The Abject Spiraling Grotesque: A Primer on Bakhtin’s Unmeaning

I have been obsessed with David Attenborough lately. I know, weird, but hear me out; this will all come full circle. During moments when he’s recounting past expeditions, he’ll summarize events that transpire using mundane, scientific terms, which seems fairly appropriate to me. However, in the episode “The Lost Gods of Easter Island” he reads the diary of one of the explorers on Captain Cook’s boat after they leave Easter island. The man, Johan something, notes that they escaped under the danger of life and limb, or something to that effect; however, the native Fijian with them who had just successfully bartered for a number of wooden figurines debarks with no such impediment. (I know I’m not getting the quote right, but the BBC website doesn’t offer transcripts, so I can’t claim exactitude, and I’ve already returned the DVD.)

My point in bringing this up is to highlight the hyperbolic statement by Cook’s journalist and the contrasting facts as exemplified by Cook’s Fijian crew member’s successful bartering. Why would the journalist sensationalize an event that posed no more danger than the rest of the expedition’s trans-world

journey? Using this logic, wouldn’t the phrase “escaped under life and limb” be littered all over the man’s journals considering the whole expedition was a daily gamble of life and death? And now I finally get to my bigger and overarching reason for using this scene. The hyperbolic phrasing, I would argue, arises from the explorer’s view of the impoverished islander’s pitiable condition. The Europeans see them as crazed and starving isolationists on an island two-thousand miles from any other island or civilization. Therefore, to the Europeans, escape at all costs becomes a matter of “life and limb,” especially considering the island provides them with no supplies or potential wealth, and they fear that the islanders themselves may do something rash as a result of their “eminent” starvation and consequential insanity. The Europeans see the islanders and their “situation” as what Bakhtin labels as grotesque, and it is this notion that biases the journalist’s description.

I know that was a long illustration to get at my greater goal of describing the grotesque, but I felt I needed to provide a “real” world, non-literary example before delving into the theoretical

explanations. But the effect of how Cook’s journalist characterizes their escape from the island and islanders is humor. It’s absurdly funny. Within normal social settings people maintain the notion of choosing words they mean so as to communicate effectively, for if they slip from our grasp, words no longer are under our control; they mean something other than what we intended.

The effect, then, in some circumstances, is humor. Yet, the etymology of the word humor predates it’s presumed primary definition: comedy. Instead, in the the 14th century humor was used to describe the cardinal humors of the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. And so, using the method of showing correlations, related and un-, as many jokes do, the etymological origin of the word humor itself has grotesque origins. More powerfully though, Bakhtin makes the connection between humor’s natural inclination to examine and be critical of mores, people, and behavior.

Enter art. Art can use humor to link together the high and the low of our world, whatever they may be within a given context to show the malleability of such stratifications, all the while inducing the audience to laugh.

The grotesque, similar to humor–and having similar results–, is a means to analyse ourselves and our world. However, the grotesque becomes the most beneficial to its audience, not when it comforts the audience, but when it disconcerts. To picture this scenario, recall the scenario I introduce at the beginning. We find the grotesque in the explorer’s lie; the islanders posed no harm to Cook’s party and were trading with them at the moment the escape “for life and limb” transpired. The journalist paints a picture of savagery, but the history books confirm that the islanders didn’t have the means to attempt to kill the Europeans.

The grotesque can apply to more than just the heterogeneous qualities of purported social interactions. It can manifest within a closed system as well. Life and death can be viewed as binaries within which the grotesque operates. People live, grow old, then die, showing a negation, a binary opposition, yet essential opposition to the life-cycle. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin notes “The essence of the grotesque is precisely to present a contradictory and double-faced fullness of life. Negation and destruction (death of the old) are included as an essential phase, inseparable from affirmation, from the birth of something new and better… This principle is victorious for the final result is always abundance, increase” (62). Just as these last words seem contradictory, that the ending of life breeds abundance, so does the grotesque point at, then implode contradictions, resulting in the creation of new meaning.

Bakhtin, as he stresses about other elements in his body of work, argues that the grotesque is an unfinalizable body. It constantly unfolds. He states that, “the grotesque body…is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body. Moreover, the body swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world” (317). What does this mean? To Cook’s men, saying that they escaped with their lives might have been a true statement for them, but it certainly was not for their Tahitian shipmate, and for modern audiences the notion seems even more ridiculous. For viewers in the future, such a statement may have a different effect; the grotesque may rear its head not in the statement, but in some other aspect of the exchange.

How we identify depends on many social factors. Language itself becomes a courier for the ever changing grotesque. Looking at the Oxford English Dictionary we notice that the adjective describing the grotesque, “becoming” first entered the English language in 1565. However, the word’s definition describing the grotesque (“a coming to be, a passing into state”) didn’t exist until 1853. Language itself might be seen as a grotesque aspect of our lives as it is constantly being created and swallowed by the world, paraphrasing Bakhtin.

Many argue that language mediates how we perceive the world (and vice-versus), and knowing that language constantly changes puts us in a “reality” that is becoming and unbecoming–a grotesque reality.

The relation to all this “rampant” grotesque-ness is the abject. Abjection, as Julia Kristeva writes in Powers of Horror, “is radically excluded and,” as Kristeva explains, “draws me toward the place where meaning collapses.” Residing in liminal, boundary-less spaces, the abject poses as the threat of unmeaning that we as cyphers for the grotesque cannot manage to reorder. The result, for example, is an inadequate description of Easter islanders. The break down, our inability to re-make meaning causes us to place the grotesque into the position of known, and so we label it as abject. ” Describing their departure as “fleeing for their” lives, therefore, was the journalist’s method of responding to a scene of horror, a grotesque scene of starving men and women trading their valuables away to Europeans for trinkets, a scene that confuses and scares the journalist to incomprehension.

This entry was posted in Bakhtin, Comedy, Commentary, Critical Theory, Essay, Fear, Horror, Humor, Kristeva.

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