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Grotesque Realism: Gods and Monsters


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Grotesque Realism: Gods and Monsters

Sergeje Diaghilew (1872-1929)
2012, oil on canvas, 27×28 cm

Grotesque Realism: Gods and Monsters

Sergeje Diaghilew (1872-1929)

Grotesque Realism: Gods and Monsters




Sergei Diaghilev - Grotesque Realism: Gods and Monsters

Sergei Diaghilev



Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky

Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky







Gods and Monsters (Part 1)

Thomas Henry Martin
Gods and Monsters (Part 2)*

Bakhtin labels the second category Romantic grotesque and finds it appearing after the French Revolution, during the rise of Romanticism in art. The Romantic grotesque inspires fear in its audience and leaves it paralyzed by that fear. In fact, Bakhtin uses Kayser’s definition of the grotesque as alienating to help establish the definition of this form of grotesque. In comparing the types of madness that are exhibited in the two categories of the grotesque, Bakhtin notes “The images of Romantic grotesque usually express fear of the world and seek to inspire their reader with this fear. […] In folk grotesque [grotesque realism], madness is a gay parody of official reason, of the narrow seriousness of official ‘truth.’ It is a ‘festive’ madness. In Romantic grotesque, on the other hand, madness acquires a somber, tragic aspect of individual isolation” (39).

Despite using Kayser’s analysis to define the Romantic grotesque, Bakhtin identifies the flaw in Kayser’s definition of the grotesque by using psychology as a reference:

Kayser himself often speaks of the freedom of fantasy characteristic of the grotesque. But how is such freedom possible in relation to a world ruled by the alien power of the id? Here lies the contradiction of Kayser’s concept.

Actually the grotesque liberates man from all the forms of inhuman necessity that direct the prevailing concept of the world. This concept is uncrowned by the grotesque and reduced to the relative and the limited. Necessity, in every concept which prevails at any time, is always on-piece, serious, unconditional, and indisputable. But historically the idea of necessity is relative and variable. The principle of laughter and the carnival spirit on which grotesque is based destroys this limited seriousness and all pretense of an extratemporal meaning and unconditional value of necessity. It frees human consciousness, thought, and imagination for new potentialities. For this reason great changes, even in the field of science, are always preceded by a certain carnival consciousness that prepares the way.

In the grotesque world the id is uncrowned and transformed into a “funny monster.” When entering this new dimension, even if it is Romantic, we always experience a peculiar gay freedom of thought and imagination. (Bakhtin 49)

Bakhtin uses historical construction to identify the power in both categories of his definition of the grotesque. He also shows the importance of psychology in understanding the grotesque. For Bakhtin, the grotesque allows the audience to cope with the unknown and more frightening elements of the human psyche. For this reason, Bakhtin’s definition of the grotesque will be the definition used in this analysis of the grotesque in modernist poetry. I argue that the modern poets saw the same qualities in the grotesque found in Greek mythology that Bakhtin identifies in both grotesque realism and the Romantic grotesque. Modern poets saw the grotesque as a liberating force that helped their audience adapt more freely to a constantly changing environment.

Ezra Pound, The Fifth Decad of Cantos, Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1937.

Ezra Pound, The Fifth Decad of Cantos, Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1937.

Several new discussions on the grotesque image in literature have surfaced in recent years. A collection of essays edited by Andrew Smith and Jeff Wallace entitled Gothic Modernisms, analyzes the grotesque image in the context of Gothic art. In 2004, Virginia Swain wrote a detailed analysis of the grotesque image in the work of Baudelaire and Rousseau entitled Grotesque Figures: Baudelaire, Rousseau and the Aesthetic of Modernity.

Virginia Swain’s book places Baudelaire and Rousseau in historical context. She focuses on how Baudelaire interprets Rousseau’s concept of the grotesque image. Swain sees Baudelaire as a poet on the cusp of a transition in interpreting the grotesque image as a communal image, the way Bakhtin interprets Rabelais. Like Kayser, Swain also argues that the grotesque image is an alienating trope in nineteenth century literature. This transition occurs as the grotesque image shifts from an image with its own physical reality to one trapped within cultural values and the structure of language. In the end, Swain identifies how Baudelaire “locates the real grotesque in the realm of language. For him, the real grotesque arises as a folly or a madness of language, which threatens to override the poet’s control. This grotesque is apprehended in the vertiginous experience of reading” (Swain 4). Language becomes the vehicle that exposes the grotesque for Baudelaire. Swain observes that Baudelaire reacts to the grotesque within the context of language, which survives as a tool of communication through its dependence on the values of the community that uses that language.

In chapter seven of her book, Swain analyzes the image of Venus in Baudelaire’s work. According to Swain, he finds the Greek goddess an extravagant fetish that achieves a comic status after nearly two millennia of Christianity maligning its meaning. Swain picks up the term fetish and applies it using a Freudian definition to how Baudelaire uses Rousseau’s understanding of the grotesque. According to Swain, Rousseau saw the grotesque as containing acts of subversion, act that lead to change or transformation in a culture. Rousseau’s writing becomes Baudelaire’s totem.

I expand her focus to include Freud’s concept of the fetish. However, unlike Swain who switches her analysis of the fetish between writers, I would like to show how Greek and Roman gods and goddesses serve as fetishes for American modernist poets. I feel that the diminishing influence of Christianity in western culture allowed modernist poets to retrieve the powers of Greek mythology. The Greek and Roman gods and goddesses became iconic symbols for the modernists in their connection to a buried world of pagan classicism, especially Homer’s Iliad and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Through classical allusions, modernists reinvigorated the icons Freud analyzes in indigenous people and neurotics in Totem and Taboo. What is taboo at one stage in a community’s development, is sacred at an earlier stage, because that fetish was once considered an ancestor of the community. The earlier the stage of community, the more agency that community had in interacting with powers considered external to the community. Part of what motivates the modernist poet is a desire to acquire agency in a rapidly changing industrialized culture.

Although I will be analyzing the modernist poets’ use of various classical Greek and Roman myths, my focus will be on modernist poets’ use of the Apollo and Daphne myth. Frequent use of the myth by H. D., Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy and others provides an important motif in poetry: the tree. Daphne’s transformation from a mortal into a tree is one of the iconic moments of the grotesque image.

The modernist poets return to Greek and Roman myths to capture grotesque images that involve transformation, not the grotesque image that stops short of the complete change. The later grotesque images form the Romantic grotesque. The popularity of the sideshow froze the grotesque into newly sensational deformations. The modernist poets reached back to the Greek and Roman myths to recover a sense of the grotesque as liberating transformation.

However, I will also look at other examples of the grotesque outside Greek and Roman myths, such as the image of the human skeleton cited by John Ruskin. The modernist poets also utilized the shock value of the grotesque to grab attention from the audience. Therefore, the other grotesque images that occur in modernist poetry often involve what Bakhtin calls the Romantic grotesque as well as grotesque realism. I will show that the modernist poets bring forth the grotesque for various reasons.

To return to Freud, I will use the concepts of the sacred and taboo in Totem and Taboo to look at what the motif of the tree symbolizes for modernist poets. Of all of Freud’s writings, Totem and Taboo appears to pay the most attention to H.D.’s letters about her analysis with Freud. In the spring of 1933 and again in 1934, H.D. was a patient of Freud’s and sought analysis to end a persistent writer’s block that lasted for several years. H.D.’s letters to Bryher, her lover, about her sessions with Freud provide a unique insight into the psychological influences in her poetry and how myth played an important role in nourishing her ability to write. This understanding of influence on her poetry that Freud identifies for H.D. provides a central theme for his analysis. Mythology provides H.D. with an example of grotesque realism: a grotesque that is completely transformative and, therefore, an image that is productive. This productivity allowed H.D. to see her environment as productive. H.D. lived in London during the First World War and would reside in the city during Second World War. London experienced bombings from air raids during both wars and severely affected H.D.’s perspective of her surroundings. Like Baudelaire’s descriptions of the Haussmannization of Paris in the nineteenth century, H.D. saw the physical surroundings of the urban environment of London as mercurial, changing with every new attack. This shifting environment seemed ill suited to growth or productivity. Through Freud’s analysis, H.D. uses her own knowledge of Greek and Roman myth, as well as other forms of folklore, to seek productivity through language.

Other modernist poets also saw the modern urban environment, particularly the American urban environment, as mercurial by its very nature. Industrialization demanded ever-greater productivity from workers to transform the urban environment: building, tearing down, re-building for efficiency. This constantly shifting environment also alienated its inhabitants from their surroundings in the same way that air raids affected the inhabitants of London during the two world wars. Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Mina Loy and T. S. Eliot took up the problem of alienation in the urban landscape, using the grotesque, particularly the tree motif, as a tool to allow their audience, the inhabitants of this shifting urban environment, to cope with constant change.

The tree is a nearly uniform representation in folklore and myth throughout many cultures as a symbol of both transformation and habitation. As transformation, the tree begins as a small acorn, nut or seed, but eventually becomes the largest examples of organic life. The tree also represents shelter through the inhabitation of its branches by many animals, birds in particular. Being both a representation of transformation and habitation, the tree becomes an appropriate symbol for the ideal modern city. Like the tree, the modern city is in constant transformation. However, unlike the tree, the environment of the modern city can appear to be hostile to its inhabitants. Melding the image of the tree to the image of the city, the citizens that inhabit that city may feel more nurtured by their environment.

To maintain a focus, I will limit my references to trees to the Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo. My context for the grotesque and the use of the Apollo and Daphne myth will be the poems of modernist poets. I will make references to how these six poets saw the modern metropolis as an environment containing threats to the survival of modern man. To increase the chance of survival in the industrial city, a new understanding of language, the system that reinforces communal value structures, was needed.

The American modernist poets use grotesque images to explore the meaning of the cityscape and its constant alteration. My analysis of grotesque images will determine when the images provided by the poets are examples of the Romantic grotesque (which concerns such subjects as Circus sideshow attractions) or examples of grotesque realism (which is more associated with complete transformations like those in Ovid’s Metamorphoses). The two types affect the audience differently. The Romantic grotesque affects its audience in the way that Hugh Kenner suggests in The Mechanic Muse. The audience is repelled by the image because the image is suspended before complete transformation. Examples of the Romantic grotesque appear in nineteenth century sideshows. Grotesque realism provides a dynamic image because it completes a metamorphosis into a new state. Daphne’s complete transformation into a tree is an example of grotesque realism, and it is this tree motif that provides the most dynamic interpretation of what Bakhtin labels as grotesque realism. The comparison of gods and monsters, so to speak, will show how the grotesque image gained a more prolific versatility of meaning in modernist aesthetics.

Ezra Pound, The Pisan Cantos, New York: New Directions, 1948.

Ezra Pound, The Pisan Cantos, New York: New Directions, 1948.

Modernist poets wanted to accomplish in poetry what French painters achieved in painting throughout the nineteenth century. They wished to create a work of art that both attracts and repels, and that ultimately fills the psyche of the viewer with itself. I would like to make reference to a writer who will play a key role in framing my argument about the grotesque.

In “The Life and Work of Eugene Delacroix,” Baudelaire describes having a conversation with the artist about how painting is like language, the structure can be manipulated in any number of ways to bring greater sensation from the product.

Nature is but a dictionary, he kept repeating. Properly to understand the extent of meaning implied in this sentence, you should consider the numerous ordinary uses of a dictionary. In it you look for the meaning of the words, their genealogy, and their etymology – in brief, you extract from it all the elements that compose a sentence or a narrative; but no one has ever thought of his dictionary as a composition, in the poetic sense of the word. Painters who are obedient to the imagination seek in their dictionary the elements which suit with their conception; in adjusting those elements, however, with more or less of art, they confer upon them a totally new physiognomy. But those who have no imagination just copy the dictionary. The result is a great vice, the vice of banality, to which those painters are particularly prone whose specialty brings them closer to what is called inanimate nature – landscape painters, for example, who generally consider it a triumph if they can contrive not to show their personalities. By dint of contemplating and copying, they forget to feel and think. (Baudelaire 47)

Baudelaire identifies through Delacroix the essential element that makes an artist. For Delacroix, it is the psyche reconstructing its environment. If the artist tries not to interpret its environment through his or her own psyche, then it creates a false sense of an inanimate world. Without involving his or her psychological interpretation, the artist is merely trying to recreate a moment of everything in stasis, the way a camera captures its subjects in a moment, holding them still. Involving his or her own psyche, the artist gives motion to the image. The psyche helps identify a constantly dynamic environment.

Baudelaire goes on to identify this transformation of the environment through the psyche as a supernatural event that occurs through the arabesque shapes that inhabit the painting.

Line and colour both of them have the power to set one thinking and dreaming; the pleasures which spring from them are of different natures, but of a perfect equality and absolutely independent of the subject of the picture.

A picture by Delacroix will already have quickened you with a thrill of supernatural pleasure even if it be situated too far away for you to be able to judge of its linear graces or the more or less dramatic quality of the subject. You feel as though a magical atmosphere has advanced towards you and already envelops you. […]

A well-drawn figure fills you with a pleasure which is absolutely divorced from its subject. Whether voluptuous or awe-inspiring, this figure will owe its entire charm to the arabesque which it cuts in space. (Baudelaire 51-2)

Baudelaire notes how the supernatural effect that a Delacroix painting possesses comes from its arabesque shapes and arabesque shapes come from the same origin as the concept of the grotesque: the Roman grottos.

I think that the Transatlantic poets of the early twentieth century were trying to achieve the same thing. They wanted to break through the anxiety that the industrialized landscape creates with its constantly shifting environment by reaching a supernatural effect. Through the supernatural, they wished to regain control of the narrative in order to feel serenity.

I organized the following chapters in order to demonstrate how each of these poets uses the grotesque as a tool for their own psyche to adapt to the urban environment in which they lived. I organized the analysis of each poet according to categories initiated by William Carlos Williams in his introduction to Kora in Hell, where he makes a clear distinction between poets who stayed in the United States (or came to the United States) and those who chose to go to Europe in order to write from the belief in the influence of place on writing. However, the second chapter begins with a background, tying modernist poets to the urban poets of the recent past.

The poets of the American soil and the expatriate poets William Carlos Williams mentions in his introduction to Kora in Hell use the grotesque in their poetry. However, the expatriate poets are more immediately concerned with re-establishing the sacred. Where William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and Mina Loy are mainly concerned with the community’s operation within a changing industrialized space, T.S. Eliot, H.D., and Ezra Pound seek to draw the sacred from the image of the tree. Through the layering of the sacred upon myth, the expatriate poets became intent upon recreating the communal consciousness in the industrial age. Pound and H.D. wished to establish a new religion and T.S. Eliot wished to re-establish a religion for life in an industrialized world. The industrialized city is a transformative space, but with that transformation, the inhabitants must accept a transformation of the community’s consciousness. However, the two expatriate poets fell short of their goal for the establishment of a new religion. The third poet wished to reinforce the older Western religions, and at some level he succeeded. Of the three expatriates Williams discusses in Kora in Hell, Eliot practices only the Romantic grotesque, through reference to other poets such as Walt Whitman. H.D. uses the grotesque, both Romantic and grotesque realism, at a completely subjective level. Pound uses it both subjectively and objectively. Nevertheless, he ironically loses his audience and his ability to ally communal consciousness through actually adopting his audience’s vernacular. At a crucial point, Pound does not shroud his story in myth and he incurs the wrath of the phantastikon: the community’s cultural biases. Due to the rejection of these poets’ stories, the grotesque in the works of the three poets remains nothing more than an echo of a desire for the sacred in the modern world.

Chapter II is mainly concerned with recalling Charles Baudelaire’s use of the grotesque and how the grotesque evolved out of Baudelaire’s perceptions of his environment in Paris. I use Baudelaire’s approach to urban environment as an influence on Pound’s Cantos. In chapter II, I shall begin with Swain’s observation that Baudelaire relates the grotesque to the ability to control language and I will apply Swain’s connection between the grotesque and the fear of losing the control of language to the American and British modernist poets. T. E. Hulme spoke of the rejuvenation of language through analogy, and Ernest Fenollosa spoke of the rejuvenation of language through etymology. Both writers were concerned with the continuous metamorphosis of language as it grew and thrived. Both writers were strong influences on Pound and raised issues about the control of language that Swain observes in Baudelaire. The primary objective of this chapter is to uncover the connection between Baudelaire’s perception of Paris and Pound’s perception of the modern city and how both writers saw the problem of inhabiting a constantly transforming environment as an alienation of the inhabitant from his surroundings. This alienation eventually leads to the abuse of both the environment and its inhabitants by those who have power to transform it.

In chapter III, I will make the connection between language and the urban environment made by Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre sees the industrialized city in the same way that we approach language. For Lefebvre, the city shares the same structure as a language. Therefore, the urban environment can be manipulated by its inhabitants in the same way language can be changed by its users to suit the demands of an environment.

As stated before, I use William Carlos Williams’ division of modernist poets according to whether or not they chose to be expatriates. Williams, Marianne Moore and Mina Loy write in and around New York, and therefore, they become the poets that are more directly associated with place and especially the urban American environment. I apply Lefebvre’s idea of the city as a language to the writing of the three poets.

These three poets directly connect in the urban landscape with the language they used in their poetry. Williams uses the language of reflection or the language used for history; Moore uses the language of the bourgeoisie to hide the danger of the metamorphosing environment; and Loy uses the language of the marketplace to connect her audience to the urban environment. These three poets also approach the grotesque from a distinct angle. Unlike Baudelaire who approaches the landscape as a constantly transforming entity that baffles the inhabitant, Williams, Moore and Loy approach the urban environment as static. They provide an orientation of place for their audience. They focus on the amorphous human body or the ambiguity of individual identity to introduce the transformative aspects of the grotesque. In other words, the three poets stabilize the environment by focusing on a single moment of description in order to allow the personas they create to metamorphose into a new identity.

In chapter IV, I will analyze the influence of Freudian psychoanalysis on H.D., to demonstrate how myth, particularly Greek myth, played a role in the development of meditation and inspiration for her poetry. Usually any concept of Freudian psychoanalysis refuses to be grounded historically. Nevertheless, I want to show that Freud’s ideas at the time, together with the historical concepts of language, allowed H.D. to fuse the grotesque image with the power of fetishism. As a patient of Freud’s, H.D. develops an understanding of her knowledge of Greek myth as a totem for her identity. In her psychological analysis, H.D. recognizes the myths she has become acquainted with through such authors as Wolfgang Goethe as containing an energy of ideas. This energy is potential, not yet kinetic. It is dormant due to the burial of such myths in an orthodox Christian society that demands total repression of its animistic beginnings. The grotesque image becomes a vehicle that brings the viewer or audience into a more interactive understanding of the urban environment through the reawakening of the animistic world. This reawakening is specifically captured for H.D. by the image of the tree that recalls the Daphne myth.

Chapter V will focus on the three expatriate poets that Williams mentions in his introduction to Kora in Hell. I will look at how T.S. Eliot, H.D. and Ezra Pound use myth or the mythologizing of a story to rebuild or reconstruct the sacred. First, I will look at how T.S. Eliot uses the bisexuality of the Greek prophet, Tiresias, to repulse his audience in The Waste Land. Tiresias’ bisexuality demands attention as a figure that can operate with two distinct identities simultaneously: both male and female. While using an image that Eliot’s audience would perceive as the Romantic grotesque, Eliot is then able to show his perception of danger in the decline of the Christian religion. H.D. also deals with her own bisexuality in relation to the community and her audience. Although a source of her own writer’s block, she includes the subject of bisexuality in her poems through the use of Greek myth. H.D. wishes to reconstruct the sacred for the modern world. Pound is different in his approach in that he wishes to incorporate both subjective and objective elements. He also draws from a different source of mythology from a culture he feels to be more stable: China. He weaves Chinese mythology into current events in The Pisan Cantos. Transposing the members of the detention camp with the first emperors of China, Pound attempts to show the sacredness of humanity reflected in the characters of both stories. Pound transposes the modern story with the ancient Chinese myth through the act of diverting rainwater. This common act links the two stories, but it also links the actions of both the modern and the ancient characters. Pound connects the impulse of the action of diverting rainwater to empathy or humanity (humanitas in The Pisan Cantos). I will then end the chapter with an analysis of H.D.’s tribute to Pound entitled End of Torment. End of Torment began as an attempt to persuade the authorities in America to release Pound from incarceration at St. Elizabeths hospital in Washington D.C. In the middle of writing the memoir, Pound was released. However, she continued to write the text as an homage to Pound and their youth together.

In an important moment she remembers sitting in a tree with Pound when he began to make advances toward her. She jumped out of the tree and begged Pound to catch the trolley back to Philadelphia. She describes the simultaneous fear and attraction with Pound at that moment with an immediacy that could only come from a youthful character. It is that youthful feeling that contains both fear and attraction that modern artists wish to capture. H.D. makes this description possible in the environment that contains both a tree and a trolley, a representation of urban life. This moment that contains both the image of a tree and the city, is H.D.’s most empathetic and humane moment in End of Torment.

The urban environment is no longer a passive description of surroundings, but a grotesque dimension where simultaneous repulsion and appeal pulled the environment into the inhabitant’s consciousness as a new reality, both beautiful and terrifying at the same time.

* Daphne in the Twentieth Century: The Grotesque in Modern Poetry, A Dissertation by Thomas Henry Martin, May 2008, Texas A&M University – Chapter I, Introduction: Gods and Monsters, pp. 16-33.)

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