Lately, in class, we have been exploring the nature of the monster – looking specifically at how monstrosity may function to represent alterity, deviancy or otherness, to reveal sinister or corrupt aspects of the unconscious, to blur the boundary between the real and unknown, to reflect individual, societal or evolutionary anxieties, or to, aesthetically, induce fear or create an atmosphere of strangeness.
However, despite these many potential forms and meanings, it is interesting to consider how monsters are unified (and uniformly made effective) through a shared connection to the sublime.
Colloquially, the sublime is used as a synonym for the enjoyable (for instance, it is not uncommon to hear a person refer to a tasty meal as ‘sublime’). However, Edmund Burke makes an important distinction between the sublime and the beautiful by emphasizing that the sublime transcends straightforward aesthetic or sensual pleasures, dwelling instead in extremities of pain, terror, danger, darkness and expanse.
Burke emphasizes that “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime” (Burke 24). In addition, he observes that “to make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes” (Burke 40).
Considering our class’ recent discussions, it seems that our understanding of the monster is in agreement with this definition of the sublime; often posing a threat to physiological, psychological, social or aesthetic harmony, the monster is implicitly dangerous. Furthermore, the monster can be seen as meeting Burke’s requirement for obscurity. Slippery in definition, the monster occupies a sort of liminal space – a space in-between life and death, the known and unknown, the comprehensible and incomprehensible.
If we consider monstrosity in this way – monstrosity as something sublime that creates an “overwhelming sense of awe or other high emotion through being vast or grand” (“Sublime”) – we may be able to gain insight into why the monster archetype is, inherently, so powerful. Perhaps the monster is successful at departing rich and diverse meaning in part because it is first able to arrest us through invoking this sense of awe. Perhaps before the monster is meaningful, it is sublime.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. 1759. New York: Dover, 2008. Print
“Sublime.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, October 2014. Web.