Friday, June 15, 2012

Drawn to the Grotesque

Like the photographer Diane Arbus (one of her notable photographs is at the right), Flannery O'Connor was intrigued by the grotesque.  The question needs to be asked why, especially when it is an element in her writing that may repel some readers.  I can speak from experience, for I was one of them. Even though I graduated with a bachelor's degree in English back in 1980, it took me nearly thirty years to read her for the first time.  Though some of my favorite writers like Thomas Merton thought she was fabulous, I was put off by what I had heard about her, namely that she was a southern Gothic writer who dealt in the grotesque.  At the same time, I felt like she was an important author I needed to read, and so I decided take the plunge.  While I was immediately taken by the depth of her spiritual vision and dry, off-beat sense of humor, I still couldn't understand her fascination with the grotesque.  Then I stumbled across a book that was quite illuminating.  Though Belden Lane's The Solace of Fierce Landscapes is not about Flannery O'Connor per se, it explores the theme of grace and the grotesque that runs through her stories.  According to Lane, "the grotesque is born out of a dislocation that people feel in an estranged world.  In periods of personal or cultural crisis, human beings experience a loss of control in a universe that's no longer reliable.  The grotesque mirrors their fear of the incomprehensible; it recalls to mind an ominousness they cannot name."  (Lane, p.31)  At the same time, the grotesque is "a daring exercise in summoning the absurd, making fun of what is feared.  Its goal is to defeat, at least in the space of a brief moment's laughter, the powers of darkness."  (Lane, p. 32)  Thomas Mann once said that "the grotesque is the only guise in which the sublime may appear."(source of quote not provided in Lane, p. 32)  I don't know if the German author ever read Flannery (her first collection of short stories was published the year he died), but never has there been a clearer, more concise statement on why she chose to populate her stories with so many freaks.
- Mark

No comments: