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.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting stuff, Jeffrey--I remember talking to you last summer about little green eyeballs and then thinking more about monsters when I got home. One of my pet obsession is the lake monster, the Nessie spin-off, which appears quite regularly in lakes the world over. Loch Ness, Lake Champlain, and Lake Okanagan spring immediately to mind as the homes of famous lake monsters, and a cursory Google search reveals many more such creatures--maybe even in a lake near you! But if monsters are representations of the body fragmented or in expanding pieces, what, exactly, are lake monsters? Heads with big teeth that slither around without bodies? Enlarged snakes charged with the cultural baggage of the serpent of Genesis? I seem to recall some medieval iconography that depicts the serpent of Genesis with a human head, although I can't put my finger on it--any thoughts on all this?

When I was on the train down from Montreal a few weeks ago I resolutely stared out the window at Lake Champlain in an effort to spot the elusive Champ. Alas, it wasn't to be this time, but I swear that I'll catch him yet!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Those recurring lake monsters are a puzzle. I'd been thinking about them recently because every day as I drive my daughter to the Kiddie Kennel where she is boarded while her parents work, she has gotten into the habit of "reading" a book about Tahoe Tessie.

I don't know how that book even got into the car (our vehicle is like a bookmobile; if someone were ever trapped inside due to an avalanche, etc., they'd have plenty to read before asphyxiating) ... but it is very interesting to me that a two year old would be so drawn to its pages.

Karl Steel said...

medieval iconography that depicts the serpent of Genesis with a human head

here's a famous one.

Not medieval but certainly drawn on the medievals.

More to say, but oooo!, this grading and this cold.

Anonymous said...

What is the significance of avocado green skin? Actually, I'd like to exploit JJC's witness-worthy expertise in a different manner. I recently submitted a paper proposal about ravishing animals i.e., animals that ravish, not animals that are ravished) to a seminar on the natural world in e.m. england and was surprised to find my topic reconfigured under the rubric of "monsters." My animal sources didn't strike me as particularly "monstrous" (the three I listed were a cow, a monkey, and a donkey). I also foregrounded the proposal with a discussion of Brownmiller's erroneous, but rather fascinating, imagination of primal history. (in it, she boldly states that man is the only animal that rapes, which made me even more surprised that I was perceived to be talking about monsters. In some ways, my animal examples were: cow, monkey, donkey, human).

In his comment, JKW roughly defined monsters as "representations of the body fragmented or in expanding pieces." Here's my question to JJC or JKW or the internet world at large: what's the role of activities in configuring the category of monsters? Using the seminar's rubric, wouldn't it matter more what these little green one-eyed cartoons DID (rather than just what their corporeal being suggested?)