There is one thing I have learned since being paralyzed, and that is that in the absence of sensory information, the imagination always tends to the grotesque …. The scene I construct will be one of venereal depravity, of sex …. This is what I mean when I speak of the grotesque — the fanciful, the bizarre, the absurdly incongruous.
(Patrick McGrath, The Grotesque, 1989: 69)
we mean when we speak of the grotesque? Peculiar, odd, absurd, bizarre, macabre, depraved, degenerate, perverse: all of these attributes are, for Sir Hugo, the first-person narrator of McGrath's 1989 novel, part of what he calls grotesque. Yet weird and peculiar thoughts and visions are not, Sir Hugo continues, just figments of the imagination. Nor are they confined to the abnormal creatures of books or the deformed bodies of some Flemish paintings. For grotesque also manifests itself in the corporeal, material world of the physical body. A bone-collector and amateur palaeontologist in his youth, Sir Hugo's ageing body has broken down; he can no longer control his movements. He suffers from complete paralysis so he is unable to walk, drink or feed himself. All he can do is to sit in his wheelchair with his body deteriorating, his bones
atrophying, as he stares at the blank walls of his now unhomely estate. In this, the grotesque is not only something he observes from a distance, or imagines in moments of despair, rather, it defines his life, his very identity: ‘I have come to believe’, he explains, ‘that to be a grotesque is my destiny. For a man who turns into a vegetable — isn't that a grotesque?’ (ibid.: 16).
It may well be. But it comes in other forms too. For grotesque bodies are, at times, incomplete, lacking in vital parts, as they sometimes have pieces cut out of them: limbs are missing, to be replaced sometimes by phantom limbs, and bodily mutations become dominant traits. In some cases, grotesque figures combine human, non-human, animal and, in the case of Sir Hugo, ‘vegetable’ attributes. In other cases, the corporeal deformity consists of extra body parts: eleven toes, a human tail, a third nipple or the two heads of Siamese twins. These are excessively grotesque.
McGrath's novel The Grotesque employs its title with a peculiar accuracy. For the narrator's description of grotesqueness is consistent with conventional definitions of the term: ‘repulsively ugly or distorted’, the OED tells us, ‘the grotesque is incongruous or inappropriate to a shocking degree’; or, it can consist of ‘comically distorted figures, creatures or images’. The distorted and deranged characters of grotesque representations, of the sort we find in the deformed bodies of Edgar Allan Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), can, according to this definition, fade into black humour or the wittily bizarre, as in the bitter irony of Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies. These aspects of grotesquerie are vital to McGrath's novel: the repulsive images of decaying bodies and dug up skeletal bones, as well as the butler, Fledge, who is, according to the narrator, ‘the source of the evil’, combine with elements of grim social comedy and dark irony as the plot meditates on the master/butler relationship. The distortions of class in the fluid movements between master and servant offer elements of comic grotesquerie alongside themes that are deadly serious.
Disjunctions between the vile and the comic, disgust and irony, provoke incongruities and uncertainties arising out of the
irreconcilable dimensions of grotesque forms. With this in mind, the literary critic Philip Thomson offers a helpful definition of the grotesque in literature and visual culture: he calls it ‘the unresolved clash of incompatibles in work and response’
and, he continues, ‘it is significant that this clash is paralleled by the ambivalent nature of the abnormal as present in the grotesque’ (Thomson, 27; Thomson's italics). Thomson's words in this passage — unresolved, incompatible, ambivalent, clash — speak to the ambiguities, juxtapositions and uncertainties surrounding the term. Yet the attributes of incompatibility and ambivalence do not simply lead to a conceptual dead-end or a place where meaning is absent and unattainable. Instead, the grotesque offers a creative force for conceptualizing the indeterminate that is produced by distortion, and reflecting on the significance of the uncertainty that is thereby produced. This means that the discombobulating juxtapositions and bizarre combinations found in grotesque figures in literature and the other arts open up an indeterminate space of conflicting possibilities, images and figures. A grotesque body that is incomplete or deformed forces us to question what it means to be human: these queries sometimes arise out of the literal combination of human and animal traits or, at other times, through the conceptual questions about what it means to deviate from the norm.
The questions prompted by these ambiguities lead to a sense of instability and uncertainty. But this is not just uncertainty for the sake of uncertainty. For by acknowledging the lack of certainty at the heart of grotesque texts, we remain open, multiple, and, as such, we can embrace uncertainty over certainty: this, then, resists totalization, in all its many forms, and offers many routes into multiple readings.
Why is this significant for an understanding of grotesque forms? An answer to this query lies in our ungrasping of forms that challenge absolute authority and aesthetic measure as a guiding principle. This process of systematic unattachment, in turn, acknowledges the possibilities of an open structure in which there can be no certainty, no exclusive or permanent state of something which does not already contain within it something else: there is no beauty without ugliness, no comedy without tragedy, no black without white. Opening up a space of
possibilities, where humans merge with animals and disgust mixes with laughter, the grotesque does not inhabit a stable or predetermined ground. Nor does it provide a simple measure for prearranged decision-making about literature and aesthetics. The grotesque can, at times, lead to anxious indeterminacy, but where the emphasis is on anxiety as much as it is on creativity.
Grotesque fiction, in a general sense, violates the laws of nature. Here, clear-cut taxonomies, definitions and classifications break down and, as a result, there is a built-in narrative tension between the ludicrous and the fearful, the absurd and the terrifying. A salient example of this is William Beckford's Vathek (1786), an Orientalist tale of terror that employs an ironic mode of narration. The transgressive excesses of the protagonist, Caliph Vathek, include the construction of five palaces, each designed to gratify one of the senses, that are tributes to his insatiable appetites and his pursuit of pleasure. Excessive consumption is, throughout the text, a manifestation of grotesque corporeality and this is combined with a series of grotesque themes such as necrophilia, libertinism and incest. The novel also includes many grotesque figures: fifty one-eyed, mute black servants, various ghouls, several eunuchs, and scenes involving skeletons and mummies. These bizarre creatures are introduced by the mad and zany Giaour, whose influence over Vathek drives the protagonist far beyond the bounds of human decency as he commits horrific atrocities to attain eternal sensual completion. Described as a grotesque stranger, Giaour is so abominably hideous that the very guards who arrest him are forced to shut their eyes as they lead him to the dungeons.
The physicality of grotesque bodies that ‘hurt the eyes’ is repeated in the corruptions of human behaviour to represent ethical disorder and the chaos of the human condition, and this unruliness is reflected in the text's setting. At a crucial moment, a grotesque sage, a heavy-drinking, anti-Islamic palm-tree climber, leads Zulkais, who has confessed a passionate physical attraction to her brother, into a cavernous grotto surrounded by reptiles with human faces. This place of terror is paved with flesh-coloured marble that is marked with the veins and arteries of the human body. Human heads grow out of lizard-like forms and the rock-face appears to have human innards: the animals and the caverns
are physically anthropomorphized. The latter is particularly significant, for it includes an etymological reference. We must remember that the word ‘grotesque’ is linked to the word ‘grotto’: the English word derives from the Italian pittura grottesca
, meaning a work (or painting) found in a grotto and refers to the rooms in ancient buildings in Rome which were excavated to reveal murals in a grotesque style. Indeed, the grotto is, like the labyrinth or the crypt, a disorienting and threatening place that inflames anxiety and fear. It is also a potential place of spatial internment that echoes the state of being confined within the physical limits of grotesque bodies.
But bodies are not only trapped within the limits of their own physicality; they are also defined by grotesque traits. In Vathek, for instance, the rebellion of the body, due to excessive consumption, does not engender a morality tale warning against the dangers of insatiable appetites; after all, the narrative voices of the text do not always express disapproval. Rather, Beckford's mastering of the stratagems of the horror tale (the gloom-ridden atmosphere creating suspense, the display of bloodstains left by horrendous murders, the depictions of imprisonment and torture) is conveyed with a comic twist. The tone throughout most of the text is ‘coolly sardonic’ and even the most horrific events are related with ‘ironic reserve and understatement’ (Punter and Byron, 182). In fact, the scenes of terror often include touches of humour through an ironic treatment of the characters and the development of a bathetic contrast between drama and absurdity. The darker tones of the mordant sections of prose are fused with the ludicrous and the comic, thus creating emotional uncertainty by swiftly changing mood while still retaining a sinister undertone. A tale of terror and a mawkish narrative, Vathek illustrates the structural dynamics of grotesque forms: the text fluidly moves between horror and terror, the ludicrous and the absurd, the humorous and the comic, the material and the mysterious.
The grotesque and the uncanny both reflect an ambiguity that relates to an interior condition and can produce a range of
responses, from alienation and estrangement to terror and laughter. The grotesque has the power to move from the material world into the uncanny realm of mystery through its experience of disorientation, bewilderment, confusion and bafflement. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White describe a unique form of the grotesque that is not limited to that which is completely alien to that which we accept as normal. Rather, they point to a liminal form of the grotesque that is not monstrous Other, but that emerges as a ‘boundary phenomenon of hybridization or inmixing, in which the self and the other become enmeshed in an inclusive, heterogeneous, dangerously unstable zone’ (Stallybrass and White, 193). They assert that many methods of hybridization integral to bourgeois society produce ‘new combinations and strange instabilities in a given semiotic system’ that surpass the conventional oppositions of refined/foul, high/low, or culture/savagery. This version of the grotesque as a liminal phenomenon disturbs the coherence of these kinds of logical oppositions. Within this liminal form, the grotesque derives from both the play upon the bodily form and a play upon the conceptual form that we associate with the uncanny.
In his essay, ‘The Uncanny,’ Sigmund Freud defines the uncanny experience as ‘that class of the frightening which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar’ (Freud,  1985: 336). The experience of something being both foreign and familiar engenders the emotive responses of discomfort and alienation. Indeed, for Julia Kristeva, the concept of ‘the uncanny’ is a significant source for her theory of abjection in which the human corpse can be simultaneously experienced as alien (object) and also strangely familiar (resembling the subject). Within the liminal grotesque, then, the body merges with forms of repression so that the uncanny is nothing new or alien, but something that is familiar and old, for it is formed in the mind and yet becomes alienated from the subject through repression. ‘The uncanny’, writes Christoph Grunenberg,
describes the return of repressed events, memories, and fantasies — the encounter with one's own most intimate fears. [&] The invasion of the private and secure sphere of the home by some unknown evil force
exemplifies the conflict between interior and exterior world, between individual and society, and between the intra- and intersubjective’.
Indeed, the etymology of ‘unheimlich,’ the German word for ‘uncanny’, includes a link between the uncanny and the domestic space of the home, for the German ‘das Heimlich’ means that which is homely, comfortable and familiar. The inversion of ‘das Unheimlich’, then, negates feelings of comfort, triggering an estrangement or the feeling of not being at home, ‘unhomely.’
The uncanny, like the grotesque, depends on a conflict or confrontation based on the notion of incongruity or the juxtaposition of opposites. Moreover, the grotesque and the uncanny resist the resolution of conflicts, and those who emphasize the terrifying quality of the grotesque often shift it toward the realm of the mysterious and the uncanny. Likewise, an uncanny text might become grotesque, not because of some shocking oddity of invention, but because of the fluctuations or confusions of a variety of shifting perspectives. The stamp of the grotesque in the realm of the fantastic is the conscious confusion between fantasy and reality. But the uncanny, for Freud, can also arise out of that which is gruesome or physically grotesque: the return of the dead, being buried alive, corpses and cannibalism, can engender an uncanny response. Regarding cannibalism, the literary critic Nicholas Royle points out that ‘The Uncanny’ does not address the uncanniness of cannibalism, but he goes on to write that ‘we might surmise that cannibalism, for Freud, would be uncanny because it is “too much intermixed with what is purely gruesome”’ (Royle, 210). Dreadful, hideous and macabre, cannibalism is seen to be the taboo desire par excellence, for it breaks down artificial distinctions between the human and the animal, even the human-as-animal, and figures the flesh of the human body as meat. Such conceptions of human consumption blur the boundaries between civilization and savagery, not just in the discontents of civilization, but also through a rupture in the relationship between self and other. After all, cannibalism plays out, materially and figuratively, the integration of the self into the other, the other into the self, the abnormal into the normal.
Some literary and cultural critics suggest that the ‘normative’ is denied in the grotesque insofar as the extreme, the decadent, the excessive and the bizarre are the ‘real’ of the text. Other critics argue that a vital component of grotesque representations are the distinctions between the ‘normal’ and the ‘abnormal’; or, to put this another way, the grotesque illustrates how the normal is defined in relation to the abnormal. But to consider these distinctions, or even categories, as mutually exclusive, or as binary oppositions, would be misleading. For to understand grotesquerie in all its complexity we must acknowledge that it provokes two key questions: ‘what is normal?’ and, by extension, ‘what is abnormal?’ These questions are posed but not easily answered and, as a result, they lead to ambivalence about the abnormal. In this, the ambivalently abnormal is part of the state of uncertainty where predetermined conditions and ways of seeing the normative world are challenged.
To return to Patrick McGrath's novel The Grotesque, the narrator says that his butler, Fledge, is not ‘normal’: he is, we are told, ‘cunning’, ‘secret’, ‘lustful’, ‘decadent’ and prone to violence, possibly murder (McGrath, 73). The butler's ‘monstrous anomalies’, the narrator continues, ‘violate the natural order’ of things and, as such, ‘Fledges “normality” must be seen … for what it is: a sort of double inversion, an inversion of inversion itself (ibid.: 114, 70). Here, the word ‘inversion’ is a clear reference to homosexuality, and the narrator is obsessed with Fledges queer sexuality, but to invert something is also to turn it upside down or place it in a reverse position. Inversion often connotes deviation from the norm, putting something in reverse order or arrangement. And it can refer to that which has been overturned, upturned or turned around — something that is the opposite of something else. An inversion is, then, a reversal of the normal order of things, such as the butler who becomes the master.
We sometimes speak of things as being ‘all over the place’ or ‘topsy-turvy’, meaning they are in a state of confusion, disorder or in disarray. But what is a ‘double inversion’? Is such a thing possible? And how might this shed light on ‘normality’? Patrick
McGrath's novel poses these questions and, in so doing, suggests that the first inversion is cancelled out by the second. That is, if one inversion turns something upside down, making it ‘topsy-turvy’, then another inversion of the same thing would allow it to revert to its original position. This is significant because it suggests that the grotesque has the power to eliminate borders: it can reveal how the boundaries between the ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ are fluid, not fixed, and how grotesquerie can lead to an erasure of common distinctions. At the end of the novel, for instance, the increasingly delusional narrator describes the boundaries between himself and the monstrous Fledge as dissolving. ‘I am his grotesque double’, he states, Fledge ‘reads in me the outward sign of his own corruption, I am the externalization, the manifestation, the fleshy representation of his true inner nature — which is a deformed and withered thing’ (ibid.: 173).
Grotesque figures can cause the dissolution of the borders separating the normal and abnormal, inside and outside, internal and external. One extreme flows into another. Territories will not be bounded as clear-cut divisions are dissolved. This erasure of common distinctions speaks to debates over stigmatization and normalcy, what it means to exist outside the norm, and what the norm is. After all, we must remember that normalization is a powerful discourse for control and institutionalization, for dominant institutions sanction certain forms of ‘normalcy’, and this always com...