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ArribaAbajoGaldós and the grotesque

John W. Kronik

At first sight a forage into the grotesque in Galdós may appear to be an untenable enterprise.34 The standard view of Galdós is that he is the highpoint of realism in Spain. And a standard view of the grotesque is that it is incongruent with realism. One expert on the grotesque says outright: «The post-Romantic nineteenth century is quickly covered in a history of the grotesque».35 But even a cursory reading of Galdós in the context of the esthetic of the grotesque suggests that the notion of relating the two is anything but fanciful. One may wonder, in fact, if an artist with a satiric, ironic vision of the world can possibly escape the grotesque in one form or another, particularly so if that vision fixes on the world of surrounding reality, for then we are in the disconcerting dual realm of reality distorted which is fundamental to the grotesque. Harking back to Victor Hugo's grasp of the grotesque as a phenomenon of nature, Philip Thomson, in his synthesis of various theories of the grotesque, takes this factor into account: unlike the fantastic, he writes, «the grotesque derives at least some of its effect from being presented within a realistic framework, in a realistic way».36 In any case, my insistence on associating the grotesque with Galdós is an act of homage to a writer who speaks to a modern world concerned with the monstrousness of its own nature and with the blurred domains of dream and reality.

I am by no means the first to have spotted this aspect of Galdós' art. The word «grotesque» crops up randomly in Galdós criticism. Many years ago Ángel del Río called Francisco Torquemada «el grotesco y sórdido avaro» but listed no ingredients on his label.37 At the same time, Vicente Gaos, in a perceptive commentary, already saw in Galdós the caricaturesque deformation that was to mark Valle-Inclán's literary style and conception of Spain. A recent critic wrote in the same vein about the «voluntad de esperpento» with which Galdós portrays the bourgeoisie's narrow aspirations. Clavería and Correa have looked into the demonic and diabolical undercurrent in Galdós' novels. Pérez Minik was one of the first to recognize the presence of the grotesque in Galdós' deeprooted humoristic vein. Michael Nimetz, in his book on Galdós' humor, took up this cue when he wrote about Ángel Guerra in the following terms: «it must be said that Galdós, here and elsewhere, had a propensity for the grotesque. In this respect he stands apart from most of his immediate contemporaries in Spain -Alarcón, Pereda, Palacio Valdés, Valera- and joins a particular current of Spanish artistic expression which defies any strict chronological frontier» (p. 135). One might take exception to his inclusion of Pereda in this list, for the author of Sotileza was now and then given to the tradition of Quevedo and Alemán, but about Galdós Nimetz is right to the point that this reader   —40→   wonders why he did not develop his argument. Peter Earle, following similar lines, insisted that Galdós' treatment of serious themes is fundamentally comic and that his protagonists are for the most part «obras maestras de la caricatura» who fail in life «por irónicas incongruencias». The matter of the caricature in Galdós is studied at length by Baquero Goyanes in a useful survey which, however, has three limitations: Baquero seesaws insecurely between the caricaturesque and the grotesque; he devotes himself largely to a listing of procedures; and he is more interested in sources than in functions and in connecting the procedures with Galdós' realism than in discovering their deeper dimensions. The most direct and most accomplished study of the grotesque in Galdós is Betty J. Bäuml's brief essay on the bourgeois grotesque in Torquemada en la hoguera.38 Despite its brevity, it is an excellent analysis and the only one to date to found its methodological approach on the existing literature on the grotesque. It has not yet attracted the notice it deserves. Evidently, my predecessors in Galdós criticism, even when they have taken note of his grotesqueries, have skirted the issue. Bäuml, the only one to confront it, limits her discussion to a single novel and achieves fine results but attempts no synthesis of the problem. To this capsule survey of the thin critical attention that our subject has received, Paul Ilie's work on the grotesque should be added. Ilie has probably focused more attention than any of our colleagues on the esthetic of the grotesque in Hispanic letters, because he sees it as a major current in the mainstream of Spanish culture. The result of his conviction is a series of stimulating articles on the psychological disposition and the formal execution of the grotesque in Spanish literature ranging from the pastoral novel to Machado and Valle-Inclán.39 He has not turned his sights on Galdós.

The critics' failure to engage the question of the grotesque in Galdós may stem in part from the fact that the grotesque is historically associated with the Baroque, with Romanticism, and with the modern absurd, but not with nineteenth-century realism. The reluctance to treat the subject, though, surely has something to do also with the elusive nature of the grotesque. We may recognize it readily enough, we may sense it, perhaps even describe it, but we are hard put to define or explain it. The laws of the grotesque have never been codified; there is no poetics of the grotesque. If Wolfgang Kayser, after devoting some two hundred pages to the problem, could get no closer to it than the title of his conclusion implies -«An Attempt to Define the Nature of the Grotesque»- then the inclination to take a ready detour is understandable. Kayser warns us, quite rightly, that «the individual forms and detachable contents [of the grotesque] are ambiguous and suffused with the most diverse meanings» (p. 181). The case is not about to be solved and closed in these pages, which for their theoretical understructure rely on the existing and burgeoning bibliography on the grotesque.40


Whether their approach is phenomenological, philological, or psychological, students of the subject are wont to arrive at the combination of traits so often associated with the grotesque: horror and humor. The expression of an innate fear mitigated by laughter results in a union of incompatibles. This unresolved clash of incompatibles (to combine Kayser with Thomson) encompasses the creative process, the work of art as object, and the perception of the work. That makes of the grotesque a style founded on principles of disharmony whose pet figure of speech, as Kenneth Burke has remarked, is the oxymoron.41 A favorite fusion of this sort is the contiguity of reality and the supernatural. To this basic precept Kayser adds the notion that the merger of mutually unconformable elements causes alienation. By that he means a perception of estrangement from an accustomed norm of order. Victor Hugo's insistence that these supposed deviations from the norm are simply one more norm of nature's may be well taken but does not lessen our perception of them as aberrant and disturbing. In those disquieting modalities, it must be emphasized, resides the charm of the grotesque. The absurdity that results from the mixing of incompatible categories is a positive artistic statement of a negative Weltanschauung. It is positive insofar as it is expressive of a social and existential position and insofar as it is a structuring element of the work of art. The grotesque attracts, furthermore, by thrusting the reader into a territory of mysterious ambivalence between anxiety aroused and anxiety allayed.

For my purposes and to arrive at Galdós' own embrace of the grotesque, I need to approach the term according to its more modern connotations. These tend to be broader and more flexible than earlier conceptions and reflect Kayser's observation of the historical development of the grotesque in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That is, the demonic, mythic dimension of the grotesque has been attenuated, if not lost, in modern times. What is still connected with the grotesque is distortion and excess, the apposition of discrepancies, the play of masks, the comic elements. Much diminished is the fantastic grotesque, with its emphasis on the metaphysical, the oneiric, the superhuman, the abysmal, and the ominous. We still find these ingredients; we find them in Galdós; but more rarely and secondarily. For that reason it is more prudent to talk about elements of the grotesque in Galdós rather than about Galdós as a writer of the grotesque. When I deal with the grotesque, then, I will have in mind the following traits: a plastic conception of the literary art; a juxtaposition of components that are perceived as incompatible, especially a fusion of reality and its contradiction; a sense of alienation -that is, a feeling of discomfort, of estrangement from an order; a distortion of lines that is more extreme and more problematic than the caricaturesque; and finally, a stimulus to laughter in which we sense a measure of unhealthiness. The elements of the traditional grotesque will be lurking a bit farther back in my mind: the demonic and the monstrous that elicit horror.


So much for the critical state of the art, the problems of definition, and my governing assumptions. In treating the grotesque in Galdós, I obviously cannot cover the whole subject. The cases I have drawn from his novels are conveniently illustrative. Furthermore, I am going to focus on the physical grotesque. There are other manifestations in Galdós: the psychic grotesque, the moral grotesque, the fantastic grotesque, the linguistic grotesque, and so on. For one thing, the physical grotesque involves or implies all the others. For another, it is the most blatant and the most commented on. Finally, I need no more than the physical grotesque to establish the case I wish to make in this introduction.

The points I propose to stress are three. First: Galdós uses motifs of the grotesque as techniques for the plastic rendition of decadence and the projection of psychic alienation. We are here in the well-trodden terrain of satire and social criticism. I will pay special attention to Nicolás Rubín and La familia de León Roch and to the Carnival scenes in Nazarín in this connection. Second: the grotesque is used to project the sublime, as a beautifying and humanizing device. To illustrate this process, I will use Tía Roma in Torquemada en la hoguera and Ujo in Nazarín. Third: the grotesque in Galdós is a self-referential category, a self-conscious device that reveals art as game. To explain this point and to synthesize all three, I will turn for help to the wet nurse in El amigo Manso.

The word «grotesque» -grotto-like- referred originally to strange ornamental paintings discovered in the late fifteenth century on the walls of Italian excavations, and only subsequently did it pass into literary usage -with Montaigne and Rabelais, for example. Given this sequence from painting to literature, it is not surprising that physical deformation of a plastic nature should be at the root of the grotesque in Galdós.42 The esthetic impulse that fans this procedure is evident when the narrator says of Marcelina Polo in El doctor Centeno: «era lo que en toda la amplitud de la palabra se llama una mujer fea. Su cara se salía ya de los términos de la estética...» (IV, 1317).43 This particular vignette is counterbalanced by some redeeming virtues, but in Galdós' technique of deforming portraiture, the brush strokes frequently serve to destroy the bearer of the image they create. Nicolás Rubín, Maxi's cleric brother in Fortunata y Jacinta, has a face so pock-marked it looks like a sieve; his body is so hirsute that a whole paragraph is given over to this, his most distinguishing feature; and more space is dedicated to his ravenous appetite than to his devotional activities as a priest. It is interesting that in the film version of Fortunata y Jacinta the scenes depicting Nicolás were among the distressingly few that projected faithfully the spirit of the novel. That fact underscores the imagistic nature of Galdós' technique. The distortion of surface features places the object into ridicule; the reader perceives an image that he laughs   —43→   at; the laughter disposes of the object. Such descriptions and the conceptions that underlie them, even if they do not evoke the demonic, surpass the merely caricaturesque and reach the grotesque in the extreme degree of their exaggeration and in their distortion for its own sake. Moreover, in the case of Nicolás, we are faced with the contradiction of a physical and moral monster in priestly garb. The coexistence of these disarming irreconcilables makes a grotesque figure out of Nicolás; and when we consider the influence that this paragon of pollution wields, then we even begin to sense the workings of the demonic. The condemnation of a society and a Church in decadence could not be more resounding.

This technique of the esthetic rendition of decadence through external deformity is made explicit in a passing reference to Doña Cándida in El amigo Manso: «nunca me pareció más odiosa su faz de emperador romano, que, con la decadencia, tocaba en la caricatura» (IV, 1250). Correspondingly, Manso's description of Doña Cándida's furnishings is a still life that as a painting could be made to look harmonious; but here, through the word, the juxtaposition of disparate items results in a grotesque projection of Doña Cándida's decadence, and with hers that of her class: «no se vaya a creer que allí estaba la vajilla, a no ser que por tal se conceptuaran dos avecillas disecadas, dos tinteros de cobre, una cabeza de palo semejante a la que usan los peluqueros para exhibir sus trabajos, un perro de porcelana, dos o tres platos de dudoso mérito, una zapatilla mora, un puño de espada, una ratonera y otras baratijas, que eran lo que la señora no había podido vender de sus antiguos ajuares» (IV, 1271). Whether the artist is here simply recording what exists or imposing a private vision of deformity is precisely the enigma that constitutes the game of the grotesque.

In La familia de León Roch the physical descriptions signal in more devastating fashion yet the hypocrisy, and warped values of contemporary society.44 Describing the Marqués de Tellería's resemblance to his daughter, the narrator actually announces the grotesque combination of horror and the comical: «lo que en ella cautivaba, en él hacía reír, y lo serio se mudaba en cómico, porque nada es tan horriblemente bufón como la fisonomía de una mujer hermosa colgada como de espetera en las facciones de un viejo mezquino» (IV, 785). The face is converted into a mask in true grotesque fashion. Just in case we are tempted to exalt María Egipcíaca on the basis of this comparison, let us not forget that her wayward mysticism is an attack on «beatería» through a series of inversions. However, a supreme application of the grotesque is reserved for León's brother-in-law Leopoldo in a description that bears quoting in full. The array of grotesque elements that it contains cannot escape the reader's eye: the deforming mirror that projects an image of horror; the metaphorical conversion of a living body into a skeleton; the representation of a grinning death, and the generally ghoulish and nocturnal atmosphere; the animalization of the character,   —44→   a typical grotesque device that intermingles disparate features so as to disrupt our view of a natural order. Note also the alienating procedure of separating the image from the subject, the grimace from the face, the flesh from the skeleton, life from living death. Finally, we have here a ludicrous linguistic distortion in a massive sentence consisting of 277 words. Its very last clause signals exactly what this section of the text has done to the character: «se acaba de consumar el asesinato».

Alzó del papel los ojos, y, fijándolos en el gran espejo que delante de él estaba sobre la chimenea, vio una figura enjuta y macilenta, una mueca de calavera, en la cual la descomposición subterránea perdonara un poco de piel; dos ojos saltones con cierta viveza morbosa como la de los delirantes; un cuello delgado y violáceo, cuya piel, llena de costurones, parecía recientemente remendada; una nariz picuda y violácea también, de fina estampa, pero que, por su agudeza, iba tomando aspecto de pico y daba al rostro cierta fisonomía completamente ornitológica; una rala sembradura de pelos azafranados que rodeaban el largo óvalo de la cara en angosta faja, semejando el pañuelo que se pone a algunos muertos para que no se les caiga la mandíbula inferior; una frente estrecha y granulosa, en la cual había trazado el sombrero amoratada raya, semejante a un surco de sangre; una cabeza chata, en la cual los cabellos, bermejos, se partían en dos graciosas alas; una cara, en fin, que era, si así es permitido decirlo, la descomposición o la transfiguración de una cara hermosa, o, mejor dicho, la caricatura de una raza entera; y también vio dos manos metidas en bolsillos y dos pies de mujer cuyas puntas apenas asomaban bajo las enaguas que, en forma de pantalones, cubrían sus delgadas piernas; un cuerpo sin curvas, sin formas, sin donaires, como armadura hecha para la ropa; un traje de mañana rayado de arriba abajo; una corbata graciosamente anudada; un bastón que salía vertical de uno de los bolsillos, y una pomposa flor clavada sobre el pecho como el mango de un puñal cuando se acaba de consumar el asesinato.

(IV, 788)                

Joaquín Gimeno has observed that through insistence on detail, Galdós individualizes his characters.45 Indeed, such is the custom of the nineteenth-century novelist, but one must add, as we have just seen, that this insistence on detail, carried to extremes, is a vehicle of grotesque portraiture that arrives at reality through distortion in order to project a vision of its falseness. The moral depravity of a family, the buffoonish nature of a society, the decay of a whole race are thus portrayed and severely judged.

By means of a grotesque description, Galdós can sunder the object or scene so represented from the world of recognizable contemporary reality in which his narrations always operate. At the same time, he cuts the reader from that reality. The result is the destruction of a reality that yet maintains itself, a schism between mask and face that produces tensions. The reader is led to perceive a familiar reality as strange. To dramatize that sensation in Nazarín, Galdós resorts to that favored motif of the grotesque, Carnival.

Galdós situates the opening of Nazarín on Ash Wednesday, the frenzied climax of an extended rite of disorder. This is a time of spirits and supernatural forces, of Christianity turned pagan, of an amalgam of   —45→   the festive and the ominous. Song, dance, drunkenness, revelry, masquerade, transvestitism were all, at the time, ingredients of this orgiastic mass frolic. What the artist in his wildest fancy might be tempted to create, at this season was played out before his eyes. The grotesque's conventional juxtaposition of morbidity and frantic vitality was enacted for all to witness. Fascinated and repelled by the custom of Carnival, Galdós made this statement in an early article on the subject: «Es preciso resignarse... a presenciar las grotescas contorsiones, las arlequinadas que hace la Humanidad, atacada en estos tres días de una especie de mal de San Vito» (Crónica de Madrid, VI, 1504). Fixing on Carnival, Galdós has chosen as his artistic setting a moment when life is converted into fiction and identity is fluid. Onto this gyrating scene, he then implants his own series of grotesque tableaux, painting figures that are either hideously masked or need no masks to be hideous. In the description of Nazarín's landlady, we find the usual process of distortion, exaggeration, and insistence on detail, the animal metaphor, the suggestion of decadence; and notice also the pictorial conception: «vimos a Estefanía en chancletas, lavándose las manazas, que después se enjugó en su delantal de harpillera; la panza voluminosa, los brazos hercúleos, el seno emulando en proporciones a la barriga y cargando sobre ella, por no avenirse con apreturas de corsé; el cuello ancho, carnoso y con un morrillo como el de un toro; la cara encendida y con restos bien marcados de una belleza de brocha gorda, abultada, barroca, llamativa, como la de una ninfa de pintura de techos, dibujada para ser vista de lejos, y que se ve de cerca» (V, 1681). On the heels of this description, four women burst onto the scene who appear to be masked for the occasion but who turn out to be wearing their everyday faces.

What is it that Galdós accomplishes with these vignettes? For one thing, he manages to justify fully Nazarín's alienation from this perverted world and his flight into his private evangelism. Carnival with its accumulation of grotesques is the plastic transcription of Nazarín's psychic estrangement from his circumstance. His sally into the countryside is then the saint's reply to the threat of demonic forces. Beyond that, Galdós also effectively estranges the reader from that monstrous world -the social reality of late nineteenth-century Spain- into which Nazarín does not fit.

The innate grotesqueness of a Carnival atmosphere allows Galdós to literalize through the device of the mask his critical view of that society. Caricature transforms a face into mask through language; and a mask, as Kayser has maintained, is a motif of alienation. First, the wearer of the mask is estranged from himself: he is and is not himself. And second, the viewer is estranged from the wearer: the perceiver suffers the tension of his inability to see beyond the mask while cognizant of the existence of a hidden face that renders the mask incongruous. If all the world wears a mask, then man is estranged from the world. If the face is a mask, then the grotesque component is intensified because   —46→   the face is more dynamic than the mask and its qualities are inherent. A mask hides and freezes, but it can be taken off; take off a face, and you reveal a skeleton. When the dividing lines between face and mask are blurred -effaced- we, like the child who screams in terror at the sight of the witch, see only the grotesque that becomes the defining trait of man's character. Tragedy and farce, good and evil are no longer discrete concepts. The vision of degenerateness on a special occasion thus becomes a metaphor for man's general state. Reminiscent of Larra's «El mundo todo es máscaras. Todo el año es Carnaval» is Galdós' plaint in the article mentioned above: (Aquí hablamos del Carnaval que dura tres días y concluye el miércoles de Ceniza; hay otro Carnaval que dura trescientos sesenta y dos y principia donde concluye el primero. En éste las bromas son más pesadas, se engaña más fácilmente y es general hasta el punto de haber muy pocas personas que no escondan la fisonomía del alma bajo la careta de la cara» (VI, 1504). The saving grace rests with the process of writing, which is the unmasking of a fiction through the creation of another fiction. With the esthetic of the grotesque dependent on the public perception of it, Galdós by novelizing exhibits an evident faith in the special sensitivity of his reader and in the power of his art.

The mask that Galdós forces so many of his characters to don is not always destructive of the wearer. While many of his grotesque inventions suffer for their imperfections their creator's dehumanizing touch, it is significant that others by transcending their grotesqueness elicit the deformity of their surrounding structures. That is, one type belongs to a structure that is condemned; the other sits outside the structure. In both instances, the technical process usually begins with a physical portrait in the grotesque manner. But then, in a further step, as the distorted façade is pierced, a subversion takes place. The reader, through an interpretive mechanism, is forced to put the lie to the perceptions he initially drew from the descriptive passages.

A case in point is Tía Roma, the garbage picker in Torquemada en la hoguera. This is the description of her: «era tan vieja, tan vieja y tan fea, que su cara parecía un puñado de telarañas revueltas con la ceniza; su nariz de corcho ya no tenía forma; su boca redonda y sin dientes menguaba o crecía, según la distensión de las arrugas que la formaban. Más arriba, entre aquel revoltijo de piel polvorosa, lucían los ojos de pescado, dentro de un cerco de pimentón húmedo. Lo demás de la persona desaparecía bajo un envoltorio de trapos y dentro de la remendada falda...» (V, 922). Does Tía Roma deserve such narrative treatment? By no means; and to forestall the reader's likely repugnance for her, the very next sentence speaks of «esta pobre mujer» and stresses her fidelity to the Torquemada family. At this point in the novel, we are confused in our perceptions. We soon understand the procedure, though, when Tía Roma turns down Torquemada's charity,   —47→   the offer of his mattress, and in oracular tones paints all the evil of Torquemada and dissociates herself from it. What a wondrous reversal! The object of the physical grotesque has transcended her inhuman exterior in order to bare her inner beauty. The grotesque representation prevents any identification with Tía Roma as a person and thereby makes her role all the more divinatory and her imperial spirit untied to earthly strictures. This creature of the lowest class also wears a mask, but when it is torn off, her sublimity is revealed and alongwith it the moral grotesqueness of Torquemada and his bourgeois values.

Perhaps a more striking example yet is Ujo in Nazarín, because his deformation is greater and begins linguistically with his peculiar name. (Tía Roma's, by contrast, is a direct signal of her nature.) Ujo is described as «[el] más feo, deforme y ridículo enano que es posible imaginar». A beggar with an enormous head, «una cabeza carnavalesca», he is the butt of an unending series of cruel jokes: «los chicos del pueblo tenían con él un Carnaval continuo» (V, 1741, 1743). But he enters the story through a church, and he leaves with a touch of the divine. No one in the novel, perhaps including Nazarín himself, displays the kindness, generosity, and unselfishness that Ujo brings to his pathetic love for Ándara. We are reminded of Leré's brother Juan in Ángel Guerra, the description of whom begins with the designation «monstruo» and ends with «ángel» (V, 1258-59). Valle-Inclán's idiot child in Divinas palabras of course also comes to mind. In his perception of Ujo, the reader passes quickly from horror to amusement to compassion. It is as if Ujo had taken off the mask that sparked our amused and horrified response. Only Ujo, like Tía Roma, has no mask to take off. That means we never lose sight of Ujo's shape: a head bobbing along on two little feet protruding from its beard. The split between his physical and his spiritual natures can never be resolved. As with Hugo's Quasimodo, the horror of the grotesque continues always to hover threateningly while his capacity for love and goodness emerge through the visible monstrosity. The dent in the container leaves the quality of the nectar inviolate, but it arouses suspicions in us and unbalances our equilibrium. If Ujo disturbs us for his mask-like countenance, he disturbs us all the more for the fact that behind such a mask lie beauty and purity. When the demiurgically conceived, puppet-like character reveals himself to have a human dimension, a discordant note is sounded. The reader senses a disintegration of a coherently structured world. He has cast upon him the problematical perspective of a disharmonious body encasing a harmonious ethic, a combination that ruptures the expected balance of figure and function. In other words, a first incursion into the grotesques is the distortion of a particular creature -Ujo in this case- a distortion that removes him from the harmoniousness that man has preconceived. The grotesque is involved a second time when that deformed being shows himself to be deeply human in his display of feeling and positive moral action. At this level,   —48→   it is his monstrousness that is distorted. This complicated process thus draws harmony out of a perversion of the perverse. The gnarled protuberance of a sickly tree is prized for the finest bowls. In redeeming the ugly beggar-dwarf and casting him in the light of the sublime, Galdós' grotesque serves to display the hideousness of those who do not externally manifest their corruption.

Thomas Mann, in an essay on Conrad, described this fusion, or confusion: «the striking feature of modern art is that it has ceased to recognise the categories of tragic and comic... It sees life as tragi-comedy, with the result that the grotesque is its most genuine style -to the extent, indeed, that to-day that is the only guise in which the sublime may appear. For, if I may say so, the grotesque is the genuine anti-bourgeois style...»46 In the breakdown of contrary categories that opposition to bourgeois habits has nurtured, distorted images may function to allow the surfacing of the sublime.

As a postscript to this section, one might mention Benina's wen. That blemish on the face of the saint in Misericordia, like the Church of San Sebastián's two faces or Almudena's numerous bizarre traits, momentarily dislodges an esthetic order; but it is not those who transcend their imperfections that are diminished by them.

Benina's wen appropriately leads us into the last section of our considerations on the grotesque in Galdós. The growth on her forehead not only mars -or marks- the saint; it is also a stain on the page. It draws attention to itself. By the same token, a bulbous nose turns a face with a nose into a nose on a face. The text, in order to create such a nose, must halt its advance so as to consider the nose. The misshapen protrusion becomes an object of esthetic admiration in its own right. The traditional grotesque is often purely decorative - think of a gargoyle - or it puts esthetic concepts into esthetic play -think of Beauty and the Beast. It is important to stress, as one commentator has, that the key to the grotesque is found in imagery rather than in 'worlds'» (Barasch, p. 164). If the distortion inherent in the grotesque reflects a particular posture before social reality, the work of art does not as a consequence sacrifice all but its referential validity. Forms in turmoil, whether geometric, animal, or human, are not divested, by virtue of their tortured lines, of their exclusively esthetic status. Monstrous animals and dragons were commonly used in illuminated manuscripts as ornaments for the page borders (see Wright, p. 154), The terror that Goya's black paintings inspire does not preclude a calm appreciation of their composition, their shadings, their movement -of the artistic components, in short, that function technically to extract that terror. Paintings, after all, adorn walls, and novels are read for pleasure. The distorted figure in art phenomenologically becomes an esthetic object seen as such. The viewer or reader passes quickly beyond the initial stage of seeing the object in the dual light of deviation   —49→   from a norm. Rather, the misshapen object becomes in itself normative, a uniquely contemplated source of esthetic wonderment.47 Echoing John Ruskin, Thomson makes the following statement: «It is likely that the play-urge, the desire to invent and experiment for its own sake, is a factor in all artistic creation, but we can expect this factor to be more than usually strong in grotesque art and literature, where the breaking down and restructuring of familiar reality plays such a large part» (p. 64).48

Galdós was incessantly playing in his novels. Even those of us participating in the present Galdós renaissance take him far too seriously. Or at least we do not pay enough attention to the fact that his seriousness is masked by play. For Galdós the grotesque is one of his many games. A master of the descriptive art, he was not always the most disciplined of writers. His facile pen and powerful imagination were known to get the better of him, and the nineteenth century readily forgave that narrative sin. At times what began innocently enough, perhaps as an image in his mind, clearly took him over as he proceeded.

Thus a description or character conception that might have been purely caricaturesque or satiric or parodic grew through insistence to assume the proportions of the grotesque. I am not accusing Galdós of eccentricity, and the grotesque in Galdós is never so radical as to obfuscate the motives for its presence; but if we can accord artistic gratuitousness the positive timbre that is its due, then that element of delightful gratuitousness is not absent from Galdós' use of the grotesque in his work. When he enters the realm of the grotesque, it would appear that Galdós momentarily abandons the constraints of his medium and of the fictional structure. Ulterior motives are relegated to secondary status, and the fascination of the process at hand comes to dominate. Galdós gives his imagination and his pen free rein, disengages his psyche from its shackles, and indulges himself in his artistic proclivity to extus, and the fascination of the process at hand comes to dominate. Galprichos».

But not completely. Unbridled gratuitousness is not Galdós' way, just as it was not Goya's or Quevedo's. Galdós' grotesque, like the modern grotesque in general, is decoratively self-sufficient and functional at the same time. It is an esthetic and an ideology wrapped into one. Or, to dress that idea in the terminology of modern criticism: it is simultaneously referential and self-referential. That is, it carries a twin thrust as, on the one hand, an instrument of commentary on human nature and the social circumstance and, on the other, an esthetic category that draws attention to itself and is thus justified by virtue of its existence.

To illustrate this point, I could go back to any of the instances I already mentioned; but I would like to turn instead to a minor character in El amigo Manso, the wet nurse. In fact, there are two of them. It will be recalled that Máximo Manso's relatives engage the philosopher's   —50→   services to replace his newborn nephew's wet nurse, who suddenly abandoned the scene. The first description of the original model, sandwiched between a grotesque portrait of the baby and an equally grotesque dismemberment of the dramatic genre, already displays the grotesque motifs of terror, animalization, and masks: «Era el ama rolliza y montaraz, grande y hombruna, de color atezado, ojos grandes y terroríficos, que miraban absortos a las personas como si nunca hubieran visto más que animales. Se asombraba de todo, se expresaba con un como ladrido entre vascuence y castellano..., y si algo revelaba su ruda carátula era la astucia y desconfianza del salvaje» (IV, 1200-01). The reader immediately wonders: what is the reason for this seemingly unfounded degradation? An answer becomes apparent when the text in the same chapter passes to a description of the Manso household. We are led to conclude that the nurse is so portrayed because she is an appurtenance of that household, and the household is grotesque. There is, thus, a satiric function in this touch of the grotesque.

However, when it is necessary to replace the girl, the entire institution of wet nursing comes under fire in a series of barbs and descriptions so extensive and so intense that the text itself comments on the discomfort of the laughter that is aroused. Linguistic turns that make us chuckle -such as «fábrica de amas», «escuadrón mamífero», or «el antipático ganado»- are interlaced with reminders of «la horrible desnaturalización y sordidez de aquella gente» (IV, 1245). On one level, a social perspective and a humanitarian impulse move the narrator to his attack. Just as the first wet nurse functions as a metaphor for the Manso household, so do the assembled candidates for wet nursing serve as a metaphor for a degraded society as a whole. On another level, the insistent focus clearly takes on the mark of self-referentiality. We cannot avoid the feeling that the narrator is telling us: «Look! I'm making sport of wet nurses! Isn't that fun?»

The episode ends, disconcertingly, with that higher dimension of the grotesque in Galdós. The girl that Manso picks, appropriately named Robustiana, is physically and morally disfigured. Twice it is mentioned that she is missing an ear that a pig chewed off when she was a child. Dressed up, she looks like a cow that won first prize at a cattle exhibition. She causes a combination of fright and jubilation. Nonetheless, when she is brought home to nurse the infant, the word «ángel» again is used to designate the monster. Through the perspective of a given perceiver (one of the characters), the grotesque has once more become sublime. The reader is left wondering.49

Now, we have, in our cultural environment, no reason to dislike or to condemn wet nurses. They are less common today than in Galdós' time, but we associate them with an activity that is peaceful and beautiful. They are a positive life force. Yet, there is another side to the custom, something slightly peculiar or unsavory about the idea of a girl nursing somebody else's baby and getting paid for it. Usually, the social   —51→   and moral status of the girl are not so sublime as the activity to which she lends herself. Thus, if the child suckling at the breast conjures visions of the angelic, the wet nurse also carries for us a suggestion of the bovine. Values are inverted; beauty is tainted. There is a duality built into the practice of wet nursing that draws an ambivalent reaction from us. Galdós takes full advantage of these irreconcilable associations on the reader's part, and through his grotesque renditions, he unbalances our perception of the wet nurse enough to set an alienating process in motion.

The results of the treatment of the wet nurse scenes in El amigo Manso are threefold and reflect the role of the grotesque in Galdós. First: we perceive that, unlike Ujo, who is alien to his world, the wet nurse belongs to this bourgeois circumstance and thereby constitutes a commentary on it. Hers is a world that is alienated from an ideal value structure against which it is hypothetically portrayed. She is the plastic reflection of a threatening social and spiritual structure that oozes evil. It is a measure of the warped status of the bourgeoisie that it receives its succor from the lower classes and reaps the fruits of sin. If abnormality is one of the defining components of the grotesque, then in Ujo, where it is physical, and in Torquemada or José María Cruz (La loca de la casa), where it is spiritual, it lies in the individual or the object perceived, while in the wet nurse the abnormality emanates from the mode of perception and the narrative technique. The physical grotesque here is the esthetic rendition of the moral grotesque in society. Second: beyond the distorted surfaces of the grotesque, we fathom a suggestion of the sublime, and we are left teetering between the two. The distortion of nature aligned with a familiar set of emotions undercuts both the reader's repose and his anxiety. Galdós' irony assaults the grotesque and our whole value system by way of the grotesque; he leads us through a process of revulsion or rejection in order to extract, ultimately, sympathy for the object initially rejected. And third: the decorative function of the arabesque, the ornamental origin of the grotesque, is brought into play. We are led to focus on the graphic rendition itself, and we take pleasure in its unaccustomed forms, in its comic element, in its exposure of the mysterious domain of disorder, even in the process of questioning our own reactions. We are, in the end, jolted into awareness of the fictionality, the artificiality of the object with which we are dealing.

This glimpse into the grotesque in Galdós is necessarily incomplete. I have not even mentioned Doña Perfecta or La de Bringas. I have bypassed the Beauty/Beast inversions in La loca de la casa and in El caballero encantado. Missing from the roster are Mendizábal in Miau; Sor Marcela, the dwarf, and Mauricia la Dura in Fortunata y Jacinta; Eloísa on her deathbed in Lo prohibido; Tomás Rufete in La desheredada; even Marianela. The Episodios nacionales and the plays have not   —52→   been adduced as evidence. There is the whole subject of dreams and fantastic elements as motifs of the grotesque. The writings I have not been able to include, as much as the examples offered, give testimony, through their cries for admission, to the importance of the grotesque in Galdós. If in the latter half of the nineteenth century the social turmoil was not sufficient to propel the grotesque into the period's dominant mode of artistic communication, the presence of the grotesque in Galdós' novels attests, on the one hand, to his particular assessment of the social structure of his times and, on the other, to his extreme sensitivity to the possibilities of various styles of literary expression. The grotesque in Galdós is one writer's esthetic demonstration of a problematic view of existence and of art.

Cornell University

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