Wednesday, February 01, 2006
On one eyed monsters
Get your mind out of the gutter: that's not what I am talking about. (Though if your thoughts did turn to the lurid at the title of this post, it may simply be because you are a classicist. Ausonius took a line from the Aeneid and turned it into "monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum." Virgil was talking about Polyphemus; Ausonius had in mind a cyclops of a different sort).
No, I am posting about the green monocular blemmyae known as Mike from the Disney film Monsters, Inc. Lovably grouchy, Mike was the object of a long court case over copyright infringement, Miller v. Disney/Pixar. It seems that a famous illustrator known for his depictions of hot rods and psychedelia thought that Mike bore a little too much resemblance to one of his own animated eyeballs. The case just settled, and legally I can't talk about it much, but suffice it to say that sometimes a medievalist can be useful to corporate America. As an expert witness I was hired to research and compose a report on one eyed monsters throughout human history. Frankly I was surprised at how many I uncovered -- proof, I think, that the human imagination has always been haunted by body parts endowed with an unnerving autonomy. A bigger claim could even be advanced that central to the monstrous is the body in pieces, the flesh that isn't governed by a unifying soul but keeps exerting its unpredictable will.
It was fun, it was a glimpse into a world where half a billion dollars could be at stake, I got to give a deposition and be grilled about lime green versus avocado green skin and its signification, but now it is over.
It reminded me quite forcefully, too, that monsters never seem to cede their power to haunt. Gerald of Wales wrote of man-devouring toads in a way that resonates with H. G. Wells's novel The Food of the Gods and with horror films like Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959) and Them! (1954, a film populated by enormous ants). Saint Columba first spotted the Loch Ness monster in the sixth century; Nessie continues to be observed, even after a classic photograph was debunked. Monsters do change over time, but new ones -- like good old green Mike -- tend to be combinations of the old, making them more familiar than strange.