Notes On Women & the Grotesque
by Lara Glenum
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If I am a woman, my speech is colonized by eggs and tubes, I bulge with fetuses or fat, with meaty slops, my multiple orifices clamoring. I leak corrosive fluids. My body is labeled a grotesque body, what Bakhtin calls, “a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed: it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body.”1 I am, according to Bakhtin, not “clearly differentiated from the world, but transferred, merged, and fused with it.”2 My body is the limit of the social. This being said, I am not a woman. I am an animal in human drag, making a spectacle of my gender, as humans are wont to do. “Consider gender,” Judith Butler implores us, “as a corporeal style, an ‘act,’ as it were, which is both intentional and performative, where “performative” suggests a dramatic and contingent construction of meaning.”3 If various constructions of gender are merely “so many ‘styles of the flesh,’ none of us, male or female, are “fully self-styled, for styles have a history, and those histories condition and limit the possibilities.”4 The historical styling of women is particularly ironclad in its prescriptions: whalebone and catgut laces, bound feet, gagged mouths, inserted silicon sacs. Restricting a bulge here, encouraging one there. The styling of female flesh entails the manufacture of monsters.
In patriarchal cultures, Margaret Miles writes, “a central component of maintaining and reproducing social order is the management of women. The primary strategy for the control of women is their public representation.”5 In my poems, I attempt to skew the serialized representation of women by choking my poems on grotesque bodies. If, as Laura Mulvey writes, “women’s appearance is “coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness,” the female bodies that inhabit my poems—multiply deformed and incoherent, monstrous in construction—creak and heave as any mortal body truly does.6 Through them, I attack the fiction of a coherent subject or self, a fractiousness that is our human condition, not necessarily a gendered one.
For centuries if not millennia, men have associated women with the grotesque. After all, according to Miles, “The creature closest to the male subject but innately, disturbingly different, is ultimately more grotesque than are exotic monsters.”7 “To men,” she tells us, “women represent the quintessential grotesque: they are [as Bakhtin notes] “penetrable, suffer the addition of alien body parts, and become alternately huge and tiny.”8 Most of all, grotesqueries stand in opposition to the classical model of the body. “The images of the grotesque body,” writes Mary Russo,
“are precisely those which are abjected from bodily cannons of classical aesthetics. The classical body is transcendental and monumental, closed, static, self-contained, symmetrical and sleek; it is identified with “high” or official culture… with rationalism, individualism, and the normalizing aspirations of the bourgeoisie. The grotesque body is open, protruding, irregular, secreting, multiple and changing; it is identified with non-official “low” culture, and with social transformation…9
I am keenly interested in this association of the grotesque with social transformation. After all, writes Geoffrey Harpham, “confused things lead the mind to new inventions [and] lie at the heart of all [social and] scientific discoveries of a revolutionary character.”10 Thus, “The grotesque implies discovery.”11 The hybrid body, its capacity at once monstrous and dizzily vertiginous, repulsive and seductive, male and female, represents our appetite to endure and conceive and transform everything, despite the often hideous contours of our existence. It is at once a brutal rejection of social norms and an invitation to re-imagine the uses of your own decaying body, your own meddling desires.
The grotesque bodies in my poems signify in multiple ways, ways that are potentially hazardous to the reader. As a woman, I hope to deform people’s capacity to see me as merely a symbolic agent or conversely, as a body unhinged from a psychic register. If the poems in my bodies are props, and they are, they are props that must be read as “a cultural projection of an inner state.”12 According to Mary Russo,
“The image of the grotesque body as doubled, monstrous, deformed, excessive, and abject is not identified with materiality as such, but assumes a division or distance between the discursive fictions of the biological body and the Law. The strange image of the body which emerges in this formulation is never entirely locatable in or apart from the psyche which depends on the body image as a ‘prop.’”13
The biological body is nothing if not a wastrel fiction, a meaty chimera, the dangerously permeable boundary of social order. The Law, too, is a fiction, a collective fiction we split our individual skulls on. My poems are an act of disobedience to the collective fictions about the female body. They are an act of disobedience to the Law. Even if mainstream culture cannibalizes its fringes, even if avant-garde art does not permit an exit form hegemonic culture, but is only its revolving door, I aim to complicate that doorway so that the reader can only pass through it one organ at a time. I colonize that doorway with unnavigable bodies, so that the reader must pass through their fallopian tubes and renal glands, if they wish to proceed any further.
My poems thrive on strategies of hyperbole and overliteralization. Hyperbole is the trope par excellence of the monstrous, the trope of multiplication, distortion, amplification. As to overliteralization, if breasts are the fetishized object of male desire, a female character in one of my poems will be “a turbine column of eighteen breasts.” If women are still routinely celebrated for their capacity to birth children, one of my characters will give birth “out of every / major organ / out of every oil-gland / & mucoid duct.” Women pose “for family portraits / in a mask of plastic tubes” or move through forests of gigantic ovaries. They grow second bodies with “forking spine[s]” who stalk them in “bloody deer costumes.” They spontaneously “sprout eleven ovaries and nine penises” and dangle “edible babies from greasy crimson stalks.”
In “Van Gogh’s Ear: Toward a Theory of Disgust,” Michael Chaouli notes that Kant rejected such grotesque tactics as a threat to form and to the act of representation itself. The horror of the grotesque, Kant relates, is that the grotesque subject seems to be “insisting, as it were, on our enjoyment,” as though naively unaware of its own deformity, as though we could be spell-bound by such monstrosities, rather than looking away in aversion.14 In truth, the grotesque is a mode of excessive beauty, “so beautiful that it becomes unbearable,” “so enjoyable that all enjoyment ceases.”15 Ultimately then, the grotesque “is the continuation of the beautiful,” hardly its antithesis.16
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and his World, trans. Helene Iswolsky. (Cambridge: MIT
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed.
Vincent B. Leitch. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.)
Chaouli, Michael. “Van Gogh’s Ear: Toward a Theory of Disgust” in Modern Art and the
Grotesque, ed. Francis Connelly. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and
Literature. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.)
Miles, Margaret. “Carnal Abominations: The Female Body as Grotesque” in The
Grotesque in Art and Literature, eds. James Luther Adams and Wilson Yates.
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.)
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in The Norton Anthology of
Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.)
Russo, Mary. The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, Modernity. (New York: Routledge,
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