Friday, February 14, 2014

282. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (FP: 1818; Penguin Classics, 215) was the last book I read in 2013. The story is about one man's unbridled passion to acquire knowledge forsaking all other aspects of life, ending in his doom. Is it bad to forsake all else in the quest for knowledge? Is this not a fantastic quest for man to embark on? According to Mary, a false balance is an abomination to the Lord [Proverbs 11:1a] and the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being [Socrates]. Or that is what she implies in this Gothic creation of man's attempt at playing god gone wrong.

In Frankenstein, Mary describes the woes of a young Frankenstein who left home and his family and friends for school and there sought to investigate further and farther into the subjects of science and of creation to the exclusion of everything including his health. It was his single-idea to create a human being; yet, not being perfect, he could not perfect his creation and so produced a horrendous creature he himself could not love. His inability to love his creation, had a deleterious psychological effects on the creature and he who was love and gentle became suddenly wicked and murderous. And since it was Frankenstein's fault to have created him, he sought vengeance against his creator.

Certainly Mary Shelley never believed that a person could ever be created even when Dr Darwin had at the time expressed its possibility
The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr Darwin and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence. I shall not be supposed as according to the remotest degree of serious faith to such an imagination; yet, in assuming it as the basis of a work of fancy. [Preface]
Irrespective of this impossibility of creating life, Mary called for a clear distinction between the things that are necessary and into which we must investigate and the things which the ordinary course of life could provide, which we must leave to nature.
It develops, and however impossible as a physical fact, affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield. [Preface] 
Mary Shelley suggested that taking on the world, learning things beyond its current relevance leads to pain. She seems to be asking the extent to which we must quest. This question has bothered some scientists and moralists. It is that which led some to demand ethical science and it is that which confronts advancements in cloning and stem cell research. How far should we go as a people in our quest. Should every issue that is subject to investigation be investigated? It is irrefutable that science has made some positive contributions to life as we know it now; but no one can ignore its huge negative consequences. One of which we still grapple with today - nuclear weapons. Most apocalypse movies have been based on this negative consequences or fall-outs from man's insatiable quest: to investigate and to create. Should man play God, whoever this god is? Should man have the ultimate power in his hands? Or would Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, Fukushima, be reminders? Should we not express, fully, our potential for fear of becoming evil? But into whose hands would these unconstrained discoveries fall? For the outputs of science are like tools. Their use is determined by the user.
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. [51]
The field of genetics might not have been a branch of biology even in Mary's time since it was not until 1869 that the DNA was first isolated by Friedrich Miescher and not until 1953 that double-helix structure was discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick. Yet if Mary were alive she would know that though the giving of 'animation to the dead' might not have been discovered, the creation of life through the use of living cells has become our reality. That Dolly was created and that Frankenstein is a stark possibility. That not only are we able to create living beings from cells today, but that the barriers to scientific advancement - let's call it progress - is falling (perhaps because of the unbridled commercialisation of scientific research findings).

Mary advocates for moderation and balance. To her, a single-minded fixation on a thing that takes you from the enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life, from the now, from your family and friends, should be avoided.
A human being in perfection ought always to preserve calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. 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. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, 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. [53]
This quest of moderation is, to some extent, the central idea in Rober Musil's The Confusions of Young Torless. However, this is opposite to what Alexander Pope proposed in his poem An Essay on Criticism (1709). At Line 215 to 232, Pope writes:
A Little learning is a dang'rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, 
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir'd at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind:
But more advanc'd, behod with strage surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleas'd at first the towering Alps we try,
Mout o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky,
Th' eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But, those attain'd, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthen'd way,
Th' increasing prospects tire our wand'ring eyes,
Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps rise!
Whether follow Pope or Shelley, what is clear is that both moderation and dedication are equally important, and more so if we are bent on doing good. What good is, is another matter. Or even if good always end in good. For instance, most scientific inventions begin with good intentions only to be appropriated towards devastating ends. Inversely, some outcomes of military scientific researches - directed purposely towards the creation of destructive accouterments - have been used by civilians for peaceful purposes.

In Frankenstein human wickedness was emphasised, in some way. The horrible creature revealed man's evilness, his will to kill to avenge a killing: that man despises and kills with a clean conscience (whilst shouting murderer). The execution of Justine Moritz - a servant of the Frankenstein household - was absolutely unnecessary and she, who was loved by all, overnight became the enemy of all. No one was bold enough to stand for her and all were eager to bear witness against her even when they knew aught. Thus Mary Shelley suggests that man has no capacity to be god and bestow upon his creation the nourishment of life. In effect, good cannot proceed from evil; or something from nothing.

Yet Mary provides no respite for mankind; she showed that even though it may lead to greater dire consequences, man's quest to do extreme things, to break new grounds is unquenchable. Frankenstein's quest to kill his creation failed and into the world he fled. And like the devil one can only say 'Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short [Rev 12:12b].

This is a book worth the read; yet, apart from the enjoyment of reading one can say that none of the message here will be adhered to, for we are past the stage of care and of caution. Today, scientific inquiry - good or bad - is the order of the day. What this portends, no one can tell. Yet, we can get glimpses of the numerous attempts at cloning, surgeries to look like this and that and the rapid advancement in the field of Genetic Engineering. If sci-fi movies provide glimpses of the future, one could say that man has fast-forwarded evolution. An interesting read, nonetheless.

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