Chapter 4: Monstrous Bodies, Nature and Life
4. Monstrous bodies, nature and life When a hermaphrodite is born, the son of the palace will rule the land (or) the King will capture. (Babylonian clay tablet)1 It is only . . . by dint of producing monstrous beings that nature succeeds in producing beings of greater regularity and with more symmetrical structure. (Robinet in Considérations Philosophiques)2 The existence of monsters throws doubt on life’s ability to teach us order. . . . A monster is a living being of negative value . . . the normal type is the zero degree of monstrosity. (Canguilhem in ‘Monstrosity and the monstrous’)3 the dance between the most disparate things (Ansell Pearson in Germinal Life)4 GOOD AND BAD OMENS A Babylonian set of clay tablets dating from 2800 bc is the oldest existing text that deals with monsters (Thompson, 1930). In this lexicon of monsterology, which is inscribed in cuneiform characters, monsters are divided according to the following three categories, which have continued to organize Western thinking about monsters up until modern times: monstres par excès (‘monsters of excess’), monstres par défaut (‘monsters of lack’), and monstres doubles (‘double monsters’) (Fiedler, 1978). For example, monsters of excess could be infants born with six toes, monsters of lack could be infants born without a nose and an arm and double monsters could be intersexual infants born with ambiguous genital organs. The words monster, monstrosity and monstrous all emerge from Latin monstrum, which means ‘portent’, ‘omen’ or ‘sign’, and from monere and moneo, which means ‘to...
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