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.

The Humanities, the Sciences, and the Nature of Education

Over the last couple of months, Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier have been trading shots in a debate about the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. Pinker, a distinguished scientist whose work ranges from linguistics to cognitive psychology, kicked things off with an essay in The New Republic titled, “Science is Not Your Enemy.” This essay was published with a video response by Wieseltier, the The New Republic’s longstanding literary editor, already embedded. It was less than illuminating. A little while later, Wieseltier published a more formal response, which someone unfortunately titled, “Crimes Against the Humanities.” A little over a week ago, both Pinker and Wieseltier produced their final volleys in “Science v. the Humanities, Round III.”

I’ll spare you a play-by-play, or blow-by-blow as the case may be. If you’re interested, you can click over and read each essay. You might also want to take a look at Daniel Dennett’s comments on the initial exchange. The best I can do by way of summary is this: Pinker is encouraging embattled humanists to relax their suspicions and recognize the sciences as friends and ally from which they can learn a great deal. Wieseltier believes that any “consilience” with the sciences on the part of the humanities will amount to a surrender to an imperialist foe rather than a collaboration with an equal partner.

The point of contention, once some of the mildly heated rhetoric is accounted for, seems to be the terms of the relationship between the two sets of disciplines. Both agree that the sciences and the humanities should not be hermetically sealed off from one another, but they disagree about the conditions and fruitfulness of their exchanges.

If we must accept the categories, I think of myself as a humanist with interests that include the sciences. I’m generally predisposed to agree with Wieseltier to a certain extent, yet I found myself doing so rather tepidly. I can’t quite throw myself behind his defense of the humanities. Nor, however, can I be as sanguine as Pinker about the sort of consilience he imagines.

What I can affirm with some confidence is also the point Pinker and Wieseltier might agree upon: neither serious humanistic knowledge nor serious scientific knowledge appears to be flourishing in American culture. But then again, this surmise is mostly based on anecdotal evidence. I’d want to make this claim more precise and ground it in more substantive evidence.

That said, Pinker and Wieseltier both appear to have the professional sciences and humanities primarily view. My concern, however, is not only with the professional caste of humanists or scientists. My concern is also with the rest of us, myself included: those who are not professors or practitioners (strictly speaking), but who, despite our non-professional status, by virtue of our status as human beings seek genuine encounters with truth, goodness, and beauty.

To frame the matter in this way breaks free of the binary opposition that fuels the science/humanities wars. There is, ultimately, no zero-sum game for truth, goodness, and beauty, if these are what we’re after. The humanities and the sciences amount to a diverse set of paths, each, at their best, leading to a host of vantage points from which we might perceive the world truly, apprehend its goodness, and enjoy its beauty. Human culture would be a rather impoverished and bleak affair were only a very few of these path available to us.

I want to believe that most of us recognize all of this intuitively. The science/humanities binary is, in fact, a rather modern development. Distinctions among the various fields of human knowledge do have an ancient pedigree, of course. And it is also true that these various fields were typically ranked within a hierarchy that privileged certain forms of knowledge over others. However, and I’m happy to be corrected on this point, the ideal was nonetheless an openness to all forms of knowledge and a desire to integrate these various forms into a well-rounded understanding of the cosmos.

It was this ideal that, during the medieval era, yielded the first universities. It was this ideal, too, that animated the pursuit of the liberal arts, which entailed both humanistic and scientific disciplines (although to put it that way is anachronistic): grammar, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, music, geometry, and astronomy. The well-trained mind was to be conversant with each of these.

All well and good, you may say, but it seems as though seekers of truth, goodness, and beauty are few and far between. Hence, for instance, Pinker’s and Wieseltier’s respective complaints. The real lesson, after all, of their contentious exchange, one which Wieseltier seems to take at the end of last piece, is this: While certain professional humanists and scientists bicker about the relative prestige of their particular tribe, the cultural value of both humanistic and scientific knowledge diminishes.

Why might this be the case?

Here are a couple of preliminary thoughts–not quite answers, mind you–that I think relevant to the discussion.

1. Sustaining wonder is critical. 

The old philosophers taught that philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, began with wonder. Wonder is something that we have plenty of as children, but somehow, for most of us anyway, the supply seems to run increasingly dry as we age. I’m sure that there are many reasons for this unfortunate development, but might it be the case that professional scientists and humanists both are partly to blame? And, so as not to place myself beyond criticism, perhaps professional teachers of the sciences and humanities are also part of the problem. Are we cultivating wonder, or are we complicit in its erosion?

2. Eduction is not merely the transmission of information

To borrow a formulation from T.S. Eliot: Information, that is an assortment of undifferentiated facts, is not the same as knowledge; and knowledge is not yet wisdom. One may, for example, have memorized all sorts of random historical facts, but that does not make one a historian. One may have learned a variety of mathematical operations or geometrical theorems, but that does not make one a mathematician. To say that one understands a particular discipline or field of knowledge is not necessarily to know every fact assembled under the purview of that field. Rather it is to be able to see the world through the perspective of that field. A mathematician is one who is able to see the world and to think mathematically. A historian is one who is able to see the world and to think historically.

Wonder, then, is not sustained by the accumulation of facts. It is sustained by the opening up of new vistas–historical, philosophical, mathematical, scientific, etc.–on reality that continually reveal its depth, complexity, and beauty.

Maybe it’s also the case that wonder must be sustained by love. Philosophy, to which wonder ought to lead, is etymologically the “love of wisdom.” Absent that love, the wonder dissipates and leaves behind no fruit. This possibility brings to mind a passage from an Iris Murdoch novel, The Sovereignty of Good, in which the main character describes the work of learning Russian:

“I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me…. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal. The honesty and humility required of the student — not to pretend to know what one does not know — is the preparation for the honesty and humility of the scholar who does not even feel tempted to suppress the fact which damns his theory.”

We should get it out of our heads that education is chiefly or merely about training minds. It must address the whole human person. The mind, yes, but also the heart, the eyes, the ears, and the hands. It is a matter of character and habits and virtues and loves. The most serious reductionism is that which reduces education to the transfer of information. In which case, it makes little difference whether that information is of the humanistic or scientific variety.

As Hubert Dreyfuss pointed out serval years ago in his discussion of online education, the initial steps of skill acquisition most closely resemble the mere transmission of information. But passing beyond these early stages of education in any discipline involves the presence of another human being for a variety of significant reasons. Not least of these is the fact that we must come to love what we are learning and our loves tend to be formed in the context of personal relationships. They are caught, as it were, from another who has already come to love a certain kind of knowledge or a certain way of approaching the world embedded in a particular discipline.

What then is the sum of this meandering post? First, the sciences and the humanities are partners, but not primarily partners in the accomplishment of their own respective goals. They are partners in the education of human beings that are alive to fullness of the world they inhabit. Secondly, if that work is to yield fruit, then education in both the sciences and the humanities must be undertaken with a view to full complexity of the human person and the motives that drive and sustain the meaningful pursuit of knowledge. And that, I know, is far easier said than done.

Why Did Curiosity’s Landing Generate So Much Attention?

msl20110602_PIA14175-hpfeat

Take a look at the image to the right. Care to guess what you’re looking at?

I might very well be wrong, but I imagine that more than a few people would guess that they are looking at an image of Curiosity during its descent stage onto the surface of Mars — there’s the chute and there’s the capsule. This would be a reasonable conjecture, but also an incorrect one.

The image is of another rover, Phoenix, making its final descent onto the surface of Mars on May 25, 2008. Remember that one? I didn’t. It was, as it turns out, the first time the landing of one spacecraft on the surface of a planet was photographed by another spacecraft.

Now, I don’t want to make too much of my own forgetfulness or inattentiveness, but I was surprised to learn that Curiosity’s successful landing was the sixth such success in NASA’s history.

Viking 1 and Viking 2 each landed on Mars in 1976. The Mars Pathfinder and its rover, Sojourner landed in 1997. Two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed in 2004. And finally, Phoenix, landed in 2007. (Check out a great info graphic of missions to Mars here. H/T Jeremy Antley.)

I’ve been a low-level space geek since I was child, and so I wasn’t entirely oblivious to this history. But being reminded of it did make the publicity surrounding Curiosity, well, curious.

Why was it that Curiosity’s landing was received with such fanfare? And why was it that it evoked such a powerful emotional response when previous landings, recent and impressive, had not?

Naturally, I took to Twitter with my query. Now, I don’t have nearly enough followers to make this as fruitful a venture as it might be for others, but, thanks to some retweets, it did return a few interesting suggestions.

Here was my initial tweet:

My suggestions were arrived at as follows. Size? Curiosity was by far the largest such vehicle. Degree of difficulty? Given its size, landing the rover safely necessitated an ingenious and elaborate multi-stage landing system. Trailer? I was referring to the dramatically titled video produced by NASA, “Seven Minutes of Terror,” depicting Curiosity’s planned descent. Social media? Well, for starters, Curiosity has its own twitter feed: MarsCuriosity.

So what kind of responses did I get? A few suggested what one person neatly summed up as “Space shuttle ennui.” In other words, Curiosity stepped in to fill a gap created by the retirement of the space shuttles — the last voyage of which tapped the technological sublime.

Relatedly, it was suggested that Curiosity filled a void created by the absence of any inspiring visions for our future in relation to space, or perhaps for any future.

Others pointed to some variation of the suggestions I offered. The complexity of the skycrane, social media coverage of the landing, and NASA’s improved self-promotion.

All of these seem to have some role to play in creating the event that was Curiosity’s landing — the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video hooked me — but I’m not sure that any of these alone, or even all of them together satisfactorily explain the phenomenon.

Here’s my take as it stands: It mostly is a case of the distinctly American technological sublime. This actually draws both streams of responses together: those that focused on the filling up of some collectively felt absence and those that emphasized the sophistication of the technology involved. David Nye’s account of the American technological sublime included both the existential experience of a technology that left one in awe and a participation in what amounted to a (Durkheimian) civil religion.

As a civil religious experience, the technological sublime provided a sense of national identity, purpose, and destiny. Experiences of the technological sublime — whether seeing the first railroads or the first electrified cityscapes, standing before the Hoover Dam, or witnessing a Saturn V launch, to name a few instances — forged the collective national character. They were rituals of solidarity. They inspired confidence in what we could accomplish and, therefore, hope for the future.

It could be argued that we are a nation casting about for renewed unity and sense of purpose. There is a felt need for what the technological sublime had supplied earlier generations of Americans. The consumer technologies which surround us today, impressive as they are in many respects, don’t quite have the capacity to elicit the sublime experience. In part, because they merely (and “merely” is not  quite the right word there) enhance or repackage what earlier technologies had first accomplished long ago. The latest cell phone technology can never compete with the experience of hearing a voice over the telephone for the first time, for example.

Curiosity stepped into this fractured and disillusioned cultural milieu and it was dynamic and extraordinary enough to evoke the sublime response. Remember the tears that flowed at mission control. It was the right technology, at the right time. And social media supplied the sense of collective experience so critical to its civil religious function.

So now your thoughts. Did you tune in to the live feed from mission control? Did you give Curiosity more attention than you usually would to the space program? Were you moved by the whole thing? Did you notice that this was the case for others even if wasn’t quite your reaction? Pure media hype? Sheer awesomeness? To what does Curiosity owe its vaunted status?

Maybe its all just Curiosity’s WALL•E-esque anthropomorphic charm. Or, am I the only one that sees that?

Beware of Reporters Bearing the “Latest Studies”

Some while ago I posted a pretty funny take on the Science News Cycle courtesy of PHD Comics. Every now and then I link to it when posting about some “recent study” because it is helpful to remember the distortions that can take place as information works its way from the research lab to the evening news.

I was reminded of that comic again when I read this bit from a story in New Scientist:

“To find out if behaviour in a virtual world can translate to the physical world, Ahn randomly assigned 47 people either to inhabit a lumberjack avatar and cut down virtual trees with a chainsaw, or to simply imagine doing so while reading a story. Those who did the former used fewer napkins (five instead of six, on average) to clean up a spill 40 minutes later, showing that the task had made them more concerned about the environment.”

Surely something has been lost in translation from data to conclusion, no? The author notes that this is from an “unpublished” study which gives me renewed confidence in the peer review process.

Well, that is until I read a somewhat alarming post by neuroscientist Daniel Bor, “The dilemma of weak neuroimaging papers”, which contains this summation and query:

“Okay, so we’re stuck with a series of flawed publications, imperfect education about methods, and a culture that knows it can usually get away with sloppy stats or other tricks, in order to boost publications.  What can help solve some of these problems?”

All in all, we do well to proceed with healthy skepticism.

Another Controversial “We Can, But Ought We?” Issue

A few days ago I posted links to two pieces that raised the question of whether we ought do what new technologies may soon allow us to do. Both of those case, interestingly, revolved around matters of time. One explored the possibility of erasing memories and the other discussed the possibility of harnessing the predictive power of processing massive amounts of data. The former touched on our relationship to the past, the latter on our relationship to the future.

A recent article in Canada’s The Globe and Mail tackles the thorny questions surrounding genetic screening and selection. Here’s the set up:

Just as Paracelsus wrote that his recipe worked best if done in secret, modern science is quietly handing humanity something the quirky Renaissance scholar could only imagine: the capacity to harness our own evolution. We now have the potential to banish the genes that kill us, that make us susceptible to cancer, heart disease, depression, addictions and obesity, and to select those that may make us healthier, stronger, more intelligent.

The question is, should we?

That is the question. As you might imagine, there are vocal advocates and critics. I’ve steered clear of directly addressing issues related to reproductive technologies because I am not trained as a bioethicist. But these are critical issues and the vast majority of those who will make real-world decisions related to the possibilities opened up by new bio-genetic technologies will have no formal training in bioethics either. It’s best we all start thinking about these questions.

According to one of the doctors cited in the article, “We are not going to slow the technology, so the question is, how do we use it?” He added, “Twenty years from now, you have to wonder if all babies will be conceived by IVF.”

Of course, it is worth considering what is assumed when someone claims that we are not going to slow down the technology. But as is usually the case, the technical capabilities are outstripping the ethical debate — at least, the sort of public debate that could theoretically shape the social consensus.

About three paragraphs into the article, I began thinking about the film Gattaca which I’ve long considered an excellent reflection on the kinds of issues involved in genetic screening. Two or three more paragraphs into the article, then, I was pleased to see the film mentioned. I’ve suggested before (here and here) that stories are often our best vehicles for ethical reflection, they make abstract arguments concrete. For example, one of the best critiques of utilitarianism that I have read was Ursula le Guin’s short story, “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas.” Gattaca is a story that serves a similar function in relation to genetic screening and selection.  I’d recommend checking the movie out if you haven’t seen it.