Our contemporary artists decorate the walls with monstrous forms rather than reproducing clear images of the familiar world. […] they paint fluted stems with oddly shaped leaves and volutes […] dainty flowers unrolling out of roots and topped, without rhyme or reason, by figurines. The little stems finally, support half-figures crowned by human or animal heads. Such things, however, never existed, do not now exist, and shall never come into being. (20)The fusion of the “human and nonhuman” is an essential element of the visual application of the style (24). It creates the “very contrast that ominously permits of no reconciliation. To recognize and reveal such a construct of opposites is somewhat diabolic; the order is destroyed and an abyss opened where we thought to rest on firm ground” (59). Subtle alterations make the familiar unfamiliar, and reality itself is destabilized.
Edgar Allan Poe’s use of the grotesque served as an acknowledged influence on a young Flannery O’Connor:
I have not been influenced by the best people. […] The Slop period was followed by the Edgar Allan Poe period which lasted for years and consisted chiefly in a volume called the Humerous Tales of E.A.Poe. These were mighty humerous—one about a young man who was too vain to wear his glasses and consequently married his grandmother by accident; another about a fine figure of a man who in his room removed wooden arms, wooden legs, hair piece, artificial teeth, voice box, etc. etc.; another about the inmates of a lunatic asylum who take over the establishment and run it to suit themselves. (HB 98)The tales O’Connor describes are highly representative of the grotesque tradition. Indeed, Kayser asserts that Poe’s “distortion of all ingredients, the fusion of different realms, the coexistence of beautiful bizarre, ghastly, and repulsive elements, the merger of the parts into a turbulent whole” mark a significant step in evolution of the literary grotesque (79-81). It is interesting to note that in Poe’s work, particularly in his essential invention of the modern detective story, he introduces a counter to the fracturing influence of the grotesque in the character of the masterful detective (80).
Popular depictions of the grotesque abound in 1950s America, from an abundance of detective fiction to horror films and others. A great many of these follow the detective model, with the superior detective or scientist overcoming the fragmentation of reality via intelligence, technology, or, as in some noir books and films, an abundance of violence. The conclusion of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, shown above, invokes this trope, as the Dr. Bennell's shattered reality is saved at the last moment by coincidence and the organs of the state.
The police-drama television show Dragnet, which debuted in 1952, exemplifies the form of the reassembled grotesque. The catchphrase, "Just the Facts," and a strictly repeated concluding segment that acts as a "final report" on the action of justice, allow the audience to go through the process of societal fragmentation week after week, always assured that the conclusion will "tie up the loose ends." By virtue of the association of the detective with the police heirarchy, the state itself, employing the tools of scientific deduction and empirical understanding, becomes the agent by which a fragmented reality will be held together. On a side note, by interweaving their advertisements within the structure of the show and employing its actors in their spots, sponsor companies assume the conceptual authority of the show, become absolute reporters of "fact":
Less popular modern depictions of the grotesque stress the alienation and powerlessness of the Self in a rejection of the “syntheses of the nineteenth century” that had preiviously served to provide a sense of order and meaning (Kayser 188). Here the disruption refuses to be mended.
Discourses of the “monstrous” in disability studies depict a similar disruption of the underlying premises of the social construct. In such readings, the socially constructed self “subjugates ‘something’ more fundamental than the self” (Ng 2). This “something” is “the Real” which is distinct from the perceived world of social construction, the “Symbolic Order”. “The Real” comprises that which is vaguely defined as “the Void”:
’[The Void] refers to that which cannot be directly inscribed or experienced, such as death or sexual difference, but which keeps insisting, and maintaining its presence through repetition’ […] Because of its paradoxical nature—the inability to experience it is countered by its insistent presence— it registers as an ‘empty space’ which defies signification, and which the Symbolic cannot integrate. It is a ‘surplus’ outside the Symbolic, a ‘black hole’ which threatens to engulf and negate the Symbolic fantasy. (Ng 188)The monster is the expression of the Real and thus feared both as the external other and also as the threat to reveal the foundation of the self “upon the Void.”
O’Connor’s confrontation with the divine is procedurally equivalent to the encounter with the grotesque or the monstrous. The moments of confrontation are embedded in distortions of the commonplace:
Her characters come to their revolutionary moments of grace, the utter conversion of their lives, as the extraordinary occurs within ordinary events, thought they may be extreme: Hazel Motes staring at a line of trees after his Essex has been destroyed, Mrs. May facing the horns of a charging bull, the Grandmother looking down the The Misfit’s gun barrel, Mrs. McIntyre transfixed at the sight of a priest as he places a wafer in a dying man’s mouth. (Wood 180)In these moments, the ordinary components of reality take on unearthly, unfamiliar significances. Hazel’s treeline becomes a window on eternity, “extend[ing] from his eyes to the blank gray sky that went on, depth after depth, into space” (WB 209). Similarly, as the bull gores Mrs. May in “Greenleaf” the landscape takes on an explicitly unfamiliar quality: “the entire scene in front of her had changed—the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky—and she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable” (CS 333). In these and other instances, a moment of violence or revelation of knowledge alters the very substance of universe, stripping away the apparent in favor of the universal.
Often the catalyst for the process of revelation is a person or thing considered monstrous. The Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is an ethical monster, a murderer, having rejected the easy moralism of the status quo. He denies the reduction of evil to disorder offered by the Oedipal diagnosis of the prison psychologist, and he renounces the consumerist vision of the good life, the “democracy of goods,” proclaiming that he would not steal because, “Nobody had nothing I wanted” (CS 130). He embraces a literalist, atheistic ontology: In the absence of a Christian system of redemption and resurrection, “there’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing someone or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness” (132). Evoking Dostoevsky’s “there is no virtue if there is no immortality,” he denounces Christ for raising the dead and throwing “everything off balance” (131). In the absence of any good, only the assertion of dominance over other human beings brings pleasure, but the possibility of Christ is a source of torment. If there is something other than the world apparent, then he is utterly evil in the midst of good. Yet, not having seen the resurrection himself, he will not accept the petty version of morality offered by his self-satisfied society.
The Grandmother is the embodiment of modernist complacency, seeking goodness in the Misfit's "breeding", yet she reacts to the genuine suffering revealed in the cracking of his voice. He is a fissure in her ontology of secular moralism, exposing the actual evil and suffering that inhabits the world apparent: “She saw the man’s face twisted as if he were going to cry and she murmured, ‘Why you’re one of my own babies. You’re one of my children!’ She reached out and touched him on the shoulder” (132). She accepts her own kinship with evil, and the shared need for redemption.
Other examples of the monstrous as key to revelation abound across O’Connor’s oeuvre, often in the form of physical disability. In “The Life You Save Could Be Your Own” and The Violent Bear It Away an “idiot” child initiates a moral confrontation. In “The Lame Shall Enter First” Rufus’s club foot functions as a mark of his distinction. He alone in the, ironically-named, Sheppard’s modern world retains a sense of the flaws of secular complacency. He, looking through the telescope Sheppard employs only as a tool for material improvement, identifies a moral universe with consequences beyond “success” or “failure”. Moreover, marked as a sign of things beyond the visible, he leads Sheppard’s neglected son Norton into this wider world, albeit through death.