Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Grotesque Investigations

It seems everyone has an opinion on the grotesque. Everyone has performed their own investigation and constructed their own definition of what 'it' means. Even Sherlock Holmes himself.


Arthur Conan Doyle, via Holmes, clearly has his own notions about grotesqueness, as this excerpt from The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge reveals:

I find it recorded in my notebook that it was a bleak and windy day towards the end of March in the year 1892. Holmes had received a telegram while we sat at our lunch, and he had scribbled a reply. He made no remark, but the matter remained in his thoughts, for he stood in front of the fire afterwards with a thoughtful face, smoking his pipe, and casting an occasional glance at the message. Suddenly he turned upon me with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
"I suppose, Watson, we must look upon you as a man of letters," said he. "How do you define the word 'grotesque'?"
"Strange--remarkable," I suggested.
He shook his head at my definition.
"There is surely something more than that," said he; "some underlying suggestion of the tragic and the terrible. If you cast your mind back to some of those narratives with which you have afflicted a long-suffering public, you will recognize how often the grotesque has deepened into the criminal. Think of that little affair of the red-headed men. That was grotesque enough in the outset, and yet it ended in a desperate attempt at robbery. Or, again, there was that most grotesque affair of the five orange pips, which let straight to a murderous conspiracy. The word puts me on the alert."
"Have you it there?" I asked.
He read the telegram aloud.
"Have just had most incredible and grotesque experience. May I consult you?
"Scott Eccles," "Post Office, Charing Cross."
"Man or woman?" I asked.
"Oh, man, of course. No woman would ever send a reply-paid telegram. She would have come."


Mr Eccles arrives, most disturbed, in a state of dishevelment.

"I have had a most singular and unpleasant experience, Mr. Holmes," said he. "Never in my life have I been placed in such a situation. It is most improper--most outrageous. I must insist upon some explanation." He swelled and puffed in his anger.

Before he has a chance to explain, the police arrive. They suspect him of murder.


You will have to read the rest of the story here to find out what happens. It is quite spooky.


This example has been cited quite a few times, usually in the introductions to books on the grotesque, and particularly in those sections dedicated to exploring the myriad ways of defining grotesqueness. Holmes' definition fits with more sinister ideas about the grotesque, those involving "the tragic and the terrible." It is "something more" than strange.

I must confess that Hercule Poirot is by far my favourite detective, but Holmes earns my love for his comment that "the word [grotesque] puts me on the alert." We have that in common.

Criminal and academic investigations are not entirely different...

One must be wary of getting too carried away with incidental details. Although, these are sometimes crucial.

You should try not to over-complicate matters and confuse yourself. These things can spiral, you know.

And avoid assumptions. Their success depends upon everything going your way, which will rarely (never) happen.

I'm doing the evil voice right now.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Eye See

Have you heard of the Freaking News website? Me neither. Until I found these images in a random search for 'grotesque' pics.

That's right, celebrities with eyes in their mouths. Genius!

Freaking News is apparently a site that hosts Photoshop competitions, or something of that nature. Being the internet, it could all be some elaborate scheme to make us inadvertently purchase beauty products or catch a computer virus.

But anything that puts eyes in mouths can't be that bad. Right? In any case, the whole site is a bonanza of body morphing.

Calls for pictures are sent out on a particular theme, such as 'One-Legged Celebrities.'

Or 'Celebrities Upside Down.'

If you can put an eye in a mouth, why not a mouth in an eye?

More here. Warning: some things cannot be unseen.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


After spying the word 'grotesque' in a Tintin comic previously, I decided to check out a few others to see if it popped up again. Lo and behold... a total of THREE mentions counted in Tintin and the Picaros! The pics are a bit dodgy, but you see what I mean.

First, Captain Haddock is accosted by a crowd of reporters and gives them what for.

Later, he gets hit on the head and loses his memory.

Then Madame Castafiore gets some bad news.

But she really isn't bothered.

I never realised Hergé was such a fan of the word grotesque. I learned to read on these comics... The roots of my fascination are revealed.

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.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


I was going to post the next part of Victor Hugo today, but the conference has left me too exhausted. Maybe it's time for a new healthy regime.

Life is so ironical.

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...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I can't remember where I got this book, but it sure is speaking to me right now. Very PhD worthy. Thought I might as well share a few of my favourite quotes, seeing as I have no words of my own to spare at the moment...

Love this:

And most importantly:

I would add 'blogging about writing' to that list. All writers should own this book.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


I'm writing a conference paper this weekend. It is giving me some stress, but then again, they all do. I have twenty minutes, which is good. You have room to fill in some of the background to your discussion in this time, and draw a few different strands into your argument. Everything still has to be tight, though. No tangents or waffling allowed. Nobody likes it when you go over and cut into coffee, lunch or (worst case scenario!) home time.

What is my paper about? Here are a few hints...


In other news, I should be updating a few more history posts soon. All going well I think Victor Hugo will be next, followed by Théophile Gautier. Lots of good people still waiting for the Groteskology treatment.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Living Shoes

On the theme of hybrid bodies, (or 'things-that-look-like-other-things-and-blow-my-mind') check out these shoes by designer Kobi Levi.


Market trolley:
And the 'Double Boot,' which makes you look fabulously mutated:

Levi explains that his philosophy is inspired by notions of hybridism, and the independent 'life' of the shoe as an entity:

"In my artistic footwear design the shoe is my canvas. The trigger to create a new piece comes when an idea, a concept and/or an image comes to mind. The combination of the image and footwear creates a new hybrid and the design/concept comes to life. The piece is a wearable sculpture. It is "alive" with/out the foot/body. Most of the inspirations are out of the "shoe-world", and give the footwear an extreme transformation. The result is usually humoristic with a unique point of view about footwear."

I think Levi and Insa should join forces. Check out his blog for more creations.

[Via Street Anatomy]