“Do you know, I always thought Unicorns were fabulous monsters, too? I never saw one alive before!”
“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the Unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?”
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
The Royal Tyrrell Museum is justly famous for its dinosaur collection. But perhaps its strangest exhibit is not the colossal skeletons of beasts that roamed when humans were not around, but a display showing enlarged forms of microscopic marine animals, called plankton, that were not destined to survive more than a very brief moment in the vast time scale of prehistory 300 million years ago. Floating in a gloomy sea of Plexiglas, their transparent bodies represented in white, luminous contours many times larger than life, these failed sketches of living creatures seem to the untrained eye nightmarishly askew and asymmetrical, half-hearted efforts to depict things that might have been, as if an artist had doodled shapes with his eyes closed and then, realizing what he had done, erased them forever. These never fully accomplished phantoms are among the most terrifying monsters ever seen, compared to which the centaur and the basilisk are more than tame and obvious animals. Life on earth begins with monsters, not with the common shapes to which we are accustomed.
The word monster derives from the Latin verb mostrare, to show or point with a finger. The monster is the prodigy, the freak, the unusual, the unexpected, that which is seldom or never seen. Horace, to depict something monstrously impossible, speaks of black swans, not knowing that at that very moment, flocks of black swans are darkening the skies of Australia. There is always the possibility, however small, that what we call a monster is lurking right now in an obscure corner of the universe.
Because we don’t have the ingenuity of Nature—who, Dante tells us, “doesn’t repent of her elephants and whales”—our monsters are bigger or smaller versions of what Nature has already imagined, or mere combinations of bits and pieces that can be seen in any zoo. Fish or bird or lion paired with a woman, horse or bull, or snake paired with a man; stallions and serpents that can fly, theological inventions with many arms like Shiva or a triple personality like the Trinity; dogs with three heads or people with none: our imaginary bestiaries are little more than versions of the cadavre exquis, the game invented by the Surrealists that consists of drawing, on a piece of paper folded over many times, a section of a body without seeing the other sections drawn by previous players. The results are often curious or funny, but rarely as astonishing as a giraffe or a platypus. As God says to Job with a touch of the braggart in His voice: “Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks? or wings and feathers unto the ostrich?” ( Job 39:13).
And yet, certain monsters imagined by our ancestors are solid enough to persist throughout time. The centaur and the mermaid, the dragon and the griffin, the gorgon and the satyr still roam our world. The Middle Ages lent them the same symbolic value as to those creatures we call real. In the medieval bestiaries we read that the lark is capable of judging the fate of a patient, whether by staying in the room if he will die or flying out the window, carrying the illness with it, if he will survive. And on the next page we learn that the savage unicorn can only be captured by being lured into a maiden’s lap, where it will fall amorously asleep. No distinction is made between the creature observed and the creature imagined: both are part of the mind’s fauna. So ingrained is the belief in monsters that Christopher Columbus, observing three manatees close to the mouth of the Orinoco, stated in his journal that he saw three mermaids swimming in the sea but, he added with scrupulous precision, “they are not as beautiful as they are reported to be.” Our monsters exist because we want them to exist, perhaps because we need them to exist.
Who are our monsters today? Those we cannot bear to include in the human fold, those at whom we point a finger (mostrare) to accuse them of what we believe to be “inhuman” acts. Hitler, Stalin, Pinochet, Bashar al-Assad, serial killers and rapists—all have been called “monsters” because they have done things that we’d like to imagine no human being could possibly do. The ancients were wiser. Their gods and their monsters had supernatural qualities and defects, but they had human qualities and defects as well: Polyphemus was a dupe, Cerberus was greedy, the centaurs were wise, the mermaids seductive; Pegasus boasted of his speed and the Minotaur of his strength. These monsters are memorable because, like us humans, they can feel pride and hate and lust, and envy and weariness too, because beyond fear they elicit respect as fellow creatures of this earth, desiring and suffering as we desire and suffer. Cocteau suggested that the Sphinx met her end because she herself whispered the answer to the riddle to Oedipus, with whom she had fallen in love.
Unlike the age of our forefathers, ours is both credulous and skeptical. We profess to be rational and scientific, and yet we believe in little green men from outer space (the St. Lawrence Agency of Altamonte Springs, Florida, offers a policy against alien abduction), in the Abominable Snowman and the Loch Ness Monster (tours are organized that offer visitors possible sightings), in vampires (as recently as February 2004, in Romania, several members of the Petre family feared that one of their deceased relatives had become a vampire; they dug up his corpse, tore out his heart, burned it and mixed the ashes with water in order to drink it). The ancients sacralized their monsters, and also felt responsible for their existence: the Minotaur was born because of the lust of Pasiphae, and the Sirens existed to prevent men from going beyond the forbidden limits. As the historian Paul Veyne so clearly showed, “Of course they believed in their myths!” But did they think them true? “Truth,” answers Veyne, “is the thin layer of gregarious self-satisfaction that separates us from the will to power.” Today we believe in monsters but we don’t want to feel responsible for them. For us, their existence is no longer a question of truth but of evading the truth, of refusing to admit that we are capable, each and every one of us, of the most wondrous deeds and of the most abominable crimes.