Jack’s Naughty Bits: Carson McCullers, The Ballad of Sad Caf

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Jack's Naughty Bits

“I have a thing for troglodytes”: these words, from the lips of my beloved, chilled me to the quick, almost prompting me to go look in the mirror, just to check. But then the real fear set in. She wasn’t saying that I’m a troglodyte, only that the grotesque has a certain pull for her, a certain appeal I knew that I, in my white, crustless way, would never be able to satisfy.


But where does the grotesque get its allure? In an early naughty bit, I quoted Vargas Llosa on the subject: “Beauty was always fascinated by the Beast, as so many fantastic tales and mythologies recount, and it is only in rare cases that the heart of a good-looking youth does not harbor something perverse.” This much is true, certainly, but doesn’t seem to get at the simplest human curiosity with revulsion. What prompts us to lift bandages and look under them, to turn and look back into the toilets we’ve just sat on, to unfold used kleenexes, to sniff the just-clipped toenail? This low-level fascination with the yucky seems pretty common (most of us laugh at farts, after all); what interests me is when we let a tincture of the gross get slipped into what we normally think of as the beautiful.


Sex is one such realm, food is another. In Italy I once ordered budelline without realizing that they were chitterlings. The smell hit me from across the room as the waitress brought them out, and, though I had never had them, I knew immediately what they were. Each bite was a war between my intrigued mouth and my revolted sinuses, but I finished the plate and, the next night, I went back to the same restaurant and ordered them again.


There are lines that we draw, then, not to cross, but to tease with our big toe every once in a while. By calling something perverse, we invest it with a sinister allure. The prohibited sits like a dare painted on a billboard we pass daily. I’m convinced that our fascination with the grotesque attempts to satisfy — through a diet of crumbs — our appetite for evil. Few of us want to be purely bad, but, at the same time, just as few want to be purely good. The occasional stepping over, like shoplifting a pack of gum, reminds us that moral boundaries are optional, cross-able, but, at the end of the day, self-imposed and desired.


Carson McCullers’ novella The Ballad of Sad Café is a parable of just such a stepping over. A consummately independent woman is visited by a hunchback who calls himself her cousin. Within minutes, they become inseparable, and she turns from a headstrong shrew into his docile servant. The eroticism of their relation is muted — even the passage below will not seem particularly sexy on its surface — yet each time I read the Ballad, it feels more and more charged. McCullers’ treatment of Miss Amelia’s creepy bond with the brokenbacked stranger is a sustained case study in the erotics of the perverse.

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From The Ballad of Sad Café by Carson McCullers

Miss Amelia crossed the porch with two slow, gangling strides. She went down the steps and stood looking thoughtfully at the stranger. Gingerly, with one long brown forefinger, she touched the hump on his back. The hunchback still wept, but was quieter now. The night was silent and the moon still shone with a soft, clear light — it was getting colder. Then Miss Amelia did a rare thing; she pulled out a bottle from her hip pocket and after polishing off the top with the palm of her hand she handed it to the hunchback to drink. Miss Amelia could seldom be persuaded to sell her liquor on credit, and for her to give so much as a drop away free was almost unknown . . .


They drank until it was past midnight, and the moon was clouded over so that the night was cold and dark . . . Then she took the lamp from the table and jerked her head toward the staircase as an invitation for the hunchback to follow after her.


Above the store there were the three rooms where Miss Amelia had lived during all her life — two bedrooms with a large parlor in between. Few people had even seen these rooms, but it was generally known that they were well-furnished and extremely clean. And now Miss Amelia was taking up with her a dirty little hunchbacked stranger, come from God knows where. Miss Amelia walked slowly, two steps at a time, holding the lamp high. The hunchback hovered so close behind her that the swinging light made on the staircase wall one great, twisted shadow of the two of them. Soon the premises above the store were as dark as the rest of the town.

© Carson McCullers