Monday, January 18, 2010

A New Lesson from Frankenstein

Last semester my daughter had to read Frankenstein as part of her advanced placement lit class. She whined a lot about it. AP makes her work more than she wants to. But, she got a B in the class and that’s just fine with me. Especially since she studied hard to get it. Anyway, I hadn’t read Mary Shelley’s classic work since college. For a couple of weeks mostly around the holidays it served as bedtime reading.

Frankenstein is likely the world’s first science fiction novel, at least the modern beginnings of the genre. Somewhat amazingly, this novel was first published in 1818. It is a piece of gothic fiction with some vague bits about biology, chemistry (or alchemy), and electricity thrown in.

Electricity was a theoretical science at the time of Shelley’s writing. It had first been written about in the 1600’s but was merely a scientific curiosity at the time of the novel’s publication. The intentional use of theoretical scientific methods to “reanimate” human life gives the novel its distinctively sci-fi flavor.

Otherwise, it is a gothic horror (in the tradition of Bram Stoker) filled with dark imagery, mysterious developments, and – above all – tragedy on the scale of Homer. In a nutshell, as a result of a doctor’s well-intentioned attempt to bring a pieced-together dead body back to life, a “monster” murders three main characters, and cleverly frames one innocent character with one of the murders. The framed character ends up being executed by justice. Death is everywhere.

Frankenstein is not a book about giving new life, it is a story about how the consequences of transcending death forms a greater calamity of death and misery. To some extent, it is a warning cry against the abuses of science and would seem relative today to some of the 18th century minds still serving as movers and shakers as the 21st century world debates such matters as human cloning, nanotechnology, the technological singularity, and transhumanism.

It is not an inspiring work and it is futuristic only to the degree of using the future as a source of fear in the mind of the reader. What will the result of humanity harnessing electricity actually become? The reader is invited to ponder. Indeed, the world seemed to be changing rather rapidly in Shelley’s day. Nothing compared with the speed of change today, of course, but the basis for fear in Frankenstein is with us still.

This is the same fear as humanity experienced more obviously with atomic power during the cold war. Fear of the misuse of knowledge and technology, or of losing control of the consequences of technology is a basic modern and postmodern angst.

In the gothic context, these fears always result in guilt, misery, and ruin. The novel is a superb example of that and no doubt influenced the writing later on of Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, which – in turn – influenced more recent writers. Frankenstein is the cornerstone of a definable movement within world literature.

What struck me on this reading of the novel, after having last read it some three decades ago, is that the basis for the unfortunate narrative is not actually the creation of “the monster”. That is clear by the “humanity” shown by the “monster” in relation to the De Lacey family – led by the blind father. It is, rather, the way Victor Frankenstein reacts to his own creation.

“Oh! No mortal could support the horror of countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.” (from Chapter 5)

Victor flees his creation and becomes quit ill. It takes the efforts of a good friend over the course of an entire winter (naturally it’s winter in a gothic tale) to nurse him back to health. The reaction is fear, guilt, and sickness. Surely, there is no weaker posture for an obviously brilliant scientific mind to face the future.

For me, Frankenstein’s most relevant teaching is perhaps not a conscious intent of the author. In our postmodern reality, where the “genie is out of the bottle” on a whole host of genetic and other scientific and technological discoveries, the nature of human possibility should not be something to fear. On the contrary, it should be the basis for a sense of wonder, something ill-suited for the gothic metaphysic.

Had Victor accepted his “monster” the story would have likely turned out differently. All those murders probably would not have happened. Instead, Victor would have lived up to his responsibility to the monster - as its creator. There is no place for fear in the mind of the master.

What Shelley did not write into any of her characters was the idea of the heroic. The novel is, in fact, anti-heroic. Where the nature of human possibility is concerned, in the realms of science and art and ethics no less than in the realm of business and consumerism, our creations should be welcomed and incorporated into our intimate Being.

Such was not the case with Victor Frankenstein. His humanity was too weak for the knowledge he possessed. For most of humanity today this is very much the case. They fear the responsibilities of human possibility. They take refuge in the antiquated cowardice of human mystery and greatly prefer mystery to possibility as a basis for wonder.

Still, there is no inherent reason why you and I need be like Victor. If anything, the novel should teach us what he did wrong. If we are to live up to our ever-expanding knowledge, we must not allow old thinking and the archaic basis for human wonder to hinder us finding ourselves very comfortably at home in any world of our creation.

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