The Invented Grotesque — Carlyle's Grotesque Symbols and Symbolical Grotesques

In the course of interpreting contemporary phenomena, the sage makes extensive use of elaborate symbolical set pieces, some of which he finds in contemporary phenomena and others that he creates from his own imagination. In either case, his practice of relying on complex, often grotesque emblems derives ultimately from both Old Testament prophecy and Victorian biblical interpretation.

Carlyle's citation of the death of a malnourished Irish widow in Past and Present exemplifies the way the sage's act of interpretation transforms an apparently insignificant event into a grotesque emblem of the condition of the age. Drawing upon William P. Alison's Observations on the Management of the Poor in Scotland (1840), Carlyle cites the case of the poor woman who could prove her common humanity to the citizens of a modem city only by infecting them fatally with disease:

A poor Irish Widow, her husband having died in one of the Lanes of Edinburgh, went forth with her three children, bare of all resource, to solicit help from the Charitable Establishments of that City. At this Charitable Establishment and then at that she was refused; referred from one to the other, helped by none; — till she had exhausted them all; till her strength and heart failed her: she sank down in typhus-fever; died, and infected her Lane with fever, so that "seventeen other persons" died of fever there in consequence. The humane Physician asks thereupon, as with a heart too full for speaking, Would it not have been economy to help this poor Widow? She took typhus-fever, and killed seventeen of you! — Very curious. (10.149)

Then, continuing to provide a voice for inarticulate fact, Carlyle speaks the meaning contained in the widow's act — indeed, in her very existence. She demands of her fellow creatures that they give her their help and asserts that she deserves it because "I am your sister, bone of your bone; one God made us: ye must help me!" The inhabitants of Edinburgh responded by denying her appeal — "No, impossible; thou art no sister of ours," but as Carlyle emphasizes, she "proves" her sisterhood when her typhus kills them: "They actually were her brothers, though denying it! Had human creature ever to go lower for a proof?" (10.149). In thus demonstrating the relevance of such contemporary phenomena, in thus thrusting upon the audience its need to see deeper into such apparently trivial events, Carlyle becomes a Victorian prophet who reveals that the event to which he directs our attention is a grotesque emblem of the spiritual, moral, and political condition of the age. His citation of the grotesque, a term that we employ to describe the jarringly unnatural, is completely appropriate for the sage, since his enterprise involves diagnosing instances of disorder.

The History of the Grotesque

Like other terms in aesthetics and criticism, the grotesque evolved by extrapolating an aesthetic category from what had originally been a stylistic or rhetorical term. Wolfgang Kayser, the leading modern student of grotesque, explains: "By the word grottesco the Renaissance, which used it to designate a specific ornamental style suggested by antiquity, understood not only something playfully gay and carelessly fantastic, but also something ominous and sinister in the face of a world totally different from the familiar one, a world in which the realm of inanimate things is no longer separated from those of plants, animals, and human beings, and where the laws of statics, symmetry, and proportion are no longer valid.

This second, more threatening form of the grotesque seems to have taken shape during the sixteenth century, and although, as Ruskin asserts, the grotesque has often assumed playful forms during the past two centuries, the more common, darker kind has commanded most attention in art, literature, and criticism. In varying degrees all the sages emphasize that certain monstrous quality of the grotesque "constituted by the fusion of different realms as well as by a definite lack of proportion and organization" (24), for their acts of interpretation, diagnosis, and warning reveal the presence of disorder in the midst of apparent order. As Kayser points out, "The grotesque world is — and is not — our own world. The ambiguous way in which we are affected by it results from our awareness that the familiar and apparently harmonious world is alienated under the impact of abysmal forces, which break it up and shatter its coherence" (37). Within the writings of the sage, the powerful emphasis upon the grotesque, which in other forms may appear random, uncaused, or intrinsic to existence, is shown to derive from the flaws of one's contemporaries: their fusions — or rather confusions — of moral, political, social, and spiritual order have rendered reality grotesque.

Carlyle's French Revolution, which we may take as a type of such a claim, devotes three volumes to demonstrating how such confusions of order released abysmal forces, and a large part of the writings of Mailer, Didion, and Wolfe consists of demonstrations that falling away from the true path has rendered the age grotesque.

Kayser urges that the "encounter with madness is one of the basic experiences of the grotesque which life forces upon us" (184), and this encounter, which estranges our world from us, affects us so much because it makes us feel our world is unreliable. Nonetheless, despite all the

helplessness and horror inspired by the dark forces which lurk in and behind our world and have power to estrange it, the truly artistic portrayal effects a secret liberation. The darkness has been sighted, the ominous powers discovered, the incomprehensible forces challenged. And thus we arrive at a final interpretation of the grotesque: An attempt to invoke and subdue the demonic aspects of the world" (188).

The sage, who transforms contemporary reality into a grotesque version of itself, or rather who reveals those grotesque aspects of it which his contemporaries fail or refuse to see, thus both summons and triumphs over such demonic forces. He summons them into the presence of his contemporaries by pointing to their existence in one of two ways. Either he shows that some aspect of contemporary reality when seen accurately turns out to be grotesque or he creates a grotesque image or analogy of the age to make its moral and spiritual grotesqueness easier to perceive. Likewise, the sage triumphs over the demonic forces of the grotesque in two ways. First, by explaining its underlying meaning, he makes this threatening disorder a part of greater order. Second, offering his audience a way out of such grotesqueness in the form of visionary promises or positive programs, he similarly controls it.

Ruskin's Definition of the Grotesque

Carlyle achieves both these effects in his presentation of the Irish widow's death, which he transforms into what Ruskin called a symbolical grotesque, his general term for symbols, allegories, and emblems. This notion of the symbolical grotesque proves particularly useful for understanding the sage's emblematic set pieces, in part because Ruskin's general theories of symbolism and imagination derive chiefly from Old Testament prophecy and in part because they emphasize an intrinsic connection between symbolism, satire, and the grotesque that pervades the writings of the Victorian and modern sages.

The very act of taking such phenomena as the material of interpretation instantly establishes them as matters of importance — and one of the sage's claims is that he perceives signs and warnings overlooked by his fellows. The sage's acts of interpretation also have another significant effect, for they transform some person, thing, or event into an elaborate emblem that the sage explains to his readers or listeners. Furthermore, since these contemporary phenomena that the sage takes to be Signs of the Times function within the prophetic pattern of diagnosis and warning, they reveal major instances of disorder and tend to be come grotesque. Since they also provide the sage with means to attack his audience's falling away from the right path, they also tend to become satirical as well.

Before examining the various forms the grotesque assumes in the writings of Victorian and modem sages, I propose to look briefly at Ruskin's writings on the subject, which provide a rare opportunity to observe one of the originators of this literary mode setting forth the theoretical basis of a technique important to it.

Ruskin's discussions of the grotesque have an additional importance to one concerned to comprehend the writings of the sage, for Ruskin relates it to satire and sublimity, fantasy and horror, epistemology and prophecy — to those topics, in other words, which play such an important role in this genre. These explanations appear in the last volume of The Stones of Venice (1853) and Modern Painters, volume 3 (1856), and take the form of theoretical descriptions of the artist, which are psychological profiles of the mind that creates this artistic mode, and analyses of works of art and literature that embody it. According to the third volume of Modern Painters, the grotesque has three basic modes or branches, one of which is the fantastic, a comparatively rare form produced by the "healthful and open play of the imagination" (5.131). This delicate fairy art, which is seen "in Shakespere's Ariel and Titania, and in Scott's White Lady," is seldom achieved, says Ruskin, because the "moment we begin to contemplate sinless beauty we are apt to get serious; and moral fairy tales, and such other innocent work, are hardly ever truly, that is to say, naturally, imaginative; but for the most part laborious inductions and compositions. The moment any real vitality enters them, they are nearly sure to become satirical, or slightly gloomy, and so connect themselves with the evil enjoying branch" (5.131-32).

The second form of grotesque imagination, which served as the basis for Ruskin's conception of a high art suited to the Victorian age, is the "thoroughly noble one . . . which arises out of the use or fancy of tangible signs to set forth an otherwise less expressible truth; including nearly the whole range of symbolical and allegorical art and poetry" (5.132). In explaining this portion of his theory, Ruskin focuses upon the individual image, which he terms the Symbolical Grotesque. According to him, "A fine grotesque is the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in a bold and fearless connection, of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way, and of which the connection is left for the beholder to work out for himself; the gaps, left or overleaped by the haste of the imagination, forming the grotesque character" (5.132). Employing Spenser's description of envy in the first book of The Faerie Queene as his example of a symbolical grotesque, he demonstrates that it communicates complex truths with more power and economy than can discursive prose. After explaining all the ideas about envy this passage includes, he points out that the poet has compressed all this material in nine lines, "or, rather in one image, which will hardly occupy any room at all on the mind's shelves, but can be lifted out, whole, whenever we want it. All noble grotesques are concentrations of this kind, and the noblest convey truths which nothing else could convey" (5.133). Even the minor examples of this symbolic mode convey truth with a delight "which no mere utterance of the symbolised truth would have possessed, but which belongs to the effort of the mind to unweave the riddle, or to the sense it has of there being an infinite power and meaning in the thing seen, beyond all that is apparent" (5.133).

The important point for Ruskin is that all symbolism is intrinsically grotesque; according to him, whenever we experience anything too great or too difficult for us to grasp fully — and he holds that most truths are beyond human beings — we encounter the grotesque. The Stones of Venice argues that human limitations require the grotesque, which is both the result of man's fallen nature and a divine accommodation to it: "The fallen human soul, at its best, must be as a diminishing glass, and that a broken one, to the mighty truths of the universe round it; and the wider the scope of its glance, and the vaster the truths into which it obtains an insight, the more fantastic their distortion is likely to be, as the winds and vapours trouble the field of the telescope most when it reaches farthest" (11.181). In so far as the imagination perceives truth, the result is "sublime," but "so far as it is narrowed and broken by the inconsistencies of the human capacity, it becomes grotesque" (11.181); and it is rare, he adds, that any exalted truth impresses itself upon the imagination without producing the grotesque. So truth appeared to Moses and the prophets, and so, argues Ruskin, it must still appear to great artists and writers. According to him, in all times and places the grotesque has provided the means by which

the most appalling and eventful truth has been wisely conveyed, from the most sublime words of true Revelation, to the . . . [words] of the oracles, and the more or less doubtful teaching of dreams; and so down to ordinary poetry. No element of imagination has a wider range, a more magnificent use, or so colossal a grasp of sacred truth. [5.134]

The third form of grotesque imagination, one that is completely grotesque in the usual, narrower sense of the term, arises from the fact that the imagination

in its mocking or playful moods ... is apt to jest, sometimes bitterly, with under-current of sternest pathos, sometimes waywardly, sometimes slightly and wickedly, with death and sin; hence an enormous mass of grotesque art, some most noble and useful, as Holbein's Dance of Death, and Albert Durer's Knight and Death, going down gradually through various conditions of less and less seriousness in an art whose only end is that of mere excitement, or amusement by terror" (5.131).

According to Ruskin, this darker form of the grotesque includes work ranging from traditional religious images of death and the devil to satire and horrific art, and we may add that it also includes both the more satirical, more conventionally grotesque, interpretive set pieces of the sage and his invented ones as well. Taking quite literally the notion that art and prophecy are closely allied, Ruskin, like Carlyle and many other Victorians, found himself attracted in theory and practice, in his theories of the grotesque and his writings as a sage, to such powerful congeries of types, symbols, and emblems, particularly with a strong tinge of the grotesque as we usually use the term.

The Religious Origins of Ruskin's Conception of the Symbolical Groetsque

A few years before Ruskin presented his discussion of the grotesque in Modern Painters, volume 3, he argued that man's love of symbolism, like his instinctive delight in beauty, derives from fundamental laws of human nature that lead man back to the divine. The last volume of The Stones of Venice explains that we experience a sort of "Divine fear" when we perceive that something "is other and greater than it seems," and he speculates that God probably made such recognitions "peculiarly attractive to the human heart" to teach us "that this is true not of invented symbols merely, but of all things amidst which we live; that there is a deeper meaning within them than eye hath seen, or ear hath heard; and that the whole visible creation is a mere perishable symbol of things eternal and true" (11.182-3).

Ruskin, whose Evangelical religious heritage continued to color his thought long after he finally abandoned his childhood faith, always believed that the mind first perceives difficult truths in symbolic form. Symbolism, both pictorial and literary, thus has a basic, essential epistemological role. Ruskin here makes a point that he had learned from his Evangelical upbringing. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Bible commentaries, annotated editions of the Scriptures, and sermons all encouraged the Victorian believer to think in terms of symbol and emblem, type and allegory, in large part because they urged that God had created such figures as an efficient means of conveying truth to man's limited faculties. For example, according to the great Evangelical Anglican divine William Romaine,

All our ideas of spiritual objects are comparative, taken from matter, and carried up to spirit. In our present stare we have no knowledge but what is first sensible, but what comes into the mind from the senses, and is borrowed from objects upon which they can make their observation.... Scripture knowledge is conveyed in this manner. God accommodates his instruction to our capacities: he makes use of outward and sensible objects to explain inward and spiritual: he applies the book of nature to illustrate the book of grace; thus bringing heavenly things down to the level of our understandings, and setting them (as it were) before our eyes by their natural pictures and just similitudes.

The enormously popular Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon used this accommodationist theory of figurative language, which has a long and honorable history in Western Christianity, as the basis for a theory of homiletic rhetoric and mass communication. Spurgeon, who extends the notion of parable to include other forms of symbol and biblical type, explained to his Victorian audience, "The masses never were, and, perhaps, never will be, able to receive instruction in any other way than by parabolic illustrations. He who would be a successful minister must open his mouth in parables; he who would win the hearts of the multitude must closely imitate his Master, and preach in parables that all men can understand." Pointing out that few men can create effective parables, the great preacher nonetheless reassures his congregation that the Bible both contains many and, "if it be rightly used, is suggestive of a thousand" others. Informing his listeners that he will employ one, he chooses "the parable of the ark" but immediately assures them: "While I do so you must understand that the ark was a real thing — that it really was made to float upon the waters, and carry in it Noah and his family and two of all flesh. This is a fact, not a myth. But I shall take this real fact and use it as a parable." Spurgeon then proceeds to employ the conventional typological interpretation of the ark as a divinely intended prefiguration of the church. "The ark which saved from the floods of water is a beautiful picture of Jesus Christ as the means of salvation, by whom multitudes of all flesh are preserved, and saved from perishing in the floods of eternal perdition."

As this example of Spurgeon's transforming a thing or event from biblical history into a "parable" suggests, such habits of mind derive chiefly from taking the Bible as a series of types and figures of Christ. Typological interpretations, which have as their point of departure the notion that historical facts exist as part of a divine pattern, emphasize, particularly in the Victorian period, the historicity of both type and antitype, the ark and Christ. Both have historical existence. Biblical typology supports emblematic habits of mind by convincing the believer that all facts and events have spiritual meaning. Such interpretive habits and attitudes formed an important part of the intellectual baggage of the original sages and their audience and do much to explain the sage's use of the symbolical grotesque.


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Last modified 14 July 2008