The world has not learnt anything from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s ‘Gothic’ (proto-)science fiction novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which was published when the author was only 20 years old. It was the fruit of a contest among herself and two other literary figures — her future husband, the poet Percy Shelley, and another poet, Lord Byron — when they were travelling in Switzerland, to write the best horror story. The novel is probably also the first true science fiction novel, which treats science and technology as a pharmakon, which can create novel realities, but can equally destroy existing ones.

Since its publication it has inspired many other, similar stories in literature as well as, later, in film, so that virtually every literate person knows about ‘Frankenstein’, often erroneously attributing the name to Dr Frankenstein’s monstrous creature. What interests me here — 200 years since its appearance — is the fact that the critique it renders of scientific (Promethean) reason, specifically the implicit belief in science’s capacity to ‘control’ nature through its offspring, technology, has evidently not been taken seriously by contemporary science and technology, given its ongoing quest to fulfill precisely what the novel explicitly (and almost prophetically) warns against.

I do not have the space here to discuss the significance of the various ‘frames’ (Captain Walton writing to his sister to tell the story that Dr Frankenstein tells him, which includes the story that the creature tells Frankenstein) of this epistolary novel; suffice to say that these are ‘distancing’ devices of sorts. The plot of the novel is quite well known, even if it is sometimes in caricature form, because not all film versions adhere to the original plot-structure. In a nutshell, and omitting (too) many details, it is the story of Victor Frankenstein, from a wealthy Genevan family, who goes to Ingolstadt to study ‘natural philosophy’ (i.e. science, particularly chemistry), after becoming infatuated with the work of alchemists like Paracelsus, who believed, like the fictional Dr Faustus, that they could find the ‘philosopher’s stone’ and the ‘elixir of life’ which could impart immortality. He is soon cured of this infatuation in favour of Newtonian science, which he pursues relentlessly, but his belief that he could indeed discover the secret of life — to the point of creating it — does not perish.

Victor, having figured out how life can be imparted to lifeless objects after discovering a primordial life-principle (which is commonly understood as being connected to electricity, or ‘galvanism’, in derivative works, although this is left vague in the novel), becomes fanatically involved with his project of doing exactly that, working alone in his laboratory and visiting morgues and charnel houses to find the body-parts he needs to construct a colossal ‘human’ figure. Despite his health suffering egregiously because of his singular obsession with his Promethean project of creating a living being through scientific knowledge, Victor perseveres, but when the ‘creature’ comes to life he is so appalled by its hideous eight feet frame and features that he flees.

When Victor’s friend, Henry Clerval, arrives in Ingolstadt, he nurses Victor back to health, only for the latter to receive word, four months later, that his youngest brother has been murdered. Returning to Geneva, he sees the creature near the murder scene, and realises that it is the culprit, although the child’s nanny has been charged with the murder. Helpless to prevent her from being falsely convicted and executed — after all, who would believe his story? — Victor is stricken with guilt and remorse. He seeks solace in the high Swiss mountains, where he is confronted by the creature, who persuades Victor to listen to his account of acquiring the ability to speak and read intelligently, and of the events that led to him murdering Victor’s brother and framing the nanny by putting the child’s locked in her pocket.

This (the creature’s story) is the most moving part of the novel, in my estimation, because it unmasks Dr Frankenstein as someone who was quite willing and able to harness scientific (chemical) and technical rationality effectively in the construction and animation of the nameless creature, but who is almost completely unsympathetic towards the being that he brought to life. And this despite the very eloquent manner in which this outwardly hideous, but evidently intelligent and sensitive being entreats him to create a female mate for him so that he would not be alone in a world where people abhor him at first sight, which evokes in him conflicting feelings of wanting affection, but also revenge against those who reject him. Ironically, Victor Frankenstein is depicted as a very sensitive person where his family members are concerned, but when confronted by the fruits of his own scientific and technical labours, he seems devoid of any sympathy and understanding.

Ostensibly realising that he has a certain duty towards the creature, but more for pragmatic reasons of assuaging the creature so as to preclude future hostility on its part towards humans, Frankenstein reluctantly agrees to construct a female companion for it — a task which he eventually takes up in the Orkney Islands, but abandons again in the belief that two such creatures would pose a threat to humanity. The end result is that the understandably vengeful creature murders his friend, Henry, as well as his wife, Elizabeth, on their wedding night. Victor follows the creature to the North Pole, intent on destroying it, which is how he meets Captain Walton to tell his story. The rest I shall not divulge; read this gripping novel to find out.

The important insight that Shelley affords one concerns her portrayal of scientific rationality, which underpins Victor’s narrative, as being capable of unheard-of discoveries and their implementation by technical means. This is where the significance of Shelley’s Gothic science fiction lies for the contemporary world. Just as Victor Frankenstein forged ahead with his intention to create a living being out of dead limbs and tissue, while showing an incongruous (because irrational) unwillingness to accept the ethical consequences of and responsibility for his deed, so, too, the modern world, still committed to the self-same scientific and technical rationality, is equally unwilling to accept the ethical consequences of its techno-scientific creations. The latter may not have a humanoid form, like Victor’s creature — except, of course, for many of the robotic beings that are being produced today — but they are nevertheless products of technoscience, and they have many deleterious effects in the world that the people who produced them do not take responsibility for.

The most obvious examples are motor cars’ fossil fuels-based carbon-emissions, which are driving catastrophic global warming, and also the disastrous suffocation of the world’s oceans by plastic products, which literally kill ocean creatures. These are more monstrous than Frankenstein’s creature, who, for all intents and purposes, had a finer sensibility than most humans, but was edged towards revenge by his maker who would not accept his own ethical responsibility towards his creation.

One might even see in nature a Dr Frankenstein, who ‘created’ a human ‘monster’ through evolution; despite its vaunted capacity for rational thinking and action, this human creature’s exercise of its rational faculties in a narrow instrumental, technicist manner, has — like Frankenstein’s creature — led it to take revenge on its maker (nature) by creating the conditions for other living beings’, and (ironically) its own, demise. Furthermore, this ‘spirit of revenge’ (in Nietzschean terms), could be understood as being born out of humankind’s resentment towards nature for not making it immortal — something it is attempting to compensate for by following in Frankenstein’s (or nature’s) footsteps and constructing its own ‘creature’, namely artificially intelligent beings or robots. Needless to repeat (it has been pointed out several times by people like the late Stephen Hawking), the latter may, like Frankenstein’s creature, turn on their human creators.

Read Bert Olivier’s original post on Thought Leader.

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Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier is an honorary professor of philosophy at the University of the Free State, South Africa. As well as philosophy, he engages in productive explorations of disciplines such as architectural and psychoanalytical theory and film studies

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