Monsters, magic, doomscrolling, and unthinkable peace
Disconnected dots of some obscure larger picture
Dear Living Dark readers,
Here are four unconnected items—two trains of thought that have worked their way through me in recent days and weeks, plus a couple of quoted passages from a book review, plus a transcribed portion of a video podcast episode that struck me deeply when I came across it today—that I have decided to stitch together and send to you in a single post. I offer no explanatory through line for grouping these items and presenting them this way, though I’m perfectly happy to hear your own ideas if an insight should happen to suggest itself for connecting these otherwise discrete dots. I’m confident there’s a coherent picture somewhere in here. But it may only be visible from the corner of the eye.
A primer on monsters: things that should not be
As I wrote in the sidebar to the entry on monsters in my encyclopedia Horror Literature through History, the word “monster” comes from the Latin word monstrum, meaning a divine omen, portent, or warning, by way of the French monstre, meaning a creature afflicted with a birth defect or biological abnormality. Etymologically, therefore, a monster is a creature that exhibits some abnormality or deformation that serves as a warning or portent of something morally and/or metaphysically amiss.
An understanding of this embedded meaning helps to illuminate the monstrosity of zombies (abnormally animated corpses), werewolves (abnormal hybrids of human and beast), vampires (undead bloodsuckers), Frankenstein’s monster (a loathsome, animate mass of sewn-together corpse parts), serial killers (normal-looking people concealing murderously deranged psyches), the giant insects of atomic age horror movies (tiny natural creatures enlarged to abnormal proportions and thereby made lethal), and many other such things.
In all of these cases, the monster is horrifying because it is, on some level, a “thing that should not be” (as Lovecraft might have put it), an entity that inspires fear and loathing not only, and not even primarily, because of what it does, but because of what it is.
A monster inspires fear and loathing not only, and not even primarily, because of what it does, but because of what it is.
This comes out with particular force and clarity in the case of Frankenstein’s monster. The attentive reader of Mary Shelley’s novel will notice that the dearth of clear description of the monster's physical appearance, combined with the invariably horrified and hate-filled reactions of people to seeing this creature, serves not only to create a semi-blank template upon which the reader can project a horror that exceeds language, but to imply, almost overtly, that the horror is something beyond mere physical deformity.
The only direct description of the creature’s appearance, from the iconic creation/animation scene in Chapter 4, is vague at best, and it involves and invokes horror right from the start of the unfortunate creature’s life, as Victor Frankenstein finds that the emotion of exultation that has accompanied him throughout his secret project morphs instantly into its opposite, into revulsion and despair, when the thing actually happens:
It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!—Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.
Significantly, the novel clearly indicates throughout its various chapters and scenes that the creature is not just a biological-mechanical creation but a product of magical/alchemical processes that have somehow manifested and externalized Victor Frankenstein's spiritual double, his daemon-self. The uncontrollable reaction of fear, hatred, and loathing that people feel upon seeing the creature—except for a single blind man, who is able to feel compassion because he can only hear the creature’s voice—indicates that in its very physical being the creature represents something awful, something that, instead of being monstrous because of any describable characteristic, is inherently monstrous, the embodiment of what is loathsome because it simply should not be. Its very existence is revolting and fearsome. Even when it becomes an otherwise pitiable figure whose many sufferings might be expected to arouse human compassion, its appearance is simply pulverizing to such tender feelings. Note Victor’s reaction, several chapters after the “catastrophe” of the animation scene, when he has just finished listening to the creature narrate its tale of woe as an abandoned wretch cast adrift in harsh world:
His words had a strange effect upon me. I compassionated him, and sometimes felt a wish to console him; but when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened, and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred.
This reinforces a point that has already been established in the preceding chapters that contain the monster’s autobiographical account, in which it relates how its appearance had automatically inspired hatred in everyone who saw it, including a sad and gentle family of cottagers whose love it had hoped to win. Here is its account of what happened when, after months of helping this family in secret, it finally revealed itself to these otherwise mild and kind people:
Who can describe their horror and consternation on beholding me? Agatha fainted; and Safie, unable to attend to her friend, rushed out of the cottage. Felix darted forward, and with supernatural force tore me from his father, to whose knees I clung: in a transport of fury, he dashed me to the ground, and struck me violently with a stick.
This very concept—of something that is simultaneously a projection or manifestation of someone’s daemon, an ugly assemblage of different human body parts, and a locus of loathsomeness whose physical appearance all but emits dark rays of ugliness that instantly and inherently evoke fear and hatred in those who see it, and most especially in the one of whose own nightside it is a projection—this concept, I find, is magnetically fascinating. At least to me.
The unified world view of magic
Many of you may be familiar with Colin Dickey, especially because of his widely praised 2016 book Ghostland: An American History of Haunted Places, which, in the words of the publisher, sought to “decode and unpack the American history repressed in our most famous haunted places.” The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published Dickey’s review of historian Anthony Grafton’s new book, Magus: The Art of Magic from Faustus to Agrippa. I find the resurgence of magic as a matter of mainstream academic study during the past couple of decades to be striking, and Dickey’s words on Grafton’s book play right into this:
To this day, magic continues to be thought of as childish and degenerate, less serious than religion, let alone science. . . . But the ubiquitous popular understanding (and misunderstanding) of these two terms has made discussing them fraught. In 1997 the religious-studies scholar John G. Gager Jr. put it bluntly: “In the long run,” he said in a panel discussion on Fritz Graf’s Magic in the Ancient World, “I am convinced that we need to abandon the loaded distinction between ‘magic’ and ‘religion’ altogether”. . . .
[Magicians] have often been marginalized in the historiography of early modern Europe, relegated to the fringe along with charlatans and con men. But Grafton asks us to consider the practicing magician alongside polymaths like Leonardo and Michelangelo, all of whom incorporated a number of disparate traditions into a holistic practice that reflected a unified world view.
READ THE ENTIRE REVIEW (paywalled): “Gifts of the Magi: Anthony Grafton argues that the line between knowledge and magic is thinner than we think”
Doomscrolling vs. chanting the beauty of the good
There was a period in the aughts and early teens when I was high on doom. You can still find some of the trail of blogging that I created during that time. Though the underlying notion that we’re living through an era of wholesale Kali Yuga-style collapse has never really left me, the manic drive to talk about it all the time has mercifully gone away. I’m no longer possessed by a sense of doom that carries with it a mandate to pass along the same charge to other people. In fact, I’m more inclined to affirm the passing away of all things, including world orders both large and small, macro and micro, as a wonderful and beautiful thing, since a permanent order of the relative world would literally be hell, and since the finiteness and fleetingness of this world of appearances is one of the natural phenomena that, for those who know how to look, calls attention to what’s really real.
So, when I come across something like the following words from spiritual writer/teacher Mark Matousek in a recent interview for Jeffrey Mishlove’s New Thinking Allowed, I find myself charmed and filled with a sense of affirmation. These days it’s this kind of thing that I feel moved to pass on to people, just like I’m doing right now.
There's so much crowing about what’s terrible in the world and how awful everything is. Emerson said don’t [do this]. Chant the beauty of the good. Don’t spend your life railing about how horrible things are. We all know how bad things are. Chant the beauty of the good. Understanding that that’s the elevation, that’s how we are elevated: by holding, maintaining that vision of possibility. And that’s what we need more of now. For everyone out there doomscrolling, I’d like to say: Turn away from your smartphone for a second and go sit in the forest. Or go sit with a loved one. Spend time with yourself. Turn off the computer for an hour a day, and just reconnect with the part of you that’s fundamental, and real, and true, and good. That’s what’s going to get us through this. It’s not preaching at people, and it’s not telling people how terrible everything is. That’ll just freak them out worse and make them want to do less.
These are the very last words of the interview. I encourage you to watch the entire thing, which is titled “Who Is America’s Greatest Spiritual Teacher?” and which focuses primarily on Ralph Waldo Emerson, with some attention also given to William James and others.
Our true nature: the peace that passes understanding
Here’s a subtle point—subtle to the mind, anyway—that many meditators and spiritual seekers miss:
It doesn’t matter whether you feel peaceful, clear, present, or aware. Nor does it matter if you feel agitated, murky, distracted, or dull. Feelings are only objects, just like everything else. They arise in awareness and are known by you. And that “you” is what the spiritual search is all about: your true nature, which is simply the awake, aware, present, living space in which everything emerges and arises, is known and experienced, and then subsides and sets.
The “peace that passes all understanding” is literally unthinkable. It passes all understanding because it cannot be known or grasped as an object of experience. It is not a player, an object, in the theater of awareness. Rather, it is the awareness itself. You are it and it is you. Right now, right here, never dimming.
You don’t find real peace, or gain it, or cultivate it, or practice it. You are it, with an absolute lack of effort because it takes no effort to be what you already are.
Trying to be present, seeking a state of peace, cultivating awareness, are all ultimately beside the point, though they can be provisionally useful on the way to recognizing the obvious. And the obvious is that you already are what you’re seeking. You are presence, peace, awareness. Looking for these things as things, as objects of experience, is like chasing a mirage. They aren’t “out there” in the world, including your world of physical and psychological experience, but “in here,” in your very seeing and knowing.
This means peace is still the case even when feelings of agitation, chaos, grief, fear, lust, and all the rest are present. Awareness and presence are still the case even when feelings of dullness, apathy, bondage, and overwhelm arise. What matters isn’t the experience that presents itself to awareness, but the awareness itself. It passes all understanding because it holds steady throughout all states. It isn’t peace conventionally conceived. It isn’t conceived at all. It is known. And it is known by being it.
You don’t find it, or gain it, or cultivate it, or practice it. You are it, with an absolute lack of effort because it takes no effort to be what you already are.
If it sounds like I’m writing these words as a disembodied voice of authority, let me put a pin in that balloon: I’m speaking of something that has been revelatory for me personally, for Matt. It just happens to be the same truth that is true for everyone, including you who are reading this. To find this baseline, and to recognize it as the absolutely clear and unassailable certainty that has at all times encompassed my swirling search through a lifetime of alternating happiness and disappointment, satisfaction and suffering, including my odyssey through kaleidoscopic realms of philosophical schizophrenia (regarding which, see my published journals, especially volume one), is stunning and delightful, at least to this bodymind unit—that is, to “me.” And maybe words like these can be useful to you (“you”) in recognizing and/or enjoying this baseline as well.