton, the grotesque is a true quality of nature. Many have been "hypnotised by the more eloquent poets" into believing that the natural world is all fluffy clouds, flowers and gentile beauty. In truth, however, it is the opposite:

"The element of of the grotesque in art, like the element of the grotesque in nature, means, in the main, energy, the energy which takes its own forms and goes its own way. Browning's verse, in so far as it is grotesque, is not complex or artificial; it is natural and in the legitimate tradition of nature" (149).

"The verse sprawls like the trees, dances like the dust; it is ragged like the thunder-cloud, it is top-heavy like the toadstool. Energy which disregards the standard of classical art is in nature as it is in Browning. The same sense of the uproarious force of things which makes Browning dwell on the oddity of a fungus or a jellyfish makes him dwell on the oddity of a philosophical idea" (149-150).

Linking the external and the internal, the author presents grotesqueness as that which sits in binary opposition to classic manners of thought and representation, dominant society and ideology. In this context, evoking the grotesque seems to be an inescapably political act.

What might this act achieve? As Chesterton points out, presenting something in grotesque terms encourages the viewer to look and think on it again. It encourages the double take, and potentially draws attention to the ignored, invisible or forgotten.

"It is the supreme function of the philosopher of the grotesque to make the world stand on its head that people may look at it" (151).

I'm going to finish with my favourite quote (because you can never have enough quoting). It isn't precisely about the grotesque, but it sure is relevant to my area of study. Specifically: popular culture.

"It is only very superficial people who object to the superficial. To the man who sees the marvellousness of all things, the surface of life is fully as strange and magical as its interior; clearness and plainness of life is fully as mysterious as its mysteries. The young man in evening dress, pulling on his gloves, is quite as elemental a figure as any anchorite, quite as incomprehensible, and indeed quite as alarming" (111).


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