Sunday, November 14, 2010

Everywhere Hugo, I will Follow: Part 1

More grotesque history. This time I'm looking at French writer Victor Hugo (1802-1885), specifically his discussion of the grotesque in the famous Preface to Cromwell. This is definitely a two, possibly three, part post. The version I'm quoting here is from Prefaces and Prologues to Famous Books, so the page numbers are applicable to this text.

There are quite a few of caricatures of Hugo around, some of them rather unflattering. This one is my favourite, for obvious reasons.

[Octopus with the initials V.H. (1866) Via]

Anyway, Hugo begins with some comments on the relationship between the preface and the larger body of work it introduces. Do readers care what the writer of a play or poem was thinking about when they wrote it? He is dubious.

"Not without some hesitation... did the author determine to burden his drama with a preface. Such things are usually of very little interest to the reader. He inquires concerning the talent of a writer rather than concerning his point of view; and in determining whether a book is good or not, it matters little to him upon what ideas it is based, or in what sort of mind it germinated."

"One seldom inspects the cellars of a house after visiting its salons, and when one eats the fruit of a tree, one cares but little about its root" (354).

Additionally, he suggests that some writers include prefaces in an attempt to add distinction to texts that are lacking, or to deflect aggressive critics from the work itself by offering an alternate target.

[Perhaps I should have given a preface of my own to this post, stipulating that I am not an expert on the Romantics or Hugo himself. Instead, at present, I am simply interested in so far as he represents one of the many voices who have spoken of the grotesque in ways that reflect their own particular politics, culture and historical context. Hmm. I think this would definitely fall into the 'deflecting' category.]

Such strategies do not apply in Hugo's case, because:

"This volume did not need to be inflated, it was already too stout by far. Furthermore, and the author does not know why it is so, his prefaces, frank and ingenuous as they are, have always served rather to compromise him with the critics than to shield him" (355).

He then wisely notes that "although in fact, one seldom inspects the cellars of a building for pleasure, one is not sorry sometimes to examine its foundations" (355). So, despite misgivings, Hugo launches into a preface that was destined to become more famous than the play it accompanied.


He first talks about what he understands to be the evolving nature of human civilization, dividing it into three stages: primitive times, ancient times, and modern times. (Such divisions suggest problematic hierarchical assumptions to contemporary readers, but no doubt made perfect sense at the time.) These stages involved different ways of living in, understanding and speaking about the world. Thus each separate era generated its own particular forms of creative expression and religious practices and beliefs.

Changes from one era to another resulted in changes in perception and faith. In the transition from primitive to ancient times:

"The social instinct succeeds the nomadic instinct. The camp gives place to the city, the tent to the palace, the ark to the temple."

"Everything tends to become stationary and fixed. Religion takes on a definite shape; prayer is governed by rites; dogma sets bounds to worship. Thus the priest and king share the paternity of the people; thus theocratic society succeeds the patriarchal community. Meanwhile the nations are beginning to be packed too closely on the earth's surface. They annoy and jostle one another; hence the clash of empires - war" (357).

Hugo identifies this era as a time of epic poetry modeled on Homer (358-9).

From here society shifts into 'modern' times, which are marked by the emergence of Christianity. Hugo envisions this process in decidedly gory terms.

"A spiritual religion, supplanting the material and external paganism, makes its way to the heart of the ancient society, kills it, and deposits, in that corpse of decrepit civilization, the germ of modern civilization" (359).

[Clytemnestra after the Murder. (1882) Via]

Early paganism was all about substance:

"Nothing could be more material, indeed, than the ancient theogony... it ascribes form and features to everything, even to impalpable essences, even to the intelligence. In it everything is visible, tangible, fleshly. Its gods need a cloud to conceal themselves from men's eyes. They eat, drink and sleep. They are wounded and their blood flows; they are maimed, and lo! they limp forever after" (360).

Christianity, however, is all about duality:

"It teaches man that he has two lives to live, one ephemeral, the other immortal; one on earth, the other in heaven. It shows him that he, like his destiny, is twofold: that there is in him an animal and an intellect, a body and a soul" (359).

They were never going to be friends.

In the "death agony" of the pagan universe Hugo sees the origins of critical analysis. Another embodied description follows:

"As soon as that world was dead, lo! clouds of rhetoricians, grammarians, sophists, swooped down like insects on its immense body. People saw them swarming and heard them buzzing in that seat of putrefaction. They vied with one another in scrutinizing, commenting, disputing. Each limb, each muscle, each fibre of the huge prostrate body was twisted and turned in every direction" (362).

Wow. I wonder what he would have thought of the internet.

[Dissection Room. Via]

Apart from Hugo's wonderfully fleshy envisioning of history, what has any of this to do with the grotesque? Good question. We're nearly there.

The emergence of a new modern age meant the birth of a new poetry. This verse reflected the duality of Christianity, embraced the twofold nature of the world, and presented the sublime and the grotesque as two equally significant halves of the universe. The "modern muse" understood that:

"the ugly exists beside the beautiful, the unshapely beside the graceful, the grotesque on the reverse of the sublime, evil with good, darkness with light" (363).

But what precisely did Hugo mean by 'grotesque'? More to come in part two...

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