H.P. Lovecraft and the Horror of the Posthuman

The Shadow Over Innsmouth

Most boundaries have their origin in our fears, imposed in a vain quest of isolating what frightens us on the other side. The last two centuries have been the era of eroding boundaries, the gradual disappearance of what were once thought to be unassailable walls between ourselves and the “other”. It is the story of liberation the flip-side of which has been a steady accumulation of anxiety and dread.

By far the most important boundary, as far as Western culture at least is concerned, dealt with the line that separated the human from the merely animal. It was a border that Charles Darwin began the process of destroying with his book The Origin of Species in 1859, but though it was strongly implied in that work that human beings also were animals, and that we had emerged through the same evolutionary processes as monkeys or sea slugs, that cold fact wouldn’t be directly addressed until Darwin wrote another masterpiece – The Descent of Man in 1871.

Darwin himself was an abolitionist and believer in the biological equality of the “races”, but with his theory, and especially after The Descent’s publication, the reaction to his ideas wasn’t the a scientific affirmation of the core truth found in the book of Genesis- that despite differences in appearance and material circumstances all of humanity were part of one extended family- but a sustained move in the opposite direction.

Darwin’s theories would inadvertently serve as the justification for a renewed stage of oppression and exploitation of non-European peoples on the basis of an imagined evolutionary science of race. Evolutionary theory applied to human being also formed the basis for a new kind of fear- that of “master races” being drug back into barbarism by hordes of “inferior” human types- the nightmare that still stalks the racist in his sleep.

Darwin held views that while attempting to distance his theory from any eugenicist project nevertheless left itself open to such interpretations and their corresponding anxieties. Here Darwin’s humanism is much more obscure than on the question of race, for he drew a conclusion most of us find difficult to accept- that our humanistic instincts had combined with our civilizational capacities in such a way as to cause humanity to evolutionarily “degenerate”.  As he wrote in The Descent:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Still, the ever humane Darwin didn’t think such degeneration was a problem we should even try to solve given, for in doing so we might lose those features about ourselves- such as our caring for one another- that made our particular form of human life meaningful in the first place. Yet, despite his efforts to morally anchor the theory of evolution his ideas became the starting point for the project to replace the religious nightmares populated by witches and demons that were being driven from the world from the light of an increasingly scientific and secular age with new “scientifically based” fears.

What indeed could have been more horrifying for bourgeois whites than barbarians breaching the gate they had so assiduously built, between Western and subject peoples, the upper and middle classes and the poor- who often were of another color and language, or lastly, erosion of the sharp line that had been established between man as the master of nature and nature herself?

H.G. Wells was one of the first to articulate this new seemingly scientific nightmare that would replace older religious ones. If evolution was even now reshaping our very bodies and minds should we not fear that it was molding us in ways we might dread?

Wells in his novel The Time Machine thus imagined a future in which evolution had caused a twisted bifurcation of the human species. The upper class after eons of having had every need and whim provided had become imbeciles and gone soft-his childlike Eloi. Yet it was Wells’ imagined degenerates, the Morlocks, the keepers of machines who had evolved to live underground and who lived off the flesh of the Eloi that would haunt the imagination of a 20th century beset by the war between classes.

In The Time Machine Wells reworked European anxiety regarding “savages” into an imagined future of European civilization itself that might be brought about should the course of future human evolution come to be shaped by the failure to address class conflict and preserve the types of challenges that made gave life meaning and had shaped human evolution in the past. He would explore a  similar to erosion of boundaries, only this time between the human and the animal, with his 1886 novel The Island of Dr Moreau, which I’ve discussed on a prior Halloween.

Yet Wells would never explore the racial anxieties that were unleashed with the Theory of Natural Selection, probably because he remained both too intelligent and too humane to be taken in by the pseudoscience of race even when racism was a common opinion among educated whites. The person who would eventually give vent to these anxieties was a strange and lonely figure from Providence Rhode Island whose rise to popularity might serve as a sort of barometer of the early 21st century and its’ mixture of new and old fears.

I can’t say I’ve read much of H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps because I am no great fan of horror fiction generally, but after reading his 1931 tale The Shadow over Innsmouth I did understand much better what all the fuss over the last decade or so has been about.

Lovecraft is an excellent example of the old saw that brilliance and moral character need have nothing to do with one another. Indeed, he is a master storyteller of a sort of who excels at tapping into and exploring the darker human emotions. Where Lovecraft especially outperforms is at capturing less the emotion of fear than the sensation of suffocating disgust. Yet for all his brilliance, the man was also, indisputably, a racist asshole.

The plot of The Shadow over Innsmouth deals with an unnamed antiquarian who in search of the origins of an obscure kind of “crown” finds himself in the bizarre and ultimately horrifying coastal town of Innsmouth. What the protagonist discovers upon his arrival at Innsmouth is something close to a ghost town, an almost post- apocalyptic place neither fully abandoned nor alive and inhabited. Despite the tale’s setting near the sea the atmosphere Lovecraft describes reminded me very much of what is left from the man made disaster that is the town of Centralia, a place where our fantasies of the underworld meet reality in a way I know all too well.

The backdrop is important for the message I think Lovecraft is trying to convey, which is that civilization is separated from barbarism and violence, the angelic from the demonic, or the human from the animal, by a razor thin boundary that might disappear in an instant.

Against this setting Lovecraft succeeds in a mashup of the anxieties that haunted Westerners over the course of the modern age. The churches of Innsmouth have been converted over to a type of devil worship. Indeed, one of the most striking scenes in the story for me was when the protagonist sees one of the darkly robed priests of this cult walking across the street and finds himself struck with a strange sense of mental insanity and nausea- what fear can sometimes feel like as I myself have experienced it. Still, Lovecraft is not going to center his story on this one deep seated, and probably dying fear of devil worshipers, but will hybridize it and create a chimera of fears old and new.

The devil the inhabitants of Innsmouth worship will turn out to be one of the deities from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. In fact, Lovecraft appears to have almost single-handedly revived the ancient Christian idea that the gods of “pagans” and “heathens”, weren’t, as modern Christian mostly understand them, fictions or childish ideas regarding the “true” God, but were themselves real powers that could do things for their worshipers- though for a demonic price. The ship captain who brought the worship of a dark gods from lands in the Pacific did so for purely utilitarian reasons- prayer to the entity works- unlike prayers to the Christian God, who in a twist I am not sure Lovecraft grasped the cleverness of, has left the the fishing community of Innsmouth with empty nets.

In exchange for full nets of fish, the people of Innsmouth agree to worship these new “dark ones” and breed with them like the “sons of God” did with the “daughters of men” in the Book of Genesis, and just like in the Bible where such interbreeding gives rise to human monsters hybrids that God later destroys with the Flood, in The Shadow over Innsmouth the product of these unnatural couplings result in similar hybrids only, in a dark reversal of both the Noah story and historical evolutionary movement from sea to land, the hybrids will be born human only to devolve by the time they reach adulthood into a sort of immortal fish.

Okay, that’s weird… and deep.

What’s a shame is that it’s likely Lovecraft we’ll be talking about in 2100, much more so than Joseph Conrad, who, despite attempting to wrestle with similar anxieties, and from a much more humane perspective, will likely be anchored in the 19th and 20th centuries by his historical realism.

Lovecraft will likely last longer because he was tapping into archetypes that seem to transcend history and are burned deep into the human unconscious, but it’s not just this Jungian aspect to Lovecraft’s fiction that will probably keep his version of horror relevant in the 21st century.

The very anxieties, both personally and in fiction, that Lovecraft exhibited are almost bound to become even more acute as fears over immigration are exacerbated by a shrinking world that for a multitude of reasons is on the move. These fears are only the tip of the iceberg, however, as boundaries are breaking down in much more radical ways, as the kinds of revolutionary changes in public perception of homosexuality and the transgendered within just the last couple of years clearly attests.

Add to that what will only be the ever more visible presence of cyborgs, the dread of animated environments, and ubiquity of AI “deities” running the world behind the scenes, and all this combined with the continued proliferation of subcultures and bio-technological innovations that will blur the line between humans and animals, and one can see why anxiety over boundaries may be the most important fear in terms of its psychological and political impact in the 21st century.

What makes Lovecraft essential reading for today is that he gives those of us not prone to such fears over eroding boundaries a window directly into the mind of someone who experiences such erosion with visceral horror that as in Lovecraft’s time (he wrote during the era when Nazi propaganda was portraying the Jews as vermin) quite dark political forces are prone to tap. For that we might be thankful that the author was as dark of soul as he was for because of it we can be a little more certain that such fears are truly felt by some, and not just a childlike play for attention, even while the adults among us continue to know there aren’t any such monsters under our beds waiting until the lights go out to attack.

 

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We Are All Dorian Grey Now

Echo_and_Narcissus

If someone on the street stopped and asked you what you thought was the meaning behind Oscar Wilde’s novel A Picture of Dorian Grey you’d probably blurt out ,like the rest of us, that it had something to do with a frightening portrait, the dangers of pursuing immortality, and, if one remembered vague details about Wilde’s life, you might bring up the fact that it must have gotten him into a lot of trouble on account of its homoeroticism.

This at least is what I thought before I sat down and actually read the novel. What I found there instead was a remarkable reflection on human consciousness all the more remarkable because in 1890 when the novel was published we really had no idea how the mind worked. Wilde would arrive at his viewpoint from introspection and observation alone. His reflections on thought and emotion are all the more important because many of the ways his protagonist becomes unhinged from the people around him, and thus cursed to a fateful demise, are a kind of amplified intimation of what social media is doing to us today. Let me explain.      

The science writer and poet, Diane Ackerman in her book An  Alchemy of the Mind list three ways evolution has “played tricks” on us: 1) We have brains that can imagine states of perfection they can’t achieve, 2) We have brains that compare our insides to other people’s outsides, 3) We have brains desperate to stay alive, yet we are finite beings that perish. (p. 6). Although the novel is not discussed by Ackerman,  A Picture of Dorian Grey explores all three of these “tricks”, though the third one, which is perhaps often thought to be the main subject of the novel is in fact the least important one in terms of the story and its meaning.

The whole tragedy of Dorian Grey begins, of course, when Dorian looking upon his portrait by Basil Hallward dreams he could exchange his own temporal youth for the youth frozen in time by the painter:

… if only it were the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that-for that- I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the world I would not give! I would give my soul for that! (25-26)

What drives Dorian to make his “deal with the devil” is his ability to imagine something that cannot be- his own beauty frozen in time- like the dead portrait- while he himself remains living. Of course, the mark of maturity (or sanity) is being able to tell the difference between our dreams and reality and learn somehow to accept the gap. What this devil’s wager brings Dorian will be a failure to mature though this will not mean that he will not experience the other emotional manifestation of aging that emerges if one fails to grow with experience- that is degeneration and corruption.

If we do ever master the underlying mechanisms of aging, especially cognitive aging, this question of maturation and development seems sure to come up. We may all wish were as good looking as when we were 19 or as deft on the basketball court, but few of us would hope for the return of the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence or the lack of foresight we had as children. Many of these emotional changes from youth to middle age and older are based upon our accumulated experience, but they also follow what seems to be a natural maturing process in the brain. What we lose in reflex- time and rapid memory recall we more than makeup for in our ability to see the big picture and exercise emotional control. Aging in this sense, can indeed be said to be healthy.

These changes are certainly a factor when it comes to the relationship between aging and crime. Not only do the rates of crime track chronological age with the majority of crimes committed by young men in their late teens and early 2o’s, but rates of recidivism for those convicted and imprisoned plummets by more than half for those 59-69 years old versus 18- 24 year olds.

What does all of that have to do with Dorian Grey? More than you might think. In the novel it is not merely Dorian’s physical development that is arrested, but his emotional development as well. The eternal youth goes to parties, visits opium dens, visits brothels and does other things that remain unnamed. He does not work, does not marry, does not raise children. He has no real connection with other human beings besides perhaps Lord Henry Wotton who has introduced him to the philosophy of Hedonism, though even there the connection is tenuous. Dorian Grey gains knowledge but does not learn, neither from his own pain or the pain he inflicts on others.  Had he been arrested he would make the perfect recidivist.

Yet, it is in Ackerman’s second trick she thinks evolution has played on us: “having a brain that compares our insides to others outsides” that the real depth of The Picture of Dorian Grey can be found, and its most  important message in light of our own social media age. Indeed the whole novel might be thought of as a meditation on that simple, but universal, trap of our own nature. But first I must discuss the question of empathy.

Dorian manages to ruin almost every life he touches. His first romance with the poor actress Sibyl Vane ends in her suicide, his blackmail of Adrian Singleton leads to his suicide as well. He will murder Basil Hallward the person who perhaps loved him most in the world. There are countless other named and unnamed victims of Dorian’s influence.

What makes Dorian heartless is that everyone around him becomes a mere surface, a plaything of his own mind. It was his cruelty to Sibyl Vane that led to her suicide. Hallward who plays the Mephistopheles to Dorian’s Faust explains the actresses death to him this way:

No she will never come to life. She has played her final part. But you must think of that lonely death in the tawdry dressing- room simply as a strange fragment of some Jacobean tragedy, as a wonderful scene from Webster, or Ford or Cyril Tourneur. The girl never really lived so she never really died. To you at least she was always a dream a phantom… (103)

To which Dorian eventually responds regarding the girl’s death:

It has been a marvelous experience! That is all. I wonder if life has still in store for me anything as marvelous. (103)

We might reel in revulsion at Dorian’s response to the death of another human being, at his stone- heartedness in light of the pain the girl’s death has brought to her loved ones, a death he bears a great deal of responsibility for, but his lack of empathy holds up a mirror to ourselves and might be something we need to be more fully in tune with now that our digitally mediated lives allow us to so much more easily turn real people into the mere characters of our own life play.

There was the tragic case of Rebecca Sedwick a 12 year old girl who killed herself by jumping from an industrial platform after repeated bullying from her peers including multiple incitements by these young women for the girl to kill herself. The response of one of the bullies to the news of Rebecca Sedwick’s death was not horrified remorse, but this message which she posted on FaceBook:

Yes I know I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself, but I don’t give a f—k.

Two of the bullying girls had been arrested and charged with felony harassment, though the charges have now been dropped.

In addition to this kind of direct cruelty there is another form of digitally mediated cruelty where people are willing spectators and sometimes accomplices of heinous acts: snuff films, pornography with some participants unaware that they are being filmed, especially the epidemic of child pornography. Deliberate cruelty to animals is another form of a digitized house of horrors as well.

This cruel pixelization of human beings (and animals) can strike us in seemingly innocent forms as well, as the media critic Douglas Rushkoff wrote of our infatuation with reality TV in his Present Shock :

We readily accept the humiliation of a contestant at the American Idol audition- such as William Hung, a Chinese American boy who revived the song “She Bangs” – even when he doesn’t know we are laughing at him. The more of this media we enjoy the more spectacularly cruel it must be to excite our attention…. (pp. 36-37)

On top of this are all the kinds of daily cruelty we engage in with our simulations- violent video games, or hit shows like “The Walking Dead”.

Is all of this digital cruelty having an effect on our ability to feel empathy? It appears so. Researchers are starting to pick up on what they are calling the “empathy deficit” a decline in the level of self-reported empathetic concern over the last generation. As Keith O’Brien wrote in The Boston Globe:

Starting around a decade ago, scores in two key areas of empathy begin to tumble downward. According to the analysis, perspective-taking, often known as cognitive empathy — that is, the ability to think about how someone else might feel — is declining. But even more troubling, Konrath noted, is the drop-off the researchers have charted in empathic concern, often known as emotional empathy. This is the ability to exhibit an emotional response to someone’s else’s distress.”

Between 1979 and 2009, according to the new research, empathic concern dropped 48 percent.

The worst case scenario that I can think of is that we are witnessing an early stage of the shift away from the non-violent society, we, despite our wars, created over the 19th and 20th centuries. A decline that Steven Pinker so excellently laid out in his Better Angels of Our Nature.  

Pinker traced our development of a society incredibly less violent and less accepting of violence than any of its predecessor. We appear to have a much more developed sense of empathy than any society in the human past. One of the major players in this transition from a society where cruelty was ubiquitous to one where it invokes feelings of revulsion and horror Pinker believes was the rise of reading, of universal literacy and especially the reading of novels.

Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the the world from that person’s vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that person’s mind and are temporarily sharing his attitudes and reactions.

Stepping into someone else’s vantage point reminds you that the other fellow has a first-person present-tense, ongoing stream of consciousness that is very much like your own but not the same as your  own. It’s not a very big leap to suppose that the habit of reading other people’s words could put one in the habit of entering other people’s minds, including their pleasures and pains.

What visual/digital media fails to give us, what still allows even bad novels to give great films a run for their money, is any real grass of characters internal lives. The more cut off from other’s internal lives we become, the more they become mere surfaces with which we can play the “film” of our lives the only internal life we’ll ever know with certainty to be real.

This failure to recognize other’s internal lives is like the flip-side of “having brains that compare our insides to other people’s outsides” to which I will now after that long digression return. Perhaps all of the characters in The Picture of Dorian Grey mistake the surface for the truth of things. This is the philosophy of Lord Wotton, the origin of Dorian’s dark pact, and even infects the most emotionally attuned character in the novel, Basil.

In one scene, Basil comes to warn Dorian about his growing public infamy. It is a warning that will eventually lead to Bail’s murder at Dorian’s hands. The painter cannot believe the stories swirling around about the unaged man who once sat in his studio and was the muse of his art. Basil gives this explanation for his disbelief:

Mind you, I don’t believe these rumors at all. At least I can’t I can’t believe them when I see you. Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed. People talk sometimes about secret vices. There are no such things. If a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands even.  (149-150)

Basil believes Dorian is good because his outside is beautiful, or he confuses his own virtue with Dorian’s appearance. This mistaking of outside with inside is the curse of the FaceBook generation.  As Stephen Marche explained it in his article Is FaceBook Making Us Lonely? we have put ourselves in a situation where we are constantly confusing people’s lives with their social media profiles and updates where we often only see photos the beautiful kids making crafts- not the temper tantrums, the wonderful action packed vacation- not the three days in the bathroom with the runs, or the sexy new car or gorgeous home rather than the crippling car and home payments.

In other words, we assume people to be happy because their digital persona is happy, but we have no idea of the details. We should be able to guess that, just like us, the internal lives of everyone else are “messy”, but this takes the kinds of empathy we seem to be losing.  We are stuck with a surface of a surface and are apt to confuse it with the real. To top it all off we have to then smooth out our own messiness for public consumption, or worse fall into a pit where we try to dig out of our own complexity, so we like the personas of others we mistake for real people can be “happy”.

Here’s Marche:

Not only must we contend with the social bounty of others; we must foster the appearance of our own social bounty. Being happy all the time, pretending to be happy, actually attempting to be happy—it’s exhausting. “

So what of the last of Ackerman’s tricks of evolution that “we have brains desperate to stay alive, yet we are finite beings that perish.” Although it might seem surprising, the exploration of this desire to be immortal is the element least explored in A Picture of Dorian Grey.

The reason for this is that Dorian is not so much interested in immortal life as he is in eternal youth, or better the eternal beauty that is natural for some in their youth. A deal with the devil to live forever, but be homely, is not one vain Dorian would have made.

Dorian is certainly afraid of dying, he is terrified and sickened by the fear that Sibyl’s brother will kill him. But in the short space between the appearance of this fear and Dorian’s actual death there is no room to explore Wilde’s thoughts regarding death.Dorian does not live forever, he dies a middle aged man.

A new radio series The Confessions of Dorian Grey does explore this theme barely developed by Wilde, imaging a Dorian Grey who lives rather than dies and takes his corruption through different times periods after the fin-de siecle. I look forward to seeing where the writers and producers take the theme.

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In the back of my version of A Picture of Dorian Grey is a wonderful essay The ‘Conclusion’ to Pater’s Renaissance  by Wilde that is really about what it means to be alive and to be conscious and the place of art in that. Wilde writes:

… the whole scope of observation is dwarfed to the narrow chamber of the individual mind. Experience already reduced to a swarm of impressions, is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without. Every one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world.  (226)

Wilde wanted to grab hold of the fleeting impressions of life for but a moment and locate the now. Art, and in that sense “art for art’s’” sake was his means of doing this a spiritual recognition of the beauty of the now.

What ruined Dorian Grey was not the or sentiment or truth of that, though Wilde was exploring the dangers implicit in such a view. The black box nature of our consciousness, the fact that we create our own very unique internal worlds, is among the truths of modern neuroscience. Rather, Dorian’s failure lie in his unwillingness to recognize the “dream of a world” of others was as real and precious as his own.

Finding Frankenstein a Home

Frankenstein Cover

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.