An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


The way Henry Gee tells it (the exact dates are endlessly debated by paleoanthropologists and evolutionary theorists), we became hominid about five million years ago and ’human’ in the sense of Homo erectus about three million years later. Homo sapiens in the modern sense, however, only developed about 30—40,000 years ago. Why it was that our genetic cousins, the Neanderthals, died out just a few thousand years after the arrival of Homo sapiens, is one of evolution’s enigmas. ’Wherever humans advanced,’ Gee explains, ’Neanderthals retreated.’ In what he calls ’a sudden spasm’,

humanity (the winners) acquired all the external trappings we think of as defining our own tribe. The Neanderthals, in contrast, just pottered around, doing the same kind of timeless nothing-in-particular they’d done for 300,000 years, for all the world like an extended episode of Winnie-the-Pooh (only with real Heffalumps). (Gee 1996, 38)

Just think of it, that could be us: a world of endless honey-pots and Pooh-sticks, with only Heffalumps and Eeyore’s chronic depression to worry about, and with just Tigger, Piglet, the god-like Christopher Robin and a few others for company.

Since humans won out, however, things have tended to be a little more complicated, humans being what they are. But what are human beings? What is it like to be human? We do not ask this just because we belong to that subspecies known as academics. Instead it is an inevitable question for anyone who calls herself a human being. In this chapter, we want to look at what it means to be human, but also at what it means to be a mutant or a monster, and to discuss ways in which literature is bound up with these questions. Literature has had a crucial role in configuring the nature and limits of the human. Beginning with Beowulf (c. 1000), English literature is a history of monsters. We could think, for example, about the extent to which the literary canon is strewn with dehumanized or otherwise mutated people. Samuel Beckett writes plays that feature disembodied voices, people that spend their time crawling in mud, that live in dustbins or that are just mouths. Wallace Stevens is interested in what he calls the ’inhuman person’ (in ’Gigantomachia’), and W.B. Yeats yearns to be a mechanical bird of hammered gold in ’Sailing to Byzantium’ (1927). In Women in Love (1921), D.H. Lawrence talks repeatedly about his characters ’lapsing out’ (for example Lawrence 2007, 44, 178) and all four of the main characters voice a ’grudge against the human being’: for Ursula in particular, ’that which the word “human” stood for was despicable and repugnant’ (244). Thomas Hardy is impelled to set the human dramas of The Return of the Native (1878) against the inhuman geological timescale of Egdon Heath, and the passions and betrayals of The Woodlanders (1887) against grotesquely anthropomorphized woodlands. Wordsworth risks scorn by recording the apparently dehumanized, crazed babblings of an idiot boy (in ’The Idiot Boy’ (1798)), and becomes strangely fixated by the figure of the leech gatherer, a figure like a ’huge Stone’ or a ’Sea-beast’, in ’Resolution and Independence’ (written 1802). The seventeenth-century poet George Herbert wants to be a tree (’I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree’: ’Affliction I’ (1633)). Shakespeare mixes up humans with fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1596), spirits and the misshapen monster Caliban in The Tempest (1611), and presents us with ’inhuman’ characters in plays such as Richard III (1592—3), The Merchant of Venice (1598) and Othello (1604). Western literature as a whole can seem to bulk up like a vast mutation out of the animal, vegetable, astral, bestial, petrific, spirit and parahuman transformations that are recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1 BC) and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (second century AD).

To study literature is necessarily to engage with the mutant. ’Mutant’, from the Latin for ’change’, is essentially bound up with inessentiality, with mutability, and with otherness. Contemporary literature in particular is especially concerned with variations on the mutant. But what is it about biotechnology and nanotechnology, about eugenics and genetic engineering, the cyborg and the robot, about monsters and mutants and their interactions with people that is at once so compelling and so terrifying? ’We are all chimeras,’ Donna Haraway portentously declares in her influential feminist ’Cyborg Manifesto’ (1985). Twentieth-century humans, she asserts, are ’theorised and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short we are cyborgs’ (Haraway 2000, 70). What is this fascination with the human as (also) other, this yearning to be other, to be unthinking or animal, hybrid or cyborg, mechanical or mutant, virtual, immutable, stony, inhuman, or dead?

In this chapter we would like to explore the workings of such compulsions and terrors in the context of literature and other so-called ’humanities’ subjects, and the fascination that the limits of the human seem to hold for humans. Literature is, above all, about the human, about what it means to be human, and therefore about the non-human, about what it might mean not to be human. Literature allows us to think the limits of the human, even to unthink our often unthinking attachment to notions of the human and humanity. Finally, literature itself may be conceived as a monstrous or mutant discourse, a humanism that is also inhuman, alien. In each of the texts mentioned above, there seems to be an engagement with the human that is expressed in terms of a fascination with the inhuman, or with a human becoming non-human, ahuman, abhuman or parahuman. As our reference to biotechnology, nanotechnology, genetics and so on suggests, there is a notably topical dimension to these questions. This is perhaps most clearly evident in cinema, with its devotion to mutant, computerized, cyborg or alien beings such as the Terminator, ET, Blade Runner or Robocop, those appearing in Metropolis, Star Trek, Star Wars, Close Encounters, Alien, Men in Black, The Matrix, Under the Skin, and Ex Machina, as well as those that have morphed into familiar figures from countless Frankenstein remakes, vampire and horror flicks, and gothic comic books or ’graphic novels’. In all of these movies, Hollywood plays out a cultural desire for and fear of the parahuman and non-human, of the ’invasion of the body snatchers’, the invasion of the boundaries of the human: each of the films mentioned presents a battle between the human and the non- or para- or quasi- or post-human. And in each case, human will and imagination, feeling and compassion, is what survives. All of these films attempt, in the end, to confirm the idea that we are each of us unique, sentient and compassionate — that we are ’human’. Despite the state-of-the-art special effects, the hyper-modern and futuristic scenarios, the avant-garde narratives and the balletic digitized violence, films like the Matrix series or Ex Machina are deeply traditional, deeply concerned with traditional ’human values’, with humanity.

But the concern with how humans are made, and with what makes them human rather than mutant or monstrous, is also a preoccupation of contemporary literature. Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex (2002) is a potent and witty example. As if impelled by an attempt to wipe from memory the more sinister reverberations of his eugenic name, Eugenides has produced perhaps the first novel based around Richard Dawkins’s theory of the ’selfish gene’ (the idea that it is genes that survive, not individuals, or as Eugenides puts it, ’what humans forget, cells remember’ (Eugenides 2002, 99)). Middlesex tells the story of a genetic mutation — in this case a shared recessive gene, a mutated gene of the fifth chromosome, in the narrator’s incestuously married grandparents — which finally results in Calliope’s (or Cal’s) birth as a hermaphrodite. And the novel is about the genetic, familial, social and political events that lead up to that monstrous birth and the personal and familial consequences that grow out of it. While Eugenides’s novel is impressively informed about the biology of genetic mutation, it is also concerned with the social monstering of the mutant, with the different ways in which people respond to those who are different (with rage, desire, disgust, sympathy, rejection, violence, fascination, surgery).

The fascination with the human and the limits of the human in literature is a strange outgrowth of what is called humanism. Humanism involves the belief that human beings have ’unique capacities and abilities, to be cultivated and celebrated for their own sake’ (Audi 1999, 397). It entails a resistance to superstitious or religious conceptions of the human on the one hand, and to the reduction of the human to animality or the organic on the other. ’Man is an invention of recent date’, Michel Foucault famously opines in The Order of Discourse; but concomitantly it is a ’mutation’, he says, that may be ’nearing its end’ (Foucault 1970, 386—7). The development of modern humanism, of the idea of ’man’ as the ultimate value and as autonomous, individual, self-willing and self-moving, is argued (by Foucault and others) to have occurred between about the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries. As we have seen (in Chapter 30, above), critics such as Robert Young suggest that the formation of notions of the human and human nature, of ’humanity and the universal qualities of the human mind as the common good of an ethical civilization’, coincided with the development of Western colonialism (Young 1990, 121). And it is not by chance that the invention of the human takes place at a time when European imperial expansion makes it necessary to distinguish fundamentally between European colonizers and colonized natives (who can then be appropriated, enslaved, exploited, slaughtered). Indeed, inventions of the human, definitions of ’man’ or ’mankind’, always seem to be bound up with the exploitation of their others (whether these others are defined in animal, gender, ethnic or racial, class or religious terms). Humanism, the logic of humanity, in other words, is also a dehumanizing discourse. The humanist dimensions of literature are fully manifested only at the end of the eighteenth century when the literary work comes to be associated with an autonomous individual, the ’author’, who produces (or ’creates’) an ’original’ body of ’imaginative’ or (as it is now often termed) ’creative’ writing. ’Literature was specialized towards imaginative writing’, Raymond Williams remarks, ’within the basic assumptions of Romanticism’, just as the modern sense of ’individual’, so central to the new humanism and to the new conception of literature, is linked to the Enlightenment phase of scientific, political and economic thought that finds its full expression in the eighteenth century (Williams 1983, 186, 164). Literary criticism, especially as it has been formulated since the nineteenth century, has tended to be humanist in orientation: F.R. Leavis, for example, proclaims that ’there is a “human culture” to be aimed at that must be achieved by cultivating a certain autonomy of the human spirit’ (quoted in Day 1996, 111). And recent literary theory (including Marxism, psychoanalysis, ecocriticism, structuralism, poststructuralism and deconstruction) has often challenged the anthropocentrism of such criticism precisely with respect to its allegiance to the tenets of humanism.

Literature, like philosophy and religion, is obsessed with what it means to be human — whether it is in the form of Philip Roth’s sense of the human as morally stained in The Human Stain (2000), or in the form of George Eliot’s marvellously intricate meditations on human character and spirit in such novels as The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Daniel Deronda (1876), or in the form of Jonathan Swift’s misanthropic vision of people as bestial, ignorant, irrational Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels (1726). But the question of the human is provoked in literary texts above all by means of what is not human, and in post-Romantic literature in particular by the presentation of monsters and mutants. By presenting beings that are specifically and spectacularly not human, that are precisely configured as deviations from the human, literary texts allow us to find ourselves, in Wallace Stevens’s words, ’more truly and more strange’ (’Tea at the Palaz of Hoon’ (1921)).

Perhaps the most compelling and most influential of literary monsters is Mary Shelley’s creature in her first novel, Frankenstein (1818). But Frankenstein is also the subject of one of the commonest misapprehensions in English literature, namely that Frankenstein is the name of a monster. This is almost as common as the error of thinking that Wordsworth’s poetry is mainly about daffodils, that James Joyce’s Ulysses is unreadable, or that John Fowles’s The Magus is a great novel. In fact, however, there are very few daffodils in Wordsworth, Ulysses is a wonderful if challenging novel (and a piece of cake compared to Finnegans Wake), The Magus is verbose, dull, self-regarding and (too often) overrated — and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is as human as the rest of us. Victor Frankenstein is a young Genovese man of ’distinguished’ birth who leaves his family to study at the University of Ingolstadt in Upper Bavaria and there becomes fascinated by the possibility of creating a living being. The monster that Victor Frankenstein creates in fact has no name: this itself is doubtless one reason for the confusion and for the popular idea that Frankenstein is the name of a monster. Naming the monster of Mary Shelley’s novel ’Frankenstein’, then, is an egregious if understandable mistake.

But it is worth contemplating the error, it is worth thinking about how and why it has been such an important dimension of the novel’s reception over the years since its first publication in 1818, why the inventor’s name has mutated, morphed, into that of his creature. The error might be seen as valuable and instructive for at least two reasons. In the first place, the idea that ’Frankenstein’ is the name of a monster marks an important division between the popular idea of Mary Shelley’s novel and the novel itself — the popular idea as disseminated by theatre and film versions, by the appearance of the monster in comic books and cartoons, in advertising and TV comedy sketches, in rock music and on the internet, rather than any actual reading of Shelley’s book. In this popular conception of Shelley’s novel, in this common misreading or non-reading of her text, the name ’Frankenstein’ often works as shorthand for ’Frankenstein’s Monster’ or ’Frankenstein’s Creature’. In a sense there are two Frankensteins — two ’texts’ called Frankenstein — one being the novel written by Mary Shelley, the other being something like an infection, a virus or outgrowth, a mutant transformation of the novel and its dispersal into popular culture, into popular mythology. The fact that there is a veritable glut of entries (2,666 items are listed) in D.F. Glut’s The Frankenstein Catalogue (Being a Comprehensive History of Novels, Translations, Adaptations, Stories, Critical Works, Popular Articles, Series, Fumetti, Verse, Stage Plays, Films, Cartoons, Puppetry, Radio and Television Programs, Comics, Satire and Humor, Spoken and Musical Recordings, Tapes and Sheet Music featuring Frankenstein’s Monster and/or Descended from Mary Shelley’s Novel) (1984) gives an indication of the monstrosity of the novel, its uncontrolled, uncontrollable outgrowth. This leads us to our second point, which is that the misnaming of Shelley’s monster nevertheless expresses a truth. It would be true to say that ’Frankenstein is a monster’. Frankenstein — the novel — is a kind of mutant or monster, is, in a sense, monstrous. Victor refers to his own tale as ’my hideous narration’, and it is a tale that Walton, who hears it, describes as one to ’congeal’ or ’curdle’ the blood (Shelley 1994, 222, 233). One contemporary reviewer even referred to the novel itself as a ’monstrous literary abortion’ (quoted in Botting 1995, 5).

The way that the novel is constructed seems in fact to bear an uncanny resemblance to the way that a monster is formed. Both Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein are wisely rather unforthcoming about the mechanics of creating a monster (you can find out how to construct a nuclear bomb by surfing the internet, but you can’t find out how to build Frankenstein’s monster). All we can gather is that the technique involves the collection of assorted body parts from dead people and their reconstruction and revivification through a (vaguely defined) process of surgery, galvanism and electrification. Victor Frankenstein, we are told, ’pursue[s] nature to her hiding places … among the unhallowed damps of the grave’; he ’collect[s] bones from charnel houses’ and ’disturb[s], with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame’. His laboratory, his ’workshop of filthy creation’ is ’a solitary chamber, or rather cell’ where he collects materials furnished from the ’dissecting room and the slaughter house’ (Shelley 1994, 83). In principle, though less gruesomely, Frankenstein is constructed in the same way. In her 1831 Introduction to the novel, Mary Shelley declares that ’everything has a beginning’ but that that beginning must necessarily be ’linked to something that went before’. Referring to the Hindu belief that the world is supported by an elephant but that the elephant in turn is supported by a tortoise, Shelley argues that literary ’invention’ ’does not consist in creating out of a void, but out of chaos’. Literary creation, in other words, like the creation of a monster or indeed like the theological act of creation, ’can give form to dark, shapeless substances but cannot bring into being the substance itself’. Shelley’s comments alert us to the fact that making a literary text is akin to other forms of making, including most pertinently, the making of monsters. In this respect, too, her novel is a kind of monster, mutated or created out of her reading. Shelley draws on contemporary scientific and medical works by Erasmus Darwin, Humphry Davy and others. She alludes to and quotes contemporary poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Goethe, and her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as Milton and other canonical writers. She engages with works of social, political and moral philosophy by her father William Godwin and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, and with classical works of historiography by Plutarch and Volney. And before all of these there is the grounding intertext of that great mutant book of creation, the Bible. In other words, just as Frankenstein’s creature is constructed out of pieces hewn from dead bodies, the novel is largely constructed — thematically, verbally, conceptually, intellectually — from the huge corpus of Shelley’s reading, from the writings of the living and the dead. And the novel comes across, sometimes rather awkwardly, monstrously, like something created out of different genres (the Gothic novel or novels of sensibility, moral or theological disquisitions, novels of ideas), just as it brings together the rational investigation of Enlightenment science with the other of that rationality, the discourse of the superstitious, the monstrous, the Gothic, the uncanny. The Russian critic M.M. Bakhtin’s word for this is ’heteroglossia’, the distribution within a text of different discourses or genres or ’voices’, while Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes and others call it ’intertextuality’; our words for it are ’monstrism’ and ’mutant’.

This genesis and reception of Shelley’s novel, then, offers a dramatic instance of a more general law of literature. Literature, we might say, is a monstrous or mutant form, a mutant discourse. Literary texts don’t appear out of nowhere. As we suggest elsewhere in this book, recent literary criticism and theory has been much concerned with intertextuality, with ways in which a poem or novel is constructed out of other cultural and literary discourses, the ways in which texts, ideas and words mutate, ceaselessly evolving and transforming the possibilities of literary forms. This is why literary studies, this unruly, improper discipline, is in fact truly, properly ’interdisciplinary’. The study of literature involves, from the start, a mixing and contamination of disciplines and genres. Literary criticism and theory are themselves mutant, and any significantly ’new’ or ’original’ critical or theoretical work produces a mutation in the discipline. Frankenstein can perhaps also help us to grasp how literary texts are mutated in their reception. Perhaps more virulently than any other nineteenth-century text, the germ of Frankenstein has been passed on in endless mutations. Mutation, in this respect, is central to the process that we call canonization: for canonization to occur, a text must be inherited, transformed, responded to, deformed, developed, and imitated — in future texts, in the literary and other traditions to which it gives birth, in being read. Neither Mary Shelley nor Victor Frankenstein is in control of the monsters s/he creates. And this is what is monstrous about the monster in general. It is precisely this fear that we will not be able to control what we create — a fear that Christians project onto God’s relationship with his unruly angel, Satan — that defines the contemporary concern with GM products (so-called ’Frankenstein Foods’). And it is a fear expressed in debates surrounding our current crisis of humanity, the development of ’gene therapy’ and the suspicion that these technologies will result in the production of genetically modified people (as if we weren’t all genetically modified anyway).

Criticism and theory have recently been much taken with mutants and monsters: ’English Studies’ sometimes seem to read like an emerging tetralogy, a study or discourse of monsters. But what is a monster? The OED — that monster of a book — is, of course, essential reading for students of the monster. The English word ’monster’ mutated from the Latin ’monere’, to warn, a word related to ’monare’, ’to show’: the monster is something shown, in other words, as a warning. But the complex of senses in which ’monster’ has been used in English, the way in which the word has mutated out of this original sense of warning, is also instructive: the monster is something ’extraordinary, or unnatural; a prodigy, a marvel’; it is ’an animal or plant deviating in one or more of its parts from the normal type … a misshapen birth, an abortion’; it is ’an imaginary animal … having a form either partly brute and partly human, or compounded of elements from two or more animals’; it is ’a person of inhuman and horrible cruelty or wickedness’; and it is ’an animal of huge size’ and by association ’anything of vast and unwieldy proportions’. For Charles Darwin, a ’monstrosity’ is ’some considerable deviation of structure, generally injurious to or not useful to the species’ (Darwin 1866, 46). All of these senses are useful for a theory of the monster, but what they make clear, finally, is the fact that the monster is not so much unnatural as something that comes out of nature, something that goes through and beyond nature. The monster is both natural and unnatural, a grotesque development of, an outgrowth from or in nature. And it is for this reason that the monster must be abhorred, rejected, abjected, excluded. But let’s be clear about this: the monster is excluded, abjected, not because it is entirely other but because it is at least in part identical with that by which it is excluded — with, in this case, the human. As Diana Fuss comments in this context, ’sameness, not difference, provokes our greatest anxiety’ (Fuss 1996: 3). The monster is both of nature and beyond it: as the OED informs us in one citation, ’the vegetable kingdom abounds with monsters’. The monster is, indeed, the most natural thing in the world, and fundamentally allied with birth. Babies are monsters: David Lynch’s wonderfully dark Eraserhead (1976) knows this, knows what we fear inside (literally) ourselves and in others; the pregnant Desdemona in Middlesex knows it too as she ’prepares to meet the creature hidden in her womb’ (Eugenides 2002, 123); and ’monstrous birth’ is also of course the subject of the play from which the name Desdemona has itself sprouted (see Othello 1.3.396).

In the same way, the mutant, the potentially monstrous genetic deformation, is primordially a function of birth. In biology, in the theory of evolution, and in genetics, mutation is a necessary part of the evolution of the species. The word ’mutant’ suggests a deformation, transformation, alteration: ’I am fully convinced that species are not immutable,’ Darwin declares at the beginning of On the Origin of Species (Darwin 1866, 6). Without mutation, change, metamorphosis, morphing, no species could develop. Evolution is, therefore, mutation, and we are all mutations from our parents, as they were mutations from theirs (children typically have about 100 genetic differences from their parents, 100 mutations (Ridley 1994, 44)). The mutant is ’nature’, is what we all are: you’re a mutant, we tell you; and your mother was a mutant before you.

Dictionaries are dangerous books. For the 14-year-old Calliope in Middlesex it is the dictionary that finally allows her to begin to understand what she is, to begin to confront everything that she fears about herself and everything that she desires to know. She has heard the gender alignment consultant at the clinic use the word ’hypospadias’ in relation to her condition as he probes and photographs her, so she checks out the word in Webster’s Dictionary. Presenting its definition, the dictionary directs Calliope to look up ’eunuch’. The entry for that word in turn directs her to ’hermaphrodite’. A hermaphrodite has the ’sex organs and many of the secondary characteristics of both male and female’, Calliope reads, and the word includes ’anything comprised of a combination of diverse or contradictory elements’. Then the dictionary directs her to ’see synonyms at MONSTER’. ’The synonym was official, authoritative’, Calliope thinks:

it was the verdict that the culture gave on a person like her. Monster. That was what she was. That was what Dr. Luce and his colleagues had been saying. It explained so much, really. It explained her mother crying in the next room. It explained the false cheer in Milton’s voice. It explained why her parents had brought her to New York, so that the doctors could work in secret. It explained the photographs, too. What did people do when they came upon Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster? They tried to get a picture. For a second Callie saw herself that way. As a lumbering, shaggy creature pausing at the edge of the woods. As a humped convolvulus rearing its dragon’s head from an icy lake. (Eugenides 2002, 431—2)

Further reading

For collections of essays on the question of the human see Fuss, ed., Human, All Too Human (1996), Brewster et al., eds, Inhuman Reflections (2000), Neil Badmington, ed., Posthumanism (2000), and Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra, eds, The Prosthetic Impulse (2006). Tony Davies’s Humanism (1997) is a good short introduction to the historical development of ideas of humanism, while John Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002) is a provocative critique of the fondly held idea of the human and of humanism in Western culture. On monsters, see Clark and Royle, eds, Monstrism (2002), and there is a good short chapter on the monster and the Gothic in Punter and Byron, The Gothic (2003); see also Wes Williams, Monsters and their Meanings in Early Modern Culture (2011). For books on the monster in twentieth-century and contemporary literature, see Donald C. Childs, Modernism and Eugenics (2007), Marius Turda, Modernism and Eugenics (2010), Neil Badmington, Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within (2004), and Claire Colebrook, Death of the PostHuman (2015). On monsters and aliens in popular culture, see Elaine Graham’s Representations of the Post/Human (2002); on monsters in Shakespeare and the Renaissance, see Mark Thornton Burnett, Constructing ’Monsters’ in Shakespearean Drama and Early Modern Culture (2002). On the abhuman, see Kelly Hurley’s The Gothic Body (1996). Tzvetan Todorov’s On Human Diversity (1993) examines the question of definitions of the human from the Enlightenment onwards, calling for a new and newly enlightened humanism.