Inspirations: Celebrating the bicentennial monster in the Infinite Monkey Cage

  • This year is the bicentennial of the first draft of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
  • She wrote the first draft at eighteen, as a guest in Lord Byron’s villa in Switzerland.
  • She had spent her childhood surrounded by writers and scientists.
  • She started a trend for casting scientists as villains, but her message is more subtle.

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Miniature of Mary Shelley painted by Reginald Easton in 1857, possibly from her death mask (Adam Cuerden [Wikimedia Commons])

Miniature of Mary Shelley painted by Reginald Easton in 1857, possibly from her death mask (Adam Cuerden [Wikimedia Commons])The beginning has passed into legend.

In April 1815, the eruption of Mount Tambora threw tsunamis across the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), flung so much ash into the atmosphere that it caused a global food shortage and inspired some of the most famous paintings of JMW Turner, and, the following May, brought unseasonably miserable weather to Switzerland.

On the shore of Lake Geneva, Lord Byron and his guests, Dr John Polidori, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and Shelley’s 18-year-old mistress, Mary Godwin, were whiling away the storms by telling each other ghost stories. With two of the most famous poets of the age in the house, it was only a matter of time before they started writing ghost stories of their own. Shelley and Polidori took up the challenge with enthusiasm.

The creature stirs

Godwin, on the other hand, was baffled. Perhaps she’d never tried her hand at a ghost story. Perhaps she was over-awed by her illustrious company. Whatever the reason, she wandered Byron’s villa, contemplating the rain hammering the windows, hunting for somewhere to start.

Then she had an idea:

I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.

And she wrote.

On the two hundredth anniversary of her flight of imagination, Frankenstein remains a household name. By the time it was published two years later, marriage had replaced Mary

Photo2

Christian Michaud as Victor Frankenstein) and Étienne Pilon as the creature at the Théâtre du Trident in 2013 (Deckard 97 [Wikimedia Commons

Godwin with the name by which we know her now: Mary Shelley. The first edition was published anonymously, and widely assumed to be the work of her husband, but her introduction to the 1831 edition bore her name and told her story of writing the novel.

The panel in the cage

Not many possibly opium-related visions bear a celebration of their bicentenary, but that was what the panel of Radio 4’s Infinite Monkey Cage did in a recent edition. It combined the IMC’s trademark blend of science and humour in a panel led by regular hosts, comedic scientist Brian Cox and scientific comedian Robin Ince.

The guest panellists were:

Evolutionary biochemist Nick Lane, who researches the processes behind the origin of life. His favourite monsters are the Vogons from Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Photo3

Brian Cox (r) and Robin Ince (l) hosting The Infinite Monkey Cage in 2011 (NelC [CC / Flickr])

Cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling. When he was knighted, he chose the motto ‘perge scelus mihi diem’, which could be translated as either, ‘proceed, villain, and render the day perfect for my delectation’ or, ‘go ahead, punk, make my day’. His favourite monster is the Bride of Frankenstein as played by Elsa Lanchester.

Performance artist, actor and comedian Noel Fielding, who recently did a show in which he was urinated on by an animated statue of punk rock singer Joey Ramone. His favourite monster is Donald Trump, the ginger Godzilla.

The Frankenstein metaphor

Frankenstein became a metaphor for concerns about technology and science throughout the twentieth century. In the 1920s, it was used to refer to poison gas, which emerged as the first weapon of mass destruction during the First World War. Its latest manifestation refers to the dangers of artificial intelligence getting out of control.

The panel discussed whether Frankenstein, or fiction in general, inspires actual science as much as it informs discussion about science:

Ince: Is there any point where you find in fictional works inspiration for real scientific ideas?

Lane: No.

No room for ambiguity there. Lane went on to point out that scientists rarely come well out of fiction. While there are scientific heroes in science fiction, the archetypes of scientific villains such as Victor Frankenstein and Dr Moreau have far more cultural traction. Neither of them are role models likely to inspire anyone into a career in science.

Photo4

Diorama of the Dr Who villain Davros, yet another fictional scientist gone bad (Nata Luna Sans [CC / Flickr])

Lane said he was inspired far more by non-fiction, citing James Watson’s memoir of the discovery of DNA, The Double Helix. Lane raises an interesting point, in that real-life scientists tend to be much better regarded than their fictional counterparts. Brian Cox himself is a case in point, as he has become the well-coiffed face of science in several documentary series and incessant appearances in the media.

The scientist as villain

Why, then, do fiction writers so often give scientists the role of antagonists? I’ve done it myself in The Endocrine Tyranny, in which a scientist becomes carried away with her own discovery. She isn’t a villain, but neither is the eponymous Victor Frankenstein.

Frayling suggested that may be because the practice of science is far less glamourous than most film depictions suggest. A scientist’s working day usually consists of trying to find the time to repeat the same experiment on large numbers of samples in between writing grant applications and attending faculty meetings that are of interest to three of every twenty people in them. There is little high drama, and creatures lumbering into life tend to be frowned on by the safety officer.

With The Endocrine Tyranny, I have to admit to a degree of laziness. It’s easier to come up with a plot based on science gone wrong than on science solving a problem, which is a far more common story in reality. If you doubt that assertion, ask yourself when you last worried about being disfigured by smallpox.

Shelley herself was certainly not antagonistic to science. The novel’s alternative title was The Modern Prometheus, referencing the titan who was tortured for being a benefactor of humanity rather than a villain. Frayling mentioned that the original draft of Frankenstein described Victor’s education in detail, to the extent that it was practically a scientific treatise in itself.

The making of the maker of the monster

Shelley grew up in the heart of London’s intelligentsia before the dichotomy between the arts and the sciences had emerged.

Photo5

18th century cartoon of galvanic electrotherapy (Wellcome Library)

After her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died of an infection she contracted during the birth, young Mary was raised by her father, the philosopher William Godwin. The chemist Humphrey Davy, whose lectures at the Royal Institution were so popular that Albermarle Street outside had to be designated as London’s first one-way street, was a frequent visitor to their house. So was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who also frequented the Royal Institution, and who reduced and enthralled Mary to hiding behind the furniture with his recitations of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

There was a fascination with electricity at the time, to the extent that people would queue up to be shocked by electric eels brought back from South America. Shelley was certainly aware of Giovanni Aldini’s grisly experiment, in which he ran an electric current through the corpse of man who had only just stopped twitching on the gallows. According to one account:

On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.

Aldini knew that his experiment would not bring the dead man back to life, but he hadn’t shared that information with many of the people in his audience. Watching that eye opening must have been horrifying, and indeed the account goes on:

Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright soon after his return home.

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Giovanni Aldini conducting experiments in galvanism in Paris, published in 1804 (Fournier [Wellcome Library])

Aldini’s experiment did not restore anyone to life but if we believe the account, it did deprive someone of it.

That account is so strikingly similar to the first movements of the creature that Shelley may well have had it in mind when she wrote the words:

I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

Victor’s failing

As the opening eye signifies a transformation from a corpse to a living creature, it also signifies a transformation in the man who effected it. Victor, who had sculpted the creature to be beautiful, is suddenly horrified by it:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!—Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

In a moment, Victor ceases to see the creature as beautiful and starts to see it as grotesque. In viewing the creature as a monster, Victor condemns it to act as one.

The popular conception of the stirring of the creature has far more to do with the 1931 film than Shelley’s description. Rather than being horrified by what he has brought to life, Colin Clive’s Victor raves about being God over the twitching Boris Karloff:

Shelley’s version of the creature only starts acting like a monster when people start treating it like one. Victor’s sin is not that he created the creature in the first place, but that he abandoned it to be shaped by a cruel world rather than guiding it into a fulfilling life. The creature is as tortured by Victor’s treatment of it as Victor is by its treatment of him, as the creature itself says:

Blasted as thou wert, my agony was still superior to thine; for the bitter sting of remorse will not cease to rankle in my wounds until death shall close them for ever.

Shelley gave us a creature capable of remorse, so it follows that it could have been dissuaded from the acts it feels remorse for.

While Colin Clive’s Victor gives us a story of a man who discovers things he would have been better off not knowing, Shelley was not in fact writing a paean to ignorance but was offering a more subtle moral: learn about the world, she told us, and create what you will, but make sure you can control what you create.

She tells us still.

Is that your interpretation of Frankenstein? If not, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification
One comment on “Inspirations: Celebrating the bicentennial monster in the Infinite Monkey Cage
  1. Jimmy says:

    I could not resist commenting. Very well written!

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