In an essay in the Times Literary Supplement , Marina Warner reviews Wes Williams ’ new book “Monsters and Their Meanings in Early Modern Culture.” The thesis of the book might surprise some, in that it asserts that monsters do not represent a static fear, but actually arise in times of conflict and uncertainty as a way of staving off complete panic. They “serve to unfold a fluctuating history of values and emotions as well as of changing aesthetics, philosophy, medical science, and the proper uses of curiosity.”

There are, of course, numerous sources for the phenomenon of monsters, as Williams notes: the ever-fertile imaginations of children, a culture’s political scene, with its heroes and villains, and, of course, the simple, eternal human encounter with the unfamiliar, which will always tend to imagine enemies when difference is encountered. Additionally, non-divine “gigantic figures” have made an appearance in the religious literature of just about every civilization, including the Bible (the mention of the Nephilim in Genesis, for instance).

Nevertheless, as Williams’ book points out, the vast majority of our popular interactions with these creatures, from Halloween costumes to the box-office success of wizard and vampire films, “can be allegorized along sixteenth century lines.” In this sense, “monsters” and “magic”—a literary device which arguably reached the height of its influence in Shakespeare, not earlier or later—are actually phenomena of the modern age, not the vestiges of a tribal or sacral culture. As we atomize and taxonimize the world, these beasts terrify precisely because they represent our quiet intuition about the whole project: that it ultimately fails on its own terms (there will always be some things it cannot explain), and that, if the project of disenchantment is taken to its extreme, it offers neither intelligibility nor grace to the world, but leaves us to fend for ourselves against dark forces we can no longer name, but still must acknowledge for the sake of our sanity.

Articles by Matthew Cantirino

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