Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Ruskin Around 3: The Streets

Two years ago (where does the time go...) I did a couple of posts (one and two) about Ruskin's grotesque in The Stones of Venice. At the time I thought it would be wonderful, one day, to go see this city and its grotesquerie for myself.

Well folks, that day has come.

Yes, I'm currently in Venice, and have already started my pilgrimage by visiting one of Ruskin's most hated examples of the grotesque. Here is how he describes it in volume three, chapter three:
"A head,- huge, inhuman, and monstrous,- leering in bestial degradation, too foul to be either pictured or described, or to be beheld for more than an instant: yet let it be endured for that instant; for in that head is embodied the type of the evil spirit to which Venice was abandoned in the fourth period of her decline" (XV).
And still further:
"[This head] evidences of a delight in the contemplation of bestial vice, and the expression of low sarcasm, which is, I believe, the most hopeless state into which the human mind can fall" (XVI).

Harsh words.

I wasn't sure what to expect, heading out to find this bestial visage. First off, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly where it was. For future reference - if anyone else should find themselves in the area and decide to take a look - you will find the head atop a small door at the base of the West side of the tower attached to Chiesa di Santa Maria Formosa: a small (by Italian standards) church overlooking a canal.

(As a side note: I find it strange that there is no mention of the head on the Wikipedia page for the church. It's kind of important...).

You can see the door at the lower left of the photo above.

To find the church, you need to find the square:

Which is easy to locate on a good map of Venice.

Of course, actually making your way there on foot is another challenge. As I have recently discovered, maps are of limited use in Venice, where narrow streets and lanes seem to shift and slide away from you as though some giant troll were constantly twisting the city like a huge Rubik's Cube. Very frustrating. And exciting, if you have time explore, which thankfully I do.

Anyway, having braved the troll and found the church, you might be surprised at the size of this head. I mean, it does seem kind of "huge" in person.

For size reference, here is a random man:

That's a big head.

Up close, the face is full of round pockmarks.

It certainly sticks out in comparison with the rest of the building, which is otherwise quite conventional.

Although it does have a bit of a cool pirate theme going on.

I love a winged skull. So biker. And more common in religious iconography than you would think. I'll do a post on that someday...

I digress.

My impressions of the face are rather different from Ruskin's. For me it has a cheeky, irreverent vibe, as though the artist had tired of creating serious-bearded-man heads and decided to make one with more character. The size makes it quite a statement, and I would love to go back in time and meet whoever created it - and whoever allowed it to be placed in such a low, prominent position.


The man squints right at you when you enter the square from the West, as I did, and is impossible to miss.

 The expression is part sneer, part side-eye, part silly face pulling. And I like it.

Yes that is the extent of my critical commentary at this time. What? Please feel free to add your own thoughts...

I've got several more days in Venice, so I think I'll do a 'part 2' for this post - featuring more Venetian grotesquerie in its natural habitat.

So many grotesques... Excitement!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Hungry Like The Troll


For most Internet users, it's impossible to avoid the word 'troll.' On Twitter, Facebook, forums, the comments sections of news articles and blogs; everywhere you look, someone is accusing someone else of 'trolling' - saying and doing troll-like things with nefarious intent. If someone is trolling, it follows that they must be a troll. But why?

I find it very interesting that, out of all the real and imaginary beasts available, it is trolls that have been selected as the embodiment of bad behaviour on the 'net. After all, trolls aren't tech-savvy, urban or contemporary. Their roots lie in Norse mythology and the untamed wilderness of the ocean, mountain and forest.

In this sixteenth century drawing, trolls are aligned with supernatural power over the environment:

[From Olaus Magnus' "Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus", book 3 (1555). Via]

The description explains what is occurring:

"To the left a gnome who is cutting stones in the underground. In the middle a supernatural creature is working in a stable. At the bottom right corner a wind troll with passengers are going by boat without using sails. At the top left corner a witch riding backwards on a dragon. At the top right a coach is driving without horse."

More recently, author and self confessed "troll expert" Lise Lunge-Larsen describes trolls in this manner:

"As tall as trees and as ancient and rugged as the Norwegian landscape from which they come, trolls are some of lore's most fascinating and varied creatures. Some live under bridges, others deep inside caves. They can carry their heads under their arms or hide their hearts inside wells. They can walk across oceans and fly over mountains. Trees and shrubs may grow from their heads, and their noses can be long enough to stir soup. There are troll hags, troll daughters, and elderly, shrunken trolls. Old or young, they are quarrelsome, ugly, and boastful, and they love to trick princesses and children. To defeat them, children must rely on the strengths of their humanity-persistence, kindness, pluck, and willingness to heed good advice."

Trolls have indeed proven popular in children's stories throughout history.

[Good evening, old man! the boy greeted. From Walter Stenström's The Boy and the Trolls (1915). Illustrated by John Bauer. Via]

[Look at them, troll mother said. Look at my sons! You won't find more beautiful trolls on this side of the moon. From Walter Stenström's The Boy and the Trolls (1915). Illustrated by John Bauer. Via]

[Here is a piece of a troll herb which nobody else but me can find. From Alfred Smedberg's The Boy Who Could Not Be Scared, in the anthology Among Pixies and Trolls (1912). Illustrated by John Bauer. Via]

[So, how is your appetite, troll mother continued. From Walter Stenström's The Boy and the Trolls (1915). Illustrated by John Bauer. Via]

Trolls often merge with the surrounding landscape, staying still for so long that foliage begins to grow across them.

[Troll Becoming A Mountain. JNL. Via]

[Skogtroll (Forest Troll). Theodor Kittelsen (1906). Via]

[Troll. Michail Samez (2009). Via]

In her book The Troll With No Heart In His Body, Lunge-Larsen identifies the merging of body and environment as a critical element of troll mythology:

"Clearly, one aspect of children’s fascination with trolls is that they make the very landscape come alive. Not only are trolls of the landscape, they also return to and shape the landscape around them when they die.

One of my most vivid childhood memories is of walking in the woods with my mother when I was about three. We ambled along the trail in the dark old-growth forest filled with filtered sunlight, when my mother suddenly grabbed my arm and whispered, 'Look! There’s a troll' I actually thought my last moment had come, until I saw where she pointed: to a dead troll that had turned into an overturned tree root. Together we examined the troll, found his nose, arms, and even his eye sockets.

It was a magical moment, and to this day I point out all the dead trolls in the landscape to my children and their friends: A huge rock pile is a troll that burst, a tree root lying on its side is an ancient troll, an oddly shaped rock may be part of a nose. One summer my eight- year-old son, swimming in Lake Superior, spotted an unusually round white rock. He dove for it and proudly emerged with a 'troll’s eyeball.'"

[Sjøtrollet (The Sea Troll). Theodor Kittelsen (1887). Via]

Of course, our ideas about trolls have changed as the years have passed. The twentieth century had its own incarnations, some more frightening than others...

[Troll Terror. Via]

And who could forget that pinnacle of film making genius, Troll 2?*

*Yes, technically these are goblins, but the film is called Troll 2 so I'm going with it.

The most popular contemporary example is the one I began with: the Internet troll. Urban Dictionary describes a 'troll' as:
"One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument."

The second most popular definition offers a more extended answer:
"One who purposely and deliberately (that purpose usually being self-amusement) starts an argument in a manner which attacks others on a forum without in any way listening to the arguments proposed by his or her peers. He will spark of [sic] such an argument via the use of ad hominem attacks (i.e. 'you're nothing but a fanboy' is a popular phrase) with no substance or relevence [sic] to back them up as well as straw man arguments, which he uses to simply avoid addressing the essence of the issue."

[Internet Troll: As trolls are as old as mankind, so internet trolls are as old as the internet. By JNL. Via]

Perhaps the term isn't so strange. Like all trolls, the Internet variety are a product of their environment. Protected by anonymity, Internet trolls are free to taunt and trouble, then fold back into the online landscape once their work is done - effectively disappearing beneath the virtual foliage, back into their caves. Manipulating the discursive environment for their own entertainment, these individuals resemble their namesakes in more than one respect.

[Man in troll mask at New York Comic Con 2011. Photograph by Rahul Arefin Prithu. Via]

Like the children in fairy stories, other Internet users can perhaps use their cunning to outwit the trolls and cross the metaphorical bridge. The problem is, of course, that there are not just one or two or three trolls squatting on the path, but potentially millions. They even have a theme song.

Current top rated comment: "All trolls rise for the national anthem of the Internet."

It does seem that trolls, in all their guises, are here to stay. Just try to keep your fingers out of their mouths...


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Gautier, Darling

No, not that Gautier, sweetie.

More history. I'm talking about French wordsmith Théophile Gautier who, in 1833, agreed to write twelve articles for La France littéraire about certain under-appreciated poets of the time. These essays were to be collectively called Exhumations littéraire; making clear each writer's status as dead and buried in the public consciousness, and setting up Gautier's role as specialist excavator.

[Victor Vasnetsov. Grave-digger (1871) via ]

Editor Charles Malo must have been a patient sort, because the last essay of the batch was finally published eleven years after the contract was signed, hitting the presses in 1844. Significantly, for my purposes, these essays were then drawn together into a book titled The Grotesques.

My page numbers are from the English version of The Complete Works of Theophile Gautier volume II: "The Grotesques." This edition is translated and edited by Professor S. C. de Sumichrast, who provides the introduction and explains a few important facts.

The editor comments first on the use of "grotesque" in the title and its (in his opinion) dubious application to the poets treated within. (Already we have disagreement over which authors/texts can be called grotesque, seeming to indicate that different definitions of the term are in use.)

"It is a striking title, but it does not accurately describe the contents of the volume, or even the majority of the authors treated of by the critic; for no student of literature nowadays would dream of calling that great poet, Villon, a grotesque" (4).

He credits the appearance of the term with the recent popularity of Victor Hugo's "Preface," and quotes this text at length. I've already blogged about Hugo and the grotesque (in a double post: part1 and part 2) so I'm going to skim this and get right to the point.

"Gautier," Sumichrast explains, "fairly worshiped Hugo, and the "Preface" had very deeply impressed him, as more than one passage in "The Grotesques" abundantly proves" (6-7). This observation rings true, for Gautier puts forward a definition of the grotesque that is very similar to Hugo's.

Chapter one focuses on the poet François Villon, and Gautier's introductory remarks won me over right away. He explains his rationale for exhuming the down-trodden:

"The study of second-rate poets is both delightful and interesting, because, first, as they are less known and read, there are more novelties to be found in them; and next, because there is not a ready-made judgment for every striking passage. One has not to go into conventional ecstasies, to be convulsed, or to start with delight at certain places, as is indispensable with poets who have become classics" (15).

You had me at "conventional ecstasies," Monsieur Gautier.

For me this just captures that feeling I have sometimes when I'm reading a Very Important Book. The feeling that I must appreciate its many excellent qualities, but that there is a precise way of doing so that I'm probably ignorant of. It is not enough to simply read and enjoy the book - you must do it correctly!


Peer pressure, eh. Just when you think you've escaped it...

Gautier carries on:

"Among the second-rate poets one finds everything that the aristocrats of the Ark have disdained to make use of, - the grotesque, the fantastic, the trivial, the ignoble, the daring sally, the newly coined word, the popular proverb, the pompous metaphor; in a word, bad taste in its entirely, with its lucky hits, with its plated ware which might be gold, with its bits of glass which might be diamonds. Pearls are scarcely found elsewhere than in a dunghill, as witness Ennius" (16).

[James Gillray. An Excrescence-A Fungus,-Alias, A Toadstool upon a Dung hill (1791) via]

As well as Hugo, the mention of the word "ignoble" is a pretty obvious clue that John Ruskin's discussion of the grotesque provides inspiration here (I blogged him here: part 1 and part 2).

Most interesting to me is Gautier's understanding of "bad taste" and its potential value when taken seriously. "The grotesque, the fantastic, the trivial, the ignoble" are all grouped together under the banner of bad taste, and are all understood to have this deeper potential despite their maligned status. He is not merely excavating and resuscitating the poets, but these concepts as well.

Lest we find his passion for the distasteful unseemly, the author offers this clarification:

"I take singular pleasure in unearthing a fine line from the work of a despised poet... I rehabilitate him, I do him justice; and if at times my praise of some obscure poet appears exaggerated to certain of my readers, let them remember that I praise these writers in order to make up for all those who have insulted them beyond reason" (17).

These poets have been oppressed by the academy, "reputed poor, thanks to the judgment of a college pedant," and Gautier is having none of it (17).

[Théophile Gautier (1882) via]

Not all of the twelve essays were translated into English. In addition to Villon, this collection features essays on Théophile de Viau, Paul Scarron, Georges de Scudéry, Cyrano de Bergerac and Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant.

I can't talk about everything, but there are a few choice quotes worth mentioning. In particular, Gautier gets quite fiery in defense of de Viau. They share a special kinship, you know.

"Before I had read even a single line of his, I already felt a tender interest in him on account of his name, Théophile... I would willingly have thrashed that pedant Boileau for the harsh lines in which he insults my poor namesake."

"Forgive this foolish piece of pride, but it did not appear to me possible that a man bearing my name should be such a wretched poet" (62).

"It became necessary for the repose of my mind to confirm my entirely gratuitous supposition that Théophile de Viau was in fact as good a poet as I, Théophile Gautier" (63).

Tangent alert/ I hear Poirot's voice when I read this. Eg, "I, Hercule Poirot, world's greatest detective." Also, I understand completely. I've never read the books of Gwyneth Jones, but I feel certain that if I did they would be magnificent./

Gautier follows Victor Hugo's notions of the grotesque closely, specifically his assertion that the grotesque is "the richest source that nature can offer art." Nature is not all beauty, but equal portions of the ugly and the beautiful, and both must be represented and valued. Gautier's "bad taste" definition of the grotesque fits this bill.

"Good taste is a fine thing, but it must not be carried too far. Through excess of good taste very many subjects, details, images, and expressions which have all the flavour of life are lost" (267).

Gautier's philosophy and determination to dedicate time and energy to "bad taste" texts scorned by other critics reminds me of how popular culture was often framed during the 20th century. It also makes me think of how texts such as comics and video games continue to be looked down upon by some within academia. It is not so bad now, of course, as it once was. Perhaps if all pop culture theorists had the conviction of Gautier we would have come further, faster.

Please note: I do not recommend "thrashing" people who don't like your area of study. Not really. Maybe a little.

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.

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...