Transformations

Last week my colleague James of Idle Musings sent me a review of Stephen Asma’s On Monsters that I’ve been meaning to incorporate into a post for several days now. Since New Jersey has been buried under more snow than it’s seen since the last Ice Age, I’ve been busy shoveling and navigating icy roads to class and only now am finding the time to respond. (Still, I have to say that the snow we have here now is no comparison to good old lake-effect snow where I grew up. Of course, the population back home was much smaller so the media never made a circus of it. After all, it is just winter!) In today’s paper, however, there was a review of The Wolfman that graciously affords me another opportunity to address one of my favorite, if under-represented, areas of religious studies: the monster.

Local film critics haven’t exactly panned the remake of the 1941 classic, although it is noted that the new version tries to avoid the essential subtexts of “alpha-male dominance, sexual repression, compulsive behavior and father-son feuds” (from Stephen Whitty’s Star Ledger review; Whitty also notes, on the cheerful side, that Universal is trying to revive its monster franchise). The werewolf has always been my favorite monster character. Aside from the negative aspects noted by Whitty, the werewolf also represents transformation from the helpless, lost, and confused Lawrence Talbot to a purposeful, confident, and unambiguous wolfman. The werewolf is everyman/everywoman pressed to the limits by a demeaning, heartless society until individualism breaks out in all its savagery and power.

Apart from the religious elements in all monsters (is the werewolf not a paragon of spiritual transformation?), a political subtext also emerges. While the front page declares the financial woes of the state and the continued trouble trying to pass any healthcare reform, page 3 declares “Top 5 health insurers post soaring profits.” One person’s cancer is another insurer’s boondoggle. Meanwhile the Larry Talbots of the world are being told, “give a little more – everyone’s got to share this burden.” Eventually, however, there will be a full moon and transformations will take place. As a student of religions, I can recognize the werewolf as more than a monster and as containing far more symbolism than a Robert Langdon could ever untangle.

Who's not afraid to look in the mirror?

On Monsters

Long-term readers of this blog (both of you – you know who you are!) are aware of my interest in monsters. Constant companions of my childhood, I spent lazy days and sleepless nights both curious and fearful of these imaginary creatures. Like the concept of the holy, they both repel and attract simultaneously. Back in October, when I first heard of Stephen Asma’s book, On Monsters, I knew I would have to read it. I have commented occasionally during the progress of my time spent on the book, but having finished it I stand in a better position to consider the whole.

Not a monsterologist, I have nevertheless been fascinated by the juncture of monsters and religion, a point that Asma repeatedly emphasizes. His book is a masterful treatment of the subject from many angles, working through a roughly chronological treatment of the changing faces of the monstrous. Although monsters first appear with the earliest civilizations, they have persisted even in the strong light of scientific thinking and rationalism. As we comprehend our world, the monsters appear in deeper and darker corners, in the very folds of our throbbing gray matter, in the microbial world that floats invisibly around us, and in the smiling beneficence of technology. At many points in his historical presentation Asma is difficult to read; human brutality and emotional distancing have made for the most horrific of real-life monsters he cites.

Particularly useful in Asma’s treatment of the subject is his contention that monsters still have a place in our society. The word itself retains its usefulness in describing human, all-too-inhuman treatment of others. Unfortunately, the motivation for such treatment can often be traced to bad religious education. We may not be so fearful of the werewolf or the (supernatural) vampire, but we still fear those who treat others without empathy or human concern. Anyone with the parallel interests in religion and its aberrations owe it to her/himself to take a careful look at On Monsters and consider its implications.

A classic monster

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman

The world is a topsy-turvy place. In times of turmoil people turn to the old, the familiar, the classic, for assurance of continuity and stability. Ah, those halcyon days! Perhaps the newspaper is not a place to seek solace, but as I was flipping through the Friday edition, usually a little lighter after the dread of another week, I noticed a story about Leonardo da Vinci (before the code made him famous).

Self portrait or mirror?

For many centuries people have pondered the understated smile on the Mona Lisa’s placid yet knowing face. Recent forensic-type investigations are now strengthening the old suggestion that the Mona Lisa was actually a self-portrait of the artist as a woman. Some will, no doubt, find such news distressing – a masculine artist portraying himself as feminine? (Surely such a thing has never been done before!) Most concerned of all would be the Religious Right, a group that seeks a god excelling in sharp distinctions. Either male or female, no intersexuals need apply!

Over the past several months I have been reading Stephen Asma’s On Monsters, a book that can’t really be called “enjoyable,” although it has been eye-opening and informative. One of the recurrent themes throughout the book has been the fear of the liminal being conjoined with our growing understanding that sharp distinctions are rare. Ever since Freud it has been known (at least subconsciously) that people participate in aspects of both genders with social constructs determining which role is to be filled, feminine or masculine. Those who look honestly at the aggregate of the human race realize that we are all points on a continuum rather than simply members of one or the other gender. As Asma points out, however, we prefer distinctions.

In painting himself as a woman perhaps Leonardo once again proved himself ahead of his time. Perhaps the Mona Lisa is a mirror we should long gaze into before judging others on the basis of artificial distinctions.

Moral Monsters

trees

Everyone likes to feel vindicated. From my childhood I have felt marginalized because of my interests in monsters, and now a book has just been released from Oxford University Press that vindicates my interest! Stephen Asma, a philosophy professor at Columbia College, Chicago, has written a monograph entitled On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. Further vindicating my idiosyncratic interest is the fact that the Chronicle of Higher Education even has an electronic front-page article on the book this week. I am overcome with credulity! I haven’t been able to lay my hands on the book yet, but I hungrily read the article and look forward to the whole product.

Readers of this blog know my assertion that monsters originate in a mental space shared by religion. Both are responses to the unknown. Asma writes in his Chronicle article, “The monster concept is still extremely useful, and it’s a permanent player in the moral imagination because human vulnerability is permanent.” Indeed, his article is entitled “Monsters and the Moral Imagination.” The thesis he promotes is that our morality (again tied to religion for many people) benefits from its struggle with monsters. We imagine our moral responses to being faced with the truly horrific, and the monsters themselves are less frightening than our imaginary responses. The top box-office winner this past weekend was Paranormal Activity, a movie noted for not showing the menace, but implying it. There is an evolutionary advantage here; we learn about coping with real danger by imagining danger.

So as I look out the window on yet another cold, gray, rainy October morning, and see the trees swaying in the wind, my imagination takes flight. Those Saturday afternoons and late nights filled with cinematographic visions of even worse things that could happen are cast in a new light. Instead of scaring myself, I was building moral character! As my friend K. Marvin Bruce likes to say, “monsters are only mirrors.” Sometimes the mirror reflects a truly untamed world, and Dr. Asma informs us “inhuman threats are great reminders of our own humanity.” I would simply add, “and of our religions.”