Visions of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fifteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts

By Allienne R. Becker | Go to book overview

5
The Flesh Made Word: Miss Lonelyhearts' Sublime Grotesque Catherine Merrill

Now, so far as the truth is seen by the imagination in its wholeness and quietness, the vision is sublime; but so far as it is narrowed and broken by the inconsistencies of the human capacity, it becomes grotesque.

John Ruskin, 139

When John Ruskin defined the grotesque as a broken, human mirror of the sublime, he joined a rich debate, echoed through millennia especially in the discourses of Longinus, Burke, Kant, Hugo, Poe, Coleridge, Santayana, and, more recently, Weiskel and Eagleton, all of whom deliberate to what extent one term defines or contradicts the other. The concept of sublimity presents a semantic challenge on its own; coupled with "grotesque," the challenge is geometrically compounded--a seeming contradiction of high/low polarities. Yet the two terms, sublime and grotesque, have been inextricably, dialectically bound throughout time--from primitive drawings on Paleolithic cave walls to medieval Catholic iconography and the danse macabre to nineteenth-century cults of romanticism, imagination, and the picturesque to the dominant visual motifs in twentieth-century art and literature. Certainly by this century, writers like Nathanael West and Flannery O'Connor found in the sublime grotesque a provocative tradition of antirational, paradoxical symbolism.

Yet West, O'Connor, and other moderns would discover that the traditional Christian symbols--the lamb of God, the writhing crucifix--were empty chattels, drained of meaning by institutionalized religion and the media, and that such symbols had become merely decorative. Finally, however, both West and O'Connor succeed in building new meaning into the sublime grotesque, shifting it from the margins, where convention had secured it, into the center by reinvesting tired symbols with new poignancy and informing characters' otherwise ordinary lives with a horrible new grace. Such writers seem to confirm Thomas Mann's assertion that, given the modern

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