Where in world...?

An old friend phoned the other day. He never phones. But this time he just had to know: "What are you doing living in Florence?"
He thought I was in Florence, Italy. I told him it was Florence, Massachusetts.
Here are some answers -- my occasional wanderings through Florence, MA and the surrounding Pioneer Valley.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Monster Mash

That big yellow mushroom from the other day sticks in my brain. We all have our favorite monsters (is that an oxymoron?) and as the Harry Potter films have shown us, some of those monsters arise from anxieties about things that have been granted huge importance. Who can forget that giant spider lumbering out of the armoire. The number of legs on that spider, to my bug-fearing brain, seems to be around a hundred, so I feel for poor Ron. The figment of his anxiety is deflated, brought down to a laughable level when Ron Weasley casts the Riddikulus spell, fitting out the spider with a zillion roller skates. What was out of proportion is literally made ridiculous.

The enormous spider, as well as the unnaturally large cobra that sprung upon another young wizard in the classroom exercise, highlights the definition of the word "monster" and how yesterday's Hen-of-the-Woods fits with it. When looking at what makes something monstrous, the object seen violates our sense of proportion cultivated through personal experiences and/or social expectations.

Gulliver Exhibited to the Brobdingnag Farmer by Richard Redgrave. Thanks to Wikipedia.
Comic book cover by Lilian Chesney. Thanks to Wikipedia.
The appearance of the giant mushroom and the Boggarts in our respective home environments somewhat  modulates our responses to the strangers, granting a measure of safety. But think of what happens when we encounter the monstrous on our travels. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726) offers us Lemuel Gulliver's account of the incredible sights and creatures found on distant shores. Gulliver's encounter with the tiny inhabitants of Lilliput and the oversized ones in Brobdingnag show us how the idea of the monstrous can turn upon the viewer himself. Who is really out of proportion, when we consider the perspective of the viewer? Notice how these two populations come from two physical extremes, never quite allowing Gulliver to reaffirm his own sense of proportion as he had learned it. It's a wild kind of uniqueness, causing Gulliver to seem less human and allowing him to disregard the humanity of both the Lilliputions and the Brobdingnagians.

Of course, physical appearance plays only one part of a traveler's disorientation when encountering a new environment and its people. Behavior, speech, clothing, eating preferences, hygiene -- these are some of the other factors that contribute to the confusion and lack of reference points that can cause a traveler to sense as though he or she has landed in a land filled with monsters. I wonder if that mushroom felt the same when he or she arrived in Florence.

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