Deformed Discourse

Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature

Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    Deformed Discourse
    Book Description:

    Part I traces the poetics of teratology, the study of monsters, to Christian neoplatonic theology and philosophy, particularly Pseudo-Dionysius's negative theology and his central idea that God cannot be known except by knowing what he is not. Williams argues that the principles of negative theology as applied to epistemology and language made possible a symbolism of negation and paradox whose chief sign was the monster. Part II provides a taxonomy of monstrous forms with a gloss on each, and Part III examines the monstrous and the deformed in three heroic sagas -- the medieval Oedipus, The Romance of Alexander, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight -- and three saints' lives -- Saint Denis, Saint Christopher, and Saint Wilgeforte. The book is beautifully illustrated with medieval representations of monsters.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-6588-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Figures
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiv-2)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 3-20)

    “But since Substance is one, why are Forms so various?” asks the hermit in Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony and continues, “There must be, somewhere, primordial figures whose bodies are nothing but their image. If one could see them one would discover the link between matter and thought, what Being consists of!”¹

    In this, the last episode of the work, Saint Anthony’s desire is answered by the appearance of the monsters. The question of the relation between monstrosity and being and its representation constitute the subject of the present discussion, which concentrates, as did Flaubert, on the mediaeval origins of...

    • 1 The Context of the Monstrous
      (pp. 23-60)

      The cosmos of Pseudo-Dionysius is thoroughly realist and Neoplatonic, as it was in varying degrees for most of his mediaeval followers.¹ The Areopagite’s explanation of God, the world, being, and human knowledge became the singularly most influential conception in Western thought until it was superseded by the philosophy it had rejected totally, the rationalism and reliance on logic that begins to emerge in the thirteenth century and soon becomes the dominant characteristic of Western thought, presupposed as fundamental to intellectual inquiry. Denys’ works were the subject of study and formal commentary by virtually every major mediaeval thinker from John of...

    • 2 The Language of the Monstrous
      (pp. 61-104)

      The association of monsters with language is a profound, longstanding one that simultaneously reveals something of our historical conception of monstrosity as well as an ambivalence toward language itself. Several ancient teratological legends trace the appearance of the monster in the world to the moment of the collapse of the Tower of Babel and suggest a causal relation between the two events. The story of the Tower of Babel constitutes a pivotal moment in human symbolic history, containing as it does the mythic explanation of the origin of human discursive activity and the beginning of diversity and division in human...

    • 3 The Body Monstrous
      (pp. 107-176)

      The attempt to create a system of descriptive categories for that which exists to resist and confound systematization involves an obvious contradiction, but in the building of taxonomies of the monster, the contradiction seems not to have been felt very sharply. Numerous systems have been put forward, either in ignorance of the absurdity involved, or, in some cases perhaps, with delicate sensitivity to the irony that in attempting to describe the monster that is itself paradox, the paradox of taxonomy finds its justification. One of the earliest and most influential mediaeval taxonomies of the monster was that created by the...

    • 4 Nature Monstrous
      (pp. 177-215)

      The negation of the structural order of physical nature is another means of transgressing the affirmative limitations placed upon reality. Like the human body, nature’s “body” provides a kind of text of the mind and its rational workings that, through rearrangement and deformation, can be expanded and rewritten to include its own negation. While the body as microcosm provided the key for the interpretation of the Cosmos, Nature as macrocosm governed the structure of the human body that was its reflection. Just as the human body was naturally arranged through a balance of corresponding limbs and parts — and grotesquely rendered...

    • 5 Monstrous Concepts
      (pp. 216-230)

      The practice of constructing letters of the alphabet out of the forms of plant, animal, or human body parts was widespread in the Middle Ages. Such a practice suggests, in the first place, a view of letters and thus of writing and, further still, of discourse as a whole as having some ontological character; thus the abstract forms that these letters are given in the roman alphabet are distorted into forms derived from animate reality. These representations are inevitably grotesque, the transmogrification of animal to letter, letter to animal, and when they employ the human body, they are often erotic....

    • 6 Three Heroes
      (pp. 231-284)

      In the various stories of Alexander the Great, we see one of the original Western models of the epic hero. From this series of narratives concerning the Macedonian world-conqueror flows the worldview in which the mighty win and hold dominion over all peoples and every continent, a power justified by concepts and values that are the underpinnings of the saga of Alexander the Great.

      The original Greek version of The Life of Alexander, known as the Pseudo-Callisthenes, is contained in three manuscripts, each recounting the same basic story but with important variations regarding certain episodes. Several Latin versions descending from...

    • 7 Three Saints
      (pp. 285-322)

      The propriety of the monstrous representation of the holy, as Proclus makes clear, is constituted by the fact that the grotesque is the very mode by which the divine has chosen to manifest itself, in order that the human mind may have some understanding of it without confusing it with any of its own similitudes. This concept of the monstrous, fundamental to Neoplatonism, comes into widespread use in the art of the Christian Middle Ages and particularly in the hagiography and iconography of the time.

      The saint’s life is a particularly useful kind of text for the exploration of the...

    • 8 Conclusion
      (pp. 323-332)

      Whereas at the beginning of the Middle Ages St Augustine found in the monsters a rich source of philosophical meditation,¹ at the beginning of the Renaissance St Thomas More was loathe to defend the “superstycyous maner and vnlefull petycyons yf women there offer otys vnto saynt wylgefort in trust yt she shall vncomber them of theyr housbondys.”² The decline in the fortunes of the deformed beginning in the sixteenth century is in its way as informative about the concept of the monstrous as the contrasting mediaeval enthusiasm for what has been called here the deformed discourse, and, while it is...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 333-368)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 369-384)
  12. Index
    (pp. 385-392)