You Are Your Own Monster
by Stefanie Dunning in response to Eco-Monster and Somatic Takeovers symposium (September 16–19, 2021)
To get to the Rangiri Dambulla temple in Sri Lanka, you have to first fly to Colombo. Once there, you’ll hire a car to drive you three hours outside of the city. Cut into the rock of a mountain, the temple is a hybrid endeavor, a collaboration of the curves of the cave and the white peaked doorways and walls built by human hands. Inside are Buddha statues and wall paintings, some as old as 2000 years. 2000 years ago this place would not have been filled with all the people that are there when I visit in 1999. It would have been a quiet place where Buddhist monks spent their days tending to the 150 Buddha statues inside. On major holidays, like the Buddha’s birthday, a celebration would have been held. Dharma talks would be given. The monkeys have been here as long as the rock-side temple and probably longer. When we humans decided to build a secluded shrine to the Buddha, we entered monkey territory. The monks came with quietness and a commitment to do no harm. So monkeys and monks live together in peace under the unmoving gaze of Buddhas, frozen in plaster. Despite being a bustling tourist destination now, this place was once a world of sacred objects, of monks, and of monkeys.
We have a long history of thinking of monkeys, simian creatures of all kinds, as monsters. If we submit the specter of “the monster” to history, we quickly uncover that the word “monster” has always described in English that which is ugly, horrendous, abnormal; the monster “excites horror through cruelty or wickedness.” Thus, anything we cannot explain and which frightens us has traditionally become a monster. The monkey is a bridge from animal monstrosity to human monstrosity, as those people we see as monstrous — black people and once upon a time the Irish — get called monkeys. Thus the monkey is a illustrative link between real life and the fantasy-land of monsters, which depending on the person can be a land of wonder or a place of nightmares. These monkeys, these actual monkeys at Dambulla temple, which were macaques, were cute because they were small. Their diminutive size rescued them somewhat from becoming full blown monsters in the monster-making factory of my mind.
The trees around the temple are heavy with small monkeys. Macaque monkeys watch the humans milling through the doors of the rock temple; they watch the humans eat their delectable snacks; they watch the crows circling, competition for scraps. Some humans are buying peanuts being sold by a hawker, boiled and shelled peanuts in little pink plastic bags, and are attempting to feed the peanuts to adoring crowds of little monkeys. And by some humans, I mean me. I buy a little pink-bagged sachet of peanuts and gleefully begin to fight with the plastic so that I too can have an audience of beautiful monkeys with their little hands outstretched to me. But before I can open the bag, a very smart monkey reaches up and takes the whole bag out of my hand. I watch from a distance as it tears into the bag with no trouble at all and spills the yellowy contents on the ground in a spray. The monkey’s friends gather around the spilled peanuts in a frenzy, snatching up the snacks the way children do after the piñata has finally given way to being pummeled and its treasure falls to the ground.
This was not the way I’d envisioned this benevolent peanut bequeathing going. Undaunted, I buy another bag of peanuts. But I drop it into my little handbag and attempt to open it in from within the dark recesses of my satchel, so that I can remove one peanut at a time to give to another group of what I hope will be much better behaved macaques. But alas, the pink plastic, which was apparently manufactured on Krypton by Superman’s ancestors, would — once again — not yield. Looking around carefully to make sure no monkeys were nearby, I lifted the unbreakable, titanium weave, infrangible magic plastic bag out of my satchel ever so slightly so I could get a tooth on it and rip a small hole in it like a wild animal since clearly it was alien material that only responded to extreme violence. But as I scrunched my eyes and bared my teeth to have a nom at the inexplicably impenetrable bag, a macaque came whizzing down all diagonal, Matrix style and latched onto my hand. The macaque dug its sharp nails into my hands that heretofore had never participated in melee battles with actual monkeys; my poor hands, whose hardest labor was tapping away all coordinated-like on a keyboard, opened in instinctual shock and the bag of hyper-protected peanuts fell out of it and onto the ground. The monkey, faster than I could say, oh my god, grabbed the bag of peanuts and whizzed off to a tree, where it opened the bag with an ease that suggested it was from Krypton, where the bags were made.
Left in the wake of my second peanut defeat, was a neat little row of bleeding wounds on my hand. I stared at them with a sense of sticky premonition that these four tiny cuts were going affect the rest of my vacation. Upon returning to the city, I was advised to go see a doctor to make sure it didn’t get infected. So off I went to Asiri Hospital where a doctor told me to get a rabies shot. To be on the safe side, she said. Here’s what I knew about rabies. At the end of There Eyes Are Watching God, Teacake, Janie’s partner, gets rabies. She has to shoot him. I also knew that rabies shots consisted of 10 injections in the stomach. I asked for a second opinion and the doctor sent me to the rabies specialist, who had an office upstairs and was in at that very moment. I went upstairs hoping 10 shots in the stomach were not in my future.
There was a line, a long line of white people and me. I was behind a woman from Australia. She looked at my bandaged hand and I looked at hers. “Did you try to feed the monkeys?” She asked. I nodded yes. We shared a moment of silence for being dumb Westerners who would not be spending time in the rabies line at Asiri Hospital in Sri Lanka if we had just fed the peanuts to ourselves. We were the clueless ones, the whimsical ones, the ones under the control of something else. The macaques were our masters and they had sent us where we belonged, back to our people, with a little lesson in resource hoarding etched on our hands.
I had to get the rabies shot because rabies is life threatening and since we didn’t have the monkey to test for rabies we had to err on the side of caution. But it wasn’t 10 shots in the stomach anymore; it was 7 shots in the deltoid. This was a relief but was there an inoculation for whatever reason it was that I thought it would be cool to feed the monkeys? When we pet animals or when we demand that animals conform to our human ways of being, we are engaged in an attempt to establish our sovereignty and to find a subordinate in the world. In our media, we represent our simian cousins as skyscraper climbers, as furious wild fanged beasts intent on hunting us down, we make whole movies about 10 ton spiders and pits full of snakes. I was attempting to enact the human fantasy that the wild things are subordinate to me — the human, the apex predator — because if I can make them into monsters, what does that make me?
The monkey had swung off into the trees with those pink-packaged peanuts, out of sight, into the humid, lush Sri Lankan bush. In that bush there are mangoes and bananas and coconuts growing freely and abundantly — even coffee, and cinnamon, and pepper grow without human intervention — and these monkeys have all that food at their fingertips and they don’t have to earn money — the ultimate middleman — to eat, to sleep, to love, to live. Relative to the monkey, I am a slave imprisoned as I am to capitalism, racism, homophobia, and sexism. Maybe this is why I have made a fiend out of the monkey; maybe this is why I attempted to subordinate the monkey by handing out treats as if it were Royal Maunday. Perhaps I begrudge the monkey its freedom and the only thing I have left to leverage my own powerlessness in the face of human hegemony is lording it over a macaque.
There is a scene in The Neverending Story where Atreyu has to pass through the oracle and confront his true self in a mirror. We’re told that when people walk up to this mirror, they are often shocked at what they see. People who consider themselves courageous run from the mirror screaming because it shows them that they are actually cowards; some people who think they are pious, discover that they are evil. Picture a large mirror in your mind. Imagine that this mirror will reveal every aspect of who you really are. Feel that? That hesitation? That fear? This is because we suspect that when we look into that mirror, what will be looking back at us is a monster.
What does our confrontation with a monster enable? What does the presence of, and type of, monster that comes to sit with us say about our capacity vis-à-vis our phenomenological arrangements? The word monster originally meant an “unnatural event,” in Middle English and has since come to signify deviation from a norm, which is itself already an imagined state. The monster then is the abstraction of an abstraction, a phantom produced out our delusion of separation. As the kid tells Neo in the Matrix, “It is not the spoon that bends, only yourself.” King Kong is monstrous, a rampaging giant gorilla who represents white fear of the black phallis. Scratch beneath the surface and you won’t find a gorilla or a black person; you will only find an echo, a fragmented version of a sublimated feeling — this is the affective ephemera that constitutes the sinews and muscle and fur of King Kong, that monster who climbed the Empire State building with Fay Wray in his impossibly giant paws.
It is not the monster who appears, but only yourself. You are your own monster. That malicious force under the bed? That’s you — so fearful of losing control as you fall asleep that you think in your unconsciousness, something will reach out and grab you. That monster chasing you in your dream? That’s you — running from something you subconsciously feel is inevitable and out of your control. That seemingly dangerous black dude in a hoodie? That’s you — dissimulating the violence of white supremacy via a racist projection. That woman you think is trying to sexually entrap you by existing? That’s you — sublimating the violence of patriarchy via a sexist projection. The monsters we conjure reveal the degree to which life has made us capacious; the more we construct our monsters as distinctly different from ourselves, the less wisdom is in our conjurings. Our monsters are simply mirrors which reveal the depth and intensity of our fears. When we confront our eco/echo monsters, we come home to ourselves.
Thus the challenge implied by playing with our eco monsters is a call to step close to the oracle’s mirror and let the knowledge reflected there bring to light that which we normally hide. The dances we have done, the universal travels, the drawings and the words we have committed to paper are the reflections of our monsters, ourselves. We are called to transform in the encounter with our echoes, our monsters, so that when our monsters are triggered into appearance by that which we have yet to examine we do not strike out and harm another; the process of conjuring monsters promises to move us beyond simple good and bad. It suggests the possibility of cultivating harmlessness, the primary and most difficult teaching of meditation. When you sit down in silence and let the mind fall fallow, what monsters there be in you will arrive. Stay with them and don’t move. Don’t explain them away. Don’t distract yourself. Don’t blame someone else even if that monster has a historical origin. Don’t run — because what every monster wants is the same thing: to be seen and known. Sit and know your monsters. Despite all its problematic heterosexism, this is what the story of the frog and the princess is about. Kiss the monster and it transforms. Embodied within our monster is rich soil for the lives we want to live. Hidden within the recesses of the monster’s dense and unapproachable body are the words and stories you want to tell, with the pen or with your body, or with paint. And even deeper, within the innermost recesses of the monster’s heart, lie the secret to undoing the whole thing.
That secret is this: you are not better than anything or anyone else and nothing will ever change this fact of existence. Being the best at something won’t make you better than anything else. Being the most beautiful, the most talented, the best writer, the President, the best dancer, the best swimmer, the best chef — none of it will change the fact that you are just one tiny nugget in a vast unfolding of existence that you will never fully understand. We have created monsters out of monkeys and spiders and imagined aliens and other people because somewhere instead we were afraid of losing control, of losing our bag of peanuts, of being stung when we weren’t looking. All to avoid knowing that our lives weigh no heavier on the universal scale than that of the spider’s.
In American society, black people have so often born the brunt of monstrosity that a famous quote from James Baldwin can be appropriately reframed to illustrate my larger point in closing. “What people need to do is figure out why it was necessary to have a monster in the first place. Because you created them, so it must mean you need them.” So after this journey of conjuring and playing with our monsters, we are left with a charge to learn them, to know them completely, and then unravel their secrets and let these whisper into our lives. Our monsters call us home and now, it is time to go.
**Definitions of the word “monster” are cited from dictionary.com.