Grotesque (Updated: 07/23/18)

“It is common usage to call ‘monster’ an unfamiliar concord of dissonant elements: the centaur, the chimera are thus defined for those without understanding. I call ‘monster’ all original inexhaustible beauty.” – Alfred Jarry¹

One of the first associations that one may have with butoh is that of the grotesque. The grotesque can encompass the sick, dead, ugly, monstrous, otherworldly, and/or unexplainable.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham in his book On the Grotesque opens with: “Grotesqueries both require and defeat definition. . . . They stand at the margin of consciousness between the known and the unknown, the perceived and the unperceived, calling into question the adequacy of our ways of organizing the world, of dividing the continuum of experience into knowable particles.”² He further notes, “‘[G]rotesque’ is another word for non-thing, especially the strong forms of the ambivalent and the anomalous.”³

Because humans are generally not satisfied with things remaining as non-things, they often try to impose labels upon the non-things with the familiar. So if for instance somebody has never seen or known of Sea lions, and then witnesses one, the witness may be inclined to call it a water dog, mermaid dog, or merdog, possibly neglecting the uniqueness (or third category) of the phenomenon. Geoffrey Harpham calls these inaccurate labels storage spaces for non-things.4 A similar situation often occurs when somebody witnesses butoh for the first time. Having never seen such a phenomenon, the witness may feel it is a form or corruption of mime, dance, theater, and/or performance art, but Butoh stands alone.

The grotesque is on the fringe, which is why it is so hard to tackle. George Santayana makes note of the interval (or gap) which is home to the grotesque. When the grotesque is experienced, one of two or both affects may take place:5

1. Confusion sets in and we see a “jumble and distortion of other forms” followed by escaping to the safety of our familiar forms.

2. We stay in place and cross over to the realm of discovery or the novel.

This same gap is identified by Deleuze and Guattari who draw upon Lovecraft: “Lovecraft applies the term ‘Outsider’ to this thing or entity, the Thing, which arrives and passes at the hedge, which is linear yet multiple, ‘teeming, seething, swelling, foaming, spreading like an infectious disease, this nameless horror.’ . . . It [the anomalous] is a phenomenon, but a phenomenon of bordering.”6

This gap or interval is what associates the grotesque with paradox. Geoffrey Harpham notes:

“If the grotesque can be compared to anything, it is to paradox. Paradox is a way of language against itself by asserting both terms of a contradiction at once. Pursued for its own sake, paradox can seem vulgar or meaningless; it is extremely fatiguing to the mind. But pursued for the sake of wordless truth, it can rend veils and even, like the grotesque, approach the holy.7

Hijikata’s World of Anatomy list of butoh-fu especially exemplifies the use of grotesque.

 


¹ Jarry, Alfred. Oeuvres complètes. Essay: Les Monstres. 1895. Ed. 1948. Book 8. Page 28.
²  Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. On the Grotesque. New Jersey. 1982. Print. Page 3.
³ Page 4.
4 Page 6.
5 Santayana, George. The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outline of Aesthetic Theory. 1955. Page 257.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum, 2004. Print. Page 245.
7 Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. On the Grotesque. New Jersey. 1982. Print. Page 20.
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