determining the monstrous

The sleep of reason produces monsters.
Francisco de Goya

The monstrous is played out, so to speak, on many platforms, from the horrifying to the benevolent, from tales of terror to moralizing bestiaries, and through incarnations that reflect periods, perceptions, and societal and authorial mindsets of wide varieties. On one level, the monster is viewed as outside the realm of nature and thus of ethical values, and, on another, as a link to examinations of subjectivity. Interposed in the dialogue are the metaphorical and metonymical thrust of the monster and the making and breaking of boundaries, as the individual rejects and, perhaps reluctantly, embraces the Other. The monster may be our enemy, and the monster may be ourselves. Whatever the case, in every sense it can be said that we create our monsters, as a members of distinct communities.
Monsters can be real, imagined, or the imagined made real. The literal and the figurative frequently intersect, their differentiating elements blurred. Monsters erupt from the mysterious, the unknown, the feared, the suspicious, and the strange, from anything that deviates from the norm, the so-called normal, the ordinary. Monsters can be personifications of our innermost doubts and anxieties. They can be benign and innocent, and we nonetheless can convert them into the enemy, in order to push them to be fearful of us and thus to make ourselves the enemy, monsters in our own right. Societies and artists of all media can create monsters, to rule, to fabricate conflict, to enforce dogmas, and, in contrast, to give rise to beauty. Alongside myriad monsters of the mind lie—we should not forget—real monsters of cruelty, violence, injustice, discrimination, bigotry, and perversity.


A common strategy of these real monsters is to turn monstrosity upside down, designating as monstrous what is for them the Other, the foe, the rival. Race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual preferences, and physical appearance are factors in determining worth and in determining the monstrous. Literary, social, and political monsters—be they physically present or figments of the imagination—are simulacra of archetypal mythological and legendary battles of heroes (and heroines) with monsters such as dragons, giants, and beasts of various stripes. Horror genres depict grotesque and hideous beings that can fill an audience with enormous dread, but, arguably, the most egregious and the most frightful monsters are invisible or, alternately, dressed in the robes of kindness and concern while concealing vile motives. Monsters can deceive us— drawing us in and letting us down, or worse—and there are likely to be monsters within us at some time or another.
Monstrosity evokes the extreme, and, accordingly, the monstrous lends itself to the baroque, the neobaroque, and the postmodern. The intertext of the monster is, in a word, gargantuan.
While the monstrous has been proven to connect to the creative impulse in virtuoso style, monsters are, on the whole, far more tragic than comic. They are integrated into the world of art for diverse purposes, and they should be taken seriously, even when levity may seem to be in the air. Monsters of any type are not to be trifled with, but by studying them we may end by resisting the temptation to lower our guard when they are near, to fight losing battles when they challenge us, or to emulate them. In the labyrinth of life, all roads lead to confusion.

Edward H. Friedman: Writing Monsters: Essays on Iberian and Latin American Cultures. Hispanic Issues On Line 15 (2014)



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