Tillich’s Symbol and Baldwin’s Letter

Cohen defines the monster as a representation of culture and uses medieval, Biblical, and Greek myths to fuel his “monster theory.” The ideas in “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” are reminiscent of Paul Tillich’s essay “The Religious Symbol,” in which Tillich defines “symbolics” as “a general science of the self-expression of all groups, tendencies, and communities” (4). Cohen’s chapter feels like a branch from Tillich’s essay in that the monster is a specific form of the symbol used to embody abjection to “the other.” Cohen emphasizes sexuality, disability, and race as specific areas of anxiety to our culture. Tillich goes onto say that symbols may change unconsciously as cultures change, and thus create myths, which are used to explain one culture’s interpretation of existence (Tillich 9). Cohen references multiple myths in this chapter to show how many monsters appear throughout the history of storytelling. While Cohen includes that monsters represent a “certain cultural moment,” I wonder what he would think about a monster’s implication of that culture’s existence?

Part of the anxiety of monsters is a fear of the foreign or racial fears. On page 11, Cohen writes, “The political-cultural monster, the embodiment of radical difference, paradoxically threatens to erase difference in the world of its creators… Difference that exists outside the system is terrifying because it reveals the truth of the system, its relativity, its fragility, and its mortality…” This language reminded me of James Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew,” in which Baldwin is explaining blackness in America to his nephew, but it was published in his book The Fire Next Time and meant to be read by both black and white. He writes, “…The danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations” (par. 9). This quote echoes Cohen’s statement that monsters threaten to destroy the world of its creators, who “have been mainly European [and American] and male” (Cohen 15). Cohen also mentions a fear of darker skin, and Baldwin’s language easily depicts the black man as a monster destroying the white man’s world, and even defying laws of nature or disrupting the order of things.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “A Letter to My Nephew.” The Progressive. Dec. 1, 1962. Web.

Tillich, Paul. “The Religious Symbol.” Daedalus, vol. 87, no. 3, 1958, pp. 3–21. JSTOR. Web. 

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