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Deviants, Donestre, and Debauchees: Here be Monsters

Deviants, Donestre, and Debauchees: Here be Monsters

By Tom Tyler

Culture, Theory and Critique, Vol.49:2 (2008)

The earliest surviving illustration of a donestre consuming an unwary traveller. British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A.XV, fol. 103v (detail), late 10th or early 11th century
The earliest surviving illustration of a donestre consuming an unwary traveller. British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A.XV, fol. 103v (detail), late 10th or early 11th century

Abstract: St Augustine suggested that monsters (monstra) serve to show or to signify (monstrare) something, whilst Foucault argued that one ancestor of today’s abnormal individual was the human monster, a class of being characterised by a composite nature. This essay examines what two very different mixed human monsters can show us. The donestre, a mediaeval race of lion-headed polyglots with a taste for human flesh, demonstrate an ancient form of monstrous transgression by their corporeal violation of both social and natural law. The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, meanwhile, illustrates a modern form of monstrosity in which a person’s instinctual character, their potential conduct or behaviour, marks them out as deviant. The study of monsters helps to debauch our minds with learning and thus, in the words of William James, to make the natural, explanatory power of ‘instinct’ seem strange.

Introduction: Augustine suggests that monsters (monstra) serve to show or to signify something, that they fulfil a demonstrative function (aliquid demonstrant). Drawing on Foucault’s instructive account of monsters from mediaeval to modern times I would like to ascertain what the changing nature of monstrosity can show us today. I will examine two monsters in particular: amongst the many colourful and corporeally extravagant creatures of the Middle Ages I will consider the little known donestre, a deceitful half-human race of fearsome appearance and gruesome dietary inclination.

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By way of contrast I will discuss that archetypal modern figure of monstrous fiction, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I would like to argue that what Foucault himself helps to demonstrate is that, pace James, it is in fact a worthy and valuable undertaking to debauch our minds with learning, precisely in order to make the natural seem strange. A study of the changing forms of history’s monsters allows us to interrogate the seemingly natural norms from which they deviate. The ‘universal reign of the normative’ (Foucault 1991: 304), with which Foucault so often dealt in his later work, depends in part on the questionable explanatory role that these norms are made to play. There is, however, an indispensable difference, highlighted and exemplified by Foucault’s archaeology of the monster, between demonstration and explanation.

Click here to read this article from Tom Tyler’s website

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