Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Grotesque

Sarah Gleeson-White, in a study on the southern grotesque, argues against the common interpretation of it as presenting a "gloomy vision of modernity" which acts as an allegory of the human condition as "existential alienation and angst." Her focus is specifically on Carson McCullers, highlighting a quote from her The Vision Shared, which sought to justify the grotesque school by claiming, of its authors, "I seem strange to you, but anyway I am alive." This demonstrates, Gleeson-White suggests, rather than an alienated modernity, an affirmative and transformative quality, and it is this we should be celebrating when reading the southern grotesque.

In developing her argument, Gleeson-White adopts and adapts Mikhail Bakhtin’s conceptualisation of the grotesque which, she feels, comes closest to articulating the celebratory nature of McCullers’ cry of "I am alive". In doing so, she rejects as incomplete those traditional interpretations, as expounded by the likes of William Van O’Connor and Millichap and Fiedler, with their allusions to "dark modernism" and "alienation, loneliness, a lack of human communication, and the failure of love." She presents instead, McCullers’ explanation of the grotesque: "The technique is briefly this: a bold and outwardly callous juxtaposition of the tragic with the humorous, the immense with the trivial, the sacred with the bawdy, the whole soul of a man with a materialistic detail."

A key focus for Bakhtin and McCullers is the body, in particular deformity and difference from conventional perceptions of beauty, even normality. Physical freaks are, of course, a signature of the grotesque, from Faulkner’s Benjy to O’Connor’s Hulga and onwards. McCullers’ novels and stories, too, are peopled by freaks – giants or dwarves, mutes, hunchbacks and cripples, self-mutilators, androgynous men-women, and so on – but, Gleeson-White argues, and I would agree totally, McCullers ultimately uses these characters as a reaction against convention and as an exploration of humanity. She suggests that: "Her novels of resistance present us with unsettled identities and so push the very boundaries of how we understand human being."

This idea of the transformative nature of grotesque freakery is interesting. For all her brilliance as a writer, for example, I cannot see it in Flannery O’Connor. Transformation, for her, is bound to redemption, and her perspective on redemption is that of a subject reconciling him or herself to the will of the master; her works are flavoured, for me, by subjugation to the supernatural and not celebration or understanding of the human.

Likewise, I look at the works of Cormac McCarthy and try to discern how they might be described as affirmative or transformative. Only his early works, of course, are considered to be truly southern but I believe that typical southern transgressiveness suffuses his later works, too. And, in his collection of freaks, from Lester Ballard and Rinthy and Culla onwards through the seven feet albino judge to the morally autistic Chigurh, he presents a set of characters who are outwith anything that could be considered normal. But is he, in Bakhtinian terms, "[disclosing] the potentiality of an entirely different world, of another order, another way of life"? And, moreover, is he using his grotesquery to unnerve in order to enlighten?

The answers to those questions would appear to me to be yes and possibly no, and therein lies a difficulty. Yes, McCarthy shows us a different world, most significantly in Blood Meridian and The Road. This is what mankind is capable of, he is telling us in the former, and because of that the latter he presents the road we may be leading ourselves down. It is, then, a negative view, and what positives one may take from his novels must generally be taken by this process of inversion: don’t do that, or this may be the result. Such is the approach of organised religion through the ages: behave, or else; believe, or de’il tak ye; belong, or be cast adrift. In this, then, we see echoes of Hazel Motes and Tarwater, even of Captain Ahab; we see the human relegated beneath the supernatural, and the result is obeisance to the godhead, whoever or whatever that might be. Rather than transformative, then, it is reactionary: it is promulgated on the maintenance of a primordial order rather than the advancement of humanity. Hence the answer to the second question may be no: McCarthy’s grotesquery does not wholly enlighten, but rather it can seem to cast us backwards, to limit our freedom. McCarthy so constructs his characters – indeed, they are often more archetypes than characters, with no psycho-social histories or motivations – that they are unable to project forward. It is all very well for McCarthy to warn of the dangers to human society of our inwardness, our selfishness, our self-destructive disregard for nature, because those are warnings we would do well to heed, but in presenting only the binary oppositions of annihilation and acceptance of a putative god, he is artificially defining the boundaries of the debate. His grotesques are so designed, those characterless characters, that they miss the true alternative, the human. They endure so much and experience so little. And his words, all that rhetorical portentousness, serve only to wrap a mystery around them that, in the end, overwhelms.

It is a grotesquery which doesn’t so much say "I am alive" as "I can only die".

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