9 November 2011

Monstrorum historia

Some footnotes to the my recent piece for Granta online:
In On Monsters: An Unnatural History of our Worst Fears, Stephen Asma identifies ‘slitherers’, or snake-like monsters as one of the principal types of monsters. Eels can be put in this category (along with, for example, hagfish). Others include: ‘crawlers’ (spider-type monsters), ‘collosals’ (giant creatures), ‘hybrids’ (mixed-species creatures), ‘possessors’ (spirits, specters), and parasites (infectious agents, blood suckers etc).  Stories about monster threats and heroic conquests, Asma suggests,  'provide us with a ritualized, rehearsable simulation or reality, a virtual way to represent the forces of nature, the threats from other animals, and the dangers of human social interaction.'
In the introduction to The Book of Imaginary Beings, Borges and his translator write: 'We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe, but...it is a necessary monster.' 
John Gray's comment appears here
I wrote that 'monsters of one kind or another are woven into virtually all the cultures of which we have record.' There may be a parallel in religion. David Hume suggested that belief in gods arose from fear of the unknown causes of the sometimes malevolent, sometimes benevolent and often unpredictable events which so frequently dominated human life. William James, by contrast, argued that a sense of transcendent joy played at least as important a role in the creation and maintenance of religious belief as fear. Certainly, a religious impulse is strong in us. ‘Some form of religious thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems,’ writes the psychologist Pascal Boyer; ‘by contrast, disbelief is generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions.‘ The anthropologist Scott Atran agrees: ‘Spirituality looms as humankind’s provisional evolutionary destiny.‘ Or, as the novelist David Foster Wallace put it, ‘there is no such thing as not worshipping.’

I wrote 'now almost all the monsters are within us'. This is a figure of speech, but some things inside us do seem like beings with their own existence. Cancer, one of the ‘kings of terror’ can be a case in point. And as Siddhartha Mukherjee points out, cancer can sometimes seem more like a someone than a something
I should write another note about (big) cats.

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