by Lance Rhoades
Join us at Scarecrow Video for a free Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau event featuring Lance Rhoades giving his presentation, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Anatomy of a Masterpiece. This event takes place Saturday, November 12, 2016, 7:30 pm.
So exclaims Frankenstein in the classic 1931 film adaptation [He’ll say it again in the excellent 1935 sequel Bride of Frankenstein]. The declaration immediately puts the creature’s status into doubt. It’s alive, but the implication couched in the doctor’s professional opinion is that “it” is not human. Although the films depart significantly from Shelley’s novel – most obviously in their physical characterizations of the creature(s) – this attitude is consistent with the novel, and it informs his treatment of him throughout the narratives. For example, Frankenstein never gives his creation a name, other than to curse him (the list in the novel is extensive: “creature,” “monster,” “demon,” “fiend,” and so on). As horrifying as the circumstances of the creation are, readers and viewers alike typically share the doctor’s reaction, but this sentiment gives way to sympathy, as we witness the cruelty of Frankenstein and other people toward the creature.
This sympathy grows, as the creature demonstrates feelings and a desire to be a part of the community of human beings – in short, that he wants to love and be loved. Shelley’s novel extends this sympathy, for here the creature manages to learn how to read (soon absorbing many great works in the Western canon) and to eloquently speak. He also proves to be insightful and sensitive in ways that Dr. Frankenstein is not. Indeed, as the creature makes a case for his humanity, Frankenstein increasingly proves himself to be a kind of monster [thus, popular culture’s confusion between or conflation of the two is not entirely inappropriate], so that the dubiousness attributed to the creature also applies to the doctor, perhaps more so. The creature craves companionship, just one friend, but he is compelled to solitude against his will. Conversely, Frankenstein dismisses the love and concern of his large family, his best friend, and even his fiancée, whom he makes wait by prolonging their engagement for years while he obsesses over his secret experiment. While the doctor lets his health deteriorate working night and day, ignoring evacuation orders during a cholera outbreak, and finally dying from exposure in the Arctic, the creature, although pieced together from human remains, is powerful and agile. Faced with contempt from humans, the creature eventually embraces the role of humankind’s adversary, unleashing violent and calculated attacks on the Frankenstein family. Even so, the creature kneels and shed tears over the body of his creator after his death.
Mary Shelley could neither have imagined the world we live in today, nor the world of our future. However, she possessed keen insight into human nature – especially into ambitious minds – and in some ways she grasped where humanity was headed. Above all, she saw that, for better and worse, humans are capable of attempting and achieving extraordinary things, for good and bad reasons. Her own era had given her reason to question the motives and ramifications of many scientific pursuits and, in Victor Frankenstein, Shelley created a mad scientist pursuing a project that epitomized the worst tendencies and possibilities of her times, whose mistakes stood as a warning. Those mistakes, the question of his intentions notwithstanding, were refusing the advice of those who counseled him and not taking responsibility for his actions. Because Frankenstein worked in isolation, neither he nor a scientific community could benefit, and because his experiment could not be contained, lives were endangered.
Two hundred years after Shelley wrote her cautionary novel, similar dangers threaten, but in new forms. The hypothesis of a secretive, solitary scientist unleashing a monster is overshadowed by a further-reaching, diffused reality. Extreme specialization in research, mistrust and conflict between nations, deregulation, profit motives (augmented by large-scale investments), and the irresistible desire to make our lives longer or better (or at least more convenient) all magnify the scale of and speed at which experiments in modifying life can take place, in ways that make it harder and harder to see a big picture, or to coordinate and control the numerous experiments. Human nature may have changed little since Shelley’s time, but the ways in which the world is fragmented yet potently interconnected almost guarantees Frankensteinian myopia on a global scale. You could say we have entered the age of The Postmodern Prometheus! This perhaps suggests that the emergence of “monsters” is inevitable.
The idea is not so outrageous if we consider that the monster need not be an eight-feet tall, greenskinned, yellow-eyed, animate assemblage of cadaver parts. The terror that the Frankenstein monster inspires has more to do with what it represents – something/someone whose existence throws into doubt the distinction between what is human and what is not, or who is master of whom. Frankenstein’s assumption that he is his creation’s master relies on continually convincing himself that the creature is not human. Yet, the creature excels in areas that humans have long held advantages (or monopolies) and thus presumed superiority over other lifeforms. The creature is faster, stronger, more dextrous, wiser, and, by mastering multiple languages within two years of being “born,” the creature surpasses the most intelligent humans. The creature is a living, reasoning being able to learn, to feel and express emotions, including resentment and anger, and is capable of acting on those feelings.
Shelley’s world, like ours, is unprepared for the existence of such a creature. At present (as likely in the future) other man-made creations challenge the human/non-human distinction, and human predominance. The world has already become accustomed to using automated and robotic machinery for labor. The issue here is not one of superior intelligence, but economic dependence, as an innovation becomes something industry and consumers addicted to lower costs cannot live without. However, as machines and software are made more sophisticated, able to take on more complicated tasks, learn from errors, and even design and build/code other machines/programs, jobs thought once the sole domain of humans are getting filled by non-humans. Beyond the issue of how society contends with massive job displacement (which negates the benefit of lower costs), there is also the question of whether machine – or artificial – intelligence is the same as human intelligence, and whether machines will demand to be treated with respect, or to be given rights. This has been a hotly debated topic for decades, and one that may not be resolved until we see the results of ongoing trends.
It is worth considering, however, that the line between what is human and what is not is blurred not only by increasingly sophisticated technology, but also by humans becoming more machine-like, or even programmed. Humans outsource their labor to their creations; they also outsource calculations and memory storage to them. There is a question of what happens to a human mind that no longer needs to perform these tasks and, by extension, what becomes of human identity. Technological capabilities in biological sciences are making it possible to manipulate or redesign organic structures, or to integrate them with synthetic materials, even at the genetic level, which makes possible the creation of, among other things, animal-human hybrids. There are numerous arguments made for and against actually following through with such experiments, but, as Mary Shelley understood, sometimes the very question of whether something can be done overrides the question of whether we can handle – or survive – the consequences.
Lance Rhoades is a multifaceted Seattle-based scholar who completed his graduate studies in Comparative Literature and Cinema Studies at the University of Washington, where he has taught in the Department of Comparative Literature, and in the Cinema Studies, Comparative History of Ideas, and American Indian Studies programs, and was a recipient of the UW’s Excellence in Teaching award.