Percy’s epic poem, Prometheus Unbound is seldom read today while his wife’s novel, Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus has become so well known that her monster graces the boxes of children’s cereal, and became the fodder from one of the funniest movies of the 20th century.
The question that always strikes me when I have the pleasure of re-reading Frankenstein is how could someone so young have written this amazing book? Mary Shelley was a mere twenty-one when the novel was published and the story she penned largely to entertain her husband and friends has managed to seep deeply into our collective assumptions especially those regarding science and technology. Just think of the kinds of associations the word “frankenfood” brings to mind and one gets a sense of how potent as a form of resistance against new forms of technology her gothic horror story is.
What is lost in this hiving off of the idea of the dangers of “unnatural” science for use as a cautionary tale against using a particular form of technology or exploring a certain line of research is the depth and complexity of the other elements present in the novel. I blame Hollywood.
The Frankenstein’s monster of our collective imagination isn’t the one given us by Mary Shelley, but that imagined by the director James Whale in his 1931 classic Frankenstein.
It was Whale who gave us the monster in a diner jacket, bolts protruding from his neck, and head like a block. Above all, Whale’s monster is without speech whereas the monster Mary Shelley imagined is extraordinarily articulate.
Whale’s monster is a sort of natural born killer his brain having come from a violent criminal. It is like the murderous chimpanzee written about in the weekend’s New York Times a creature that because we can not control or tame its murderous instincts must be killed before it can harm another person. Mary Shelley’s monster has a reason behind its violence. He can learn and love like we do, and isn’t really non-human at all. It is his treatment by human beings as something other than one of us- his abandonment by Victor Frankenstein after he was created, the horror which he induces in every human being that encounters him, that transforms the “creature” into something not so much non-human as inhumane.
There is a lesson here regarding our future potential to create beings that our sentient like ourselves – the technological hopes of the hour being uplifting and AI – that we need to think about the problem of homelessness when creating such beings. All highly intelligent creatures that we know of with the remarkable exception of the cephalopods are social creatures therefore any intelligent creature we create will likely need to have some version of home a world where it can be social as well.
The dangers of monstrousness emerging from intelligence lacking a social world was brilliantly illustrated by another 19th century science-fiction horror story- H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau. In Mary Shelley’s novel she gives us insight into the origins of evil in the absence of such a world. Because it cannot be loved, Victor’s Frankenstein’s creation will destroy in the same way his every attempt to reach out to other sentient creature is ultimately destroyed with the creature telling his creator who has left him existentially shipwrecked:
“I too can cause desolation.”
Mary’s Shelley’s creature isn’t just articulate, he can read, and not only everyday reading, he has a taste for deep literature, especially Milton’s Paradise Lost which seems to offer him understanding of his own fate:
Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his creator, he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from, beings of a superior nature: but I was helpless and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition: for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me. “ (Chapter 15, p.2)
In some sense Mary Shelley’s horror story can be seen as less of a warning to 19th century scientist engaged in strange experiments with galvanization than a cautionary tale for those whose dehumanizing exploitation of industrial workers, miners, serfs and chattel slaves might lead to a potentially inhuman form of revolutionary blow back. The creature cries to his creator:
Yet mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery: if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear; and chiefly towards you my archenemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguisable hatred. “(Chpapter 17 p. 1)
Yet, these revelations of the need for compassion towards sentient beings were largely lost in the anti-scientific thrust of the novel by which Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus and its progeny has become one of our most potent cautionary tales against hubris. A scene in Whale’s Frankenstein where the doctor is speaking to a fellow scientist who lacks his ambition for great discovery sums it up nicely:
Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond. Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or what causes the trees to mount, or what changes the darkness to light? When you talk like that people call you crazy. But if I could discover just one of these things- what eternity is for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.
This bias against trying to answer the big questions isn’t merely an invention of the film maker but a deep part of Mary Shelley’s novel itself. Victor Frankenstein is first inspired not by science but by medieval occultists such as Cornelius Agrippa. Exchanging these power and knowledge aspirations of the magicians for run of the mill science meant for Victor:
“I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth.” (Chapter 3, p. 3)
Victor would not let this diminishment of his horizons happen:
So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein, – more, far more will I achieve: treading the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation. (Chapter 3)
His ultimate goal being to create-life anew, a road not only to biological immortality but his worship:
A new species would bless me as creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as should deserve theirs. “ (Chapter 4, p. 4)
It is here, I think where we see that Mary Shelley has turned the tables on her husband’s Prometheus giving him the will to power seen in Milton’s Satan whom Percy Shelley in his tale of the Titan had tried to find an alternative for. Scientists would oblige Mary’s warnings by coming up with such horrors as the machine gun, chemical warfare, aerial bombing, nuclear weapons, napalm and inhumane medical experiments such as those performed not just by the NAZIs, but by ourselves.
At the same time scientists gave us anesthesia, and electric lighting, penicillin and anti- biotics along with a host of other humane inventions. It is here where the emotional pull of Mary Shelley’s divine imagination loses me and the anti-scientific nature of her novel becomes something I am not inclined to accept.
The idea of hubris is a useful concept some variant of which we must adopt the exploration of which I will leave for another time. In crafting an updated version of the tale of the dangers of human hubris Mary Shelley has dimmed under Gothic shadows some of the illumination of the Enlightenment in which she played a large part. Warnings against following our desire to know is, after all, the primary moral of her novel. As Victor tells the polar explorer Robert Walton who has saved him:
Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier the man is who thinks his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become more than his nature will allow (Chapter 4, page 2)
Walton on the basis of Victor’s story does prematurely end his polar exploration, perhaps saving his crew from mortal danger, but also stopping short an adventure and as a consequence contracting the horizon of what we as human beings can know. Many of the lessons of Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus we need to grapple with and take to heart, yet this refusal to ask or take upon ourselves the danger of attempting to answer the deepest of questions would constitute another very different, though very real, way of losing a elemental component of our humanity.