The problem of Absurd in Literary Grotesque

On the verge of the centuries along with great scientific and technical achievements in spiritual life of humankind numerous contradictions emerged. In connection with the crisis of  the modern world Georgian literary critic G.Alkhazishvili remarks that there have been several decades as European culture experts have been trying to find a way out "of the impasse in which the disintegration of not only literary genres but that of logos continued for a long time with the belief that the reality appeared as a result of deconstruction would give the possibility to look further, but this distance was an apogee of crisis and the experience, desperate wait was provided by that necessity which I called sad crisis of a human being who has lost the human qualities" [Alkhazishvili, 2009:3]. The representation of the world crisis, acute reality in artistic-aesthetic forms has become topical for the artists. Modern culture experts recognize that to achieve this 20-th century art frequently addresses paradoxical-grotesque style which appears more adequate for expression of the wrongness of man's existence in this world rather than other established literary and aesthetic forms. A well-known Swiss writer Friedrich Dürenmmatt stated: „Our world has brought us to the grotesque exactly as to the atomic bomb" [Dürenmmatt,1966:26]. And really, paradoxical grotesque as a special means of literary conventionality in modern historical conditions is acknowledged as one of the most acceptable forms.

While speaking about the features of modern literary grotesque, as a rule, it is mentioned that literary grotesque means unhidden, well-expressed demonstrative alogism, logical paradox. Also its necessary component must be counted contrast, travesty which is frequently expressed in predominantly determined mess of mutually contrasted binary pairs (e.g. real and fantastic, exciting and vulgar, tragic and comic, etc.).

Along with the above-mentioned the literary critics single out such features of grotesque as:

  • Excessiveness, exaggeration, hyperbolization which sometimes takes cosmic scales or, on the contrary, is reduced to litote;
  • Breaking of real proportions (of things, man, size of his body parts, etc.); sometimes breaking of the proportions takes caricatured form;
  • The existence of concrete, fixed object of satirical mock; a reader should know it; without it grotesque as a satirical phantasmagoria will turn into ordinary work; e.g. in this way we can read intended for children Francois Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel or adapted texts of Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" in which the author's commentaries of concrete prototypes, political parties and about other social moments are taken off;
  • The irony, wide range of mockery, beginning with its rough forms ending with refined, intellectual forms;
  • Mystification, magic, representations of satanist and other magical forces;
  • Parody which as a rule, exists independent of grotesque as a unique literary phenomenon;
  • Fabulousness, parable, pamphlet, allegory but the existence of the mentioned elements does not condition the turning of the work of art into a fairy-tale, parable, pamphlet or allegory;
  • Violation of compliance with between natural cause-effect relationships and cause and effect (insignificant cause may cause gigantic, catastrophic effects at a time when really serious, well-grounded reason may be followed insignificant results);
  • The demonstration of a distant historical past or the same distant future, the use of unknown countries and worlds, dreams, drunkenness, allowance of phantasmagoric conventionality, zoomorphic metamorphosis, hypostasis (i.e. giving independent existence to this or that features, abstract notion, abstraction or idea);
  • Linguistic peculiarity of literary grotesque which represents intellectual play of words (names, toponyms, names of institutions, humorous word order are used in it);
  • Subtext which reaches comic effect by means of reminiscences, allusions, implicitness;
  • Free grotesque composition; it subordinates no to exact logic but to the author's or his protagonists fantasy and self-will to such extent as grotesque phantasmagoria requires it.

None of the above-mentioned features of literary grotesque taken separately determines by itself the grotesqueness of the literary work. Only together in complex in diverse wholeness they can have a claim on grotesque. This means that it is the use of the above listed features a unique, anomalous, unnatural artistic world is created even when the author is not aware fully about literary grotesque theoretical laws.

Along with the above-mentioned in historical evolution of literary grotesque  the inner logic is clearly seen - from antique "Dionysian laugh" to medieval, merry carnival laugh" and Renaissance "Rabelaisian laugh and later ironical and skeptical "Volterian laugh" which turned into merciless mocking "Shchedrin like laugh") and in the 20th century it was finished with black, tragic "Kafkian non-laugh".

In modern literary grotesque the "absurd literature" brought different intonation. It is the case when grotesque is merged not with satire as it is adopted in traditional classical literature but with absurd. Absurd grotesque represents new phenomenon in 20-th century literature. In the opinion of the founders and theoreticians in the actual reality terror, madness and death started to accompany everyday life; art had to reckon with this substantial state of the world. It is because of the above-mentioned that it become irrational, and grotesque - demonic. German literary critic Karl Simon announces: Fluctuation in relation to absurdity has been overcome, asylum entered freely and roughly into our world, that is around us every day and that loses logic and causal connection... Like hungry creatures we swallow the slogan which explains to us that modern physics has become "akausal" and listen to the stories about the inventors of atomic bomb " who have gone to the monasteries as well as the stories about film celebrities who have become Buddhists. We are fed up with positivistic century and rationalistic-optimistic progress stands before atomic bomb". Descartes publications are decreasing but Revold published the writings of mystics and yoghs. What has left for humor if not become irrational? [Simon, 1958: 415]. Deep vital and spiritual catastrophes that the mankind faced with gave rise to "black humor when laugh leads us to fatigue" [Simon, 1958: 412]. That gradually turned into "infernal mockery" [Simon, 1958: 413].

Besides Karl Simon modern aesthetic theory of western grotesque has been enriched by German literary critic Wolfgang Kayser. The principle thing for Kayser is "something hostile, alien, inhuman: for him "...grotesque is the world which has become foreign" [Kayser, 1957: 136]. The author remarks that this is not only theoretical, literary conception W. Kayser analyses the 20-th century literary practice where in the works of  Eugéne Ionesco, Franz Kafka, John Updike and other writers the above-mentioned world is presented as reality. German author gives the opposition of grotesque and fairy-tale notable features and states that the world of the fairy-tale like grotesque one is unknown and unusual for the reader but it is not a world that is alien for him. As to grotesque, in it the native, dear environment unexpectedly becomes hostile, strange which is governed by supernatural force; the fate of people and the world depends on it. W.Kayser  concludes that "on grotesque world  it is a matter of fear of life and not fear of death" [Kayser, 1957: 137]. According to W. Kayser during transmission into grotesque a bitter laugh takes the features of evil mockery, cynical and finally Satanist laugh [Kayser, 1957: 137].

It must be mentioned that the notion of "absurd" is polysemantic and proceeding from the context is a bearer of different content. Several semantic meanings of the notion of "absurd" are presented below which is found in "absurd literature" and philosophical practice of existentialism:

1.      Principle absurdity of a world in which man appears (Jean-Paul Sartre);

2.      The absurdity of man's existence in real world (Albert Camus);

3.      Subjective feeling of absurdity of man's existence in the world irrespective of the fact whether the world is absurd or not absurd;

4.      Not absurd perception of the world's absurdity (i.e. "serene", "neutral");

5.      Absurdity of concrete everyday situations, collisions, heartache that man can guess;

6.      Initial absurdity of man's feelings which is linked with his inner constitution, temperament (for example, if merry sanguine sees the world  through rose-colored spectacles, melancholic with pessimist attitude sees the world  through black-colored spectacles) [Petriashvili, 2005:100].

Modern western scholars regard absurd as an initial state of the existence. It specially concerns literary grotesque which is mainly based on absurd - the absurdity of the world  and the absurdity of man's existence in this world. And with it, even among existentialists there is essential difference in philosophical understanding of absurd. On the one hand, Jean-Paul Sartre states that "It is absurd that we are born, it is absurd that we die" [Sartre, 1946:631] but on the other hand, Albert Camus wrote an essay "The Rebell" [Camus, 1951] in which he appealed to a proud man to revolt against such absurd: "Absurd is neither in a man nor in the world, it is in their mutual existence. Therefore, there is no more perfect sight for a man than the fight of the intellect against reality that is stronger than him... There is something unrepeatedly powerful in the discipline dictated by a talent to himself, strong will, in confrontation. Impoverish of the reality which by its inhumanity underlines man's greatness means impoverishment of a man himself" [Camus, 1990:51]. Albert Camus's example confirms that modern existentialism declare just man's "stoic approach" to the life in order for a man to lead dignified live in this not calm and alien world. Let us recall that all more or less known representative of existentialism fought actively in the world War II in the ranks of antifascist movement.

In the end, many different kinds of senselessness which is observed in the works of literary grotesque evidences that grotesque definitely relates to absurd and contains absurdity in itself, both as semantic, purposeful and formal, comic but not reduced to absurdity because absurd may also be non grotesque. The thing is that if we recognize that the world is completely or at least partially (its separate vital obstacles and situations) absurd by their nature then the literature of absurd appears correct, realistic reflection of this absurd reality. In such case the works of this kind won't be grotesque any more. Such thing can't happen! It does not happen this way!"). Thus, absurdity in this or that dose and form characterizes grotesque, including literary grotesque but reduction of literary grotesque completely to absurd would be overstatement. Absurd and grotesque are brothers in blood but no twins. Their relatedness is particularly revealed in the fact that both of them contain paradoxical senselessness in their definition but in the "literature of absurd" this senselessness is considered metaphysical essence in existential understanding) and in literary grotesque this is only means of literary conventionality.

Proceeding from the above-mentioned, we can conclude that "absurd literature" which is on the proscenium of literary processes proceeding in west-European and other countries with European cultural orientation, is truly the bearer of literary grotesque feature. Although we should mention that in spite of the fact that grotesque and absurd cross each other, we can not speak about absolute coincidence. Bellow we present the analysis of the works selected by us which demonstrate that each grotesque is absurd but each absurd is not grotesque. To illustrate the mentioned supposition we address Franz Kafka.

Among with the creations by Kafka such as "The Castle" [Kafka A, 1991] and "The Metamorphosis" [Kafka B,1991], only "metamorphose" can be regarded as grotesque because the protagonist of this novel - young man Gregor  Samsa - found himself transformed into an insect. Of course, it is a fantasy and it is notable that all Peripetia are given in the work, which happened with protagonist as a result of metamorphoses, is constructed on the above-mentioned phantasmagoria. Gregor Samsa transformed into an insect by some mystic, unknown forces cannot find the sympathy from anywhere (even from the closest people). Turned into horrible insect he is suffering, being hated by everyone, experiences the loneliness. In Kafka's works as well as in the whole existential literature (which, in its turn, is based on the philosophy of existentialism) a man is destined to loneliness from the onset, which makes the absurdity of his meaningless life harder and stronger. Absurd like that and at the same time grotesque composition (human has transformed into insect) gives Kafka the possibility to analyze the existed reality philosophically and artistic-conceptually and to ground general thesis: man is destined for suffering and on the whole all his existence is an absurd. 

Unlike Metamorphose in other works by F.Kafka the rules of literary grotesque are not preserved and obviously we do not refer them to grotesque literature. For example, in the novel The Castle a land surveyor settles in a quiet village and in order to feel himself stable and safe he appeals to "the castle" authorities to get official permission to reside there. It is noteworthy that nobody requires from him this. The bureaucratic correspondence between the protagonist and "the castle" lasted for a long time. Finally five minutes prior to the land surveyor's death positive response from the Castle has come. It appears that the protagonist lived on legal basis lived only the last five minutes in his house. Clearly, the situation presented in the work is absurd but there is nothing grotesque (e.i. fantastic) in it: here there is another victim of bureaucracy - this wide spread social evil which has become the leading theme of literary works more than once. The situation presented in Kafka's work  is of course absurd but there is not even mentioning to the grotesque [Petriashvili, 2005].

Each grotesque of the above-mentioned thesis is absurd but each absurd may not be grotesque one at all. Interesting illustration of it is Yuri Tynyanov's popular novella "Lieutenant Kije" (1928). The writer took as the basis for his novella the story happened during the reign of Russian Emperor Paul I. A clerical error on an official document of the Preobrajenski regiment results in the creation of a nonexistent officer, a Lieutenant Kizhe. According to the plot the phantom soldier was subsequently promoted all the way up beginning from the captain of the Preobrajenski regiment, then first captain and finally to colonel. He got married to Queen's maid of honor and had a child. The depicted situation is really absurd and that is why it gives rise to a logical question whether the above case is ironical anecdote made up by the officer or the real event. The analysis of the novel gives ground to conclude: even if it is really anecdote similar cases could have taken place in historical epoch described in the novel - in Russian Empire during the reign of Emperor Paul I. In this case the phantom "officer Kije" represents another victim of bureaucracy as wide spread social evil.

Similar situations are represented in Mikheil Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita too. The writer passed an interesting road form the first grotesque stories (e.g. The Adventures of Chichikov, The Crimson Island, Diavoliada, The Fatal Eggs, The Heart of a Dog in which ironical "Volterian laugh"  clearly runs through) to those kind of works which are characterized above regarded "Kafkian non-laugh" (e.g. The Master and Margarita). Namely, according to overall recognition of literary critics M.Bulgakov's novel The Heart of a Dog is a classical literary grotesque because all those features which are typical to the genre of literary grotesque are characteristic to it. It should be also noted that while analyzing M.Bulgakov's belletristic as a rule the literary critics use the term "intellectual grotesque" because the plot of the mentioned works is frequently is based on literary reminiscence, allusion or literary personages are the representative of intellectual world (the writers, artists, doctors, professors...).

Satirical and phantasmagorical pictures are in abundance in The Heart of a Dog. For example, the novel starts with well-expressed phantasmagoric inner monologue of a dog in which it curses a dog's life in the twenties Moscow. In this monologues it is amazing the knowledge of Moscow gossips, interesting trifles of life, ability to scrutinize, virtuosity of words. Of course the writer  M.Bulgakov sees all these things but gives this in the form of a dog' monologue which in its turn represents phantasmagoria. In the monologue the dog is represented as clever creature, biting tongue and with sense of humor. It definitely causes sympathy and empathy. But it is also fact that "It is impossible!" - this is the most important condition of  grotesque. Also grotesque phantasmagoria is the surgery done by professor Preobrajenski on Dog's brain: transplantation of the died drunker - Klim Chugunov's hypophysis. Mikhail Bulgakov a doctor by professions describes this surgery in details, in order to create in a reader an illusion of reality. The process of dog's humanization is described by professor Preobrajenski's assistant Dr. Bormenthal's diary which in its turn also represents a sample of grotesque. In the novel the writer gets the reader accustomed to phantasmagoric rules of intellectual game. As a result of which he is not surprised any more the humanized next life and adventures of Evgraf Evgrafovich  Sharikov. In the scenes described in the finale of the work (Sharikov's transformation again into domestic dog that is happy living in Professor's house) much is exaggerated but this also completely meets the norms of literary grotesque.

As to The Master and Margarita this novel represents a brilliant specimen of literary grotesque, satirical phantasmagoria. The very first scene of the novel is grotesque in Moscow of the thirties where real devil Woland with his escort appears in order to arrange annual ball with the presence leadership of Queen (Margarita Nikolaevna in this case). In the mentioned episode the dialog between Berlioz (bearing the same name as great French composer that in its turn causes various grotesque absurdity) and poet Bezdomny (which means "homeless") ; then a discourse between Woland and Berlioz about Jesus Christ (transmission into myth and reality, Woland personally attended the crucifixion of Yeshua Ha-Notsri, or Jesus Christ, by Pontius Pilate) that is followed Woland's prediction  of Berlioz's death (decapitated under tram wheels) and poet Bezdomny's future (he will be diagnosed as schizophrenia). In the following chapter of the novel the reader gets acquainted with the séance of black magic arranged by "Professor Woland" himself in the "variety theatre", becomes a witness of his escort "Focuses" #302 apartment, the Devil ball and so on. All this phantasmagoria continues up to the moment until "the evil forces" together with the master and Margarita do not leave Moscow. In the whole novel (except Jerusalem chapters where the writer is more restricted) Bulgakov uses satire and parody. Paradoxical situations described in the novel often alternate with absurd transferred to phantasmagoria. By means of irony and absurd the author criticizes certain events, facts and images but at the same time he advocates positive ideals. It is with phantasmagorical absurd form that the author denounces the reality of Stalin's totalitarian regime. Bulgakov's satirical phantasmagoria is directed against self-interest, egocentrism and other antihuman tendencies. At the same time the writer does not betray the traditions of Dante, Rabble and Swift: he criticizes in public his ideological, political and literary opponents (sometimes in open, clearly, and sometimes hidden, implicitly).

In recent years the question concerning the future of literary grotesque, satirical phantasmagoria is often put forward. It concerns just literary grotesque because in other branches of art (sculpture, painting, graphic, music, theatre, circus, etc.) grotesques is successfully used today too in order to reach expression and literary effect. As the practice of the 20th century shows the number of grotesque works in the above-mentioned branches of art does not decrease but it increases. Especially it concerns circus (buffoonery, illusion), animated films (cartoons), modern computer technologies create such "virtual' phantasmagorias that sometimes exceed writer's or artist's fantasy.

As to the literary grotesque in this case two opposite trends emerged, of which one contributes to the preservation and development of literary grotesque, and another one - on the contrary. The hindering tendency is considered man's being kept informed in conditions of modern scientific-technical revolution. In such conditions grotesque phantasmagoria can barely surprise modern man: what the past generations considered as fantasy for contemporary man it is everyday event. Such situation may cause gradual death of literary grotesque. On the other hand, literary critics single out several factors which condition positive evolution of literary grotesque, of them we single out:

1.                    The necessity of satirical, grotesque criticism of injustice existed in the society (the list of social drawback is rather long and here we won't stay on it);

2.                    Merry (grotesque) "parting with the past" which is the most frequent and popular case of utilization of literary grotesque;

3.                    Grotesque anti-utopia as an opposite event of those unrealized illusions, social projects and utopias that too optimistically, idyllically picture the future of the humankind;

4.                     Literary grotesque as the most powerful means of artistic expression; a desire of unlimited fantasy, intellectual or verbal free game, etc.

With account of the fact that the above-mentioned fact always existed in the society and, probably, will exist, we can conclude that literary grotesque in its various manifestation (phantasmagoria, absurd, etc.) has plenty of life left and, as a special means of artistic conventionality, in modern historical conditions again remains one of the most acceptable form in literature.


Alkhazishvili G. Muzashvili N.
Georgian Postmodern and Georgian Deconstruction
Camus A.
L’homme révolté. Paris.
Dürenmmatt F.
Theater-Schriften und Reden. Zürich.
Kayser W.
Das Groteske in Malerei und Duchtung.Hamburg.
Sartre J.-P.
L’existentialisme est un humanisme. Paris.
Simon K. G.
Das Absurde lacht sich tot. Akzente. № 5.
Camus A.
L’homme révolté. Moscow (translated in Russian).
Kafka F.
The Castle. Moscow (translated in Russian).
Kafka F.
America Process. From the diaries. Moscow (translated in Russian).
Petriashvili O.
Grotesque in 20th-century Russian literature. Tbilisi.