If one looks up the word “grotesque” in some of our most frequently used dictionaries, such as the The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, the The Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English and Merriam-Webster’s, one will undoubtedly become confused. Apart from corresponding definitions of the grotesque in art, where, to quote the The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, it is seen as a “decorative painting or sculpture with fantastic interweaving of human and animal forms with foliage” or a “comically distorted figure or design,” there seems to be no real agreement as to what the word actually means. Many adjectives, such as “distorted”, “bizarre”, “absurd” and “fantastic” are enumerated as possible synonyms, but leave one with the feeling that in themselves they cannot convey the meaning of this intricate term. Such important aspects of the grotesque as the horrifying and the macabre are not mentioned at all.
If there is a lack of agreement amongst the compilers of the various dictionaries about the meaning of the term, the disagreement is even more obvious amongst the critics, scholars and writers who have probed more deeply into the subject. As a French critic has put it , “l’ambiguïté est souveraine.”
However, to prove the point about the variance that exists, and always has existed on the subject of the grotesque — perhaps due to its radical and extreme nature, as Philip Thomson suggests — and in the hope of making this article more comprehensible, a brief historical outline of the term and concept “grotesque” will first be presented.
The origin of the word “grotesque” can be traced back to the Italian noun grotte-caves, where paintings from the reign of Augustus of the type described in the The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English were discovered during the excavations of Rome at the end of the fifteenth-century. As a result of the great interest in these paintings and the extensive imitation of them, the adjective form of the word, grottesco (as well as the noun grottesca), soon spread to other European countries; in both France and England the word “crotesque” was used until, around 1640, the English began using their own form of the word, grotesque.
Initially, the use of the word was limited to the visual arts, but eventually, it came to include literature and other phenomena outside the original field. In France it was used as early as the end of the sixteenth-century by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, who saw a likeness between his own ornate style of writing and grotesque painting; about seventy years later Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux employed it in an exclusively literary sense: to him “grotesque” signified “burlesque” or “parody” and was altogether justifiable when directed, for instance, at “‘Gothic’ or barbarous poetry.” In 1695, in “A Parallel of Painting and Poetry,” John Dryden revealed his conception of farce based on Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux and Horace: “There is yet a lower sort of Poetry and Painting which is out of Nature. For a Farce is that in Poetry, which Grotesque is in a Picture. The Persons and Action of a Farce are all unnatural, and the Manners false, that is inconsistent with the characters of Mankind. Grotesque-painting is the just resemblance of this; and Horace be gins his Art of Poetry by describing such a Figure; with a Man’s Head, a Horse’s Neck, the Wings of a Bird, and a Fishes Tail; parts of different species jumbled together, according to the mad imagination of the Dawber; and the endo fall this, as he tells you afterward, to cause Laughter. A very Monster in a Bartholomew-Fair, for the Mob, to gape at for their two-pence. Laughter is indeed the propriety of a Man, but just enough to distinguish him from his elder Brother, with four Legs. ‘Tis a kind of Bastard-pleasure too, taken in at the Eyes of the vulgar gazers, and a the Ears of the beastly Audience. Church-Painters use it to divert the honest Countryman at Pubick Prayers and keep his Eyes open at a heavy Sermon. And Farce-Scriblers make use of the same noble invention, to entertain Citizens, Country-Gentlemen, and Covent Garden Fops. If they are merry, all goes well on the Poet’s side. The better sort goe thither too, but in despair of Sense and the just Images of Nature, which are the adequate pleasures of the Mind.”
As can be seen from this quotation, John Dryden, being a writer and critic of the neo-classical school, relegated grotesques to a place “among the ignoble subjects of painting and literature” in the conviction that they did not make sense, or depict nature or serve a moral purpose. Unlike most of his French colleagues, however, John Dryden did not reject grotesques altogether; as the end of the parallel indicates, he felt that a farce-writer’s primary concern must be to amuse the audience rather than to elevate their minds.
On the whole, however, during the seventeenth-century, “grotesque” was used almost exclusively as an art term both in England and Germany. It was not until the beginning of the next century that the word was adopted as a literary term and then with a derogatory meaning. Being primarily associated with caricature — as a result of the grotesque work of the French engraver Jacques Callot — and with farce and burlesque, “the more general sense […] which it has developed by the early eighteenth-century is […] that of ‘ridiculous, distorted, unnatural’ (adj.); ‘an absurdity, a distortion of nature (noun),’” according to Arthur Clayborough in his book on the subject. This view of the grotesque was to prevail for almost two hundred years. In Germany, it revealed itself in the works of Justus Möser, Karl Friedrich Flögel and Heinrich Schneegans; in England in the criticism of Thomas Wright and John Addington Symonds. None of these writers condemned the grotesque as such — Heinrich Schneegans, for instance, spoke admiringly of the particular satirical grotesque found in François Rabelais, which he defined as “die bis zur Unmöglichkeit gesteigerte Übertreibung,” and both Karl Friedrich Flögel and Justus Möser defended the existence of the comic-grotesque, which they saw as the result of a natural inclination inherent in man from time immemorial; yet they all looked upon the grotesque primarily as a grossly exaggerated and absurd form of art.
A different but not very favourable attitude is met with in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose own grotesqueries have been scrutinized by Clayborough. For Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the grotesque constituted something odd, something incongruous, used only to create sensation or “to excite bodily disgust, but not moral fear.” In a lecture on François Rabelais, Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne in 1818 he specified, “When words or images are placed in unusual juxta-position rather than in connection and are so placed merely because the juxta-position is unusual — we have the odd or the grotesque.” This type of grotesqueness was found in Tobias Smollett’s ‘The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle’ and Laurence Sterne’s ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’ and represented a sort of false humour.