Figurationen des Grotesken in Goethes Werken by Herausgegeben von (review)
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Figurationen des Grotesken in Goethes Werken.
Herausgegeben von Edith Anna Kunz, Dominik Müller und Markus Winkler. Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2012. 283Seiten + 12 s/w Abbildungen. €24,80.

The elasticity of many aesthetic concepts can be as much a virtue as a vice. On the one hand, it can afford them the capacity to gather together systematically under a single heading a diverse array of disparate phenomena. But it can also seem that one application of an aesthetic term is so far removed from another, so lacking for a meaningful overlap, that the term itself risks forfeiting its descriptive power. This danger seems particularly acute in the case of those concepts that exist in a position of analytic remove from their domain of application. When a concept does not belong to the self-descriptions of a given historical moment, that is, its utility as a heuristic tool depends both on the precise contouring of the concept itself and its felicitous employment. Such instances differ radically from one like “the beautiful,” common as it is to a broad swath of languages, territories, and historical epochs. The ubiquity of the beautiful lends credence to the belief in a common core among the varied linguistic and cultural contexts. But between these two poles, there is still a third possibility. “The grotesque,” for instance, possesses a temporally and geographically restricted tradition of usage within aesthetic contexts, but now enjoys a strong currency in critical discourse that cannot be reduced to or derived from its historical pedigree. In other words, “the grotesque” often functions as a classificatory term even [End Page 701] in cases where it does not belong to the repertoire of aesthetic concepts employed in a particular age or discursive setting. In a case like this one, we are invited to ask what is gained or lost when phenomena are submitted to a potentially alien interpretive category. It need not discredit the use of the concept as such, but it should imbue us with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The term “grotesque” first emerged in the Renaissance as a descriptor for ornamental wall decorations discovered in Rome and throughout Italy, and made its way into the other European languages in the seventeenth century with the connotations of the laughable and bizarre. For the German context, the late eighteenth century proved decisive, as Justus Möser and Karl Friedrich Flögel attempted to lend the term a more systematic shape. However, the importance of this conceptual history is dwarfed by the contemporary purchase of the term, which is due largely to two large-scale studies from the mid-twentieth century. In the German-speaking world, Wolfgang Kayser’s 1957 study Das Groteske: Seine Gestaltung in Malerei und Dichtung made a strong case for the importance of the concept in the analysis of nineteenth-century literary realism and modernism, while also drawing a number of connections to the history of painting. For Kayser, the importance of the grotesque consists in its apotropaic function; the invitation of disorder and monstrosity into the field of representation serves, on this reading, to ward them off. The reception of Kayser’s still very impressive tour through modern literature was bolstered by Mikhail Bakhtin’s landmark study Rabelais and His World, first published in 1965. Bakhtin identifies the grotesque as the domain of mundane corporeality, separated off from otherworldly spiritual aspirations and civilizing moral injunctions. For him, carnival is a site in which this porous and erotically charged body reigns supreme. In contradistinction to Kayser, then, Bakhtin celebrates the grotesque as a moment when society deviates from the official social norms and expresses its most elemental needs and desires. Even though one finds in both studies a comprehensive survey of the historical usages of the word grotesque, each ultimately articulates a proprietary understanding of the concept.

In the collection of essays under review, the concept of the grotesque is at times used in the sense developed by Kayser, at times as Bakhtin did, and at times in altogether new ways. One of the key reasons for this variation—if not vacillation—is the near absence of the term from Goethe’s own vocabulary. The grotesque simply...