Authors: Stephen T. Asma
AN UNNATURAL HISTORY OF OUR WORST FEARS
Stephen T. Asma
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Copyright © 2009 by Stephen T. Asma
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Asma, Stephen T.
On monsters : an unnatural history of our worst fears / Stephen T. Asma.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Monsters. I. Title.
2 4 6 8 9 7 5 1
Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper
For my favorite little monster, Julien—
cast from no mold, spinning out of control, and beautiful
Pregnant Women Should Not Look
Monsters and the Mechanization of Nature
John Hunter’s Monsters
William Lawrence and the Headless Children
Xenophobia and Race
from the Oppressed Classes
Monsters of Ideology
INSTON CHURCHILL ONCE
said that “writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.”
I have written half a dozen books now, and I think Churchill has captured the process perfectly. I am happy to fling this monster out to the public. But I’m proud of it, and I’ll probably miss my long servitude to it. Of course no monster gets built alone; even Dr. Frankenstein had Igor’s help (at least in the movies). At the risk of offending my friends and family by associating them with a hunchbacked imbecile, I wish to thank my many collaborators.
My family is a team of tireless supporters. Heartfelt thanks go to my parents, Ed and Carol, and brothers, Dave and Dan, plus the entire Asma tribe. My dearest Wen and Julien waited patiently for Baba to climb out of the laboratory; I am grateful for their patience and their help with the voltage generators, test tubes, and that one time when we had to beat back the torch-wielding villagers.
Anatomy was frowned upon in the eighteenth century, and the body snatchers who dug up cadavers for secret scientific study were known as “resurrection men.” My resurrection men were Bob Long and Roland Hansen, both of whom exhumed obscure texts and sources. A writer could not ask for better research assistants. Lauren Dubeau and Loni Diep helped me find many wonderful images of monsters. Joanna Ebenstein, David Driesbach, and Peter Olson very generously contributed their own excellent artwork to the book.
I am grateful to Steve Kapelke, provost of Columbia College, for having the vision to create a “distinguished scholar” rank and for having the lapse of good judgment to name me as one. Complicit in this happy gaffe were my chair, Lisa Brock, and Deans Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Deborah Holdstein. I’m thankful to many other friends at Columbia College, including Sara Livingston, Garnet Kilberg Cohen, Kate Hamerton, Teresa Prados-Torreira, Micki Leventhal, Keith Cleveland, Oscar Valdez, Krista Macewko, Jeff Abel, and drinking partner Baheej Khleif.
This book and my intellectual life would be much poorer if it wasn’t for my small and voracious reading group, Tom Greif and Rami Gabriel. Many thanks to them for reading large chunks of this book, but also for weekly torture sessions with obscure philosophers, evolutionary psychologists, cognitive scientists, revolutionaries, and more.
Many others need to be thanked: Alex Kafka, Kendrick Frazier, Raja Halwani, Gianofer Fields, Pei Lun, Michael Shermer, Donna Seaman, Robyn Von Swank, Adrienne Mayor, Leigh Novak, Jim Graham, Greg Brandenburgh, Jim Krantz, Harold Henderson, Doctor Swing, Michael Harvey, the honorable David Brodsky, wingman Brian Wingert, Tomo and Dave Eddington, and all my friends at Lake Shore Unitarian Society in Winnetka, Illinois. Special thanks to my excellent editor at Oxford, Cybele Tom, who believed in this monstrous project and also helped amputate its unnecessary tentacles, and to Christine Dahlin and Judith Hoover. As always, I alone am responsible for the flaws of my creature.
What a chimera, then, is man! What a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a subject of contradiction, what a prodigy! A judge of all things, feeble worm of the earth, depositary of the truth, cloaca of uncertainty and error, the glory and the shame.
I consider it useless and tedious to represent what exists, because nothing that exists satisfies me. Nature is ugly, and I prefer the monsters of my fancy to what is positively trivial.
I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself.
MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE
VER SINCE I WAS A SMALL BOY
I’ve had a phobia about deep murky water, or more accurately, a fear of what might be living in such waters. A seemingly harmless swim in a weedy lake sends my imagination into overdrive and I can almost see the behemoths and leviathans rising up to gnaw off my extremities. I’m a grown man, for God’s sake, and a skeptic as well. But no amount of reasoning with myself can begin to dispel the apprehension. I’ve never ruined a beach picnic by refusing to get in the water, nor have I needed to be talked down from an anxiety attack. Like most other “lite” phobics I just cringe a little bit and get on with the swimming. I’m annoyed by my irrational fear of sea monsters, but I’ve resigned myself to coping with it.
When I was living in Cambodia I occasionally went swimming in the muddy Mekong, but I winced at the idea that more species of giant fish live in the Mekong than in any other river in the world. Mekong catfish can grow to be eight or nine feet long and weigh between six hundred and seven hundred pounds, and goliath freshwater stingrays can be over twelve hundred pounds. Moving geographically to the deep seas of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, one finds an enormously long silvery snake-like beast called an oarfish. This nightmarish fish lives at depths of three thousand feet and has been seen and captured only after rare surfacing episodes due to illness. This ribbon-like giant, with striking red-headed “plumage,” can grow up to fifty feet in length and probably inspired many early sailor
tales of sea monsters. Add to this sort of oddity the fact that every once in a while science dredges up some hitherto unknown specimen from the deep, such as the ancient coelacanth or rare evidence of the giant squid.
I can almost hear my reptilian brain telling my neocortex, “See, I told you! Don’t go in the water.” But these real monsters are nothing compared to the nefarious beasts that swim in my head. These are modified versions of the real creatures, but always with sharper and more copious dentition, more poisonous dorsal spikes, and more razor-like claws for effortless laceration. And of course they’re bigger too.