This essay works in two synchronous parts: one cross-referencing Jeffrey Cohen’s Seven Theses of monster culture with monsters from Beowulf and Marie de France’s “Bisclavret”, and two: assessing Cohen’s essay as an effective framework for digesting the presence and presentation of monsters universally. For this to work, each creature must be set against each thesis; doing so will make it clear which theses do not properly describe them and will unearth more about the presentation of the monsters in the process. Ideally, at the end, there will exist a better idea of how literally Cohen’s Seven Theses should be taken and how it can be used as a set of tools to develop a deeper understanding of a monstrous text. While this will be written from a critical point of view, it should be noted that the inspiration for this essay spawned from a strong appreciation of Cohen’s work and a fascination with the subject.
In an effort to remain brief, it will stand for this essay that theses three, four, five and seven (“The Monster Is the Harbinger of Category Crisis”, “The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference”, “The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible”, and “The Monster Stands at the Threshold… of Becoming” respectively) do, in fact, apply to the monsters of Beowulf and to Marie de France’s werewolf in “Bisclavret”. All of the aforementioned creatures teeter on the edge of human and inhuman (except for the dragon… but one may argue she’s an embodiment of human greed to some degree). They also challenge a reader’s philosophies of good and evil: for example, Grendel’s mother was violent, but was only seeking vengeance for the death of her son, something which was often respected for the era. It’s easy to conceptualize how these figures could and do act as proofs for these theses.
To begin, it’s critical to note Cohen’s goal in writing the essay: he stated his intention for the piece was to create, “A new modus legendi: a method of reading cultures from the monsters they engender,” (Cohen, 44). This is to say that he sees monstrous creatures as language which can be deciphered- a language which addresses the taboos and fears of a given time, or a place. However, even he admits in the same breath that historical context is not the final purveyor of meaning. In doing so, he admits that history, and thus the history of culture, is not a substantial basis to draw conclusions on a society and its values at any given time. The examination of monsters could therefore be only reaffirming standing beliefs and does not perpetuate study further, while being treated as its own secret language rather than an exceedingly dirty window. There are certainly examples of monsters that engender certain taboos of their era (vampires and werewolves), but it is unclear whether that representation would have been found within the antagonists themselves, or had to have been found and then assigned conveniently. It’s also unclear whether that applies universally.
That in mind, the first thesis is called into question: The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body. Placed against a category of monster, maybe, but for Grendel and even his mother in Beowulf, it doesn’t stand well. Neither has a described body. Maybe this description was lost somewhere in translation, or maybe in its time it was self-evident, but how can either be a cultural body if they are only known in the text for their crimes. Grendel could potentially default to the bodies he consumed, or the arm that was torn off of him, but is that enough? Additionally, the only thing known about Grendel’s mother is that she’s female. It just doesn’t work.
While it’s very easy to see how and why werewolves were concocted for their time- and how they stand for a crossroads between medical and religious models of disability (this is my understanding of it; do correct me if I’m offensively wrong)- even that is subverted in Marie de France’s “Bisclavret”. In this poem, the “monster” is the protagonist, and while the body itself may still indeed be a representation of the time’s conception of sin with the queer undertones towards the end, how can it remain a monster, a cause of fear, if the reader is satisfied with its happiness? If the body looks the same but cannot represent the same principles or ideas because of its place in the story, does its meaning then default to its origin? If this is the case, and the thesis is the rule qualifying monsters, then every vampire which does not exactly follow in the footsteps of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is either an invalid monster or does not have a monstrous cultural body.
In Thesis II, Cohen postulates that The Monster Always Escapes: “No monster tastes of death but once. The anxiety that condenses like green vapor into the form of the vampire can be dispersed temporarily, but the revenant by definition returns. And so the monster’s body is both corporeal and incorporeal; its threat is its propensity to shift,” (Cohen, 45). To some extent we can find this in Beowulf, but it requires a bit of labor where the quality should be self evident. One could argue that the “monster”, which is ultimately Beowulf’s undoing, is actually his evasive sense of accomplishment and worthiness, which he attempts to obtain by continuously hunting creatures and never truly feeling fulfilled. The monster does always escape, because it is incorporeal and reappears with each battle. Each individual monster does not necessarily fit this thesis. In regards to de France’s Bisclavret, it’s difficult to say whether the werewolf was truly a monster at all. If he was, he did not escape, and lives at the end very tangibly and sensibly in his world. The true antagonist of the poem, his wife, does escape and produce children of her own who have her face, and she fits very well into this thesis, but none of the others.
Thesis six claims that the fear of the monster is truthfully a kind of forbidden desire, which is difficult to defend. The conflation of fear and desire is dangerous for many reasons, and while with the queer undertones of de France’s poem mentioned before, it’s easy to understand how the maintenance of duality rather than surrender to an otherwise taboo (for the time) nature may fit into this rather well. For Beowulf’s monsters, however, it’s difficult to identify how they could be a form of desire within themselves without factoring in what might be Beowulf’s attitude towards them and internal motivations… unless Beowulf’s reader is secretly a cannibal or has an inexplicable desire to live in a lake. The largest issue with this thesis and its relationship with Beowulf is the emphasis on forbidden desires. Should something need to be extensively rationalized to fit with the theses? If that were the case, nearly anything could be a monster.
While there are logical issues with the concept of rules assigned to something that is established to be inherently lawless, perhaps a more fruitful investigation would be theses for the horror genre in general. For the most part, Cohen seems to have adventure monsters in mind, but the horror genre utilizes and capitalizes on fears, both conscious and unconscious. It’s often rife with racist and ableist rhetoric, which would be more productive to deconstruct, and these theses in many cases would work well as a baseline from which to approach quite a few subjects. It would be significantly more effective to examine the methodology of fear through a critical lens.
Maybe the seven theses work for very intentionally constructed monsters, wherein there is, in fact, a distinct pattern of behavior. The monster theses work more in line with Humbert Humbert from Nabokov’s Lolita than with many actual monsters in pop culture, or even literature like Beowulf. To say that Grendel is a monster by these standards is a stretch at best, but our classification of him as such indicates that there’s more to fear and monstrosity than what has been articulated so far. Frankly, it seems as though the essay was written exclusively for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and was later decided to apply broadly as well. To a certain extent they might apply to all of the creatures, but as stated before, how much exertion should one put into forcing them into a mold? Cohen maintains that monsters are beyond categorization and label; if this is the case, why attempt to do just that?
Jeffrey Cohen, Asa Simon Mittman, and Marcus Hensel. Classic Readings on Monster Theory : Demonstrare, Volume One. Arc Humanities Press, 2018.