As but a pup, I remember using words like gross or even “groady” (which isn’t a word) to describe something disgusting, foul, probably even slimy. These would seem to be the modern American abbreviated forms of something being grotesque which, in this sub-dialect of the English language, has come to mean not merely unnatural, bizarre, or freakish, but more often malformed, ugly, or just plain puke-worthy. Considering the origins of the word, and its use early in the last century in the sense of fantastic (something out of fantasy) or outrageous (something so unusual as to cause wondrous disbelief), it would seem to be a word worth revisiting.
Recently, the word grotesque has come to me through its older usage. I’ve been reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of interrelated short stories published one hundred years ago. My mentor, Ray Bradbury (himself born in 1920), cited this book as inspiration for his collection The Martian Chronicles (see the prologue to the 1997 Avon Books edition, entitled “Green Town, Somewhere on Mars; Mars, Somewhere in Egypt”). The prologue to the 21 tales (or 24, if one counts the four sections of “Godliness” as separate stories) is called “The Book of the Grotesque”; it concerns to fever-dream of the writer, who sees the town in an hour-long parade of grotesques, revealing the truths and stories of the people in his town.
“The grotesques were not all horrible,” the story tells us. “Some were amusing, some almost beautiful, and one, a woman all drawn out of shape, hurt the old man [the writer] by her grotesqueness. When she passed he made a noise like a small dog whimpering. Had you come into the room you might have supposed the old man had unpleasant dreams or perhaps indigestion. For an hour the procession of grotesques passed before the eyes of the old man, and then, although it was a painful thing to do, he crept out of bed and began to write.” (p.23)
As a writer myself, I resonate greatly with that occasional sensation of writing being a painful thing to do, especially after witnessing something like that of this unnamed writer’s fever-dream. Luckily for me, most of my grotesques are of a more fantastic, outlandish, incredible, farcical, and whimsical nature. These, too, are synonyms for the adjectival form of “grotesque.” As a noun, a grotesque may include an art form that interweaves human and animal forms with flowers and foliage. This is far more in keeping with the Italian origins of this French-into-English word, based as it is in the pittura grottesca, “work or painting resembling that found in a grotto” (small, cave-like structure, particularly one that contains illustrations, from the Greek kruptē, where we get the word crypt).
What makes me want to write about this word today — July 4, 2019 — is that the term “parade of the grotesque” seems all too appropriate. I use the word in the equally valid sense of misshapen, disproportioned, mangled, monstrous, unsightly, unthinkable. On the great mall of this nation’s capitol, a huge, obscenely expensive, and simply obscene (“offensive; repugnant to moral principles; sickening, abhorrent, odious, hateful, loathly”) display of military machinery took place today. In the history of the modern world, the only leaders who demanded such parades were despots and dictators, besotted by their perceived power, which they wrested from the people of that country by unfair, unlawful, and unjust means. That any such display should happen in the United States is a horror that should never even have been considered. It happens in concert with other reprehensible behaviors such as internment camps, the declaration of a free press being an enemy of the people, and the militarization of ordinary police forces.
I offer these observations not as a statement of politics but as a warning of the march of history. In 2003, political scientist Dr. Lawrence Britt published, in the spring edition of Free Enquiry magazine, an article entitled “The 14 Characteristics of Fascism.” You may find it reproduced online here, where you may consider for yourself if the United States of America — once considered a free democracy of, by, and for the people — now suffers, to greater or lesser degrees, all fourteen of these characteristics.
I will not sleep soundly tonight. This was not a fever-dream; it was, however, truly a parade of the grotesques.