The history of all hitherto-existing societies is the history of monsters. Homo sapiens is a bringer-forth of monsters as reason’s dream. They are not pathologies but symptoms, diagnoses, glories, games, and terrors.
To insist that an element of the impossible and fantastic is a sine qua non of monstrousness is not mere nerd hankering (though it is that too). Monsters must be creature forms and corpuscles of the unknowable, the bad numinous. A monster is somaticized sublime, delegate from a baleful pleroma. The telos of monstrous quiddity is godhead.
There is a countervailing tendency in the monstrous corpus. It is evident in Pokémon’s injunction to “catch ’em all,” in the Monster Manual’s exhaustive taxonomies, in Hollywood’s fetishized “Monster Shot.” A thing so evasive of categories provokes—and surrenders to—ravenous desire for specificity, for an itemization of its impossible body, for a genealogy, for an illustration. The telos of monstrous quiddity is specimen.
Ghosts are not monsters.
It is pointed out, regularly and endlessly, that the word “monster” shares roots with “monstrum,” “monstrare,” “monere“—”that which teaches,” “to show,” “to warn.” This is true but no longer of any help at all, if it ever was.
Epochs throw up the monsters they need. History can be written of monsters, and in them. We experience the conjunctions of certain werewolves and crisis-gnawed feudalism, of Cthulhu and rupturing modernity, of Frankenstein’s and Moreau’s made things and a variably troubled Enlightenment, of vampires and tediously everything, of zombies and mummies and aliens and golems/robots/clockwork constructs and their own anxieties. We pass also through the endless shifts of such monstrous germs and antigens into new wounds. All our moments are monstrous moments.
Monsters demand decoding, but to be worthy of their own monstrosity, they avoid final capitulation to that demand. Monsters mean something, and/but they mean everything, and/but they are themselves and irreducible. They are too concretely fanged, toothed, scaled, fire-breathing, on the one hand, and too doorlike, polysemic, fecund, rebuking of closure, on the other, merely to signify, let alone to signify one thing.
Any bugbear that can be completely parsed was never a monster, but some rubber-mask-wearing Scooby-Doo villain, a semiotic banality in fatuous disguise. It is a solution without a problem.
Our sympathy for the monster is notorious. We weep for King Kong and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, no matter what they’ve done. We root for Lucifer and ache for Grendel.
It is a trace of skepticism that the given order is a desideratum that lies behind our tears for its antagonists, our troubled empathy with the invader of Hrothgar’s hall.
Such sympathy for the monster is a known factor, a small problem, a minor complication for those who, in drab reaction, deploy an accusation of monstrousness against designated social enemies.
When those same powers who enmonster their scapegoats reach a tipping point, a critical mass, of political ire, they abruptly and with bullying swagger enmonster themselves. The shock troops of reaction embrace their own supposed monstrousness. (From this investment emerged, for example, the Nazi Werwolf program.) Such are by far more dreadful than any monster because, their own aggrandizements notwithstanding, they are not monsters. They are more banal and more evil.
The saw that We Have Seen the Real Monsters and They Are Us is neither revelation, nor clever, nor interesting, nor true. It is a betrayal of the monstrous, and of humanity.
China Miéville is the award-winning author of several novels, including Perdido Street Station and The City and the City; one story collection, and various works of nonfiction. His latest novel, for readers of all ages, is Railsea (all Del Rey).