Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Frankenstein: What is Horror?
Why is Frankenstein a horror story?
On a dark an' stormy night.....
Frankenstein wuz penned by Mary Shelley.
Akshully it were dark an' stormy weeks in Switzerland, 1816, an ever'body wuz batty crazy fer bein' couped up inside together whar' poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron had set up their house of horrors. Dark an' stormy describes the souls of such as Percy B Shelley an' teenaged Mary Godwin.
Shelley once tried to sell his sisters on the idea of incest and had failed to persuade his 18 year old pregnant wife Harriet of the joys of communal intimacies.
The poet idolized William Godwin, Mary's philosopher father. Percy did manage to seduce 16 year old Mary Godwin in 1814 to join him fer fun an games, an bring her half sister Claire along fer extra deviancy on a jaunt through France an' Germany. When the money dried up, the vagabonds returned to England to set new fires.
Dear Reader, pleeze push the pause button fer a minute: Whar's this goin'? Straight to the NYTimes headlines of today. Hang in thar' wif' me, iffin' ya can, I'se hopin' to connect some very scary dots. (push play)
Shelley, an "angelic" lookin' son of minor aristocrats, caused convulsions in his family--tried to electrocute animals, maids an' his sisters durin' experiments wif' electrical currents, incurred embarrisin' debts, an was tossed from Oxford. He wuz enamored of the French Revolution (despite England's abject horror at the carnage they saw across the Channel) an' drank deeply from various Enlightenment philosophers including Mary's own father, Godwin, author of the radical tome, Political Justice. Godwin, who preached free love an' insisted that marriage was bondage, had nonetheless married Mary's mother once she'd became pregnant.
Shelley, fer his part, had dabbled in all manner of galvanizing experiments (electricity) as the portal to scientific occultism--see, whar' them witches an' crones out on the moors were so low-tech, utterly unscientific wif' their incantations an' spells, Percy believed that alchemy revealed its secrets only to the man who threw off all fetters that held natural man in bondage--the more radical the break (incest) with "unnatural" constraints on man, the more one wuz made worthy of the secrets of science of nature.
Mary at age 16 wuz filled with knowing horror of the consequences of the social experiment called The Enlightenment. She wuz the product of a dead feminist mama an' fruitcake philosopher father-- understandably kooky from livin' in the midst of bizarre soirees her Pa held wif' England's weirdest an dearest.
She wrote Frankenstein in a feverish few days confined to that gloomy villa on Lake Geneva wif' two laudanum drugged sadists, Byron an' Shelley. Mary, wif' her sister Claire, were shacked, er, "liberated" up wif' Byron, Shelley an' a young doctor friend. They had been readin' German ghost stories, swiggin' laudanum, an' surprise surprise, they hit on the idea of writin' their own scary tales. At this point in the horror of their personal lives, 18 year old Mary had already lost hers and Percy's illegitimate child to death shortly after it wuz born, while Percy's pregnant wife Harriet, distraught over "this vampire" husband, drowned herself a few months later. Jes' a few notes fer perspective, y'all.
If youse subjected to them conditions, you'd have dreams of Frankenstein too, doan'cha reckon? It doan take nuthin' from her achievement, however. In truth, I reckon the horror she lived made possible her lurid tale.
Anyhoo, to set the scene, recall that the horrors of the French Revolution were still fresh--young Romantics clung to hopes that some true good would spring from the blood-soaked soil. They read the tracts an' books of "liberty" (read license) an' the revolt against artificial constraints from all authority, especially religious or traditional. The dream of liberatin' "natural man" smoldered in ashy pockets throughout Europe.
Some say Frankenstein is the first novel of the horror genre. Many acknowledge that Frankenstein is Mary Shelley's critique of the twisted philosophy that ruint her life an' led Percy to insanity.
We might jawbone fer a spell on the merits or demerits of the whole Enlightenment project*, but fer our purposes, let's us'uns jes' set out that the idea of the project can be summed up in two major concepts:
1) The scientific or Newtonian revolution done recast the universe as mechanical--planets an' animals followin' the principles of physics which be devoid of moral weight. Science an' its power proved an irresistible elixir to men who sought to control the physical world by unlockin' the mysteries of physics.
2) Enlightened men are free men who understand that enlightened self-interest is natural, an' will lead to progress, profit an pleasure fer all, if ya jes' git them pesky morals out of the way. In the manner of the planets that simply follow their course yet do not collide, self-interest followed wif'out constraint should not cause men or nations to collide. Fer this to work, all fetters and constraints must be removed. When all live accordin' to "natural" self-interests, all will be well wif' the universe. Of course, this presupposes a mechanical man, devoid of soul or conscience.
Push Pause button again, if ya doan mind--thanky, Well, now, thang is, if man has no soul or conscience, how can there be anythang called "horror?"
Stuff jes' is, thas' all, no need to assign a pejorative label like "horror," right?
Why do "scary" thangs scare ya'? In a "natural" world of the Enlightenment, thangs ain't supposed to be scary. If ya die at the hands of passionate bloodsucker, or git caged in the basement of Jeffrey Dahlmer or loose a laig to a chainsaw, it's not an assault is it? It's part of the mechanical scientific natural world? If some fiend is jes' followin' its own enlightened self-interest, ain't that a thang of beauty? ** Is horror only horror when folks have failed to eject all moral compasses an' conscience? If ya' doan think a fiend is a fiend, then tar' ain't no fiends, right? Is modern malaise precisely 'cause we be livin' in a hybrid world whar' some is "naturalized" an some ain't? Thus we do have collisions? An no peace or justice can come of this hybrid world? Or, the reverse, horror is the consequence of violation of the moral law? Even if we doan believe in moral absolutes, do them absolutes an' their effects well up in the unconscious an' thas' why we'uns git scared?
If some ole moldy Tradition says "this is the moral law," cain't we Moderns jes' unsay it, then the consequences will go away? What exactly is horror? An' why do it have the power to frighten us? Is it the discovery that all this " natural man" stuff is utterly loosed on the world? An' it ain't workin' so great, since some self enlightenment satisfaction comes at the expense of the oppression of others? (push play, pleeze)
The plot of Frankenstein follows a bright an' promisin' young Viktor Frankenstein to the University whar' his passion is to learn how to bring back the daid--he lost his Mama when she gave birth to Viktor's wee brother. Of course, wise ole haids warn him not to try to mess wif' thangs that ain't given to man to control--life an death. Young an' passionate he cain't be dissuaded from the "beauty" of his quest.
It's good place to make note that Viktor were a good guy at the outset, good intentions an' all. But soon enough it wuz about the power--electrical power to create his creature/ monster, an personal power of the "unhallowed arts" of controllin' death an' life wif'out regard for life as more than mere mechanics. Viktor is soon demented wif' passion beyond his own ability to rein back.
"I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world."
Readers lose sympathy fer young Viktor ( who is NOT victorious by story's end) 'cause no amount of horror of the consequences causes him to pause or rethink--not his professors, friends, not his fiance. He is driven now by his unloosed passion. He justifies himself--as all dictators/ tyrants/ maniacs do.
The monster pursues an' destroys all that Viktor loved--jes as the monster of the Enlightenment philosophy pursued an destroyed all that Mary Shelley loved. The forbidden monster, once created, takes its own course--it cannot be controlled after all, nor can its consequences. An thar' is the horror. On Viktor's weddin' night when love should make life, death is the consequence. Think of how many horror movies have this theme-the scientist/ politician/ tyrant refuses limits, assumes science an' more power will contain whatever consequences erupt. But that is self delusion as Viktor learned "...the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart."
Mary Shelley puts some amazin' thangs in the mouth of her monster:
I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on.
I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other."
True stories of Frankenstein fill our news:
The New York Post reported an FBI sting that uncovered a ring of black market baby sellers--sold for $180,000 to people who cannot otherwise qualify to adopt or who want to insure a blue-eyed blond child. In many parts of the world sex selection abortions are standard. The sidebar of search pages for "surrogate mothers" offer top dollar to women who will incubate a cloned or selected embryo. Sales of babies as though they were commodities is not new, what is new is the massive scale an--here's horror--the justification of the practice by "enlightened" progressives who find nuthin' unsettlin' about it. Nor are some moved by the plight of kidnapped children sold into sex-slavery for sex-tourism in Southeast Asia and elsewhar'.
This wholesale disregard for life is barbaric. What is behind it? No one wants to put breaks on science--society should not condone cloning, or the genetic selection of embryos, or any number of other horrors made possible by advancing technology. Click here for the Human fertility Authority of the UK whar' animal an' human embryos is hybridized.
No one wants to impute to sex and life any moral code that contains constraint--do you recall that California couple who conceived a girl child in order to harvest her kidney to save the child they already had? And what of that British bill that would permit folks to clone themselves from stem cells an' harvest at will from the "twin" of yoreself when ya need a few spare body parts?
In the movie of Frankenstein the Monster asks why he was brought into existence--and millions of clinically conceived children will soon know that same disorientation--to have been brought to life but, only as a manipulation.
Elsewhar' we's monkeying around graftin' an' gene splicin' all manner of monsters--some plant, some animal, an some human, like this proud clinic that put a human ear on the back of a lab rat:
The movie Mimic explores the limits of science.
Looky, science is in neutral gear. It is not good or bad--fire either cooks yore food or burns yore house down--it is the use to which ya' put science--an, thas' the rub. We humans need to think long an hard about consequences we cain't control. We's spliced virus to make super bio-weapons, we's got frankenfoods--heard yet of the bacteria used as meat glue to smush together meat scraps but craft it to look like Fillet Mignon an charge ya' an arm an a laig?
Is nuthin' sacrosanct? Do contemporary societies want so desperately to be "free" of constraints that they stop at nuthin'?
What do y'all think? Should there be any boundaries? If so, where? and on what grounds do you draw yore boundary lines?
Gulliver's Travels and Alice in Wonderland aren't really children's tales but sober adult discussions.
Frankenstein ain't just a frightenin' spooky story fer Halloween, either. Aunty reckon's it would be a good thang to teach Frankenstein to collich kids as a warnin'.
** see La Mettrie, De Sade ( "Vice is freedom"), Bernard Mandeville.