The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous.
The sort of atheist who, as Yeats once said of Shaw, 'trembles in the haunted corridor', I've always, despite my best efforts, believed in ghosts. But this book has made me an unwilling believer, too, in monsters and, even, in God. No doubt this sounds like an extravagant way to begin a book review, but I am in earnest and prepared to explain after I present, more broadly, the merits of this work.
Like most studies of the monster, this hefty collection elucidates the 'category trouble' one encounters in the field. It looks at hybrid creatures: human/animal combinations, like the cynocephalus dog-faced men popular in medieval legends, or even human/vegetal mashups, like the 1940s comic book figure The Heap profiled in John Block Friedman's 'Foreword' to the book. These several essays collected by Asa Mittman and Peter Dendle also describe paradoxes found in monstrosity, like the living-dead zombie; beings with body parts of unusual shapes and sizes, like races of men with giant ears, or lone, misshapen figures, like Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. The book draws together discussions of the ocular, specular, and spectacular nature of monstrosity with (as in Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock's chapter) the invisible monstrosity of subjectless agents, like angered Mother Nature or a viral plague, or morally depraved sociopaths, who, like American Psycho's Patrick Bateman, are monstrous only on the inside. But most interestingly, the volume as a whole examines monstrosity as a category that itself straddles borders, between the mythic and spiritual, or between the real and imaginary.
Mittman's preface presents the fellow monster scholar with tales both hauntingly strange and harrowingly familiar: an anecdote of a criminally clueless undergraduate awkwardly insisting on the real life monstrosity of Jews; of a trusted advisor suggesting that monster studies do not constitute 'real scholarship'; and he presents a central question in the field of monster studies, the realness of the monster (previously thought in measures of affect by Noel Carroll, J.J. Cohen, and others) in different terms: 'the monster is known through its effect, its impact. Therefore, from this perspective, all the monsters are real' (6).
On the surface, this volume displays a vibrant picture of the way that history, the history of art, literature and many other disciplines might be taught in and through tales and texts that involve monsters. Naturally, an English literature course might include: Beowulf, Paradise Lost, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or The Picture of Dorian Grey, while an American literature survey might showcase the monsters of Charles Brockden Brown, Hawthorne or Poe, Melville's Moby Dick, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, or those born of Joyce Carol Oates.
Beyond just the appearance of monsters in literature, folklore, and art, however, this encyclopedic collection causes us to think about the way that monsters appear in real life: in legislation, like the Ugly Laws which have been of interest to scholars of disability; in demography, as we might trace movements and contact between groups of people through the way their myths evolved; in anthropological groupings of races of people, such as the African pygmy situated among parties of invented monsters.
If I have any small critique of this volume, it is regards its structuring. The book is divided into two parts: I, which concentrates on the 'History of Monstrosity' and II, on 'Critical Approaches to Monstrosity.' Yet, the chapters of both of these sections seem to simultaneously provide both historical background and methodological models. The first part, composed of twelve essays, illustrates that one finds examples of monsters across history and around the globe, from the 'Monstrous Caribbean's' cannibals, amazons, sirens, and zombies (of chapter 1), to African water spirits, in whose form, the history of colonialism is inscribed (of chapter 3), to a reading of the way Pokemon trading cards preserve traditional Japanese monsters (chapter 5), to an understanding of our sympathetic attachment to the de-clawed monsters of the nineteenth century, with its figurations of disability (chapter 10) and monstrosity's uptake into contemporary commodity culture (chapter 12). We move back and forth in this volume as we are volleyed from discussions of monstrous birth in Renaissance Europe (chapter 2) to the monsters of ancient Greece and their evidence of a culture's fears of the feminine body (chapter 4), a theme which reappears in the monsters of medieval Japan (chapter 7), to depictions of race in monsters of the Islamic tradition (chapter 6), to European medieval teratology (chapter 11).
The six main chapters of the book's second section, providing a mere third of the book's essays, address overtly themes that have already raised their heads in the previous part: posthumanism (chapter 13), sexuality and gender (chapters 14 and 16), race and postcolonialism (chapters 17 and 15) and the monster's connection to our conceptions of global space (chapter 18). They synthesize the way that our conversations about monsters are about our conception of the world and the cultures that divide us, including those biological cultures ascribed to body parts and sexual desire. Several narrative threads run throughout the volume and certain thematics bridge the two sections, like fears of the maternal or feminine form; like the monster's 'realness'; like monsters as an index of empire and global expansion; like confusion between gods and monsters, seen regarding the Mayan tradition (chapter 8), and in relation to the Chinese Taotie (chapter 9), and the many armed Hindu gods of the East (chapter 15).
But even as I felt that the critical section was equally historical and the historical section also critical, I celebrate the book's structure for its resistance to chronological or geographic narratives, for as J. J. Cohen states, 'History is a tangle, full of loops and doublings-back. Linear chronology is a lie' (451). Perhaps the fact that the usefulness of the chapters bleeds across their divided categories ('history'; 'critical approaches') is actually in keeping with the monster's defiance of taxonomy.
Mittman, in his introduction, stated that this is a volume that should be read cover-to-cover rather than sampled as a kind of monster studies reader. A 500-plus-page tome, I was initially skeptical that many other than a review writer, such as yours truly, would digest the volume as such. Yet, I can definitely say that reading the book as prescribed gives one an invaluable understanding of the state of the field, and that coming to see the commonalities with monsters far afield of my own work has enriched the way that I regard my own scholarship and helped me refine its contribution. This monster belongs not merely on every monster scholar's shelf, but on her nightstand.
Taking these monsters to bed as I have done these past few months, I found myself with many favorites, far too many to name here. There are several chapters (those by Persephone Braham; Henry John Drewal; and the imminently useful interview the editors conducted with Partha Mitter) from which I have already begun to draw for my own work. But encountering monsters I had never heard of before, such as the headless blemmyae, or the mysterious contemporary Japanese kuchi-sake-onna, or about which I had rarely thought, was equally rewarding. One of my favorite pieces in the collection, for example, concerns the figure of the vagina dentata. In Sarah Alison Miller's essay 'Monstrous Sexuality: Variations on the Vagina Dentata' we trace imagery of the toothed female organ across space and time, as a sign of men's fears of female sexual empowerment, and equally, of the dangers posed to women by their sexual vulnerability or permeability.
I promised, at the outset of this review, to explain how it is that I have come to accept by reading this research companion to Monsters and the Monstrous, that monsters, and even gods, are real. The parting words given by Peter Dendle in his 'Conclusion' to the volume, and J. J. Cohen in his 'Postscript' deliver upon Mittman's promissory note in the 'Introduction.' Dendle explains that not believing in monsters is itself a relatively new phenomenon, and he provides statistics and explanations about the kinds of monsters that people still believe exist: Loch Ness, Big Foot, alien invaders. If, as Dendle says, we've shifted from accepting the reality of monsters to questioning it, this volume seems to signal that we're beginning to pivot, too, from a deep engagement with the epistemological discomfort of monsters (what is this thing? what should we do with it? how do we categorize it?) to an exploration of the monster's ontological conundrum. (Not 'What is it?' but 'Is it?')
This is a book that is really about realness. Cohen muses of monsters in general, 'we cannot deny that these creatures live full lives that have been well recorded in our literature, our visual arts, our dreams' (454). To paraphrase the work that is done by this aspect of the volume, and particularly, Cohen's Postscript, monsters are 'real' not in the sense that they might actually be under your child's bed, but in the sense that the fear that one is causes her pain, and causes you to buy a nightlight and sit at the foot of her bed until she falls asleep. If something has a real world impact, is it not as real as intangible concepts like nationhood, or the market, or words, like 'butter?' If townspeople in rural Haiti under the dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier lived in fear of zombies and the witchdoctors who control them, if this fear regulated their movements and what they dared to say in public, then surely the zombie is real in so far as it manifests itself in the world.
And if monsters are real, then so must be gods. One need not look far to see the real world impact of the gods even in our present day, whether it is visible in architecture, with a mega church blotting out the sky, or demography, with the movement of bodies on pilgrimages to Mecca, or in death tolls, the casualties of religious zealotry. When we answer the ontological question of monsters, acknowledging that they do, indeed, have a kind of being, it returns us to the question that is so central to many of these essays, the question of geography. The question is not 'is the monster real,' but 'is he under my bed?' And similarly, though the answer to the question 'Where is god?' might be, 'Nowhere,' this is not at all an admission that god doesn't exist. Like the monster, gods (or God or G-d) has a kind of being in his effects on the world; we might even then say that the gods are incarnated through humanity, just as monsters take on a material corporeality in skin peaked into goosebumps, in the sweat on one's palms, in your own accelerated heartbeat.
But this collection, (as is visible in Cohen's attention to the encounter with the animal other, or Patricia MacCormack's critical chapter on 'Posthuman Teratology') rightly pre-empts any attempts to subsume the monster to its usefulness to us. Defining realness through affect and effect risks reducing monsters to their usefulness to the human, when one of the promises of monsters is its potential, as a model, in its refusal of the human/ non-human paradigm. As Dendle's conclusion briefly suggests, the legend of Bigfoot and its contemporary iterations in popular culture draws attention to the natural wilderness and the importance of preserving it. Thereby, monsters do come to inhabit (and change) the world beyond our bodies, even if this transmission happens through the human.
This volume is a delightful curiosity shop that allows the reader to peruse monsters from throughout history and across the globe: but it also examines how scholarship on monsters has changed theories of disability, race, sexuality, gender, the postcolonial world and postmodern crisis. Most strikingly, however, the essays here suggest the future of monster studies, in the monster's centrality to new turns in ontology, to celebrations of the nonhuman, and investigations of the border between the human and the world, between the real and the imagined, between affect and effect.
SARAH JULIET LAURO Clemson University
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|Author:||Lauro, Sarah Juliet|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 1, 2014|
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