Sunday, November 21, 2010

Everywhere Hugo, I will Follow: Part 2

So. I've had a rest. From writing, anyway. Now it's time for part two of Victor Hugo and the grotesque (you can read part one here.) All pics from Wikimedia Commons.

I finished the last post with Hugo's first mention of the grotesque, specifically his assertion 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).

Arguing firmly that "Christianity leads poetry to truth" (362), Hugo claims that the modern poet must consider if their work adequately represents the Christian view of a dual universe. They must ask themselves:

"If the narrow and relative sense of the artist should prevail over the infinite, absolute sense of the Creator; if it is for man to correct God; if a mutilated nature will be the more beautiful for the mutilations" (363).

Here we see a now quite familiar dichotomous construction of the grotesque, which is defined in opposition to other concepts. Eg. grotesque/sublime, grotesque/beautiful.

Hugo argues that the grotesque and non-grotesque exist in a binary relationship, and, having been deliberately fashioned this way by God, thus form two equally valuable halves of a whole. The writer must represent both, if s/he is to adequately and truthfully represent the world.

"Darkness and light, the grotesque and the sublime; in other words, the body and the soul, the beast and the intellect; for the starting-point of religion is always the starting-point of poetry. All things are connected" (363).

For Hugo, then, the willingness to depict and discuss grotesqueness in addition to other 'higher' concepts is what makes the poetry of the 'modern age' distinct. It is also what distinguishes romantic literature from classical literature.

[The Effusions of a Troubled Brain, or Evil Communications Corrupt Good Manners. George Humphrey (1821) Via]

Anticipating criticism and accusations of bad taste ("Don't you know that art should correct nature? that we must ennoble art? that we must select?") Hugo nonetheless argues that "it is of the fruitful union of the grotesque and the sublime types that modern genius is born" (364).

Where ancient poetry tried to conceal or deny the baser elements of human nature and society, the modern romantic poet knows that these features of reality must be acknowledged in order to build a complete vision of humanity as it is.

"In the idea of men of modern times... the grotesque plays an enormous part. It is found everywhere; on the one hand it creates the abnormal and the horrible, on the other the comic and the burlesque."

"And how free and open it is in its bearing! how boldly it brings into relief all the strange forms which the preceding age had timidly wrapped in swaddling clothes!" (365).

This is a pretty long quote, but I like how it captures Hugo's enthusiasm for the topic and his emphatic defense of the value of the grotesque. It also gives us some concrete examples to consider, which is always nice.

"We will simply say here that, as a means of contrast with the sublime, the grotesque is, in our view, the richest source that nature can offer art. Rubens so understood it, doubtless, when it pleased him to introduce the hideous features of a court dwarf amid his exhibitions of royal magnificence, coronations and splendid ceremonial.

The universal beauty which the ancients solemnly laid upon everything, is not without monotony; the same impression repeated again and again may prove fatiguing at last. Sublime upon sublime scarcely presents a contrast, and we need a little rest from everything, even the beautiful.

On the other hand, the grotesque seems to be a halting-place, a mean term, a starting-point whence one rises toward the beautiful with a fresher and keener perception. The salamander gives relief to the water-sprite; the gnome heightens the charm of the sylph" (366).

I love "we need a little rest from everything, even the beautiful."

Rubens is awesome, by the way.

Exhibit A) Medusa

Exhibit B) Bacchus

Exhibit C) Women of the Apocalypse

And so much more.

Hugo wasn't a slouch when it came to art, either. This is The Gnome of the Night, which he painted in 1856.

He did a whole bunch of Gothic landscape paintings as well.

Victor Hugo is an interesting example of someone who turned their theory of the grotesque into practice. He didn't just pontificate on what the grotesque is or should be. As well as poetry, plays and other novels, he wrote Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame; both of which explore the lives of malformed and destitute individuals; the relationship between low/high, grotesque/beautiful. His theory was the product of a particular social conscience, as well as a religious viewpoint.

"The fact is that the beautiful, humanly speaking, is merely form considered in its simplest aspect, in its most perfect symmetry, in its most entire harmony with our make-up. Thus the ensemble that it offers us is always complete, but restricted like ourselves. What we call the ugly, on the contrary, is a detail of a great whole which eludes us, and which is in harmony, not with man but with all creation. That is why it constantly presents itself to us in new but incomplete aspects" (368).

And my favourite.

"The beautiful has but one type, the ugly has a thousand."

Whatever your view on the ugly = grotesque equation, or your feelings toward the word/concept of 'ugly' as it is used in relation to people, I think you can still appreciate the sentiment here. I do, anyway.


  1. Wow. Victor Hugo is my new role model and hero. I have recently just finished reading Les Mis and I love it so much! After reading his philosophical ideas regarding beauty and the grotesque, my admiration for him has increased a hundred-fold :)

  2. Hi Lucy, I'm glad you're enjoying his work! I really respect how Hugo constructs his own theories, thinking about culture and morality, but also writes fiction that builds on and illustrates these ideas in a more personal way. Very talented. And, of course, anyone who is interested in the grotesque is all good with me!

  3. "Read talks with eternity", based on seances Hugo transcribed while in exile on the Island of Guernsey.