Let’s start by admitting that, in recent times, we consciously veer away from other bodies in public, that we are in fear of a lot, if not everything, that comes out of mouths, and that when we touch things with our hands, it is as if we have rubbed the lining of our bowels and then smeared it all over the doorknob.
Oddly enough, this deep disgust for the “grossness” of the human body is, in fact, a source of great comedy, crude and impertinent comedy, which pervades various works of modernist literature. To become acquainted with some of the central themes of grotesquerie in literature, I recommend this Kristen Renzi article. While she writes in a pre-pandemic age, I have very little doubt that this article serves as a window into post-pandemic writing, or, equally, as a springboard for would-be writers, when widespread resentment and/or disgust of the human body will hopefully transform into the butts of lighthearted parody: When we will look at our bodies as if they are cookie-cut from an universal dough, as if they grow/expand in a searing, universal oven, and wonder what the year 2020 might have been if our collective human body was not so delectably soft, and so painfully prone to a ravenous enemy so tiny that air itself could crush it.
Renzi begins her depiction of the inadequacies of the human body by referencing Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel, “Lolly Willowes”: Lolly is a spinster witch who inhabits a small, country town. She has a knack for baking. So far, Warner’s protagonist does not transgress the “corporeal location of grotesquerie” (Renzi 60). Not even close. But Lolly’s wicked imagination betrays her quiet, domestic existence in more ways than one: It starts with the “curious developments” that Lolly observes in her currant scones (Renzi 60), and leads to Lolly baking cookies that will end up in the shapes and likenesses of other townspeople, watching these “human bodies”, which act as living, at least in the eyes of Lolly, stand-ins for the baker’s barren bosom, rise up in the “incubator” that is her oven. Renzi writes that this baking scene is a “grotesque parody” of Lolly’s neighbors’ bodies (Renzi 61), not only, I presume, because of the “curious developments” that these cookie-bodies undergo in the baking process, but because of the freakish consumption of these shrunken bodies by the same people that they are meant to embody.
Here are a couple grotesquely-fascinating descriptions pulled directly from Warner’s novel: “Mr. Jones had a lump on his back, as though he were carrying the Black Dog in a bag”; “Miss Carloe’s hedgehog had swelled until it was almost as large as its mistress. The dough had run into it, leaving a great hole in Miss Carloe’s side” (Warner 130).
At times, Renzy will approach grotesque depictions of the human body through the discipline of teratology. Teratology is the general term for scientific studies focused on human body deformities and abnormalities; or, in Willowes’ world, the “freak bodies” in the oven. An exploration of modern as well as ancient teratological studies would serve as a wonderful starting point for writers of the bodily grotesque. Renzi, for the purposes of this essay, takes a less scientific, and a less objective view, of the spinster’s oven and scone dough: In other words, as Lolly’s dough pops and twirls and folds into itself, the dough becomes a “catalyst for revelation” or an “unmasking agent” (Renzi 64). Renzi means that the dough, which is the fundamental substance from which all human bodies are given life, nonetheless “develops” in different, freakish ways, and that these doughy developments reveal, to Lolly alone, unique physical aberrations of real-life people that may literally hide beneath the thin veneer of clothing, or that may simply symbolize the generally frustrating deficiencies of all our bodies.
Post-pandemic writers will surely be thinking about the body’s potential for grotesquerie. I foresee creative descriptions of the human body, its capacities and incapacities, its location in modern society, as more “freakish” or conducive to fretful, little laughs of uncertainty than strong and statuesque like the Stoics or the Humanists would have it. Most of all, I look forward to novels like Townsend Warner’s “Lolly Willowes” because such novels will provide fascinating insights into the human’s troubled, yet wildly colorful, relationship with the bodies that we live and die in.
Kristen Renzi, Dough girls and biscuit boys the queer potential of the countercommunal grotesque body within modernist literature (Baltimore, Md: Modernism/modernity, 2015), 22(1), 57-80.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes; or, The Loving Huntsman (New York: New York Review of Books, 1999), 130.