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The Modern Satiric Grotesque and Its Traditions

The Modern Satiric Grotesque and Its Traditions

JOHN R. CLARK
Copyright Date: 1991
Pages: 224
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130j5td
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    The Modern Satiric Grotesque and Its Traditions
    Book Description:

    Thomas Mann predicted that no manner or mode in literature would be so typical or so pervasive in the twentieth century as the grotesque. Assuredly he was correct. The subjects and methods of our comic literature (and much of our other literature) are regularly disturbing and often repulsive -- no laughing matter.

    In this ambitious study, John R. Clark seeks to elucidate the major tactics and topics deployed in modern literary dark humor. In Part I he explores the satiric strategies of authors of the grotesque, strategies that undercut conventional usage and form: the de-basement of heroes, the denigration of language and style, the disruption of normative narrative technique, and even the debunking of authors themselves. Part II surveys major recurrent themes of grotesquerie: tedium, scatology, cannibalism, dystopia, and Armageddon or the end of the world.

    Clearly the literature of the grotesque is obtrusive and ugly, its effect morbid and disquieting -- and deliberately meant to be so. Grotesque literature may be unpleasant, but it is patently insightful. Indeed, as Clark shows, all of the strategies and topics employed by this literature stem from age-old and spirited traditions.

    Critics have complained about this grim satiric literature, asserting that it is dank, cheerless, unsavory, and negative. But such an interpretation is far too simplistic. On the contrary, as Clark demonstrates, such grotesque writing, in its power and its prevalence in the past and present, is in fact conventional, controlled, imaginative, and vigorous -- no mean achievements for any body of art.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6135-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    The literature of the modern era immerses us again and again in disillusionment, anomie, alienation, and wretchedness. Matthew Arnold saw man in 1853 facing what the early Greeks had faced—loss of calm, cheerfulness, and disinterested objectivity. In their stead, “the dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced; modern problems have presented themselves; we hear already the doubts, we witness the discouragement, of Hamlet and of Faust.”¹ Oswald Spengler anticipated something worse, predicting the decline of the west, and since Spengler’s day, man has been haunted by a nagging sense of absurdity and despair. Max Weber similarly predicted such...

  5. Part I. Dark Comedy

    • 1 Deadly Laughter
      (pp. 9-16)

      A pathetic image of “suspense” dramatizes the great trauma of modern literature: paranoid and “dangling man,” robbed of optimism, awaits some incalculable and ghastly catastrophe, yet he is equally fearful of failure even here, paralyzed by the dread that nothing will happen—alike benumbed by the anticipation that the world–or his own life—will end in a bang, or a whimper.¹ This, of course, is the condition of any number of characters in the early poetry of Eliot and Auden, in Proust, Mansfield, Kafka, Mann’sBuddenbrooks,Céline, O’Neill, Golding, Burgess, Beckett, and Pinter, and in Karl Kraus’s monolithic epic drama,...

    • 2 Satiric Gothic, Satiric Grotesque
      (pp. 17-26)

      Let us begin by considering the origins and meanings of the wordgrotesque.Maximillian E. Novak doubtless oversimplifies when he suggests that the grotesque stems exclusively from “the rendering of skeletons, demons, witches and ghosts,” but he is certainly correct in urging that the “serious grotesque” is significantly utilized in the eighteenth-century gothic novels. Responses to the wordgothichave clearly varied over the ages; in the late eighteenth century, the gothic represented the mystically mysterious architecture of the long-ago medieval period all too often visible only as “ruins,” its ghosts “haunting” the Age of Sensibility that sought to exercise...

  6. Part II. Stratagems

    • 3 Degrading the Hero
      (pp. 29-35)

      One point that has been driven home to audiences of modern literature and film is the death of the hero, even of heroism itself. Carlyle may have exalted heroes and hero-worship in the nineteenth century, but our era champions the antihero. Thackeray subtitledVanity Fair” A Novel without a Hero” in 1848, and the modern era has increasingly contributed to the hero’s demise. In his place lurch his faulty replacements: criminals, bumblers, toadies, cowards, outsiders, and buffoons.

      In fact, every society always contends with a radical protesting minority that seeks to question, alter, and replace the regnant society’s mythologies and...

    • 4 Debunking the Author
      (pp. 36-50)

      Not content merely to undermine other people’s icons and heroes, the satirist is particularly alert to debunk authors—other writers certainly, and even himself. When pomp and pride are being forced to take a fall, no one is safe or exempt. For, after all, who is not pleased to preen and praise himself? Jonathan Swift, in one of his major satires, affirmed that “WHOEVER hath an Ambition to be heard in a Crowd, must press, and squeeze, and thrust, and climb with indefatigable Pains, till he has exalted himself to a certain Degree of Altitude above them.”¹ He so much...

    • 5 Dislocating the Language
      (pp. 51-66)

      As we have seen, the satiric/comic artist deliberately seeks to undercut conventional audience expectations. His fictions demolish heroes and even pervert ideas of the noteworthy author and his enduring reputation. The satirist’s implication, of course, is quite simple: his cynical vision proposes that in our defective society heroism is tainted or bogus and in our deteriorating era the pious aims, exalted motives, and self-congratulatory claims of artists are at best pompous and misguided, at worst entirely spurious. Doubtless we get the kinds of flaws and folderol that we deserve. Simply put, the satiric author will not permit us to continue...

    • 6 Gaming with the Plot
      (pp. 67-76)

      Clearly, the satirist is eager and willing to tamper with, loosen, and even overturn the fundamental conventions and foundation-stones of fiction-making. He will snicker at or debase the hero, mock or taunt the author, and parody or pillage language and style. He naturally, therefore, also plays with traditional plots. In his hands, narratives all too frequently turn into games. Now, as Geoffrey Hartman has observed, there is an “almost universal ... acceptance of the element of playfulness in art.”¹ Our awareness of such “playfulness” and “gaming” has particularly deepened and matured since the appearance of Johan Huizinga’s influentialHomo Ludens...

    • 7 Further Intrusion and Obstruction
      (pp. 77-82)

      We have been reviewing the ways authors disturb normative literary conventions and, as a result, shake, riddle, and roil readers out of their ordinary expectations and ho-hum responses. We have considered how the conventional hero is downgraded and debased, how even authors are implicated or impugned, how language is manipulated to imitate or expose sentimentality, sanctimony, chicanery, and cant, and how games and ploys are utilized to tarnish, subvert, and displace traditional “realistic” plots. Continuing in the same vein, this chapter considers further strategies authors deploy to break down traditional fictions and to sully or destroy the reader’s “willing suspension...

    • 8 Discordant Endings
      (pp. 83-89)

      Perhaps one of the most poignant means of inducing discomposure in an audience is by tampering with a story’s climax and finale, a deliberate ruffling of a work’s denouement that we might jestingly designate as creating “the senselessness of an ending.”¹ Since so many other disruptions have become normative, the desecration of conventional closings seems perfectly in order.

      Ted Hughes created a terse and stark version of Seneca’sOedipusin 1968, successfully produced that same year by Britain’s theatrical bad boy, Peter Brook. What is interesting is that Senecan theater has not been very popular since the Renaissance; it...

    • 9 Infernal Repetition
      (pp. 90-102)

      Comic anticlimax in a work’s finale, as we have seen in chapter 8, assuredly undercuts the fiction and aggravates the reader’s expectations. As a matter of fact, authors of the satiric grotesque are just as apt to situate anticlimax everywhere in a plot, inserting a clutter of seemingly mindless repetitions in their narratives, arranging insidious circularities in their storylines. In fact, the most deplorable kind of plotting—frustrating for the reader, terrible for the characters—is the kind that engineers duplication, redundancy, reiteration. The same grooves, tracks, and scenarios inevitably recur, and the major character is inevitably stuck in it. This...

  7. Part III. Themes

    • 10 Ennui
      (pp. 105-115)

      Boredom, not one of the topics featured in romances or cherished in tales aspiring to be thrilling or action-packed, is a persistent theme of satire and the grotesque. For instance, one of the great moments in literature near the beginning of the modern period occurs in Jane Austen’sEmma(1816) at the famed Box-Hill picnic and “exploration.” Dances and outings, for the village and country gentry, occur seldom, and out of dullness, everyone is overly enthused about the upcoming “gipsy party” occasion. But for whatever reason, that occasion does not measure up to expectations; tensions mount, and the company is...

    • 11 Scatology
      (pp. 116-130)

      Ennui may be unpleasant, but it is mild enough as a subject and usually bearable. The fecal matter of bowels and bowls, however, is more unsavory and offensive, and in polite society it is treated as forbidden knowledge. For that reason, the satirist cheerfully opens the privy door and herds us in. And of course we do not wish in the slightest to wet our feet. Therefore, satire’s business has ever been, where angels fear to tread, to inaugurate the unwary human reader’s total immersion. Further, in the twentieth century, satire goes to even greater lengths to see that such...

    • 12 Cannibals
      (pp. 131-138)

      If bowels and toilets are considered unmentionable by so-called polite society, then cannibalism is much worse: a topic that normally can be expected to generate in its audience horror and revulsion. For that reason, cannibalism is understandably favored by our satirists. InInferno32, Dante, having descended to the lowest and vilest circle of hell, encounters Count Ugolino eternally gnawing upon the neck and brain of his betrayer, Ruggieri, the archibishop of Pisa. We know that we are in the pit of hell, for cannibalism remains for mankind-even for our own jaded century—a dreadful and all but unspeakable crime....

    • 13 Dystopias and Machines
      (pp. 139-147)

      Most people in the twentieth century are no enemies to technology and machines; the concept of progress has come to mean for them sudden improvements in our gadgets. Inevitably, they virtually idolize the latest battery-run screwdrivers and self-cleaning ovens, CD players and VCRs, computers and golf carts, security systems and automated tellers. In short, technology is not in the least unsavory, as were topics like cannibalism and excrement.

      Yet, we are just a bit uncomfortable about our robots, motors, and utensils. Everyone of us has at times fantasized about (and paranoically dreaded) some incredible instrument panel of an awful contrivance...

    • 14 Entropy and Armageddon
      (pp. 148-156)

      The satirist effectively irks and disquiets his readers by teasing them with tedium, shocking them with scatology, nauseating them with cannibalism, and rattling them with a melee of machines. But doubtless the most unpleasant subject the satirist can broach entails the death of the universe. There is enough wallop in that scenario to catch anybody’s attention.

      In his rather sensational Rede Lecture at Cambridge in 1959, C.P. Snow described a divided world, “the two cultures,” made up of isolated and hostile groups, scientists and humanists. In reproaching the smug liberal arts types, Sir Charles observed that he had often asked...

  8. Part IV. Conclusion

    • 15 The Death of the Humanities
      (pp. 159-164)

      “There is no health anywhere,” Anthony Burgess recently intoned, musing upon current American fiction. He finds characters reduced to “thinghood,” protagonists without “the values out of which the novelform was begotten.” For Burgess, such nonnovels merely present “porn, corruption, death”; he finally laments that “we need humanity [even] to observe the death of humanity.” These observations are moot: any reader knows about the decline of SAT scores, the decline of interest in humanities and foreign languages, or even the decline of capacity to overcome substandard English. One professor has even grandly labeled all reading and writing “elitist,” and he predicts...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 165-202)
  10. Index
    (pp. 203-212)