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The Grotesque and the Unnatural

Markku Salmela and Jarkko Toikkanen

The notion of the grotesque, particularly after its revival in late fifteenth-century Italy, has usually been described through an idea of conflation: from the ornamental combining of rare motifs in antiquity to a hybridisation of structural genres in recent times; from fantastical fusions of humans and beasts to comic exaggerations of bodily aberrations and prosthetic postmodern visions. Eluding clear classification, if defined at all the notion has been identified, for instance, by the contradiction of alien form in a quotidian context which, historically, has been observed in relation to such principles and categories as estrangement (Wolfgang Kayser), the sublime (Geoffrey Harpham), the carnivalistic (Mihail Bahtin), and the imaginative mind that, quite boldly, “plays with terror” (John Ruskin). We seek to acknowledge this critical background and make the most of it as we proceed to disclose a possible new aspect into the topic.

Put briefly, the novelty of our approach on the grotesque, and its involution with something called the unnatural, lies not in considering the former as a typological category or a descriptive concept but as a phenomenon which comes into being only through a negation of sorts. As our evidence suggests, the grotesque is always in the process of sub-verting or sur-passing something, always not being ideal or sufficient to either nature or a social rule, and this very negation affects its status as a tool of transformation or emancipation from norm, as well: the grotesque figure does not represent any particular stage of development or natural state of being. Viewing the grotesque, in other words, is to lose control of one’s environment but still keep on thinking. In this sense, the notion hinges on something that continues to elude us, outside our sphere of culture and communication, and so the question we are asking must benefit from being observed negatively, that is, against nature.

By studying the notion of the grotesque in relation to what may be called the unnatural, we pay specific attention to how it thoroughly affects and re-figures the different representations of nature that mark our literary examples. In doing so we wish to insist that, as mentioned above, grotesque phenomena in literature reject unproblematic classification, while at the same time we also wish to show that neither can we abolish such grading altogether: it is simply not adequate to claim that as the grotesque constitutes no strict typology but continues naturally to test borders, it presents a perfect model of transformation and trespass. There is nothing perfect or natural about the grotesque for, as Sir Thomas Browne wrote in 1643 in Religio Medici, “there are no Grotesques in nature”. Instead, as the notion only assumes form through negation, also its function must be defined negatively, through something referred to as “natural” but unable to be expressed directly.

We organized a one-day conference on this topic in Tampere in March 2009. The book was published by Cambria Press in December 2011.

 
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Muutettu: 23.10.2013 11.09 Muokkaa

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