moral monsters


BLVR: You mentioned earlier that your stigmata studies were a counterpoint to studies of monsters—the former on wonder, the latter on horror. It seems now that this is related to what we’ve just been talking about, especially as an example of conflicting ways to explain phenomena.

AD: Right. I’m interested in the changing classifications of monstrosities. In the Renaissance, for example, there was a whole genre of quasi-medical discussions of monsters. I wanted to figure out how people differentiated monsters from one another. Unlike psychiatric disorders, monsters or monstrosities are anatomically inscribed on the body, so we have detailed descriptions of the monster’s structure, whether it was hermaphroditism or half animal, half human—thought to be produced by bestiality—or other things we recognize as genuine medical examples, like conjoined twins or people with greater or fewer appendages than normal. All of those conditions were classified as “monsters,” and I wanted to look at the ones which provoked moral reactions. Then you can see how those moral reactions became a “natural” reaction to a monster. And eventually, scientific explanations pushed the moral condemnation of monsters away, so that a causal scientific explanation was the only way to describe a monster. That is, after that point, a moral reaction was considered inappropriate, merely superstitious, something expressed by someone who didn’t know the true explanation.

more from an interview with Arnold Davidson in The Believer here.