Book review of 'On Monsters' by Stephen T. Asma

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By Michael Sims
Tuesday, October 27, 2009


An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

By Stephen T. Asma

Oxford Univ. 351 pp. $27.95

Cleverly conceived and slyly written, Stephen Asma's survey of monsters is not content merely to parade the usual suspects -- the fretful dead or the giant recluses of the deep sea. Instead, this "Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears" leads us on a safari through the many manifestations of our idea of the monstrous. I have seldom read a book that so satisfyingly achieves such an ambitious goal.

"To be a monster," writes Asma, "is to be an omen." He points out that the word "monster" derives from a Latin root meaning "to warn." He nce his subtitle's emphasis on fear, our troublesome primate combination of herd-think and anxiety that quickly metamorphoses the other -- the unknown -- into something ghastly and threatening. Asma quotes Nietzsche's famous line: "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster." Consequently, Asma examines not only Frankenstein's monster and vampires and ghosts, but also racists, torturers and serial killers; he takes us into xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and warmongering. "One will search in vain through this book to find a single compelling definition of monster," he writes. "That's not because I forgot to include one, but because I don't think there is one."

Asma explores all sorts of historical and psychological terrain, deliberately seeking a confrontation with every monster in our nasty little minds. The book's antique title positions Asma in the tradition of comprehensive personal essayists, a la Robert Burton; even his endnotes are unpredictably broad and flavored with outrage and humor. The result is a confident and appealing authorial presence. A philosophy professor at Columbia College Chicago, Asma ranges easily from the deadly charisma of Leopold and Loeb to the enthusiastic demon-hunting of Augustine and Aquinas.

It's great fun to accompany him on this trek. Only a wide-ranging mind could work into a single book Freud's theories about Medusa and castration and the way in which the feisty biblical Satan resembles the good cop/bad cop theology of Zoroastrianism. Although Asma doesn't treat the topic lightly, one of the more amusing sections in his book addresses Christianity's carnival of rationalizations and back flips around the question of monsters; medieval Christians believed in whole arks of them. Do these creatures demonstrate a supposedly benevolent creator's attention deficit, they wondered, or do monsters serve as what Asma nicely describes as "living billboards for God's sublime creativity and awe-inspiring authority"?

But Asma doesn't spend all his time among dusty texts. He also aims his spotlight at numerous movies, examining the dehumanizing racism behind such films as "The Birth of a Nation" and "300" or even the implications of the unchained id in "Forbidden Planet." He peers into the sobering back story behind "Godzilla." He demonstrates how recent movies have transformed Grendel in the Beowulf story from a ravening beast into a victim of oppression.

Not surprisingly, this author of a superb chronicle of natural history museums ("Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads") proves adept at explaining Darwinian evolution, too. Yes, even natural selection shows up in Asma's unnatural history. He smoothly explains why genetic monsters (melodramatic, dead-end mistakes of nature such as two-headed babies) preoccupied Darwin and his colleagues. "The year 1838 was the turning point for Darwin," Asma writes. "Before that, he thought of monsters as a reasonable catalyst for evolution, but after the discovery of natural selection he rejected the role of monsters."

Darwin and Freud are only two of the many characters whose connection with monsters got them invited to Asma's party. Others are much more alarming. You will encounter fantastic tales of penis-stealing witches and hard-headed accounts of the incestuous Austrian rapist Josef Fritzl. Asma brings in the camera-swallowing artist Stelarc and the performance artist Orlan, who undergoes plastic surgery onstage. Then along comes the fascinating 16th-century Frenchman from whom Asma borrows his title: Ambroise Paré, author of "On Monsters and Marvels," a transitional work that sought to bring medicine out of the Dark Ages.

Asma garnishes these enlightening pages with many photographs and illustrations, including his own graceful drawings of such figures as the biblical Behemoth, the murderer John Wayne Gacy and the dog-headed cannibal Saint Christopher. Asma is that sort of writer -- able to get his hands on all kinds of gourmet ingredients, offhandedly scenting the air with erudition and then casually tossing in his own drawings just to add the last touch of spice. His new book is a feast.

Michael Sims's books include "Apollo's Fire" and a recent companion book to the National Geographic Channel series "In the Womb."

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