Mental disease as a grotesque image

Patricia Tomaszek, English 118, Creative Nonfiction in Electronic Environments, Brown University, 2007.

In The White Album Didion introduces her observations of life and people during the Sixties, using an omniscient narrator who explains the people's habits, beliefs and actiions.

"The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be "interesting" to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest's clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five." (White Album, 11)

Hence, chapter one emerges as a "flash cut" of events and memories when considering an additional story she wants to tell by suggesting "Another flash cut: (…)" (14) at the end of the chapter. It turns out to be a grotesque scenario as a reaction to the social life she presents beforehand. It is a "psychiatric report" which refers to the narrator who is interpreted

"as a personality in process of deterioration with abundant signs of failing defenses and increasing ability of the ego to mediate the world of reality and to cope with normal stress . . . Emotionally the patient has alienated herself almost entirely from the world of other human beings. Her fantasy life appears to have been virtually completely preempted by primitive, regressive libidinal preoccupations many of which are distorted and bizarre." (14)

The term grotesque has undergone a long standing development of notions and definitions which affected arts and literature since the fifteenth century. Thus, it is impossible to determine only one concept of grotesque. Many theorists wrote about this subject, one amongst them, Wolfgang Kayser, a german critic who explored the concept of grotesque provides an efficient attempt in The Grotesque in Art and Literature:

"The grotesque is the expression of the estranged or alienated world, i.e. the familiar world is seen from a perspective which suddenly renders it strange (and, presumably, this strangeness may be either comic or terrifying, or both)."

According to this definition of the grotesque, Didion's psychiatric descriptions of the doctor's report are one result of the impact of society on the sick; the patient's world became strange. The presented grotesque in this example isn't too extreme. Nevertheless it is effective because it expresses the problematical nature of a human's existence in the world. Didion presents a personality suffering from a mental disease, characterized as bizarre, odd, distorted and abnormal. Here, the person itself functions as grotesque and becomes a social mirror of Didion's described Sixties.

Cited Works

Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.


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Last modified 1 February 2005