BMCR 2020.11.27

Ästhetische Monsterpolitiken. Das Monströse als Figuration des eingeschlossenen Ausgeschlossenen

, Ästhetische Monsterpolitiken. Das Monströse als Figuration des eingeschlossenen Ausgeschlossenen. Beiträge zur Literaturtheorie und Wissenspoetik, Band 14. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Verlag, 2020. Pp. 604. ISBN 9783825369934 €66,00.

[Chapter titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Monsters have haunted literature and arts, fiction and fantasy, myth, and theory for centuries, but it is only since the 1990s that the monstrous has received wide scholarly attention beyond Gothic and Horror Studies. Emmrich’s monograph is in tune with this recent interdisciplinary field of monster studies.[1] The author combines sources and methods from classics, comparative literature, philosophy, literary theory, and reception studies to analyze the discourse of the monstrous from antiquity to modernity in the works of authors and thinkers as widely ranging as Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Horace, Ovid, Rabelais, Shelley, Nietzsche, Freud, Kafka, Foucault, Derrida, and Cixous. Emmrich discusses pervasive responses to the monstrous, including derision, horror, allegorical rationalization, and violent extinction; his primary objective, however, is to establish a positive, integrative, aesthetics of monstrosity.

Classical studies comparable in scope are, for example, Philip Hardie’s edited volume Paradox and the Marvellous in Augustan Literature and Culture (2009), Dunstan Lowe’s monograph Monsters and Monstrosities in Augustan Literature (2015), and the collection Frankenstein and Its Classics. The Modern Prometheus from Antiquity to Science Fiction, ed. by Brett Rogers et al. (2018).[2] Yet an outstanding virtue of Emmrich’s is his empowering, inclusive treatment of alterity, non-normative behavior, and extraordinary bodies: already in his introduction (pp. 7-29), the author sets out to rehabilitate the monstrous Other as an integral, crucial component rather than an unwelcome, disruptive force to be excluded from community and discourse. Drawing on canonized anti-dualistic concepts of mutability and transgression, the monograph is a powerful vindication of “the monstrous as a figuration of the included outcast” (as the book’s subtitle could be translated). Emmrich shows that monstrosity has not exclusively been met, as stereotypical “man-kills-monster” narratives might suggest, with repression and destruction, but that disobedience, deviation, and difference have been valued and promoted early on in Western thought and literature. Aware of academia’s ethical responsibility, as can be inferred from a prefatory excursus about so-called bestial crimes and their backgrounds in poverty and suffering (p. 4), Emmrich aims to present affirmative perspectives on “monstrous” others, be they fictional hybrid creatures or factual marginalized groups (women, refugees, or mentally ill persons) – perspectives that can contribute to accessibility, understanding, and diversity inside and outside academia.

The book’s main body is divided into two parts of unequal length. Theory and primary literature are tightly interwoven throughout the entire book. A case could be made that theoretical, i.e. systematic, taxonomic, and general, responses to the monstrous are somewhat privileged in Part I (Zur Theorie des Monströsen) while Part II ((Des)Integrative Monsterästhet(h)ik) investigates more concrete examples of monsters in literature (Medusa, Frankenstein’s monster, Kafka’s insect). But theoretical and taxonomic findings from critical studies, continental philosophy, psychoanalysis, and gender studies also inform many of the subchapters in Part II, so the distinction between the parts is not clear-cut.

Horace, Plato, and Ovid open the discussion and provide three case studies of ancient monstrosity. Horace’s composite monster at the beginning of the Ars Poetica is evoked in the moment it is rejected. The heterogeneous creature with animal and human parts represents a warning for the aspiring poet not to join disharmonious elements unless he (the generic masculine is appropriate for Horace’s poetics) wants to be ridiculed. Emmrich points out that the aggressive laughter that is supposed to expel and domesticate the monstrous also contributes to the seamless integration of the unruly hybrid into elevated verse. Almost in lieu of a muse, the monster guards the entrance to Horace’s classicistic aesthetics. Plato’s moral philosophy covers monstrous outsides (Socrates’ hideous, “monstrous” appearance) as well as inner monstrosity (the ἐπιθυμητικόν’s inhumane drives). Juxtaposing Foucault’s lecture series Les Anormaux and Plato’s Symposium and Republic, Emmrich convincingly demonstrates that Foucault could claim that monstrous morals emerged after 1800 only because he had omitted classical sources altogether. When he comes to Ovid, Emmrich uses the anthropological concept of liminality to explain the thresholds between genres which mark Ovid’s programmatic proems: the opening of the Amores with Cupid ruining the meter by snatching away one (verse) foot, and the Metamorphoses’ proem both resemble, Emmrich argues, the liminal, transitional stage in a rite of passage that is marked by a separation from the old (the intention of writing heroic epic or the reputation of being an elegist, respectively) and a subsequent openness towards change and imperfection. If Horace’s aggressive laughter is meant to express superiority of a homogeneous group over the extraordinary being, modern theories (Bergson, Baudelaire, Bakhtin) allow for more nuances: as laughter assimilates human faces with deformed, monstrous shapes, the monstrous becomes less alien. Likewise, theorizing minimizes horror and fear, classic reactions to the monstrous: the aesthetical category of the Sublime neutralizes sensations of terror, and the psychoanalytic concept of the Uncanny undermines them through rationalization. Hence, sympathetic laughter, the Sublime, and the Uncanny contribute to an “undoing of the monsters’ monstrousness” (“Entmonsterung”). These strategies contrast with a classic strategy of pushing aside the monstrous which Emmrich calls chronotopization (“Chronotopisierung”) – the temporal and spatial ban of monsters to far-away margins (cf. Pliny’s mysterious foreign countries) or marginal “heterotopias” within society (cf. Foucault’s prisons and hospitals).

In Part II, the author presents concrete examples of integrative, appreciative aesthetics of the monstrous: metamorphosis, Renaissance humour, Dionysian counter-concepts of antiquity, unconscious drives of the human psyche, and poststructuralist notions of the “Third in-between”. I will try to summarize these epistemes briefly. Though Ovid might be most famous for expressing difference and deviation from given norms with metamorphosis, the idea of transformation as a way of resistance against too narrow systems existed earlier: the adoption of the “Oriental” Dionysus cult into the Greek Pantheon paved the way for an integration of the monstrous, shape-shifting, and non-monolithic Other into the public sphere. Hence, Ovid could already refer to this anthropology that acknowledges the inherent monstrosity of the human psyche: in his metamorphic world, unity, harmony, and perfection are nothing but empty shells for liminal, hybrid beings. The snake-haired monster Medusa exemplifies this questioning of human exceptionality in Ovid and later theorists: traditionally a monster pursued by an epic hero, Ovid’s Medusa is an unfairly punished rape victim who surprisingly shares some traits with her adversary Minerva: Medusa’s head gives birth to the divine horse Pegasus; Minerva is born from a head as well, and also “fathers” a special horse – the Trojan horse. For Nietzsche, Medusa represents a disruptive, Dionysian force that challenges the noble dialectic order that dominated the image of classical Greece in the 19th century. Freud, however, turns to a misogynist reading: he interprets Medusa as a fear-inducing emblem of castration anxiety and lack, but he also comes up with a cure for the “horror” felt when a male hero sees the Gorgon’s head, that is, when the heroic phallus encounters the “monstrous” female genital: for petrification, Freud reads erection, so the masculine ego finds its cathartic affirmation in stiffening. Another sexual, yet less chauvinist, reading of monstrous femininity prevails in Rabelais’ Renaissance poetry: here, the female genitals’ “horrendous” sight is valued for its apotropaic functions. The humour drawn from grotesque bodies in Rabelais’ writing relieves fear and aggression. It is this non-aggressive laughter that Hélène Cixous refers to in her essay The Laugh of the Medusa (1975): the collective, female laughter Cixous ascribes to the monster itself, not its combatants, is neither pathologic nor terrifying, but a beautiful, body-positive affirmation of femininity and resistance against phallocentric thinking. Emmrich concludes with two famous monsters from modern literature: the artificial humanoid monster created by Shelley’s scientist Frankenstein, and the giant bug Kafka’s protagonist Gregor Samsa finds himself transformed into. Both these monsters invite readers to sympathize with them: Frankenstein’s homunculus behaves more humanely than his creator; his hostility towards humans is a socially acquired result of loneliness. The beetle Gregor is deprived of all ways to re-enter his family; his humanness and vitality are taken away in a series of exclusion mechanisms. On a diegetic level, Frankenstein’s creation and Gregor’s new insect body experience repulsion, exclusion, and repression. Readers, however, identify and side with the monsters: Shelley and Kafka, Emmrich argues, promote tolerance and acceptance as better approaches towards the non-human.

Although the book covers many different authors, texts, epochs, concepts, and monsters, the overall structure and chapter organization remain clear and logical throughout. Equally impressive is the almost total absence of typing errors in the 550 pages. Emmrich’s erudite style, however, could be experienced as confusing or challenging. The reader may have the odd sense of finding the book’s monstrous poetics enacted right here in the prose. There are, for instance, many Latinisms (from eccentric-but-existing words like “amön” for “pleasant” to curiosities like “Konatus” for “attempt” and “scissiv” for “defining”), and 19th-century archaisms (“Eiland”, “weidlich”) which, like the above-discussed “Chronotopisierungsmechanismen”, seem to locate the extraordinary creatures in distant times and places. Long footnotes, creative neologisms, and multilingual letter-punctuation hybrids (“(des)integrativ”; “(Kon)Figur(ation)”; “anästhet(h)isch”, the h in brackets highlighting the connection between anesthetics, aesthetics and ethics) likewise produce linguistic alienation effects and amplify continental theory’s affinity for word-play. Some knowledge of Latin, Greek, French, and philosophical terminology might be useful for readers.

Emmrich’s profound engagement with literary and theoretical texts is clearly remarkable and fascinating: not once does the author fall into the seductive trap of anachronistic interpretation that often lurks behind studies of ancient texts and modern interpretations. Many of his arguments are corroborated with philological close-reading. The great number of modern and contemporary theories that are not just compellingly applied but explained in rich detail may render the monograph attractive for readers beyond the classics. Complementing and transcending previous studies, Emmrich offers an impressive range of cutting-edge perspectives on canonized myths and intertwines literature and theory in a fresh and stimulating way.

Chapter titles

I.          Zur Theorie des Monströsen
1.         Phänomenologie
1.1       Monströses Präludium. Horaz’ Antimuse in der Ars Poetica
1.2       Scylla inwendig. Endomonstrosität bei Platon und Foucault
1.3       Hinkende und liminale Verse. Ovids exordialpoetische Teratologie
2.         Rezeptionsästhetik
2.1       Das Lachen. Zur anästhet(h)ischen Reaktion auf das Monströse
2.2       Freuds Sandmann und das Unheimliche des Unheimliche[n]
1.         Chronotopoi des Monströsen

II.        (Des)Integrative Monsterästhet(h)ik
2.         Monstrosität und Xeno(n)phobie. Polyphems anderes Auge oder: Perspektiven ästhetischer Integration
3.         Dissemination und dissémination des Menschen. Ovids monströse Anthropologenese
4.         Zwischen Horror und ästhetischer Integration. Medusen=Frauen im Vergleich I
4.1       Ästhetischer Metabolismus. Ovids M[ed]use
4.2       Apolls Medusenhaupt und Nietzsches Dialektikmonster
4.3       Mythenallegorese renewed. Freuds unheimliches Medusenhaupt
5.         Zwischen (Ver)Lachen und ästhetischer Integration. Medusen=Frauen im Vergleich II
5.1       Rabelais’ urinale Sintflut und der asbestische Weltenbrand
5.2       Phallische Katharsis. Präliminarien zu Freuds Geschlechterkampf des Lachens
5.3       Die Frau, ein Witz. Das Verlachen der Medusa
5.4       Wer zuletzt lacht…Cixous’ Medusenfeminismus
6.         Monströse Innenansichten. Das Raunen des l’Amour Autre oder: Literarische Etüden in Toleranz
6.1       How to make a monster. Shelleys Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus
6.2       Monströses Postludium. Kafkas Telomorphose – Endstation Müllkippe
Schluss: „Blumen-Monstrosen“ oder: Integrated monsters


[1] Foundational texts for the interdisciplinary study of monsters, monstrosity and the monstrous are collected in Jeffrey J. Cohen’s Monster Theory: Reading Culture (1996), Caroline J. S. Picart & John E. Browning, eds., Speaking of Monsters(2012), and in The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous, ed. by Asa S. Mittman & Peter Dendle (2012).

[2] Further Catherine Atherton, ed., Monsters and Monstrosity in Greek and Roman Culture (1998), Achim Geisenhanslüke & Georg Mein, eds., Monströse Ordnungen. Zur Typologie und Ästhetik des Anormalen (2009), and Hélène Casanova-Robin, ed., Ovide, figures de l’hybride. Illustrations littéraires et figures de l’esthétique ovidienne à travers les âges (2009).