Monsters, a Definition
The last twenty or so years have brought with them a heart-warming rise in scholarly work on medieval monsters, but the precision of language used in our analysis has not kept pace. Monster, as a term, has been stretched far past its denotative limit because the prevailing wisdom holds that categorizing the monstrous imposes, to use David Williams’ words, “fundamentally arbitrary and absolutely impermanent” structures. In this paper, I will respond to each of these issues as I construct a working definition of the monster.
First, I reject the notion that categorizing the monstrous is necessarily arbitrary. By using a Cartesian (coordinate) plane, I propose two axes—morphology and behavior—by which to judge potentially monstrous characters: each axis runs from normal/normative to abnormal/antisocial. These axes, in turn, create quadrants, and the one (-x, -y) created by a combination of antisocial behavior and abnormal morphology is the realm of the “monstrous.”
The second issue, the impermanence of definitions, I embrace. Because “antisocial” and “abnormal” are dynamic labels, I follow Noel Caroll in using a situational application. Are the characters in question welcomed or shunned by dominant social structures depicted in the text? Do they provoke disgust? Fear? Violent responses? Does the author treat them more sensitively than the characters? Looking primarily at textual clues with regard to morphology and behavior avoids transcendent (and therefore reductionist) views that ignore local knowledge. But it still provides a framework for differentiating between Grendel and Grettir, or Merlin and a manticore.
Eric Morningstar, University of Michigan-Flint
Monsters in Dante's Hell: Cultural Implications and Unorthodox Religion
Writing towards the end of the Medieval Ages, Dante Alighieri’s treatment of monstrosity in the Inferno has many important implications for the text itself and for its author. In the Inferno, Dante includes a variety of monsters, including Charon, Minos, Medusa, Pluto, centaurs, and more. Some monstrous figures like Charon and Minos even function to keep Hell running. The inclusion of monstrous figures in Hell serves to make it a truly terrifying place of punishment for sinners, an important goal for Dante as a writer as he criticized many of the corrupt Florentines responsible for Dante’s own exile. Aside from this artistic and political motive, however, Dante’s inclusion of monsters in Hell has some predictable and other disturbing implications. One may read Dante’s placement of monstrous creatures outside of Christianity as servants in Hell as a way of affirming Christianity’s truth over what Virgil describes as, “…the season of the false and lying gods.” This interpretation is predictable given Dante’s dedication to Catholicism. However, one may also pay attention to the role of functionality in his Hell and raise questions. Much like the gates of Hell, the description of which reads, “…MY MAKER WAS DIVINE AUTHORITY, THE HIGHEST WISDOM, AND PRIMAL LOVE...,” one may also view the monstrous servants, representative of false gods, as functional creations of the Christian god. From this second view, the current paper will explore the cultural implications of Dante’s treatment of God as a creator of false gods and architect of damnation for pre-Christians.
Jeannie Miller, NYU
Dogs, Devils, and the Rhetoric of Total Audibility.
The voluminous encyclopedic works of al-Jahiz (d. 868 AD), “father of Arabic prose,” exhibit a compulsive return to the monstrous, to intercategory beings, and to exceptions broadly speaking. Eunuchs, cross-breeds, exceptional sexual practices, deformities, speech impediments – the list feels infinite. This impression of infinity derives from al-Jahiz’s rhetoric of total audibility, through which he performs an unlimited availability of knowledge. Indeed, one could read the omnipresence of exception in al-Jahiz’s work as the byproduct of a quest to include within the boundaries of knowledge that which was formerly distinguished by its very unknowability. And yet the same rhetoric of total audibility that drives al-Jahiz to noisily include monsters at every turn also prevents him from silencing the many cultural voices broadcasting that unknowability.
As al-Jahiz re-theorizes monstrosity within total audibility, what changes and what remains the same of monstrosity’s formal function and cultural significance? My paper moves toward answering this question using the example of the dog in al-Jahiz’s Book of Animals. The dog’s impurity was Islam’s shibboleth, and the sociopolitically tinged perspectives on the dog cited in the Book of Animals testify to the epistemological and political effects of the dog’s recategorization as dirty within the various communities of the new Islamic empire. The total audibility of cultural discourses in this polyphonic text provides a kaleidescopic image of the dog’s exceptionalism. In the end, al-Jahiz’s “accessible monstrosity,” with its unique sociopolitical valence, boils down to the same core disturbance as the “secret monstrosity” of the other voices cited in the text: the dog is more human than is proper for an animal.