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Summer 2004

Monsters

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Michel Eyquem de Montaigne


This story tells itself: I'll leave it to the doctors to explain.

Two days ago, I saw a baby being paraded around by two men and a wetnurse who claimed they were the child's father, uncle, and aunt. There was something strange about the way the boy looked, and his guardians were trying to make money off of it.

At first glance, the boy seemed normal: he could stand, walk, and talk like any child his age. But he refused to eat anything that didn't come out of his wetnurse: when they tried to feed him something else, he chewed it and then spit it out without swallowing. And there was also something strange about the sound of his cries. He was around fourteen months old.

Below his chest, he was stuck to another child. This second child didn't have a head: he seemed to cease at the top of his spine, but the rest of him was all there. One of his arms was shorter than the other, broken, it turned out, at birth. They were joined facing each other, and it looked as if a smaller child were hugging a larger one. The area where the two became one was about the width of a hand, and if you lifted the imperfect one up, you could see the belly button of the "normal" one revealed beneath him, meaning they connected between the normal one's nipples and belly button. The imperfect one didn't have a belly button at all, although he did have a belly. The rest of him-his arms, buttocks, thighs, and legs-dangled freely, down to the knees of the other. The nurse mentioned that he could pee from either of his alternatives. On the whole, the extremities of the imperfect child were as healthy as the normal child's, only smaller and thinner.

This double body, these multiple limbs reporting to a single head, might make a good omen for a king who maintains the multiple parts and pieces of his state beneath a single set of laws. But we'd do better not to read too much into this, in the event we were wrong, as we only can really predict the past: "Once things happen, interpretation supplies a prophecy." That was Epimenides' fame, prophesying in reverse.

I just met a shepherd in Médoc who was about thirty years old: he had no external genitals. In their place, he has three holes he pees from, constantly. He has a beard; he knows desire; he wants women to touch him.

God and man call monsters by different names: God sees the fullness of his creation and the variety of his works; man sees the limits of himself, rejects what seems too far removed from our self-image. God's wisdom admits of what is good, shared, unwavering: man can't reconcile the apparently incongruous. "We are blind to the everyday, ignorant of the wonder in the ordinary. Novelty gets our attention, is taken for prophecy."

We call the unfamiliar unnatural. And yet, nothing is unnatural, no matter how unfamiliar. If only the faculty of reason we all possess could drive out the wild delusions that novelty breeds in us.


(Translated from the French by Wyatt Mason)



Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, who lived from 1533 to 1592, invented the essay in French. His translator, Wyatt Mason, has also translated Rimbaud and Dante; he writes for Harper’s, The New Republic, and the London Review of Books.
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