Saturday, October 30, 2010

Symonds U Been Gone

Another entry in my spectacularly random historical survey of grotesque writings. This time under the cloudy microscope: John Addington Symonds and his essay "Caricature, the Fantastic, the Grotesque" from Essays Speculative and Suggestive, published 1907. I think my page numbers are from this edition.

Without further ado...

In part I, Symonds begins by discussing caricature, which he defines as:
"a distinct species of characterisation, in which the salient features of a person or an object have been emphasised with the view of rendering them ridiculous" (155).

Eg. Charles Darwin:


Tangent alert: the overemphasis of physical features and personal attributes isn't always utilised as an attack. Someone can deliberately caricature themselves to generate self-deprecating comedy, and/or make a point about how they are perceived.

Eg. Ludacris.

In this music video Ludacris uses caricature to highlight the ridiculous elements of his hyper-masculine public image (threatening to fight shoes), while linking his anger at overly familiar strangers with the classic "Hulk Smash!"explosions of The Incredible Hulk. The body parts emphasised here also accord with popular 'Hulk Hands' merchandising, perhaps making a commentary on the commercialisation of the male body and the perpetuation of ideas/images of male (specifically non-white/"green" male) rage and violence in society.


Also reminds me of SpongeBob SquarePants' Anchor Arms. "Now I'm a jerk and everybody loves me!"

Anyway, back on topic.

Part II sees a discussion of the fantastic, which Symonds defines as that which "invariably implies a certain exaggeration or distortion of nature," however "lacks that deliberate intention to disparage which lies at the root of caricature" (156). The author explicitly links this definition with the early grotesque style in art, arguing that the fantastical:

"may be merely graceful, as is the case with arabesques devised by old Italian painters - frescoed patterns upon walls and ceilings, in which tendrils of the vine, acanthus foliage, parts of beasts and men and birds and fabulous creatures are brought into quasi-organic fusion with candelabra, goblets, lyres and other familiar objects of utility" (156-7).

This is one of my favourite descriptions of the early grotesque.

More widely, the term 'fantastic' can be attributed to those "beautiful and terrific forms" whose creation reflects flights of fancy: "some vision of the excited imagination" (157). These include mythological creatures such as sphinxes, satyrs, dragons, fairies, spirits and so forth, in addition to tales of human/non-human metamorphosis. This is pure fabrication; the human mind making free with pieces of reality to construct something entirely imaginary. The allure of these images results in many people desiring/believing that they actually exist.


In part III the grotesque makes its appearance. "The grotesque," Symonds argues, "is a branch of the fantastic" (158).

"Its specific difference lies in the fact that an element of caricature, whether deliberately intended or imported by the craftsman's spontaneity of humour, forms an ingredient of the thing produced" (158).

This is a dubious distinction, to my mind. He has already stated that the difference between caricature and the fantastic lies in the presence or absence of a "deliberate intention to disparage." Once disparagement creeps into the fantastic it becomes caricature. So caricature = grotesque? I'm confused.

Symonds lists a variety of historical creatures and stories which he does not consider to be grotesque, because "they lack the touch of conscious caricature added to free fancy which differentiates the species" (159).

At this point, I'm still confused.

Part IV introduces the idea of obscenity as a possible clarification point.

"Closely allied to caricature and the grotesque we find obscenity... The reason is not far to seek. Nothing exposes human beings to more contemptuous derision that the accentuation in their persons of that which self-respect induces them to hide. Indecency is therefore a powerful resource for satirical caricaturists."
"It appeals to the gross natural man, upon whose sense of humour the creator of grotesque imagery wishes to work, and with whom he is in cordial sympathy" (160).

Gross indeed.

Culture determines what is acceptable in polite conversation and representation, and what is obscene. Certain facts of life (remembering this was written in 1907: sex, genitalia, faeces, menstruation, childbirth, etc.) must be experienced but not spoken of. Such obscenity, when represented:

"brings before the sense in figure what is already powerful enough in fact. It stirs in us what education tends to curb, and exposes what human culture teaches us to withdraw from observation" (162).

[Via Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656). Smiling Girl, a Courtesan, Holding an Obscene Image.]

But where to draw the line? Individuals, even though they may share a common cultural context, differ in their opinion of what is obscene and what isn't. This point is typical for any and all discussions involving the grotesque - who says what is grotesque and what isn't? Subjectivity and cultural relativism complicate everything.

Symonds believes that certain artists have the ability to "elevate" their chosen subjects, despite their base origins.

"All depends on taste, on method of treatment, on the tone communicated, on the mood in which matters of delicacy have been viewed" (167-8).

He concludes in Part V with a discussion of the true purpose of poetry and art, advocating a middle ground approach:

"the final object of the whole concert is to delight and stimulate the mind, not to exercise the brain by logical propositions, nor to excite the appetite by indecent imagery. Precisely in this attunement of all the senses to the service of impassioned thought lies the secret of the noblest art" (165).

While this is certainly not the most convincing treatment of the grotesque I have read, it is interesting to note how it registers the difficulty in separating 'grotesque' from other terms and ideas. It also firmly severs the early grotesque from the contemporary, which many discussions do not do. Symonds claims that early grotesque art is emblematic of the fantastical, whereas 'the grotesque' is something quite different - closer to the obscene than the fanciful.

His grotesque lies somewhere at the point where caricature and the fantastic meet; generating a "peculiar connection which is necessary to grotesqueness" (159).

I'm still a bit confused. But that is hardly unusual.

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