Man and Monster: What Do We Call the Thing We Cannot Comprehend?
“Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal…It couldn’t happen…” –Ray Bradbury
Our world is apparently one in which zombies roam, at least according to the battle with bath salts, the latest designer drug that caused a Florida man to chew off the face of another. The stream of incidents involving bath salts is more commonly referred to as the Zombie Apocalypse, as seen here and here. The name leads us to immediately conclude that there is something inhuman about tearing the flesh from another with one’s teeth and devouring it. Certainly, the act is appalling, and difficult to rationalize and tough to fathom. But is our struggle to conceive of the depths of man’s violence reason enough to call it and its perpetrator inhuman? Are there costs to our tendencies to cope through fantasy (i.e. “zombie” imagery)?
While the “Zombie Apocalypse” is a current issue, it is not at all new to label what feels unreal or what is incomprehensible as part of a transcendent or pretend world. Criminals are often referred to in the media as animals or as barbarians. This past week, a young mother in Brooklyn trapped and starved her 4 year-old daughter to her slow death and showed little remorse for the crime in court. The mom’s perceived insensibilities recently earned her the title of “Monster Mom” in New York’s headlines. Although her face is quite pretty, her glances captured on camera are cold, her mouth a straight, relaxed line; I examined the portrait for a moment before I thought “stone”—the beautiful beast guilty of something that tests my capacity for compassion and even my patience for “fairness” in trial. “Monster,” I think, is plainly accurate.
And such thinking should and does give us pause. Hannah Arendt cautioned that by calling someone evil, we are pushing what is human and what is dangerous behind a veil of transcendence and it becomes beyond our reach, our control, our talk. The recent stories covering the bath salts Zombie Apocalypse and “Monster Mom” suggest that we have taken the vague concept of evil and transferred it into particular forms (such as vampires and monsters) that are also fantastical and equally out of reach. Our capacity to address the societal threats of narcotics or the circumstances surrounding infanticide might be undermined by such horror-story themes. In other words, the fantastic zombie imagery minimizes our sense of responsibility. We might be capable of handling a drug craze, but we are inexperienced and unpracticed in defeating zombies. Why fight, when we don’t know how? Why worry, when there are no zombies—nor will there ever be zombies—in our households?
This is why the critic must be brave when we name and rename political, social, and ethical struggles. Being a critic is not about burying your face into your boyfriend’s sweater when the scary part comes up. And neither is it about snorting with laughter and jeering while one man shreds apart another. It’s about watching, and thinking—rethinking—and crafting a question. Not just “what is it?” but “why is it?” and “what does it?” and “what means it?” These crucial questions are overwhelmed by a petrified fascination with types of violence that are, although unrecognizable, certainly real. To put it plainly, we should strive for realer names for the real—or what is appropriate—rather than revert to the unreal as a way of deluding, trivializing, or evading.
There is surely some psychological reason for turning to the imaginary when we cannot face a disturbing reality. It’s an escape, a release, a retreat away from violence that is too painful to witness and that is impossible to confront. We wince at it, we call it beastly or evil, and we hurl it as far away from the human condition as possible. This is the sympathetic response, experienced within our intellect and enacted in our words. But in so pursuing comfort, we are fleeing our ethical, political, and rhetorical responsibility: to call the thing what it ought to be and to negotiate meaning where there is uncertainty, not to the point of feeling safe, but toward the purpose of feeling moved (to act, to think, to heal…). If it is possible to see and handle the thing that makes us squeamish, I cannot think why we should want to always be like little children, trembling and paralyzed in the dark.
If you want to know more:
- Robert Hariman published an article on political and ethical judgment that defends the term “evil” being used in discourse. For this counter-point to Arendt’s caution, see Rhetoric & Public Affairs (2003).
- For more on why we turn to the “monster” figures—and the moralizing function it serves—see Edward Ingebretsen’s book, At Stake. However, while Ingebretsen offers some interesting insights into how the inhuman images establish ethical norms of a community, I remain reticent toward and troubled by making the violent human inhuman as such.