On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears.
Stephen Asma's accessible and engaging study of monsters explores the peculiar commixture of desire and anxiety that an imaginative encounter with the monstrous evokes. As Asma demonstrates, representations of the monstrous raise key questions about how we as humans construct ourselves in relation to ideas of aberrant difference. The preoccupation with the inner monster that might lurk within us all makes the book particularly relevant to those engaged in Gothic Studies as well as to a wider general readership. From the fantastical creatures of antiquity, to the child murderers of today, the monster holds up a mirror to the self.
The book explores how the boundaries between human and monster, self and other, are shifting and permeable. Asma's study shows that the uncertain status of monsters in relation to humanity has fascinated viewers of monstrous displays and readers of teratological tales throughout history. He engages the reader in a consideration of these themes by adopting a personal and wide-ranging tone from the outset. In his Introduction he describes, for example, witnessing a scene of mesmerized repulsion for the malformed babies kept in jars in the Hunterian Museum in London; his young son's fascination with a hydrocephalic woman in Shanghai; how his brother has been recently involved in the legal defence of a child murderer; and his own visit to Pol Pot's torture chambers in Cambodia. Each anecdote focuses themes that will be developed as the study progresses, cohering around the central idea that the human self compulsively invokes and represses the monstrous other.
Asma's book is organised into four sections. The first sets out a context for the rest of the study by focussing on ancient monsters. It opens with an analysis of Alexander the Great's apocryphal letter describing how he and his Macedonian men battled an onslaught of monstrous creatures in India. Asma concludes that the story reflects male vulnerability within a variety of contexts, moving rapidly into the realms of psychoanalysis and anthropology and citing, along the way, examples from a Will Smith film, Steven Spielberg's remake of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds and Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel, The Road. The section continues by looking at classical representations of various monsters. It touches on ideas drawn from Pliny, Plutarch and Aristotle, to tell stories of 'monstrous races' and hermaphrodites and the ways in which monsters have been read as portents and prodigies. Asma presents an engaging analytical method, connecting these ancient representations to contemporary ideas of monstrosity which are based on theories of identity and psychoanalytical models. However, this somewhat dizzying tour through such diverse terrain points to a tendency that runs through the book. It is appealing, lively and potentially exhausting in turns.
Part Two continues to set the context for a reading of monstrosity within contemporary culture by working through the different interpretations of monsters in the past. In looking at the medieval conceptualization of monsters Asma is characteristically confident and wide-ranging in his scope, outlining themes as diverse as Biblical monsters, the depiction of the monstrous Jews, Tolkein's reading of Beowolf, and representations of witches and demonic possession.
Part Three continues the chronological outline. It focuses on teratology within scientific discourses, beginning with the natural philosophy of the early modern period. This leads into a discussion of enlightenment discourses of categorization, the pathologization of difference that predominated in the nineteenth-century and Darwinian ideas of natural selection. Asma traces the ways in which monsters, those anomalous creatures that disturbed taxonomies, came to be absorbed within discourses of natural history. However, as he goes on to argue, the attraction to and repulsion from the grotesque was not entirely expunged by the development of new scientific paradigms. And so, along the way, we also encounter the monster as freak show spectacle. Explicitly Gothic themes also come to the fore here as Asma presents a reading of Mary Shelley's monster in Frankenstein arguing that the monster embodies many of the themes discussed elsewhere in his book, such as 'hybridity, liminality, outcast status' (153). The tale for Asma also crystallizes another recurring theme within the study, casting the monster as 'that unpredictable, uncontrollable force that cannot be reasoned with or persuaded' (153).
The psychology of Gothic excess is developed in the fourth section of the book, 'Inner Monsters', which focuses on nineteenth-century discourses of horror and moves on to an analysis of psychopathology in relation to twentieth-century conceptualization of violent criminality. Here, as Asma outlines, the story moves from explicit 'anxieties about external monsters to anxieties about internal monsters' (183). This leads to the final section of Asma's study in which he focuses on collective as well as individual pathologies. Asma's moral thesis emerges clearly as he challenges postmodern relativism. For deconstructionists, Asma argues, the monster is celebrated for representing all things unclassifiable and irrational: 'when everyone is a monster, there will be no monsters' (253). But, for Asma, monsters do exist and he finds evidence for that contention within the acts of brutality and depravity which occur within our contemporary world. This ethical position is persuasively articulated and is at the heart of the book. There have been many studies of monsters that reproduce rather than interrogate the prurient frisson of fascinated horror that ideas of monstrosity past and present invoke. Asma's study, in confronting powerful and important moral questions, presents instead a book that is, in many respects, about cruelty rather than monsters. It is, in other words, about humanity; and this is its strength.
The development of the thesis depends on a somewhat contentious universalizing tendency, an emphasis on the overarching story, at the expense of historical and cultural particularity. In the 'Epilogue' Asma justifies this strategy, arguing that 'some prototypical qualities unite the family of monsters, albeit loosely' (283) and that they reflect 'more universal human anxieties and cognitive tendencies, the stuff that gives us human solidarity' (283). This approach is potentially problematic and some of Asma's study covers familiar ground that has already been explored in far more careful detail by cultural historians such as Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park. However, the book is bracing in its scope and ambition and presents some confident and exhilarating analysis. In acknowledging the fascination which ideas of monstrosity hold, and telling a bold tale, Asma succeeds in discussing the ways in which monsters arouse desire and repulsion at different cultural moments without lapsing into either the constrained analysis or the thoughtless sensationalism that can sometimes attend such accounts. Instead Asma presents a thought-provoking, intelligent and compelling study, which has much to tell us about our culture and our selves.
University of Winchester
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|Date:||May 1, 2011|
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