Are You a Grotesque?

grotesqueThe one and only time I tried acid, in my senior year of high school, my fellow trippers and I figured out how the universe works. It’s all spheres, everything is spheres. Humans are spheres and we have multiple size spheres that interact with almost infinite other spheres. From atoms to planets to stars, all objects are spheroidal beings. This then was our sphere theory of the universe (our spheory?).

In college I became a little disillusioned with the fact that many of my professors had turned their specific area of expertise into a worldview, without regard for other ways of seeing the world. My history professor saw everything through the lens of history, my ethics professor had a stunted notion of how morality shapes the world, a professor of romance literature lived his life as if he were in a Flaubert novel (stop hitting on my girlfriend, perv), and one of my biology professors got so excited about cells that spittle flew from the corners of his mouth. Spheres, it’s all about spheres, man!

I mentioned this professorial perfidy to my good friend Kev, and he said, “Grotesquerie.” What I was describing was what Sherwood Anderson prefaces in his novel Winesburg, Ohio. Humans have a tendency to grab onto one or a few truths, but when they define their lives so narrowly, they become grotesques and their truths become falsehoods.* Maybe this arises from our inability to comprehend the immensity of reality, so instead we choose a small part of it, a part we can understand to some degree.

We are grasping at the shadows on the wall. Socrates and Plato contended that philosophy could lead one out of the shadows of the cave and into the light of reality. But how many shadows still clouded their vision? Vision itself is merely an imperfect (yet amazing) evolutionary strategy for perceiving reality (the color red, for example, doesn’t actually exist – it’s just an ingenious translation of wavelengths of light (a shadow of reality)).

So we are all grotesques, to varying degrees. But Anderson’s point (I assume, I didn’t read the rest of the book) is that grotesquerie is part of our humanity, and it has a certain sad beauty.

Rather than fall into too much despair about our disfigurement, though, I believe we can embrace our condition while working to degrotesquify ourselves. So, yes, the universe is made of spheres, morality does help shape our world, and cells are wondrous constructions. But each of these things is a tree, and we need to understand there’s a whole forest out there. Eclectics, by our nature, spend a lot of time wandering through the forest, climbing about on numerous trees – maybe this gives us better perspective on the forest as a whole.

In addition to grabbing onto narrowly defined truths, most humans are prone to anecdotalism: too often we see individual or short-term experiences as indicative of broader truths. Biking is dangerous because I know somebody who was hurt biking. Audi drivers are selfish pricks. It’s cold outside so global warming is a hoax. Anecdotalism is a subcategory of grotesquerie.

Another form of grotesquerie is conspiracy thinking**: picking out what we want to believe, even given an abundance of contrary information. We come up with often wild hypotheses and then go online to validate our subjective deductions: “See, it says right here, honey: fluorescent lightbulbs are being used to control our minds!”

The cure is recognizing our fallibility as individual gatherers of truth, recognizing that our subjective nature may not always align with reality. There is truth out there, an objective reality. We can learn to align our subjective reality with the objective one by endeavoring to separate the wheat from the chaff, finding trustworthy sources like scientific journals,*** looking at things from multiple perspectives, and being willing to re-align when new information presents itself.

In the end, we humbly accept our grotesquerie – we are imperfect interpreters of the universe. But this very humility is the Rosetta Stone that helps us see the light. Failure to accept our fallibilities can lead to hubris – or even assholery (coming soon).


*To his credit, Anderson recognized that his theory of the grotesque is itself vulnerable to grotesquerie if taken too far.

**People do conspire to do bad things, of course, but the more elaborate conspiracy theories are much less likely to have been pulled off – there are too many things that could go wrong, too many people that need to keep quiet.

***Not that science journals are infallible, but science and peer review are the best way we have of triangulating truth. There’s something to be said for expertise – most of us have limited amounts of it, but given some training we’re not bad at evaluating it in others.


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