Reading Frankenstein: Chapters 3 and 4

Earlier posts in this series: Walton’s Letters, Chapters 1 & 2

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At the end of chapter two, Victor Frankenstein, who is narrating his story to Walton, left us with an ominous note of impending doom: “Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.” Having had his early fascination with the medieval alchemists shattered, Victor found that he was more at ease and better able to enjoy his days. But as he notes forebodingly, this was not to last.

In the first two chapters Victor recounted not only his fascination with the alchemists and their quest to unlock the secrets of nature and uncover the mysteries of life; he also recalled his idyllic childhood. In chapter three, he tells Walton of the first tragedy that befalls him and disturbs his earthly paradise, the death of his mother. He introduces this part of his story by framing it as “an omen, as it were, of my future misery.”

These instances of rather heavy-handed foreshadowing, and they are quite frequent, might come off as more than a little melodramatic and perhaps a fault of Shelley’s, but remembering that this is the voice of Frankenstein as he is relating his story to Walton suggests to me that these instances of ominous foreshadowing and invocations of dark fate operate instead as half-conscious justifications of his actions. It seems to me, in other words, that while he rues the desolation that has followed his actions, Victor is rather more resentful than repentant.

In any case, he tells of his mother’s untimely death from scarlet fever. She contracted the disease by attending, against the counsel of her loved ones, to Elizabeth, who had first fallen ill. Elizabeth recovers; Victor’s mother does not. Of course, she dies in the same saintly fashion that she lived, cheerfully resigned and thinking of others even in her last moments. Her parting words to Victor and Elizabeth reveal her long-held desire to see the two married. Soon thereafter she “died calmly.”

His mother’s death had postponed Victor’s departure for the university of Ingolstadt, but, after an appropriate time of mourning, Victor prepares once again to leave. He makes his goodbyes to Henry, Elizabeth, and his father. Henry, we are told, “deeply felt the misfortune of being debarred from a liberal education” by a merchant father who saw little to be gained from it; however, he remained resolved “not to be chained to the miserable details of commerce.”

Upon arriving at Ingolstadt, Victor introduces himself to a professor of natural philosophy named M. Krempe. Krempe informs Victor that the time he devoted to studying the old alchemists had been entirely wasted. Victor, of course, already suspected as much. Krempe tells Victor that he needs to start from scratch with his scientific education and gives him the name of a series of books with which to do so.

But Victor is disenchanted. He was contemptuous of the “uses of modern natural philosophy.” “It was very different,” he explains, “when the masters of the science sought immortality and power; such views, although futile, were grand: but now the scene was changed.” And, in his view, obviously not for the better. The earlier unattainable but grand ambitions of the alchemists fired his imagination; the viable but mundane workings of contemporary science were like a wet blanket. “I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur,” he complains, “for realities of little worth.”

This is an interesting passage in light of contemporary debates about the state of technological innovation. Frankenstein’s laments faintly echo the Techno Stagnation Angst of critics like Peter Thiel. Like Frankenstein, Thiel and others like him worry that we’ve lost our ability to imagine and actualize grand technological projects. And they’re disappointed with what we have accomplished, like the Internet, say.

But Victor is not disappointed for long. He meets another professor at Ingolstadt, one M. Waldman, who, while an accomplished practitioner of modern science, is not nearly so dismissive of the old alchemists as Krempe had been. Victor attends one of Waldman’s lectures and hears him praise the achievements of modern science in a way that manages to rekindle Victor’s imagination. He speaks, in a lingo we would readily recognize, of the “miracles” of modern science: “They ascend into the heavens: they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.”

This is enough to reawaken Frankenstein’s ambitions: “So much has been done … 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.” Frankenstein went on to meet with Waldman, who was happy to have “gained a disciple” and furnished Victor with all the books he required. Thus the day ended–a day that “decided my future destiny,” Victor proclaims.

In chapter four, we learn that over the course of the next two years, Frankenstein made astonishing progress in the sciences owing to his obsessive work ethic, easily eclipsing his fellow students and matching his professors in knowledge and skill. During this time, we also learn, Waldman became a “true friend” to Frankenstein. But it is the obsessive nature of Frankenstein’s work that is the focus of this chapter. He was eager and ardent in the pursuit of knowledge and frequently greeted the dawn still hard at work in his laboratory.

For a brief moment he considers returning home to visit his friends, but as he approaches a particular breakthrough, he changes his mind and remains at Ingolstadt. The breakthrough involved the origins of the “principle of life.” In order to explore this mystery, Frankenstein delves into the macabre: “To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death.” He makes a study of human decomposition and of the forces of decay, and, in the midst of that darkness, “a sudden light” broke upon him, “a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple.”

Assuring Walton that these were not the recollections of a “madman,” he proclaims, “I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” But, of course, he will not reveal the nature of his discovery to Walton, even though, or especially because, he notices Walton’s eagerness, wonder, and hope. Instead, he reaffirms his call for Walton to take his experience as a cautionary tale: “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”

Frankenstein goes on to tell Walton about how he decided to create a human body so that he might animate it and become the father of a new species. “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through … A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” And, he adds, “I might, in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.” Frankenstein sought the powers of creation and resurrection, and once again he set to his task obsessively.

With “breathless eagerness,” he “pursued nature to her hiding places.” He goes on to describe his dabbling among graves, torturing living animals, collecting bones, disturbing the “secrets of the human frame,” and all of this in isolation. Seasons came and went and he did not mark their beauty. The same urgency which made him unresponsive to the natural world led him to forget his friends and family. Only with preemptive defensiveness did he consider how his father might chide him for not writing.

Recalling this time, Frankenstein concludes,

“A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.”

Interestingly, Shelley has Frankenstein add to this advice the following consideration: “If this rule were always observed [...] Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.” A reminder perhaps, that Shelley is after something more here than simply a critique of technology (to put it anachronistically). Shelley, I think, is articulating a tragic vision of civilization’s unfolding. But, as I’m reading her at this juncture in the story, she is also suggesting that the root of this tragedy is a fragmentation of our knowledge of the world (and perhaps especially our “know-how”), our political or moral sense, and our aesthetic sense. Frankenstein’s descent, after all, coincides with an increasing isolation from both a community of friendship wherein the moral sense might be sustained and an increasing alienation from the beauty of the world around him.

In the next chapter, the Monster is born and things get interesting.

Reading Frankenstein: Chapters 1 and 2

When I began writing the first Reading Frankenstein post, I did not anticipate putting down nearly 2,000 words. I’m pretty sure that’s not the optimal length for this sort of exercise. My goal moving forward will be to take on two chapters per post and keep each post as close to 1,000 words as possible. We’ll see how that that goes. Now on to chapter one.

With the first chapter the role of the narrator is handed over to Victor Frankenstein, who begins his story by telling of his charmed childhood. We learn that both his father and mother were saintly human beings of outstanding virtue. Frankenstein’s mother, Caroline, was the daughter of a man named Beaufort, whom Frankenstein’s father loved “with the truest friendship.” Unfortunately, Beaufort sank into poverty, and, despite his daughter’s best efforts, died destitute and despairing. Frankenstein’s father tracked the family down and rescued Caroline from her impoverished life. Two years later they married.

This little vignette, one of many such personal histories scattered throughout the novel, touches again on the theme of friendship already introduced in Walton’s letters. The vignette is also a fall narrative, i.e., it describes someone’s fall from a position of prestige or wealth or honor and the ensuing consequences. It’s a pattern that recurs throughout the story establishing a Fall motif that resonates with the significance of Paradise Lost to the story. As of yet, I’m not sure what more to make of it.

Frankenstein then goes on to describe the doting love his parents lavish upon him: “I was their plaything and their idol, and something better–their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed upon them by Heaven, whom to bring up to good, and whose future lot it was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery, according as they fulfilled their duties towards me.” Of course, this amounts to a painful indictment of Frankenstein’s own dereliction of duty toward his own creation, but it is not at all clear that Frankenstein himself registers this fact. It’s thus poignantly ironic when Frankenstein speaks of his parents’ “deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to which they had given life.” This all prepares us to later hear with sympathy the Monster’s justification of his actions on the grounds of his abandonment and rejection by Frankenstein. Frankenstein here appears to be testifying as a witness against himself.

This first chapter concludes with the introduction of Elizabeth Lavenza. Like Caroline Beaufort, Elizabeth’s father, an Italian solider, experiences a fall; he is either dead or languishing away in an Austrian prison. She was entrusted to the care of a family who themselves had fallen on hard times. Frankenstein’s mother entered the home of this poor family in an act of charity, and she was immediately captivated by Elizabeth’s radiant beauty. Shelley’s characters are consistently described rather lavishly, some might say melodramatically. Perhaps this reflects a certain writerly immaturity, Shelley was not yet twenty when the novel was complete. Or it may by a conscious effort to cast her characters as ideal types; more on that in a moment. With the family’s blessing, Caroline takes Elizabeth home with her, and she becomes little Victor’s “beautiful and adored companion.”

In the second chapter, Frankenstein goes on to describe the deep bond he forms with Elizabeth as the two, about a year apart in age, grow up together. “Harmony was the soul of our companionship,” he explains. As he tells us of the nature of their relationship, it’s clear that “harmony” was a precise and apt word choice. They two complemented one another. Although, more to the point, it was to Elizabeth that Frankenstein ascribed a kind of controlling influence. It doesn’t appear that Elizabeth derived a similar effect from Victor. This dynamic was anticipated in Walton’s desire, expressed in a letter to his sister, to find a friend who would “regulate” his mind.

Victor confesses that, for his part, he was “more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge.” By contrast, “She busied herself with following the aerial creations of the poets.” And she also found “ample scope for admiration and delight” in the “wondrous scenes that surrounded our Swiss home.” “While my companion contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearance of things,” Frankenstein notes, “I delighted in investigating their causes.” Shelley is here setting up a rather conventional dichotomy and trading on a venerable, though minor, motif in Western literature. But that is not say that it is wholly without merit. We might say that the difference is between perceiving the world as a gift to be delighted in, on the one hand, or, as Frankenstein puts it, “a secret which I desired to divine.”

Later on, a second son is born, and the family settles down in Geneva. Then we are introduced to Henry Clerval, a classmate of Victor’s, who becomes a great friend to both he and Elizabeth. As with Walton, we first learn about Henry’s disposition by learning of the books that shaped his imagination as a child. In Henry’s case, these were “books of chivalry and romance.” We learn as well that Henry “composed heroic songs” and wrote “many a tale of enchantment and knightly adventure.” Etc.

Victor, however, returns to the course of his own interests. He confesses that “neither the structure of languages nor the code of governments, nor the politics of various states, possessed attraction for [him].” It was, rather, “the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn.”

He happily acknowledges that the influence of Elizabeth moderated the more unhealthy tendencies of his temperament, and not only his. Clerval, who “occupied himself … with the moral relation of things” also benefited from Elizabeth’s influence. It was she who “unfolded to him the real loveliness of beneficence, and made the doing good the end and aim of his soaring ambition.”

It would seem, then, that in the characters of Victor, Elizabeth, and Henry, Shelley is offering us ideal types. Victor clearly represents the spirit of the natural sciences, as Shelley understood them, and the pursuit of knowledge more generally. Henry appears to represent what we might call the political sphere. I’m not entirely sure how I would characterize Elizabeth: we may say that she represents the poetic, or simply art perhaps; maybe Nature; beauty or love also come to mind.

In fact, as I think about it, it would seem that the most obvious correspondence is to the three parts of the soul in ancient Greek philosophy: thumos, eros, and logos. Victor corresponds to the logos–roughly speaking, the rational component of the soul that is attuned to Truth. Henry corresponds to thumos, often translated “spiritedness”–the passionate, courageous aspect of the soul attuned to Goodness. And, finally, Elizabeth corresponds to eros–the varied capacity of the soul to love, which is attuned to Beauty. In Plato’s famous formulation, logos or reason, steers the chariot hitched to the unwieldy horses thumos and eros. Through the relationship of these three characters, Shelley seems to be suggesting that it is eros, the soul’s attunement to Beauty as represented by Elizabeth, that ought to be steering the soul. On this reading, the novel can’t be read simplistically as a critique of the natural sciences or the pursuit of knowledge as such. It suggests that the pursuit of knowledge has it’s place but it must be in harmony with thumos and eros, and the primacy of the latter might be the key to achieving that harmony.

Finally, and I’ll try to make this brief, the chapter concludes with a discussion of the sources of Victor’s fascination (or fixation) with the natural sciences, and particularly with the natural sciences conceived as a quest for esoteric knowledge and power. Again, books are to blame, as they were with Walton and Henry. In this case, it is a chance encounter with the writings of the famous Renaissance alchemist and magician, Cornelius Agrippa, that sets the tragic trajectory of Victor’s life. Agrippa leads Victor to the writing of other notables such as Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. He is captivated by their attempts to peer into the deep secrets of the universe, and he has no idea that their work has been roundly discredited. As a result of his reading, Victor “entered with the greatest diligence into the search for the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life,” especially the latter. Echoing Bacon and anticipating the Transhumanists, he declares, “what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!”

With childish vigor and innocence he pursues his studies despite a rebuff from his father, who, taking one look at Agrippa’s book, casually dismisses it as rubbish. Later, when he is about fifteen years old, after watching lightning obliterate an oak tree, he is captivated by a “man of great research in natural philosophy” who, luck would have it, was visiting his family. This man was well-versed in the latest theories of electricity and galvanism, and his ensuing discussion makes Victor question all that he had learned from the alchemists. This leads him to despair of the possibility of scientific knowledge, and he turns to mathematics believing it to be “built upon secure foundations, and so worthy of my consideration.”

Despite the joy and tranquility that ensued, Victor’s turn away from the pursuit of the secrets of life would not last. He describes this temporary sobriety as “the last effort made by the spirit of preservation to avert the storm that was even then hanging in the stars, and ready to envelope me.” There’s more than a hint of fatalism in the way that Victor narrates his own story. “Destiny was too potent,” he says, “and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.”

That destiny begins to unfold in the next chapter, which we’ll look at in the next day or two.

Reading Frankenstein: Walton’s Letters

The first thing to note about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the full title: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. The second thing to note is the line from Paradise Lost that Shelley chose as the epigraph for her story:

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?–
(X. 743-5)

Together they tell us a good bit about what to expect in what follows and what we should make of it. The allusion to Prometheus seems rather straightforward. The Greek Titan is remembered chiefly for stealing fire from the heavens and sharing it earthbound mortals. For this he was later punished by Zeus by being bound to a mountain while an eagle perpetually fed upon his liver. This story suggests the modern usage of the adjective promethean, a brash transgression of limits and boundaries, often by technical means. For some, the adjective is a compliment. It signals the daring ambition of the human spirit that refuses to accept seemingly arbitrary natural limitations. To others, it is synonym for hubris, a blinding arrogance that leads to disaster. It’s my sense from previous readings that Shelley wants us to feel the compelling force of both attitudes. We’ll see if this reading bears out that sense.

Interestingly, there is a lesser known storyline associated with Prometheus that became more prominent in late antiquity, perhaps for its affinity with the biblical account of the creation of Adam. In this account, Prometheus brings human beings to life by animating figures of clay. Later still, the two storylines are blended so that it is by the fire he steals from the gods that Prometheus animates humanity. And all of this fit rather nicely with contemporary theories that suggested that electricity was, quite literally, the spark of life.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is the biblical story of the Creation and Fall recast in epic scale. As we’ll see, the book plays a pivotal role in the Monster’s coming to self-consciousness, and, formed by Frankenstein and cast out by the same, he identifies with both Adam and Satan. The relationship between Frankenstein and his creature, of course, invites us to consider the relationship between Frankenstein and his Maker. In one sense, it will be the Monster who strikes a promethean note in his indignation against the injustice of his creator.

Moving on to the story itself, we are first greeted with a series of four letters written by an intrepid explorer named R. Walton to his sister Margaret. The first letter is written from St. Petersburgh, where Walton is preparing to embark upon a journey to North Pole, and aims chiefly to dispel his sister’s fears. But it also tells us a good bit about Walton’s motives. “I try in vain,” he writes, “to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight.” Later on he asks rhetorically and ecstatically, “What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?” Shelley’s characters are nothing if not passionate.

A little further on we encounter the first mention of an important motive force in the novel: curiosity. “I shall satiate my ardent curiosity,” Walton declares, “with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man.” We would be right, of course, already to suspect that Shelley intends for us to pick up an obvious affinity between Walton and Frankenstein. The connection is made explicit by Frankenstein himself in the Walton’s fourth letter.

Curiosity is not the only important theme introduced in this first letter, however. Walton is the first of several characters to tell us about the books that, read in childhood, constituted their education and thereby set the trajectory of their life. In Walton’s case, they were books found in his uncle’s house telling heroic stories of nautical exploration. These inspired his childhood dreams, but for a time these dreams were superseded by a flirtation with poetry. But failing at that, and having inherited a fortune, Walton returns to his childhood ambition. At the end of the first letter, he is preparing to depart for his next stop, Archangel, from where he will put his expedition together.

The second letter sounds the theme of loneliness and friendship. Three months have elapsed and Walton complains, “I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavor to sustain me in dejection.” This dual theme of loneliness and friendship will recur throughout the novel, most pronouncedly in the Monster’s narrative. The Monster, we will see, is troubled principally by a profound loneliness that animates his actions and engenders our sympathies.

It’s also worth noting this line from Walton: “I greatly need a friend who would have sense enough not to despise me as romantic, and affection enough for me to endeavor to regulate my mind.” This introduces, vaguely, the idea that we need others to somehow reign in the more developed tendencies in our own nature. Or, alternatively, that there are certain tendencies which can come to dominate a personality that somehow need to be checked. We’ll come back to this in the next post.

After telling his sister about his lieutenant, Walton tells of another crew member who fell in love with and was engaged to be married to a woman who later admitted that she loved another man. This man, however, was too poor to meet with her father’s approval. The man proceeded to purchase an estate for the would-be couple and convinced the father to allow the marriage. Interestingly, Walton notes that this man of heroic virtue and selflessness is also “wholly uneducated: he is as silent as a Turk, and a kind of ignorant carelessness attends him.” I’m curious to see this time around if Shelley intends some sort of association between virtue and the absence of certain kinds of education.

On a similar note, the second letter also alludes to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” To it Walton attributes his “attachment” and “passionate enthusiasm” for the “dangerous mysteries” of the ocean. This leads Walton to the following acknowledgement: “There is something at work in my soul, which I do not understand.” He is a practical man, but there is another force, a love for the “marvelous,” that also drives him. The influence of poets and scientists strive against one another in Shelley’s characters.

The third letter, written four months later, is brief and it serves chiefly to assure Margaret that all is well. Not only this, but Walton promises that he will not act rashly. Rather, he will be “cool, persevering, and prudent.” But he is certain of triumph: “What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?” What indeed?

The fourth letter is written over the course of three separate days within the span of a week. It is here that we are first meet the Monster and Frankenstein. Walton’s ship had sailed and found itself trapped by sheets of ice. One morning, after the fog cleared, the crew spots a gargantuan man-like figure driving a sled across the ice. The next morning Walton comes up to the deck of the ship to witness his crew talking to someone outside the ship. It is Frankenstein and he is a shell of man. He is searching for the Monster, although the crew doesn’t know it as such, and he agrees to come aboard only when Walton informs him that the ship is intending to proceed northward.

Quickly, Walton perceives in Frankenstein a kindred spirit: “For my own part, I begin to love him as a brother; and his constant and deep grief fills me with sympathy and compassion.” As Frankenstein recuperates, the two talk at greater length and depth. Walton tells Frankenstein of the ambition that drives his expedition. “One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay,” Walton declares, “fort he acquirement of the knowledge which I sought; for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race.” Here was a man sold on the Baconian vision of knowledge as power for the relief of the human condition of subjection to nature and its forces.

But this declaration elicits a strong response from Frankenstein: “Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drank also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me,–let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!” Frankenstein sees something of himself in Walton, and this eventually convinces him to lay aside his scruples about sharing his story.

First, however, Frankenstein asks Walton to share his own life story, which Walton tells us he proceeded to do. But Walton sums up what he relayed simply by expressing his “desire of finding a friend.” Frankenstein agrees with Walton. “We are unfashioned creatures,” he explains, “but half made up, if one wiser, better, dearer than ourselves [...] do not lend his aid to perfectionate our weak and faulty natures.” Frankenstein tells Walton that he once had such a friend, but now he “has lost everything.”

Wrapping up the second entry of the fourth letter, Walton comments on Frankenstein’s love of nature: “no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature.” We’ll want to remember that comment later on in the book. It seems pretty clear that Shelley is interested in distinguishing a romantic sensibility that is content to appreciate the beauties of nature from the curiosity and pursuit of knowledge expressed by Walton.

In the last entry of the fourth letter, Walton relates Frankenstein’s decision to convey his story to Walton in the hope that Walton will “deduce an apt moral ” from it. “You seek for knowledge and wisdom as I once did,” Frankenstein begins, “and I ardently hope that gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been.” Interestingly, he goes on to characterize the “apt moral” as one that will “direct” Walton if he succeeds and “console” him if he should fail. Interesting because we might have expected that Frankenstein would wish to turn Walton back from his endeavor, but this seems not to be the case.

Frankenstein goes on to explain that he waits “but for one event, and then I shall repose in peace,” and he assures Walton that nothing can alter his destiny, it is “irrevocably determined.” Walton concludes the letter by telling his sister that he will make a careful record of Frankenstein’s story. With that the letters conclude and we enter upon the first chapter in which Frankenstein assumes the role of narrator.

Framing her story with Walton’s letters and later handing off the role of the narrator to Frankenstein and the Monster in turn allows the reader to experience the events under consideration from competing vantage points. It invites us to inhabit the world of the story through the subjectivity of both Frankenstein and the Monster, and including Walton’s perspective invites us to relativize both of their perspectives.

The letters also suggest the multiplicity of threads that Shelley weaves together. This is not simply the story of a mad scientist, nor is it simply a story about technology turning against its maker. It is a story about the various competing motive forces that together animate individuals and, more generally, human culture. It is also a story about virtue and education and friendship. And this broader perspective matters because if we are to understand technology, we must not see it primarily as an independent force in human affairs. Rather, we should recognize its entanglement in the shifting manifestations of perennial human desire.

Stay tuned for the next round.

Reading Frankenstein

For some time now I’ve wanted to write about Frankenstein. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s classic tale, first published in 1818, has long struck me as one of those works whose brilliance has been dulled by familiarity (and, more often than not, a familiarity stemming not from the novel itself but from its myriad pop cultural incarnations). It is, to speak anachronistically, a story that explores technology as force in human affairs, and it is typically read as a cautionary tale. It is that, to be sure, but I think that leaving it there sells the novel considerably short.

I’ve failed, however, to follow through on the impulse to write about the story mostly because the task grew larger and larger the more I thought about it, and it was, consequently, easier to put it off than to begin it. But now, as I’m reading the novel again, I’ve decided to make a go of it. Rather than write a single post on Frankenstein, however, I’ve decided (naturally) to blog through my reading of it.

What I’m envisioning is a series of posts that will each take a handful of chapters under consideration (there are 24 altogether, not counting the letters that frame the story at the outset). With each post I’m intending mostly to think with the novel as it were, chiefly by articulating my understanding of the multiple threads that Shelley weaves together throughout the story. And, of course, I invite you to think along with me and make it a conversation if your so inclined.

I’m not sure what kind of pace I’m going to be able to keep up, but I hope to wrap up the posts within three weeks or so. If you don’t own a copy of the book, Project Gutenberg offers the novel in a variety of formats. Sometime tomorrow (Monday) I’ll kick things off with the first post on the letters that frame the story of Victor Frankenstein and his creation. The letters are written by a man named Robert Walton, who is leading an expedition to the North Pole, to his sister. The narration of the story is then passed off to Victor Frankenstein, who tells his story to Walton. There is later another shift at the heart of the novel as the monster tells Frankenstein about his experience. Frankenstein then assumes control of the narrative again, and finally it passes once more to Walton.

A couple of disclaimers: First, I am not a literary critic by training, so take what ensues as the scribblings of an interested amateur. Secondly, I am not familiar, at least not in any serious way, with the secondary literature on either Shelley or her novel. If you do want a little background on Shelley’s life, you might consider the biographical essay at the Poetry Foundation. Finally, I won’t be making any serious effort to avoid spoilers as I write about the story.

More to come.

Technology and “The Human Condition”

If you’re a regular reader, you know that increasingly my attention has been turning toward the work of Hannah Arendt. My interest in Arendt’s work, particularly as it speaks to technology, was sparked a few years ago when I began reading The Human Condition. Below are some comments, prepared for another context, discussing Arendt’s Prologue to that book. 

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In the Prologue to The Human Condition, Arendt wrote, “What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears.” In her framing, these newest experiences and most recent fears were born out of technological developments that had come about within Arendt’s own lifetime, particularly those that had transpired in the two decades that preceded the writing of The Human Condition. Among the more notable of these developments were the successful harnessing of atomic power and the launching, just one year prior to the publication of Arendt’s book, of the first manmade object into earth’s orbit. These two developments powerfully signaled the end of one age of human history and the opening of another. Positioned in this liminal space, Arendt explained that her purpose was “to trace back modern world alienation, its twofold flight from the earth in the universe and from the world into the self, to its origins, in order to arrive at an understanding of the nature of society as it had developed and presented itself at the very moment when it was overcome by the advent of a new and yet unknown age.”

It is striking how similar Arendt’s concerns are to our own experiences and fears nearly sixty years later. Arendt, for instance, wrote about the advent of automation, which threatened to “empty the factories and liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring” just at the point when human beings had lost sight of the “higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won.” In our own day, we are told “robots will—and must—take our jobs.” [Arendt, by the way, wasn't the only worried about automation.]

Similarly, Arendt spoke forebodingly of scientific aspirations that are today associated with advocates of Transhumanism. These aspirations include the prospect of radical human enhancement, the creation of artificial life, and the achievement of super-longevity. “This future man, whom scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years,” Arendt suggests, “seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.” We should not doubt the capability of scientists to make good on this claim, Arendt tells us, “just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth.” Sixty years later, the Transhumanist vision moves from the fringes of public discussion to the mainstream, and we still retain the power to destroy all organic life on earth, although this is not much discussed any longer.

It was in the context of such fears and such experiences that Arendt wrote, “What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.” The simplicity of the proposal, of course, masks the astounding complexity against which the task must unfold. Even in her own day, Arendt feared that we could not rise to the challenge. “[I]t could be that we, who are earth-bound creatures and have begun to act as though we were dwellers of the universe, will forever be unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do.” A similar concern had been registered by the poet W.H. Auden, who, in 1945, wrote of the modern mind,

“Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.”

For her part, Arendt continued, “it would be as though our brain, which constitutes the physical, material condition of our thoughts, were unable to follow what we do, so that from now on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking.” With that Arendt spoke more than she knew; she anticipated the computer age. But Arendt did not look warmly upon the prospect of thinking and speaking supported by artificial machines. She reckoned the prospect a form of slavery, not to the machines but to our “know-how,” a form of knowledge which Arendt opposed to thought. (Arendt would go on to expand her thinking about thought in an unfinished and posthumously published work, The Life of the Mind.)

Moreover, Arendt contended that the question of technology is also a political question; it is, in other words, a question of how human beings live and act together. It is, consequently, a matter of meaningful speech. In Arendt’s view, and it is hard to imagine the case being otherwise, politics is premised on the ability of human beings to “talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves.” These considerations raise the further question of action. Even if we were able to think what we were doing with regard to technology, would it be possible to act meaningfully on the deliberations of such thought? What is the relationship, in other words, not only of technology to thought but of technology to the character of political communities? Finally, returning to the question of machine-assisted thinking, would such thought be politically consequential given that politics depends on meaningful speech?

Already, in 1958, Arendt perceived that the advances of scientific knowledge were secured in the rarefied language of advanced mathematics, a language that was not susceptible to translation into the more ordinary forms of human speech. Today, some forms of machine-assisted thinking, particularly those collected under the concept of Big Data, promise knowledge without understanding. Such knowledge may be useful, but it may also prove difficult to incorporate into the deliberative discourse of political communities.

In a few pages, then, Arendt managed to present a series of concerns and questions that remain vital today. Can we think what we are doing, particularly with the Promethean powers of modern technology? Can our technology help us with such thinking? Can we act in politically meaningful ways on the basis of such thought?