Creative Team Building and Leadership Resources - In our Elements

Grotesque Burlesque

Monday, November 8th, 2010

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage (Mark 15:16-32) transports me to the pages of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, where the brilliant writer creates and fleshes out grotesque, freaky characters and then has them act as agents of redemption for the prideful, bourgeois white folks of the 1950s South. Some of my favorites include Good Country People’s Manley Pointer (a con artist posing as a traveling Bible salesman who steals the wooden leg of Dr. Joy Hopewell), A Good Man is Hard to Find’s Misfit (a murderer on the loose from the penitentiary), Revelation’s Mary Grace (an ugly college girl with very bad acne), and Everything That Rises Must Converge’s unnamed “Negress” (a large black woman on a city bus who threatens to “knock the living Jesus” out of the patronizing white woman). When O’Connor was asked why Southern writers have a tendency to write about grotesque freaks, she said, it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. . . I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.

This week’s Primary Passage portrays the hauntingly grotesque character of the crucified Christ, mocked and ridiculed and tortured. The Spanish translation has an interesting word for the mockery: burlarse, which has the same root as our word burlesque. It is indeed a burlesque show, in the original sense of the word, which was a “derisive, grotesque parody.” And it has the making of a modern burlesque as well, with the soldiers stripping the clothes from Jesus and, in a parody of his royalty, placing a purple robe on him. Oddly enough, the etymology of burlesque has the earliest literal meaning in the Latin to be “flock of wool,” which makes an interesting connection to the depiction of Christ as the slain lamb.

Flannery O’Connor said that the freak in literature gains depth when the character causes “our essential displacement.” For her, grace has to displace those of us in positions of privilege before it can deliver us, that is, it has to knock us down off our high horse before it can lift us up. The grotesque figure does that time and time again in her stories. And the grotesque Christ, disfigured, violently wounded, mocked, and nailed to a cross, is the ultimate depiction of grace’s twofold work. It is a discomforting and disquieting and displacing narrative, especially to people of privilege who are isolated and fortified from the violence and suffering of most of the world. If we read it carefully, it really is enough to knock the living Jesus out of us.

As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.



  • March 30, 2016 at 5:25 pm

    When you write that O’Connor’s statement about “essential displacement” amounts to a statement about grace, I’m not convinced. You just introduced the word “grace” yourself–O’Connor uses it nowhere–and your earlier quotation of her about the South being “Christ-haunted” would suggest that she views Christianity through an skeptical, anthropological lens. Also, the notion of “essential displacement” seems much more discomfiting than merely “knocking us off our high horse.” It seems to me more like a critique of the basis of morality itself, including Christian morality. Hence the ambiguous moral tone when the travelling salesman seduces a disabled woman in order to steal her prosthetic leg.

    Comment by Nick

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