It is a cliché to enjoy Goya’s paintings & etchings of suffering, also those of witchcraft, but there are two instances from this period of his, the late 1700s, that I carry with me:
Shin Godzilla is in my opinion a top-tier Godzilla film. It’s a genre of film known as kaiju (‘strange beast’). I roll about with these words: strange beast/monstrous lamp & also ‘mystic breath’ (from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Stanzas Addressed to Miss Landon, Suggested by Her “Stanzas on the Death of Mrs. Hemans”’). Shin Godzilla examines the monster on a different scale: it is a movie about bureaucracy and monsters. The role of state power. The sinister meeting rooms of an office. In this film the monster is almost cute (this is its second form, its first land form, nicknamed ‘kamata-kun’ after the neighbourhood it appeared in). Its eyes are large and frantic, its body evolves and adapts as needs arise. It is an ugly–cute creature that invokes in me a desire described by Sianne Ngai as ‘not just to lovingly molest but also to aggressively protect them.’1 As the monster evolves into a more terrifying and powerful creature, my aggressive response to its early form stays intact.1
Sianne Ngai, ‘Zany, Cute, Interesting’, AAWW, aaww.org/our-aesthetic-categories-zany-cute-interesting/
It is impossible to write in the world in some ways, or at least, I cannot write in this world so I’m finding more comfort in the supernatural and also in history & the lives of artists and writers. The climate crisis manifests in a waterlogged New York in the year 2140, and so Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 feels out this world through multiple tendrils & recalls the financial crisis & New York’s large scale of everything, including crisis and chaos.
There is comfort in this crisis: it’s one of ecology and finance that is a natural extension of this world. A crisis of late capital: the one this system cycles through periodically, which is central to capital’s mode of accumulation and circuits. Destroy, regroup, rebuild. What does immanent resistance look like within the tropes of a generative genre? Post capitalist utopias, communist utopias, that are cognisant of climate, ecology, class: these are comforting by nature of being the very things we are currently concerned with. A monster like Godzilla, or the velociraptors on Isla Nublar, whose appearance is a result of human intervention, a violent, hubristic expression of Marx’s metabolic rift, is not comforting in the same way, but evokes a response in me that goes something like this: ‘we had it coming.’
Giovanni Botero Benese’s Le Relationi Universali (1618) gave us woodcuts of imagined monsters of the Great South Land (which these Europeans had not yet approached). They are grotesque hybrid forms, figures in stately positions but an extra head, or a face on a torso, or a figure whose breasts are stretched and draped over angled arms. They are riveting in the way of all medieval woodcuts. In my inbox The London Review of Books just sent from the archives Amia Srinivasan’s review of some octopus books, which also recalls the kraken and the akkorokamui,2 and all the rest of those mythological sea creatures. (But also the octopus is not mythological, it just feels like it should be. Srinivasan: ‘Like humans, they have centralised nervous systems, but in their case there is no clear distinction between brain and body.’) Monsters pulse under my skin. I am on the hunt for them. I stepped over a decomposing mouse on the street and reimagined it as a tiny monster (that is, I imagined what it is like to be afraid of mice).2
Amia Srinivasan, ‘The sucker, the sucker’, London Review of Books, 2017.
How do we go on in this world? It’s a question with new meaning each day. How do I expand into thoughts, allow myself more time in this space: to think about the pleasures of solitude, to retreat into Goya’s demons and witches, and these monster films & waterlogged cities. What is the purpose or form of beholding? For example: the adult human stands and beholds the monster as the camera pans and beholds with it in Godzilla (2014).
We are not equipped to effectively behold the monster & I am not committed to this project. It is supernatural for a poet or thinker who might engage in this. I am not a supernatural poet. I am no scientist or naturalist, nor have I ever even lived in the vicinity of animals apart from certain house pets and so my desire to become more involved with any sort of creature feels larger and looms unfulfilled in a blocked channel.
Ghidora, the three-headed arch enemy of Godzilla, first appeared in a movie in which the title was the monster’s name in the year 1964. When my nephews shared with me their favourite film (How to Train Your Dragon), a film I too hold in high regard, I found myself excited that the film’s message might have reached them: about the agency of animals, and while not quite an ‘ethical consumption’ message or even a full animal rights story, it took up the question of how a society built on the exploitation of these creatures (dragons!) might be reorganised, if it is possible & what that means for human and social life. My nephews are these days more invested in Dragon Ball Z, whose lessons are fainter in my memory.
A tiny monster I have enjoyed for some time is the snail, a creature about which Francis Ponge says: ‘they secrete form’. The monster of large sizes (Ghidora, Godzilla, &co.) secretes a form also. Think of another type of creature in the mollusc phylum, the cephalopod, which perhaps secretes even more emphatically its form than the little snail. These are gummy unsegmented creatures & possibly monsters to some (see also other invertebrates). I have a startlingly tender reaction to any image of these. No violent impulses here.
In Detective Pikachu the subjectivity & exploitation of the pocket monsters are manipulated through plot developments to perform a critique of an anthropocentric mode. A false sense of progress // a question mark over ‘partnership’. The inner thoughts of a creature verbalised for the first time, but the reality of this: that the small monsters are only ever for something. In every monster movie it makes immediate sense to side with the monster over the humans. Even when humans are positioned as ‘allies’, we should be suspicious.
My overwhelming love for animals makes it difficult to parse my own thoughts. I get excited easily. I respond too emotionally.
Marx tended to invoke monster imagery in Capital: ghouls, spectres … David McNally writes: ‘What is most striking about capitalist monstrosity … is its elusive everydayness, its apparently seamless integration into the banal and mundane rhythms of quotidian existence.’3 There is a constellation here: bourgeois economic relations, the grotesque, ‘persistent body-panics’, for McNally: ‘monsterology’.3
David McNally, Monsters of the Market, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2012, p. 2.
McNally returns to bodies: capitalism’s monsters, their effect on human bodies, the effect of capitalist systems (labour, reproduction?) which feed off the body (whether vampiric or werewolfish). Am I here, now, just realising what men in Europe have been realising for centuries? The phrase sticks out, from Bernard Mandeville on dissection: ‘who had Lectures read upon their Bodies’ who are ‘the Scum of the People’ i.e. medical dissection as ‘a means of disciplining and punishing proletarian bodies.’4 The monstrous acts: a punishment drenched in violent class management.4
McNally, p. 19.
In Robert Hughes’s book on Goya he refers to transmissions in Bourbon Spain (e.g. a lamb born dead, a river crossed and the story is the lamb was born with two heads, a wood crossed & it is now demonic, and priests charge the public for prayers of protection). The monsters in Goya’s Spain were everywhere (the church, the royalty, Napoleon’s army). I think about why it is Goya for me, and whether it is that he is one of the first artists whose works I immediately feel both as intense personal and physical response while also feeling connected those in history who too felt an intense response. Or if I am, as I worried earlier, a deeply clichéd consumer of art. But it is also that the response is at once a communal sense and individual, in the way that similarly sparks when I read about histories of uprisings & revolt.
Kyle Chandler (Dr Mark Russell but also Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights) and Vera Farmiga (Dr Emma Russell) play ex-spouses in Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). They come into a moment of conflict when it is revealed Dr Emma’s plan is to unleash the monsters to return balance to the earth that humans have destroyed (a line with shades of eco-fascism that reminds me of another monster in a recent film franchise who disappears half of the universe at random to address overpopulation and overconsumption). I put on the Godzilla film to watch while I did my extremely mundane knee rehab exercises (pistol squats, side plank leg raises, hollow holds) & turned it off halfway through when my boyfriend gently pointed out I had commandeered the living room for many hours. A hollow hold sounds like a gothic jiujitsu position (it’s actually a core strength exercise). Our Netflix subscription ended and I never saw the rest of the movie. I managed to take its main point: What if Monsters Are The Solution? Something about morality and Coach Taylor were the rest of the point, though my memory is fading now.
I have a kneejerk reflex (strong annoyance/mild rage) whenever I see someone point to overpopulation in climate crisis debate, because most of these critiques are usually racist i.e. they identify the problem mostly in non-western countries. There are countries whose national carbon footprints are horrific, but are presented in a way that obscures the circuits of global capitalism which allows wealthier nations to still profit and/or benefit from the large carbon footprints of developing nations (not to mention disproportionate plundering of environments and unsafe labour practices).
If we are priming the earth for a monstrous response that gazes into the heart of the animals central to this world (that is all of them, especially the dangerous ones), we have the literature on hand (Godzilla films, Jurassic Park, Detective Pikachu).
At times, for reasons I cannot explain, I find myself thinking of the guinea baboons that were transported from the Paris zoo to Kent, England, who had learned to recognise the sounds of human language, and so when they heard their keeper call them to lunch, they understood, but in Kent, the keepers were unable to make this stick. When they realised the baboons had learned the command—déjeuner—they had to switch to speaking French, not just to announce lunch but also for all their commands, and only to the guinea baboons, who were now able to continue settling in. ‘I expect we’ll just have to carry on speaking French to them forever’.55
David Ward, ‘Parlez-vous baboon? Zoo keepers bridge gap’, The Guardian, 2005.
I worry the intense emotions I experience when it comes to monsters, or milder yet terrifying regular animals, are at odds with my communist desires (the world sets us up to care about humans or animals at the expense of the other). This is not a helpful or even true distinction but the chasm is wide. And yet I only know this: there has been no coherent vision for a communist world. The monster cycle of rise and defeat reinforces our domination, despite the appearance of reset buttons. The monsters remain crucial to future imaginations. I remember Goya’s goat, and Toothless. The lessons of desire meeting fear: how these contain and repel a possible future.