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And He was asking him, "What is your name?" And he said to Him, "My name is Multitude; for we are many."

Man & His Monsters – I Divine Monsters

Monsters occupied the margins of our lands, books, and cathedrals because margins are the cartographic mark of the Other, the boundaries that limit Our world, and hence hint the existence of others. If medieval cartography is to be seen as a science of graphic exegesis then the existence of the Other is a condition for the existence of margins. And it is precisely because monsters inhabited marginality, that we can say that they asserted the rightfulness of Man’s situ, of his centrality.

This article is divided in four parts published in a row in this blog. This is the first.


 

 

here are our monsters

 

Derrida once stated that «Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say: “Here are our monsters,” without immediately turning the monsters into pets.»[1] For centuries, however, monsters have been subjects of attention, debate and announcement. They have played many roles in our discourses – as antagonistic figures, or fantastic ones – occupying places that were never central, but always prominent.

 

This essay concerns the function of monsters and their monstrosity in Renaissance Europe and, putting aside several differences of approach and conception that emerge throughout such a large period, it intends to highlight the operations of monstrosity that remained intact. For a whole epoch, which allowed the transition from monsters as God’s work to monsters as biological defects, monstrosity functioned as an important space of tensions which defined the boundaries of the Natural, of the Divine and, ultimately of Man himself. The objective of this essay is to explore this functionality by looking into the part they took in discursive practices. By doing so, we aim to explore ways of understanding this part in a larger framework, that of the conditions of possible thought – what Foucault called episteme.[2] We aim at a short genealogy of Renaissance monstrosity.

 

To recover the critical potency of monsters, to reclaim it as a discursive instrument – and even as a political identity[3] – one cannot look away from the transformations monstrosity has undergone. The absences in the history of monsters, therefore, are as important as its presences. Amidst the spawn of Frankenstein, we can only re-signify monsters by examining the relation between the Renaissance and artificiality.

 

Looking at it again, Derrida’s maxim might be less subversive than it first appears. By using monsters as a category of analysis outside of history, isn’t he insisting on «the reduction of discursive practices to textual traces; the elision of the events produced therein and the retention only of marks for a reading»?[4]

 

The diverse texts used for this essay certainly disagree with Derrida: for centuries they presented monsters clearly, cataloguing them, enumerating them; and yet they didn’t always dominate their monstrosity. This may be due to the unique place occupied by monsters during the Renaissance. But it might also be that only by declaring from the start Here are our monsters, can one avoid turning them into pets.

 

 

I – The Divine and the Natural

 

Until the High Middle Ages, Nature was a harmonious extension of God, it was part of His presence and action. The world, made in seven days, was simultaneously the opus of the magnus Author and the absolute proof of His existence and presence. For all that was seen had a maker – and who else could be the soul of all movement, the conveyor of all generation? The Maker’s existence is made undeniable by the mark of His creation, His signature. But furthermore Nature, in her constant change and diversity, testified too to His constant presence and actions. «For God is certainly called Almighty for one reason only, that he has the power to do whatever he wills,» the power to make different what he had before made equal, «the power to create so many things which would be reckoned impossible,»[5] and everything – smooth or rough – is equally His will and creation. To posit unbreakable laws of Nature was an act of heresy, one that defied His omnipotence. The order of things had no infinitely fixed form, no unalterable configuration or generality. God had at each moment the power to make different, He was the sole driving agency of the world, He was the ubiquitous motive force of the universe.

 

 

natural monsters

 

Within this cosmology, monsters, be they horrific or spectacular, singular or part of an entire species, were part of Nature’s diversity and thus of God’s Creation. And this meant not only that monsters were not Man’s foes, but in fact that they were even to be celebrated: their existence was natural, and as such divine, and no thing made by God was without purpose, no thing existed for its own sake. Did monstrous species exist to prevent us from mistaking abnormality with error in the work of God, as in Augustine?[6] Was it the case that their peculiarities came to enrich our marvel and astonishment, as suggested by The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, recorded in the fourteenth-century?[7] Were they carriers of new things to learn, new things to read, and hence keys to the scripture?[8] Or divine portents, designed to warn us of calamities to come?[9] Whichever the answer given, there was an undeniable accord: they were not without purpose.

 

 

the place of monsters

 

This positive function of monstrosity can be seen in cartography: monsters inhabited marginality. The descriptions of Saint Augustine, Mandeville or Marco Polo make it clear: the monsters’ lands are the edges of the world.[10] It would be of course a mistake to confuse this marginality with a strict sense of geography; the cartography delineated tells us about relations of spaces other than the physical. Or is one to think that, following the Hereford Mappa Mundi, one would reach Eden or the Kingdom of God by keep heading East? The location of these unreachable places has little to do with geographical orientation. Instead, it is dependent on the symbolic top-centre position in relation to the whole original triptych.

 

 

And monsters were not marginal only in maps. In cathedrals, the images and sculptures of monsters appear in the friezes, in the edge of the cornices, in the corners, between figures of saints. In manuscripts, their place is equally marginal: they spread throughout the borders of writings, reaffirming the centrality of the commentary by illustrating what’s beyond it, by framing it. «These are also verges, marginal places that surround the text, which is to say the order, the sacred, the “symbolic.”»[11]

 

Monsters occupied the margins of our lands, books, and cathedrals because margins are the cartographic mark of the Other, the boundaries that limit Our world, and hence hint the existence of others.[12] If medieval cartography is to be seen as a science of graphic exegesis then the existence of the Other is a condition for the existence of margins. And it is precisely because monsters inhabited marginality, that we can say that they asserted the rightfulness of Man’s situ, of his centrality.

 

Even when born among us, the monster was to be read as an affirmation of our identity and place, for that which comes from God marked as different, can inversely be celebrated as our identity, as our similitude. God, after all, made Man in His own Image.

 

 

 

⇐ keep reading


[1] Derrida (1990), 80

[2] Foucault (1973)

[3] Stryker (1994)

[4] Foucault (1979)

[5] Augustine, 21.7, 977 , apud Daston & Park (1998), 39

[6] Ibid, 16.8, 2

[7] See Seymour (1968/1480)

[8] Augustine, 21.4, 970, see Ceard (1996) 21-29

[9] Vincent de Beauvais apud Daston & Park (1998), 48, also see Baltrusaitis (1981).

[10] Polo (1984/1288-9)

[11] Gil (2006) 58

[12] Ibid., 11-19

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4 comments on “Man & His Monsters – I Divine Monsters

  1. Pingback: Man & His Monsters – II Natura Artifex | MODO DE VOLAR

  2. Pingback: Man & His Monsters – III Man | MODO DE VOLAR

  3. Pingback: Man & His Monsters – IV Marginality & Representation | MODO DE VOLAR

  4. Pingback: Those Corpses Are Like Me | misty moon workshop

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