The Demonic and the Grotesque

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Reuven Tsur

The Demonic and the Grotesque

Throughout the present work we were exploring interferences with the smooth functioning of cognitive processes in course of reading poetry, interferences that produced effects regularly associated with religious, mystic, and meditative experiences. That is what I am going to do in this appendix too. Nonetheless, it will be an exception in my earlier exposition in two respects. First, it is focussed on the demonic, not the divine aspect of the otherworldly; and second, it concerns the visual medium. We are not concerned here with the idea of the devil and the evils he stands for; nor with a knowledge that he belongs to a world beyond the absolute limit. In some representations, at least, the devil or the demonic are immediately experienced as causing discomfort, pain, distress, or anxiety. It is not that we infer some threat from his appearance: the mere perception of his appearance induces some painful cognitive or psychodynamic processes. Now notice this. In some representations of Hell, people are tortured in ways that are not different in kind from the tortures by the Inquisition, or the Gestapo, or the KGB. These interrogators were sometimes far more imaginative and inventive than what is traditionally attributed to the devils. Devils may also assume postures or facial expressions or have body parts that threaten with some painful or destructive act. But, in some representations at least, the devil is experienced as immediately causing discomfort, pain, distress, or anxiety, even if he has no lion's head or eagle's foot. I submit that the key term for this response is the "grotesque". Consider figures 1 and 2. In the latter, the demon has a wide range of threatening features: he is lion-headed, eagle-footed, and holds dangerous weapons in his hands. The minor devils, demons, satyrs and hobgoblins in figure 1, by contrast, have no such features; two of them even play music instruments. These creatures are painful to look at not because of what they can do to you, but because they are visually disconcerting. I will claim that Hieronymus Bosch's infernal creatures are not so extraordinary as they may appear; that they capture the very core of the infernal in the visual medium.

I propose to introduce my discussion of the grotesque by two observations: first, that devils and fiends are sometimes represented as extremely fearsome creatures; but sometimes as clowns and buffoons; second, that traditionally, fiends and devils are represented as having a human body with goatlike horns and hooves; sometimes they have tails. In time, the goat hooves turned into horse hooves; not a significant difference. Historically, this tradition can be accounted for by the fact that pagan fertility deities became fiends in Christian mythology; and that goats were intimately associated with fertility cults. 1 Now the average believer is deprived of this historical knowledge; and his priests are not very eager to enlighten him in this respect. So, one must look elsewhere for the source of the effectivity of these representations. I submit that this source is to be found in their grotesque effect. This will also explain the fearful and laughable appearances of the devil. In Freudian terms, the ambivalent figure is split into a fearsome and a laughable one. According to Thomson, "What will be generally agreed upon [...] is that 'grotesque' will cover, perhaps among other things, the co-presence of the laughable and something that is incompatible with the laughable" (1972: 3). The "other things" include the suspension of the boundaries between the categories "human, animal, plant", or an independence of the members of the human body.

Figure 1
Minor devils, demons, satyrs and hobgoblins.
From Olaus Magnus' Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, Rome, 1555.2

The grotesque, as described by Thomson, is a quality that, in the first place, is "hard to take". In the grotesque, there is a clash between incompatible responses -- the laughable on the one hand, and the horrible, the disgusting, or the pitiable on the other. The element that is so "hard to take" is the uncertainty, the emotional disorientation, the indecision in front of a threat. Making a decision in one or the other direction provides, according to some psychologists, a defense against the threat; whereas indecision causes discomfort, pain, distress, or anxiety. Consequently, the grotesque stays grotesque -- according to Thomson -- as long as the reader (or the observer) is capable of staying exposed to the incompatible emotions, without seeking relief in one of these "secondary responses" or "rationalizations" that resolve the conflict in favor of the laughable, the disgusting, or the pitiable. This kind of "secondary response" appears to be an instance of a wider aesthetic-psychological process active in cultural history. In chapter .... we have discussed a process pointed out by Ehrenzweig: people apply defense mechanisms against artistic devices of great expressive force, turning them into ornaments or frozen poetic formulae.

Figure 2
The lion-headed, eagle-footed Assyrian-Babylonian demon
of disease and evil, holding the mace of wounding and the dagger of killing.
After a wall carving at Nineveh.

Now what about the horns and hooves of the devil? Artists and art historians have long realized that "hybrid creatures" have a grotesque effect. Gombrich, for instance, observes: "What these texts have in common is the reaction of exasperated helplessness provoked by hybrid creatures, part plant, part human; part woman, part fish; part horse, part goat. There are no names in our language, no categories in our thought, to come to grips with this elusive, dream-like imagery in which 'all things are mixed' (to quote Dürer)" (.i).1984: 256). Devils are just such hybrid creatures, part humans, part goats. I submit that the grotesque presentation of the devils has one overwhelming function: the grotesque is so affective because of its immediate ambiguity.

Not only horns, tails and hooves have been associated with the demonic, but even the very notion of the grotesque. This point deserves some consideration. Kayser; (quoted by Thomson, 1972: 18) suggests that "the grotesque is an attempt to control and exorcise ('zu bannen und zu beschwören') the demonic elements in the world". While this may be a correct observation, it should be kept in mind that in order to "control and exorcise", the grotesque must also conjure up "the demonic elements in the world". Gombrich's inspiring discussion of the grotesque would strongly support both claims. Still, I believe, Thomson's reservation is well taken: "We may object also to the somewhat melodramatic over-emphasis on the 'demonic', which totally removes the fearsome aspect of the grotesque to the realm of the irrational -- almost supernatural" (Thomson, 1972: 18-19). To this, I would add that the relegation of the grotesque to the supernatural is an all too easy way of handling it. As I said above, the grotesque is so affective, precisely, because of its immediate ambiguit;, even before questions may be raised concerning the possible existence of the creatures involved. The grotesque creatures leave us defenseless, threatened, irrespective of the question which side of the ultimate limit they inhabit. In fact, the present position is an outright reversal of Kayser's. Rather than relegating the fearsome aspect of the grotesque to the realm of the irrational -- almost supernatural, it is a means to present in this world the discomfort caused by the daemonic or infernal.

Ernst Kris (1965) speaks of the "double-edgedness" of the comic. When the defense against the threat is dismantled, the ridiculous stops being ridiculous and becomes painful (a man who suspects, for instance, his wife of being unfaithful, will not find a comedy about a cuckold funny at all, but rather painful or distasteful). The comic, just as the sublime, originates in some threatening event, which is observed at a sufficient distance from the danger for the observer to feel safe. An observer who does not feel sufficiently safe will respond in an opposite manner. What characterizes the grotesque, according to some psychologists and literary theorists, is a disruption of alternativeness. Instead of deciding unambiguously in favor of one or another defense mechanism, the grotesque leaves the observer in an intermediate state, in uncertainty, in a state of indecision. He has a sense of "emotional disorientation". Many people find such an emotional state difficult to bear. For these people a comic, or even a fearsome devil would be more tolerable than this state of emotional disorientation. So, they are likely to suppress one of the conflicting emotions, achieving an unambiguously fearsome or unambiguously funny devil.

The first step to this disambiguation is already built into Gombrich's account above: "There are no names in our language, no categories in our thought, to come to grips with this elusive imagery". In the case under consideration, the hybrid creatures do have a name or category: the devil. Such a name in language (or category in thought) sterilizes the disorienting power of the grotesque.

Figure 3 Hieronymus Bosch: Tree-man and buildings burning in Hell
from Garden of Earthly Delight (triptych, right wing).

The foregoing analysis may throw some light on Hieronymus Bosch's infernal creatures, for instance: they are hybrid figures, but do not fit into any category, such as "the devil". Moreover, they are made up of parts that are neither functional (as in figure 2), nor conventional (as in figure 1). They have no names, and the categories mixed have never been seen together. Consider figure 3. I will quote only a few brief passages from a very detailed description of it:

The focal point of Hell, occupying a position analogous to that of the Fountain of Life in the Eden wing, is the so-called Tree-Man, whose egg-shaped torso rests on a pair of rotting tree trunks that end in boats for shoes. His hind quarters have fallen away, revealing a hellish tavern scene within, while his head supports a large disc on which devils and their victims promenade around a large bagpipe. The face looks over one shoulder to regard, half wistfully, the dissolution of his own body (Gibson, 1973: 97).

Furthermore, at the bottom of figure 3, from left to right, one nude figure is attached by devils to the neck of a lute; another is helplessly entangled in the strings of a harp, while a third soul has been stuffed down the neck of a great horn (ibid, 96). These are not different in kind from the torments in earthly torture chambers. But the huge music instruments turned to torture instruments inspire the observer not only with awe, but with emotional disorientation too.

Another possible source of the grotesque is when members of the human body become conspicuously independent and/or disproportionately big (Gogol's "Nose", for instance). Near the "Tree-Man" in figure 3 there is a pair of huge human ears (pierced with arrows?). Gibson describes it as follows:

A huge pair of ears advances like some infernal army tank, immolating its victims by means of a great knife. The letter M engraved on the knife, which also appears on other knives in Bosch's paintings, has been thought to represent the hallmark of some cutler whom the artist particularly disliked, but it more likely refers to Mundus (World), or possibly Antichrist, whose name, according to some medieval prophecies, would begin with this letter (ibid, 97).

Much learning has gone into the explication of Bosch's symbolism and iconography in this and other paintings. But notice this. On this detail, even when the explicator offers an explication, as with the letter M, he offers three diverse explications, none of which is more plausible than the others. Concerning, however, the ears themselves, he can do little better than venture a rather loose metaphor: "infernal army tank". I would prefer to rely on the disconcerting, grotesque effect of the image. The two ears are erect and parallel exactly as they would be on the two sides of a human head; but there is no head between them, only the blade of a knife, in a conspicuously phallic position. Such an image renders erudition desperately helpless, but has an exceptionally strong appeal to direct perception. It affects the observer with its disorienting power rather than its meaning.

To sum up

The present study proposes to account for the varieties of religious experience by assuming that their idea-contents alone cannot account for their effects. They need to be enhanced by the effects of the disruption of cognitive processes related to ordinary consciousness. The demonic or infernal in visual representation may result from a disconcerting presentation of the infernal creatures. The grotesque causes confusion and emotional disorientation (resulting in discomfort, pain, distress, or anxiety) by two conflicting defense mechanisms disrupting each other's activity, or the suspension of boundaries between established categories. In this appendix we have established a three-stage scale stretching from a conceptual to a perceptual causation of painful awareness. The hybrid creature of figure 2 is dominated by dangerous body parts: the head and limbs of a human figure are replaced by those members of a beast of prey and a bird of prey that most typically serve to seize or devour the victims; this direct threat is reinforced by deadly weapons in its hands. In figure 1, the images violate our established thought categories, suspending the boundaries between the categories of "human" and "goat". The confusion caused by these images is strongly mitigated in two ways: the mixed elements are highly conventional, and there are names and thought categories for these creatures: "devils", "demons", etc. In Bosch's painting, the emotional and perceptual disorientation or exasperated helplessness are the highest, because they are effected by the unconventional mixing of a large number of elements into creatures for which there are no precedents in art, or names in our language, or categories in our thought.


1. Figure 2 points at a different origin of such hybrids: the limbs and head of a human figure are replaced by the most typically dangerous members of the most typical beasts of prey. Such an origin would suggest a process in which the hybrids of figure 2, for instance, lost for some reason their directly-threatening features. [back]

2. Figures 1 and 2 are reproduced here from Lehner and Lehner (1971). I am indebted to Dr. Yona Pinson for this reference. [back]


Gibson, Walter S. (1973) Hieronymus Bosch. London: Thames and Hudson.

Gombrich, E. H. (l984). The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art. Oxford: Phaidon.

Kris, Ernst (1965) Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (New York: Schocken).

Lehner, Ernst and Johanna Lehner (1971) Devils, Demons, Death and Damnation. New York: Dover Publications.

Thomson, Philip (1972) The Grotesque. London: Methuen.

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