The Good, the Beautiful, and the Grotesque: An Interview with Schuy Weishaar

I’ve recently had the lovely pleasure of reading an incredibly smart, crafty and erudite book, Masters of the Grotesque: The Cinema of Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, the Coen Brothers and David Lynch. This is the kind of book that most of us want to write, but very few of us could actually write. Schuy Weishaar pulls it off. Like a champ. Like the champ of all champs. Like THE champ.

He also strikes me as the kind of guy who probably dislikes being referred to as a ‘champ.’

Too bad, champ.

I was able to ask Schuy a few questions about his ridiculously awesome championing-type work, and here’s what he had to say:

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1) I’ve recently been thinking about one of my friends (Fritz) at Duke who would always ask our professors if the books we’re reading were going to pass his, ‘So what?’ test. Yeah, he was something of a, um, snot, but I get it. I do. It’s the whole, ‘time is short, we can’t read everything so why are we reading this’ bit. So, if Fritz was examining your book, looked at you and said, “Is this going to pass my ‘So What?’ test, what would you say to him? (That what a lengthy way of asking, ‘Why is a study of the grotesque important?’)

Yeah, that’s fair, especially for the grotesque, because when a lot of people see this kind of art they just write it off as out for shock value or as gratuitous or masturbatory in some way—and so of no value to anyone but the artist. But I think I can sketch out at least three somewhat related responses from three theoretical “domains” (I don’t know what Fritz is into these days, so I want to cover my bases): (a) aesthetic, (b) psychoanalytic, and (c) political/social.

(a)   Aesthetic: The grotesque is particularly important for us to study because its influence can be seen in art from the birth of art (as in cave paintings of hybrid monstrosities—humans/beasts/plants) down through to the present (in what has come to be taken as “high art,” as well as in “low” and/or “popular” art—in, say, a Francis Bacon as much as in a Dr. Seuss). Further, as an aesthetic category, the grotesque can be invoked at any stage in the artistic process: in the creative act, as a structural or formal property of a piece of art itself, and in the art’s reception, though not necessarily in any consistent or harmonious sort of way. Further, still, the grotesque in art often “self-consciously” dramatizes art as art—as fictive, as artifice, and so on—and often highlights the creative act itself in the mishmash that is its “finished” product. As an aesthetic category, then, you could see the grotesque as (quite literally) “standing for” art by “standing against” it (almost functioning like a repulsive metaphor). That is, by offering an alternative logic, structure, and sense of beauty to those categories which would usually dominate our world, the grotesque can be seen as both corrosive and corrective—a funhouse mirror held up to dominant aesthetics. But we’re already seeing the aesthetic leak into the political here.

(b)  Psychoanalytic: Grotesque art (as art that fuses the comic with the tragic, and any number of other sets of opposites—rational/irrational, order/chaos, etc.) is important because it allows us to identify, represent, respond to, etc. our most infantile (and thus most basic and indelible) fears and fantasies, but to do so in such a way that already undercuts their threatening aspects by softening the blow of the terrifying with the ridiculous, and so on. Of course, how this occurs all depends on who you are, for what those on the bottom rungs of society will likely feel liberated by are precisely those aspects of a given work of art by which those on the top will be terrified. You could also argue, in a Lacanian vein, that the motifs of the various forms of fragmentation and combination, of synthesis and scission—of the world ripped apart into indivisible remainders and/or inappropriately pieced back together into contradictory or paradoxical monstrosities—or even something like this as a structural or theoretical substrate operating in all grotesque—that this, as representation, and so as related to our view of ourselves or of the world, figures, in art, the rupture of identity that plays out in the subject’s oscillation between the image it identifies with in the other and its own “real” body. Put another way, grotesque art may provide some kind of analogy for the rupture inherent in the formation of a “self,” but an imaginary self that is sabotaged from the outset as it attempts to stitch together a view of itself from its alienated relation to the other and its own experience of itself as lack. So, the study of the grotesque is important because it’s constructed the same way you are.

(c)   No matter which way you answer this sort of question, at some point, you end up edging up into the political. This is Bakhtin territory: his theory of the the grotesque/carnivalesque in Rabelais and His World is markedly political, but, really, this is an undercurrent in most all of the theorists I deal with in the book. By its nature, the grotesque is subversive. For the grotesque, nothing that is is beyond dragging in the dirt, chopping up into pieces, stitching to something alien, giving birth to, killing, bringing back to life, eating, excreting, cursing at, or screwing, and there’s a lot I’m leaving out. The whole world is fair game. Bakhtin calls this “degradation”; Adorno, in Aesthetic Theory, discusses something like this as the process by which the “ugly” “gnaws away” at the “beautiful”—and it is this very process that we find dramatized in the grotesque. Since whoever dominates in culture tends to set the agenda for what is beautiful, normative, acceptable, and so forth, the grotesque is ever employed in subversively undermining such ideology, and often rather irreverently, as it drags the sacred into the profane, the beautiful into the ugly, all that is “high” into all that is “low,” equalizing and unifying everything with everything else. So, the study of the grotesque is important, in this third sense, because the grotesque pulls art from abstract aesthetic theories, from our own psychological uses, from canvases and museums, from books film reels, and sends it out into the real world—or drags the real world into itself— in order to do something that, without it, seemed nearly impossible.

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2) Whose work do you find more disturbing (profoundly so): O’Connor, Lynch, or Romero?

The more time I spend with O’Connor, the more her stuff seems closer to realism (granted, a harsh Christian realism) to me. I don’t find her disturbing in the slightest. She mostly writes about the kinds of morons and idiots that I grew up with in rural Illinois and whom I live with now in Old Hickory in Tennessee. It’s almost like when I watch Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus with strangers (I use this film in a composition class, and most of my students I view as strangers); I’m always a little shocked at how weirded out they are by the film. Then again, I guess that’s how I feel whenever I’m dragged to a mall or a subdivision.

Neither do I find Romero very disturbing, outside of Night of the Living Dead. There are moments in that film though. The first zombie you see, who, at first, is like an extra in the background whom we don’t think twice about when we see him again. Romero builds that expectation of normalcy and then steps past the line he’s drawn. Then, of course, there’s little Karen devouring her mother. But maybe the most disturbing parts of the film for me are all of the shots of just this onslaught of all of this “blank,” (un)dead humanity. It mixes the queasiness you feel when you see an image of a mass grave with the agoraphobic’s sense of panic in a crowd. But after the first viewing much of this initial effect falls off. And once you’ve seen this film, the films that follow are really pretty silly “splatter” fare—they don’t even come close. There’s a message, of course, but, in a way, they’re so obviously ironic and gratuitous that you don’t take them as seriously. Adorno, in The Culture Industry, has this brief moment near the end of the book where he comments on the positive and liberating qualities of certain happy accidents of filmmaking, where the finished product doesn’t reflect much technical mastery, and the film is rough and seems uncontrolled, but somehow, compared to the industry standard, it feels and looks like art. This is what I think Night of the Living Dead was.

Lynch is a whole other story. I recommend films a lot, but Lynch is the only one that I recommend along with, not so much a warning per se, but with an advisory: “I just want to make sure you know what you’re getting into.” I think what makes Lynch’s films so disturbing is that they are so “touching.” Perhaps no one has ever said this before, but I think it’s true. His films get their grips into you by evoking something familiar, some point of identification that you can’t deny, but then he rides that very feeling, that sense of obligation, that fantasy, that desire—whatever it is—he rides that thing that “touched” you up and down the twirly slide of good and evil, of the terrifying and the ridiculous, of fear and ecstasy, often plunges you, via that same “touch,” into metaphysical no man’s land, and then spits you back into a “normal” world that is forever corrupted by the experience, and then sometimes he’ll do it again. In the book, I discuss this according to the concept of the uncanny. Anybody who’s seen his Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr., or even The Elephant Man knows what I’m talking about.

3) I’m so beyond intrigued by Gilliam’s use of madness as a means of representing some secretive/forbidden knowledge of the world. Explain what that means and why we must ‘silent’ the mad.

Gilliam has a rather famous fondness for using the mythic in his films in really provocative ways. In the book, I connect this motif in his films to his employment of the grotesque to “code” the mythic in a way that it stands out from whatever the “normal” is. Gilliam’s “mad” characters are often “coded” in just this way: the content of their madness usually retains some kind of reference point in “mythic thinking,” which usually mismatches them or puts them in tension with the “normal” in the cultural setting of the films. This notion of the mad having some kind of secret or forbidden knowledge about the world emerges through threading Foucault’s Madness and Civilization into this discussion, but Gilliam’s characters do indeed, through their tendencies toward the mythic, seem to discover things and seem to know things that are inaccessible to other characters in the films. It is precisely this kind of thinking and knowledge that marks them as crazy.

Basically, Foucault argues that the madness in the West, before modernity takes a firm hold, is ideologically freighted with a weird kind of metaphysical depth, with a troubling sort of significance: everything that was at the limits of human life was given over to the domain of the mad, including secret wisdom about the Fall, apocalyptic fantasies, hidden knowledge of the afterlife, but also the mad were a kind of mirror for all of the disturbing aspects that people saw in themselves but, perhaps, didn’t want to identify fully with. Likewise, the mad were maintained at the very limits of society—put aboard ships of fools, kept just outside the city gates, as vagrants and beggars, in the same cultural “spaces” that had been occupied by lepers in previous ages. They served an ideological purpose. Under modernity, or “the age of reason,” to put it rather succinctly, all of the stuff that the mad “stood for” vanished under the cold gaze of rationality. This leaves madness no ideological function at all—they now occupy a silence. Their physical presence at the limits of society is now also problematic, so they are institutionalized, etc., hidden away from a modern culture for which they mean nothing and to which they appear as repulsive, crazy, and sick.

So what Gilliam does, in many of his films, is to construct madness according to the medieval/mythic model, but situate them in the modern context. And to go a step further, his films are, of course, sympathetic to the mad characters, whose madness often turns out to be the only “sane” response to the onslaught of a crushing modern rationality. So the “we” from your question is, then, those working for the maintenance of modern rationality, which must crush the mad and the mythic in order to install its own “mythology of de-mythologization,” a term I borrow from Markus Gabriel. Gabriel’s point is that the only real point of reference we have for thinking is reflection, that is, through imagination, which works itself out in frameworks like mythologies. Mythic thinking is always culturally or ideologically circumscribed, in a way, even, or especially the mythology of de-mythologization that now reigns under the mask of rationality. The danger is that rationality is predicated upon crushing every other form of thinking as simply not rational. It’s this very thing that Gilliam’s films attempt to upset, and I would situate myself on his side.

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4) Thinking about the mad ‘silence’ . . . you mentioned, albeit briefly, the work of The Marx Brothers. I’ll be honest, one of three major life-conversions occurred when I first watched Cocoanuts. Totally serious. Changed my life, views, perspective, everything. I want to be Harpo Marx. Speaking of Harpo, in their first six films, he’s a violent little cuss. All cute and cuddly, a little Pan/Sprite, but then he bites women, hits people with whatever he can pull out of his coat, shoots at people, chases the gals with what I’m thinking are not the best of intentions, and gooses Maggie D on screen. Explain, if you will, that dynamic of the harmless yet violent yet comical yet little mute clown that perpetually tugs at my heart-strings.

My fellow Nashvillians, Peter Kline and Nate Kerr, have turned me on to reading more Kierkegaard over the last year or so (thanks fellas), and one of the first things that came to mind here is Beckmann from Repetition. He’s kind of like Kierkegaard’s Jesus Christ of farce. It’s not a perfect comparison, but look at how Kierkegaard describes Beckmann in action: “It is an incognito in which the lunatic demon of the comical lives and from which it leaps forth, transporting everything into licentiousness. …There is in B[eckmann] a fundamental wildness, and unruly intelligence through which he achieves a kind of lunacy.” Is that not something like the obscene charisma of Harpo? And then this primal wackiness is only a few short steps of association from something more along the lines of the id.

Zizek, of course, lines Groucho, Chico, and Harpo up with the superego, ego, and id, respectively, and there may be something to this. Along these lines, Harpo, standing for id, the silent drive, combines “utter corruption and innocence,” Zizek says, in a character that seeks whatever seems to please him at any given the moment, whether that takes the form of seeking gratification that may be sexual, aggressive, or simply chaotic and childlike. I think your invocation of “clown” to describe him is on the right track too, though, and it may have some overlap with these other reference points.

Veselovsky writes that “The clown is the lawless herald of the objectively abstract truth. At a time when all life was built within the conventional frameworks of caste, prerogative, scholastic science and hierarchy, truth was localized according to these frameworks…. All general human truth, not adapted to the caste, to an established profession, i.e. to determined rights, was excluded… It was only tolerated in a harmless form, arousing laughter, without any pretense at any serious role. Thus was the clown’s social meaning determined.” The clown is the anarchic figure of the objective freedom of all which persists outside of the constraints of social oppression, if even the role of the clown is as much of the truth of such freedom that we see. The clown is permitted because he is perceived as innocuous, only there to elicit laughter. What Bakhtin thinks, however, and what you seem to be responding to, is that there is indeed great power in that laughter: “Every act of world history,” he writes, “was accompanied by a laughing chorus.” And if clowns like Harpo, Chaplin, Keaton (though he’s kind of a glum clown) are still converting people almost a hundred years after their day, then perhaps the grotesque is still doing its subversive work on the powers in society responsible for all of the acts of “world history” we’ve been implicated in or have suffered. What concerns me is that I cannot think of many contemporary equivalents.

5) Despite what I think you may call an absence of Burtonesque defiance, what did you think of the show Carnivale?

I enjoyed the show, but what I found really interesting in it was the dualism that it maintained between the two competing characters—the carney kid and the pastor—and the mostly good and mostly evil (respectively) forces they represented. I thought it was a very provocative comparison/contrast of these two worlds. The kid is orphaned, has powers he doesn’t fully understand or know how to use, gets joined up with a gang of carnival people who look after him, and so on. The carnival code and justice system is based on maintenance of community (though that community can seem a little xenophobic at times). Of course, these are people not meant for the world; they are outcasts, freaks, and losers whom society has rejected. The pastor seems, by turns, both sincere in his faith and hungry to use and exploit whomever he wishes—sometimes for more power or sway and sometimes just for the obscene pleasure of using them up, whether it’s sexually, metaphysically, politically. And often he is both—and these two sides unify, but his sincerity seems not to suffer from its new aim. He is at once the benevolent pastor and, behind the scenes, a satanic, murderous tyrant. He is ever conscious of himself, his plots, and his powers, while the kid fumbles through a process of self-discovery aided by the carnival family. It reminded me quite a lot of Tod Browning’s Freaks, insofar as its sympathetic view of the carnival people, and rather negative perspective on the outside world. But even more than this, in setting the church in its sights, I didn’t think Carnivale was really going too far (there wasn’t much I hadn’t first seen in the news), and it offered an interesting counterpoint in the “freaklesiology” (you like that don’t you, Tripp?) of the carnival as a very peculiar, though well ordered, mostly benevolent culture of weirdoes who spurn a world that hates them, fears them, are repulsed by them, but who put down good money in order to flirt with the desires in themselves that they trust least.

~~~~~~~

Yes, I do like that, Schuy. Yes, I do.

And you’ll like this: check out his band, Manzanita Bones. Now. Do it now. Bye.

  • Dave P

    ” The danger is that rationality is predicated upon crushing every other form of thinking as simply not rational.” This is a great line. Firstly because of the context of madness as potentially representing some form of truth. (For some reason it makes me think of a Batman TV cartoon I saw once as a kid where a bad guy turned everyone into zombies (or vampires or something), and Batman had to find the anti-venom and release it into the atmosphere to save everyone. But as it turned out Batman was the zombie and the ‘anti-venom’ was actually the poison. It was like a 30-minute Fight Club episode. Or the Monty Python sketch with the ‘madman’ who has an invisible friend who turns out to be real, although I couldn’t find that sketch online I seem to remember it.)

    But secondly because I think so many people throw the term ‘rational’ around as some trump card to win arguments, when really it is so poorly defined that it doesn’t mean anything at all. It comes back to the ‘whoever defines the terms wins the argument’ concept. The usefulness of madness in art I think is to point out this incongruence.

    • theamishjihadist

      Holy crap, Batman (I mean, Dave P): I need to see that episode! (Sounds like a work of genius!)

    • http://www.facebook.com/schuy.weishaar Schuy Weishaar

      Thanks for the comment. Great stuff. And I really want to see that Batman episode. I remember one where Killer Croc is taken in by circus sideshow mountain people–very Bakhtinian.

      • theamishjihadist

        Now I am familiar with that episode (it was ganked from a comic, if I remember correctly).

  • Greg

    Did Kierkegaard ever write anything about the ‘role’ of the clown? I know he speaks of ‘madness’, in the sense of the folly of the gospel, but I’ve not read enough of his work to know if he speaks about the function of clowns or even court-jesters. That would be really intriguing.

    • theamishjihadist

      Greg,

      Good question. I am now perusing my oh-so lovely collection of SK books searching for something in that realm (I really love his book, Repetition–so good).

    • http://www.facebook.com/schuy.weishaar Schuy Weishaar

      I came across this from Part I of Either/Or. You might find it interesting: “A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.”