In writing about themes including the sleaziness of the film industry, war in Afghanistan, the gutter nature of politics, and the absurdity of American life, my book Unable to Fully California seats itself squarely in a tradition of the American grotesque. Of course, Flannery O’Connor once famously stated that the problem for a serious writer of the grotesque is “one of finding something that is not grotesque.”
But to point at the existence of the grotesque as observer, i.e. include it as subject matter, creates a critical distancing from it and implies that the observer is not a part of the tableaux that inspired such art. But the waking up from this American dream often includes a tense realization that we are all a part of this intertwined society like it or not.
The grotesque exists at the local mall, definitely all over television, in the imminent political primaries, sitting at home by the fire, everywhere except in the wilds. People create a scenario that can be called grotesque, although the wilderness was the first common metaphor that implied a backdrop in front of which the early inhabitants of the newly formed United States enacted their grotesque scenarios.
Kenneth Burke in the 1930s called the idea of the grotesque an “attitude toward history” that is evident in contemporary life and a “cult of incongruity without the laughter.” What I sought to accomplish by sticking some pins in the film industry in my own first book.
E. H. Gombrich has written of the long tradition of grotesque motifs within the world history of visual art and names some of the work of Albrecht Dürer as being early examples of the grotesque in social settings.
The American author most typically identified as writing in a grotesque tradition is Edgar Allen Poe, but to that list could be added Sherwood Anderson, Flannery O’Connor, Sylvia Plath, and possibly also William Carlos Williams.
The city has tits in rows.
The country is in the main—male,
It butts me with blunt stub-horns,
Forces me to oppose it
Or be trampled.
The city is full of milk
And lies still for the most part.
These crack skulls
And spill brains
Against her stomach.
The poem still has a slight shock value. But mere shock is never the goal of the grotesque. The poem begins with what could be a description of milk bottles lined up in rows along a city street. A sight probably not seen in the country but we’re left to wonder how the action in the poem will be resolved. It ends with a fairly graphic depiction of violence that might describe the outdated practice of consuming lambs brains during pregnancy. What makes this grotesque is that we don’t quite know. Williams offers this partial portrait to heighten the effect of the grotesque.
Taken to its logical conclusion the tradition of the grotesque in America also includes some of the best rock ‘n roll. Musical poets such as the Lou Reed of the albums Berlin and Sally Can’t Dance offer grotesque portraits of decadence and trash. The style originated by Richard Hell points to the grotesque.
And although the wilderness constituted the setting for many an early American depiction of the grotesque, Sir Thomas Browne in Religio Medici, as early as 1643, had removed the idea of the grotesque from any natural setting, and placed it in the domain of art and “human intentionality” according to James Goodwin by writing “There are no Grotesques in nature; nor any thing framed to fill up empty cantons, and unnecessary spaces.” The idea of the grotesque, which started as a visual design element including depictions of “rude” people that set off a subject that comparatively speaking might look placid and serene includes the urban and also the urbane.
It’s always in the everyday that the grotesque is most readily apparent.
According to Goodwin it was Henry James who faulted the French poet Charles Baudelaire for being responsible for single-handedly dragging art down into the dumps and “besmirching” and “bespattering” art with common interests that degraded its integrity and reduced its stature.
The line in visual art that started as the connection that can be drawn between Honoré Daumier’s famous painting, “Rue Transnonain, le 15 avril 1834”, which shows a man dead on the floor apparently knifed, and the still-life journalism of the photographer WeeGee whose photos often depicted grisly scenes of street crimes continues now with the photography of Diane Arbus. Rather than shock modern audiences, however, often the grotesque now may produce a wry smile.
It seems certain that there is no shortage of the grotesque in American life and it’s natural to, as a condition of being, be fascinated by it. Especially in America we like a spectacle, and as observers of media it’s that distancing that makes us feel separate from it—as we sit surrounded by it in our living rooms.