Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Belief In Monsters

Human Imagination & Fear

William Blake's Red Dragon: William Blake [1757-1827], the English poet, mystic and painter, made a series of paintings of the Great Red Dragon between 1805 and 1810, entirely based on the Christian Bible’s apocalyptic Book of Revelation (Rev. 12). This one is named “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun;” it shows the dragon, identified with Satan, ready to devour the child, humanity’s redeemer, of a pregnant woman. The painting is currently housed at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City.
Credit: William Blake; painted between 1806-1809.
Source: The Telegraph

In a book review in The Telegraph of Robert Kaplan’s Science of Monsters, Peter Stanford writes that many people believe in monsters and other horrifying creatures, including Christians who view the devil as a monster wreaking havoc on the aspirations of humanity. Putting aside the religious arguments for now, Kaplan says that there are psychological reasons why individuals need to believe in their existence.

Stanford in his review writes:
What he has grasped is that, however much the rational and sane majority airily dismiss tales of fire-breathing dragons, strange creatures from outer space or beasts that inhabit the depths, there is still buried in most of us that reflex that can't help, on a dark night, walking along a lonely country lane, wondering, “What if there’s something out there?” And when we do, the collective cultural baggage of these tales of ghosts, ghouls and griffins is usually sufficient to make us put our hands over our eyes to block out what may just be lurking out there. But, then, we still peep.

It is that tension that makes the book such a lively and compelling read. It treads lightly through vast swathes of ancient history, literature, folklore and contemporary popular culture, pausing occasionally to pass what has been gathered up through the filter of science. So if you have ever wanted a clear account of the Minotaur, the Medusa, werewolves and even King Kong, this short, sharp book is a perfect starting point, linking the Ancient Greeks with Ridley Scott.

However, the overall balancing act between credulity and scepticism cannot ultimately be sustained to the end. However diligently Kaplan explores the real-life possible models for the mythical creatures that haunt our imagination – giant snakes for dragons, for example, or unearthed dinosaur skeletons fuelling blood-chilling tales of monstrosities hiding away in the depths of the forest – he cannot resist turning to psychology for the most plausible explanations.

In its simplest forms, we like to put a face and a form to things we don’t understand. So when ships disappeared, unaccountably, from calm seas, their loss used to be ascribed not to technical failure but to monsters who came up from the bottom of the ocean to drag the unsuspecting mariners ever downwards. Those who lived in areas prone to earth tremors and eruptions put them down to angry monsters rising up from the ground to wreak havoc.
Now, it's always true that if individuals can’t accept an explanation from science, they will turn to long-standing myths and fables to address their need for closure, and monster myths provide such a understanding. Now, I don't believe in monsters of the extra-terrestrial kind. But I do agree with what Primo Levi wrote regarding “monsters” of the human kind: “Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions” (Reawakening, 214). Blind obedience, often in the form of blind faith, whether religious or secular, is more monstrous to humanity than anything resembling giant winged creatures, ghosts and sea monsters.

You can read the rest of the review article in [The Telegraph]