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.
My research, however, has sought to unearth the theory underlying these reactions: What, in particular, causes us to turn away? To shut our eyes? To scream out for help or, alternatively, to scream out in recognition of a deep and binding helplessness? To answer these questions, I have turned to Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin who defines the “grotesque body” as a body that “is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits.” He contrasts this with the “classical” aesthetic of the coherent, controlled, completed body – a body typically associated with beauty and regality – which, for the sake of elucidation, could be well-evinced by a bust of a Roman emperor: say, Caligula. Unlike a “grotesque” form, such a “classical” form emphasizes smoothness, ideality, and discipline. It has no roughness, no protuberances or jutting edges; it is not just an attempt at corporeal perfection, it (re)defines what perfection is and what it implies.
Yet, it would be reductive and, to a certain extent, inappropriate to associate “imperfection” with the “grotesque.” Indeed, the “grotesque” does not reside upon an aesthetic continuum somewhere between “ugliness” and “beauty,” between “imperfection” and “perfection.” In fact, by Bakhtin’s calculation (and, for that matter, by the calculation of many others after him), it obliterates such a continuum: all binaries, all categories and taxonomies evaporate in contemplation of the “grotesque,” and it is for this reason that is can be paralyzingly horrific. It is this capacity to defy categorization and classification that grants the “grotesque” the power to eliminate, at least temporarily, all sense of difference. Gender, class, ethnicity, race – face-to-face with a “grotesque” body-cum-visage, all these fictive differentiations disintegrate – or, at the very least, their “fictiveness” is thrown into stark relief – and this is why, once the horror abates, the “grotesque” offers a utopia of sorts. For the purposes of my research, it is this tension between the “horrific” and the “utopic” that I am putting under the microscope (if I may speak so inflatedly to compare my academic abilities to “microscopic” inspection). Moving from the Dark Romantic writers, like Poe and Hawthorne, to contemporary Afro-speculative writers like Nalo Hopkinson and Octavia Butler, I hope to conceptualize the “grotesque” Africanist presence in somatic terms, determining whether “transgressive bodies” are cause for alarm or celebration.
However, the thing about academic discourse, the quality that both addles and attracts, is that just when you think you have come to a definitive and definitively compelling, persuasive, and incontestable conclusion, you stumble into new, uncharted territory. This is the danger of scholarship: your revelations could have already been revealed, your discoveries already discovered. The not-too-distant end in sight is suddenly, for better or worse, upended. For me, though, such an upheaval is not so discouraging; I have the entirety of the school year ahead of me and, if luck is on my side, the old, decaying doors I have broken through will lead me into exciting, new dimensions.