A Secret Liberation: The Estranged World as a Crucial Response to this One
9 December 1999

Wolfgang Kayser tells us that the grotesque "is the estranged world" which "instills fear of life rather than fear of death," and renders us "unable to orient ourselves… because it is absurd," and "must not and cannot suggest a meaning" (184). Yet, he still claims that "in spite of all the helplessness and horror inspired by the dark forces which lurk in and behind our world and have power to estrange it, the truly artistic portrayal effects a secret liberation" (188). That these two definitions can exist within the same global understanding of the effect of the grotesque on the psychology of the mind is suggestive more of the expansiveness of the term than it is of a paradoxical interpretation. Mankind is as indelibly a part of the estranged world as he is of this one, but he suppresses that world in order to exist within this one. It is only through the invocation of that estranged world, therefore, that he is able to reconcile himself with it and liberate his congested and concealed inhibitions. He must do this in order to prevent those passions from overtaking his soul. As Kayser concludes in his assertion, "The darkness has been sighted, the ominous powers discovered, the incomprehensible forces challenged. And thus we arrive at a final interpretation of the grotesque: AN ATTEMPT TO INVOKE AND SUBDUE THE DEMONIC ASPECTS OF THE WORLD" (188). It is in that need to subdue the beast within our psyches that the power of the grotesque to attract our fascination and awe lies.

The grotesque within the creative process lies within Thomas Hardy’s declaration that nothing bears out in practice what it promises incipiently. Jude Fawley, the protagonist of Jude the Obscure, believes that he "could do one thing if [he] had the opportunity. [He] could accumulate ideas, and impart them to others" (421). As he progresses on his quest for knowledge, he finds his pace at learning to be slower than his desire, and feels that if he could just enter a university where someone more knowledgeable than he could impart ideas in moments that would take him months to figure out on his own, then he could considerably hasten his learning process. Nonetheless, as he is not accepted into any of the colleges, he is able to continue his self-education and finally achieves the intellectual rank of his college superiors though he remains a lower class laborer and ends his life in tragedy. This process of self-creation as creation beyond the self, which is propelled by Jude’s involvement with academics, is fueled by an inherent determination to excel. Such a drive built into the spirit of a man who otherwise has no opportunity for promulgation of it leads the man into despairing the very gift with which he has been blessed. The creative force, having no outlet, becomes a curse, for it only serves to show the beholden the keys to the doorways he might have entered without providing him access to them. A fear develops, in that case, not of life exclusively, but of living up to less than one’s potential demands, where every working moment in some other trade comes to be considered time lost in the pursuit of one’s intended path. This grotesque rendering of the meaning of one’s life amounting to nothing contorts the extroversion of the creative process into an introspective accounting for the reasons behind one’s failure. When that amounts to nothing, one begins to examine the soul in an effort to find peace within its turbulent frustrations, which forces the individual to reconcile himself to the misfortune of his birth, his status within the society in which he was born, and his sense of identity within that position he holds. Such a reconciliation with one’s purpose can be a liberating experience as puts the creative genius of the individual in perspective with his social context, and it allows him to accept his position in that context or discover a way to change it. In Jude’s case, his speech at the gates of Christminster illustrates his acceptance of his social role and his hope for the future where his children will be able to accomplish what he has not. Where the potential, therefore, for tragedy lies, the imaginative process of mankind has the power to subdue it and rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of its destroyed dreams to channel them elsewhere.

The work of art itself, as a product, and not a process, holds within it, on the other hand, an aspect of the grotesque in its immutability from its completed form. William Blake’s lamb and tyger, for instance, illustrate the ubiquitous power of God as simultaneously a creator and a destroyer who holds salvation and damnation within his grasp. That these binary archetypes form of themselves one image of the nature of God is daunting, in that it leaves no room for God to adapt to the changing needs of the society He has engendered. If the Apocalypse is already scheduled and the history of the world already known from its inception to its conclusion, there is no way to deviate from the paths already laid out for us. We become a product of the developed world rather than members of its develop process, and lose thereby any say whatsoever in our evolving destinies. Blake solves this dilemma by creating a new myth of creation and renewal, in which God became man so that man could become God—so that, by extension, man could reclaim control over his destiny and become the creator of his own identity. While this may seem to solve the problem of man’s ability to overcome the destiny into which he is locked, it creates a larger problem in that Blake qualifies the sense of self-hood as being outside the divine presence—that it is only within the collective consciousness of the divine that one reaches actualization, but at the expense of identity. His conception of Albion as the fallen nature of God in which all of mankind resides shows that man is only an individual in this fallen state, and that when Albion is reawakened at the Apocalypse all of mankind will fuse back as one with the divine spark of which it is a part. This idea of the divine self, tied indissolubly to a collective genius, creates a stasis out of which comes no fluctuation of change or movement, which is grotesquely at odds with our idea of self-determination and accountability. Yet, there is a certain liberation in this, too, for it ensures us our patrimony as children of our creator and an everlasting role in eternity regardless of our being unworthy in our own estimations of ourselves.

The reception of the creative genius in the society of which it is a part is grotesque in the sense of its being relegated to a role outside of the individual’s ability to control it. In Charles Dicken’s Bleak House and The Old Curiosity Shop, the author creates characters that are afraid of existing within the context into which they had been born. Young Richard Carstone, for instance, cannot settle on a stable career because of his false hopes in the successful resolution of a court case in which he feels he stands to gain considerably. The grandfather of Nell who flees with her from the old curiosity shop into the wilderness of England likewise cannot settle into what he has as he also feels it is not enough of a legacy to sustain his life and his memory. Both characters are deathly afraid of what the future might hold, but they use the delusion of a hopeful future to liberate them from their fears. That they have no basis for thinking that their futures will turn out any less hopeful than their present situations is what makes their irresponsible attitudes grotesque. They both receive and are received by the world around them, but they can neither perceive that world for the truth of what it is, a place in which they will find nothing greater than the fruits of their own efforts will provide, nor can they be perceived by those in the world around them as anything other than what they are—which is far less than they perceive themselves to be. Their inability to recognize this is their way of undermining the forces working against them and it gives them, therefore, a perceived liberation of the constraints placed upon them by that world.

In none of these formulae is the liberation of the self through the world of the grotesque anything more than a reconciliation of one’s spirit with the realities that hamper it. As much as we hope to subdue the demons within us, those demons are very much a part of our composite beings, and this makes them necessary to the balance of our existence if only in that they help us believe we are liberated from the social and natural boundaries of our existence and allow us to pursue our greatest fantasies within a culturally and morally accepted norm. Were there no real demons, therefore, in the make-up of our worlds, we would have to create them as foils to our identities in order to have something to subdue, to try to lay our hands upon, and to hold accountable for the irreconcilable differences that exist between where and what we are and where and who we would like to be. It is this opportunity to do so that keeps us intact and hedges the madness inherent within us all.


Blake, William. Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Kayser, Wolfgang. The Grotesque in Art and Literature. Translated by Ulrich Weisstein. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957.

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