Grotesque & Macabre


Isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation are among the wiles we use to keep ourselves from dispelling every illusion that keeps us up and running. Without this cognitive double-dealing, we would be exposed for what we are. It would be like looking into a mirror and for a moment seeing the skull inside our skin looking back at us with its sardonic smile. And beneath the skull— only blackness, nothing.

-Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror

In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982), Julia Kristeva describes the process of abjection as a form of expulsion and rejection of the Other, which she ties to the historical exclusion of women. Neither subject nor object, the abject, or the state of abjection, is articulated in, and through, grotesque language and imagery. The process of abjection is, then, associated with deformed bodies and oozing bodily fluids: blood, pus, bile, faeces, sweat and vomit break down the borders separating the inside from outside, the contained from the released. Abjection is a state of flux, where ‘meaning collapses’, and the body is open and irregular, sprouting or protruding internal and external forms to link abjection to grotesquerie.

The Grotesque in art and life was always centered on the gap between culture and nature, the reality of the body as the mediator between mind and environment. For Bakhtin in his studies of the grotesque and carnivaliesque it is the laughing human body that becomes the emblem for this longed-for harmony between culture and nature. The notion of laughter as communication between mind and environment, as the drift of things in the gap would preoccupy comedic, satiric, and grotesque dramatists, essayists, poets, and novelists from Aristophanes to Pynchon and beyond. For Bergson, laughter is the embodiment of suppleness in a society and a punishment to those who ossify in their habits, reactions, and attitudes and therefore cease to perform sufficiently well. But Bakhtin also modifies Bergson in that he frees his conception of laughter from its punitive elements by stressing the liberating and joyful experience of laughing.

Rabelais in his great grotesques was moving toward that inhuman laughter of the monstrous alterity that risks the boundary zones between reason and unreason, knowledge and nonknowledge (Bataille). In laughter we find the key to unlock what Bataille would call the philosophy of non-savoir, where laughter – not the comedy of existence subordinated to reason and human identity – ruptures the abject and enters the regions of Nietzsche’s grand baroque, where the abyss of laughter reverberates in nonknowledge and excess.

Bataille believed that laughter is sovereign, and that comic literature had been suborned to its lowly position because it stepped outside reason and philosophy, that it dared to cause havoc in the House of Reason.  Rather than just attempting to philosophize comedy, Bataille treats philosophy as comedy. Like Rabelais he gave attentive lesion to an affinity with surrealism and celebration of cultural forms expressing the irrational, the unthinkable, and the impossible (such as death, ecstasy, ritual, sacrifice, the erotic, the comic, and the sacred) has been extended to theorizations that interrogate both the philosophical underpinning of society and our cultural frames of reference. Laughter as negation and communication.

New Review: Matthew M. Bartlett: The Stay-Awake Men – A Review

Below are some of the essays on the Abject Grotesque: