Teatro Grottesco: A Predestined Spectacle of Insignificance
Written by Anaïs Charbonneau-Poitras
for Prof. Kristopher Woofter
The title of Thomas Ligotti’s collection of short stories, Teatro Grottesco, can be translated from the Italian to mean ‘Grotesque Theater.’ The Italian definition relates to the Grotesque distortion of the American Gothic theme—that fate is predestined and controlled by some higher power. This theme is a pivotal influence in the short stories contained in the collection as the characters’ fates are predestined in their absence of free will and self-identity. Ligotti develops the grotesquery of predestination through the exploration of the collection’s characters’ lack of agency, the characters’ perspectives, and through the Gothic concept of the Freudian Uncanny.
The characters’ lack of agency is shown in their unformed identities and through the Gothic concept of abjection. A distinguishing and repetitive trait of the collection’s many narrators is their lack of identity. It is from the narrators’ lack of given physical descriptions, names, gender, personal details, and lack of stable and sustainable employment that results in an overall lack of identity. From this lack, the narrators’ lives are rendered void of purpose and significance; therefore, they cannot identify themselves as true individuals. An example of the resulting insignificance is how the narrator in the short story “The Clown Puppet” views his life as being “one episode after another of conspicuous nonsense, each completely outrageous in its nonsensicality” (Ligotti 53). The narrator views his life as being nonsensical and thus, from this, he loses his agency. This is something which constantly repeats itself throughout Ligotti’s collection, whether it be found in the short story “The Shadow, The Darkness” – wherein the artist Grossvogel’s belief that humans are nothing but empty shells, with nonsensical ideas of identity, spreads and ‘infects’ the underground community of artists and the narrator of the story himself – or in the first short story, “Purity,” where the father hammers the narrator, his son, with the belief that “ ‘nothing that drives anybody makes any sense,” and that the world is filled with impurities that contaminate humans’ minds” (Ligotti 20). These beliefs that render any human artistic construction—which gives meaning and / or purpose to humans— null is what removes the characters’ agency. From this ultimate lack of purpose or identity, the narrators fail to distinguish themselves, and as a result they simply blend into the background and darkness of their world where they are supposed to be significant to the story.
This lack of individuality, which is most characteristic of “The Clown Puppet,” also relates to the effect of the abject upon the narrator in most of the collection’s stories. The ideas and meaning behind this abjection repeat themselves throughout the collection’s short stories. In “The Clown Puppet,” the narrator is ‘visited’ by a clown puppet who unnervingly yet fascinatingly has the likeness of a human. The clown puppet, with its strings and lack of life, represents the narrator’s lack of control over his life. The clown puppet’s lack of varying facial expressions and muteness also depicts the narrator’s severe lack of individuality. This figure of abjection offers the narrator the inner truth of their life. The puppet seems to be alive, like the narrator, but like the narrator it too is only ‘playing its part’ in the already written script—a recurring belief of the narrator. This relates to Hurley’s notion that the abject can also be said to remind characters of their fate and destiny: “We attempt to repress and ‘expel […] [whatever] reminds us of our origins and our fate” (Hurley 144). The puppet’s abjection represents one’s own predicament, and through the acceptance of it one becomes empty of any agency. This demonstrates that through this lack of agency and acceptance one gives value to the belief that one’s life is a prewritten script by a higher power, which they have no power over. The characters’ unmolded identities and representations of the abject demonstrate the idea of the fated puppets and the controlling puppeteer.
The characters’ twisted perspectives are shown through their strange reactions and nihilistic mindsets. The characters and, more specifically, the narrators’ reactions to aspects of the supernatural or to elements which seem misplaced or odd, according to the conventions of normality, are unusual and irregular. When comparing their reactions, beliefs, and ideas to those of the real ‘non-Ligotti’ world they seem distorted and abnormal. For instance, in many of the stories when the narrators are confronted with something which challenges their normality, they are neither afraid nor strongly disgusted, but are instead accepting or fascinated and / or completely indifferent. They react as if the ‘unexpected bizarre’ is something they have always expected. This is apparent in the central stories’ narrators’ reactions when they are confronted with the ‘monsters’ of their stories. For instance, when in “My Case for Retributive Action” the narrator stumbles upon the creature, ‘the knobby monster,’ he does not display any fear whatsoever, but instead displays a strong indifference to the situation. From this, he understands and accepts that he was merely a pawn in the plan of the high medical power, Quine Organization, to use him as a “slave or experimental subject” and make him suffer similarly to Hatcher, ‘the knobby monster’ (Ligotti 97). Another example of these bizarre and distorted reactions can be seen in “Severini,” when the narrator realizes that the object of his fascination, the mythical man Severini, is actually a part of himself. He is strangely serene and accepting of this otherwise disturbing truth about himself, just as when the narrator in “The Shadow, The Darkness” finally sees the shadow and its influence upon humans, and instead of being repulsed by this, has an indifferent acceptance.
These responses demonstrate that the narrators react as if these disturbing ‘truths’ about their worlds and themselves are to be expected, like they have always been part of their lives. They react as if they have no identity and basis to react from in their severe indifference and unquestioning acceptance. Along with the narrators’ desires and drives throughout their stories to discover and ultimately be confronted with these monsters, their reactions show that they actually crave this lack of identity and choice. Such responses are justified through the basis that they are expecting this outcome for they believe that it is part of their predestined ‘script’ and that they must play their role accordingly. The narrators’ nihilistic perspectives also demonstrate their submission to their fates. Friedrich Nietzsche describes the philosophy and mindset of nihilism as being composed of the belief that any sort of goal or quest which entails a purpose or the discovery of a purpose and meaning is ultimately futile and void. The philosopher broadens this idea by comparing it to a system of morals which causes and “teaches [people] to hate […] freedom, […] implants the need for limited horizons” (Nietzsche). This oppressive mindset can be felt throughout Ligotti’s collection, but it is particularly prominent in “Teatro Grottesco” and “The Clown Puppet.” In the latter story, the narrator describes his existence as being “nonsense of some spectacle taking place outside myself […] some spectacle of equally senseless outrageousness taking place within me” (Ligotti 53). He considers his life as being ridiculous nonsense but he does not give justifiable reasoning for this other than feeling as if he is purposeless and insignificant. This demonstrates the narrator’s nihilistic perspective and it results in him feeling as if his life is a predestined spectacle of outrageousness and he is merely a player in a spectacle conducted by a higher power and tyrant of the system of morals. It is this which makes the narrator have and ultimately accept (for it is what he craves,) his lack of identity and freedom being only an ‘actor’ in the spectacle. His nihilistic view makes him feel just as the narrator in “Teatro Grottesco” does when confronted with the tyrant force: “The one conclusion that keeps forcing itself upon me is that it makes no difference what choice I make or do not make” (Ligotti 180). The narrator in “Teatro Grottesco” is an artist who is approached and ultimately perturbed by the Teatro Grottesco, which is the system of morals and higher power in his narrative. The Teatro constrains, and has a certain amount of power upon, the narrator, such as a system of morals does: “Took the first step toward the Teatro, as if acting under the impulse of a sovereign will” (Ligotti 164). This oppressive force, possessed by the Teatro, shatters the ideal of their artistic works, which renders them lost and with the notion that life, unlike before, has no purpose or value. Yet once the narrator encounters the Teatro Grottesco, he realizes that “it no longer mattered whether I had approached the Teatro, the Teatro had approached me, or we had both approached each other … It was all a fix from the start because … I was an artist whose work would be brought to an end by an encounter with the Teatro Grottesco” (Ligotti 178). The narrator attempted to save art but this reveals itself to be nothing more than planned by the Teatro to end his artistic career. This signifies that whatever his quest’s purpose was, it is rendered null and void. Ultimately, this realization about the Teatro shows that the narrator sees himself as fated like an actor in a spectacle. The characters’ reactions and nihilistic views result in them believing that they are simply players controlled by a higher power.
The effect of the uncanny upon the narratives of the collection is shown through the intermingling of the heimlich and the unheimlich and the characters’ pre-oedipal state. The uncanny, as described by Freud, is something which encompasses both of the German unheimlich and heimlich: the unhomely and the homely, and due to this, it is something in which “the barriers between the unknown and the known are teetering on the brink of collapse” (Putner 130). The familiarity resulting from this conflict gives the sense of already having been here before, a sense of “déjà vu” for it recalls something from the psychological past which cannot be completely and coherently remembered but which nags at our memory (Putner 130). The resulting uncanny is that which is unfamiliar and familiar simultaneously, causing it to be unsettling. This experience follows Ligotti’s recurring nihilistic idea that all is nothing but a repetition of the past. In “The Shadow, The Darkness,” the artist Grossvogel believes that self, imagination, and hopes are all human nonsense and that humans are nothing but their physical bodies. The truth, according to the recovered artist Grossvogel, is that The Shadow / The Darkness is what animates humans for it is “inside of everything and thoroughly pervades everything as an all moving darkness that has no substance in itself” (Ligotti 259). According to the artist’s theory, humans are but shells that the shadow uses for its activating energy to thrive, a concept which is similar to the idea of the puppeteer and the puppets. The narrator and others are at first offset by these ideas for they challenge normality and rationality, an action which makes accepted, everyday things uncertain. Thus, the idea of the shadow becomes uncanny for it provokes a sense that things are not what they appear. The shadow blends the ideas of the heimlich (the humans) and unheimlich (the shadow) into one. This ties into the notion that the characters are but predestined beings composed and controlled by the puppet master. The uncanny notion of the familiar and unfamiliar being one can also be explored through the characters’ pre-oedipal relation which ties the abject to the uncanny. The abject is described as something which “violate[s] categories” and which “exists at the limen or threshold between two opposing conceptual categories, and so can be defined by both and neither of them” (Hurley 137-138). Whatever the object or being of abjection is, the liminality of it challenges human belief in their own self-containment and individuality. In “The Clown Puppet,” the abject is manifested in the idea of “the human subject before ego-formation, before Oedipality, before the acquisition of language” (Hurley 143). The puppet’s existence represents that of the one before the individual can distinguish itself from the mother, thus leaving it in a liminal state where it cannot differentiate itself from her (the controlling force). This gives rise to ideas of self-annihilation, where one will relinquish their individuality and be assimilated into the controlling mother power. However, since the puppet’s abjection represents the narrator, the narrator has a resulting absence of self from his pre-oedipal state which renders him like a puppet, to be simply a vessel for the monstrous ‘mother’ controlling the strings. The result is that the puppeteer and the narrator are one, like a mother and a child which relates to the unheimlich and the heimlich, for the narrator only has nonsense thoughts like a child and he is controlled by the force of the puppeteer; therefore, it is impossible for them to be distinguished. This pre-oedipal state recalls something from the psychological past which cannot be grasped and causes the narrator to feel predestined to follow a specific script. Through the combination of the heimlich and unheimlich, and the characters’ pre-oedipal relation, the idea of the controlled actors and the controlling power is depicted.
Ligotti in his collection Teatro Grottesco, specifically through “The Shadow, The Darkness,” “The Clown Puppet,” “My Case for Retributive Action,” “Purity,” and “Teatro Grottesco,” reflects the American Gothic theme that characters are like predestined puppets in a show being controlled by the higher power that is the puppeteer. The grotesque of the American Gothic is characterized through the stories with the characters’ absence of free will, their responses and nihilism within the context of Ligotti’s world, and by positing the Freudian uncanny alongside the characters. The notion of a predestined fate also relates to the force of the American Gothic’s cyclic past and its resulting impact upon its fated actors.
Hurley, Kelly. “Abject and Grotesque.” Routledge Companion to the Gothic, edited by Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy, Routledge, 2007, pp. 137-46.
Ligotti, Thomas. “My Case for Retributive Action.” Teatro Grottesco. Virgin Books, 2008. 81-98.
—. “Purity.” Teatro Grottesco. Virgin Books, 2008, pp. 3-21.
—. “Tearto Grottesco.” Teatro Grottesco. Virgin Books, 2008, pp. 159-181.
—“The Clown Puppet.” Teatro Grottesco. Virgin Books, 2008, pp. 53-64.
—“The Shadow, The Darkness.” Teatro Grottesco. Virgin Books, 2008, pp. 243-280.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good And Evil, translated by Helen Zimmern, Project Gutenberg, 4 Feb. 2013, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/4363?msg=welcome_stranger#link2HCH0005. Accessed 31 Oct. 2015.
Putner, David. “Uncanny.” Routledge Companion to the Gothic, edited by Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy, Routledge, 2007, pp. 137-46.