Where’s the Beef!? (read as: Science)

Frankenstein is a peculiar novel in that it focuses mainly on scientific discovery and scientific triumph while simultaneously removing all semblance of scientific knowledge from the text. The idea of writing about great experiments without actually writing about the experiments is odd, but it brings about unusual perspectives regarding everything that is not science-related within the experiments (namely Frankenstein’s monster experiment). Shelley’s main reasoning behind the success of this monster is that Dr. Frankenstein is smart. He went to school and he studied a lot outside of school and now he’s smart because he really liked alchemy and dark magic. This is rather simplified, but the idea is one that has been passed down through generations even to this very day: studying and working hard will bring knowledge.

This thought then brings into play yet another timeless generalization of learning: knowledge begets knowledge as well as power/money. Many live with the idea that becoming smarter will make it easier to learn even more in the future, and that all of this learning will eventually culminate itself magically as some type of a job. For Frankenstein, he spent his entire childhood into adulthood learning about science and disregarding most everything else. Luckily, thanks to the way our fictional society works, all of this hard work was sure to pay off in an equally lucrative manner, right? Since reanimation is a type of ‘holy grail’ for the sciences, I would say that Frankenstein received a respectable reward for all of his hard work.

For this class, such a mindset is not very profitable, nor is it even applicable to the real world at all. More important than simply working hard is keeping an open mind and stretching your mental boundaries so as to encompass all possible solutions or viewpoints. Merely memorizing past knowledge at a university does not always open the mind but, in fact, restricts it.

Even our writing becomes restricted over time. Stream of consciousness writing helps as an exercise in branching out of the typical trains of thought into a world where more unique ideas come to light. This is my idea of true knowledge, tapping into the unlearned of the brain. The thoughts we are born with and developed internally over years of existence. The knowledge expected in the world today and in Frankenstein is practically the very opposite. We often regard people who understand what we perceive as the “truth” to be knowledgeable, but they are not the only ones who possess knowledge. The truth is that every single person possesses a great deal of knowledge, their own personal viewpoint.

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Translated Dreams

“Translation” in Bruno Latour’s Aramis, is the idea of passing along an idea from someone’s own imagination to the masses.  It is the idea that inventions exist in the mind of an engineer, and then on paper, and then have to be translated into an actual feasible device.  In exploring the potential of this new kind of transportation Latour writes, “Aramis was a text; it became close to becoming, it nearly became, it might have became, an object, an institution, a means of transportation in Paris” (24).  Latour is essentially saying that Aramis could not be translated properly from the mind of an engineer to the rest of Paris, or the rest of the world for that matter.  This idea of dreams failing to “translate” is further romanticized by another quote:

 

“Dreams change the scale of phenomena, as we know: they allow new combinations and they mix up properties,” (29).

 

This second quote is important to the theme of translation because Aramis stands for more than just a failed mode of transportation.  It is about the conception of an idea and the failure to translate that idea, or dream into a physical object.

 

Towards the end of chapter one Latour seems to say that trying to “translate” the idea of Aramis to the public or to people who could move the idea to a reality is what killed the project.  The example of a car was used, and Latour explains that if an engineer had to describe every detail of the workings a car before it was realized the idea of an automobile would have been rejected.  This is due to the fact, Latour says, that “to translate is to betray: ambiguity is part of the translation,” (48).  This could be the first instance in which I noticed a direct correlation to this novel and our discussions in class about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  This perhaps is the answer to our frustration over Shelley’s lack of detail when it came to Frankenstein’s creation.  Maybe this ambiguity was meant to be part of the translation.  Below is another quote I found in Aramis to relate to Shelley’s work on the general theme of the inventor’s imagination and the importance of (or lack of) translation:

 

“No, Aramis is feasible, at least as feasible as dinosaurs, for life is a state of uncertainty and risk, of fragile adaptation to a past and present environment that the future cannot judge,” (35).

 

At first glance it seems Aramis is just like Victor Frankenstein’s creation. We can assume that people of Frankenstein’s time would not have gotten behind the idea of creating a new being, but it was something which was feasible at least in the context of Shelley’s story.  But Aramis is also comparable to the creation of the story of Frankenstein itself, it was born out of the times Shelley lived in, or her present environment, and though we now sit in a classroom many years later and discuss this novel it is perhaps unfair to look at it through the lens which our present (and Shelley’s future) has given us. 

Can you think of any inventions that if more detail had been given before their conception would have been turned down? 

Doctor Frankenstein the Dummy

A living being has a pumping heart, flowing blood, and most certainly the ability to emotionally feel a certain way. How did Frankenstein not realize that with the endeavor to bring a creature to life, it would be emotionally connected to others and its surroundings? And, how did he not think that an existence of an eight foot tall, utterly distorted looking being wouldn’t be alarming to the people of the world? With a portion of the novel focused solely on Frankenstein’s accumulation of knowledge through texts and professors, I honestly think that Shelley spent the rest of the novel counteracting the fact.

Every year on Halloween, there will be green-faced children (and adults) prowling the trick-or-treating streets. This is on Halloween—when the entire motivation is for people to choose an identity that they could never possibly be.  So, when Frankenstein had an epiphany to create his form of life, did he strive for something to actually be able to live, or just to be able to breathe? With how difficult and meticulous it must be to create a living form, I presume that Frankenstein put almost zero thought into it. This is especially depicted when he is disposing of his semi-finished companion for the creature. On page 125, he states, “I felt as if I was about the commission of a dreadful crime, and avoided with shuddering anxiety any encounter with my fellow-creatures.” While he considers the monster’s actions as the utmost wrong doing and evil, he is thinking hypocritically. He didn’t even finish the female form of the monster, yet throwing its parts away made him feel lawfully wrong and embarrassed. As opposite he feels the monster being to a human, he feels that the human population would detest his disposing of the creature.

Also, on page 124, Frankenstein states, “The remains of the half-finished creature, whom I had destroyed, lay scattered on the floor, and I almost felt as if I had mangled the living flesh of a human being.” So, when Victor had decided to create his first living being, did he really think that any breathing creature other than a human would be accepted? When destroying the second creation, he compares it to a human being, but with the first he impulsively brought it to life.

My question is, if Frankenstein is so quick to comparing his semi-finished second creation to a human being, did he not think his first creature would act and feel like one as well? Ultimately, do you think the Frankenstein is as wise as Shelley portrays him in the beginning of the novel, and through Robert’s letters at the end?

Shelley’s Archaic Dichotomy

As noted in several previous blog-posts, one of the many dichotomies consistent throughout “Frankenstein” is that of Nature vs. Science. Shelley makes it clear which to her is superior; she condemns Frankenstein to a miserable fate as punishment for his pursuit of scientific progress, while Clerval stands as a shining beacon of happiness through his appreciation of all things “natural.” Throughout his wretched wanderings, Frankenstein continually ventures to places of magnificent natural beauty — alpine lakes and winding rivers — in search of temporary solace from his all-consuming anguish.

Throughout the reading, this theme becomes clearer and clearer. Throughout the reading, I found myself more and more displeased with her message, and the existence of this dichotomy in the first place. Science is not something unnatural, not some brand of sorcery, but simply the systematic study and application of nature itself. When a monkey uses a stick to catch bugs, or an otter a rock to crack sea urchins, it is not unnatural. Just so, neither are more complex human innovations. In creating life, Frankenstein did not disrupt nature, but instead explored one of its many previously unexplored capabilities.

To defy nature is, in fact, impossible; anything that takes place in the natural world must be inherently natural. The dichotomy presented supports a purely dogmatic worldview — that certain actions are locked within the realm of the “supernatural,” and for a mortal to attempt and succeed at taking part is the ultimate sin, bound to inflict irreparable damage and suffering on the human-race. Using the monster as her mouthpiece, Shelley urges her audience to “seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries” (208).

Her lesson is to squelch the desire to overstep the boundaries which contain men and impede greater understanding. Had Frankenstein not pursued such a lofty innovation, he would have spent his days cradled in his family’s warm embrace, instead doomed to perish among strangers in a frozen wasteland.

In breaking apart Shelley’s dichotomy, however, I do not wish to establish an inverted one of my own. Just as “disruptive” human innovation is not evil, nor is it intrinsically positive in consequence. Scientific progress itself is neutral, and must be judged based on its application. When Einstein helped invent the atomic bomb, he created an instrument capable of destructive power previously reserved to the gods — and destroy it did. However, most would posit that its use caused less destruction than had it not been created.

By refusing the genesis of a second monster, Frankenstein turned away from building his own atomic bomb — a scientific creation that could have either put an end to impending suffering, or multiplied it tenfold. “I did right in refusing, to create a companion for the first creature” (207), he declares on his death bed. In the end, he is content with his decision to cease playing-god, and Shelley places an exclamation point on her case against “gambling” with nature.

While Frankenstein should have been more comprehensive in his foresight, I think that Shelley goes too far in her condemnation of his actions. Do you think that, as stated in Connected, “growth for growth’s sake is cancer,” or is this a mischaracterization?

Disclaimer — I would  like to admit a personal bias: I am an entrepreneur, always trying to think up better, more innovative ways of doing things. Even if it “ain’t broke,” I still want to fix it. In my circles, “disruption” is a golden word, and, like Frankenstein, I know I’m not the most responsible of innovators, usually preferring to take the “jump-right-in” approach, rather than cautiously testing the waters. Don’t worry though, my “little monsters” aren’t going to be eating you anytime soon…hopefully. I just wanted to better frame the post with regards to it’s author.

Confusion and Disappointment

As someone who has seen a movie adaptation of Frankenstein (as well as satirical versions such as Young Frankenstein), I was frankly very shocked with how Mary Shelley starts this novel. I expected a crazed scientist in the basement of his mansion on a hill creating this monster while rain and lightening pummeled down outside. The first few chapters actually depict a completely different image of Victor Frankenstein. He is a rather grounded and moral man who enjoys his family life as well as the pursuit of knowledge. The very first sentence of Chapter 1 states “I am by birth a Genevese, and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic” (14). In a way, this puts him and his family in a bit of a power position. Victor does not come from poverty and on a handful of occasions, his family has adopted others who are less fortunate. I believe Shelley wants us to understand that Victor Frankenstein is a normal man so that when the ultimate tragedy befalls him (whatever that may be), the reader will believe that that same fate can occur to themselves regardless of education, social status, and family life. By writing these rather mundane and scene-setting opening chapters, Shelley establishes a baseline for who Victor Frankenstein is normally.

When we finally dive into the more commonly seen side of this story (the creation of the monster), we find that there really is not much detail at all. There is no description of how the monster was made or what materials were used. Perhaps most disappointing is the lack of description when it came to the animation process. All the reader knows is that the monster was not living and then was brought to life. These “creation” chapters tend to focus more on health issues that Victor Frankenstein acquires as a result of working so hard on his creation. I think that the lack of detail surrounding the monster combined with the declining health of Victor Frankenstein serves as a bit of warning as well as a means of foreshadowing. Perhaps the lack of detail is symbolic of how little Frankenstein knew of his creation and what havoc it would create. I can also speculate that the lack of detail given was also to make sure that Walton (the immediate audience of Frankenstein) could not attempt to do what he did.

One final interesting point from the “creation” chapters was the feeling of joy that Frankenstein felt when he met up with Clerval at the university. “I grasped his hand, and in a moment forgot my horror and misfortune; I felt suddenly, and for the first time during many months, calm and serene joy” (37). I believe this passage helped to reground Frankenstein after his horrific scientific experiment and remind him what was always first and foremost in his life: his friends and family.

So far, it appears that when Frankenstein is with his family and friends, he is in good health. However, when he is away and in solitude, his health takes turns for the worse. Given Frankenstein’s apparent direct correlation between his personal health and his closeness to his family and friends, do you think his family and friends will ultimately save him from himself or will his monster (invention/technology) override the power of those who are close to him?