I was in Oxford about a month ago, where I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Annie Sutherland, a scholar of medieval religious literature and a fellow at Somerville College. I was chatting with her over dinner one night about the idea that we've lost the benefit of monsters in the way we learn and navigate. The suggestion that a map which notes "Here be Dragons" is far more enticing/enchanting/curious than a satellite picture to some startling degree of accuracy.
Annie mentioned that the etymology of the word monster is related to demonstrate, most likely originating from monere: A forewarning; a sepulchre; a monster. She lent me her copy of The Monstrous Middle Ages, some of which I managed to nibble on before I left.
Monstrosity demarcates segments of space (for instance, by distinguishing areas of the landscape, in which demonic creatures do and do not appear) and divisions of time (such as the distinction between night and day).
Now that "everybody's come," it's hard to find these touchstones that were once more prevalent. I'm not sure there is an equivalent today of, say, Hansel and Gretel. Children stay at home and play inside now, because everyone's in the same boat, afraid of everything.
I was wondering about how this Everything perhaps puts us in some sort of "Bright Ages," where we're simply blinded by so much white noise. Demonstration of things is that much harder, because there are so many available perspectives, hardly demarcated one from the next. I had a poke on the web for anything that talked about "the bright ages" and found a lovely thing from Selections of the writings of John Ruskin, published in 1887:
Characteristics Of The Modern Mind.—The title "Dark ages," given to the mediaeval centuries, is, respecting art, wholly inapplicable. They were, on the contrary, the bright ages; ours are the dark ones. I do not mean metaphysically, but literally. They were the ages of gold; ours are the ages of umber.
This is partly mere mistake in us; we build brown brick walls, and wear brown coats, because we have been blunderingly taught to do so, and go on doing so mechanically. There is, however, also some cause for the change in our own tempers. On the whole, these are much sadder ages than the early ones; not sadder in a noble and deep way, but in a dim, wearied way, the way of ennui, and jaded intellect, and uncomfortableness of soul and body. The Middle Ages had their wars and agonies, but also intense delights. Their gold was dashed with blood; but ours is sprinkled with dust. Their life was inwoven with white and purple; ours is one seamless stuff of brown. Not that we are without apparent festivity, but festivity more or less forced, mistaken, embittered, incomplete—not of the heart. How wonderfully, since Shakspere's time, have we lost the power of laughing at bad jests! The very finish of our wit belies our gaiety.
The history of monstrosity can (apparently) be charted through to the 19th century's showcased exclusion, in the form of freak shows and human zoos.
Perhaps we're still "brown", or simply grey. If they even exist, I wonder if the monsters of today are not as demonstrative as they once were. Monsters are Freddy Kruger, or that person you can investigate on the Internet when you're looking to buy a property in his neighbourhood, or a wife that have been swapped on television. Consider zombies for a moment. They're cool. People congregate in groups out in public to imitate them. The figure of the minotaur in the centre of the maze has all but disappeared. 'Look at us all, in this together. Thank God that's fake.'
I'm sure by now this is all sounding truly half-baked. The original thought was since we can all see so much of each other now -- instantly -- and there's (a bit of) equality and (a bit) less war and the internet and things, where are our monsters? What is the global crusade? Will our new faith be in data? Who will the new monastics be? So-called "locavores" perhaps? What sorts of cultural work could monstrosity perform for us today? It's like the Long Tail has replaced the Bell Curve.
But, since I don't know how to write an essay anymore and mainly just wanted to make a note of the idea, I'll leave it there. Suffice it to say, I know I'm not drawing any bright lines here, and I wish I knew a lot more about the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, etc etc. Be nice to imagine what a renaissance from this "Bright Age" might be like.
On a side note, hardly monstrous, but sort of, Annie also told me about her current research interest: Anchoresses, particularly one Julian of Norwich, who lived from 1342 to around 1416, and still today considered to be one of England's great mystics. It's possible I'm massively overstating Annie's research interests, but it seemed to me that the good doctor postulates that the life of an anchoress was desirable, compared with the life of a normal woman outside the walls of the church during that period in history. So, it was a positive choice on the part of the anchoress to choose this life of solitude and withdrawal.
The anchoritic life became widespread during the early and high Middle Ages. Examples of the dwellings of anchorites and anchoresses survive. They tended to be a simple cell (also called "anchorhold"), built against one of the walls of the local village church. Once the inhabitant had taken up residence, the bishop permanently bricked up the door in a special ceremony. [Ed. Annie told me that funerary rites were read over the women as they were buried alive.]
Hearing Mass and receiving Holy Communion was possible through a small, shuttered window in the common wall facing the sanctuary, called a "squint" or "hagioscope". There was also a small window facing the outside world, through which the inhabitant would receive food and other necessities and, in turn, could provide spiritual advice and counsel to visitors, as these men and women gained a reputation for wisdom.
Anchorites never left their cell, ate frugal meals, and spent their days in contemplative prayer. Their bodily waste was managed by means of a chamber pot. An idea of their daily routine can be gleaned from an anchoritic Rule known as Ancrene Riwle. - Source
From this rulebook:
"My dear sisters, love your windows as little as you can." For from sight comes "all the misery that there now is and ever yet was and ever shall be ..."
I have read a little of the main work she produced whilst "in residence," Revelations of Divine Love, and it just so happens there's a scanned copy of it on the Internet, if you're interested.
Illuminating, to say the least.