The Grotesque & The Errant

Daniel Hopfer, ca. 1520

For most of us, when we use the word "grotesque" to describe something we are implying that the object is grossly ugly, hideous, or repulsive. With our usage of the word, "errant" we generally use it to describe something that has deviated from the norm. However, within both words there is a deeper meaning. Consider "grotesque" first: The root of the word is the same word that gives us "grotto." A "grotto" is simply a cave, however, the word is almost always used to speak of a cave with religious, perhaps even, sacramental significance. Most often a physical grotto is a serene place of beauty. There is another word with the same root, "grotty;&#34, British slang for "dirty, unkempt, unpleasant."

Certainly, when we enter into the grotto of our mind we find both the beauty and the ugly. If we see within the ugliness of our being the potential beauty of our redemption, we have experienced grace … It is a sacramental experience. Cannot the same be said for the grotesque we experience in everyday life? Are there not within the grotesque, seeds waiting to bloom forth in beauty. Not necessarily beauty as we normally perceive it, but beauty in the sense of life, even within the hideousness. And if we can see that, can we not also see redemption. When I say this, I am not only thinking of people, although surely it applies to us humans as well.

What I am thinking of is the grotesque state of urban life for many of those who dwell within the urban setting. Often for them, urban life is a trap, a cave from which they cannot escape; forever holding them back from what life has to offer. For us, whether we look upon the urban grotesque from a lofty vantage point or from within, our role must always be to assist as a midwife to give birth to those sacramental seeds of grace hidden within the urban grotesque. Nor can we ever forget, that within the grotesque, even though it is not our own, are our own seeds of redemption.

No arms, no legs
He picks up a dollar
With his teeth

I feel
Such repulsion,
I fear that he
Could be me

He has learned
To live within his constraints,
I haven't

The other day I heard a colleague refer to "those errant kids who live in the ghetto." In so doing, he labeled these kids as deviants from the norm. There is another, less used meaning: "Errant" also means "travel in search of adventure," as in the Medieval "knight errant." Whether we condone the behavior or not, we must always realize that their behavior is driven by their search for adventure. The question we must ask ourselves is what sort of adventure does the ghetto &#8211 that urban neighborhood grotesquely decayed &#8211 offer? And rather than pointing a finger at the grotesqueness of the urban predicament, we must ask ourselves what can we personally do about it? Or maybe more to the point, what do I need to change in myself to be able to enter into the beauty of the urban grotesque in a way that brings the beauty of it all, out?

The gang was everything. It was the shield against danger and the fist raised at the world. The world had a face. It was hunger and filth and vermin and cops, and the gang shook a composite fist at the face of it – Frederick Brown, Murder Can Be Fun (1948).

While I am not sure of the validity of it, there are those philologists who suggest that "ghetto," an Italian word in origin, also has its etymological roots in the same root as that of "grotto" and "grotesque."

© Frank A. Mills / Urban Paradoxes, First published 2008. "No Arms, No Legs" from Streets © Frank A. Mills, 1997. Photo © Frank A. Mills / Urban Paradoxes, 2008

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