"The World is a Monster": Grotesque Wisdom in Dillard, Suleri and Didion

Caroline Young '05.5, English 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

Writing as a Victorian sage, Henry David Thoreau uses the symbolic grotesque in "Slavery in Massachusetts" to make a statement about the ridiculousness of his audience's actions.

Much has been said about American slavery, but I think that we do not even yet realize what slavery is. If I were seriously to propose to Congress to make mankind into sausages, I have no doubt that most of the members would smile at my proposition, and if any believed me to be in earnest, they would think that I proposed something much worse than Congress had ever done. But if any of them will tell me that to make a man into a sausage would be much worse, would be any worse, than to make him into a slave, than it was to enact the Fugitive Slave Law, I will accuse him of foolishness, of intellectual incapacity, of making a distinction without a difference. The one is just as sensible a proposition as the other. [p.3]

Thoreau first horrifies his audience with the idea of turning men into sausages and then goes on to show them that their actions are no better. John Ruskin, like Thoreau, uses the symbolic grotesque to undermine his audience by mocking their presumptions.

Observe, I neither impugn nor doubt the conclusions of the science if its terms are accepted. I am simply uninterested in them, as I should be in those of a science of gymnastics which assumed that men had no skeletons. It might be shown, on that supposition, that it would be advantageous to roll the students up into pellets, flatten them into cakes, or stretch them into cables; and that when these results were effected, the re-insertion of the skeleton would be attended with various inconveniences to their constitution. The reasoning might be admirable, the conclusions true, and the science deficient only in applicability. Modern political economy stands on a precisely similar basis. [pp. 230-231]

In this quotation, Ruskin mocks economic theory by comparing it to a far-fetched scientific principle. Ruskin and Thoreau both use the grotesque as a way to berate their audiences and to show the ridiculousness of their audience's beliefs. They proceed to show how their audience has fallen away from God and nature, creating a sage-like message of how society can correct its problems. These two authors use their invented grotesque situations to show the absurdity of the problem, simultaneously distancing themselves from their audience and making themselves an authority on the problem.

The Grotesque, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is characterized by ludicrous or incongruous distortion, as of appearance or manner; outlandish or bizarre, as in character or appearance. Authors can use the grotesque to shock and disturb as well as to appear pensive and curious. Like Thoreau and Ruskin, Annie Dillard, Sara Suleri and Joan Didion use the grotesque to elucidate points and recognize absurdity. Unlike the Victorian Sages, these three female authors use actual situations from their own lives and worlds, not to berate their audience but rather to raise questions about the world and to attempt to find meaning in it. All three women draw wisdom and meaning from their observations about eating, the body, and other grotesque situations involving physicality. By using the grotesque, Dillard, Suleri and Didion do not try to solve a social or political problem but rather to answer, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, questions about themselves and their surroundings.

The Culinary Grotesque

Sara Suleri's Meatless Days questions her role in family and culture with grotesque examples associated with food. She uses these grotesques to find meaning in her life and to connect to the ethos of her country, a project exemplified by her disillusionment in finding that kapura are, "Not sweetbread...They're testicles" (22). Suleri describes the grotesqueness of food with awe and humor. She uses the shock of kapura as a way to review her relationship with her mother and looks at the situation philosophically:

Had I borne something of those lessons in mind, it would have been less of a shock to have to reconceive the kapura parable; perhaps I'd have been prepared for more skepticism about the connection between kidneys and sweetbreads — after all, they fall into no logical category of togetherness. The culinary humor of kidneys and testicles stewing in one another's juices is, on the other hand, very fine . . . I should have remembered all those nervously comic edges, and the pangs, that constitute most poignancies of nourishment. [27]

Suleri's use of the word parable implies her search for morals or wisdom in her testicular discovery. The search for comedy in this particular passage reveals Suleri's desire to make something of her discovery — to find the meaning inherent in kapura. The phrase "poignancies of nourishment" demonstrates how Suleri brings the grotesque in food to a greater level than cuisine, equating nourishment not only with food but also with her and her country's soul.

Suleri also calls attention to her familial relationships as a result of the culinary grotesque

One day Qayuum insisted that only kidneys could sit on my plate, mimicking legumes and ignoring their thin and bloody juices. Wicked Ifat came into the room and waited till I had started eating; then she intervened. "Sara," said Ifat, her eyes brimming over with wonderful malice, "do you know that kidneys do?" I aged, and my meal regressed, back to its vital belonging in the world of function. "Kidneys make pee, Sara," Ifat told me, "That's what they do, they make pee." And she looked so pleased to be able to tell me that; it made her feel so full of information. Betrayed by food, I let her go, and wept some watery tears into the kidney juice, which was designed anyway to evade cohesion, being thin and in its nature inexact. [26]

Suleri makes the word betrayed especially poignant by following it with the word food. Her sister, though wicked, is not the betrayer — food now has the power to not only shock but also betray. The last clause discussing the nature of food shows that Suleri's relationship to and observation of the food is not just about consumption—she describes the food as having a nature and a purpose, and therefore subject to interpretation and human-like character flaws.

Suleri again muses about the nature of food after hearing a story about a cat eating doves, "Am I wrong, then, to say that my parable had to do with nothing less than the imaginative extravagance of food and all the transmogrifications of which it is capable? Food certainly gave us a way not simply of ordering a week or a day but of living inside history, measuring everything we remembered against a chronology of cooks" (34). Food gives Suleri history and meaning, and therefore her observation of the grotesque in food is also an observation of the grotesque in history and meaning. Her continuous use of the word parable portrays these incidents as a series of stories meant to teach the reader, and by questioning herself at the same time she takes the reader on the journey alongside her. Suleri thus uses the vocabulary of food to discuss history: "There is something nourishing about the memory of all those shadow dynasties: we do not have to subsist only on the litany" (34). The words nourishing and subsist directly relate food and Suleri's personal history.

Whereas Suleri uses the grotesque derived from food to question her surroundings, Annie Dillard uses food slightly differently, focusing more on the grotesqueness of the eating process rather than in the food itself. Like John Ruskin, Annie Dillard uses her sight as her primary sense, stating before quoting him, "Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won't see it" (33), and her observations of the grotesque lead her to question herself and the meaning of life. Her first observation of the grotesque in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — the deflating frog — creates a powerful image that permeates the rest of the book with a grotesque aura.

At last I knelt on the island's winter killed grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water: It was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away. The frog skin bag started to sink...That one bite is the only bite [the giant water bug] ever takes. Through the puncture shoot the poisons that dissolve the victim's muscles and bones and organs — all but the skin — and through it the giant water bug sucks out the victim's body, reduced to a juice. [pp. 7-8]

Dillard uses the grotesque image of the giant water bug eating the frog to initiate questioning about the nature of the universe: "What do we think of the created universe, spanning an unthinkable void with an unthinkable profusion of forms? Or what do we think of nothingness, those sickening reaches of time in either direction? If the giant water bug was not made in jest, was it then made in earnest?" (9). Like Suleri, Dillard's observations of the grotesque lead her to raise questions about her world. By discussing the grotesque in nature's eating processes, Dillard questions the grotesque and cruelty itself — the giant water bug simply developed a successful way to capture his prey, regardless of how cruel or inhumane the method. Problems such as this lead Dillard in her pilgrimage.

After her initial discussion of eating in terms of insects and animals, Dillard implicates people in this same food-related cruelty with

the spare, cruel story Thomas McGonigle told me about herring gulls frozen on ice of Long Island. When his father was young, he used to walk out on Great South Bay, which had frozen over, and frozen the gulls to it. Some of the gulls were already dead. He would take a hunk of driftwood and brain the living gulls; then, with a steel knife he hacked them free from below the body and rammed them into a burlap sack. The family ate herring gull all winter, close around a lighted table in a steamy room. And out on the Bay, the ice was studded with paired, red stumps. [43]

This passage raises one of the main questions of Dillard's book — whether or not what she observes is cruel or natural. Once again, Dillard questions the nature of the world by showing a grotesque example of necessary nourishment. Immediately before this grotesque image, Dillard paints a picture that she ends with a question. "Here's the annual chickadee-trying-to-drink-from-a-frozen-birdbath picture, captioned, 'Sorry, Wait Till Spring,' and the shot of an utterly bundled child crying piteously on a sled at the top of a snowy hill, labeled, 'Needs a Push.' How can an old world be so innocent?" [43]. By calling the world innocent, Dillard calls both humans and animals innocent, and all her examples of the grotesque have an additional meaning to them, simultaneously horrific and pure. Her examination of eating epitomizes this duality, the acquisition of food being both a necessity and implicitly a form of death.

The Bodily Grotesque

Moving from what goes into bodies to bodies themselves, Suleri uses the grotesque in the body to examine questions of beauty and humanity. In her section titled "Excellent Things in Women," Suleri discusses two bodies specifically — the bodies of her brother and her grandmother. Her description of her brother's burning epitomizes her outright grotesqueness: "I slammed down the carving knife and screamed 'Irfan!' with such ferocity that he jumped, figuratively and literally, right out of his skin. The bowl of water emptied onto him, and with a gurgling cry Irfan leapt up, tearing at his steaming clothes. He clutched at his groin, and everywhere he touched, the skin slid off, so that between his fingers his penis easily unsheathed, a blanched and fiery grape" (11). This quotation shocks not only because of the burning but also because of the sudden reference to the unsheathing of his penis. The horror of his losing his skin contrasts with Suleri's description of her grandmother's burning:

By the time Tillat awoke and found her, she was a little flaming ball: "Dadi!" cried Tillat in the reproach of sleep, and beat her quiet with a blanket. In the morning we discovered that Dadi's torso had been almost consumed and little recognizable remained from collarbone to groin...She lived through her sojourn at the hospital; she weathered her return. Then, after six weeks at home, she angrily refused to be lugged like a chunk of meat to the doctor's for her daily change of dressing...Thus developed my great intimacy with the fluid properties of human flesh. By the time Mamma left for England, Dadi's left breast was still coagulate and raw. Later, when Irfan got his burns, Dadi was growing pink and livid tightropes, stung from hip to hip in a flaming advertisement of life. And in the days when Tillat and I were wrestling, Dadi's vanished nipples started to congeal and convex their cavities into triumphant little love knots.

I learned about the specialization of beauty through that body. There were times, as with love, when I felt only disappointment, carefully easing off the dressings and finding again a piece of flesh that would not knit, happier in the texture of stubborn glue. But then on more exhilarating days I'd peel like an onion all her bandages away and suddenly discover I was looking down at some literal tenacity and was bemused at all the freshly withered shaped she could create. Each new striation was a victory to itself, and when Dadi's hairless groin solidified again and sent firm signals that her abdomen must do the same, I could have wept with glee. [14-15]

These two vivid images serve as extreme examples of the bodily grotesque. Suleri shows her brother and her grandmother's humanity while stripping them, literally, of their bodies. However, there are differences in the descriptions. For example, Suleri focuses on the stripping of her brother's body whereas she focuses on the rebuilding of her grandmother's. Suleri's words "specialization of beauty" draw insight about beauty from her grandmother's body. By comparing the grotesque regrowth process to love, Suleri discusses abstract concepts of beauty and love in a surprising medium, calling in to question the reader's, and her own, beliefs and preconceptions. The section's title —"Excellent Things in Women" — makes these passages especially interesting because she only focuses specifically on the regrowth of her grandmother's body and not that of her brother. In both examples Suleri calls direct attention to the groin or sexual organs, but in her brother's case it unsheathes and in her grandmother's case it regrows. Suleri's grotesque images of the create meaning and a deeper understanding of her family, simultaneously questioning beauty and love.

The Search for Meaning in the Grotesque

In The White Album, Joan Didion uses a different kind of grotesque — not as physically disgusting or vivid in image, but rather psychologically grotesque, unnatural and distorted. Like Suleri, Didion uses a grotesque relationship to the body. But unlike Suleri, Didion focuses on her own body, relating her observations and questions about herself to her questions and observations of her time period. She first describes herself — without telling her reader she is doing so — with a doctor's report that she has "a personality in process of deterioration with abundant signs of failing defenses...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 bizarr . . . and basic reality contact is obviously and seriously impaired at times" (14). Didion's bodily degeneration seems, to her, illogical and absurd. Additionally, the doctor finds, "It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredommed to failure, a conviction which seems to push her further into a dependent, passive withdrawal. In her view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure" (14-15). Her physical degeneration leads to mental degeneration. She describes her body's descent into the grotesque, using words such as distorted and bizarre, as a mental process as well as a physical one — as though the further her surroundings move into the grotesque, the further her body and mind do as well.

Didion extrapolates further on her illness after a doctor diagnoses her Multiple Sclerosis:

"I had, at this time, a sharp apprehension not of what it was like to be old but of what it was like to open the door to the stranger and find that the stranger did indeed have the knife. In a few lines of dialogue in a neurologist's office in Beverly Hills, the improbably had become the probably, the norm: things which happened only to other people could in fact happen to me. I could be struck by lightning, could dare to ear a peach and be poisoned by the cyanide in the stone. The startling fact was this: my body was offering a precise physiological equivalent to what had been going on in my mind. 'Lead a simple life,' the neurologist advised. 'Not that it makes any difference we know about.' In other words it was another story without a narrative. [47]

In this passage, Didion references grotesque contemporary events, particularly the Manson murders. Her comparison of these events with her body and her own life exemplifies how she observes the grotesque in her time period and uses it to question herself and her place in the world. The final sentence condenses the primary struggle of her work — the attempt to impose a narrative on random grotesque events.

Throughout The White Album, Didion struggles with the attempt to impose a narrative structure on the incongruous events of the sixties. She drops examples of the grotesque — something outlandish or disturbing — after which describing what effect that situation had on her narrative attempt. For example, she follows, "Somewhere between the Yolo Causeway and Vallejo it occurred to me that during the course of any given week I met too many people who spoke favorably about bombing power stations," with, "Nothing on my mind was in the script as I remembered it" (37). Here Didion employs the grotesque idea of everyone wanting to bomb power stations to examine her main question of a narrative, or as she says here, her script.

Didion uses the grotesque case of the nurse's experience with Huey Newton as another example of how she fails to interpret a situation correctly using her own script or narrative: "I heard a moaning and a groaning, and I went over and it was — this Negro fellow was there. He had been shot in the stomach and at the time he didn't appear in any acute distress and so I said I'd see, and I asked him if he was a Kaiser, if he belonged to Kaiser, and he said, 'Yes, yes. Get a doctor. Can't you see I'm bleeding? I've been shot'" (32). Her presentation of this story demonstrates disgust with the nurse's refusal to get Newton a doctor. Because the situation so disturbs her, and because the grotesque is in itself an incitement to find meaning, Didion tries, once again, to impose her own meaning on the situation: "For a long time I kept a copy of this testimony pinned to my office wall, on the theory that it illustrated a collision of cultures, a classic instance of an historical outsider confronting the established order at its most petty and impenetrable level. This theory was shattered when I learned that Huey Newton was in fact an enrolled member of the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, i.e., in the Nurse Leonard's words, 'a Kaiser.'" [33]. Didion's inability to impose the correct narrative on Huey Newton's situation, especially because she kept the copy on her office wall, shows her overall inability to handle events around her. The word "shattered" in particular shows the power of the grotesque, and the search for meaning inside the grotesque, because it shows how her surroundings do not fit into the world she has known in her head.

When discussing the end of the sixties as a product of the murders on Cielo Drive, Didion tells how Paul Ferguson, Roman Novarro's murderer, won a prize: "Writing had helped him, he said, to 'reflect on experience and see what it means.'" Her implied horror lies in the fact that a murderer could grasp meaning of grotesque events by writing, whereas for herself, "Writing has not yet helped me to see what it means" (47-8). She concludes with this statement, showing her failure in imposing a narrative. The grotesque succeeded in shattering her worldview and in disheartening her in her search for meaning.

Suleri finds a similar difficulty in examining Tom's body: "With me the man was so large that he could conceive of himself only in bits, always conscious of how segments of his body could go wandering off, tarsals and metatarsals heedlessly autonomous...Perhaps I should have been able to bring those bits together, but such a narrative was not available to me, not after what I knew of storytelling" (37). Suleri's grotesque description of Tom's body separating and floating away shows her inability, like Didion's, to impose a narrative structure on bizarre events and situations.

Unlike Didion and Suleri, who try to impose meaning on the grotesque, Annie Dillard searches within the grotesque itself, finding inherent meaning in disturbing events. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek opens with a grotesque image that creates an impetus for the rest of the book:

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I'd half-awaken. He'd stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I'd wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I'd been painted with roses. [3]

This jarring image opens the book and leads the reader with Dillard through a series of questions about the experience ending with, "We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty" (4). These images and questions determine her main objectives throughout her journey: self-reflection and determining meaning in the universe.

Throughout the book, Dillard makes wisdom statements that show her pondering these grotesque incidents: "Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak. Consider the former: the world is a monster" (178-79). Dillard looks at the grotesque and examines herself in the context of it. She observes nature as if it is a being with rational thought and a deliberate process: "Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behavior too grotesque" (66). Her discovery that nature is in itself grotesque frees her from her original assumptions, allowing her to see the meaning in the grotesque — that nature does not value the individual and is rather purely utilitarian.

Dillard's grotesque examples differ from her discussion of beauty: "Today I watched and heard a wren, a sparrow, and the mocking-bird singing. My brain started to trill why why why, what is the meaning meaning meaning?...The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful? I hesitate to use the word so badly, but the question is there . . . Beauty itself is the language to which we have no key; it is the mute cipher, the cryptogram, the uncracked, unbroken code" (107-8). Her questions surrounding beauty and her inability to grasp it contrast her fascination with and ability to extract meaning from the grotesque. Her rejection of beauty as something she is able to understand demonstrates the great value of the grotesque to her — she is unable to find meaning in that which is beautiful so she searches in that which is decidedly not beautiful.

This point becomes apparent throughout the book, where her examples of the grotesque inevitably lead to greater ideas. In the following quotation, Dillard defines herself and the role of her book: "The function of lightning marks is this: if the arrow fails to kill the game, blood from a deep wound will channel along the lightning mark, streak down the arrow shaft, and spatter to the ground, laying a trail dripped on broad-leaves, on stones, that the barefoot and trembling archer can follow into whatever deep or rare wilderness it leads. I am the arrow shaft, carved along my length by unexpected lights and gashes from the very sky, and this book is the straying trail of blood" (14-15). Her attempt to carve light out of what she finds shows her search for illumination and her "trail of blood" shows that she only finds this illumination in the grotesque and unpleasant aspects of nature.

Though they write about different subjects, Dillard, Suleri and Didion all search for meaning in a hostile confusing world. Unlike the traditional Victorian Sages —Thoreau, Carlyle, Ruskin — they travel with their audience to find meaning instead of berating their audience with examples of absurdity. Like Bruce Chatwin, these three women examine the grotesque to examine their world, but unlike Chatwin they turn inward and examine themselves as well. Each author uses the grotesque differently but each one uses it to raise questions and forge an attempt at meaning. Though they do not use the original sage structure, these three female authors use real-world examples of the grotesque to lead to their own wisdom statements and, using this wisdom, create an internal sage that cradles the audience in her arms throughout the journey.


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Last modified 15 May 2005