Of all the words buzzing around my still-embryonic and, thus, still-optimistic thesis research – which, now, can be best characterized as a heap of mistreated books, fingertip-oiled keytops, and looseleaf essays-that-I-should-have-read-electronically-but-printed-so-I-could-scribble-academic-nonsense-on-them – there are a few that linger a bit longer, that resonate in a higher register: “flesh,” “horror,” “freakishness,” “alterity,” and, perhaps most prominently, “grotesque.” Throughout my studies, this has been the undergirding term, the concept that has pulled my ideas, observations, and farfetched considerations up from vague abstraction to (marginally-less-vague) clarity. It has not only unlocked doors for me; it has thrown doors open, pried them away from their rust-laden hinges, crushed them into shards and splinters and assorted debris.
To be sure, there is a sort of commonplace assumption about the “grotesque,” that it encompasses all things distorted, depraved, and/or demoniacal, and such an assumption is not entirely wrongheaded. Upon hearing the excessively grisly details of Robin Williams’ suicide, for instance – details, I might add, that specified the late comedian’s precise posture at the time of “death-via-asphyxia” and previous attempts at self-harm – a family member of mine remarked, with a generous helping of disgust in her voice: “How sickening. How grotesque.” This usage, while admittedly atheoretical, is not too far off the mark. The “grotesque” is that which causes us to turn away, to shut our eyes, and sometimes, if it is especially potent, to scream out.