As far as nomenclature goes, “beast” is pretty flexible when applied to living creatures. Predators, ground-dwellers, the gargantuan—lions, tigers, and bears, &c., &c. It’s a term that tends to run amok, interested more in broad characterizations than in sharp delineations.
When applied to human individuals, “beast” mutates. It raises questions of being and seeming. Is “beast” a behavior or action? A state? An identity? It carries range, from the derogatory to the admirable, from the abject to the dominant, from the basest of humanity to the superhuman (see: Marshawn Lynch’s “Beast Mode”).
“Beast” is the TILT on a pinball machine. It gives us pause and upsets order. The exact nature of Grendel still springboards dissertations. The Goonies’ Sloth is gentler than many. Even with his name, Beast is one of the most sophisticated and intelligent characters in X-Men (apt for Kelsey Grammer’s portrayal, Frasier in blue fur).
From fairy tales and genre fiction to monster movies, the nature of “beasts” remains an obsession and an enticement. There’s a real draw to “beastness” that spurs on many a cautionary tale of proximity and retaining our “privileged” humanity. See what happens to Victor Frankenstein? See what problems Sookie endures in True Blood? And yet our attraction to “beast” is not easily stifled.
At its most nefarious, declaring someone to be a “beast” can be an affirmation that “nice guys finish last,” which some may take as an affront to the niceties and the mores propelling us along and propping us up in whatever systems we find ourselves—while we wish that such strictures were not in place. In the first volume of The Beast and the Sovereign, Jacques Derrida considers the space for the beast in civilization, suggesting early on that,
one cannot be interested in the relations of beast and sovereign, and all the questions of the animal and the political, of the politics of the animal, and man and beast in the context of state, the polis, the city, the republic, the social body, the law in general, war and peace, terror and terrorism, national or international terrorism, etc., without recognizing some privilege in the figure of the ‘wolf.’ (9)
The privilege of the ‘wolf’ lies in its refusal to play by the rules and civilization’s tacit clearance for it do so on the basis of its essence. In this way, the reserved clearing ground for the “beast” is a reversed consecration, a setting apart or even a pedestal for the parts of us that we repress or indulge.
It’s in the figure of the “beast” that we confront the “human.” Fighting off the beasts may be most challenging for us when we engage in internal combat and introspection. Is “beast” a quality of excessive animalistic nature or a dearth of the divine, and are these polar opposites or are these one in the same? “Beast” is a category not easily dismissed because “beast” bleeds out and spills over. When it’s presented as a binary, “beast” negates intrinsic components of our humanity. As creatures and created beings ourselves, what aspects of the “beast” are in fact worthy to embrace, to redeem?
Jacob Schepers (Calvin ’12) is the author of A Bundle of Careful Compromises (2014), a winner of the 2013 Outriders Poetry Project competition. His poetry has appeared in Verse, The Common, PANK, The Destroyer, and others. He lives in South Bend, IN, with his wife, Charis, and two sons, Liam and Oliver. He is both an MFA student and doctoral candidate in English at the University of Notre Dame.