Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Curse of Frankenstein

Lately I've been contemplating the issue of evil. I am not religious in any sense, not really militant enough to call myself an atheist, but if pressed I'd probably hang out by their water cooler. I do, however, believe that evil exists in the world.

Is this just a convenient blanket word to describe what I think is amoral? Who really decides ethics? Why do I think some things are unethical? Is it something socialized that I've never really examined? Why do we feel the need for retaliation and revenge, for justice when what is done is irreversible?

I believe that Mary Shelley wrestled with many of these concepts in her brilliant book Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. I admittedly have not read it in a very long time, but the questioning of ethics and the problems of doing harm with intentions to benefit hmankind is such an intentionally provocative theme. This story is even more important today than it was in Romantic times or the Victorian glaze we look back on it through.

As we extend life, provide the means to procreate to those who cannot, cure the once incurable and fail to provide education to anyone without money, failing to protect women from violence, force queers to become straight, we are spreading exponentially and decimating the Earth's resources. As oil coats the shore tonight, as we are aiding and abetting murder in Afghanistan, as we rationalize our rampant disposable culture, we are faced with the abyss of progress. Progress before our time, just as Shelley presented the abyss to us almost two hundred years ago.

Did I request thee, Maker from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
----Milton, Paradise Lost

Mary Shelley's mother died when she was eleven days old. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, writer, philosopher, one of the founding feminists and education advocate, among other things. You should look up her biography, she is incredible. But back to the subject: Around the time Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, she lost both her children a year apart and directly following her half-sister's suicide. In 1822 her husband drowned while boating. She was severely depressed, but used her writing as comfort and, like Victor Frankenstein, a purpose to numb the mind. Yet even that was met with confusion and negativity. When Frankenstein was first published it was met with much derision. "...a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity" - Quarterly Review

Yet through all this, she still took solace in writing, creating short stories, apocalyptic visions, gothic fantasies, tales of incest, editorial work, travelogues, and numerous biographies as well as annotating and editing her husband's work. Some lunatic fringe revisionists try to say that she didn't write this book, or some, like Warren Ellis, make her into an innocent vessel being shown horrors only to report on them with astonished secrecy. I respect Warren Ellis very much, and he is probably the last man writing comics I would call anti-feminist, but this story completely denies the imagination of Mary Shelley. Rather than celebrate her extraordinary life and true genius, she becomes a vacationer whose eyes are opened by men and whose character is lifeless. To make matters worse, the short comic is titled "The Womb of Frankenstein."

But the fact that the issues she wrestled with are still important today speaks volumes as to why authors such as Warren Ellis would want to mine their riches. As the dead begin to walk among us thanks to scientific advances, we come closer and closer to this creation, becoming a parent before we've left our own childhood behind. It is Shelley who is leading us to the experimental horror chamber, and it is Shelley who is laying waste to our self importance.

Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus has cursed us with our own fantasies and bent on evil: "You can blast my other passions, but revenge remains -- revenge, henceforth dearer than light of food! I may die, but first you, my tyrant and tormentor, shall curse the sun that gazes on your misery."

"I felt as if my soul were grappling with a palpable enemy; one by one the various keys were touched which formed the mechanism of my being; chord after chord was sounded, and soon my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose. So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein — more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation."

This is art.

This is genius.

This is the curse of Frankenstein.

To deny it is the true definition of evil.

illustration by Bernie Wrightson from his beautifully illustrated version of the book

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