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5.4 A taste for the grotesque

The grotesque was one aspect of this new aesthetic. The antithesis of the sublime and the beautiful, it was defined by Victor Hugo in his Preface to Cromwell:

In the thinking of the moderns … the grotesque plays a massive role. It is everywhere; on the one hand, it creates the deformed and the horrid; on the other, the comic and the farcical. It brings to religion thousands of original superstitious ideas and to poetry thousands of picturesque imaginings. It scatters and sows generously in air, water, earth and fire a myriad hybrid beings alive in popular medieval traditions; it is the grotesque that makes the terrifying circle of the [witches’] sabbath turn in the shadows, that gives Satan his horns, cloven hoofs and bat's wings. It is also the grotesque that … hurls into Christians’ hell those hideous figures later evoked by the grim genius of Dante and Milton … If it turns from the ideal to the real, it performs there inexhaustible parodies of humanity. The creations of its fantasy are those Scaramouches, Crispins and Harlequins [well-known comic types of the Commedia dell’Arte], grimacing shadows of men, types totally unknown to grave antiquity and yet originating in classical Italy [ancient Roman drama]. It is, finally, the grotesque that, adding colour, by turns, to the imaginative drama of both the south and the north, makes Sganarelle prance about Don Juan [in a comedy by the French seventeenth-century dramatist Molière], Mephistopheles around Faust.

(Hugo, 1949, p.27; trans. Walsh)

The ‘picturesque imaginings’ of the grotesque recall both the intense, hybrid interiors of Brighton Pavilion and the nightmare experiences recounted by Thomas De Quincey.


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