Thursday, October 31, 2019

Who Are the Monsters?

There are many kinds of monsters that appear in history and fiction. A few categories, some overlapping, come to mind. There are moral monsters (like Dr. Mengele and Mr. Hyde), supernatural monsters (like vampires and werewolves), physiological monsters (like plague victims and zombies), and parasites (like the xenomorphs of Alien). What these all have in common is that they oppose nature in some way—usually our human nature.

Consider Harvey Dent in the 2008 film The Dark Knight. His injury and his transformation from a noble character into the villain Two-Face comes from a disordered love and someone else's crime that results in half his face being burnt off. His monstrous appearance comes from an injury.

Consider the Pale Man from the 2006 film Pan's Labyrinth. He has no eyes in his head. When the film's protagonist Ofelia encounters him, he sits dormant and his eyes sit like grapes on a plate on the table before him. When Ofelia eats the forbidden food that also rests on the table, the Pale Man awakens, inserts his eyes into their slots in the palms of his hands (signifying greedy vision), and then begins grabbing the living beings around him to devour.

What makes these figures terrifying is their deformity. But on reflection, these deformities actually make them weaker. In real life, a man missing half his face would easily have succumb to an infection. A creature with separable organs is, well, easy to separate from his organs. And having eyes in one's hands makes it difficult to both see and hold something at the same time. Injuries and deformities don't make something stronger, but actually weaker. Even "stronger" parasites tend to kill off their hosts more quickly and thus be less virulent.

So often the ugliness we identify with monsters is an indication of illness, injury, or deformity, that is to say, of weakness. And weak people deserve sympathy.

But we humans have an evil tendency to demonize such weakness. As psychologist Julia Shaw writes:

Yet we know that humans have long abused people who look different. Why does this happen? Well, there is the basic evolutionary argument that deformities and asymmetry can be signs of genetic disease and weakness. We are naturally averse to disease — an aversion to which we partly owe our survival — so we gravitate to those who look fertile and healthy and we shy away from those who might infect us. But while this might help explain why we avoid certain people, it doesn’t explain why we might also act cruelly towards them.

There's a saying that's been going around for a while: "Knowledge is knowing Frankenstein is not the monster. Wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein is the monster." In other words, school-book education will teach you that Frankenstein was the name of not the monster but the monster's creator. Understanding the story will teach you that the monster's creator was a moral monster: for creating life against nature and then for cruelly abandoning his misshapen creation.

We say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There are real monsters, but too often monstrosity is merely in the soul of the beholder. Let us treat "monsters" with compassion, lest we become monsters ourselves.

Julia Shaw, "What makes a person creepy? And what purpose do our creep detectors serve? A psychologist explains"

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Everybody Has an Age

No one is ageless. Everyone has an age. Which is to say that each of us in this time, this present, through which our minds now meet, exists at a particular stage and season of life, having lived through the previous stages, and, unless an untimely event occurs, evolving through the remaining stages of the human life cycle before passing into the Great Mystery.

But life can play a trick on us if we focus on the spotlight that naturally highlights those in the most active period of adulthood, the rosy center of life. We can come to think that humans have no beginning and no end. That our lives are eternal, and we can continue this vibrant existence forever. Certain modern entertainments exacerbate this unhealthy tendency by portraying the lives of the characters without respect to the natural arc of their human existences. And education these days overemphasizes the God-like activity of human beings at the cost of minimizing their creaturely limitations.

But the idea of an eternal life here is an illusion. Life itself, in itself (an only in itself), is indeed eternal. But we are only bit players in the drama of Human Life. We say our lines and then exit right.

All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. (Isaiah 40:6)

Everybody has an age.