Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/04/2010

Writing about the “Grotesque.” Not a Class in Body Modification

(Please see my posting of February 16 for the latest writing on this subject.)

It is not only about cutting or being cut; it is about the gap between what one is and what one would like to be. It is about lack, loss, and fantasies of wholeness. Cosmetic surgery. . .  allow[s] such fantasies to become reality. (1)

I should have seen it coming.

The topic of writing in my classes this semester has been “Writing about the grotesque.” The students have wrestled with Flannery O’Connor (“A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and “Some Aspects of the Grotesque”), David Lynch (Mulholland Drive), and Mary Shelley ( Frankenstein). They’ve thought about O’Connor’s definition of the grotesque and tried to write a definition of their own. Next semester the course will be the same with one notable exception.

The students have been learning to do research (one of the requirements of our second-semester curriculum). In order to begin that process at the beginning of the term, I guided them through some research on Lizard Man, thinking that would be interesting and innocuous enough—and we could probably reach consensus about his grotesqueness—to hold their interest while they learned the rudiments of research. Extreme “body modification” seemed an off-the-wall enough subject to keep them focused on library databases.

It worked, sort of.

I should have left it at that. I ought to be reading fifty-eight cookie-cutter research essays on Lizard Man, on the implications of trying to make oneself over into another kind of creature. (Many other such folk exist: Tiger Man, Lion Queen, Illustrated Lady, Most Pierced Woman.) Can we answer the question, “Is this grotesque?” (Perhaps the real question should be, “Is the professor grotesque to think this is appropriate for college research?”)

But no, in the interest of real learning, I gave the students an open-ended assignment: decide on a specific type of body modification to research for yourself—otoplasty, gynecomastia, facelift, blepharoplasty, gene doping and steroid use, the cosmetics. Or something beneficial—repairing a cleft palate, reconstruction after injury, even gastric by-pass surgery or excision of a melanoma?

Is that academically appropriate? Researching Lizard Man probably isn’t. But “body modification?” What is Frankenstein’s creation of his monster from dead body parts but body modification? OK. A stretch.

Look around the classroom.

I asked how many of the students had never had any kind of wire, post, or other straightening device forcibly installed in their mouths. Six of the fifty-eight had not. That’s Body Modification for 89.6% of my students. (It’s pretty painful, too, I understand—being from a generation when it was not a given that one’s teeth would be straightened.)

About one third of my students—lower than the national average because ours is an exclusive upper-class university— have tattoos.  About one third know about or would divulge their mother’s secrets—facelifts. Not as many of the students as you might think have a piercing, either visible or invisible—over half of the females (ears or even a diamond discreetly gracing the side of the nose), but virtually none of the males.

And then there is current fiction. How much body modification is there in Avatar? In the Harry Potter idiocy? In Inception?  Oh, I forgot. Those are films, not literature.

Researching body modification in relation to Frankenstein and Mulholland Drive might not be so far-fetched, especially in light of the students’ own experience.  Most of the research the students came up with fits, at least in part, O’Connor’s definition of the literary grotesque (2).

But still, I should have seen it coming.

On the first day of the students’ oral presentations (another required component of our curriculum), short introductions to their research, of the twenty-eight presentations, seven were about circumcision, female genital mutilation, or vasectomies. One-fourth about the reproductive organs. (I can’t feign surprise—I approved the topics in advance. )

I unthinkingly made the assignment so general I could hardly stop them once they were in process. As the semester progressed, I realized what I hoped for my students went far beyond the scope of a first-year writing class. Perhaps because—as a temporal lobe epileptic—I have a strained relationship with my own body, I never feel quite certain what is real, I am confused about what is “normal” or “grotesque,”  I was hoping the students would do some serious thinking about such dichotomies.

I suppose I was hoping the students would grapple with great existential (or at least postmodern) questions of reality and truth and life and death—those questions professors always imagine they can inspire students to think about. The grotesque in literature as metaphor for the grotesque in the world around them—and for their discomfort with their own persons, their bodies.

The kind of metaphor some see that Orlan has made of her entire body. For all of the controversy surrounding her performance art, her making her own body the work of art that she performs, her unnerving projections of her own plastic surgery operations as “performances,” Orlan strikes a chord. It may well be a dissonant chord, but it is an important one. At least for me.

But Orlan has not, in fact, made a metaphor of her body. She has deeply explored reality. She has done so in ways that may seem to parallel Lizard Man’s body modifications. I would say, on the contrary, Lizard Man is merely grotesque because his modifications are on the surface of his body. Orlan is profoundly disquieting—disquieting to the point of terror. Her body modifications attempt to look squarely at death.

Orlan’s art makes the connection among the “grotesqueries” of my classes. She has said,

I hate nature. Because I don’t know where the switch is that forces me to die. . . . Life is a killer. . . . Nature represents everything that locks me in, that applies force to me, that bothers me. (3)

In a 2009 article, Carlo Strenger suggests

. . . .that Orlan expresses an aspect of the modern project of conquering nature, and ultimately death, in extremis. I take this interpretation of Orlan as the starting point of my reflections on the phenomenon of body modification . . . . a symbolic expression of the human desire not to be subjected to brute laws of nature. . . .  Aging and death are certainly the most extreme manifestation of our subjugation to laws of nature that we have not chosen. If in the past the rebellion against death could only take the form of fantasies of otherworldly life, or of resurrection of the body by deities, the enlightenment project has changed this rebellion dramatically. (4)

Body modification is a modern project to conquer nature. We can make our bodies what we want them to be and, ultimately, what we want them to be is immortal. That is exactly Frankenstein’s project.

Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. . . . I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption. (5)

My students have been contemplating—without realizing it—their own mortality. So I should have seen it coming that they would research what they know best about their mortal selves. Sex.
(1) Orlan, quoted in: Knafo, Danielle. “Castration and Medusa: Orlan’s Art on the Cutting Edge.” Studies in Gender & Sexuality 10.3 (2009): 144.
(2) O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.
(3) Brand, P. Z. ed.  “Bound to beauty: An interview with Orlan.” In: Beauty Matters. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. pp. 289–314. Quoted in Knafo.
(4) Strenger, Carlo. “Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death.” Studies in Gender & Sexuality 10.3 (2009): 166-171.
(5) Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Intro. by Diane Johnson. New York: Bantam Classics, 1981 (40).


  1. […] to be much stricter than in previous semesters about the topics they may choose. (See my posting of 04/12/2010 for a discussion of last semester’s […]


  2. […] myself through every semester. I have written many times about students’ attempts to deal with body modification, and about Orlan, whose body modification fascinates me […]


  3. […] ORLAN’s life and her work are the subjects of the research projects for my students this semester as they have been several times in the past. […]



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