The words in Francisco Goya’s famous etching, which may be more famous than the image itself, warn that the “sleep of reason produces monsters.” But precisely because reason can illuminate only so much, we children of the Enlightenment seem determined not only to seek out monsters but also to invent them.
Most of us like our monsters neat—not just fantastical but clearly evil. The comic writer David Sedaris, for instance, recalls his childhood preference for Dracula over Frankenstein’s monster, the latter having “ruined everything by handing that peasant girl a flower” before (innocently?) drowning her. But as we grow older, we have to acknowledge Baudelaire’s point that life “swarms with innocent monsters” and that some of the scarier creatures are the ones not under the beds but in them.
The monstrous is a crucial element of horror, of course, and in the first of our thematic essays, “Our Mindless and Our Damned,” philosopher Antón Barba-Kay suggests that horror, is, “in a more general sense, the way in which the holy reasserts itself in us after the expulsion of the religious, the sense of a numinous supernatural that resists full naturalization by scientific reason.” More specifically, he argues, the figures of the vampire and the zombie retain their imaginative hold on us because they “put us in contact with the demonic, the scary negative of the holy, while keeping it quarantined from the light that, unencompassed, serves to make the darkness whole.”
Monster is not only a noun. It is also a verb, and Vanessa Place, author, artist, and attorney, reminds us that in Samuel Johnson’s great and quirky dictionary to monster is “to put out of the common order of things.” In “Monstering,” Place speaks knowingly (in part from her extensive experience defending sex offenders) about how, in casting out the monster, “we cast in ourselves,” and thereby easily lose a sense of the subject in others. “The sex offender,” she writes, “fails to see the subject in his victim, mistaking that other for something not quite human, something that must be subdued, something that must submit. And, on the other side of the ad hoc divide, the non–sex offender fails to see the subject in the criminal, mistaking that other for something not quite human, something that must be subdued, something that must submit.”
While Place is convincing, it is paradoxical, but no contradiction, that so many stories about monsters show how we, the good victims, are complicit in evil’s invasion. As literary critic Paul A. Cantor explains in “Inviting Evil In,” Coleridge’s gothic fantasy “Christabel” is typical “in the way that it portrays the monstrous as inextricably intertwined with the everyday—it feeds on something already inside us. That is why the monster always has to be invited in.”
The monstrous can also be empowering to those who find certain social norms too narrow or restrictive, too obviously the weapons of those who seek to keep people in their places. In “Season of the Witch,” Becca Rothfeld discusses the many current popular appropriations of witchcraft and the witch. Ranging from the progressive and the feminist to the cute and kitschy, efforts to harness witchery to good causes and personal liberation finally strike the author as too tame, too commercial, and far too anodyne. “Who cares,” she asks, “if all women are witches, if all witches do is curse their husbands’ professional nemeses and jinx the household appliances into heightened efficiency?”
In less dramatic ways, perhaps, some species of the monstrous address the limitations of modern forms of knowledge. In “Desperately Seeking Mothman,” Tara Isabella Burton explores the very human fascination with cryptozoology—“the occult-tinged study of as yet unbeheld creatures.” Although rightly labelled a pseudoscience, the lore around “cryptids” such as the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, and Mothman responds to a need for “icons of a world more complex than empirical science alone can explain.” Whereas the Wunderskammern (cabinets of curiosities) that first became popular in the Renaissance celebrated “our ability to categorize and taxonomize, to preserve and detail” cryptids, whose alleged horns or tusks populated some of those cabinets, “managed to defy categorization, to muddle known categories.” In short, says Burton, “They suggested that the world was richer, stranger, than could be contained within any glass case.”
But the strangest creatures in creation may be those monsters that seem to typify, even caricature, certain features of our time. Richard Milhous Nixon was many things in addition to being the thirty-seventh president. Underhanded trickster and tragic hero, brilliant statesman and paranoid whiner, he was also, Phil Christman argues, a near-perfect instance of what futurist Alvin Toffler dubbed the Modular Man—the person who, with the help of marketing, can become almost anything. In “Richard Nixon, Modular Man,” Christman unpacks the distinctive features of the type and shows how they applied to a man whose multiple self-makings were a key to his success as a modern politician. Beneath each mask, beneath each “New Nixon,” was only another mask, revealing “not a person but a series of modules sequentially occupied and abandoned by a bare impulse of will, resentment, and calculation.”
Gaze long into the abyss, Nietzsche warned, and the abyss will gaze back into you. As each of our dives into the monstrous demonstrates, the modern urge to monster, to name what is out of the common order of things, all too often reveals the monstrous that lurks both in ourselves and in a world that may not be so orderly.