Less than Human, More than Human
Mary Shelley had four children and buried three as infants. Her last son Percy survived her and died of old age. But Frankenstein, her ultimate creation, has lived on. Her literary science fictional monster child became a myth, an aspiration, an ambition and even somewhat a reality in the past 200 years.
Mary Shelley's “less than human being” became a superhuman cultural talisman, a fictional monster of godlike immortality. It would probably shock and appall her to find her shocking and appalling invention so native and normalized in our epoch, and I doubt that her fame as a horror writer would appease and content her as a thinker, author, as a woman and a loving bereaving mother.
Not every corpse struck by a lightning becomes a Frankenstein, but a writer's intuitive talent can become her shambling heritage whether she wants it, or knows it, or not.
The more than human and the less than human; it can be thrust upon us, or it can be taken away. Some years ago I spoke to mothers from Srebrenica whose children were executed in a genocide. I remember vividly how they craved for the lost status of a common humanity. Their children had been classified as “less than human” by criminals appointing themselves judge, jury and executioner. A mere conventional legal punishment could not rectify that less-than-human/more-than-human situation. They needed public justice done for the moral crime, not just for lethal criminal acts. They needed the criminals to look in their eyes on the level ground of humanity, and say that they were sorry. But the criminals, who had left the extremes of war to try to regain normality, also felt that need. Some even did say that they were sorry .
Truth and reconciliation, the justice model: Frankenstein too still craves to be pardoned, understood, and ranked in heaven and hell as a killer and as a victim, as a member of our society, as just a being among us, neither less nor more.
Imagine Hitler’s mother confronting Anne Frank’s mother. What could they possibly say? Mary's feat in writing Frankenstein was to give them some ground for that discussion. A creature comes into the world -- he's not born of a mother, so he's not one of us, but he's there. An anomaly, but real. He's an agent in the world, and he is morally tainted by the evil of a world from which no mother can protect him.
Mary, being a Romantic, thought that Nature was pure and good, and that the lack of a natural perfection made the alien creature go wild with rage. Nowadays we'd be inclined to think that Nature is quite faulty and that human nature even more so. Rather than fearing Dr. Frankenstein's hubris in his medical natural-philosophy, we'd be keen to seek technological and social enhancements to correct and control the too-natural processes of our mortality.
Mary Shelley, the teenage author of FRANKENSTEIN, likely felt some need to impress the famous male poets around her, one of them her husband Shelley, the other the lover of her sister, her friend Byron.
Teenage girls know everything, from thirteen to nineteen they should rule the world. Because adult women must be subjugated and civilized; that is how patriarchy works.
Byron and Shelley didn't write Frankenstein, because no man would ever feel that maternal responsibility for her creature, that moral obligation towards the society, that love and shame when it fails the world. That is the point of view of a woman, a motherless daughter, a childless mother, a troubled and sensitive soul.
Mary, like all of us of mother-born creatures had to emerge from her mother’s body. That is the hardest, shortest trip for a human being, and Mary's birth caused the death of her creator. That survivor’s guilt prompted her artificial gift of life to a differently-born creature, a page-borne thing of ideas and words. Frankenstein was her expiation and guilt.
My mother was a doctor, while my father was an engineer who slowly turned hypochondriac. I grew up in atmosphere of permanent war against imminent death. Both my parents were atheists and Communist idealists, so the issue of how and when to die was awkward for them. Atheism offered them no imaginary refuge in a God-given eternal life, while their communist idealism made them relentless activists for some new-and-improved world, some utopian safe-house against the actual, existing world of all-too-Balkan invasions, injustice, poverty, disease and crime.
In an era when mass popular totalitarianism is out of style, our temperament is closer to that of the lonely but brilliant biotech inventor, Victor Frankenstein. Many of us owe our lives to unnatural interventions which would have shocked Mary Shelley, such as artificial insemination, transplantation of organs, gender change, and mood stabilizers. And what would Mary Shelley make of the lives of the women of science, like Madame Curie or Rita Levi-Montalcini? Are they her cultural foes, or the kind of woman she herself should have become, like, say, Byron's estranged daughter, Ada Lovelace?
Frankenstein is a mythic story, as fluid as the Thousand and One Nights of Sheherezade. All writers become stowaways in a civilizational process of upgrades and updates, notes and footnotes, of veils falling to the dancer's feet and while new and more decent wraps are hastily invented. Honestly, every woman writer has a Frankenstein in her cradle, in her soul, in her marriage bed, and in her empty grave.
Is the Frankenstein monster more a living being, a mutant; or a technical product, a robot?
This unnatural man resembles a human, he is constructed with once-living parts of different human bodies, vivified by the lightning from heaven. But he lacks acculturation. He needs human beings to teach him a conformity he can never really have.
A robot is manmade of different elements too. But since robots aren't alive, they can't exist without a vast and complex technical support system. A robot can't be at ease under the sun and sky like some flower or an eggshell, a robot is a childless mechanism, always at the brink of the junk pile.
Who has the stronger claim on my sympathies; the mutant or the robot?
Frankenstein's story is a big and sad love story, rather histrionic and not in the best of taste, rather like “Gone With the Wind." Mary’s own love story with Percy Shelley is a mad passion of a teen ready to die for love, who elopes with her ruthless lover, defying the church, the state, decency and convention, her widowed feminist father, the scholarly Mr Wollstonecraft... in the name of Romance, passion, creativity, freedom, poetry, sensibility. What are the limits to the capacity to love, the demand to love, of an intelligent teenaged girl? She puts all her life at mercy of sensibility, and through this brave act she wins a victory, a knowledge of the limits of her soul. But she has to pay a price for that, that of her dead children and the unhappy life of her mutant robot, her cyborg Frankenstein.
Donna Haraway said: I would rather be a cyborg than a princess. Mary Shelley wasn't offered that choice, but she lived it. The beautiful cyborg in Blade Runner, the one with the most awareness, is not frenetically killed or killing like the other cyborgs; she can love and be loved: nobody is perfect. She'll never be a princess, either, but for a Philip K. Dick property in Hollywood, it's what passes for a happy end.
Haraway argues that a happy end for women is to deconstruct their identities as natural born entities, to split from the myth of nature and allow oneself to become a cyborg. Might Frankenstein have survived, or even lived indefinitely ever after, if society found him an education, a day-job and some heath insurance? What if nobody mentioned the stark dividing line between the human and the Other? What if the subject never came up, what if nobody cared?
Haraway says in her cyborg manifesto:
“Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing, before Man. Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other...
The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalised identities...
Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the super- savers of the new right. It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.”
Mary Shelley's life was rich eventful important tragic dramatic creative wild famous important...and she lived it with full lungs, with stoic strength. and an intelligent open approach. The novel Frankenstein was written in the turmoil of a melting pot of ideas, the revolutionary romanticism of England France and Italy.
Mary was the daughter of a one of the most prominent feminists, Mary Wollstonecraft and the famous liberal philosopher William Godwin. She was married to a world- class poet and the friend of another, but she could not catch a breath until she came with the idea of a monster.
It was a party game in the Villa Diodata: to write the most terrifying thing you could think of. They talked about sex money and poetry, love peace justice and equality -- what about weird terror? What about love?
Her striking effusion of horror found the instant blessing of Byron and the strong support of her husband Shelley, who was proud of his partner in Romantic transgression: his “inspiration, muse and prophetess”.
The central theme of Frankenstein is not horror, but unhappiness, the lack of love. Mary put some undead flesh on the bones of Byronic alienation, the sensibility of those around her, whom she doted on. She wrote in the missing parts, the despair of someone who is not a dissident but less than a human being.
Frankenstein is rather more human in his tragedy than many fictional hero and heroines of the conventional novels of the era. His sufferings feel real and they get through to the reader. This entity of pain whose only fault was is his desire to be like us. He has a soul, he has a sense of justice, he can love, he can hate, but he gets nothing in return for those mirrored human traits projects on the world. As a melange of adult corpses, he was never a child; he cannot grow, he can only decay.
He cannot die romantically as a dissident poet, for he is a living corpse, a European zombie, with the scraps of a worldview turning bad with mould... His obsessions illustrate how ideas can work on the isolated mind: they start stinking dangerously...they become ugly poison.
Mary projected unconsciously the danger of women living men's ideals. Most women manage in a parallel world of harsh feminine reality. They live in small lies, managing the truth on daily basis, providing for survival, with small talk, bread and soothing tender kisses. Even if they love, or write romantic poetry, they live the gap which sometimes they hide and other times they expose.
You can hear it in the pauses, the estrangement, if not in downright cries. From Cristina de Pisan to Mary, to the Bronte sisters, Austen, Virginia Woolf, Wollstonecraft... even Mary Elizabeth Braddon, with her torrent of best-sellers. Elizabeth Barrett, the poetess who escaped from her tyrant father who crippled her in order to possess her.
Before these ladies, we hardly have any record of a feminine witness. Other women certainly were there, they certainly did think, some even wrote...but no literary traces... their cries were not considered literature, their lives were historically expendable... just like Frankenstein's!
Frankenstein the monster does not have a name -- it's his creator who is "Frankenstein." The monster does not write his own story, his story is reframed, retold by an authorial voice that will be heard and believed. Mary Shelley did not even put her name on the first edition of the book. To judge by the original text, it seemed that Percy Shelley had written a book about some nameless guy who knew the Frankenstein tragedy. Mary Shelley and Frankenstein were both in the literary shadows, the surrogate mother to the less than human.
Mary was the nymph of the sideways looks, as her admirer Leigh Hunt called her.
She didn't flee raging to the North Pole, as her creation did; she merely fled to sunny Italy, where she surrounded herself with brilliant men who legally took over her life because that was how live was.
She experienced sympathy with other invisible women around her; there are records of these sympathetic moments in her biography. She bought a present for a maid s birthday, and pitied the mother of an illegal child... but these moments were like pearls thrown past the pigs of capital-P Poetry. The novel persisted, though. It is all still there. Sincerely nowadays 200 years later reading Frankenstein, I have tears in my eyes. I never weep at the poetry of Byron, even though I love Byron's poetry.
But Ada Byron, Ada Lovelace, I love even more. As somebody who loves technology because it made my life better as a woman, as a writer who writes different from the mainstream, who does not want to be coherent or poetic but who has pretences of honesty...I take Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace girls as my spiritual ancestors. And Frankenstein's Monster can be my patriarch father. Whom I loved dearly, incestuously, endlessly and tragically, until he vanished onto the ice-floes of literary immortality, setting me and the world free.
2 Byron shared the admiration of Frankenstein and his author page 217, Miranda Seymour Mary Shelley, Grove Press, New York 2000
3 May 13, 1917 Mary finished copying Frankenstein novel. As Mary recalled in the Preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein: ‘Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered communicated
Mary recounted the nightmare in her 1831 preface to the book, giving a startling example of how the heightened consciousness of terror could be transformed into brilliant and inspirational creativity:
‘Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. 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 ...’
4. Donna J. Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto
Simions, Cyborgs and Women, Routledge 1991, New York
5. Shelley in his dedication to “The revolt of Islam” book addresses Mary as his queen, his friend, his twin... source of his inspiration, muse and prophetess, Miranda Seymour Mary Shelley, Grove Press, New York 2000 page 188
6. The “yon nymph of the sideways looks”, Lee Hunt (, Shelley and Mary, 16.11.1821, 4 volumes, page 705) privately printed 1882
For your summer reading pleasure, Bill Gates recommends: • “Leonardo da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson • “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved” by Kate Bowler • “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders • “Origin Story: A Big History of Everything” by David Christian • “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund
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