SPEAKER 1: Biddy, I think one of the most interesting themes that emerges in this book is connected to Mary Shelley's life and who she was. And that is the importance throughout the book of the whole idea of the potential for science and how important science is for progress of humanity.
Mary Shelley-- the book was written in 1818 just at the tail end of what we call the Enlightenment. And the Enlightenment is the general name we give the 18th century in France and England and in the United States and the idea that the Dark Ages had passed and mankind had entered-- humanity had entered into an enlightened age. And the principal force of that enlightenment was science and technology, which would push aside superstition and religion.
And the beginning pages of the book are full of this Enlightenment optimism, the unlimited potential of what science can do. On page 23 in our Cornell edition, you might notice this little lyrical praise to electricity and one of the experiments that he's involved in, he replied electricity.
"He constructed a small electrical machine and exhibited a few experiments. He made also a kite with a wire and string which drew down the fluid from the clouds." What's so fascinating here is how the whole century is preoccupied with the power and potential of electricity. Indeed, the subtitle of the book is Modern Prometheus. And of course, it's Prometheus who had stolen electricity-- had stolen fire, sorry-- had stolen fire from the gods and had given it to human beings.
I have here from the same period-- this is 1805-- a famous painting by Benjamin West of Benjamin Franklin. And it's the same thing. There he is holding his kite. And the name of the painting is Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky. Now, what's so fascinating is that Mary Shelley is the daughter of two very important Enlightenment philosophers-- her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, the great founder of feminism, and her father, William Godwin, one of the most important Enlightenment philosophers and the founder, really, of the schools of anarchism.
But all of them combined were enchanted with the potential for science, such that science would even end-- would eliminate death. It would cure all diseases. On a page in the text, on the bottom of page 27 and the top of 28, Shelley describes how the scientists-- top of 28-- "penetrate into the recesses of nature show how she works in her hiding places. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers. They can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake."
And among some of the things they can do is on page 22. "They can banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death." And I'll end this little mini essay about science by pointing out that, too, was the aspiration of Benjamin Franklin.
I have here a letter that Franklin wrote to one of the leading scientists of the period, Joseph Priestley, who wrote-- and this is Franklin writing now-- "The rapid progress the sciences now make occasion my regret sometimes that I was born so soon. It is impossible to imagine the heights to which may be carried in a thousand years the power of man over matter. All diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured, not even accepting that of old age, and our lives lengthened at pleasure, even beyond the antediluvian standard."
Well, it's in that kind of framework of Enlightenment optimism, the power and potential of science, that she depicts Victor Frankenstein and his scientific quest to do that which human beings have never been able to do, which is to create life.
SPEAKER 2: And of course as a novel, the book also illustrates forcefully the ambivalence--
SPEAKER 1: Absolutely.
SPEAKER 2: --that at least Mary Shelley and her romantic and Enlightenment colleagues had about not only the possibilities of science but its potential horrors. And that's the representation or evocation of both sides of that possible split, both the positive benefits and the potential monstrosity of science and technology when unfettered by an acknowledgment of certain limits and qualities and values other than science itself are a remarkable part of the book.
SPEAKER 1: Well, indeed, we encourage-- we are encouraging our freshmen and all the people who are reading the book this fall to in fact investigate that double-edged quality. Frankenstein discovers-- the monster discovers fire, and he discovers its potential. It warms and it heats. At the same time, he discovers its destructiveness and how it hurts him.
Similarly, we've sent the freshmen some articles about cloning, some articles about robotics, some articles that talk about President Bush's bioethical commission that's looking into the ethical questions. As you and I both know, the very cultural stereotype of the mad scientist, to all intents and purposes, comes from this novel. So we hope that reading this will encourage very deep inquiry about the role, the promised potential of science, and also, conceivably, the problematic of science.
SPEAKER 2: Since you're an expert in the history of philosophy, Isaac, I'm wondering what you would say about the way in which the book deals with nature and the effort to imagine that science and knowledge could actually be compatible and are compatible with the tranquility, the peace, and the positive possibilities of our proximity to nature.
SPEAKER 1: Well, it's true there's a kind of ambivalence in the book about nature. On the one hand, there is the scientific effort to dominate and subdue nature at the same time, which is the Enlightenment part of the book. And then there's the romantic, as we often call the 19th century philosophical attitude, is the romantic sense of nature as a refuge, as a calming, humanizing place to retreat and to find oneself. There's lots of discussions about how one goes off into the woods or into the mountains to-- for solitude and spiritual vivication.
SPEAKER 2: Yeah. And some of her descriptions are quite remarkable of not only the mountains, but more pastoral scenes. What about religion? Let's talk a little bit about religion and how it figures in the-- well, related to questions about science are also the questions about what it means to put knowledge and as you say, science, in the place of God and of religious belief. And again, what both the benefits and some of the potentially deadly consequences of that might be.
SPEAKER 1: Right. And I suppose where you may be going there is the importance, again, of the-- the importance of her references in the novel to Milton's Paradise Lost. When the monster learns to read-- which I think you wanted to say a little bit about it, about how he learns to read-- one of the books that he reads very carefully is Paradise Lost, which is, after all, about Satan's desire to, in a sense, replace God and acquire godlike powers.
And that, of course, has always been a leitmotif of these discussions of Enlightenment science in which the reaction against the Enlightenment accuses the philosophers of the 18th century indeed of trying to replace God in some satanic-like way. And you could argue that this is a long meditation about, can human beings in fact ever be as godlike as to be able to create life as God created Adam? And thus the lament of the monster about that.
SPEAKER 2: Right. And I was also thinking about its reflections on evil and violence. Where do those qualities in human beings come from? And are they natural, or are they caused by environment? The monster, of course, appeals in his efforts to win the compassion of Victor Frankenstein to the notion that he's been formed by his treatment. That is, that other people's treatment of him accounts for his homicidal rage.
He says, for example, on page 98, "I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator, would tear me to pieces in triumph. Remember that and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me."
And yet, there's an entirely different theme, the one you've just emphasized, that would suggest it's not that the monster is made evil or homicidal, but also that the very circumstances surrounding his creation are involved in the evil that ultimately emerges. And hints that it's both there from the start, as well as a consequence of one's environment.
SPEAKER 1: And in which case, Mary Shelley is really walking us through this very profound debate in the 18th century, which we still have not resolved, are human beings created and intrinsically evil, which we have to remember, until the Enlightenment, in a sense, is the dominant view. It's the Catholic view of original sin, which is that all human beings bear the original sin of Adam and are therefore intrinsically evil.
It persists to the present day as a kind of staple of Burkean conservative ideology. On the contrary, in the 18th century, philosophers argued that human beings are like a tabula rasa. They are neither good nor bad, but they become good or bad in terms of the way society and the environment affects them. And in a sense, Shelley is taking the latter position.
The monster is-- and with that wonderful device of seeing, looking into-- through the wall and seeing this loving family in which he acquires sympathetic and, as he puts it, I was virtuous, et cetera. And he is predisposed to be good. And it's only when people look at him, can't stand him, throw things at him, describe him as monstrous that in a sense, society writes on him that you are evil.
SPEAKER 2: Right. On the other hand, we don't know if that's Shelley's or the author's perspective because she also has Victor Frankenstein ultimately refuse to create another animated figure, a wife for Frankenstein, because he can't be sure, actually, that the monster's--
SPEAKER 1: That's very good.
SPEAKER 2: --evil is created only by his environment. So it's an interesting tension.
SPEAKER 1: But one of the things that I find most interesting, Biddy, is you cannot go a week, if you look in the press or if you read serious literature or journalism, without finding some reference to Frankenstein or Frankenstein monster or the notion of monstrosity. And what an incredible testimony to an author that she has been able to capture the cultural imagination of the West so vividly. It's amazing.
SPEAKER 2: It is extraordinary. And I thought a lot, when I reread this book, about the degree to which the capacity for compassion and for love, even within a familial setting or a community setting, seems to be aligned in her story with likeness, with being like the people around you. And there's a lot, of course, of attention on familial relations, sibling relationships, cousins, brothers and sisters, the doublings of those relationships throughout the text.
And it's the one who's created differently, who looks different, who's monstrous in his difference from those with whom he comes into contact, who's marginalized and rendered monstrous by the people around him. And that is a theme that I think a lot of contemporary writers and critics and readers of the book find compelling-- the notion that his monstrosity is actually created in part by the way he's treated by others and by virtue of his difference from them.
So if you combine the emphasis on love as a love among those who are like one another with the fear and hatred, even, of the monster who seems by virtue of birth and appearance to be different, there's a lot of material there for discussion as well.
SPEAKER 1: Right. It would seem to inform some of the attitudes that society has to ratio others to people of color who seem different and they get pushed to the side and marginalized and seen as others. It could be relevant to discussions of sexual orientation, people who seem to be somewhat different in sexual preference and are pushed to the side because they're different than most people are.
It's amazingly fruitful, what she's done, and profound insight, really, into how we do as cultures and societies create our own monsters, create monsters out of people we fear. And most of the time, the people we fear, we fear because they are different than we are.
SPEAKER 2: And also, interestingly, fear because they may very well represent parts of ourselves. One of the most interesting things about a possible approach to the book is the degree to which Victor Frankenstein and the monster, of course, two parts of this, two sides of the same coin or twins of one another. And that, I think, also leads to the suggestion, at least, or a possible interpretation that some of what we fear in others is not simply that which seems different to us but also parts of ourselves which we wish to suppress. That is another strong theme in the book. And it emerges with all of these repetitions and doublings, even to the point of bringing-- I'm sorry, I've forgotten the name of the captain that--
SPEAKER 1: It's a good thing that--
SPEAKER 2: --in the book.
SPEAKER 1: It's good that we have both forgotten the name of the captain. Oh--
SPEAKER 2: You'll have to read the book and--
SPEAKER 1: Well, why don't we just look--
SPEAKER 2: Why don't we--
SPEAKER 1: --which is what I want to teach students to do.
SPEAKER 2: Exactly-- when we forget a name. Of course, you won't because you're not yet our age. But should you--
SPEAKER 1: The man who's telling the story, of course--
SPEAKER 2: Walton.
SPEAKER 1: Walton. What I--
SPEAKER 2: Walton himself has aspects of Frankenstein.
SPEAKER 1: Absolutely.
SPEAKER 2: So yes--
SPEAKER 1: He is-- his quest for-- to get to as far north as he can, as no one else has ever done. But when you were talking about the cultural phenomenon of creating monsters, and also the extent to which some of this is a reflection of a parts of ourselves, and how Victor and the monster are kind of a complementary relationship and how we create monsters out of parts of ourselves that we find unsettling, I was thinking indeed about how this may account for the incredible success of the story when transformed, when translated into film.
Since the 1930s, there are literally scores, as we know, of film renditions of the story. And it has to be more than simply the thrill of seeing this 8-foot Boris Karloff walk across the screen with that crazy lope that he has. It has to be that it touches themes and issues that may be, indeed for many of us, below the surface. And each generation seems to have its new rendition of the film, and people still troop to it and, as I said earlier, make references to it all the time.
SPEAKER 2: Isaac, before we end, I want to emphasize how compelling I found it-- yet again, as I always do-- to read a novel or a book in which the justification for reading is an important part of the theme. And as we close, I want to just call our attention to page 86 when the monster talks about the effect on him of books and the degree to which books open up the world to him, the world of images, of his imagination, the world of possibility, realms of emotion and feeling that he had not yet had access to before he read.
Obviously, Isaac Kramnik and I have used the text itself, the book itself as a way of emphasizing how important we think it is to read carefully and to use the words on the page as a basis for your own thinking and your own imagination and your discussions with one another and with us.
So we should close by again congratulating you for your admission to Cornell, welcoming you to Cornell, telling you how we look forward to seeing you and having an opportunity to talk with you, not only about Frankenstein but about a range of other things as well and having you here at Cornell and expressing our hope that you'll enjoy the book, enjoy the film series, enjoy the discussions, and have a wonderful experience at Cornell.
SPEAKER 1: And we hope you have a good summer. And we'll see you on Sunday, the 25th of August. And do come up to either of us if you see us and say hello and tell us what it was like watching us from wherever you live around the world.
SPEAKER 2: Please don't tell us what it was like watching us. Just kidding.
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Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is the book chosen for this year's New Student Book Project. All new students will be reading the book this summer, and participating in discussions during orientation week that provide not only an initial social experience, but also a shared intellectual one. Frankenstein invites reflection on a number of issues, both historical and contemporary, in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities--from concerns about cloning and other technologies to questions about the creativity and the nature of our humanity.
This video is part 3 of 3 in the Frankenstein series.