This week’s readings:
Francis Bacon, Novum Organum
Erasmus, Education of a Christian Prince
Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (selections, primarily Book I)
Machiavelli, The Prince
Sir Philip Sidney, A Defense of Poesie
Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors
John Milton, Areopagitica
Ambroise Pare, Of Monsters and Marvels
Michel Montaigne, “On the Power of the Imagination”
–, “On a Monstrous Child”
This week’s quotation I’ll take from the last of the Montaigne essays:
Those which we call monsters are not so with God, who in the immensitie of his work seeth the infinite of formes therein contained. And it may be thought that any figure doth amaze us, hath relation unto some other figure of the same kinde, although unknown unto man. From out his all-seeing wisdome proceedeth nothing but good, common, regular, and orderly; but we neither see the sorting, nor conceive the relation. Quod crebro videt, non miratur, etiam si, cur fiat, nescit. Quod an te non vidit, id, si evenerit, ostentum esse censet (CIC. Div. 1. II.). ‘That which he often seeth he doth not wonder at, though he know not why it is done; but if that happen which he never saw before, he thinkes it some portentous wonder.’ We call that against nature which commeth against custome. There is nothing, whatsoever it be, that is not according to hir. Let therefore this universall and naturall reason chase from us the error, and expell the astonishment which noveltie breedeth and strangenes causeth in us.
Obviously one interesting thing here is the way that Montaigne exhibits a transition from the older mode of thinking about monsters — to briefly recap from well-worn ground, monster from the Latin monere, meaning to warn or advise, and so the monster becomes that which warns or advises. Monstrous births were commonly taken to be signs of God’s displeasure, or an omen of strife to come; their bodies were exceptions granted by God in order to communicate these messages. The monster’s body, hence, existed only to be read: it was a medium of some greater message from the higher realms of creation.
With the transition to a “scientific worldview” we begin to get outlooks similar to those of Montaigne above (also exhibited by Ambroise Pare in this week’s reading). Monsters are “naturalized” in that they are not suspensions of the rules of generation as such, but rather necessary side-effects of some grand mechanism of creation that appears confusing or nonsensical from a human perspective.
For Montaigne, God becomes the vehicle by which this is rationalized: an all-knowing force to whom nothing is strange, who does not break rules to warn us; rather, a proto-Deist Watchmaker who creates every gear to interlock with another, for reasons often beyond the ken of all the other gears. As writers like Lorraine Datson have argued, this morphed into the prevailing view of the nascent biological sciences: “monsters” became opportunities to deduce the laws of generation by using dissection and anatomy to note precisely where and how the monstrous body deviates from a presupposed norm.
But from another perspective, what we see here is simply two different ways of making deviant bodies signify: whether it’s the displeasure of God and a coming catastrophe or the obscured laws of nature, monsters exist to tell us (‘us’ taken for granted to be ‘normative’ or ‘non-monstrous’ humans) something. The monster always exists in the state of exception; it is Agamben’s homo sacer. Montaigne, I think, shows us something in between these views, a world in which monsters exist, but do not need to be studied; they simply are. Still, the anthropocentric notion of a knowing God necessarily pulls these things into our (normative, human) orbit, but discounting that, how else might we exploit this apparent gap in the regimes of bodily signification: when or where might the so-called “monstrous” creature not mean but simply be?