Wednesday, October 14, 2009

ON MONSTERS: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears By Stephen Asma

ON MONSTERS: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears
ISBN13: 978-0-19-533616-0 ISBN10: 0-19-533616-X
(Oxford, October 15, 2009)


Monsters. Real or imagined, literal or metaphorical, they have exerted a dread fascination on the human mind for many centuries. They attract and repel us, intrigue and terrify us, and in the process reveal something deeply important about the darker recesses of our collective psyche.
Stephen Asma's On Monsters is a wide-ranging cultural and conceptual history of monsters--how they have evolved over time, what functions they have served for us, and what shapes they are likely to take in the future. Asma begins with a letter from Alexander the Great in 326 B.C. detailing an encounter in India with an "enormous beast--larger than an elephant with three ominous horns on its forehead." From there the monsters come fast and furious--Behemoth and Leviathan, Gog and Magog, the leopard-bear-lion beast of Revelation, Satan and his demons, Grendel and Frankenstein, circus freaks and headless children, right up to the serial killers and terrorists of today and the post-human cyborgs of tomorrow. Monsters embody our deepest anxieties and vulnerabilities, Asma argues, but they also symbolize the mysterious and incoherent territory just beyond the safe enclosures of rational thought. Exploring philosophical treatises, theological tracts, newspapers, pamphlets, films, scientific notebooks, and novels, Asma unpacks traditional monster stories for the clues they offer about the inner logic of an era's fears and fascinations. In doing so, he illuminates the many ways monsters have become repositories for those human qualities that must be repudiated, externalized, and defeated.
Asma suggests that how we handle monsters reflects how we handle uncertainty, ambiguity, insecurity. And in a world that is daily becoming less secure and more ambiguous, he shows how we might learn to better live with monsters--and thereby avoid becoming one.

What's Inside?:
ON MONSTERS by Stephen Asma is a look in to the history of monsters and explores how they have evolved over time, what functions they have served, and what shapes they are likely to take in the future. Mr. Asma describes how monsters, from the obvious movie creatures to terrorists to serial killers, embody our deepest fears, anxieties and vulnerabilities, and symbolize the mysterious territory just beyond the safe enclosures of rational thought. Mr. Asma explores philosophical treatises, theological tracts, newspapers, pamphlets, films, scientific notebooks, and novels, to illuminates the many ways monsters have come to represent our insecurities and uncertainties in daily life. And in these somewhat frightening times, Mr. Asma shows how we can live with our monsters, even if it means looking in the mirror.

Table of Contents

Introduction to Extraordinary Beings

Phobias * Repulsion and Attraction * Inhuman * Unthinkable * Unmanageable * The Literal and the Symbolic


Alexander Fights Monster in India
Embellishing * Manliness

Monsters Are Nature's Playthings
Griffins * Monstrous Bones * Natural History and Credulity * Monstrous Races

Hermaphrodites and Man-headed Oxen
In-between Beings * Reason and Superstition * Aristotle's Monsters * Phantom Images

Monstrous Desire
Plato's Monster * Monstrous Mother


Biblical Monsters
God's Lackeys * The Apocalypse * Giants

Do Monster have Souls?
Monster and a Creator God * Baptizing the Monstrous Races * the Descent of Monsters * Alexander's Gates

The Monster Killer
"I Have Known Much Peril" * Tolkien's Tragic Beowulf

Possessing Demons and Witches
St. Anthony fights Demons * Witches * The Witch Hunter * Illusion or Reality * Monstrous Desires Revisited * Driving Out the Demons

Natural History,Freaks, and Nondescripts
The Hydra * Eradicating the Fantastic * Responding to the Marvelous * A Mischievous Taxidermist * Freaks

The Medicalization of Monsters
Monstrous Births * Pregnant Women Should Not Look upon Monsters * Monsters and the Mechanization of Nature * Frankenstein * John Hunter's Monsters * Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire's Teratology * William Lawrence and the Headless Children

Darwin's Mutants
Monsters and Transmutation * No Monstrous Jumps in Nature * Mutationism and Helpful Monsters * Alberch, Gould and the Return of the Monsters * Evo-Devo


The Art of Human Vulnerability: Angst and Horror
Fear and Cognitive Mismatch * Angst and Horror * Freud * Torture Porn (Note: A genre of Horror films: Hostel, Hostel II, Dawn of the Dead, and Saw fall in to this genre) * Creeping Flesh

Criminal Monsters: Psychopathology, Aggression, and the Malignant Heart
Monsters in the Headlines * Leopold and Loeb * Rage and Aggression * Monstrous Desire Revisited * Cold Detachment The Cause of Psychopathology * Judging and Managing the Monsters

Torturers, Terridt, and Zombies: The Products of Monstrous Societies
Xenophobia and Race * Theoretical Xenophobia * Instinctual Xenophobia * Monstrous Civilizational * Pathological Societies * Monsters from the Oppressed Classes * Monsters of Ideology *Deconstructing Monsters

Future Monsters: Robots, Mutants, and Posthuman Cyborgs
Mutants and Robots * Cyborgs * Disembodied Minds Playing God: Biotechnology * Are Monsters in the Eye of the Beholder?

Epilogue * Notes * Index

"Monsters literal and metaphorical are dissected with skill and discernment in philosopher and scholar Asma's penetrating "unnatural history." Erudite, funny, and deeply attuned to the profound psychological and moral implications of monstrousness, Asma encompasses the mystical and the scientific as he ponders the simultaneous repulsion and attraction monsters arouse... Asma is insightful and entertaining in his discussion of monsters of the deep, supernatural doppelgangers, zombies, and vampires, and intense in his discussion of Freud and the 'science of monstrous feelings...' Asma's far-reaching book of monsterology is original, captivating, and profoundly elucidating."--Booklist starred review

"With insight, erudition, and humor, Asma's compendium of monsterology traces the evolving meanings and manifestations of monsters since antiquity, in religion, philosophy, science, literature, popular culture, and the human psyche. To explain the eternal attraction and repulsion of the monstrous, Asma draws on material from Aristotle to nanotechnology, revealing myriad, surprising ways that supernatural, natural, and metaphorical monsters inhabit the landscape of our imagination."--Adrienne Mayor, author of The First Fossil Hunters and The Poison King

"On Monsters is a humorously omnivorous consideration of the monstrous. It's a delightful book, a terrific balance of scholarship and wonder."--Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife

"A wide-ranging exploration of fear and evil, Asma's presentation and theories are original and practical, depicting those dark, repulsive notions of an unstable, turbulent world in which everybody must struggle to remain human and civilized." --Publishers Weekly

About the Author:
Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, where he holds the title of Distinguished Scholar. Asma is the author of many books, including Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums (OUP, 2001). He lives in Chicago.

My Personal Opinion:
Mr. Asma presents an interesting look into the subject of monsters, the mythological, pathological and futuristic. I found this book to both interesting, and entertaining.

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