Triumph of the Ambiguous in Grotesque Literature


(Essay on Grotesque Literature)

copyright 2008 Peter Gelman

(originally written in May, 1994)
Sometime in the fall of 1988, a young man crashed an uptown Minneapolis writers’ party and met two Soviets writers who visited on an official anti-nuke tour.
It so happened that he was the only person under the age of 30 present (he was a hoary 24), the only one with a bad attitude, and the only one wearing the clothes of a regular working person (although it’s true to say he wasn’t exactly a regular working person). As was his role, he made a nuisance of himself and eventually left the lakeside house with self-disgust only measured by unsubstantiated egoism.
He did, however, hold several interesting discussions with the Soviets, which culminated in his imputation that one of them was a mere party hack and apparatchik.
During the more friendly part of the conversation he listened to the poet’s excitement at the new policy of Glastnost, after which he pointedly asked her if they had yet begun printing Zamyatin [1] or Tertz [2], which she didn’t answer, neither the 1st time he asked nor 2nd. He did, however, ask a 3rd time, and she answered with embarrassment and gratitude, “yes, but just leettle.”
He also asked her how young people earned publication in her country, and did not understand her answer, it being so different, if she was not lying – some kind of consensus of local literati. Anyway she did say something interesting, which was that people his age in her country had now to compete with the masters of all ages who had been long censored. For safety from that, young American writers should be thankful.
However, not only do young American writers have to compete with masters of the moment, but this particular young man DID choose to compete with a time-proven master. Who do you think won?
He should not have said something so audacious, but he did mention to the apparatchik, the former engineer, that he was so bold as to attempt to write for Minneapolis what Mikhail Bulgakov had written for Moscow. It was obvious even without the services of the translator (as I witnessed; for I, too, was there, although I was several years younger, then) that he thought very highly of Bulgakov’s masterpiece, rightly so, and nothing of the young man, rightly so, who had the misfortune of imitating an inimitable old masterpiece. No doubt his next project was to write another Hamlet, followed by Paradise Lost, followed by another Less Than Zero.
(Recall Charlie Millthorpe of Melville’s Pierre:
(“Ha, ha! well, my boy, how comes on the Inferno? That is it you are writing? …My lad! I have finished ten metaphysical treatises… Yes, here I have been doing all this, while you are still hammering away at that one poor plaguy Inferno! Oh, there’s a secret in dispatching these things; patience! patience! you will yet learn the secret. Time! time! I can’t teach it to you, my boy, but Time can: I wish I could, but I can’t.”
(Time, time! I, too, wish that I had the time to teach that young man; I only hope that Time can teach him.)
Poor young man! In those days frustration and disappointment lead him to be correspondingly hyperbolic about his aspirations, whereas now, I don’t know. Anyway I have my own problems.
I congratulate that young man that he did not mention the chapter called “Hennepin Avenue” as directly descended from Gogol’s “Nevskii Prospekt”; but that night he did go on to mention the influence of Ilf and Petrov, of Sinyavski-Tertz, of Voinovich, too, and even back to Sholom Aleichem and, again, Gogol. But to this, the writer scoffed, that the young man would look to the works of his country for inspiration, and not the young man’s own.
That made the young man reconsider; and yet I have agree with that peculiar young man, and say the Soviet writer was wrong, because no matter where it comes from, inspiration is inspiration, the 3rd Law of Thermodynamics says that energy must be conserved, and A must always equal A.
In 1923, Zamyatin wrote in the essay, “The New Russian Prose”:
Life itself today has lost its plane reality: it is projected, not along the old fixed points, but along the dynamic coordinates of Einstein, of revolution. In this new projection, the best-known formulas and objects become displaced, fantastic, familiar-unfamiliar. That is why it is so logical for literature today to be drawn to the fantastic plot, or to an amalgam of reality and fantasy.
Zamyatin goes on to name some (pretty much forgotten, perhaps deservedly) Western writers to whom the fantastic has appealed. [3]
In May of 1931, Bulgakov wrote to Stalin requesting permission for foreign travel:
Highly Respected Iosif Vissarionovich!
The more I think about it, the greater grows in me the desire to be a modern writer. But at the same time, it is impossible to remain in that highly attuned and calm state which is necessary in order to carry out a great and harmonious piece of work.
The present is too animated, too mercurial, it irritates the senses; and the writer’s pen shifts imperceptibly to satire… (He goes on to quote Gogol’s own reasons for needing to leave Russia). [4]
There are definite reasons why the “familiar-unfamiliar” plot appeals to me (for enough about that young man! Now I will talk about myself, if my reader so indulges: and I am not 24, no. I am an ancient 29), as it did the dissidents struggling against the absolute values of totalitarianism. It is not necessary to live in a police state to feel the late 20th century crisis of values and definitions, of progress and history itself (as noted by Fukuyama’s essay, The End of History, way back in 1990.) [2008 note — I was referring to the version printed by the RAND think-tank, not the famous book which came out later (PG)] I may be a less modern writer than anyone working in the 1920s and 30s, but this time period, too, irritates the senses, if only because my neighbor’s TV is too loud.
Generally, indeed not strictly, a catalogue of the anatomy of this kind of literature would include –
1) an irrational (I mean supernatural, surreal, or otherwise weird) element which agitates a DOUBT. Perhaps it is a metaphysical doubt married to irony or satire as determined by the plot’s use of the irrational; at any rate, this doubt arisen out of the weird creates Discord with the work’s “real world” but is mitigated by –
2) a genre-defining HUMOR which is largely synonymous with Satire and hard-driven to a pathetic catharsis of doubt by –
3) catastrophe; for, more often than not, these works resolve their humorous wayward disasters in exactly that manner, making the run of work more or less tragicomic. This hyperbolic resolution of the irrational struggle with the rational through humor and ultimately tragedy may justify the work’s description as “GROTESQUE”.
These 3 Points Under Examination
By The Authorities…
Two strategies of destroying boredom are 1) doubt, and 2) discord. We could define doubt as the failure to rationalize an event due to the lack of information, and discord as the failure to rationalize because of contradictory data. The actual doubtful or discordant event would therefore need to be resolved with at uneasiness at least, terror at most, with nervous laughter perhaps the only recourse for sanity ­sanity suspended by a noose not drawn tight. The problem of doubt and discord is not just the irrationality of it, but the metaphysical shock that Something Is Up or Something Is Wrong. It is an insult to reality! Or it would be, were the insult not serving reality so well by making it more interesting. Although this manner of distortion of the real may seem somehow willful, (and it is, capricious according to the cunning of the grotto ape), it is also a objective expression of the subjective Thesis.
“In raising images of horror he has a strange success; conveying to us sometimes by a hint some terrible doubt which is the secret of horror.” [5]
“Hoffmann vacillates on the border of the supernatural, crossing and re-crossing it, and leaving his reader in doubt as to whether the author himself believe it or not.” [6]
Humor and satire are the most suspect of these points, so maybe I shouldn’t include them. Much work commonly called Grotesque has no humor (for an ironic distance would destroy the effect of terror), such as the best works of Poe (although he did write humorous Grotesque stories, such as “Never Bet Your Head” and “The Man Who Was Used Up”). So why put humor on the agenda? Because humor is not only the iron in irony, it is the pneumatics of satire (Hoffmann’s wind-up doll the queen of the waltz circuit). Humor implies a certain humility which plucks some of the misanthropy out of catastrophe. As Tertz wrote to his wife from the gulag, “Two writers, Hoffmann and Dickens, have shown to us that humor is love. They have revealed to us that God takes a humorous view of mankind. In humor there is both tolerance and encouragement. ‘Bravo!'” [7] That mockery alleviates even as it causes the folly of the tragedy in the grotesque work. With some humor, disaster may be elevated to Discord.
Moreover, it is HUMOR and SATIRE that separates this Grotesque literature from other like genres, such as Gothic Fiction, Magical Realism, Speculative Fiction, Hawthornian Romance, Science Fiction… The terms themselves are integers for algebraic sums of literature; here I am for the purposes of examination of that young man claiming a separate category for this temporary calculas.
…Calculas perhaps, but do the numbers add up? Does it make sense? No, it does not. We don’t know what makes Spalanzani’s doll Olimpia dance we only know the she entrances the whole waltz circuit, especially Nathaneal. Is it allegory? Near the end of Hoffmann’s “The Sand -Man”, a character figures the sums:
“The Professor of Poetry and Eloquence took a pinch of snuff, and, slapping the lid to and clearing his throat, said solemnly, “My most honourable ladies and gentlemen, don’t you see then where the rub is? The whole thing is an allegory, a continous metaphor.”
The song ends with a screech, as Nathaneal tries to throw Clara from the tower. What kind of calculas is this? Catastrophic calculas. Nathanael sees the Sand-Man and hurls himself from the tower, to his own destruction.
“He (Hoffmann) was the inventor, or at least the first distinguished artist, who exhibited the fantastic or supernatural grotesque in his compositions, so nearly on the verge of insanity as to be afraid of the beings his own fancy created. In fact, the Grotesque in his compositions partly resembles the Arabesque in painting.” [8]
Also, although Zamyatin defined the genre (from the outside looking in, but inside his post­revolutionary perspective) as “Synthetism”, a new product of a Hegelian process of literature, he too uses “grotesque” to describe it: “Realism saw the world with the naked eye. Symbolism glimpsed the skeleton through the surface of the world – and Symbolism turned away from the world. These are the thesis and antithesis. Synthesis approached the world with a complex assortment of lenses, and grotesque, strange multitudes of worlds are being revealed to it.” [9]
Grotesque need not mean the Horrible or Disgusting. The word comes from the Italian grottesca, which means Grotto, first applied to the visual arts as a panorama perhaps too rich with flowers, animals, people, – an excess of richness that can only be artistically resolved in fantasy. That Grotto implies a certain Weirdness in the world, something alive beneath the surface, or significant where reason fails us. In that sense, the Grotto will always find fertile, if shady, tillage. The artistic strength of the Grotto is also its weakness: characters lost in the Grotto may lose the subtle reality, and require stark lines to stand out amongst the wild leaves, possibly losing their lives in caricature.
I do not feel that the sensibilities as expressed by the Russian writers I mentioned above to be necessarily “foreign” to a story set in the US of A, a nation of immigrants (indeed, two of the young man’s grandparents came through Ellis Island from a shtetl near Odessa), but others may feel differently, and in my experience they usual do. Sensibilities have shown no trouble crossing boundaries as immaterial as the lines between nations, if someone was interested on the other side; if they are profound at home they are at home everywhere. As for me, the notion of limiting oneself to either foreign or domestic ideas is not just superstitious, it’s inquisitorial. As Edgar Allen Poe wrote,
“…What this nationality is, or what it is to be gained by it, has never been distinctly understood. That an American should confine himself to American themes, or even prefer them, is rather a political than a literary idea – and at best is a questionable point.” [10]
I imagine that the young man who admired Bulgakov feels the same way.
All the same, one lesson of the above-mentioned Russian writers was not totally lost to the young man, so unhappily for his writing career born in the land of the free. If you question the fundamental logical principle of Identity (that A=A), you open up an opportunity for literary energy; the concept that A does not equal A is pure intellectual antimatter, a combustible nonesuch fuel for imagination.
The first principle, the keystone of all Grotesque thought is, in Socratic terms, that A does not equal A. Now, the individual’s confidence that A=A is the foundation of all freedoms, as George Orwell pointed out in good old 1984. The difference here, and saving grace, of careful nonsense, is that such Grotesquery acknowledges implicitly that A equals A when it asserts, with great fanfare and bluster, that A does not equal A. Recall that A does not equal A is the keystone, not the foundation of nonsense, of Grotesque literature, which, like all Avengers of truth and beauty, stands imperturbably bourgeois, with 3 fat self-satisfied chins, upon the old foundation of A=A. It’s only the keystone that’s awry.
If such Nonesuch Stuff stood philosophically on the principle of A does not equal A, then it would have no point, no gag, no existence. After all, the whole point is the Trope, Conceit, the Tryck, making a kind of philosophic-poetic compression of reality, condensing it and mixing it around so that the irrational result creates evocative, weird associations – to create enough psychic voltage to leap the discord between the real & the weird, and illuminate the too-tangled Grotto.
A catalog of grotesque works is as problematic as its definition, so I only suggest four examples, but out of courtesy to the young man’s Russian friends, I will avoid mentioning any Russians.
1. ETA Hoffmann, The Sand-Man (1816). Out of personal preference, I use this short story as the standard for the Grotto. This wonderfully strange work not only defies explanation, but it does so with a nervous ease, delivering its slightly mismatched plots without falling apart. It illustrates the power of an ambiguity well executed (perhaps more by inspiration than by plan; The Golden Flower Pot is better planned). As noted above by Sir Walter Scott, Hoffmann is the father of modern grotesquery.
2. Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, also called Metamorphoses. This is a 2nd century work in which the hero misuses witchcraft and finds himself turned into a donkey, pursued for XXX intent). Apuleius was an colonial cosmopolitan intellectual and priest of Isis at the end of the last period of prosperity of the Roman State, when the Roman Identity Principle began to anticipate its own doom.
3. James Hogg, Portrait of a Justified Sinner (1824). This work explores hyperbolic Scottish Calvinism through a doppleganger. If one is predestined to go to heaven, then one can commit no crime. See you at the bawdy house!
4. Rachel Ingalls, Mrs. Caliban (1982). The protagonist, a housewife made miserable by lies, finds a green sea-creature, who becomes her lover until the moment when the lies detonate. The cucumber-eating merman provides some humor to this painful story, but it is his glaring singularity in a work that is otherwise naturalistic that ranks him a sea-ape of the Grotto.
The works of the grotto aren’t fantasy – which is reason applied to weird assumptions – it’s the application of the weird to a common reality – a realm where the frontiers of two opposing assumptions intersect, an opportunity for each to draw the significance of its lines by the contrast of the other, but far more likely to end up with a discord of values and doubt.
To the degree the bitter A=A philosophical materialism (logical positivism) causes the sensibility of grotesque writers to seek solace of expression in Freudian, Surreal or Psycho misrepresentations of the Real, then the Keepers of the Grotto are aesthetic Egoists. A State that is somehow founded on A does not equal A finds fault with Grotesque literature because it opens the assumptions for examination. For that reason, Grotesque literature finds itself at odds with societies with well-defined and strict assumptions; as the experience of Bulgakov and Tertz show, and even ETA Hoffmann drew a cartoon that mocked the militarists, and paid for it. That is not to say they can be generalized to any one political point of view, only one of aesthetic independence to the status quo Identity Principle. The grotesque vision draws power from its peculiar individuality, like that of successful Surrealists.
Aesthetic Egoism? What’s that? A new rule, of breaking rules? That’s just another romanticism. Aside from doubt, humor, and catastrophe, what’s the common denominator? What do the sensibilities of Hoffmann, Apuleius, Hogg, and Ingalls have in common? Nothing, perhaps, except a bit of respect for their own madness?
So then, is the menagerie of the Grotto a nihilist Zoo? Does the Dark Lens of the Grotesque excoriate all values from the Beast, saying not only is there no basis for values, but no reality either? If reality is Weird, is Madness rational?
An Experiment
If it is reasonable to be mad, and ridiculous to be sane – at least how sanity is commonly practiced – then you could call madness sanity, and sanity madness, but that is no harmony, and leads to the torture of circles, which are the most terrible of geometries.
For that reason, chosen carefully by compulsion of fancy, seeking value in the A does not equal A of my wandering brain, I look to Plutarch’s study of the battles of Marcellus against Archimedes, written about 100 AD, which matched the Lever of Geometry against the Energy of the Strong Arm.
During the Roman siege of Syracuse, Archimedes sunk the navy of Marcellus with glorious grotesques of engineering:
“…some of the ships were sunk by massive blocks from above, while others were clinched at the bows by iron claws or by beaks like those of cranes, hoisted into the blue by means of counterweights until they stood vertical upon their sterns, & then allowed to plunk to the bottom, or else they were spun round by means of windlasses affixed inside the city & bashed against the steep cliffs…A horrifying marvel was often seen: a ship lifted straight up out of the sea into the air & whirled about as it dangled…”
With all his ships whirling in the air & flung about, one can well see why Marcellus sighed, “We may as well give up fighting this geometrical Briareus.” (Briareus was a Titan with 100 hands.) [11]
When Marcellus finally managed to take the city by ungeometrical trickery, one of his brutes cut Archimedes’ throat because he refused to leave his desk and surrender that very secondum & leave his latest theorem unfinished.
What conclusion can we draw from Plutarch’s lesson? – That the Geometrist is but the Strong Arm of philosophy, & the Strong Arm the Geometrist of State…
Again, circles; and this is what my experiment concludes: rational thought, although invincible in its shapes, when taken outside of its own ratios it ultimately fails: Geometry is but a vector of power and power is only a geometric velocity.
According to the view through my Jane Goodall binoculars, the gibbering apes of the Grotto consider it is judicious to be a good part mad, & ridiculous to be merely sane, but avoids this struggle of power & geometry because it is not afraid of discord. Discord is doubt amplified.
The realm of the Grotto, in shade and doubt, lacks harmony in the sense that its rhyme has little reason, & so upsets the seesaw, harmony, which flings reasonlessness forward with inspired precision like a catapulted bolt of Archimedes.
That Fling is a different kind of power than the kind represented by Marcellus; it is the art of a half-mellifluous discord, akin to the praising insults of King Lear’s loyal Fool. Shakespeare took many a story from Plutarch, but he changed them as suited his Titanic whimsy. Why did he do that?
The Soviet Union produced some of the most successful marriages of Art to Politics. It did not produce it through its many sanctioned writers as well as it did its few dissidents. These dissidents, like any party hack, had political agendas behind their art. However, some of them were pushed into dissent because of their aesthetic repugnance of more obvious methods such as social realism. In addition they had a dangerous monopoly of all the traditions forbidden by the art thugs, including the 19th Century devices of criticizing the Tsar, such as Gogolian hyperbole, and the use of Aesopic disguise to dodge the censors. Does dissident phantasmagoria succeed where socialist realism (a classicism founded on Stalinist A does not equal A) fails? Perhaps a more fair question is, in what way are the works of Bulgakov different than Solzhenitsyn? The latter’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is no satire; it is a successful work of political protest by setting “plain truth” into fiction, and plain truth is, of course, too often more grotesque and ironic than any weird fiction.
In Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, the devil takes revenge not so much upon atheist Moscow as hypocritical and corrupt Moscow. The retributions are comic and satiric (the bureaucrat who disappears except for his suit, which keeps on working; when the man returns he finds no fault with any of the suit’s decisions [12]). This is not a work of “plain truth”; By bringing the supernatural personalities of Christian mythology into the midst of a modern city, the book is fantasy (as the supernatural is fantastic). It uses Christianity as a device to give structure to its phantasm and to join the two plots together in a harmonious ambiguity. Supernatural characters convey the heroes’ disaster to a more final, more ambiguous resolution, not to the utopia of heaven, but, by way of the surrealist stage of hell, to the Byronic exile of a rather existential Purgatory. It is a gray realm appropriate to a kind of triumph of dissident lovers in the Union of Soviet Stalinist Republics. The protagonists are condemned to a lonely purgatory, because at heart, they are both too bitter to Believe in anything but love (a grimness not harmonious with Communism or Christianity, there being no difference in their messianism, as Tertz pointed out in his essay, On Socialist Realism). The price of their freedom has been a flaw in their faith, and that flaw of freedom has cost them eternal metaphysical house arrest.
Doubt is not necessarily a pleasant thing, but for the Grotto it is necessary to allow slack for the stresses against verisimilitude of a fantastic reality.
Sinyavsky-Tertz wrote in 1958:
“Right now I put my hope in a phantasmagoric art, with hypotheses instead of Purpose, an art in which the grotesque will replace realistic descriptions of ordinary life. Such an art would correspond best to the spirit of our time. May the fantastic imagery of Hoffmann and Dostoyevsky, of Goya, Chagall, and Mayakovsky (the most socialist realist of all), and of many other realists and nonrealists teach us how to be truthful with the aid of the absurd and the fantastic.” [13]
The isolated purgatory of Bulgakov’s heroes in that too-gray realm is nothing less than the resolution of the Grotto’s Nihilist Problem: ambiguity; the evocative stress of which, against conflicting realities, creates an implicit value in the process of rationalizations and failures of comprehensive value. In other words, it is not that A=A or A does not equal A that matters in the end, it is the mere assertion that we CAN declare a value sign at all that prevents the Sanctuary of the Grotto from falling into utter subjectivity and nihilist self-dissolution. That assertion, of course, is the philosophically weak assertion of pride, the pride of which provides the piquant interest in its willful disassociations.
What are the rules of Doubt & Discord?
Victors define their own rules: is it a question of geometry? a question of strong arms? Who gets the spoils? Whose throat gets cut?
Grotto-apes seek illumination in discord. What game is that? If it is a crusade it is one that perhaps cannot fail because its goal cannot be attained. Such as Hoffmann, Gogol, Bulgakov belong on that ship of fools with the prophets and dandies, subversives, crabby utopians, and “plain fools” too.
In the olden days, sane people would gang up on the mad, and send them downstream on little ships. Bye, Bye! Were they on a holy crusade to nowhere? How was it that those ships did not spin round & round caught up in maelstroms of madness like Marcellus’ ships in the rational devices of Archimedes? They survived by flying to the moon. How did they fly to the moon? If you have to ask, you’ll never know. Sorry.
In other words, there is no holy land for the good ship Discord except the sovereign state of Ambiguity. The only danger is that the Fool might fall succumb to the monomania of sanity.
Toss the astrolabe! Dash down the compass!
But what ever happened to that peculiar young man?
When flying to the moon, there is no shortcut. But he was looking for one. One day he walked across a cobblestone street in Mexico, feeling too destitute to give some pesos to a bruja sitting in the shade. She cursed him as he passed, throwing a razor blade across his path. But it was a Gillette safety razor! It was the curse of Satire – the horror of self-satire. He was a grotesque character! Ridiculous young man! If you follow behind the masters, how do you keep from being their slave? There is no sanctuary in the Grotto from the phenomena of monkey see, monkey do. In other words, the monkeys in the trees are prone to pee on tourists. To the extent that that was the point of the apparatchik’s objection, he was right.
Once there was a fellow who liked to run round & round naked in the garden with his wife, playing Adam & Eve.
This fellow, William Blake, provided an answer, in his 1788 etching “There Is No Natural Religion”…
“If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character the Philosphic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, & stand still unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.”
The apes that chew the foliage of the Grotto ingest the narcotics of the Ego’s conspiratorial dreaming.

1. Author of We, (a 1984 for the 1920s).
2. That samazdatist whose persecution announced that the Volga was refreezing after the brief Khrushchevian Thaw.
3. A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamyatin, University of Chicago Press, 1970, p 105.
4. Bulgakov’s Last Decade, Cambridge University Press, J. A. E. Curtis, 1987, pp. 124-125.
5. James Russel Lowell on Poe, quoted in Studies in Philology, Vol. III, Chapel Hill, The Univesity Press, 1908: “The Influence of E. T. A. Hoffmann on the Tales of Edgar Allan Poe”, by Palmer Cobb, a doctoral thesis.
6. Palmer Cobb.
7. A Voice from the Chorus, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY, 1973.
8. Walter Scott, “Supernatural in Fiction”, Quarterly Review, July 1827 (cited by Palmer Cobb).
9. A Soviet Heretic (Chapter “On Synthetism”, 1922), p.85.
10. Edgar A. Poe; Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance, by Kenneth Silverman, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991, p. 249.
11. According to Ian Scott-Kilvert, translator of the Penguin addition of 1965.
12. Example suggested in A Mind in Ferment: Mikhail Bulgakov’s Prose, by Kalpana Sahni, New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1984, p. 196.
13. The Trial Begins and On Socialist Realism, Vintage Russian Library, 1960, pp 218 – 219.
Published in: on October 24, 2008 at 1:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

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