by Daniel Cecil
In Defense of Monsters
by BJ Hollars
Origami Zoo Press
52 pages / $8 Buy from Origami Zoo Press
Most people have little room for magic or legend in their lives. Folks spend most of their formative years cultivating a certain amount of cynicism towards legend and work incessantly towards creating a sense of control over themselves and the world at large. To be human is to conquer – whether physically or mentally.
We keep doing our work, spend inordinate amounts of time “surfing” the web (surfing itself invoking an image of an uncontrollable wave, that of information, tamed by man) and we watch television where we have 24-hour news coverage and programs that reflect our tastes. (Although it can be argued the practice of watching television is, in its own way, an acceptance of a mythology in itself. The very idea of personal choice in the current media system is false. A greatinfographic from designers Frugal Dad suggests, at the very least, we should reconsider what we’re watching as personal choice.)
We have morphed into cynical, secular creatures, and created a Western reality built on entertainment that recreates old legends and story lines but without the danger of immediacy (or, some might argue, a moral base that unifies us. We rarely look towards scripture, myth or legend as a moral barometer, nor use these stories as allegorical lessons which we may benefit from) that the legends of old seemed to conjure. Or maybe, I’m cynical.
But even with this so-called control we believe we possess, we still have a surprisingly large amount of gullibility built into our being.
Let’s turn our focus to some modern hood-winkery – the alleged boy in the balloon of 2009 – as an example.
You might remember the story:
Father sends up balloon.
Father cannot find son.
Father calls media attention to the fact his son is in the balloon.
New cameras and federal agents follow balloon.
Balloon is empty when it lands.
Someone saw an object drop from the balloon.
Boy is found in home attic.
Father is sent to jail for 90 days and ordered to pay $36,000.
This modern tale of Icarus (a boy flying too close to the sun) made the world privy to a suffering we could conjure. This story, so heart-rending, compelled us to imagine a world outside our own. Each of us became a father who lost his son to a balloon flying in the heavens.
It is a study in human behavior, a textbook case, that when the incident was found out to be nothing more than hot air (excuse the pun) the father was nominated monster of the year. Not because of the way he fooled police, interviewers, and federal agents, but because he fooled us. And like a monster, we forgot him and the story that brought us all together as if we were somehow abused and had to hide the memory away. We returned to our individual bubbles a little more wary and said to ourselves that next time, in no way, would we be so gullible.
Our need to prove that we’re in control is at odds with how easily we can be led astray. In a way, we want to believe. But, with hubris, we attempt to create a world that will bend to our will. Yet we ignore the faults that indicate we’re not 100 percent in control. So skepticism and hubris remain in a constant balancing act. How do we give equal weight to each? More importantly, have we given up something by attempting to expel wonder from our existence?
In response to these questions, BJ Hollars – in his new book of essays In Defense of Monsters – argues that on the one hand, re-imagining legend (using the Sasquatch, a gigantic turtle living in a pond, and the monster of Loch Ness as an example) may help us utilize cynicism effectively. But with the scales balanced he warns that on the other hand, giving into imaginary creatures may, ultimately, lead us to distraction.
Hollars is quick to insist that in reality the Sasquatch existed in the form of the Gigantopithecus, a large land ape that came over on the Bering Land Bridge some 300,000 years ago.
The bones of this ancient Sasquatch were ground for centuries into a potentially life extending powder. The destruction of such precious evidence of the past, and our inability to confirm the existence of Sasquatch in our current time, may have led to our current inability to realize the legitimacy of the Sasquatch as a true being. Hollars wonders whether “we can validate anything while being hell-bent on invalidation.”
To further emphasis this point of validation, Hollars points to the 18,225 new species of animals discovered in 2008 alone, a quarter of which were mammals. Although none of the mammals were as large as a Sasquatch, similar sized – if not larger animals – were discovered in the past. Do these discoveries allow us the possibility that we may have given up too early on Big Foot?
The effect here is a blow of sorts; Hollars is asking you, before anything else, to consider the existence of the monster and put your cynicism on the back burner, if only till the end of the book.
Hollars suggests that the problem may lie in our hubris: to accept the legend of the Sasquatch is to give in to the idea that we’re wrong. This admittance would require a giving up of control. The fact that the Sasquatch bridges the gap between the human and the lowly ape may be another reason for our hesitation to admit its existence. The Sasquatch, unlike other monsters, is anthropomorphic, and is therefore all the more frightening.
The legend of the “Shelled Sasquatch,” a large turtle found in a pond in rural Indiana, serves as another reminder that monsters may lurk directly below the surface of modern reality. The turtle offered travelers and tourists the chance of discovery, of hope, and a reopening of the imagination. In this way, the monster became interchangeable with God by giving us a glimpse of the unknown, where nature and the mysteries of the universe intermingle.
The “Shelled Sasquatch” is also a tale of warning; Although Hollars suggests that we should, on occasion, give in to the allure of the monster as a mind expansion exercise, he also warns of the danger we face when giving faith the monster’s legend. He points to the destruction of the pond and the surrounding land from the footfall of monster tourists hoping for a glimpse of the monster, as a reminder that in the mad hunt for the unknown, for the answers to a false reality, a perfectly good reality was ruined.
Hollars suggests that the search for monsters take us away from another task of great importance: that of serving our fellow man.
In his essay on the Loch Ness Monster, Hollars is incredulous of the laws made to protect a monster that has shown little desire to be discovered. Harming Nessie, in any way, was made illegal by the Scotland Secretary of State, Sir Godfrey Collins in 1938. This, Hollars writes, was at the same time millions of Jews were being shipped by train to their deaths, much to the blind/turned eye of a European populous.
Earlier in the book, Hollars states that the Sasquatch may be the fittest of all of Darwin’s creatures because the Sasquatch has the good notion to stay hidden away from us and the unfriendly world we choose to live in. Maybe it isn’t that we choose to exist in a cynical reality. Maybe the focus of our cynicism is misplaced.
Although this book may be at first glance about defending the existence of monsters, BJ Hollars makes an even grander argument for humankind’s penchant for shortsightedness and our ability to give into one idea without broad reflection. To give up the idea of the monster is to also give up ourselves: because without monsters we lack the imagination for a bigger world. To accept the monster, however, we give into a world which negates reality.
Hollars’s essays never beg us to give in to the monster’s existence, nor do they suggest we should count out the existence of monsters altogether. The world will always exist in duality. Instead, Hollars asks us to look at both sides of the issue. The book, instead, simply asks us to be humble.