Unreal Nature

April 14, 2015

The Opposite of Cultural Inbreeding

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:57 am

… it is the mongrel litter thrown by the fertile misalliance of high and low.

This is from the title essay by Robert Storr found in Disparities & Deformations: Our Grotesque (2004):

… the ruin of perfection is the origin of vital hybridities, mutation, and cross-fertilization — the source of hitherto unseen combinations of familiar forms.

… To be Goyesque — like being Kafkaesque — is to be grotesque in an especially disconcerting way that rattles right-mindedness by spinning those who cannot decide whether to laugh of howl into a state the nineteenth-century German writer Jean Paul described as “soul dizziness.”

Ordinarily this does not happen at the sight of people or things that are strange or ugly. We might be repulsed, or we might be fascinated, look away, or sneak a peek, but curiosity about damage and deformity rarely touches the nerve that triggers doubts about who and where we are. To be grotesque, something must be in conflict with something else yet indivisible from it. To result in “soul dizziness,” that conflict must in some fashion already exist within the mind of the beholder such that the confusion stems not only from the anomaly to which we bear witness in the world, but the anomaly that is revealed within us. Humanism, that much abused idea, enters into the equation to the extent that the dualities of which we are composed — the parts that don’t match and the gaps between them — are made more rather than less apparent by our awareness of the misalignment or distortion of other parts of reality or of unrealities given substance by artists.

[ … ]

” … The laughter of children is like the blossoming of a flower. It is the joy of receiving, the joy of breathing, the joy of confiding, the joy of contemplating, of living, of growing up. It is like the joy of a plant. And so, generally speaking, its manifestation is rather the smile, something analogous to the wagging tail in a dog or the purring of cats. And yet, do not forget that if the laughter of children may, after all is said and done, be distinguished from the outward signs of animal contentment, the reason is that this laughter is not entirely devoid of ambition, and that is as it should be, in mini-men or in other words Satans of early growth.” [Baudelaire]

[ … ]

… And so we enter the marshy territory of connoisseurship. What is good taste in bad taste? Who are we to trust when picking mushrooms on polluted ground? Certainly not people who rigidly stand guard outside or nervously circle the perimeter. Nor should we have much confidence in those who briefly step over it only to retreat to safety where they can describe their adventures to those more timid. We must rely instead on people who know their way around. There are as many of these, and as few, as there are experts in old masters; sometimes they are one and the same. Furthermore, we must trust their assurance that like all new flavors, especially strong ones, the grotesque is an acquired taste. If it is bitter, then savor it but do not swallow too quickly. If you do, and it does not kill you — though with potent mushrooms a certain nausea frequently accompanies invigorating hallucinations — then you are fine, and the only problem is whether to do it again.

Am I being flippant? Only if readers are persuaded that enjoyment and playfulness are separate from understanding, the former being ephemeral and unserious, the latter being preoccupied with solemn verities, or at least with habitually keeping a straight face for dramatic emphasis, except when making fun of your adversaries. And have I neglected to mention in this connection that while caricature is usually directed at others, grotesquery often begins at home — in visions of the self as other, or the self reflected in the trick mirror of others? In the second circumstance the distinction between laughing at and laughing with the subject of a joke is lost when the two implode into one.

… Where mutual mistrust or contempt among social groups holds the upper hand, the grotesque is a weapon; but where reciprocal curiosity prevails it may also be a solvent that subtly breaks down the distinctions that keep separate enclaves apart.

… it is the mongrel litter thrown by the fertile misalliance of high and low. The opposite of cultural inbreeding, such miscegenation may threaten the purity of bloodlines but it makes for hardier stock. The grotesque is hybridity without constraint, hybridity par excellence. Insofar as modernism always contained elements of the grotesque, it is not, as its enemies or modernism’s fair-weather friends thought, because modernism was a degenerate art, but rather because it is by virtue of such impurities and mutations, a perpetually regenerate art.

My previous post from Storr’s book is here.

-Julie

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