heart of monster

Can’t keep the damned things off the roof this time of year. Author photo.

In The Winter’s Tale, the rogue Autolycus speaks hypothetically of the King of Bohemia’s anger with a shepherd who fathered the shepherdess with whom Florizel (the prince of Bohemia) has fallen in love. Having discovered that his son loves a mere shepherdess, Autolycus notes:

AUTOLYCUS If that shepherd be not in handfast, let him
fly. The curses he shall have, the tortures he shall
feel, will break the back of man, the heart of

The Winter’s Tale 4.4.898-901

Autolycus’s line suggests that the character believes a monster’s heart to be a strong thing, something only the strongest tortures might break. This suggests that monsters are sturdy, perhaps the point of approaching invulnerabilty. Only chance flaws can overcome them. For example, the invading Martians in War of the Worlds whom all of the human world cannot defeat, are only eventually overthrown by an accident of biology, by their susceptibility to a microbe to which humans remain immune. There are many similar stories–triffids, zombies, plagues waiting to run riot over humanity and perhaps sweep us from existence.

Yet, it also seems that when we examine certain monsters, there is a human resonance. They often don’t seem quite so tough after all. In fact, they may be just the opposite. Perhaps some monsters end up being or becoming monsters because their vulnerabilties are that much more profound than those around them.

How they look me. Their eyes look me bad or dirty. Rains smearing. Ashes my hair my eyes my inside. Me eyes grey them back. Still wanting. Them.

Not need. Find my own honey wood not them. Track humblebees, sweet waters, berries. Not them. Tender bark for cord. Seed pod inside bed. Not them. Where grasstreesky make things. Wave wind music. Hummmm bees. Hummmm not bees. Leaves air. Big heaving land. Trees big dancing cloud blue.

Look me skin. Hateful, they speak. Find sharp nose speak. Hurt. Wet wood bunched bunched time. Sharp nose smell.

Small world big big. Big ache. How hurt look. Me look. Rasp din rakkatta elbmrt tem. Vartga allaga nsshhkt.

Me inside.

To them the storms are storms and not the distant parents of sweet airs. They cannot see together in the world. Only parts not whole. Lights out under the moon. Only lights. Not the other moons. Bronze and lavandula. They only have the one.

Lights beneath the moon. Author photo.

With monsters, their hearts seem to begin with hurt, and we are told that pain is the great parent of monsters. The idea of the so-called “poisonous pedagogies” maintains in part that one makes a proverbial junkyard dog by beating the puppy. Raising the animal with habitual mistreatment or neglect tends to render them fierce and wild, as the creature seeks to develop a kind of perpetual defense against its own defenselessness. In this way, mistreatment may amplify viciousness in children too. Cruelty remains its own parent, with cruel fostering cruel, turtles all the way down. Sea of stars rippling like a gelid lake only when one dips in a paddle breaking the surface.

Related to hurt, fear also lies at the core of the very idea of ‘monster’ because monsters represent an absence. Absence of love, of light, of belief. Needs unfulfilled. That empty scary closet somewhere down the back corridor of our lives.

We are afraid of monsters not only because of their alien nature, but also because of their similarity and resonance with ourselves. In monsters’ awful forms and behaviours, we often perceive terrible echoes with our own existence, and uncomfortable parallels with our own lives. Our culture is full of stories about horrible secrets, often hidden just beneath the surface of that nice family down the street, or even our own friends and family members.

We make light of monsters often enough, but this only underscores their presence among us. In field, in stream, in a cave, beneath a bridge where billy goats roam. Even in the White House, crouching in denial, spewing venom.

Michael Jackson, Thriller, Westlake Studios, 1984.

Naturally a monster embodies a kind of fear which prompts it to lash out at those around it, but a monster also represents those collective fears which our human society projects onto real or imagined beings or situations beyond ourselves. Of the many terrifying examples of projected fears, perhaps few are as frightening as Winnie the Pooh’s nightmare from the Walt Disney short film, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day:

From Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, Buena Vista Studios, 1968.

From this perceived difference, from the foundations of otherness, outsidedness, of alienation, arises virtually the entire host, the whole legion of monsters which run so rampant through the darker fields of human existence. Pain and fear fester into rage, which may also give rise to depression which adds to the hurt. The cycle itself turns vicious. Psychology tells us (perhaps Alice Miller?) that depression comes from rage turned inwards–and that rage turns inwards when there is nowhere else to turn. When the landscape empties out and desertification dominates the world, that emptiness may prompt all the various stages of wounded rage.

In his works, Shakespeare characterises many examples.

In the words of Caliban from The Tempest:

CALIBAN: I must eat my dinner.
This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother,
Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first,
Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst
give me
Water with berries in ’t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light and how the less,
That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee,
And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you,
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ th’ island.

The Tempest 1.2.395-411

As is typical in Shakespeare, the story is more complicated than Caliban admits. He is no wronged innocent. His attempt to copulate with Prospero’s daughter condemns him and he knows it. To Prospero and his daughter Miranda, he is a rapist. Yet, Caliban does not speak of the event not in terms of lust or domination. Instead, he uses the language of animal understanding, of breeding and peopling:

PROSPERO: Thou most lying slave,
Whom stripes may move, not kindness, I have used
Filth as thou art, with humane care, and lodged
In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
The honor of my child.

O ho, O ho! Would ’t had been done!
Thou didst prevent me. I had peopled else
This isle with Calibans.

The Tempest 1.2.413-21

Although he seems to realise that he has done wrong, Caliban’s perspective appears to derive more from his kinship with the wild things than it does from the mind of a typical human rapist. Where Prospero speaks of his daughter’s “honor”, he seems to use a language foreign to Caliban’s understanding. Caliban’s perspective seems stepped somewhere outside of Prospero’s human realm of courts and scholarship, of social order and even basic human respect. These are things Caliban’s greater and lesser lights do not know, coming as he does from a kind of sub human or beast consciousness. He sees only the advantages of potential reproduction, of peopling the island to which he is so deeply linked and of which he is an integral part.

When we look at Caliban’s language throughout the play, his vocabulary as well as his cadences, his speech is replete with natural resonance. His thoughts are occupied with nature and natural processes. His borderline morality seems almost natural in him as he not only does not belong in the human world, but also lacks the kind of nurturance and human understanding to function successfully within it. The order of Prospero’s world, and that he has temporarily imposed upon the wild island, is patterned after a higher moral law in which is alien to Caliban, and in which he is unable to participate. His laws are comprised of the natural governance of pain and pleasure, benefit and avoidance, and his observance is peppered with the astonishing jewel like beauties natural existence. In Caliban’s case, his ‘monster’ heart may be much simpler and much more vulnerable than Autolycus’ opening line might imply.

Yet, Shakespeare presents many other monsters too, and much more human seeming ones. Iago in Othello bears a sense of internal woundedness that drives his seething resentment to extreme forms of psychological violence. Adept at poisoning the mind, Iago speaks poison into his master’s mind, raising and feeding the spectre of jealousy in Othello until it consumes him along with all the innocents around him.

Bob Hoskins’ Iago laughs frequently, but more with malice and emptiness than with mirth. His universal hatred has become such a part of him that it seems to bubble up from his depths unbidden:

Othello by BBC Shakespeare, 1981.

In contrast, Michaél Mac Liammóir’s Iago is more detached, calmly watching Othello’s passions begin to tear him apart while continuing to pretend honest cousel:

Othello, Marceau Films/United Artists, 1951.

Same monster, different takes.

George Lucas once spoke about Darth Vader as “a pathetic guy who’s had a very sad life”.* There can be a great sadness about monsters, especially when we begin to see how isolated they are, and how in many cases they may remain cut off forever from anything that might have brought them love or happiness. John Gardner’s novel, Grendel, narrated by the monster from Beowulf offers a similar kind of perspective–a monster at once thoughtful and horrifying.**

In the end, monsters come from us. Our griefs, sorrows, lonelinesses, and rages give them life. Our orphaned emotions feed and nurture them. Our inward gaze seats and houses them. Sometimes they are in our towns, and sometimes in wild places. Sometimes they hunker down in shadow, or in the highest seats of government, confront us in a terrible light. It remains important to remember that when we walk down the street (in the days when we hope to be able to do so more safely again), we can look to those around us for the monsters. And if we cannot find the monster among them, then it may be that the monster is actually us.

*Edwards, Gavin. “George Lucas and the Cult of Darth Vader.” Rolling Stone, June 2, 2005.

**Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.

3 Replies to “heart of monster”

  1. Your thoughts on Monsters were insightful and lucidly put, as usual for you. I have long had my own take on the creatures of the night:

    If you watch the old horror films of the 1930s and 40s, you can’t help noticing that the monster is generally more interesting than the putative hero of the piece, usually more sympathetic, and invariably played by a better actor — or at least one with greater screen presence.

    These films were sold as a package to Realart, a distributor that saturated the neighborhood theaters and drive-ins with them in the early 1950s. Later in that decade, they were sold to television stations in the popular “Shock Theater” format.

    Young people in those days were raised on a steady diet of such films, naturally identified with the hairy outcasts, and disdained the dullards in suits. And that’s how Hippies came to be.

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