What is America? – The Grotesque, the Ugly, and the Hunted-Haunted Shame and Guilt of our Past

51cXRS4HAaLAs I sit down this morning about to read a Sothern Gothic horror tale by a new writer, Kristi DeMeester – Beneath, I read in the blurb:

“When reporter Cora Mayburn is assigned to cover a story about a snake-handling cult in rural Appalachia, she is dismayed, for the world of cruel fundamentalist stricture, repression, glossolalia, and abuse is something she has long since put behind her in favor of a more tolerant urban existence. But she accepts the assignment, dredging up long-buried memories as she seeks the truth.

As Cora begins to uncover the secrets concealed by a veneer of faith and tradition, something ancient and long concealed begins to awaken. What secrets do the townsfolk know? What might the handsome young pastor be hiding? What will happen when occulted horrors writhe to the surface, when pallid and forgotten things rise to reclaim the Earth?

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man… Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.

– Flannery O’Connor

This reminded me of Flannery O’Connor that other Southern Gothic writer who said, when asked about her novel ‘The Violent Bare it Away’:

“The lack of realism would be crucial if this were a realistic novel or if the novel demanded the kind of realism you demand. I don’t believe it does. The old man is very obviously not a Southern Baptist, but an independent, a prophet in the true sense. The true prophet is inspired by the Holy Ghost, not necessarily by the dominant religion of his region. Further, the traditional Protestant bodies of the South are evaporating into secularism and respectability and are being replaced on the grass roots level by all sorts of strange sects that bear not much resemblance to traditional Protestantism—Jehovah’s Witnesses, snake-handlers, Free Thinking Christians, Independent Prophets, the swindlers, the mad, and sometimes the genuinely inspired. A character has to be true to his own nature and I think the old man is that. He was a prophet, not a church-member. As a prophet, he has to be a natural Catholic. Hawthorne said he didn’t write novels, he wrote romances; I am one of his descendants.”

That’s thing about not only the south, but about American or the U.S.A. in general, for all its supposed veneer of secularism in the Urban centers there is this great undertow of hate, fear, and dark religion – a sort of Lovecraftian cosmos of sensual cosmism underlying the dark places of the American Psyche that you’ll never understand if you read the media pundits or the mainstream liberal press and critics. Down in the hinterlands of our psyche is the madness and insanity of the world where people need no psychologist to speak of schizophrenia, hysterics, narcissism or any other aspect of our unruly and wild mind-set. To know America is to read it’s crime writers, the noir, the horror, the dark Southern Gothic, the mad ravings of its cold gaze in psychopathy that runs the gamut of our vast storehouse of literature and pulp.

As Eden Royce in a recent collection of Southern Gothic tales in the new style says,

Southern Gothic is a subset of its parent Gothic style of writing, a style that places characters in situations focused on the strange, the grotesque, the macabre. It’s these atmospheric settings that give Gothic writing its definitive sound and feel. Typically, Southern Gothic gets the added distinction of having a setting that in itself can conjure up images of horror for some: slavery, lynchings, war. If asked to sum up this genre of writing, I would turn to James Baldwin, one of my favorite poets, and use his quote: “The South is very beautiful but its beauty makes one sad because the lives that people live here, and have lived here, are so ugly.”1

As one of Patrick McGrath’s characters suggests about this ugliness:

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)

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.2

The notion of the Ugly, reveals that which we often shield ourselves from and shun in everyday life is what we’re most attracted to subliminally. Such a history could be traced into Milton’s Satan to Goethe’s Mephistopheles; from witchcraft and medieval torture tactics to martyrs, hermits, and penitents; from lunar births and disemboweled corpses to mythic monsters and sideshow freaks; and from Decadentism and picturesque ugliness to the tacky, kitsch, and camp, and the aesthetics of excess and vice. With abundant examples of painting and sculpture ranging from ancient Greek amphorae to Bosch, Brueghel, and Goya among others, and with quotations from the most celebrated writers and philosophers of each age, one could explores in-depth the concepts of evil, depravity, and darkness in art and literature throughout Western world.

As Umberto Eco in his On Ugliness suggests:

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Matthew M. Bartlett in his recent Gateways to Abomination reveals in a daemonic epiphany both the fascination and the disgust in the grotesque, macabre, and ugly as he describes a modern day whore of Babylon encounter:

One day I arrived at their old house to find Alex and Christopher lashed to a tree in the back with a length of rope encrusted with something greenish brown. Christopher was howling, straining against the ropes, his fists balled, blood seeping from between his fingers and a swinging pendulum of brown drool clinging to his bruised and chapped bottom lip. Alex was opposite him, fast asleep, the corner of his tongue poking from his mouth like a swollen worm, a metronomic rasp the only sign of life. I noted that his shirt was yanked up where the rope pushed into his flesh and his little belly lolled. I noted that he had an outie.

I turned to leave and She beckoned me from the doorway. She was wearing a ratty pink robe that hung open obscenely. Its browned sash curled like a snake at her feet. I seem to remember–though it cannot be–that a newly lit cigarette jutted from between her disturbingly large big toe and its curled neighbor, sending a seductive tendril of smoke up past the webbed blue veins of her thighs, past the sweaty cramped horizons of her belly, past the glitter stuck in clumps between her ample, dangling breasts, past her eyes, one of which twitched, past her hair, which was greasy and brown and frayed. I turned again to run and fainted dead away.

I cannot describe what was happening to me when I woke. It was my dream come true and my nightmare. Her face pushed into me everywhere. She pulled from me pleasures I’d never imagined and pulled and bit at my skin angrily until I shrieked and pulled away in pain and shame. Cigarettes lay broken and smoking in ashtrays all over the room. There must have been scores of them, providing ample light to see the faces watching us from all the corners of the room. I thought I saw Guy grappling with my father over scraps of raw meat. I remember a clock whose face was an obscene caricature of a black man, another whose hands were crudely rendered pricks. I remember a dog rolling on a milk-soaked carpet, its belly a mass of grotesque breasts. She saw me looking frantically about the room and covered my eyes with her hand, which smelled of sex and nicotine.

There was music playing, I remember, and there were whispers and bursts of jeering laughter. I think at one point a dog lapped at the bottom of my foot. I endured a cigarette burn whose ghost still haunts my eyebrow. I remember the sounds of someone vomiting. But mostly there was her, from every angle and in deep in every fold. Our bodies roiled and boiled and pushed into each other unspeakably. I was terrified of her, and terrified that it would end. I was sure I would die, for there were long stretches of time when her flesh filled my throat and seemed to be on the verge of somehow invading my very lungs. I wanted to die, and I wanted to go on forever.

But I did not die, and I did not go on forever. After innumerable hours–days?–I was pushed naked into a shower and held against the wall so I wouldn’t collapse. I was washed my many rough hands. I was fed stale bread and thin soup. After, I staggered out onto the lawn, drunk (for at one point she had spat vodka down my throat and slapped my face with a massive slipper). I collapsed, inhaling the smell of grass and healthy dirt. I was in love and in pain and in lust and I was ashamed.3

As Martha Nussbaum tells it “shame and disgust are different from anger and fear, in the sense that they are especially likely to be normatively distorted, and thus unreliable as guides to public practice, because of features of their specific internal structure.” Disgust, she argues, is very different from anger, in that its thought-content is typically unreasonable, embodying magical ideas of contamination, and impossible aspirations to purity, immortality, and nonanimality, that are just not in line with human life as we know it. As she suggest: “Perhaps even the function of hiding from us problematic aspects of our humanity is useful; perhaps we cannot easily live with too much vivid awareness of the fact that we are made of sticky and oozy substances that will all too soon decay.”4

Shame on the other hand she tells us is more complicated than disgust in another way as well: there is much more to be said about its positive role in development and social life, in connection with valuable ideals and aspirations. Thus my story about shame will ultimately be quite complex, and will involve distinguishing different varieties of shame, some more and some less reliable. I shall argue that what I shall call “primitive shame”—a shame closely connected to an infantile demand for omnipotence and the unwillingness to accept neediness—is, like disgust, a way of hiding from our humanity that is both irrational in the normative sense, embodying a wish to be a type of creature one is not, and unreliable in the practical sense, frequently bound up with narcissism and an unwillingness to recognize the rights and needs of others. (Nussbaum, 15)

Out inability to accept the non-human truth of who and what we are, to feel guilt at the underlying animalistic and dark proclivities of lust and aggression, sex, sensuality, the organic ecstasy of Dionysian raptures and excesses. This “internalization of conscience” in our culture that makes one feel ashamed, guilty for being what one is: an animal with primal feelings of aggression and lust, hate and love. We know how in our own society unbearable feelings of guilt are got rid of by “projecting” them in phantasy on to someone else.5

In Bartlett’s tale this sense of being “ashamed” and guilty, of having sinned against some indefinable law of social decency would lead him to perform an act of utter and complete horror to escape his own inhumanity:

That night I burned down the house with kerosene and rags and father’s whisky bottles. All the Dempseys died that night. Mr. Craston must have been there, because he never came back to school. The firemen and investigators swarmed the sooty, scorched mess for days after. I heard rumors of their findings, things in the basement, carcasses and cocoons and collections of obscene antiquities and rusty metal sexual apparatus that could not have been designed for humans. There were sixteen bodies found, but no one save Mr. Craston missing from our town. Old pages and parts of books in unfathomable languages. I saw them drag out the belt I’d worn during my hellish visit. I saw three-eyed spectacles and a bucket full of feet. Maybe I didn’t see these things. (Gateways to Abomination (p. 9).

Maybe it’s just this ability to both see and not see that is at the heart of our American system of grotesquerie, our inability to accept the truth of how much havoc, horror, ugliness we’ve perpetrated upon the world at large that haunts us into our nightmares and is even now bringing about the very thing we’ve all feared most: the grotesque installation of the horror we’ve all feared and dreaded in the collapse of our nation into the Abyss.

One will always discover certain stock features provide the principal embodiments and evocations of cultural anxieties. Tortuous, fragmented narratives relating  mysterious incidents, horrible images and life-threatening pursuits predominate in the eighteenth century. Spectres, monsters, demons, corpses, skeletons, evil aristocrats, monks and nuns, fainting heroines and bandits populate Gothic landscapes as suggestive figures of imagined and realistic threats. This list grew, in the nineteenth century, with the addition of scientists, fathers, husbands, madmen, criminals and the monstrous double signifying duplicity and evil nature. Gothic landscapes are desolate, alienating and full of menace. Decaying, bleak and full of hidden passageways, the castle was linked to other medieval edifices—abbeys, churches and graveyards especially— that, in their generally ruinous states, harked back to a feudal past associated with barbarity, superstition and fear.6

As Leslie A. Fiedler once said in his classic Love and Death in the American Novel, only the exponent of fantasy and melodrama is equal to life at its moments of catastrophe, and this even the exponents of realism dimly perceive. For better or worse, then, Charles Brockden Brown established in the American novel a tradition of dealing with the exaggerated and the grotesque, which impose themselves on us, not as they are verifiable in any external landscape or sociological observation of manners and men, but as they correspond in quality to our deepest fears and guilts as projected in our dreams or lived through in “extreme situations.” Realistic milieu and consistent character alike are dissolved in such projective fictions, giving way to the symbolic landscape and the symbolic action, which are the hallmarks of the mythopoeic novel. Simply to acknowledge the existence and importance of such a tradition is embarrassing to some readers; for it means, on the one hand, a questioning of the sufficiency of realism, which justifies art by correlating it with science; and on the other, it suggests a disturbing relationship between our highest art and such lowbrow forms of horror pornography as the detective story, the pulp thriller, and the Superman comic book, all of which are also heirs of the gothic.7

Yet, unlike its parent genre, Southern gothic uses the Gothic tools not solely for the sake of suspense, but to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South – Gothic elements often taking place in a magic realist context rather than a strictly fantastical one.

Warped rural communities replaced the sinister plantations of an earlier age; and in the works of leading figures such as William Faulkner, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, the representation of the South blossomed into an absurdist critique of modernity as a whole.

There are many characteristics in Southern Gothic Literature that relate back to its parent genre of American Gothic and even to European Gothic. However, the setting of these works are distinctly Southern. Some of these characteristics are exploring madness, decay and despair, continuing pressures of the past upon the present, particularly with the lost ideals of a dispossessed Southern aristocracy and continued racial hostilities.

Southern Gothic particularly focuses on the South’s history of slavery, a “fixation with the grotesque, and a tension between realistic and supernatural elements”.

Similar to the elements of the Gothic castle, Southern Gothic gives us the decay of the plantation in the post-Civil War South.

Villains who disguise themselves as innocents or victims are often found in Southern Gothic Literature, especially stories by Flannery O’Connor, such as Good Country People and The Life You Save May Be Your Own, giving us a blurred line between victim and villain.

Southern Gothic literature set out to expose the myth of old antebellum South, and its narrative of an idyllic past hidden by social, familial, and racial denials and suppressions

So if you want to know America now, take the low road into those “lowbrow forms of horror pornography as the detective story, the pulp thriller, and the Superman comic book” along with noir, crime, Southern gothic and gothic horror tales, else be led into the sublime fantasies of our vanity media pundits and the liberal press that would whitewash the dark spheres of the American psyche and purify us of the grotesque and ugly truth. Maybe it’s time for America to own up to its dark history, the inherited guilt and shame at the death, ugliness, and grotesque pain and suffering we’ve perpetrated upon all those we deemed unhuman. For if the truth be told we are ourselves the unhuman writ large upon the stage of history and time like rabid beasts who have sewn discord and mayhem across the world. And like any inherited guilt the haunting time is here again… as is the judgements of the dead upon the living unto the “seventh” generation.

  1. Royce, Eden. Spook Lights: Southern Gothic Horror (Kindle Locations 84-92). Unknown. Kindle Edition.
  2. Edwards, Justin; Graulund, Rune. Grotesque (The New Critical Idiom) (p. 2). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
  3. Bartlett, Matthew M.. Gateways to Abomination (pp. 4-9). . Kindle Edition.
  4. Nussbaum, Martha. Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. Princeton University Press (January 22, 2006)
  5. Dodds, E. R.. The Greeks and the Irrational (Sather Classical Lectures) (Kindle Locations 358-359). University of California Press – A. Kindle Edition.
  6. Botting, Fred. The Gothic. Routledge; 2 edition (November 23, 2013)
  7. Leslie A. Fiedler. Love and Death in the American Novel (Kindle Locations 2695-2703). Kindle Edition.

1 thought on “What is America? – The Grotesque, the Ugly, and the Hunted-Haunted Shame and Guilt of our Past

  1. One of my great-uncles, son of Polish immigrants, left his small home town in Illinois and headed for Texas, where he married a Baptist girl. At his funeral, which for some reason happened back in Illinois, the Catholic priest presiding over the funeral lamented before the gathered mourners the fact that their loved one had been the instrument of his own eternal damnation by marrying outside the One True Church. Or so I was told by my mother.

    I just read So Long, See You Tomorrow, a 1980 novel by William Maxwell. It takes place in a small Illinois town where something horrible happens. It’s a Midwestern sort of Gothic like Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting: plain, stoic, laconic. Slowly but inevitably, almost beneath awareness, the ordinary becomes grotesque. There’s not much religion in the book, but toward the end the narrator gives us a little sermon:

    “He knew what had been done to him but not what he had done to deserve it. It would have been a help if at some time some Baptist preacher, resting his forearms on the pulpit and hunching his shoulders, had said People neither get what they deserve nor deserve what they get. The gentle and trusting are trampled on. The rich man usually forces his way through the eye of the needle, and there is little or no point in putting your faith in Divine Providence…. On the other hand, how could any preacher, Baptist or otherwise, say this?

    Liked by 2 people

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