|Corpse of Patroclus - Firenze - 2nd C BCE|
The strange relationship between delight and disgust is a common feature of the grotesque. As I have pointed out many times, the grotesque mingles oppositions: disgust in itself is not enough. That's why we speak about fascination with the grotesque, and we acknowledge the call, or appeal, of the the monstrous to us.
The grotesque is therefore a form of heterogeneity. If there is simply disgust then what we have experienced stops with the sense of horror from which we recoil, for its is anguish in its pure form.
In The Republic, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato recounted a story told by Leontion
he noticed some corpses lying on the ground with the executioner standing by them. He wanted to go and look at them, and yet at the same time held himself back in disgust. For a time he struggled and covered his eyes, but at last his desire got the better of him and he ran up to the corpses, opening his eyes wide and saying to them, 'There you are, curse you, - a lovely sight! Have a real good look.
According to Plato this story shows 'that anger is different from desire and sometimes opposes it.' The story is told in the context of a discussion of righteous indignation, within a broader discussion of the role of justice in state and individual.
But do we need to distinguish between the narrative used as a philosophical example, and the lived experience of the moment. And how does the story communicate, when it is decontextualised?
Also problematic in the ethical sense are those images that people regard as offensive because they are blasphemous. But the counter-argument is that the purpose of these kinds of images, beyond the aesthetic, is to open up our historical, social and ethical categories. We are shocked out of our narrow or limiting perspectives.
Another distinction compares the aesthetic formal pleasure of an art work with its morally repugnant content. This is one of the key issues for the movement that begins in the glorification of perversity, degeneration and decay - Decadence.
Psychologically, we also need to question the staged and scripted rituals than permit the participants to engage, by choice, in sado-masochistic activities. These need to be distinguished from the non-consensual will to, or action, that leads a perpetrator to inflict pain. But again, these illegal 'acts'/events are also enactments of the cultural fantasy of rape, or racism, or nationalism.
And it would also be the case that some feminists do not subscribe to the model of abjection that Julia Kriesteva appears to find transgressive in some way. It will be recalled that Powers of Horror simultaneoulsy showed the revulsion from death, decay, fluids, orifices, sex, defecation, vomiting, illness, menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth, while at the same time showing the delight, beauty, and jouissance, of these encounters. In Disgust: Theory and History of a Strong Sensation, Winfred Menninghaus records that:
In the 1980s, a new buzzword entered political and ... critical discourse... The word is `abjection,` and it represents the newest mutation in the theory of disgust. Oscillating, in its usage, between serving as a theoretical concept and precisely defying the order of concentual language altogether, the term `abjection` also commonly appears as both adjective (`abject women,` `abject art`) and adjective turned into a substantive (`the abject`) (2003: 365).
It will be noted that the taste for the grotesque, and its cultivation as commercial product and fashion is a recurring feature of the argument that we are living in degenerate times. This is a recurring theme, from the medieval sense of the grotesque as purposeless play (Bernard of Clairvaux) to the Victorian judgment delivered by John Ruskin:
A head, - huge, inhuman, and monstrous, - leering in bestial degradation, too foul to be either pictured or described ... in that head is embodied the type of evil spirit to which Venice was abandoned in the fourth period of her decline.
But there is major difference between making images for aesthetic pleasure, and the representation of those who were actually victims of horrendous brutality.
The image below presents the horror of the holocaust. The monstrous tragedy of what happened is captured in a bleak and melancholy photograph, but it is quite different from the image above.
On the one hand there is a pressing sense of the need to recall and to witness; on the other hand, the heightened consciousness of looking challenges the spectator to rethink what it means to 'consume' an image. Is there a kind of violence built into the very notion of looking?
English: "A truck load of bodies of prisoners of the Nazis, in the Buchenwald concentration camp at Weimar, Germany. The bodies were about to be disposed of by burning when the camp was captured by troops of the 3rd U.S. Army., 04/14/1945" Pfc. W. Chichersky, April 14, 1945.
Deutsch: Eine Wagenladung Leichen von Gefangenen der Nazis im Konzentrationslager Buchenwald bei Weimar, Deutschland. Die Leichen sollten durch Verbrennung beseitigt werden, als das Lager von Truppen der 3. US-Army eingenommen wurde.
Plato, The Republic, trans. D. Lee, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), 2nd edn, Part 5, Book 4, pp. 215-216, 1. 439e-1.140a.
John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1874), Vol. 3, Chapter 3, Section 15, p. 121.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Foley, Barbara. "Fact, fiction, fascism: Testimony and mimesis in Holocaust narratives." Comparative Literature 34.4 (1982): 330-360.
Young, James Edward. The texture of memory: Holocaust memorials and meaning. Yale University Press, 1993.
Young, James E. At memory's edge: After-images of the Holocaust in contemporary art and architecture. Yale University Press, 2002.
Insdorf, Annette. Indelible shadows: film and the Holocaust. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Hartman, Geoffrey H. The longest shadow: In the aftermath of the Holocaust. Indiana University Press, 1996.
Horowitz, Sara R. Voicing the Void: Muteness and Memory in Holocaust Fiction. SUNY Press, 1997.
Kremer, S. Lillian. Witness Through the Imagination: Jewish-American Holocaust Literature. Wayne State University Press, 1989.