I am reading Mary Shelley’s masterpiece of horror fiction, Frankenstein, and came across this excerpt from Paul A. Cantor’s essay in The New Atlantis, “The Scientist and the Poet”:
Gods and Monsters
If there is one imaginative work of the Romantic era that scientists should pay attention to, it is undoubtedly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Mary was of course the wife of Percy Shelley, and in her account of the genesis of Frankenstein, she explains how the novel had its origins in learned conversations she listened to between her husband and Lord Byron:
During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiment of Dr. Darwin,… who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion…. Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.
Mary Shelley here displays her familiarity with some of the latest and most exciting scientific developments of her day, and especially Galvani’s experiments with electricity as a life-force (incidentally, the Dr. Darwin referred to in this passage is not Charles, but his grandfather Erasmus). Very much rooted in the science of its day, Frankenstein embodies a profound awareness of the larger human context of scientific endeavor. This may be difficult for us to believe today, accustomed as we have become to the cheap thrills offered by all the horror movies based on the Frankenstein motif. But even these movies have something to say about the dangers of unbridled scientific research, and it is no accident that the image of Frankenstein has entered the popular imagination as our chief symbol of science gone awry. But if we go back to the original story in Mary Shelley’s novel — which is much more literate and intellectually sophisticated than the movie versions would lead us to expect — we will get our fullest sense of what literature might have to say to science.
Above all, Mary Shelley concentrates on presenting the story of Frankenstein’s attempt to create a living being as a human drama. She dwells on Frankenstein’s motives as a creator and the consequences of his mode of creation on the creature he brings to life. In terms of Frankenstein’s goals in creation, Shelley actually presents him as a kind of artist: “I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself, or one of simpler organization; but my imagination was too exalted by my first success to permit me to doubt of my ability to give life to an animal as complex and wonderful as man.” With his “exalted” “imagination,” Frankenstein sounds like a Romantic poet, trying to translate an ideal vision into material terms. We begin to see the problem with Frankenstein’s creative activity when Shelley reveals how much Frankenstein is concerned with his own glory: “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” In his imagery of pouring light into a dark world, Frankenstein reveals himself to be a child of the Enlightenment, and Shelley brings out the connection between modern science and modern technology — the Baconian desire to conquer nature “for the relief of man’s estate.” Frankenstein thinks of himself as a kind of god, and his motivation for bringing a new species into being is to enjoy their worship of him as their creator.
Why does he go on to claim: “No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs”? Hitherto, every father has had to share the glory of human creation with a mother, whose role in bringing the child into existence was at least as great, if not greater. One can see Shelley thinking as a woman in this passage, and calling into question the masculine pride of the scientific creator. Frankenstein acts out a kind of male fantasy — to skip over any natural means of reproduction, to be solely responsible for the creation of his offspring, and thus to be able to claim its total gratitude. In her deepest insight into scientific creativity, Shelley sees its link to a will to power, and a desire to go beyond all conventional and natural limits on human aspiration.
Frankenstein’s obsession with his own glory has disastrous consequences for the being he creates. He is in a hurry to achieve his goal, and worries only about how quickly he can reach it, not about whether he can do the job right: “As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large.” Notice how quick Frankenstein is to revise his original plan, and solely in order to speed up his ability to get results. He does not pause to consider the consequences for his creature of the “gigantic stature” with which he endows it. In fact, all the misery the creature is forced to endure can be traced to its inability to fit in to society, and being eight feet tall is its primary problem in being accepted as normal by the human beings it encounters. Ultimately Frankenstein’s failure as a creator is a failure of imagination — he does not think through in advance what it will feel like to be a giant among ordinary men. Shelley identifies the purely technical nature of scientific thinking as its chief defect. For Frankenstein creation is simply a matter of technique. He has the parts and his only concern is how to assemble them quickly into a whole. He does not think about the nature of the whole he is creating — how the way it is being brought into being will affect the character of that whole. The result of Frankenstein’s lack of foresight and imagination is to bring tragedy on his creature and ultimately on himself.
Mary Shelley was of course an amateur when it comes to science, but in many ways her understanding of the larger context of science was well in advance of the thinking of the greatest scientists of her day. Notice that she is not skeptical about the power of science; she is not the sort of know-nothing who doubts the claims of scientists to be able to change the world. On the contrary, at the very beginning of what was to become the science of biochemistry, Shelley foresaw how potent a tool it would be in the hands of scientists. When scientists were priding themselves on merely getting the legs of a dead frog to jump, Shelley could already imagine the creation of a live human being through science. Indeed, we can now say in retrospect that Frankenstein is one of the most prophetic books ever written, and it is difficult to think about the disturbing questions raised by contemporary possibilities in biotechnology without invoking the warnings of Mary Shelley. The basic lesson Frankenstein can teach us is this: science can tell us how to do something, but it cannot tell us whether we should do it. To explore that question, we must step outside the narrow range of science’s purely technical questions, and look at the full human context and consequences of what we are doing. To fill in our sense of that context and those consequences, literature can come to the aid of science. No matter how imaginative science itself can be — and recall that Shelley does see Frankenstein as fired up by his imagination — literature is better at imagining the human things. As we have seen, Shelley can do what Frankenstein fails to do — to imagine what it would feel like to be a being created by science. And Shelley also usefully reminds us that science itself is a human activity, and that scientists may sometimes be impelled by human, all-too-human motives. Frankenstein presents his great experiment in creating life as a form of pure research, but Shelley makes us understand the dubious personal motives that are driving him, motives that in the end lock Frankenstein and his creature into a mutually self-destructive struggle.
The Wisdom of Poetry
The role that literature can play for science was eloquently formulated by Mary Shelley’s husband in his essay “Defence of Poetry.” Percy Shelley was not about to let his friend Peacock get away with his scurrilous attack on poetry, and thus he set out to answer it in an essay that lays out the contribution the imaginative arts in general have made to civilization over the centuries. Shelley argues that we may have all the scientific knowledge we need, but that only poetry in the broadest sense can teach us how to use it properly:
We have more moral, political and historical wisdom, than we know how to reduce into practise; we have more scientific and œconomical knowledge than can be accommodated to the just distribution of the produce which it multiplies. The poetry in these systems of thought, is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes…. We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life: our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave.
When Shelley writes “our calculations have outrun our conception; we have eaten more than we can digest,” it is hard to believe that he was writing early in the nineteenth century and not early in the twenty-first. For when he claims “man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave,” he seems to have captured perfectly the great threat of modern technology in our day. Shelley leaves us with a sobering sense of the dangers of a scientific wisdom completely severed from poetic wisdom. As his wife’s portrait of Victor Frankenstein suggests, such a liberated science may lead to a new kind of slavery, as human beings lose control of the products of their technological imagination, and perhaps end up serving the very forces that were meant to serve them.