Monday, January 5, 2015

An Unexpected Ensemble of Monsters

In your ventures into formal education and the many side trips with the goal of making an auto-didact of yourself, you ran into an unexpected cadre of monsters, all of whom have outlived their original creation and gone on to become cultural exemplars.

These monsters had a life before some of them found their way into comic books or were brought to life therein.  You'd heard about Jonah and the whale enough times to have grown beyond considering Jonah's host as a serious threat, but when the Leviathan came up in a lecture about Job, you took note.  

Years later, you met Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, which was more metaphorical than a mere whale,dealing with social contract and governmental issues.  Hobbes used a quotation from Job relating to his Leviathan:  "There is no force on earth to be compared to him."

There was a whimsical side to your mother that you did not appreciate at the time, that fact alone  revealing much about you that needed work.  Through your mother, you'd learned of Herman Melville's great white whale, Moby-Dick, as an enormous whale who swam about the colder oceans, performing acts of good will.  When you asked what some of these were, your mother took the position that the whale did whatever good that was required at the time.

For the longest time, you accepted this fantasy vision of the whale, seeing him as you saw The Golem,one of your favorites from the legends of the culture into which you were born.  The Golem went up against the more virulent forms of Anti-Semitism, brooking no nonsense from oppressors. 

But one of your instructors, Leon Howard, was one of the leading commentators on Melville.  From his lectures, you learned how the whale was quite another force, no mere romantic icon.  Moby-Dick was Nature in large format.  Keep your distance or, as Ahab discovered, you might get hurt.

Thanks to an on-going interest in horror movies, you'd long been aware of the variations on the theme of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, but had not found your way until age eighteen or nineteen to reading Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus,which stunned you beyond its concepts and the questions they brought forth.  You found her language well ahead of its time, and for a time copied passages from it in longhand in order to get a closer sense of her working frame of mind.

No question about it, your first awareness of another great monster came from the Ringling Brothers Circus and one of its star performers, a hulking gorilla named Gargantua.  Your delight was expanded several fold when you discovered the likely source of Gargantua's name.  

As young, circus-loving boys will do, a circus-loving contemporary of yours with the given name of Richard, whom everyone insisted on calling Dickie, bet you that you could not explain how Gargantua got his name.  Much less, Dickie insisted, could you provide the name of Gargantua's son.

From Dickie Salem, who would soon go to live with his father in Chicago for two years before returning as, in his own words, a more superior person, you learned about a French writer, whose name you mangled, much to Dickie Salem's delight.  Gargantua and Pantagruel were giants, picaresque wanderers about the countryside, alternating between crude expressions of humor and exquisite indications of a profound and sometimes ironic intelligence.

While learning of these, you were discovering minotaurs, Cyclops, the Furies, Harpies, and Chimera.  There was also Laocoon and the Sea Snakes, the magnificent Count Dracula, and an array of werewolves, and zombies.  Can you forget Grendel, the Hydra of Lerna, or that most villainous demon from Hindu mythology, Raktabija?  Such is the inventive nature of Hindu mythology that Raktabija was given a special power.  If he were injured in battle, the moment a drop of his blood touch the ground, a clone Raktabija would appear to fight alongside him.

There is one more human villainous sort who stands in your memory from the days when you were studying Victorian literature, racing to the depths of the Lawrence Clark Powell Library at UCLA in search of any novels written by Charles Dickens' sometime collaborator and friend, Wilkie Collins.  In his memorable novel, The Woman in White, Collins created Count Fosco, a cultured, refined, but implacable villain, who kept a pet mouse in his vest pocket.  Count Fosco may well have been Dashiell Hammett's inspiration for his splendid villain, Caspar Gutman.

Monsters and villains remain with us.  When we look at these icons from the past, we can see a clear pattern, beckoning us, leaving us with to consider the probability that so long as our monsters and villains are remembered, so will our work. 

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