Hot on the heels of a book about a monster comes a new about monsters generally, though I honestly did not plan it that way. Though I’m not an avid fan of old (or new, for that matter) monster movies, I am generally interested in the engines of culture which generate monsters. This is one of the reasons that I like Kornwolf so much: where monsters come from is ultimately more interesting than the monsters themselves.
Asma seems to be of this same opinion. He begins his book with a few notable examples of mythical monsters from antiquity, such as the griffon/gryphon, and uses these examples to illustrate a few salient points about our basic cultural archetypes of monsterdom. First, monsters are liminal creatures—that is, they usually have some connection, however tenuous, with things within the normal realm. The aforementioned griffin, for instance, may be made of parts from several different creatures1, but they are at least recognizable animals. The unease we feel about monsters, therefore, is the degree to which they approach humanity or recognizability while still remaining foreign or apart. I use the word “foreign” on purpose, because what quickly becomes apparent to the astute reader is that the prehistoric cultural or biological forces which create monsters are also responsible for such wonderful things as racism—that is, our fear or hatred of the liminal.
If the initial chapter had someone bolstered my expectations of this book as a simple bestiary or codex of cryptids, I would find myself sorely mistaken in successive chapters. In fact, Asma’s book quickly veers away from any cryptozoological phenomenon at all, turning into a rather dense work of sociological scholarship. By the end of the book, he has wended his way from the combinatorial monsters of antiquity to modern-day “monsters” like serial killers, riding all along on a thread that monsters are really the dividing line in the Self/Other binary which forms the grist for so many Orientalist tracts. This is not to say, of course, that we “make” monsters like John Wayne Gacy, or monsters are simply misunderstood creatures2 or any kind of simpering apologetic nonsense of that sort, but rather that monsters are invariably made within the system, and reflect the fears and vagaries of that system.
In some cases, monsters act as foils to man’s hubris: as King Kong or Godzilla checked man’s arrogance against nature, so the Biblical “Leviathan”3 was a reassertion of Yahweh’s ultimate power (via nature). Similarly, the Hebrew “Golem” is an example of an uncontrolled creation running rampant. In this way, Asma’s opening etymology of the word monsters—from the Latin monere, meaning “to warn”—is prescient. Monsters are warnings about something; the object of that preposition varies depending on culture and context, and may vary from the reasonable and timeless (for a modern-day analogy to the Golem, consider atomic weapons) to the savage and ignorant (consider the Nazi campaign to portray der Juden as slavering, hook-nosed predators).
The heartening theme of this book is that one can watch the steady progression of humanity’s approach to monsters, or to those peripheral elements of our consciousness made manifest in fear and legend. Begin with the relatively barbarous approach of some ancient Greeks to the birth of hermaphroditic infants—drowning them—and proceed through the ages: some points are low—witch burnings—and some are better—the point at which our understanding of evolution and genetics removes the superstition and stigma from birth defects, mutants, and other various and sundry phenomenon. Whereas a woman who gave birth to a child with harlequin ichthyosis may once have been thought to cavort with the devil, or her husband too much or too little semen, we now know such things are mere generic vagary, even though it took us a long time to get to that point. The very name of the book—On Monsters—is a reference to 16th century surgeon Ambroise Pare’s On Monsters and Marvels, perhaps the first semi-scientific approach to explaining birth defects in humans and animals.
Though not necessarily the right book for those looking for more lurid details about monsters or cryptozoology, On Monsters was a surprisingly good read—perhaps a little plodding at times—and rich enough in insight to leave one thinking long after the last page is read. Our own fears and imaginations, after all, are the generative principle behind our monsters; what do our monsters look like?
- The body of a lion and the head of an eagle, if you’re curious[↩]
- This is somewhat true in the sense of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, but that’s a whole other discussion best read in the book itself[↩]
- The “Leviathan” of the Bible is used to describe what appear to be several different beasts; but here I refer to Job 41:1 “Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?” I’ve variously heard this cited as Biblical proof of dinosaurs, some other reptilian creature, or a reference to a mere pachyderm.[↩]