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.

Our Very Own Francis Bacon

Francis BaconFew individuals have done as much to chart the course of science and technology in the modern world as the the Elizabethan statesmen and intellectual, Francis Bacon. But Bacon’s defining achievement was not, strictly speaking, scientific or technological. Rather, Bacon’s achievement lay in the realm of human affairs we would today refer to as “public relations.” Bacon’s genius was Draper-esque: he wove together a compelling story about the place of techno-science in human affairs from the loose threads of post-Reformation religious and political culture and the scientific breakthroughs we loosely group together as the Scientific Revolution.

In story he told, knowledge mattered only insofar as it yielded power (the well-known formulation, “knowledge is power,” is Bacon’s), and that power mattered only insofar as it was directed toward “the relief of man’s estate.” To put that less archaically, we might say “the improvement of our quality of life.” But putting it that way obscures the theological overtones of Bacon’s formulation and its allusion to the curse under which humanity labored as a consequence of the Fall in the Christian understanding of the human condition. Our problem was both spiritual and material, and Bacon believed that in his day both facets of that problem were being solved. The improvement of humanity’s physical condition went hand in hand with the restoration of true religion occasioned by the English Reformation, and together they would lead straight to the full restoration of creation.

Bacon’s significance, then, lay in merging science and technology into one techno-scientific project and synthesizing this emerging project with the dominant world picture, thus charting it’s course and securing its prestige. It is just this sort of expansive vision driving technological development that I’ve had in mind in my recent posts (here and here) regarding culture, technology, and innovation.

My recent posts have also mentioned the entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who is increasingly assuming the role of Silicon Valley’s leading public intellectual–the Sage of Silicon Valley, if you will. This morning, I was re-affirmed in that evaluation of Thiel’s position by a pair of posts by political philosopher, Peter Lawler. In the first of these posts, Lawler comments on Thiel’s seeming ubiquity in certain circles, and he rehearses some of the by-now familiar aspects of Thiel’s intellectual affinities, notably for the sociologist cum philosopher Rene Girard and the political theorist Leo Strauss. Chiefly, Lawler discusses Thiel’s flirtations with transhumanism, particularly in his recently released Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, a distilled version of Thiel’s 2012 lecture course on start-ups at Stanford University.

(The book was prepared with Blake Masters, who had previously made available detailed notes on Thiel’s course. I’ll mention in passing that that tag line on Masters’ website runs as follows: “Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.”)

As it turns out, Francis Bacon makes a notable appearance in Thiel’s work. Here is Lawler summarizing that portion of the book:

“In the chapter entitled ‘You Are Not a Lottery Ticket,’ Thiel writes of Francis Bacon’s modern project, which places “prolongation of life” as the noblest branch of medicine, as well the main point of the techno-development of science. That prolongation is at the core of the definite optimism that should drive ‘the intelligent design’ at the foundation of technological development. We (especially we founders) should do everything we can “to prioritize design over chance.” We should do everything we can to remove contingency from existence, especially, of course, each of our personal existences.”

The “intelligent deign” in view has nothing to do, so far as I can tell, with the theory of human origins that is the most common referent for that phrase. Rather, it is Thiel’s way of labeling the forces of consciously deployed thought and work striving to bring order out of the chaos of contingency. Intelligent design is how human beings assert control and achieve mastery over their world and their lives, and that is an explicitly Baconian chord to strike.

Thiel, worried by the technological stagnation he believes has set in over the last forty or so years, is seeking to reanimate the technological project by once again infusing it with an expansive, dare we say mythic, vision of its place in human affairs. It may not be too much of a stretch to say that he is seeking to play the role of Francis Bacon for our age.

Like Bacon, Thiel is attempting to fuse the disparate strands of emerging technologies together into a coherent narrative of grandiose scale. And his story, like Bacon’s, features distinctly theological undertones. The chief difference may be this: whereas the defining institution of the early modern period was the nation-state, itself a powerful innovation of the period, the defining institution in Thiel’s vision is the start-up. As Lawler puts it, “the startup has replaced the country as the object of the highest human ambition. And that’s the foundation of the future that comes from being ruled by the intelligent designers who are Silicon Valley founders.”

Lawler is right to conclude that “Peter Thiel has emerged as the most resolute and most imaginative defender of the distinctively modern part of Western civilization.” Bacon was, after all, one of the intellectual founders of modernity, on par, I would say, with the likes of Descartes and Locke. But, Lawler adds,

“that doesn’t mean that, when it comes to the libertarian displacement of the nation by the startup and the abolition of all contingency from particular personal lives, his imagination and his self-importance don’t trump his astuteness. They do. His theology of liberation is that we, made in the image of God, can do for ourselves what the Biblical Creator promised—free ourselves from the misery of being self-conscious mortals dependent on forces beyond our control.”

And that is, as Lawler notes in his follow-up post, a rather ancient aspiration. Indeed, Thiel, who professes an admittedly heterodox variety of Christianity, may do well to remember that to say we are made in the image of God is one way of saying we are not, the Whole Earth Catalog notwithstanding, gods ourselves. This, it would seem, is a hard lesson to learn.


Update: On Twitter, I was made aware of a talk by Thiel at SXSW in 2013 on the topic of the chapter discussed above. Here it is (via @carlamomo).