Reading Frankenstein: Chapter 6

Earlier posts in this series: Walton’s Letters, Chapters 1 & 2, Chapters 3 & 4, Chapter 5

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Last month, in the Guardian’s “My Hero” series, Neil Gaiman chose to write about Mary Shelley. His brief reflections open by recalling the circumstances that led to the writing of Frankenstein: “The cold, wet summer of 1816, a night of ghost stories and a challenge allowed a young woman to delineate the darkness, and give us a way of looking at the world.” He concludes as follows:

“The glittering promise of science, offering life and miracles, and the nameless creature in the shadows, monster and miracle all in one, back from the dead, needing knowledge and love but able, in the end, only to destroy … it was Mary Shelley’s gift to us, and we would be infinitely poorer without it.”

I like this idea of the nameless creature as Shelley’s gift to us. But what exactly is the nature of this gift? I would suggest that what Shelley has bequeathed to us is nothing less than the gift of thought. The creature is, as I see it, what some have called an object to think with, only it is an object of the imagination. It materializes, in our mind’s eye, the power conferred upon us by our knowledge, and it does so that we might think about what we can do.

At the end of her Introduction to Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, Sherry Turkle writes,

“Once we see life through the cyborg prism, becoming one with a machine is reduced to a technical problem of finding the right operating system to make it (that is, us) run smoothly. When we live with implanted chips, we will be on a different footing in our relationships with computers. When we share other people’s tissue and genetic material, we will be on a different footing with the bodies of others. Our theories tell us stories about the objects of our lives. As we begin to live with objects that challenge the boundaries between the born and created and between humans and everything else, we will need to tell ourselves different stories.”

It seems to me that, given the realities Turkle anticipates, Frankenstein is exactly the story we need. It helps us think about what we make, but primarily by helping us think about ourselves. The creature in this story is nothing if not a mirror on which we might see ourselves. Of course, so too is Frankenstein.

The sixth chapter of Shelley’s novel opens with a letter from Elizabeth. It’s worth noting, briefly, the multiple layers of narration at this point in the story. Ostensibly, we are reading Elizabeth’s words to Frankenstein relayed by Frankenstein to Walton, who is in turn relaying them to his sister, Margaret. It’s easy to lose sight of this, but keeping this framework in mind, I think, is key to interpreting Frankenstein’s self-representation. It helps us sustain a healthy suspicion of Frankenstein’s framing of the events and, by extension, to also cast a critical eye on the rationalizations and justifications we offer for our own actions and motives.

Elizabeth’s letter functions chiefly to supply details that will render subsequent events more meaningful. We learn more, for instance, about the other Frankenstein siblings, the older Ernest and the younger William. We learn as well about Justine Moritz, a longstanding household servant in the Frankenstein household, who was beloved by all of the family.

There’s a curious digression in Elizabeth’s rehearsal of Justine’s history in which she notes how the nature of Swiss political culture has “produced simpler and happier manners than those which prevail in the great monarchies that surround it.” This is to assure us of Justine’s place in the family: “A servant in Geneva,” we are assured, “does not mean the same thing as a servant in France and England. Justine, thus received in our family, learned the duties of a servant; a condition which, in our fortunate country, does not include the idea of ignorance, and a sacrifice of the dignity of a human being.”

Elizabeth goes on to speak glowingly of Ernest and, especially, of “little darling William.” All of this, of course, particularly in light of Frankenstein’s earlier claim to have lost everything, strikes us as preparation for a great tragedy.

The remainder of the chapter narrates Frankenstein’s continued recovery, which is sustained almost entirely by Henry Clerval’s loving attention. It was Clerval, Frankenstein tells us, who “called forth the better feelings of my heart; he again taught me to love the aspect of nature, and the cheerful faces of children.” Once again, well-being is presented as a kind of equilibrium between our urge to know and to do, on the one hand, and our acceptance of the world as a gift on the other. And, once again, this equilibrium is the product of friendship. Friendship is a kind of anchor that keeps us from sinking into the maelstrom of self-absorption, a victim of virtues which, unregulated, become our vices. Clerval’s particular influence on Frankenstein was twofold: he brought Frankenstein out of himself into the world, and he brought the liberal arts to bear on a scientific imagination.

But all is not well, of course. Once released into the world, our action does not simply dissipate into nothingness, whatever we might wish. The creature is still at large, and Frankenstein’s greater sin is his failure to accept responsibility for what he has made. This refusal of responsibility is reflected in the disgust Frankenstein had now developed toward his former passion: “I had conceived a violent antipathy even to the name of natural philosophy.” Just seeing the implements of his former work induced “the agony of my nervous symptoms.” While introducing Clerval to his professors, Frankenstein would become visibly agitated when they praised his talent and skill.

Shelley paints Frankenstein as a man who is racked by guilt but also unwilling to confront it. His “violent antipathy ” toward what he had previously pursued with obsessive zeal suggests profound shame and a deep desire to burry and repress his transgression. More worrisome still is his decision to keep knowledge of the creature secret, even from Clerval. It’s more than a little ironic that the man who would rip open nature’s secrets now carefully guards his own.

Nothing good follows from Frankenstein’s refusal of responsibility, only an accumulation of disasters. The question this leaves us with is this: What would it mean for us to accept responsibility for what we make and for what we do with what is made for us? Makers and users both, it seems that we are, like Frankenstein, hell-bent on refusing responsibility for what we do with the technologies that have been furnished for us. It would seem, in fact, that the general tendency of our making is to create conditions that undermine the possibility of either thoughtfulness or responsibility. Shelley’s story, however, her gift to us, provokes our thinking and may even rekindle our sense of moral responsibility.

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 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 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 to 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 with 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 the 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 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, “for the 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.

Walter Ong on Romanticism and Technology

The following excerpts are taken from an article by Walter Ong titled, “Romantic Difference and Technology.” The essay can be found in Ong’s Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture.

Ong opens by highlighting the lasting significance of the Romantic movement:

“Romanticism has not been a transient phenomenon. Most and perhaps even all literary and artistic, not to mention scientific, movements since the romantic movement appear to have been only further varieties of romanticism, each in its own way.”

He follows by characterizing subsequent literary and cultural movements as variations of romanticism:

“Early Victorian is attenuated romantic, late Victorian is recuperated romantic, fed on Darwin, Marx, and Comte, the American frontier and the American Adam are primitivist romantic, imagism and much other modern poetry is symbolist romantic, existentialism is super-charged or all-out romantic, programmatic black literature is alien-selfhood romantic, and beatnik and hippie performance is disenfranchized [sic] romantic. Insofar as it is an art form or a substitute for literature, and in other guises, too, activism is most certainly idealist romantic.”

Here is how Ong construes the link between Romanticism and technology, specifically technologies of the word:

“Romanticism and technology, as we shall be suggesting, are mirror images of each other, both being products of man’s dominance over nature and of the noetic abundance which had been created by chirographic and typographic techniques of storing and retrieving knowledge and which had made this dominance over nature possible.”

In other words, print acted as a kind of safety-net that encouraged intellectual daring, both technologically and literarily. This hypothesis depends upon Ong’s understanding of thought and knowledge in oral cultures. The first sentence is about as close to Ong in a nutshell as you’re going to get:

“Any culture knows only what it can recall. An oral culture, by and large, could recall only what was held in mnemonically serviceable formulas. In formulas thought lived and moved and had its being. This is true not only of the thought in the spectacularly formulary Homeric poems but also of the thought in the oratorically skilled leader or ordinarily articulate warrior or householder of Homeric Greece. In an oral culture, if you cannot think in formulas you cannot think effectively. Thought totally oral in implementation has specifically limited, however beautiful, configurations. A totally oral folk can think some thoughts and not others. It is impossible in an oral culture to produce, for example, the kind of thought pattern in Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric or in any comparable methodical treatises….”

Here are some highlights of what follows for Ong:

“A typical manifestation of romanticism on which we have focused is interest in the remote, the mysterious, the inaccessible, the ineffable, the unknown. The romantic likes to remind us of how little we know. If we view romanticism in terms of the development of knowledge as we are beginning to understand this development, it is little wonder that as a major movement romanticism appeared so late. From man’s beginnings perhaps well over 500,000 years ago until recent times […] knowledge had been in short supply. To keep up his courage, man had continually to remind himself of how much he knew, to flaunt the rational, the certain, the definite and clear and distinct.”

Further:

“Until print had its effect, man still necessarily carried a heavy load of detail in his mind [….] With knowledge fastened down in visually processed space, man acquired an intellectual security never known before [….] It was precisely at this point that romanticism could and did take hold. For man could face into the unknown with courage or at least equanimity as never before.”

Finally:

“[…] romanticism and technology can be seen to grow out of the same ground, even though at first blush the two appear diametrically opposed, the one, technology, programmatically rational, the other, romanticism, concerned with transrational or arational if not irrational reality [….] romanticism and technology appear at the same time because each grows in its own way out of a noetic abundance such as man had never known before. Technology uses the abundance for practical purposes. Romanticism uses it for assurance and as a springboard to another world.”

This strikes me as a bold and elegant thesis. Does it hold up? Ong paints with some broad strokes, and particularly where he discusses what oral culture could and could not have thought we may want to consider how sure we could ever be of such a claim. That said, Ong’s thesis naturally encourages us to explore what transformations of thought and culture are encouraged by digital archives, databases, and artificial memories.

More on Ong: “Memory, Writing, Alienation.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne Anticipates McLuhan and de Chardin

Those familiar with Marshall McLuhan will remember his view, and it was not his alone, that our technologies are fundamentally extensions of ourselves. And in McLuhan’s view, electric technologies were extensions of our nervous system. So, for example, In Understanding Media, McLuhan writes:

“With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself.” (65)

“When information moves at the speed of signals in the central nervous system, man is confronted with the obsolescence of all earlier forms of acceleration, such as road and rail. What emerges is a total field of inclusive awareness.” (143)

“It is a principle aspect of the electric age that it establishes a global network that has much of the character of our central nervous system. Our central nervous system is not merely an electric network, but it constitutes a single unified field of experience.” (460-461)

Those familiar with McLuhan will also know not only that McLuhan was a Roman Catholic (recent essay on that score here), but that he was influenced by the thought of a relatively fringe Catholic paleontologist and theologian/philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin, who, in The Future of Man, spoke of technology creating “a nervous system for humanity … a single, organized, unbroken membrane over the earth … a stupendous thinking machine.”

As it turns out, McLuhan and de Chardin were trading in a metaphor/analogy that had even older roots. At the outset of his fascinating (if your into this sort of stuff) study Electrifying America, David E. Nye cites the following passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables, in which the character Clifford exclaims,

“Then there is electricity, the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all-pervading intelligence!” … “Is it a fact — or have i dreamt it — that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence! Or, shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but a thought, and no longer the substance which we deemed it!”

Hawthorne’s novel, in case you’re wondering, dates from 1851.