Saturday, March 27, 2010

Monsters: A Softer Side

For the past five years, I have taught The Odyssey to my high school students. And each year I am intrigued by our textbook’s reprint of a painting depicting the Cyclops Polyphemus as a furry, long-necked creature with the soft, one-eyed gaze of a gentle pet. This Cyclops strikes me as vulnerable, not the sort of creature that would snatch up men to eat them alive and drool pieces of them afterward in drunken hiccups.

Yesterday as my students were reading the gruesome scene with Polyphemus, I read the caption of the painting, which explained that its French artist, Odilon Redon, had wanted to portray a sympathetic Cyclops. This concept isn’t a complete fabrication: one of the most striking elements of the scene with Polyphemus is the gentleness he displays toward his sheep even as he gorges himself on men.

When the young Dawn with fingertips of rose
lit up the world, the Cyclops built a fire
and milked his handsome ewes, all in due order,
putting the sucklings to the mothers. Then,
his chores being all dispatched, he caught
another brace of men to make his breakfast,
and whisked away his great door slab
to let his sheep go through…

Upon each reading, I find myself oddly moved by the gentle shepherding of Polyphemus. The juxtaposition of his care for his sheep with his brutality toward Odysseus’s men leaves me feeling ambivalent and examining my own nature. While I am certainly not a cannibal or even a murderer, I understand feeling occasional hostility toward my fellow humans while caring deeply for animals. Most animal-lovers can attest to the same.

Beyond this common disillusionment with people, however, I find that I am slower than some to label any strange creature a “monster.” What constitutes a monster? Something that kills and eats its food? That’s most of us, but only people make a sport of it. Something that looks unfamiliar, like the Texas Blue Dog? In report after report, I hear the Blue Dogs described as “ugly.” A man in Tennessee even stated, “It looks like something out of ‘you know where’.” Assuming he meant “hell”, I observed a picture of the dog he had killed and tried to see what he was seeing. It was probably the “fangs,” the dark skin, the eyes shut tight against any possible expression of emotion. Still, I can’t see anything sinister in photographs or videos of live ones.

Then there were the paintings and drawings in Nick Redfern’s study, most of them of the Owlman/Mothman. Many of these in particular looked like something out of ‘you know where’ as well, but I found myself staring with a slight, unexpected affinity at one. It certainly wasn’t because of its demonically glowing red eyes; maybe it was the furriness of its form. There is something about fur that softens people toward a creature – and something about the lack thereof that does the opposite, as many dead Blue Dogs could attest to.

So, while I still can’t quite define what constitutes a monster, what makes one person shoot a Blue Dog while another feeds it food scraps, or what makes a part of me like the vicious Polyphemus, I finally came to terms with my feelings for the Cyclops and purchased a reprint of the painting yesterday. He will soon be hanging in my study, which may be well on its way to bearing its own wall of “monsters”.