Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
The Monster’s Myth: From Ideology to Herta Müller’s Imaginary
Abstract: The myth of the monster has been constantly reformulated over centuries, especially due to causes leading to the emergence and perception of what is monstrous. Two paths are highly significant in this matter: the grasping of the monster within us and the “out there in the world” monster. Such delimitations offer, on the one hand, causes for experiencing and interpreting monstrosity, on the other hand we are dealing with the effacement of any reference to the past or a certain space that turn out to be causing, in the case of the migrant, a lack of coordinates defining identity. Herta Müller is a Nobel Prize laureate and writes about the monstrosity of the past century: totalitarian regimes.Western Europe reveals its fascination for monstrosity and, especially, monstrous spaces. Monsters and the monstrous space they inhabit bear a crucial characteristic: they move. As their return is barred, the public display and craving for the monster turn into an imaginary “going back” that draws the center into the margin. But instead of collapsing, the center redraws and reframes the understanding of totalitarian places. At this point monsters speak through a language fueled by the pressure of terror and decenter the understanding of liminality. This would be then called the monstrous image culture.
Keywords: Monster; Monstrous Space; Herta Müller; Trauma; Migration; Totalitarian Spaces.
By the end of the Second World War, mass migrations were reshaping the global landscape, thus being more than a rescue mission or survival strategy for most European inhabitants. Whether we observe mass migrations from a socio-political point of view, or from a personal standpoint, whilst living in exodus and migrate ourselves, the 20th century has engraved a new understanding and perception of boundaries and spaces. This new perspective is not necessary due to changes involved by migration (as this is one of the main features of humanity and not sedentariness), but it rather refers to how liminal states caused by dramatic and traumatic events are currently being perceived and interpreted. At this marginal point, the migrant, for whom there will never be a clear or recognizable profile, becomes the perfect embodiment of transition. This transition implies, on the one hand, the lack of a clear origin; on the other hand, it describes what exceeds language or what is ex-centric. At this point the figure of the migrant turns into a “monster [depicted through the] geographically and physically other.” The transitory state of the migrant does not only preserve traits and features of Otherness (from language to being illegal, hence outside the norm), but it also reveals a cut off space, a space where any possible return to is barred. In a migration discourse the ex-centric is being mantled and dismantled, in order to recreate origin and space of reference. Before looking at the causes for monstrosity and how I plan to offer a different approach to the monster, I would like to tackle how the current circuit of mantling and dismantling becomes visible.
The Cucula Project is a German start-up based in Berlin that shows the consequence of how immigration issues in Europe cause numerous setbacks in efforts to control or grant movement corridors for refugees coming into Europe. Hence, European politics seems to be impotent and divided, leaving continental border countries, like Italy and Greece, to mend for themselves. This failure has turned the Mediterranean Sea into a graveyard, but has also determined a proper origin for those who survive the trip. The Cucula Project depicts exactly this issue and employs young migrants from African countries, living for years in Europe and Germany, but with no right to work or who do not have permanent living permits. They dismantle shipwrecks from the island of Lampedusa and turn their wood into furniture to be sold for daily subsistence and German courses for the beneficiaries. Besides personal tragedies and the current anti-immigration spirit in Germany, this particular case displays how ex-centric spaces become articulated and are being transferred into common understanding. This transfer does not use metaphor or metonymy to represent the trauma of migration or the immigrant’s ex-centric quality. In this case we are dealing with crafting identities and rebuilding liminality (the shipwrecks are from theisland ofLampedusa, another ex-centric space).
The Cucula Project is just a practical example that serves a different purpose in my endeavor. This sort of reassembling can be seen in the writings of migrant authors like Herta Müller. The German born Romanian author subverts, through her works and public statements, how the center relates to peripheral and ex-centric appearances. If we were to consider this center to be Western literature, then her writings exceed and fall off the proper shelve. Moreover, by subverting the relationship between, for e.g. national literatures and the author’s provenance in Müller’s case, what stand out are the monstrous space (Communist Romania, the concentration camp etc.) depicted in her main works and the proper language to describe it, represented by her excessively poetical language. These aspects are the starting point of my analysis that will firstly look at general causes for monstrosity, secondly will offer proper approaches to teratology and identify how these can be applied in Müller’s writings. The last two main issues at hand are concerned with how monstrous spaces of origin find their own language of expression.
Monsters and their Migration
The myth of the monster has been constantly reformulated over centuries, especially due to causes leading to the emergence and perception of what is monstrous. Upon identifying what causes monstrosity, researchers have identified several possibilities to describe the articulation of the monster. Two paths are highly significant in this matter: the grasping of the monster within us and the “out there in the world” monster. One approach sees the monster not as an outsider, but very much part of the human self, as the other view places the monster outside of the center. There is also another aspect that intervenes in the emergence of monstrosity, the new reign of imagination. In Fantasy Literature: The Teratological Imaginary between Utopia and Dystopia, Marius Conkan points out how the monstrous and the imagination, in Romanticism, were both rehabilitated after being expelled, since Antiquity, for being deviances of nature and the human. Imagination, in its creative and productive meaning, reasserts the monster and “rebuilds the visible nature in a monstrous manner, one that may confer it fantastic forms.” Revealing how imagination screens the monster in our own natural and imagined habitat, Conkan investigates monstrous races in fantasy fictions through their most eloquent quality: embodiments of the fear of death.
In his book From Archtype to Anarchtype, Corin Braga explains four general causes for monstrosity. He firstly settles to reveal what the term incomplete creation implies in analyzing medieval maps of the world. By tracing the center, the outside borders of the map turn into margins and edges of the world, closer to the point of creation, butinhabited by monstrous creatures and not by humans. The second level of causality in perceiving the monster relates, in Braga’s terms, to space and mapping the world’s borders that turned out to be inhabited by humans. The fixed spatial delimitation was not dismissed by the proof of humans inhabiting the marginal realms, but made room for the emergence for physical delimitations and defining so-called deformations (skin color, size, eye shape etc.). Linking these causes together, Braga discusses how the original sin, in Christian terms, has influenced and defined the emergence of physical and monstrous deformities. The last part of his arguments consists in revealing how interpreting the unknown as being something outside the center and implicitly outside the human self, hence monstrous, turns in the 20th century to be part of the human unknown, the unconscious. If we were to consider that monstrosity has gradually become internalized and, at the same time, visible, then signs of a monstrosity get to be transferred. As Carmen-Veronica Borbély and Petronia Popa Petrar notice in Our Heteromorphic Future: Encoding the Posthuman in Contemporary British Fiction:
“we explore previously unforeseen possibilities for new modes of instantiation and translation, enhancement and extension, hopping across species and boundaries […] Having followed the footsteps of Frankenstein, we may now adore or abhor ‘brave new beasts’ we are creating.”
What the authors notice here, is not only the human voyeuristic look on bestiary, but they also discuss the current fascination for liminal points and edges (technoscience) that survey and orbit around a designated center.
Andrew Hock-soon Ng makes use of psychoanalysis in order to reveal the relationship between the monster and the Symbolic, thus, mediating the emergence of four ways narratives depict this particular link. The first category includes the monster that is re-signified by the Symbolic regime and at the same time it will challenge it; the second category will subvert the Symbolic order, but will either be eradicated or integrated in society; the third monstrous is elusive and manipulative, as this particular monster is part of the Symbolic order and is mostly represented by the serial killer. The last category designates how the subject, monstrous or not, relates to certain spaces.
Such delimitations offer, on the one hand, causes for experiencing and interpreting monstrosity, on the other hand we are dealing with the effacement of any reference to the past or a certain space that turn out to be causing, in the case of the migrant, a lack of coordinates defining identity. This issue, in Herta Müller’s case, turns out to be exactly what has brought the recognition for her writings. Born in Communist Romania, belonging to the German minority, dissident and a migrant, as she leftRomaniain 1987 forGermany, Herta Müller is a Nobel Prize laureate and writes about the monstrosity of the past century: totalitarian regimes. This is a turning point in explaining how the center, represented here byWestern Europe, reveals its fascination for monstrosity and, especially, monstrous spaces.
“The Nobel Prize in Literature 2009 is awarded to Herta Müller who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.” The Nobel Prize Jury motivation offers a clear image, of how the center turns out to be fascinated by the margin and the monstrous. Müller’s entire work is focused on trauma and describes, in detail, the characters’ inner, captive universe (Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, Herztier, Atemschaukel) and how, through the absence of clear corporal forms, deformity expressing the latter, generates a language of trauma. Müller’s narrations are symptom-narrations that inscribe, on a textual level, the claustrant, traumatical and abjection of human existence, in general. Moreover, the German born Romanian author nurtures a clear skepticism on what language is capable of expressing. Hence, Müller’s prose charts inner realities and signalizes the characters’ dispersion and schizoid existence.
If we were to place the monstrous at the edge and, at the same time, explore the center, represented firstly by German literature, then the works of Herta Müller stand out. There were numerous attempts to define the literature of non-natives and recently researchers have tried to solve the emergence of migrant literature through performing a diagnose of space. Hence, we are dealing with literature written in German, as Stuart Taberner points out. This is one aspect that needs investigation, but there is also a second issue at hand that requires elaboration: Müller is not only representing the margin, from a geographical point of view, she also writes about the historical and political edge, Romania during communism, hence, about spaces that do not exist in the German language. TheSwedishAcademy completely recovers this ex-centric reality and draws the center closer to liminality, hence, towards monstrosity.
Communist Romania, in Herta Müller’s imaginary, is more than a landscape of the dispossessed. What the German author reassembles is similar to the Cucula Project: faced with transitioning from one space to another, Herta Müller not only manages to describe and verbalize dissonant features of totalitarian regimes, but also captures the coordinates of places removed and left behind, through movement, that do not fade, erodate or dissipate. Hence, the monstrosity of totalitarian regimes and their so-called blueprints find means of expression. What I mean through blueprint actually refers to a “concurrent split-and-knit of sameness and difference in seemingly irresolvable simultaneity,” for what Herta Müller manages to do, through reconfiguring totalitarian spaces, is finding a proper and own language of expression for the monster. I will use in my arguments two relevant features of Müller’s prose: her poetic language and the construction of some of the characters in her prose. The author has focused on prose, essays and poetry, but my endeavour will refer to her novels Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet (The Appointment), Herztier (The Land of the Green Plums), Atemschaukel (The Hunger Angel).
Herta Müller’s characters construct “human mindscapes through recreating amalgams.” To be more precise, most of her characters signalize the language’s incapacity to express patterns of a mutilated and dispersed existence. These amalgams are, on the one hand caused by trauma (inflicted through the totalitarian landscape, abusive childhood, domestic violence etc.), on the other hand they are produced by the emergence of hermetical and singular images, as language to express traumatical experiences fails. Lyn Marven approaches this issue through identifying dissociations „I” and the other and the erasure of corporality:
“Trauma affects the individual’s sense of identity, as well as their perception of the body. Trauma is often characterized by a feeling of numbness or dislocation: it leads to dissociation, the experience of the self as the other, and the splitting of the two (or more) elements of identities, symptoms which have an equivalent in corporal experience.”
Marven’s study focuses on the absence or retreat of corporality in Müller’s prose, but what is reassembled and produced, through this, is an excess of language. Moreover, the characters in Atemschaukel, Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet and Herztier display no identity or physical form, as they encompass voices that express deformity and abjection. On the other hand, Leo Auberg, the main character in Atemschaukel rebuilds symptomatically his inner incarceration (being a homosexual) and reenacts, through objects, the concentration camp, with all of its horrors. This will engage visuality and manifest itself through “seeing the monstrous and the repulsive in any narrative representation is, in effect, to witness an exteriorized manifestation of that which is already incorporated in [the] psyche and yet which is irrecoverable as belonging to [a] self.” In other words, monstrosity is at display through two coordinates: the effacement of identity and the language of expressing deformity. Müller’s writings are minimized dystopias, as they showcase fundamental human inadvertencies that culminate “in [how] language must always usurp something that doesn’t belong to it.” This culmination is revealed through imminent ruptures in language, as a sign of trauma, and a physiognomy of objects. The narrative voices in all three novels construct textures of inner and outer spaces through objects. This is mostly present in Atemschaukel where the objects tend to impregnate a chronology in Auberg’s fragmented narration: from the shovel and nails to the daily bread, from the cement the inmates worked with to the bitter Mountain Spinach (“Meldekraut”) as the only meal, the time and space of the concentration camp will survive, through language and the objects surrounding Auberg.
As stated before, the fascination for monstrosity resides in how it can be transferred or appropriated by a center. To this extent, monstrosity stops challenging what is human and finds its own means of expression, due to the fact that monster and its images becomes the repository of trauma.Following Foucault’s ideas on the biopolitics of population and the consequences they have on perceiving and understanding societies, the monster has a body without limit or center. In Herta Müller’s case it is her language that is inscribed with this particular quality.
Upon investigating Müller’s writings, I focused my attention on the concept of transfer-images. This term refers to a spatial and temporal configuration of trauma, on a textual level, in the literature of migration. These images coagulate traumatic experiences and cross, expecially in Müller’s prose, the entire narration. Having two main features, they pierce the narration, through their recurrence (the animal heart in Herztier) and they display, in some cases, innovative linguistic and poetic linguistic traits. Before exploring how the monsters speak, in Müller’s prose, I would like to point out that the German born Romanian author is ex-centric, in the usage of German. Bearing in mind that her audience turned global, after winning the Nobel Prize, there are some readers, German language speakers, that do not consider that she writes necessarly in German. It has nothing to do with the fact that Müller belongs to the German minority, spredded across Europe and the particular dialect they speak in areas such as Timișoara in Romania, but this rather refers to how some words do not sucomb to meaning. Her language is first and foremost an image (double layerd, screened through the German and Romanian language), and only through the act of narration, they become a constructed word. This unmediated use of language is productive and in excess. I will use the example Yasemin Yildiz showcases in her study Beyond the Mother Tongue. The Postmonolingual Condition, while referring to Kafka’s uncanniness in German. Kafka was an ex-centric not only for being a Jew in a German speaking Prague, but also because he does not belong to the paradigm, that links one language to an identity, hence to a nation. This is the turning point in Yildiz’ considerations:
“What Kafka helps to reveal […] is the force of the monolingual paradigm even for those excluded from it.” Moreover, Yildiz explores Kafka’s encounter with an unfamiliar Yddish, that lead to a defamiliarization of German and opened “a new affective path in the familiar tongue […] [leading] to the production of more German, and not less.”
Producing language in excess authors like Kafka an Müller reveal, through nutruring the inner unfamiliar of the familiar language, “the impossibility of “assimilating” or “owning” language.”
The example above is similar to Müller’s experience of Romanian and German. Leaving her village in her teens to move to the city and continue her studies, Müller explores both languages in a rather uncanny way: words have different and multiple eyes in the language they belong to. So, the bourden of the familiar language, in this case German, is revealed through the ever-travelling Romanian language and this will lead to, what Derrida has called “own” language: “Anyone should be able to declare under oath: I have only one language and it is not mine; my “own” language is, for me, a language that cannot be assimilated.” In Müller’s case language sucombs to the image and dessintegrates, in order to reconstruct traumatical events and monstrous spaces.
Up until now I explored the ex-centric quality of Müller’s prose, through investigating monstrous features of narrative voices and characters. How does the monster speak and how come we do understand? The decentering language, in Müller’s prose, is not limited to her personal Romanian-German biographical context, but it is visible “in any contemporary migratory settings.” Taking a closer look at elements that sorround the emergence of a proper language grasping trauma and monstrosity, the three novels I mentioned above contain examples of a “proper” and “own” language of the monster.
My investigation of Müller’s prose has revealed how her writings transfer inner dissonances (the abused and solitary child, the violence of family life, incestual thoughts etc.) into reconfiguring the monstrosity of totalitarian spaces. Moreover, in numerous speeches, interviews and essays, Müller’s critique on the incapacity of language to describe, authentically, what is seen, percieved or thought, is made visible in the usage of a highly poetical language. If language cannot express simultaneity, then language will reveal the particular gap between words, thoughts, sight and mind. The dissolution of language and the reassembly, like the wood from the islandof Lampedusaturned to furniture, of a own, decentered language is mostly visible in the effort to construct a ground zero of trauma. The first example is the way in which “Atemschaukel” – the breathing swing/swing of breath, a word non-existent in German language, displays characteristics of a coincidetia oppositorum – death and life. The gap inflicted on language and narration, through the incarceration in the concentration camp, permits the main character, Leo Auberg, to rebuild images through objects. Hence the narrator’s voice will never leave the areal of the concentration camp, as the breathing swing turns into the hunger angel (“Hungerengel”), the physical imprint of the camp and symbol for famine. The hunger angel, like the breathing swing, reenacts the space and timeof the incarceration. These sort of imaginary vortexes are characteristics of Müller’s visuality, as „the mouth comes whith screaming, eyes through images and legs while walking.” Whilst the breathing swing incoroporates the omnipresent concentration camp, „Herztier” – the animal heart/heart beast, turns into the amniotic sac for death. The novel Herztier (The Land of the Green Plums) depicts the total meltdown of four young students that become targeted by the Romanian secret Police through captain Pjele. Following their destinies, the image of the animal beast appears after the suicide of Lola and inscribes the death-in-life experience of all the characters. The word „Herztier” discloses the gap emerged in language through the contamination of intimacy (surveillance and violence), and erases distinctions between inner and outer forms of existence. The image of the animal beast is a death substrate for the entire narration and inscribes onto inner and outer realities landscapes of death and monstrosity: graveyards, slaughterhouses, questioning rooms and corpses.
Monsters and the monstrous space they inhabit bear a crucial characteristic: they move. As their return is barred, the public display and craving for the monster turn into an imaginary “going back” that draws the center into the margin. But instead of collapsing, the center redraws and reframes the understanding of totalitarian places. At this point monsters speak through a language fueled by the pressure of terror and decenter the understanding of liminality. If monsters speak, then they proliferate “visual imaginary and […] experience […] objects, events and ideas as images.”This would be then called the monstrous image culture.
In Lieu of Conclusion
It is extremely difficult not to challenge what defines the term “human” human. Bearing in mind that there are millions of people on the move, forced to migrate due to war, to calamities, to insane presidents with dreams of old empires or other reasons, the quest for visually grasping monstrosity may become obsolete. My studies on Herta Müller have shown how the imaginary can reconstruct the point of no return. Müller writes of human inadaptability, in general, and reframes the Romanian communist landscape in order to depict just that. Then, by unveiling the powers of trauma and employing characters that reconstruct the ground zero of psychological leisures, we witness the creation of singular images that reveal simultaneity. This effort resides in finding means of expression for the gap between language and simultaneity, hence, the reassambled language of the traumatized and expelled for being inapt, outside the norm, hence monstrous, is deformed and inexcess. Being decentered and not a repository of trauma, as a tortured body, the language of the migrant monster opens a new way for the center to turn into the margin. Such a temporary conclusion opens up several new paths for investigating prose on totalitarian spaces. First, the real or historical (biographical) level sets the norm to be, in Müller’s writing, Communism (the oppressors) and the monstres as the one’s to be supressed and excluded. The second level of analysis should reveal the literary effort to reconstruct such spaces and the imaginary which depicts the relationship between the norm and the monster. In Müller’s prose this intertwining is ambigous or even erased, as some of her characters showcase own potential monstrosity. The third level includes a critical understanding of both levels and establishes that the Communist norm embodies all monstrous traits, but it will also invest the monster (the excluded, the opressed, the ex-centric) with all human, hence moral virtues, enabling them to speak yet again.
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Borbély, Carmen-Veronica; Popa Petrar, Petronia, Our Heteromorphic Future: Encoding the Posthuman in Contermporary British Fiction,Cluj-Napoca, Presa Universitară Clujeană, 2014.
Braga, Corin, De la arhetip la anarhetip, Iași, Polirom, 2006.
Chiellino, Carmine (ed.) , Interkulturelle Literatur in Deutschland. Ein Handbuch,Stuttgart, Metzler, 2000.
Conkan, Marius, “Fantasy Literature: The Teratological Imaginary between Utopia and Dystopia”, in Transylvanian Review, vol. XXII, Supplement No. 3/2013.
Hock-Soon Ng, Andrew, Dimensions of Monstrosity in Contemporary Narratives,New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
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Köhnen, Ralph, “ÜberGänge. Kinesthäsische Bilder in Texten Herta Müller”, in Köhnen, Ralph (ed.), Der Druck der Erfahrung treibt die Sprache in die Dichtung. Bildlichkeit in den Texten Herta Müllers, Frankfurt a.M, Peter Lang, 1997.
Manghani, Sunil; Piper, Arthur; Simons, Ian, Images: A Reader,London, Sage Publications, 2006.
Marven, Lyn, Body and narrative in Contemporary Literatures in German: Herta Müller, Libuse Moníková, Kerstin Hensel,Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Müller, Herta, Atemschaukel, München, Carl Hanser, 2009.
Müller, Herta, Herztier, Frankfurt a.M, Fischer, 2007.
Müller, Herta, Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, Hamburg, Rowohlt, 1997.
Scott, Niall (ed.), Monsters and the Monstrous. Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil,Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2007.
Steinecke, Hartmut, “Vom Nullpunkt der Existenz”, in Lützeler, Paul Michael; McGlothlin, Erin (eds.), Gegenwartsliteratur: Ein germanistisches Jahrbuch: Herta Müller, Stauffenberg, 2011.
Taberner, Stuart (ed.), The novel in German since 1990,Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011.
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Yildiz, Yasemin,Beyond the Mother Tongue. The postmonolingual Condition,New York, Fordham University Press, 2011.
 A migration discourse comprises both negative and positive attitudes on the phenomena. It is made visible through legislation, public display and reception of migration, cultural background and academic milieu.
 Current legislation on asylum and asylum seekers states that residence permits and identification papers are issued by a country upon arrival of the migrants (countries likeItaly,Greece orBulgaria). A second request, with a positive outcome in another Western European country, is virtually impossible after being filed in the arrival country.
 One of the most relevant studies on the literary and sociological phenomena of migration in the Germany can be found in Carmine Chiellino (ed.), Interkulturelle Literatur in Deutschland. Ein Handbuch, Stuttgart, Metzler, 2000. Methods of investigating intercultural literature can be found in Michael Hofman, Interkulturelle Literaturwissenschaft. Eine Einführung, Paderborn, Fink/UTB, 2006. Current readings and turning points in interpreting literature written in German are comprised by Stuart Taberner (ed.), The novel in German since 1990,Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011.
 See Ben Barootes article in Niall Scott (ed.), Monsters and the Monstrous. Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2007. Ben Barootes discusses Ernst Cassirer’ concept of absolute past, stating that mythic beings belong and interact with an absolute past, but they will also never disengage from it, as they are perpetuated and incremental in a present.
http://www.asymptotejournal.com/article.php?cat=Nonfiction&id=61&curPage=current. In a speech given in Prague, honoring the prize given to Radka Denemarková for the translation into Czech of Atemschaukel, Müller recreated the space between words that emerged through learning, at the age of fifteen, Romanian. (last acces 2.02.2015).
 Carmen-Veronica Borbély and Petronia Popa Petrar refer to the concept of posthuman and how it can be defined through the emergence of technoscience. They distinguish between the omnipresence of cyborgs, zombies etc. in the popular imaginary and the academic discourse. For them, posthuman means challenging what is human and how the humanist paradigm vanishes. Andrew Soon-hock Ng gives a similar interpretation, when he categorizes monsters and their emergence.
 Yasemin Yildiz describes how postmonolingual tensions are articulated: “the decentering of German is not limited to the German-Jewish context but extends to contemporary “migratory settings” as well”.
Ralph Köhnen, “ÜberGänge. Kinesthäsische Bilder in Texten Herta Müller”, in Ralph Köhnen (ed.), Der Druck der Erfahrung treibt die Sprache in die Dichtung. Bildlichkeit in den Texten Herta Müllers, Frankfurt a.M, Peter Lang, 1997, p. 124.