The Uses of Monsters

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Aghast, we cover our faces, confused and unable to choose between expressions of disgust and nervous laughter. What a surprise . . . who could have imagined . . . such horror. There is a moment of black epiphany at the revelation of a particularly heinous crime -- a moment that is both oracular and inexpressible. Statistics and forensic minutiae will eventually move in to cloud our vision. And the incessant patter of news updates will inevitably numb us, pushing onward the boundaries of our tolerance for atrocity. But in the beginning, as we make out the shape of the crime, as we see it unfolding like some putrid flower, one word sputters to our lips: "Monster." The word applies whether the alleged criminal is a killer-cannibal in Wisconsin who has confessed to murdering and dismembering 17 victims or 39 schoolboys in Kenya arrested for the rape of 71 of their female classmates and the murder of 19 others.

The choice of word is instructive. Its image is not its origin. Monster conjures up a three-headed Cerberus at the gates of Hades. Etymologically, however, the word has few frills. It is related to demonstrate and to remonstrate, and ultimately comes from the Latin monstrum, an omen portending the will of the gods, which is itself linked to the verb monere, to warn. If a city sinned against heaven, heaven sent it a monster. One can argue that the Sphinx, who confronted travelers to Thebes with her famous riddle, was born of some Oedipal crime and performed an important, if carnivorous, role in the balance of the ethical ecosystem. Monsters, therefore, were created to teach lessons. And they can still be pedagogical -- even in an age that no longer believes in the gods or their messengers. Our misfortune is that monsters need not look monstrous. Hence, schoolboys in Africa. Hence, Jeffrey Dahmer in Milwaukee, who, with his strong cheekbones and broad shoulders, is not some finny Creature from the Black Lagoon.

If Dahmer and the schoolboys are monsters, what lessons do they point to? Kenyan society is searching for reasons for its nightmare. Was it "abominable male chauvinism," as a local journalist put it, that brought on the crime? The boys, it seemed, were taking revenge on the girls for their refusal to join them in a quarrel with school officials. The logic: it is all right to rape women -- to kill them even -- if they do not obey male authority. The ability to inflict violence is the proof of power. There is a "logic" too to Dahmer's crime. Raised in a culture that condoned racial prejudice and despised homosexuals, Dahmer appeared to believe he could preserve a place in mainstream society -- with all its furtive hopes of family, friends and future -- by destroying the evidence of his homosexuality. He killed his "lovers" -- mostly blacks -- dismembered them, and may, in some cases, have devoured their remains. Crime is a logical, if messy, quick fix to the shortcomings of society.

Is that the lesson then? That we get the criminals our societies deserve? Yes, of course. But the other question to be asked is, Do we ever remember the lessons? The strong emotions of pity and sorrow brought on by horror can have a tonic effect, thus the Aristotelian theory of tragic catharsis. But very often, we inure ourselves to the terrible. For one, we can choose to misread the implication. In Milwaukee, for example, public reaction has included the harassment of local gays, the very community victimized by Dahmer. A Wisconsin gay activist reports receiving a phone message saying, "You got what you deserved. You're going to get more of it."

Modernity too has provided a handyman's bag of tools to explain crime. Reasons range from an excess of chemically imbalanced junk food affecting the brain and judgment, to the violent climate engendered by certain movies, to governments failing their impoverished citizens. While some of these provide illumination, they can distance us from the crime. The initial moment of revelation, the strange intimation that perhaps "I too have sinned and somehow share in this carnage," that responsibility is dissipated. Economics, sociology and psychology enter. The crime deflates to a manageable size, one that justice can work on and prisons can hide. The criminal is buried, the atrocity tucked away.

Can a rationalizing modernity then be so different from 15th century France? Gilles de Rais, a comrade in arms of St. Joan of Arc, was one of the most famous soldiers in the Hundred Years War. But he used his power as a feudal lord to commit multiple murders with impunity. In satanic rites he sacrificed innumerable peasant children to the devil, sodomizing their dying bodies and preserving the heads of the "pretty" ones. In his book The Trial of Gilles de Rais, French historian Georges Bataille noted incredulously that the man given to butchering infants calmly raised a chapel dedicated to the Holy Innocents -- the children slaughtered in Bethlehem by Herod. Yet at his execution Gilles de Rais exhibited so much remorse that the crowd gathered to witness the death of a monster was completely confused. How could God not forgive such devout penitence? It is the Bible, after all, that promises, "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow."

That is the final weapon of monsters: they beguile us with our own frailty. By way of science or theology, arguments Pavlovian or Paulinian, we diminish their horrors as we seek guarantees of forgiveness for our own capacity for error. We do this even though we know that humanity's "errors" -- our bigotry or anger or lust or selfishness or greed -- will go on churning out the accursed creatures. Like our forebears, we have got in the habit of monsters. If we are to escape their terror, we must not distort their significance. If they frighten us, we must remember why. Otherwise, monstrum and remonstrance fade from memory, and we gain not even the awful lesson about the darkness that we must each live with and subdue.