Fear Itself   /   Fall 2003   /    Reviews

Fearing the Other—Within and Beyond

A Review of Richard Kearney’s Strangers, Gods and Monsters

Timothy K. Beal

Graffiti of minotaur (2010). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Strangers, gods, and monsters are the forms we give otherness, that which is foreign, “not-us.” These figures appear in our intellectual and cultural borderlands, calling into question what we thought we could take for granted about ourselves, our society, and our world. We encounter them at the edge of knowing, on the verge of meaninglessness, where we feel our toes curling over the edge of the abyss. Facing them, we experience a non-rational, vertiginous mixture of fear and desire, repulsion and fascination. The limit experiences brought on by such strangers, gods, and monsters may elicit repulsion, causing us to pull back from the edge at which they appear, but they may also elicit desire, drawing us over that edge into new and unknown possibilities. These possibilities include new forms of relationship, community, even grace and redemption, but also paralysis, melancholy, even self-annihilation. How do we negotiate such limit experiences? How do we know the gods from the monsters? What is to be done?

It is precisely on this precarious edge of possibility, this liminal noplace between the known and unknown, between fear and desire, that philosopher Richard Kearney lingers. His ambition is to address the impossible necessity and necessary impossibility of finding ways to speak about the unspeakable and think about the unthinkable—in short, to interpret otherness.


Philosophy’s Abiding Enigma


Kearney explores these figures of otherness as

tokens of fracture within the human psyche. They speak to us of how we are split between conscious and unconscious, familiar and unfamiliar, same and other. And they remind us that we have a choice: (a) to try to understand and accommodate our experience of strangeness, or (b) repudiate it by projecting it exclusively onto outsiders. (4)

More often than not, we choose the latter, turning others into monstrous scapegoats as a means of purging ourselves of the otherness within. Kearney, on the other hand, chooses the former. Because “if philosophers are indeed enjoined to know themselves, they do well to continue concerning themselves with this inaugural and abiding enigma of the monster within” (14).

For the most part, Western philosophy has relegated the task of getting to know our monsters to art and religion, banishing all such “puzzlements provoked by ‘strangeness’ to the realm of Unreason.” As a result, “the Other has passed from the horizon of reflective understanding into the invisible, unspeakable, unthinkable dark” (7). But Kearney is convinced that the project of enlightenment itself “will remain unenlightened until it comes to terms with the strangers, gods and monsters that it has all too often ostracized or ignored” (5). He brings these ostracized others back into the fold of philosophy. In the process, he brings philosophy into closer fellowship with art and religion.

Indeed, Kearney does his philosophy in and through works of art, “exploring the diverse ways in which human ideas, images and narratives have tried to say the unsayable” (229). Each of the book’s ten chapters draws on visual or literary artistic representations of otherness in order to raise key philosophical problems and suggest ways of working them through. His brilliant close readings of the mother-monster in Ridley Scott’s Alien movies and Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux, for example, reveal “the ways in which our most feared monsters can serve as uncanny doubles for our all-toohuman selves” (50). His visit to the Terrors and Wonders exhibit at the DeCordova museum on September 14, 2001 opens a profound space for thinking about our complex responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11. And his interpretations of the ghosts of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Joyce’s Ulysses lead to reflections on the power of narrative to recollect traumatic memory in such a way as to transfigure melancholy into mourning.


What Is To Be Done?


Kearney is particularly concerned with what we might call the theological ambiguity of otherness, which raises for him the key question of ethical discernment. How do we distinguish between different kinds of otherness? Between

those aliens and strangers that need our care and hospitality, no matter how monstrous they might first appear ... and those others that really do seek to destroy and exterminate? Or to take one of the most ancient examples of ethical discernment, how are we to differentiate between the voice that bade Abraham kill Isaac and the voice that forbade him do to so? (10)

How, that is, do we discriminate between “enabling and disabling forms of alterity” (67)?

One of the ways Kearney frames this problem is in relation to my own book, Religion and Its Monsters (33–5; 42–3; 120–2), which explores monstrous horror as a kind of religious phenomenon. Monsters, I suggest, raise profound theological questions that are not always so welcome in more traditional, mainstream religious contexts. In the process, they tend to amplify theological problems over theological solutions. Consider, for example, some of the questions raised in classic monster tales such as the Beowulf poem and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. If everything comes from God, is God not the author of evil as well as good, chaos as well as order? What is evil, anyway, and where does it come from? Is it, as Professor Van Helsing says in Dracula, rooted deep in all good? Is immortality always desirable? Is redemption always possible? Are some, like Count Dracula or Grendel, chosen for curse while others are chosen for blessing?

Perhaps the most radical theological problem raised by the monstrous—the one Kearney is particularly concerned to address—is the confusion of gods and monsters in culture and in our imaginations. Frankenstein’s monster, for example, presses the question: Who is more monstrous, the Creature or the Creator? Even more radically, films like Nosferatu and Shadow of the Vampire go so far as to present the monster as a revelation of dreadful yet fascinating religious otherness, a radically heterodoxical envoy of the divine. If the Frankenstein stories ask whether God is a monster, these films ask whether the monster is a god.

That there is a slippery slope between gods and monsters is not a new idea. As personifications of otherness, the monsters of supernatural horror are often identified with the divine, especially with its more dreadful, maleficent aspects. And the experience of fear and horror in the face of the monstrous is akin in many respects to religious experience: both are often represented as encounters with a mysterious otherness that elicits a vertigo-like combination of dread and fascination. Indeed, in his classic 1917 essay on religious experience, The Idea of the Holy, historian of religions Rudolph Otto considered the monstrous (Leviathan in Job, for example) as an apt expression of the holy in all its aspects of overwhelming awe, wonder, and dread—what he called the mysterium tremendum.

Strangers, Gods and Monsters pushes the discussion about the confusion of gods and monsters to another level by asking the very practical question, What is to be done? How do we move beyond the apparent ambiguity and confusion brought on by such encounters with otherness toward some kind of practical understanding and ethical discernment?

In this regard, Kearney is critical of a certain trend in the thinking of some contemporary philosophy (e.g., in some work by Slavoj Zizek and Jean-François Lyotard) that treats otherness as unmediatable, untranslatable, and ultimately sublime. Kearney describes this trend as the “postmodern notion of the monstrous sublime” (83). To this way of thinking, as Kearney explains it, the human experience of radical otherness is an encounter with that which is absolutely beyond representation, beyond ethical discernment, and certainly beyond any ethical notion of the divine as good. Here there is no distinction between radical evil and divinity; these are simply terms we employ in order to translate the otherness, which is entirely ineffable, into familiar terms and concepts.

To a point, Kearney sympathizes with the intention behind this notion of the radically transcendent, ineffable other. Too often philosophy has erred in the opposite direction, reducing all otherness and difference to sameness and unity. Nonetheless, he finds reason for ethical concern, for such a position in relation to otherness leaves us speechless and paralyzed, unable to judge between different encounters with otherness. (Such is not the case, by the way, for Otto, who was closer to Kant in seeing moral judgment not as an overcoming or suppression of the wholly other but as a consummation of it, that is, a “completion and charging of it with new content.”)

The postmodern “teratology of the sublime,” Kearney argues, leaves no opening for an ethical response, as if the awesome and awful sublimity of Hiroshima, the eruption of Mount St. Helens, the collapse of the World Trade Center, and a Colorado wildfire are indistinguishable in their radical otherness.




Kearney proposes a practical alternative to either (a) positing otherness as radically beyond comprehension and accommodation or (b) conflating it with the self, thereby reducing it to sameness. “The trick,” he suggests, is “not to let the foreign become too foreign or the familiar too familiar.” Borrowing his terms from Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another, Kearney describes this in-between approach as the “critical hermeneutics of oneself-as-another” (77–81). Between the extremes of homogeneity and heterology, this approach is dialogical, seeking “to make us more hospitable to strangers, gods and monsters without succumbing to mystique or madness” (18). To do so involves an interpretive process of de-alienating otherness by coming to recognize oneself as other and the other as another self. We need to approach the other with the understanding that otherness is “both within us and beyond us” (229). This process of understanding “not only alters the ego into a self-asanother but guarantees that the other, for its part, retains a basic fluidity and equivocity. The other is neither too close nor too far, neither too familiar nor too foreign, to escape my attention” (81).

Kearney recommends three ways of enacting this critical hermeneutics of oneself-as-another. Each way effectively takes the allure out of some postmodern theorizing about radical otherness as it moves into the realm of praxis. First, there is practical understanding, a kind of judgment-inpractice that is turned toward the future with the aim of acting against evil, especially the suffering of others. Such an understanding will always be tentative and provisional, always involving some degree of ambiguity, but it is necessary if one is to move from reflection to action in order to prevent or stop unnecessary or unjustifiable suffering in the world. Second, there is working-through one’s own experience. We each suffer our own evils. The concern in working-through is to keep such suffering from destroying oneself, and this, Kearney believes, requires moving beyond passive lament and melancholy into active complaint, refusing to be brought down, refusing to be dehumanized (104). Third, there is pardon, or forgiveness. Even the most atrocious acts are done by human beings, and we must be able to recognize our own human potential for atrocity within those very acts. Without pardon, we remain caught up in endless cycles of revenge that only serve to polarize self and other. Here Kearney quotes Pascal approvingly: “Comprendre, c’est pardoner.” To understand is to forgive. Even in the face of the most atrocious, most monstrously sublime of terrors, borne of the most hateful of human imaginings, there is no understanding without pardon.


Whoever Fights Monsters


Strangers, Gods and Monsters navigates some extremely difficult intellectual and cultural terrain. Yet no matter how rough the going gets, Kearney’s writing remains conversational and inviting. He never introduces a philosophical concept or problem without explaining it in lay terms. Indeed, it is clear throughout that he writes with the heart of a teacher, and that this book emerges from years of experience in the classroom exploring these same topics with students. With a combination of philosophical rigor, clear-headedness, and generosity that we have come to expect from Kearney, Strangers, Gods and Monsters brings to the table many insights and at least as many questions as he invites us to get to know our others and, in the process, ourselves in new and transformative ways.

These days, in the on-going “War on Terror,” we are only too familiar with the desire in mainstream American culture and political discourse to make monsters out of enemy others, imbuing them with diabolical power and construing “our” war against them as a holy war of absolute good against absolute evil. This war depends on maintaining “terror” and its agents as monstrously, radically other, uninterpretable, beyond all human comprehension and practical understanding. Nietzsche warned that “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” Indeed. Kearney reminds us that seeing to this does not mean that we must never fight monsters. But when we do, we must recognize ourselves in them.