06 February 2009

Monsters are the Washington Generals of Literature

I guess my committee chair was right: there are some ginormous structuralist underpinnings in this project. I was re-reading Cohen's introduction to Monster Theory (for the eleventy billionth time), and I realized that I am assuming a general plot for monsters within texts. It may not be the main plot: it could be an incidental story or the overarching theme of the work, but it almost always turns out the same. The general story arc for monsters is that they threaten and then lose. It's so simple that many people have relied on it without stating it explicity or, having stated it explicitly, did not place it within its proper theoretical context.

But it is a structuralist precept in the classic sense. Grimm, Propp, et al. often got bogged down in detailing minute variations of story types--trying to create some sort of Linnean taxonomy of every single type and variant of that type. It not only was so ambitious as to be impossible, but it seemed to be of limited use even in its ideal form. On the other side of the register, Jung, Campbell, et al. often generalized similarities to the point that they were so vague and all-encompassing that one saw them in everything. How does one make a story without a protagonist and antagonist? How does the protagonist then not become a variant of (or response to) The Hero?

But as Edward Ingebretsen once wrote (I paraphrase): the monster exists to be killed, we must be the one who kills it, and it can never be our fault. Whether that monster is a personification of a cultural anxiety (Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, Freddy, witches) or a partial reification of an actual personage (the Japanese in WWII propaganda posters, OJ Simpson, Native Americans), the story plays out the same way. The monster threatens. We, the people, resist and fight (sometimes via proxy in the hero, sometimes not). The monster dies by our hand. Our anxieties are termporarily assuaged.

It's not a very interesting plot line, but it's just a terrifically general skeleton plot--a thing that Tolkien once complained was, no matter the text, either "wild, or trivial, or typical." The thing about it is its ability to provide comfort. I think it functions in the same way our favorite movies do. There's no doubt that Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby are going to save the General's lodge in White Christmas, and there's no doubt that Marvin's going to be shot in the head in Pulp Fiction. But I keep watching these movies even though I know what will happen. We keep re-reading books even though we know what's there. It's not because we want to see if Bing convinces Rosemary Clooney he's not a bad guy or if Beowulf can pull out one more battle with Grendel. No, we return for the show, not the score. In this sense, I think monsters really are like the Washington Generals. You go to watch the Harlem Globetrotters beat the snot out of them, and you want to see how it will be done, but God help the Generals if they actually win one because they'll make the kids in the stands cry. Same with monsters. They exist to lose to the hero or to us. They help us exorcise or excise our anxieties in a safe way.


Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

But I don't think they are so safe. That's why the last of my theses on monstrosity is that the monster returns: because it is interior, because it is desired as well as feared, because there is no human without it, because we are never safe and never want to be.

prehensel said...

Too true, and I always forget to think about the "us" side of the register--especially on the individual level. But--and this is something that some colleagues and I have been batting around recently--if we could argue for monsters as a vehicle for some sort of Foucauldian unthought project, would that change things? That is, could monsters be successful in obscuring a particular thought, option, lifestyle, people, etc.? Or are they, by their very natures as boundary figures giving as they are taking away?

And is that last line from you? Seems like something I heard and not something I said on my own.

Tim Asay said...

I'd agree that it's hard to think of them as safe, or even wholly as boundary figures. It would be interesting to see a reading of monsters in terms of Girardian mimesis-- of the monster as a mimetic double that both threatens and legitimates our desires and the possessive identities they define. Monsters seem to usually represent some naked desire that transgresses the prohibitions and rituals designed to cage and channel our own desires. This bare, consumptive ego both undergirds the idea of culture (culture, in fact, is wholly designed to mediate and validate these disputes) and threatens to dissolve it if we allow it to run amok. It's a constant tension between maintaining the savage drive of that mimetic desire and temporarily, provisionally assuaging it (though in a way that seems more or less permanent, that can identify us). The monster tries to assimilate all to itself, as is the tendency of "culture," or perhaps more accurately of ourselves and our understanding. Both simply want not only to be, but to appropriate the substance of others who vie for existence if only to legitimate the desire for that substance. Otherwise why would meat taste so good?

So they become "boundary figures," but only inasmuch as they are the pariahed doubles of ourselves. So I would agree with Jeffrey's assertion that the monster is interior, that it is desired and feared (the two emotions actually becoming identical), though I would nuance his last point: it's not so much that we never want to be safe as that we don't "want" anything until it is threatened. Desire is nothing more than an imitation of the desires of others, as St. Augustine realized a long time ago. We have to want that safe perch of stable identification or else desire becomes altogether meaningless, but threat and desire organize themselves around rivalry, not the other way around (just think about the Knight's Tale).

prehensel said...

I've been thinking about this conversation for a few days now, and I think I might finally have something intelligent to say. Maybe.

1) I think what I meant in calling fictional monsters safe is that they are necessarily circumscribed in their threat and abilities. We know that they're in a story and can't hurt us. Even if we, as the Anglo-Saxons did, think they are real somewhere, we've never seen a monster. BUT that monster does, as JJC pointed out over a decade ago (curious aside: does it seem that long ago?) they always return. To me it's much less about the chronological element of being revived in a text to threaten again the very next time it's read; instead I'm always fascinated by the way the fictional monster infiltrates our culture and becomes a vehicle for representing otherness (to steal JJC's phrasing yet again) in daily life. I always think of OJ Simpson on the cover of TIME in the mid-90s. TIME darkened his face to make him look scarier, and that's a strategy that extends all the way back to medieval travel literature. So monsters are scary because in a way--as TA noted--they assimilate people; we make monsters out of men. This maybe isn't such a big deal until you find yourself a medieval Jew, American Indian, Japanese-American in the 40s, or Black man who killed a white woman. Then you become less human and more monster, and that, unfortunately, makes you into an object or thing that, as Paxson points out, allows you to me "'removed' or excised rather than murdered."

2) TA, you wrote: "It would be interesting to see a reading of monsters in terms of Girardian mimesis--of the monster as a mimetic double that both threatens and legitimates our desires and the possessive identities they define." I haven't read as much Freud as I should have by this point in my career, but it seems to me that you're describing the Uncanny Other. I'd always understood Girardian triangular desire (again, something that I should know more about but don't) to be mimetic of the thing desired, not of ourselves. I know I'm missing something in what you're saying, but I'm not sure what. Perhaps Girard relies more on Freudian psychoanalysis than I know?