Dinosaur (Monster) Culture

I recently read Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's "Monster Culture (Seven Theses)," a foundational work in the study of fictional monsters and their role in human culture. (My girlfriend sent me a copy. We're intellectuals!) Of course I'm all about this; my debute short story collection was called Monsters In My Mind. And it strikes me that dinosaurs, with their seemingly fantastical physical forms and their sense of power and danger, were my first monster love.

Million-Year Elegies is divided into three parts - representing the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras - and the title I gave to Part 1 is "The Age of Monsters." The Mesozoic is often called the Age of Reptiles, and the Cenozoic the Age of Mammals, but the Paleozoic isn't as often associated with a title, maybe because it wasn't consistently "ruled," on land or otherwise, by a single taxonomic group. The Paleozoic is more diverse and diffuse, in the popular imagination, than the other eras. Randomly arrive in any part of it and the most formidable creatures might be terrifyingly enormous insects, sea scorpions, armored fish the size of a bus, the fantastically diverse and surreal creatures of the Burgess Shale, or Dimetrodon. No single biological throughline ties these creatures together. But monsters? That they are.

Here's what Cohen tells us about monsters:

1. The Monster's Body Is A Cultural Body.

This is less true for paleontological monsters than for Frankenstein or Dracula. Dinosaurs, unless you're a very particular sort of religious fundamentalist, really existed. The truth of them is a real thing that matters in its own right, rather than being solely a reflection of the cultural anxieties of the day.

But when we search for the truth of a dinosaur's life, we have so little real evidence to go on. We have some bones and trace fossils, and we have what we know about animals living today. The process of figuring out how a dinosaur lived is a process of educated guessing, filling in the blanks. We have some great science nowadays to help us imagine what goes there. But as with the cultures of long-ago humans, a lot is simply lost. Like the frog DNA from Jurassic Park, our own cultural assumptions seep into those gaps and distort what we find.

Think of the ways visual depictions of dinosaurs have changed over the past hundred years - from the iguana-like creatures of the Crystal Palace, to slow, lumbering, tail-dragging beasts, to fast, sleek predators, to feathery proto-birds. Some of these changes are the result of new scientific knowledge, but none of them are neutral. All of them reflect our cultural beliefs about how and why creatures change over time, how time must work, how life must work.

2. The Monster Always Escapes

Dinosaurs as we typically imagine them are extinct, of course. Rocks fell, everyone died. But the human urge with a monster is to resurrect it, to dig it from the rocks, to imagine what would happen if we could meet it or bring it to life in the present day. The parts of us that are fascinated by dinosaurs are alive, and so in some sense the dinosaurs must also be.

Jurassic Park ends, not with the dinosaurs being destroyed, but with the dinosaurs turning on each other for long enough that the human characters can get away, even as the feeble human structures of the park fall down. It ends with Alan Grant gazing out at a majestic flock of birds, which - of course - are also dinosaurs. They were already alive before the park got there, and they will remain.

Cohen’s thesis is that we always require monsters to survive in this way - because the anxieties and shadow aspects that they represent to us are never really, truly gone.

3. The Monster Is The Harbinger of Category Crisis

Cohen's thesis is that monsters are inherently liminal, escaping the human urge to classify them into tidy boxes. Of course we classify dinosaurs. But whenever a new fossil is found it can overturn our assumptions about what is descended from what, who had which traits when, and even what it means to be descended from something.

Witness the last few decades' shifts in how we classify life forms even at the level of kingdoms, and the ways molecular clock techniques can overturn what we thought we had inferred from fossils' physical shapes. Witness the number of fossils that we still don't quite know how to place or where to categorize.

One of my favorite groups of fossils is the Cambrian lagerstatten of the Burgess Shale. I found out about this when I was 15 and visiting the Royal Tyrell Museum in Alberta; I was incensed not to have heard of it before. My childhood dinosaur books had given me the impression that the Cambrian peroid was very basic, just some trilobites and stuff. This was not true. The little animals of the Burgess Shale are so utterly weird that many of them can't be classified in our existing system at all. Five eyes? Mouth on a stalk? Tentacle legs? Sure, why not. I loved them immediately. (One of Million-Year Elegies' poems, "Hallucigenia," describes a Burgess Shale creature.)

4. The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference

This thesis of Cohen's is more about humans than dinosaurs - we attribute monstrous traits to groups of humans in order to other them. Many of these traits have nothing to do with dinosaurs. But watch, again, how we project onto dinosaurs our ideas of what a monster should be - hungry, vicious, brutish, lumbering, stupid, inevitably doomed to die. Which of these traits do we also project onto humans, and why? That's an exercise for the reader.

Igor Stravinksy's ballet, "The Rite of Spring," uses dissonant harmonies and unsteady rhythms to depict a "primitive" human sacrifice. Walt Disney's Fantasia repurposes the same music for what the narrator explicitly refers to as another form of primitive life. The violent music of the pagan sacrifice undergirds scenes of a prey dinosaur defeated by a predator, an ecosystem defeated by drought, old landscapes giving way to new through volcanic eruption, earthquake, and flood. What about this feels "primitive" to us? Why is there such an urge in the Western imagination to associate such forces with "primitive" humans? Again, that’s an exercise for the reader…

5. The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible

I can't add much here to Cohen, who specifically references Jurassic Park without my help. Monster tales are so often cautionary tales, warning us what may happen if we delve curiously into matters - scientific matters, in this case - that were not meant for us.

(The term "playing God" is ill-defined to the point of tautology, but it signifies an attempt to control something humans ought not to control. There is something about the deep past, about the borders between death and life and trying to bring back what's already gone, that feels like a moral threat.)

6. Fear Of The Monster Is Really A Kind Of Desire

If the monster represents what we can't understand, we want to understand it. If the monster represents something forbidden, then the forbidden has its lure. There's a reason why Jurassic Park's theme music is a beautiful, majestic tune; there's a reason why people want to go there. If the dinosaurs might eat us, that doesn't stop us from empathizing with Ellie Sattler as she stands up out of her car, jaw dropping, watching the monsters walk before her for the first time, alive.

7. The Monster Stands At The Threshold... Of Becoming

Every monster problem is actually a human problem. What humans can and can't do, can and can't know, is a human problem. How we categorize the present and past, is a human problem. In my next post I'll be talking more about some of the human problems that appear within Million-Year Elegies - problems of survival, problems of becoming. When we try to understand something as far removed from ourselves as a dinosaur, our own reflection always gets in the way. That doesn't mean it's fruitless to try to understand. We still gain something in our understanding of the world, in our understanding of ourselves and how we see it.

We learn something, we change something, whenever we look at a monster and see ourselves.