Monsters are horror-filled creatures that violently intrude upon our calm and settled existence. They bring chaos and malevolence. And monsters are transgressive, violating our sacred taboos.
It's obvious how we see the Other as Monster. More curious is the recurring theme in monster texts (stories, movies, books) of the fear that we may be or become a monster.
We see this theme in a variety of stories:
The werewolf. Think of Professor Lupin in the Harry Potter series. Lupin is kind and heroic, but he suffers from a bit of a problem at the full moon.
The vampire. The great fear in the vampire genre is that we, via the vampire's bite, will become a vampire.
But my favorite example of the monster within is Robert Louis Stevenson's tale published in 1886: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
In my last post I noted that monsters are warnings. They are omens of a looming threat. Consequently, if we reflect on these "monster within" stories it is obvious that monsters are warning us about ourselves. There is something inside us that poses a threat. Something within us is monstrous.
In the Christian tradition the monster within is best described by Paul in the book of Romans, Chapter 7:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do...I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.This notion of a duplex self appears to be a universal human experience. The rabbis, who likely informed Paul's analysis in Romans, speak of two competing impulses in the human heart. There is an evil impulse, the yezer ha-ra, which struggles against the yezer ha-tov, the impulse for good.
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am!
Our modern notions of the monstrous impulses within us (the yezer-ha-ra, the "law of sin") have moved away from religious formulations toward psychological and biological explanations. The most influential amongst these models is Freud's psychoanalytic notion of a tripartite mind.
For Freud, the mind has three competing structures, you know them as the id, superego, and ego. Interestingly, Freud keeps the Judeo-Christian notion of intrapsychic conflict as the basis of his "secular" theory. That is, Freud's conflict between the id and superego is very similar to his Jewish ancestor's description of the yezer ha-ra and the yezer ha-tov.
For Freud, the monster within us is the id. The id is the source of our primal, animal urges. These urges are sexual and aggressive in nature. Further, given that these urges are primitive and atavistic they are experienced as transgressive, as taboo violations. This is most clearly seen in the Oedipus Complex where transgressive sexual desires, because they are intrafamilial, are experienced.
David Gilmore summarizes the Freudian analysis of monsters in his book Monsters:
This mixture of human and animal is a direct consequence of a profound ambivalence shared by all people: a simultaneous terror and fascination with the beast within, the impulsive need to both deny and acknowledge that, no matter how exalted, we humans are members of the animal kingdom and heir to violent instincts.The relevant point in all this is that we live with transgressive urges on a daily basis. We spend a great deal of time during the day pushing away or shutting down transgressive material in the mind. Most of us, the great majority of us, are very successful at this. (Although we worry about the sick, deviant, and transgressive material that pops into our heads.) Some are less successful and act upon these impulses. These persons move into the monstrous.
But even the "normal" amongst us have a persistent fear. What if, someday, I can't fend off the monstrous impulse? We all know we are one act away from moving into danger. One mistake and I can go from "upright citizen" to "monster." We are generally successful at fighting off the monster, but we sense that the line between me and the abyss is paper thin. Monsters, thus, are warnings and omens to remain eternally vigilant about both who we are and who we may become.
But there is a related fear here, one that we will return to time and time again in this series. Monsters are liminal creatures. They exist "in between" civilization and the abyss. Monsters come from dark unknown places and enter our world. In this sense, they are like angels, the liminal creatures of the good place. Intrapsychically understood, monsters come from the unknown abyss inside us, the dark corners of the id. Should we, then, seek to understand those dark places of the heart? Should we chase those monsters? Seek to illuminate the places from which they come?
Susan Neiman, in her book Evil in Modern Thought, notes the people begin to part ways on these questions. That is, some people feel that to successfully combat evil we must seek to understand it. Others see this approach as a disaster. To understand evil is to become contaminated by it and be influenced by it. To truly understand monsters one would have to become a monster. This sentiment is struck at the beginning of the 2008 Academy Award winning movie No Country for Old Men. It's a movie about a good man, a small town sheriff, seeking to hunt down a "monster." As the movie opens the sheriff muses about evil and the risk of trying to understand evil in order to stop it:
I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five. Hard to believe. Grandfather was a lawman. Father too. Me and him was sheriff at the same time, him in Plano and me here. I think he was pretty proud of that. I know I was.That's the question. Do you put your soul at hazard if you want to understand monsters? Do we really want to understand why someone commits a heinous crime? Because if we had an answer (e.g., they were abused, broken family, brain disorder) are we at risk of explaining the evil away? Of becoming "a part of this world"?
Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lot of folks find that hard to believe. Jim Scarborough never carried one. That the younger Jim. Gaston Boykins wouldn't wear one. Up in Commanche County.
I always liked to hear about the old-timers. Never missed a chance to do so. You can't help but compare yourself against the old timers. Can't help but wonder how they would've operated these times. There was this boy I sent to Huntsville here a while back. My arrest and my testimony. He killed a fourteen-year-old girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn't any passion to it. Told me that he'd been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him loose he'd do it again. Said he knew he was going to hell. Be there in about fifteen minutes. I don't know what to make of that. I surely don't.
The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But I don't want to push my chips in and go out to meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, okay, I'll be a part of this world.
Monsters repel us. That is how they warn us of danger. But what if monsters are no longer repellent? Without monsters what omens remain to warn us of evil?
It's a two-edged sword. To live with monsters is to sacrifice some people to the monstrous. To throw them into the abyss. To treat them as inexplicable and deviant to the point of alien, epistemologically speaking. Conversely, to live without monsters, where evil is understood scientifically, are we not at risk of losing a sense of evil in our world? Is Hitler best understood as evil or as the product of social and familial forces that made him who he was? In short, should Hitler "make sense" to us? Should we want Hitler to be comprehensible? Because once Hitler is comprehensible, our blame and outrage lessens a bit, if even only a fraction. And that's a slippery slope. We've put "our soul at hazard." Maybe the sheriff in No Country is right. Perhaps it's better to leave evil as alien and inexplicable.
Monsters mark a boundary, they are fences. So where should we place these sentinels, if at all?
Perhaps there are places inside my soul where I should not venture. I should shoo away monstrous impulses but not inquire as to their origin. I should leave the monstrous as liminal, as a signpost that unexplored abysses exist within me. That I should go no further.
Or maybe I should go exploring. Cross the fence. To pull up and analyze the darkness within me. But if I do this, am I at risk of becoming a monster?
Next Post: Monsters & Heros