Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Frankenstein

I read the novel Frankenstein years ago when I was in high school or perhaps in junior high school. I recall enjoying it. However, it's been years since then, I've certainly forgotten quite a lot, and I don't know if the story would hold up today. My caveats for this post.

1. The book was written by Mary Shelley. She was the daughter of William Godwin (known for his utilitarianism and anarchism) and Mary Wollstonecraft (known for her feminism). Mary Shelley married Percy Bysshe Shelley who was a first-rate English poet. The Shelleys were friends with the "mad, bad, and dangerous" Lord Byron (who in turn was the father of illegitimate and legitimate children, including Ada Lovelace, thought to be the first computer programmer in history). They were each leading figures in the Romantic literary movement.

I'll note Romantics like the Shelleys, Lord Byron, Blake, and others often strike one as blasphemous and sacrilegious. Intentionally so. It's as if they're writing prose or poetry with one hand, while shaking their fist at God with the other. I wonder if this isn't ultimately why so many of the Romantics died so tragically and tragically young (e.g. suicide, drowning). They didn't seem to truly honor their parents, nor God, but in their literature attempted patricide or theocide toward God as Father.

2. The story behind how Frankenstein was composed is quite interesting. Percey, Mary, Lord Byron, John William Polidori (a young physician), and Claire Clairmont (Mary Shelley's stepsister) were holed up in a villa near Lake Geneva, Switzerland during a very rainy and summerless summer in 1816, after the eruption of Mt. Tambora (Indonesia) in 1815 had caused much the rest of the world including Europe to be engulfed in its heavy volcanic ash which in turn effected climate and weather patterns. Contemporaries called 1816 "the year without a summer". Since the group of friends was unable to enjoy the outdoors, they stayed indoors, and to entertain themselves read ghost stories and tales of the macabre to one another out of books such as the Fantasmagoriana. At some point, Lord Byron challenged each of those present to write a "fantastical" story like the ones they had read. Polidori wrote The Vampyre, which is often thought to be the first modern vampire novel (well before Bram Stoker penned Dracula), while Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein when she was 18 years old.

3. It's telling Shelley's Frankenstein is subtitled "the modern Prometheus". Of course, to the Romantics, Prometheus would've been a heroic figure for stealing from the gods to help humanity at the cost of a tragic end for himself. Likewise, Victor Frankenstein "stole fire from heaven" and put the "fire" of life into the dead, thereby bringing the dead to life, but at the cost of losing all he loved and finally his own life as well. One might think that's a Pyrrhic victory at best, but a Romantic like Shelley would have thought it better to die raging against heaven than to have to live under heaven's rule. Indeed, she might as well have the monster echo Satan's speech in Paradise Lost: "better to reign in hell than serve in heaven".

4. In addition, there's a frightful sense of the occult throughout the narrative. Of course, this is obvious in the creature's grotesque appearance. Frankenstein's monster has been cobbled together from various parts of deceased persons that were dug up in their graves and stripped for body parts.

Not only is the occult present in the monster, but it's also present in the process by which Frankenstein discovered the secret to bringing the dead back to life. On the one hand, there are modern scientific elements involving laboratory chemicals and electrical lightning. On the other hand, there's still a significant unexplained gap in the knowledge, still a seemingly mysterious and preternatural force at work, still something hidden and forbidden involved in what Frankenstein has done to raise the creature to life.

Once again, like Prometheus, Frankenstein has stolen verboten knowledge from heaven. Or, perhaps more apropos, eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil that he was commanded by God not to eat in order to gain knowledge.

5. In doing so, Frankenstein has become what the serpent "promised" Adam and Eve in Gen 3:5: "you will be like God, knowing good and evil". Hubris, to "be like God", is the real danger. Hubris that wants to steal light and fire from God so it can have the power God has. To know what God knows. Hubris that wants to storm heaven by building a tower of Babel to reach its heights. Hubris like Simon Magus had when he offered the apostles money to "give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit" (Acts 8:19). Hubris that wants to usurp and control God himself. Human autonomy over God opposed to God's autonomy over humans. Rebellion against the great and good King.

However, I doubt Shelley would've regarded the action as hubristic. I think she would've taken this "rebellion" to be "like God" as a good thing. If man can galvanize dead tissue to life, then man has power over life and death, just like God. There's no need for God. Indeed, Shelley seems utterly fascinated by the process of galvanism or "animal electricity" in writing about Frankenstein reanimating a corpse, perhaps also because this could undermine Christianity's idea of the spirit or soul. In any case, in Shelley's mind, Frankenstein is heroic, because Frankenstein sets humanity free from God, free from an authoritative father figure, free from the shackles of what God would want from people.

6. At the same time Shelley has Frankenstein playing God in creating the creature, which means Frankenstein is an analogue for God, while the creature is an analogue for Adam.

Yet, while Frankenstein is creator, he does not care about nor wish to take responsibility for his creation. Not so with the monster. Initially the monster is good and moral (in contrast to typical Hollywood depictions of the monster!). The monster is intelligent and eloquent. Open and honest about his passions. The monster strives to know, learn from, and please his maker, Frankenstein. In short, it would seem Shelley paints the monster in a better light than she does Frankenstein.

If so, that may be because she has a higher opinion of mankind than she does God. If so, we know where her sympathies lie: Frankenstein/God is the real monster, while the monster/Adam is a heroic but tragic figure. The monster is a noble creature, a truth-seeker, who appreciates beauty and longs for love, but his creator created him with the visage of a wretched and hideous "thing". Hence, according to the novel, it's only natural for the molded to say to its molder: why have you made me like this? For God is a cruel God. A God who doesn't have the best interests of his creation in mind. A God who created intelligent and emotional beings, but wanted nothing to do with his creation. A God who abandoned his creation. Why doesn't God care about his creatures like a father cares for his child? In fact, if only God had been more loving, then the monster wouldn't have needed to commit all these evil acts!

7. Of course, Shelley in Frankenstein doesn't seem to stop to ask if the shoe's on the other foot. If it's actually humans who have turned against God. If it's actually humans who have the image of God stamped upon them, but who have turned against him in armed revolt. If that's not why we're part angels and part brutes, so to speak. We're in this state where we are far from God, because of our sin and rebellion against him. The very thing the Romantics find heroic - revolting against heaven itself! - is the very thing that continues to keep them away from God.

8. And, of course, Frankenstein doesn't wrestle with God so loving the world that he sent his only Son to die on a cross for our sins. Instead, Shelley's perspective is: God has made me monstrous, thus I shall live like a monster! God made me evil, so I shall be evil! Blaming God for rising up in revolt against him. It's an immature attitude to say the least.

9. Perhaps another lesson here is how the pursuit of knowledge isn't an unbounded pursuit, where anything goes, where nothing is off limits for the human mind to peer into, where no secrets are safe. It's a kind of intellectual autonomy. Nothing, not even God, can stop us from knowing what we want to know.

However, it's possible to overstep in pursuing knowledge, for there's an ethical component to knowledge. There's licit and illicit knowledge. The pursuit of knowledge can't be untethered from the philosophical and ethical as well as biblical and theological implications of such knowledge.

10. Rather, we ought to ask ourselves questions like, what are the bounds of knowledge? Just because we can, does that mean we should? That's an age-old question that has echoes down through to the present.

Just because we can create dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, does that mean we should? Just because (suppose) we can create A.I. like HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner's replicants, BSG's Cylon toasters, Ava in Ex Machina, and so on, does that mean we should?

Today, we could say we have the knowledge and technical know-how to be able to clone human embryos. Is it ethical to use such knowledge to do so? Say, with reproductive cloning, if a woman wants a cloned child after her image or her partner's image. This seems ethically illicit to me. For one, the physician-scientist could very well be creating human embryos and destroying human embryos in an effort to clone her child since it's not always possible to get it right with just a single attempt. For another, there seem to be a couple of further ethical issues in creating a near exact replica of one person (e.g. the father) rather than offspring with their genetics derived from both mother and father (e.g. is the clone's relationship more akin to that of child or father's twin brother). And, of course, there's the ever-present specter of eugenics looming nearby, allowing parents to tailor-make children after whatever fashion they choose.

5 comments:

  1. I might suggest another contextual area to pursue in understanding this book. I first read Frankenstein in high school, and was quite surprised at how "dialogic" it was, more of a set of reflective conversations, and not exactly "horror" (I read it right after reading Dracula, so the contrast was perhaps maximal and a bit misleading). All I knew about Mary Shelley at the time was here relationship with Percy.

    Just a year or two later I got into reading about the French Revolution, and that lead to reading Edmund Burke and his counter-revolutionary writings. That lead to reading responses against Burke = Paine, etc. but also Mary Wollstonecraft (without a doubt the most clever and biting opponent of Burke), and of her erstwhile husband William Godwin.

    It was only after this, which covered a few years, that I learned of the connection between Godwin/Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, that she was their daughter. That's when it occurred to me the connection between Mary Shelley's little book and the controversy between her parents and Burke. There are striking parallels between Shelley's book and Burke's anti-Revolutionary writings. This connection is not new and has been observed by others.

    The most striking parallel is that between how Burke described the Revolution itself, and in particular the new-fangled Constitution, as a monster, made up of various incongruous and ill-fitting parts. He wrote in what has been pointed out as very Gothic, horror-like language.

    Mary Shelley grew up in a revolutionary-oriented home, what we would today call a red-diaper baby. She would have known of her parents' position on these issues, and Percy shared these same ideas and criticisms of Burke and others who opposed the Revolution.

    Anyhow, one plausible interpretation, held by some at least, including myself, is that Dr. Frankenstein stands in for the French Philosophes, and the Monster is the Revolution their ideas wrought, and the awful aftermath of trying to create all things new. There are some sections of Frankenstein where it sounds like the monster is channeling counter-revolutionary critiques of the those responsible for it. It is debatable to what extent Mary Shelley shared the views of her parents and Percy, and she, it would seem, became quite conservative as she got older, raising her daughter on her own.

    As an 18 year old she was still quite impressionable, and this book was written at the close of the Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars, when the failure of the Revolution and the destruction it wrought were fresh in everyone's minds. It's questionable, therefore, that she wrote this as some sort of Promethean manifesto, a display of her own fist-shaking at God. Another thesis fits the facts quite well - she was expressing her own critique of the Revolutionary aspirations, and of the mess it all brought, of her parents and husband. Mary Shelley was no mere cipher.

    Just a thought to explore.

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    1. Thanks, Sam Took! That's definitely an intriguing idea. Thought-provoking.

      Not that I've spent a lot of time on this, but even from what little I've read or seen, Frankenstein seems to be a hotly debated novel. In fact, it's apparently become quite chic to discuss Frankenstein in literary and academic circles. Scholars debating it as a Gothic horror novel, as progenitor to modern science fiction, as a treatise for feminism, as something of a paean to nature in opposition to modernity, and many other interpretations. I suppose it's part of the fun trying to figure out what the book "really" means! :-)

      You might find this interesting: a BBC article lists 10 possible meanings.

      A couple of things to take into consideration too:

      -I've read there are two main editions of the book: the 1831 edition which is the most commonly available edition and the 1818 edition which most scholars in the field think is the best edition. I assume I read the 1831 text years ago since the 1831 text is a single volume, whereas the 1818 text is three volumes, and I remember reading a single book.

      -Also, I've read Mary Shelley's husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, had a significant hand in writing Frankenstein. Some scholars have gone so far as to say Percy Bysshe Shelley should be considered co-author.

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  2. She was only 18 years old when she wrote Frankenstein! o_O

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  3. It’s possible the stitching together of body parts then reanimation of corpses is meant as a ghastly parody of the resurrection.

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  4. The Jewish golem might be a literary predecessor to Frankenstein.

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