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Return to Equinoxes, Issue 1 : Printemps/Eté 2003
Article ©2004, Tracy Sharpley-Whiting

Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting is Chair of Africana Studies and Professor of Romance Languages at Hamilton College in New York. She earned her PhD from Brown's Department of French Studies in 1994, where she returned in March 2003 as Keynote Speaker at the annual Equinoxes conference; her paper was entitled "Blackness Sublime/Blackness Perverse: Indigenophile Writing, Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven, and Negritude Women in the Interwar Years."

Ruminations on the Monstrous

by Tracy Sharpley-Whiting

This year's inaugural issue of Equinoxes undertakes a theme - monstrosity - that has plagued, perturbed, and titillated the imaginations of writers, visual artists, philosophers, scientists, your average 'joe' and' joséphine' and children alike. That which is monstrous, monster-like, is simultaneously sublime and shocking; and like a haunting, it/they constantly and necessarily intrude upon our world. Necessary because monsters help us negotiate who we are by knowing all too well who they are, thereby shoring up our understanding that we are not they.

Alleged sightings of and desires for Big Foot (Sasquatch) and the Loch Ness monster (Nessie) are ubiquitous. These monstrous yarns reveal a longing for the power to create, to make disembodied otherness flesh, to "bestow animation upon lifeless matter" in the words of Dr. Frankenstein. Indeed, who can ruminate on the culturally and psychically productive uses of monsters without a rearward glance to Mary Shelley's gothic tale of creation Frankenstein? And who does not remember the good doctor Frankenstein's wailing with gnashed teeth when this otherness made flesh, a physically hideous creature to be sure, morphs into an arrant psychotic monster? The price of such fanciful hubris on the part of Dr. Frankenstein and those who invent monsters from lifeless, mythic, and veritable flesh and blood matter is the inescapable haunting.

Such narratives of men and monsters become verily more fascinate when gender differences is stirred into the metaphysical olla podrida. The profligate monster-woman (femme-monstre) amply fill texts written by Rachilde, Zola, Huysman, Balzac.

Add the flavorful spice that is race to this rotten pot, and one comes up with the quintessential monstrous woman - Sarah Bartmann, the Hottentot Venus. Predating the Comte Arthur de Gobineau's Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines, naturalist Georges Cuvier provides, in borrowing the title of Glenn Loury's seminal work, an "anatomy of racial inequality" of Bartmann during his encounter with her at the Jardin du Roi in 1815. Heaping such adjectives as "brutal," "hideous," "savage" and "monstrous" upon her, Cuvier suggests that Bartmann epitomizes the evolutionary underdevelopment characteristic of blacks. The combination of her "rebutante physionomie" and her physiological difference summed up as a "ressemblance frappante avec celles qui surviennent aux femelles des mandrills, des papious, etc," allows Cuvier to "easily assure" the reader that Bartmann and her black kind are of a different species than he and his white kind, subject to the "cruel law which seems to have condemned to an eternal inferiority races with depressed and compressed skulls."1 Bartmann serves as the yardstick for white evolutionary superiority; her dissected corpse, that lifeless matter which it is, is trotted with peerless surefootedness, knowing, and mastery.

In effect, in classic academic parlance, the conjuring up of Frankensteins, Nessies, Big Foots, and Bartmanns, the projection of the monstrous onto others represents a purging. The monster is a shadowy repository for the unspoken, unspeakable, unthinkable, undoable-our desires, fears, demons. Like the proverbial cat, the monster is out of the bag. Our monsters and we are in fact one.


1  Georges Cuvier, Discours sur les révolutions du globe (Paris: Passard, 1864), 214, 218, 221-22.

Books by Tracy Sharpley-Whiting

Negritude Women (University of Minnesota Press, 2002) ix + 168pp.

The Black Feminist Reader, co-edited with Joy James (Blackwell, 2000) v + 302pp.

Black Venus: Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French (Duke University Press, 1999) xii + 190 pp.

Frantz Fanon: Conflicts & Feminisms (Rowman & Littlefield, 1998) xiv + 123 pp.

Spoils of War: Women of Color, Cultures & Revolutions*, co-edited w/ Renee T. White (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997) vii + 176 pp.
*Honorable Mention for Outstanding Book by the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America

Fanon: A Critical Reader, co-edited w/ Lewis R. Gordon and Renee T. White (Blackwell, 1996) xxi + 344 pp.