Category Archives: Books

Posts that feature a book

Know Your Monsters

at-stakeEdward J. Ingebretsen is one of the most intelligent analysts of monsters about. That may seem like a small order, but it’s not—many people write about monsters, and Ingebretsen is one to whom attention is owed. At Stake: Monsters and the Rhetoric of Fear in Popular Culture is not an easy book to read. Narratively sophisticated, it takes on some issues we’d rather not have addressed. One of the great myths about monsters is that they’re all for fun. The current understanding of monsters gives the lie to that worn adage. Monsters tell us something extremely troubling about ourselves and we don’t like to have someone pointing it out. When hearing that some of the monsters considered are Jeffrey Dahmer and Susan Smith, the prospective reader might wrongly assume why. The monster may not be whom one expects. Indeed, Bill Clinton makes his way into the discussion, as do Andrew Cunanan, O. J. Simpson, and Matthew Shepard. Be not quick to judge, however; you must pay attention.

As most writers on monsters recognize, religion often fuels them. Without belief monsters have no power to scare. We’ve probably all seen horror films that underscore this point. If a creature is unbelievable it loses its ability to be frightening. The movie invariably ends up in the B category and is appropriated for laughs or for an example of how not to make a film. Ingebretsen knows that to understand monsters we must understand ourselves. We too often allow unspoken prejudices (which are sometimes nevertheless shouted aloud) to inform our opinions of what is deviant or evil. Just look to Washington and see if you can disagree. The more we tease these monsters apart, the less they conform to expectations.

As implicated by his title, a great deal is at stake in coming to grips with monsters. They aren’t just for childhood Saturday afternoons anymore. It may be that they are one of the healthiest means for dealing with the steady stream of fear flowing from the District of Columbia. Without our metaphors, we are lost. Those set on destroying monsters have no concept of just how terribly helpful they are. You can’t be sure who the beast is, they are so very protean. They will, however, get you through some dark nights. Not without scars, but wiser, if a touch more melancholy, in dawn’s cold light. Take monsters seriously. It’s the only way to survive them.

Made of Clay

golemInvestigating a new field, at least on an academic level, involves a little disorientation. Part of this derives from the fact that academics didn’t use to write about monsters. Another part of it, however, is that those who do such writing have been doing so while my attention was elsewhere. It’s not easy to learn dead languages reasonably well. I didn’t pay much mind to the golem, being as it is, a “modern” monster. Probably responding to early modern pogroms, the golem was considered a defender of persecuted Jews. He was, however, a mindless defender. Made of animated clay, the golem was brought to life by magic and could only be killed in the same kind. Maya Barzilai has written a masterful account of how this monster relates to war. Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters explores how modern golem stories (and there are many) tend to relate to situations of conflict.

I had read about the golem before, and had trouble locating many academic resources on the creature. Barzilai demonstrates how much there is to ponder. It seemed, prior to reading her book, that the golem was mostly obscure, but it turns out that many writers, artists, and filmmakers have appropriated the clay giant over the years. Those who trace the history of comic books suggest that Superman was originally a kind of golem figure. I hadn’t realized that the golem had his own short-lived comic book series. When a people are persecuted repeatedly, having a secret weapon may not seem a bad thing. But the golem is difficult to control. It rampages. It can kill the innocent. Barzilai raises the question of whether a people with an unstoppable weapon are ever justified in using violence.

That question hangs pregnantly over the present day. The rich white men that run this country feel that they’ve been oppressed. Not willing to admit that it’s morally reprehensible to treat women as objects (they’re “hosts,” we’re told), blacks as inferiors, or hispanics as illegal, they bluster away about family values that aren’t consistent with anything other than threatening those who are “different” into submission. And yes, the Jews are among those these white men scorn. I wonder where the golems have gone. It could be that, like those of us self-identified as pacifists, that those who know how to make golems simply can’t justify violence. Barzilai didn’t intend for this in her book, I’m sure. Still, each new era brings new perspectives to these monsters made of clay.

Animal Ways

nightofanimalsNoah’s Ark has a way of showing up in many literary forms. Familiar to many from Genesis, it actually predates the Good Book by hundreds of years. On the backside, it keeps recurring in literature as diverse as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love, and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It also shows up in Bill Broun’s debut novel Night of the Animals. Set in a future that’s becoming present faster than Broun likely anticipated, the story revolves around an addict who hears animal voices. The story stubbornly refuses to let you get any grip on a slippery reality, so the reader’s left guessing even at the end. In the 2050s Britain is under a fascist regime that seeks to keep the wealthy happy and everyone else servile. (Keep reminding yourself this was written before 11/9.)

Cuthbert, the protagonist, believes the animals—most of which are extinct in the wild—are calling him to release them from the London zoo. As an addict his perception of reality is constantly in question. His sense of mission, however, is not. One of the stranger elements in the tale (and that’s saying something!) is the revival of Heaven’s Gate. This cult, instead of wiping itself out, has gone international. The approach of a comet sets the Neuters (as they’re called) on a mission to wipe out earth’s remaining animals. Many of them are in the London zoo, which brings Heaven’s Gate into direct conflict with Cuthbert, who is busy trying to release as many talking animals as possible. London literally becomes a zoo and Heaven’s Gate openly attempts a coup.

All of this sounds wild and fantasy-prone, but like 1984, fiction sometimes peers deeper into reality than science. Is it science fiction? It’s set in the future, but it’s difficult to say. What has all this to do with Noah’s Ark? The novel itself draws the parallel—the zoo that preserves the last of their kind is, by default, an ark. The Ark. Floating on a world-ocean of irrational turmoil where might (read wealth) makes right after all. Religious imagery interlards the story. Cuthbert becomes St. Cuthbert. His possible granddaughter (the reader is never sure) manifests as the Christ of the Otters. There’s even a kind of Second Coming. This is a novel that feels like altered reality. That illusion is given the lie when you close the book and turn on the news.

Theoretically Speaking

lit-theory-vsiI’ve been brushing up on my literary theory. All writing tends to get classified as fact or fiction, and we don’t stop to think, generally, about what “literature” is. Those of us who write fiction and non know that a well-placed hyperbole might throw us from one camp into the other. Such is the power of rhetoric. So it was that I found myself reading Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Witty and insightful, Culler acknowledges the elephant in the room for many of us—theory, in a literary context, is often impenetrable. I’ve often wondered what one had to do to be considered a theorist, and this little book actually addresses that. Nobody has time to read all the theorists, though, and come up with their own creative things to say. Chose your poison.

The Bible, of course, is literature. That’s one reason I was reading Culler. I found one of his assertions immediately applicable: people in nineteenth-century England saw literature as a unifying principle. The British Empire encompassed the world, and to make diverse peoples a part of it, literature might be used, they thought, to do the trick. Culler suggests that it might have been a substitute for religion, which, he notes, was no longer holding society together. This gave me pause. Religion—at least official religion—began as social glue. The earliest recorded religions were state sponsored and served to cast the monarch in the role of the special appointee of the gods. There’s no arguing with that, right? Elaborate, expensive temples were erected. Financed by tax-payers’ dollars. This worked fine since priests declared the rule of the king as sanctioned by the gods. Nations warring against each other were thought of as rival gods fighting.

When science began to take the universe literally, religion lost its stickiness. How do you hold a society together when the gods no longer exist? You see, scientists didn’t think out the whole picture in advance. Scientists, like most academics, work in silos (that’s a metaphor). The discovery of a scientific truth can dissolve a social epoxy quite efficiently. Recognizing the slippage in the British Empire, theorists (I suppose that’s who noted such things) considered literature the great uniting force of a diverse people. We’re kind of facing that same dilemma today as literature is becoming, for many, as irrelevant as religion was a century-and-a-half ago. At the same time, people don’t understand science well enough to assess it for themselves. What are we supposed to do? Is there a theorist in the house?

By Any Other Name

nakedundeadGood and evil. Well, mostly evil, actually. No, I’m not talking about Washington, DC, but about horror movies. Cynthia A. Freeland’s The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror is a study that brings a cognitivist approach to the dual themes of feminism and how horror presents evil. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Like many philosophers Freeland is aware that topics are seldom as straightforward as they appear. Feminists have approached horror films before, and other analysts have addressed the aspects of evil that the genre presents, but bringing them together into one place casts light on the subject from different angles. Freeland begins this process by dividing her material into three main sections: mad scientists and monstrous mothers (which allows for the Frankenstein angle), from vampires to slashers, and sublime spectacles of disaster. Already the reader can tell she’s a real fan.

One of the simplistic views of horror is that these kinds of movies—particularly slashers—are misogynistic by their very nature. Feminists, including Freeland, question that assumption. Horror is a genre with a decidedly checkered history. Some films do feature mostly female victims to male monsters. Not all do, however, and even those that do may be saying something other than the obvious. Looking for the locus of evil in these movies provides a lens that focuses the meaning somewhere other than the surface. This is one of the benefits of philosophy—probing questions may be asked and unexpected answers may result. Along the way you can have a lot of fun, too. Especially if you watch horror movies.

A large part of the criticism probably arises from the fact that film making was, for much of its earliest history, run by males. That’s not to say women couldn’t do the same thing men were doing, but the opportunities simply weren’t there. Most film makers, I expect, have trouble getting out of their heads to think about how someone of a different gender might perceive this kind of movie. Fear, we are told, is “coded” feminine. It seemed natural to such film makers to put the female in peril since both women and men would respond to it. Since then it has become clear that fear isn’t coded for gender. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of modern horror is that we all have cause to be afraid. Fear is no respecter of gender. Freeland’s analysis, now getting on in years, correctly looked ahead in many respects. Especially concerning the ongoing presence of evil.

Unseen Worlds

howaboutdemonsA few weeks ago I wrote about re-watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose. In anticipation of the inauguration I was in the midst of a spate of possession movies. I watched several others, including The Rite and The Possession. This got me thinking I should read Felicitas D. Goodman’s book How About Demons? Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World. Goodman was an anthropologist who’d done fieldwork among groups that practiced possession—keep in mind that many religions believe in good spirits as well as evil ones. Her book is one of the few that takes the larger picture seriously. Many writers simply dismiss the “demon haunted world” as naive and superstitious, but Goodman makes the point that possession is a real phenomenon and we don’t know the cause of it. Indeed, it’s impossible to say with certainty what the agency is because spiritual causes can’t be studied empirically. That said, science deeply informs her analysis.

I’ve observed people speaking in tongues before. It’s an uncanny experience. No matter what you decide the origin might be, it’s strange and not a little unsettling. It’s related to possession, as Goodman shows. So is multiple personality syndrome. Unlike most scientists, however, she doesn’t make the unwarranted leap that since these are all related they’re all the same. Speaking in tongues is usually considered a good thing while demonic possession is not. Interestingly, recordings of glossolalia—speaking in tongues—show the same pattern globally. This indicates that whatever it is, it originates biologically from human brains in a mostly predictable way. Many world religions allow for possession by good spirits or gods and alternate states of consciousness are accessible by learning how to reach them. Anyone can do it, but some have the gift of doing so easily. Those who do overlap with the pool of the possessed.

As the White House shows, we like simple answers. Possession, however, is a complex phenomenon. Throughout, Goodman refuses to equate it simply with the physical manifestations that have been observed and recorded. She was a true scientist. Reductionism is related to our love of simple explanations. I wanted to read How About Demons? because it contains one of the few serious academic studies of the case of Anneliese Michel, the young woman on whom The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based. I was expecting, since this is an academic treatment, that the cause would be nailed down simply and efficiently. I was pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t. Well before the movie Goodman interviewed those involved in the case and wrote an entire book on it. Although she clearly believed in science to explain our world, as this book demonstrates, she didn’t give it more explanatory power than it actually has. In a complex world we need as many subtle minds as we can get.

The First Weak

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave. When first we practise to deceive!” I always thought this couplet came from Shakespeare, but in fact it’s from Sir Walter Scott’s poem “Marmion.” The quote has been in my head all this first week of the new administration as alternative facts, lies, and statistics have flooded out of the White House. Along with gag orders slapped onto federal agencies. I’ve worked for people who rely on gag orders. This obvious lack of transparency signals loud and proud that they have facts to hide. Then they will feed the public alternative facts and later claim they never did. Mission accomplished. Sir Walter Scott may not have been William Shakespeare, but he sure got that web analogy right. At times like this we need our writers. Of course, Trump bragged in pre-inauguration interviews that he didn’t like to read.

Since last weekend sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have spiked. From the first words out of Sean Spicer’s mouth (or any words out of the mouth of Kellyanne Conway}, many of us knew the only thing Orwell got wrong was the date. Frankly I’m surprised the government hasn’t tried to ban 1984 yet. It was required reading when I was in high school and that date was still in the future. The press—what still exists of it anyway—passed along stories that Trump had ordered photos of the inauguration day crowds hung in the White House in his first week. Such pressing matters of state! The photos had the wrong date on them. Facts are cheap. This should be good for the economy. You can get them in any flavor you like—true facts, false facts, alternative facts, statistics. Arachne has returned to her loom.

Although “Marmion” wasn’t written by Shakespeare, I can still say it was because I need a segue to Harold Hecuba. Hecuba was a Hollywood producer who accidentally landed on Gilligan’s Island. After he insulted Ginger the castaways put on a performance of Hamlet to showcase her acting skills. Hecuba, the unelected president of the island, awoke during rehearsal and, like other narcissists we know, took over. He says that Shakespeare was a hack and that if he were alive he’d have him working on a complete rewrite. Of course, he doesn’t know what Hamlet’s about. Or “Marmion.” Actors only mouth the words. They make us believe what is not true. We’re in for a period when we’re going to rely on the authors for the true story. I suggest we all start with 1984.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare