The OF Blog: Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

Monster is a flexible, multiuse concept.  Until quite recently it applied to unfortunate souls like the hydrocephalic woman.  During the nineteenth century "freak shows" and "monster spectacles" were common; such exploitation of genetically and developmentally disabled people must be one of the lowest points on the ethical meter of our civilization.  We have moved away from this particular pejorative use of monster, yet we still employ the term and concept to apply to inhuman creatures of every stripe, even if they come from our own species. The concept of the monster has evolved to become a moral term in addition to a biological and theological term.  We live in an age, for example, in which recent memory can recall many sadistic political monsters.  (p. 7)

Things that go bump in the night.  Caterwaulings that chill the hearts and souls of those that hear them.  Asymmetrical oddities that skew the "right" and "normal" perspectives of what constitutes "normal."  Cold-heart, murderous sons-of-bitches whose thought patterns seem so alien to us.  These and more are frequently labeled as being "monstrous," but whence comes these fears and revulsions?  Columbia College Chicago Philosophy Professor Stephen T. Asma approaches this often morbidly-fascinating topic from multiple approaches.  Dividing his recently-released On Monsters:  An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears into four parts (primal fear, theological, scientific/rationalist, and psychological) that roughly correspond with distinct Western historical periods (prehistory/antiquity, medieval, Age of Reason, 20th century), Asma presents a history of monsters in a well-written, concise fashion that raises almost as many questions as it presumes to address.

On Monsters, published by Oxford University Press, is one of those books that contains a bit of something for most everyone.  For those with a training in academic (especially cultural history, philosophy, and psychology) disciplines, the copious footnotes found in Asma's book are a treasure trove of information that allows the curious reader to wander further down any rabbit holes that reader might want to explore.  For those readers who want an interesting survey of monsterology, this book also serves as an excellent introduction to this topic.  Asma's use of personal stories (from his son's alternating fear/fascination with a mendicant hydrocephalic woman in Shanghai to stories that his brother, a public defender for Cook County, Illinois) helps make this text about the inhuman more personal, easier to relate to, or dare I say it, more "human."

Asma approaches the issue of monsters and how our concepts of them in various ways. In his first section, he concentrates on "natural" monsters, creatures whose appearance and sounds may spark evolutionary fight-or-flight responses in us.  He opens with the apocryphal letter of Alexander the Great to Aristotle detailing his men's fight against successive waves of monsters by a lake in India.  He uses this story to highlight how imagination and ingrained fears can magnify or distort natural phenomena into something strange, unnatural, and monstrous. From there, he expands his focus to the religious, concentrating in particular upon the three largest monotheistic faiths today (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and how each contain monsters who attributes are tied into issues of faith, salvation, and damnation.  While he does not present anything particular new in his presentation of these issues, Asma manages to make these arguments clear, concise, and perhaps most importantly, interesting to the reader.

However, there are a few problems in the second half of the book.  In transitioning from the medieval theological mindset to the rationalist approach of (free)thinkers of the 16th-19th centuries, Asma's narrative begins to falter somewhat.  While the stories involving Barnum's use of freak shows to draw crowds were very interesting, Asma seemed to be defining this period's use of "monster" as being something that depends upon oppositional viewpoints (the earlier theological approach, for example) than something that stands strongly by itself.  I wonder if perhaps the rationalist section on monsters might have been better presented as being part of a greater tension between those who wanted to construct a Positivist view of history and their societies' tendencies to warp such views by presenting the genetically malformed as a sort of twisted take on Darwin's theory of natural selection.  Asma hints at this in places, but there were times that this appeared to be pushed too much into the background.

The weakest part is perhaps the last, on the psychological view of monsters as being related to the "inhuman" aspects of those who commit chilling crimes that are devoid of passion.  While Asma presents these "monsters" as being much more complex entities than a horrified general public might, there is a pronounced lack of transitional evidence presented in this section on how the label of "monster" moved from the external attributes (appearance, sounds) to the internal (thoughts, rationales, differences from cultural world-views).  This is not to say that the fourth part is devoid of interest (if anything, it contains several stories, including that of Wayne Gacy, that will fascinate readers), but rather that it does not feel as well integrated as the other three parts do.

Yet despite these shortcomings, On Monsters:  An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears is one of the best non-fiction, scholarly works that I have read in some time.  Asma balances academic research with a personable narrative approach that both informs and entertains the readers.  Several times in the course of this review, a single word was used as a descriptor.  It will suffice here as well as a one-word summation of this book and its main attraction to readers:  Fascinating.

1 comment:

E. L. Fay said...

This book sounds fascinating. I've been looking for something similar focusing on vampires.

I was especially interested in the definition of "monster" as something recognizably different that sparks an evolutionary "flight or fight" response. I was reading the other day about the "uncanny valley," and how something that looks too human can be just as frightening as something that could never pass as human. One example cited was the problems creating realistic humans with CGI (many review of Tom Hanks's film The Polar Express felt that the human characters were too inadvertently disturbing). The article also talked about zombies and super-realistic androids.

It went on to speculate that our negative reaction to these "humans that aren't human" may also be an evolutionary, instinctive response warning us to avoid people who are "not right." Which ties into Asma's argument that monsters can sometimes be natural phenomena distorted into something terrifying.

I was also interested in the "freak show" aspect of this. Looking at programs like Medical Incredible on the Discovery Health Channel and sensationalist talk shows, I'm not sure "freak shows" are really such a thing of the past. If anything, it's probably like the Jerry Springer v. Maury Povich argument: that it's easy to condemn Springer as raw exploitation, but Maury is probably much worse in that he showcases these people under the guise of empathizing with them.

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