Reading Frankenstein: Chapters 3 and 4

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is enough to reawaken Frankenstein’s ambitions: “So much has been done … more, far more, will I achieve: treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” Frankenstein went on to meet with Waldman, who was happy to have “gained a disciple” and furnished Victor with all the books he required. Thus the day ended–a day that “decided my future destiny,” Victor proclaims.

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

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

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

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

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

Recalling this time, Frankenstein concludes,

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

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

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

The Smart Phone in the Garden, Part Two

In The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx chronicled how the American literary tradition responded to the advent of Industrial Age machinery throughout the nineteenth century. The reaction was ambiguous. The arrival of the machine was framed by the pastoral ideal that represented America as a garden positioned precariously between the wilderness and civilization. For some, the appearance of the machine heralded the dissolution of the garden. For others, the machine was to be assimilated into the garden. Most, however, seem to have cared little for the garden.

In “The Celestial Railroad,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s revisiting of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the pilgrims rode a railroad in ease foregoing the travails of Christian’s journey. To their dismay they discover in the end that the railroad brought them not to the gates of the Celestial City, but to its infernal opposite instead. More likely than not, Hawthorne’s readers would have taken a more sanguine, if not downright utopian view of the railroad. A view not unlike that depicted in John Gast’s “American Progress” in which the railroad appears as an emblem of progress and empire.

John Gast, “American Progress” (1872)

These conflicting perspectives on technology and its place in American society run straight through the nineteenth century, across the twentieth, and into the twenty-first. Enthusiasts have consistently carried the day, but the critical counterpoints have never been insignificant. The contrapuntal tradition in Marx’s account was animated by an ancient literary convention that assumed real-world significance in the American context. This tradition of pastoral or Arcadian criticism sought to mitigate the perceived ills occasioned by the unbridled advance of civilization without advocating a return to the wilderness. The garden was thus positioned as a middle way between two poles.

As such, the garden was dependent on the two poles for its identity, in particular it was constituted by an evolving conception of “wilderness” that has itself been shown to depend on the advance of civilization. Tracing the evolution of the concept of “wilderness” in American thought is the aim of William Cronon’s 1995 chapter, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.”

In the opening paragraphs, Cronon makes the following provocative, counter-intuitive claim: “Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.” A little later on he adds, “As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.”

Of course, Cronon is not making a claim about the facticity of the natural world. It is there with or without us. He is making a claim about the idea or concept of the wilderness in American culture. It is a concept with a history and, as Cronon notes, early on the wilderness carried very different connotations than those it picked up during the nineteenth century. It was first the howling wilderness, a liminal and inhospitable place that could evoke holy dread. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, Thoreau could declare, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” A massive transformation had been effected in the symbolic value of the wilderness.

Cronon attributes this transformation to sources that he groups under the heading of the sublime and the frontier. Regarding the former, Cronon writes, “In the theories of Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, William Gilpin, and others, sublime landscapes were those rare places on earth where one had more chance than elsewhere to glimpse the face of God.” Consequently, it was both a majestic and inspiring place as well as a site of trepidation and dread. By the latter part of the 19th century, “the terrible awe that Wordsworth and Thoreau regarded as the appropriately pious stance to adopt in the presence of their mountaintop God was giving way to a much more comfortable, almost sentimental demeanor.” The sublime landscape was domesticated; it was, we might say, merely beautiful, picturesque. Cronon traces the evolution through the mountaintop experiences recorded by Wordsworth, Thoreau, and John Muir. Their moods differ, but for each the experience evokes a worshipful response – the mountaintop as cathedral.

The frontier and everything that it came to represent for Americans supplies the second set of associations that transformed the cultural value of the wilderness. In Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous formulation, the frontier was the crucible of American character. “Seen in this way,” Cronon explains, “wild country became a place not just of religious redemption but of national renewal, the quintessential location for experiencing what it meant to be an American.” Of course, Turner produced his thesis just as the frontier was closing and so the frontier myth possessed a nostalgic and elegiac tone from the start: “Those who have celebrated the frontier have almost always looked backward as they did so, mourning an older, simpler, truer world that is about to disappear, forever.”

The wilderness then was freighted with religious and national symbolism and it was constituted as that which was receding and withdrawing before the incursions of civilization. It was at this time that, according to Cronon, “ Wilderness suddenly emerged as the landscape of choice for elite tourists.” These tourists

“brought with them strikingly urban ideas of the countryside through which they traveled. For them, wild land was not a site for productive labor and not a permanent home; rather, it was a place of recreation. One went to the wilderness not as a producer but as a consumer …”

Cronon sagely goes on to observe,

“Country people generally know far too much about working the land to regard unworked land as their ideal. In contrast, elite urban tourists and wealthy sportsmen projected their leisure-time frontier fantasies onto the American landscape and so created wilderness in their own image.”

“Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated,” Cronon concludes further on, “could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land.” The binary of wilderness and civilization, in other words, abandons the garden ideal altogether.


“To the extent that we celebrate wilderness as the measure with which we judge civilization, we reproduce the dualism that sets humanity and nature at opposite poles. We thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.”

As I read him, Cronon’s discussion anticipates more recent debates about the relationship between offline and online experience. It would seem, for instance, that wilderness dualism presaged digital dualism. Moreover, his critique of the early wilderness tourists raises important questions for those who would today advocate greater degrees of disconnection. See, for example, Alexis Madrigal’s sensible point in “Are We Addicted to Gadgets or Indentured to Work?” and compare it to Cronon’s own question:

“Why, for instance, is the ‘wilderness experience’ so often conceived as a form of recreation best enjoyed by those whose class privileges give them the time and resources to leave their jobs behind and ‘get away from it all?'”

The remainder of Cronon’s essay raises further suggestive parallels and in the next post in the series I’ll take those up.


My thanks to Eric E. for pointing me to Cronon’s article.

Previous post.

What Would Thoreau Do?

Yesterday, July 12th, was Henry David Thoreau’s 195th birthday, or 195th anniversary of his birth, or however that is best put when the person in question is no longer alive. In any case, Thoreau is best remembered for two things. The first is his experiment in living simply and in greater communion with nature in a cabin on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts. The cabin was situated on Walden Pond and Thoreau’s reflections on his “experiment” were later published as Walden.

Thoreau is also remembered for making a better pencil. It seems that Thoreau is actually not generally remembered for this, but it is nonetheless true. His family owned a pencil factory at which Thoreau worked on and off throughout his life. Thanks to his study of German pencil making techniques, Thoreau helped design the best American pencil of its day. Apparently, in the early 19th century, there remained significant technical challenges to the making of a durable pencil, mostly having to do with the sturdiness of the graphite shaft and fitting it into a casing. Among Thoreau’s many accomplishments was the development of a process of manufacturing the pencil that solved these engineering problems.

I thought of Thoreau yesterday not only because it was the anniversary of his birth, but also because I had come across an article titled, “Tweets From the Trail: Technology Can Enhance Your Wilderness Experiences” (h/t to Nathan Jurgenson). The author, novelist Walter Kirn of Montana, had the temerity to suggest that maybe there is something to be gained by brining your technology out into nature with you, rather than venturing into nature in order to escape technology. As you might imagine, many of Kirn’s Montana nature-enthusiast friends were less than pleased.

Now, we should note that these distinctions we make — nature/technology, for example — are a bit complicated. To illustrate here is the opening of a recent, relevant post by Nick Carr:

A couple of cavemen are walking through the woods. One sighs happily and says to the other, “I’m telling you, there’s nothing like being out in nature.” The other pauses and says, “What’s nature?”

It’s 1972. A pair of lovers go camping in a wilderness area in a national park. They’re sitting by a campfire, taking in the evening breezes. “Honey,” says the woman, “I have to confess I really love being offline.” The guy looks at her and says, “What’s offline?”

You see the point. Our idea of “nature” owes something to the advance of technology just as our idea of “offline” necessitates the emergence of online. But back to Kirn’s article. He discovered that his writing flourished when he set up a work station on an old wooden telephone wire spool under the big, blue Montana sky with badgers and gophers scampering all about. Subsequently he made a habit of screening movies on his iPad in “natural” settings such as the seaside or the shores of a river. Finally, he confesses to the manner in which being out in the wilderness inspires fits of creativity that he feels compelled to tweet and post. And here is his eloquent conclusion:

“To sever our experience of wilderness from our use of technology now seems to me an unnatural act, shortsighted and unimaginative. No one appreciates a ringing cell phone while they float on a muddy river through western badlands or stand in the saddle between two massive mountain ranges, but short of such rude interruptions of heavenly moments, technology has a mysterious way, at times, of providing the perfect contrast, the happy counterpoint to scenes and experiences and settings that are easy to take for granted or grow numb to. Along with harmony, contrast is one of the two great rules of art. It wakes the senses, jars the tired mind, breaks up routines that threaten to grow mechanical. If you don’t believe me, try it. Travel to that secluded spot you keep returning to, the one where you go to leave the world behind, and turn on some music, play a movie, capture a passing thought and send it onward, out of the forest, out into society, and then wait, while the wind blows and the treetops sway and the clouds pile up a mile above your head, for someone, some faraway stranger, to reply. Even when we’re alone, we’re not alone, this proves, and in the deepest heart of every wilderness lurks a miracle, often, the human mind.”

I can’t help but wonder, what would Thoreau think? I can’t pretend to know Thoreau well enough to answer that question. I suspect that present day technophile’s would suggest that Thoreau ought to approve, after all he took his pencil to Walden and that was a technology. Well, yes, but he didn’t string a telegraph wire to the cabin.

I wouldn’t discount the dynamic Kirn describes, particularly since it is measured (let’s do without the ringing cell phone) and it still recognizes the contrast. The juxtaposition of unlike things can be creatively stimulating, and if that is what you are after, then Kirn’s formula may indeed yield something for you.

But what if your aims are different? What if you’re seeking only to listen and not to speak? What if your goal is not to be inspired toward yet another act of self-expression? We may carry technology with us into nature, in fact, we may carry it within us. But this does not mean that we ought always to answer to its prerogatives. Nor does it mean that we should always assume the posture toward reality that technology enables and the frame of mind that it encourages. And, of course, different technologies enable and encourage differently. It is the difference between the pencil and the telegraph and the smartphone.

I am not against human civilization (which is a silly thing to have to say), and the human mind, as Kirn puts it, is a “miracle” indeed. But the miracle of the human mind lies not only in its ability to create and to build and to express itself and impose its own symbolic order on the world. The miracle lies also in its ability to listen and to receive and to contemplate and to be itself re-ordered; to be taken in by the world as well as to take the world in. Perceiving the value of such a stance draws us into an awareness of the various ethical or philosophical frames that inform our evaluations. I cannot sort all of those out, but I can acknowledge that for a wide array of people the point would not be to speak, but to be spoken to. Or perhaps, even to find that we are not addressed at all.

An even greater array of people would likely agree that our posture toward this world ought to be more than merely instrumental. Human civilization must advance, but it does so best when it abandons Promethean aspirations and acknowledges its finitude along with its power.

I suppose all of this is a way of saying that beauty resides not only in what we make and say, but also in what we find and encounter. But shouldn’t this found beauty be shared? Maybe. But perhaps not before it has done its work on us. Perhaps not before we have allowed it to speak to us and to transform us. The space in which beauty can do its work is precious, and it would seem that the logic of our technologies would have us collapse that space in the service of sharing, commodification, self-expression, capturing, publicizing, and the like.

I don’t want to speak for Thoreau, but I would venture to guess that he might have us preserve that precious space where beauty has its way.

On the Passing of Old Trees

Within driving distance of where I live stood one of the oldest living trees in the world, until today.

“The Senator,” as the tree was known, held its ground for an estimated 3,500 years. Monday morning it caught fire and collapsed. The cause of the fire is unknown.

This was terribly sad news. How odd to consider that something that lasted for so long and endured so much came to its end in one’s own lifetime.

But how do we begin to asses this sort of loss? It points out the woeful inadequacy of our preference for quantifiable measures, none of which could possibly account for the passing of old trees.

One measure of the tree’s significance suggested itself to me when a local station interviewed a woman who came to the fallen tree this morning with an old black and white photograph. Coming to the tree had been a part of her family’s history. The tree marked time for her. In one sense, it marks time for all of us.

America is not a land of ruins that might engrave in our imagination a feeling for the depth of history. There is very little by which we might take the measure of our lives, and less still that might suggest to us the ephemeral nature of the days with which we have been gifted  and to discourage us from adopting the pretensions of presumed timelessness.

This tree, when it was looked upon and thought of, did just that.

Ursula Le Guin once wrote of one of her characters, “he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.”

That seems just about right.

Photo by Anthony Scotti via Wikimedia Commons

And Now For Something Totally Different … Hummingbirds

I’m fairly certain that until I visited western Pennsylvania this summer, I could count on one hand, maybe two, how many hummingbirds I’d seen in my life.  Given the location and time of year, and thanks to a pair of hummingbird feeders, I easily surpassed that number of sitings in about, oh, two minutes time.

The hummingbirds endlessly fascinated and delighted me.  They buzzed effortlessly back and forth from feeder to feeder just slow enough for the eye to follow with some effort, and then would stop so suddenly the eye would continue down an anticipated trajectory for a hundredth of a second before realizing it was now following only a projection.  I say it would stop, but really it was not a stop since tiny wings were still in blurred motion.  It was a hover, a hover and then a dash. Dashing creatures, unafraid to whirl by so closely instinct made you duck. Sometimes it would stop, perched on the feeder.  When it did, you realized just how small a bird this was, and elegant.

When the hummingbird hovered to draw from the feeder, unbroken focus seemed married to feverish activity.  Maybe there is a useful digital age metaphor wrapped up in that moment.

I took the shots below  (incidentally, interesting metaphor we chose for the act of taking pictures) with a pretty average camera from a fairly close distance.