A little over a week ago, a Virgin Galactic spaceship crashed during a test flight, leaving one pilot dead and the other badly injured. The SpaceShipTwo model craft, designed to ferry paying customers to the edge of space and back, was still in its testing phase. It appears from the latest reports that the crash was the result of pilot error.
Regardless of the cause, the crash was a tragedy, and it has elicited pointed criticism of the burgeoning private space flight industry. Writing for Time, Jeffrey Kluger’s offered some especially biting commentary:
“But it’s hard too not to be angry, even disgusted, with Branson himself. He is, as today’s tragedy shows, a man driven by too much hubris, too much hucksterism and too little knowledge of the head-crackingly complex business of engineering. For the 21st century billionaire, space travel is what buying a professional sports team was for the rich boys of an earlier era: the biggest, coolest, most impressive toy imaginable. Amazon.com zillionaire Jeff Bezos has his own spacecraft company—because what can better qualify a man to build machines able to travel to space than selling books, TVs and lawn furniture online? Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, has a space operation too because, well, spacecraft have computers and that’s sort of the same thing, right?”
Kluger’s piece in turn prompted a response from Rand Simberg at The New Atlantis. Simberg’s piece, “In Defense of Daring,” offers the counter-example of James E. Webb, another “amateur” who nonetheless directed NASA during the heady days of the Apollo program. Mr. Simberg has written a book titled Safe Is Not An Option about how an “obsession” with “getting everyone back alive” is “killing” the space program. Obviously, this is man with a high tolerance for risk. The account of the crash Simberg referenced in his piece was a blog post at Reason which included the following counsel: “Risk is part of innovation, and we should let people continue to put their lives on the line if they do so with full understanding of those risks.”
One man’s hubris is another man’s daring, it would seem. I don’t mean to be glib. In fact, I think the line between hubris and daring runs right through the heart of civilization. Both are quintessentially human qualities, and, while hubris is dangerous, a dearth of daring is not without its own set of problems. Wisdom is knowing one from the other.
I say all of that by way of getting back around to Frankenstein, a story centered on just this tension between daring and hubris. As we come to Frankenstein’s encounter with his Creature and hear the Creature’s account of how he has spent the first two years of his existence, we begin to pick up on Shelley’s tragic theory of civilization. The tragedy lies in the seemingly inextricable link between daring and hubris symbolized by the symbiotic relationship between Frankenstein and his Creature.
In chapter nine, Frankenstein describes the guilt and misery that enveloped him in the months after William’s death and Justine’s execution. Despite the force with which he expresses his sorrow and seeming depth of his regret, however, it remains difficult for the reader, at least for this reader, to take him at his word. For instance, consider the following passage:
“… I had committed deeds of mischief beyond description horrible, and more much more (I persuaded myself), was yet behind. Yet my heart overflowed with kindness, and the love of virtue. I had begun life with benevolent intentions, and thirsted for the moment when I should put them into practice, and make myself useful to my fellow-beings. Now all was blasted: instead of that serenity of conscience, which allowed me to look back upon the past with self-satisfaction, and from thence to gather promise of new hopes, I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt, which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures, such as no language can describe.”
So, yes, “a hell of intense tortures”–but does this not all seem rather self-absorbed? There is still a certain blindness at work here. There is a fixation on the depth of his own suffering, on how the course of events have stripped him of the satisfactions of a clean conscience. Moreover, it seems as if he has not yet questioned the motives and ambitions that led him to bring the Creature into existence in the first place. Nor is there any sense of guilt about his abandonment of the Creature.
But there is fear: fear that the disaster would strike again, fear which mingled with and contaminated whatever love he felt, for that love also constituted its objects as potential targets for the Creature’s violence. And this fear yielded hate and a thirst for revenge. Here’s how Frankenstein expresses this cycle that turns love into hate:
“I had been the author of unalterable evils; and I lived in daily fear, lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness …. There was always scope for fear, so long as any thing I loved remained behind …. When I reflected on his crimes and malice, my hatred and revenge burst all bounds of moderation.”
I can’t help but hear echoes of St. Augustine in these lines. The misery of the human condition is rooted in a profound disordering of our loves such that love is plagued by fear and even twisted into hate. And it is not hate which is love’s opposite, but rather fear. Hate is simply the form that love takes when it has been deformed by fear. But, precisely for this reason, Frankenstein cannot rightly interpret his own motives. He believes his hate is justified because it is rooted in his love for his friends and family. Hate, then, is the shape that love takes when it is threatened and vulnerable. Although this suggests that the love in view is ultimately self-love, and self-love cannot be brought to recognize it’s own failures. Consequently, guilt must be externalized or projected; it cannot be allowed to call into question one’s own motives and desires. In this case, Frankenstein’s hatred of the Creature is directly proportional to the guilt he experiences. But he and the Creature are one, so his hatred is a form of self-loathing, it is self-destructive. And, I would suggest, Shelley would have us read the relationship between Frankenstein and his creature as a microcosm of human civilization.
Elizabeth is more clear-sighted. She is blind to the existence of the Creature and to Frankenstein’s complicity in William’s and Justine’s deaths, but her perception of the world is nearer the mark. No longer are vice and injustice distant, abstract realities. “Now misery has come home,” she admits, “and men appear to me as monsters thirsting for each other’s blood.” There again the word monster is used to describe someone other than the Creature, in this case human society as a whole. Earlier we’d read how Justine, under pressure from her confessor, had almost come to believe herself the monster others thought her to be.
But while Victor cannot help but project the guilt that is properly his onto the Creature, Elizabeth’s nature is such that she can’t help but internalize the corruption she rightly perceives in the world. “Yet I am certainly unjust,” is how she follows up her indictment of humanity. She interprets Victor’s agitation as the lingering manifestation of his sorrow over William’s murder and his righteous indignation at the injustice of Justine’s death. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. But we are reminded of how perception is a function of love. Elizabeth’s love for Frankenstein leads her to interpret his demeanor and actions sympathetically. This contrasts sharply, of course, with Frankenstein’s loveless perception of his own Creature.
Throughout the remainder of the chapter we read about Frankenstein’s journey into the Alps in search of the peace that Nature might bring. Much of what follows is a literary representation of the natural sublime with a touch of the gothic, “ruined castles hanging on the precipices of piny mountains,” for instance. But the “kindly influence” of “maternal nature” had no effect; it failed to overturn Frankenstein’s restless misery.
The tenth chapter opens with Frankenstein on the second day of his excursion and another invocation of the natural sublime. The snow-topped mountains, the ravines, the woods–“they all gathered round me,” Frankenstein remembers, “and bade me be at peace.” But when he awoke the next morning, it was as if nature had hid herself from him. A rain storm had moved in and “thick mists hid the summits of the mountains.” Frankenstein’s response is telling: “Still I would penetrate their misty veil, and seek them in their cloudy retreats. What were rain and storm to me?” Shelley would have us see that Frankenstein is unchanged. He is still intent on peering behind the veils that nature raises around herself and ignoring her warnings.
Because he was familiar with the path, he forgoes a guide as he prepares to ascend the peak of Montanvert. Not only might we read this decision as yet another manifestation of Frankenstein’s hubris, his explanation for his decision is also telling: “the presence of another would destroy the solitary grandeur of the scene.” This is telling, I think, because isolation has been part of Frankenstein’s undoing all along. He isolated himself from the “regulating” influence of his friends and disaster followed. Interestingly, we are about to discover through the Creature’s own narrative, that he longs for nothing more than companionship. Frankenstein, on the other hand, pursues isolation–but he fails to find it. With “superhuman speed” he sees the Creature bounding toward him.
Their reunion is a bit, how shall we put it … tense. Frankenstein lashes out at the Creature, whom he addresses as “Devil” and “vile insect” and then threatens to kill. The Creature’s reaction, at least as I hear it, is almost humorously deadpanned: “I expected this reaction.” But immediately thereafter he launches into an eloquent statement of his case against Frankenstein:
“All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet, you my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind.”
The Creature here makes explicit what has already been implicit: Frankenstein and the Creature are bound to one another till death. Also, Frankenstein sports thus with life because he has already done so in bringing the Creature to life. He judges himself competent to create life and to take life.
Frankenstein does not take the Creature’s entreaty kindly. In fact, he is unhinged by rage. He lunges at the Creature, but the Creature easily evades him. “Be calm!” the Creature urges. Indeed, in this exchange, it is the Creature who appears to be the more rational of the pair. He kindly reminds Frankenstein that he made the Creature larger and stronger than himself. “But I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee,” he adds.
“I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, that which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other, and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”
He goes on in a similar vein until finally he urges Frankenstein to hear his tale. Then, he adds, Frankenstein can decide whether or not he still wants to kill him.
It is, initially anyway, quite easy to sympathize with the Creature as he pleads his case. Indeed, his appeals are moving. “Believe me, Frankenstein,” he continues, ” I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity.” He is an unfallen Adam that is nonetheless punished; a Satan who has not rebelled and is nonetheless cast down. It is here that we begin to hear something of Frankenstein’s own voice in the Creature. Like Frankenstein, the Creature asserts his own innocence, an innocence of which he was stripped by external forces. Like Frankenstein, although with perhaps greater plausibility, he frames himself as a victim of circumstances. (We’ll see in time whether or not we can fully credit the Creature’s own account.) To Frankenstein’s accusations, the Creature retorts with biting sarcasm, “You accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of man!”
This announces the Creature’s case against, not only Frankenstein, but the human race as a whole. Frankenstein continues to resist. He curses the day he made the Creature as well as his own responsible hands. “Begone! relieve me from the sight of your detested form,” he demands. In a curiously playful moment the creatures covers Frankenstein’s eyes with his hand and says, “Thus I relieve thee, my creator.” Frankenstein is not amused. He flings the Creature’s hand away from his face.
But the Creature finally prevails on Frankenstein to follow him to his cave so that he might hear his “long and strange tale.” Responding to faint stirrings of his conscience, Frankenstein agrees to follow the Creature. They sit down with a fire between them, and the Creature begins to tell his story. In the following chapter, the narration is handed over to the Creature, and we hear his account of the last two years, filtered through Frankenstein’s recollection.