What do we mean when we call something “grotesque”? What makes works of literature, music, art, and cinema grotesque rather than beautiful, and what are the social and political functions of grotesque works? The grotesque, as this course will explore, comes to stand in for all that does not fit into our existing philosophical and aesthetic categories: monsters, human-animal or human-plant hybrids, miniature or gigantic bodily forms, inappropriate intimacies between beings, disembodied voices, dissonant sounds or modes of composition, or any other phenomena that estrange us from our familiar world. The grotesque is also closely linked to carnivalesque laughter, in which social hierarchies are mocked and overturned, as in Francois Rabelais’ comic masterpiece Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-1564). This course will explore the meanings and the social, political, and aesthetic implications and consequences of the grotesque. We will pay close attention to how grotesque works can challenge dominant values, assumptions, and modes of thought and supply new ones in their place.
We will begin by exploring theoretical readings, from Sigmund Freud to Geoffrey Harpham, that attempt to define the ever-slippery term “grotesque.” We will then analyze narratives from Rabelais, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Allen Poe that employ grotesque principles and strategies to defamiliarize our world. From here, we will turn to modern grotesque (literary and musical) works, from Franz Kafka, Béla Bartók, and Igor Stravinsky, that extend these defamiliarizing strategies into new realms in the twentieth century. We will end the semester by looking at the use of the grotesque in classic and contemporary science fiction, from H.P. Lovecraft to Octavia Butler, closing with Boots Riley’s recent multi-genre, satirical (and carnivalesque) film, Sorry to Bother You (2018). Throughout the course, we will explore how the grotesque can transfigure our reality, composing new values and a new world through its destruction of older forms, principles, and systems of belief.