Could grotesque painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo have been anticipating Rob Ford with “Fruit Basket”?

Thursday on this site E Martin Nolan wondered whether there was such a thing as the “Rob Ford sublime.” He asked this question because he found that while he disliked Ford, he couldn’t look away from him: explaining that, looking at Ford, even “while your neck jerks back, [your] eyes are even more locked in.” Nolan’s statement reminded me of a moment in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, when Gulliver, roughly the size of a rat in the oversized kingdom of Brobdingnag, is transfixed by the sight of some beggars who have stopped by the side of his cart:

There was a woman with a cancer in her breast, swelled to a monstrous size, full of holes, in two or three of which I could have easily crept, and covered my whole body. There was a fellow with a wen in his neck, larger than five wool-packs; and another, with a couple of wooden legs, each about twenty feet high. But the most hateful sight of all, was the lice crawling on their clothes. I could see distinctly the limbs of these vermin with my naked eye, much better than those of a European louse through a microscope, and their snouts with which they rooted like swine. They were the first I had ever beheld, and I should have been curious enough to dissect one of them, if I had had proper instruments, which I unluckily left behind me in the ship, although, indeed, the sight was so nauseous, that it perfectly turned my stomach.

The beggars are, according to Gulliver, disgusting, but he can’t look away, and the portrait he renders for us is so rich with detail that it’s obvious he made a lot of careful observations. Likewise, while the lice turn his stomach, he would have liked to have dissected one of them if he had the proper instruments. Gulliver’s revulsion is tinged with curiosity—even empathy. The beggars, whose defects might have been easy to dismiss had they not been so exaggerated, are difficult to ignore. Ultimately, Gulliver becomes disgusted with all of the residents of Brobdingnag, because their immense size forces him to confront all of the vulgar aspects of being human that are often glossed over in polite society (he attacks “refinement” similarly in his poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room”). But there is no denying that the general motion is a leveling one, more than just an attack on society: we are meant to see that even the most refined or noble breast is on par with the cancerous one. 

The above is an example of the grotesque, in which distortions take on monstrous proportions that unsettle and gain symbolic meaning. In characters, the use of the grotesque often provokes empathy. Lately I’ve found myself wondering whether Rob Ford isn’t an example of the grotesque, even though it might be hard to drum up sympathy for his obviously entitled and obnoxious character (how many times, for example, will he have to say “it will never happen again,” or “I’ve accepted full responsibility for my actions,” before even his most fervent supporters realize that his words ring hollow?). Ford definitely has the monstrous exaggeration part down pat, in the complete outrageousness of his actions. If he were grotesque, it would explain why Nolan finds it so difficult to look away.

The moment that clarified things for me was Rob Ford’s now infamous eight-second pause while answering city councilor Denzil Minnan-Wong’s question of whether he had purchased illegal drugs in the last year. Many things can be read in those eight seconds, not least of which is an obvious calculation of whether his prior admissions of drug use disqualified him from answering “No,” (they did). He certainly wasn’t actually attempting to remember whether he had purchased drugs or not. But another thing that I see in those eight seconds is fear, anxiety, and the recognition that not only the room, but the entire world has turned on him. Ford is anticipating his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel, on The Daily Show, on Letterman, and on Leno, where he knows he will be mocked. Certainly if anyone deserved this treatment, it would be Ford, who is doing himself no favours by refusing to step down. But it’s in those moments where I find empathy. It’s never fun to watch someone ripped apart by a mob, even if you are perversely taking pleasure in being part of that mob.

Maybe this gives Ford too much credit. Perhaps the reason he hasn’t stepped down is that he can’t feel or is immune to the scorn he has engendered, as some have suggested. Maybe he really doesn’t feel like he’s done anything wrong, like he has nothing to be ashamed of. Perhaps he really believes he will win next October’s election and that his election would be the best thing for Toronto (which he would have to believe in order to run in the first place). But the strain that you can detect in his recent interviews, in his frequent, repeated insistence in obvious untruths, remind me too much of a kid my class picked on in grade school, a kid who couldn’t see or understand that we were deliberately needling him, that the best thing for him to do when we had set our sights on him, even though he must have been lonely and wanted our acceptance, was to shut up and go away. The stakes are, of course, different, and Rob Ford isn’t twelve years old. But it makes me uncomfortable to watch this scandal play out because nothing we’ve seen so far suggests this story will come to a reasonable end.

Flannery O’Connor thought that Christian writers had the sharpest eye for the grotesque, because they could more easily discover “distortions” of modern life which would be contrary to their moral values. As Margaret Nothey has noted, O’Connor’s stories usually end with “defeat and destruction,” with the path of Christian salvation only indirectly hinted at. The excess, the grotesque, is what the moral reader is taught to avoid through negative reinforcement. I hope Rob Ford’s story doesn’t end the same way as one of O’Connor’s stories, with Ford, his family, or the City of Toronto receiving a blow from which it will be difficult to recover. But if it does you can be sure it will be difficult to look away.

Leave a Reply