Monthly Archive for: ‘February, 2017’
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. By Mary Shelley. In Frankenstein and the Critics. Enhanced Media, 2014.
San Francisco Ballet Performance
February 25, 2017
Learn from me, if not from 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. (p. 82)
This story was originally conceived in 1816 by Mary Godwin (Shelley) on a sojourn outside of Geneva, Switzerland, accompanied by several companions including her husband to be, Percy Bysshe Shelley. She was only eighteen at the time. It was first published anonymously in London in January of 1818. In response to editorial pressure a revised version of the story was published in 1831 under Mary Shelley’s own name, and it is this later version that has become popular. I read the 1818 version, but I have not read the 1831 version. The San Francisco Ballet performance is based on the 1831 version, as are most modern recreations of the story.
The first line of the Preface introduces a confusion to modern readers:
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. (p. 54)
This ‘Darwin’ is not Charles Darwin, who lived 1809-1882, but rather his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), an English physician who published works on biology and plants that were referred to by his more famous grandson, Charles, much later. A modern reader sees the name ‘Darwin’ and thinks only one thing, but when this story was first published Charles Darwin was only eight years old. This ‘Dr. Darwin’ is Erasmus Darwin, not his more famous grandson.
There are other confusions that one confronts reading this story. Its structure is a story within a story within a story, like those nested dolls that are popular in Russia. It begins as a correspondence from a ship Captain named Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville, in England. Captain Walton is embarking on a sea voyage that will take him through the Arctic Ocean past the North Pole toward the Pacific. This story is not pursued. It is rather interrupted by the unexpected arrival to the ship, marooned among ice floes in this most unlikely place, of Victor Frankenstein on a small boat in a rather disheveled and desperate condition. The main thread becomes the narrative of Victor Frankenstein as he relates the events of his life to Captain Walton. But there are also long digressions recounting the life of Victor Frankenstein’s alter-ego, the famous monster we all know as Frankenstein.
This narrative is an exploration of grief, rage, vengeance, and despair. It is psychological. It is extremely tedious, overwrought, and slow moving. I think this book could easily be condensed to about half or even a third of its length with no great loss. It does have substance, however. It is written by a woman, but the principal characters are men. There are female characters portrayed, but they are only ancillary and they are underdeveloped and somewhat idealized. I think the use of male characters reflects the author’s identification with men, her dissatisfaction with herself, with femininity, as well as perhaps a desire to conceal her identity. When the story was first published in 1818, it was published anonymously. The story is a process of killing off the members of her entire family one by one as well as a couple of close childhood friends, and culminating in the death of the lead character, Victor Frankenstein, and the monster Frankenstein, which is his alter self and the driving force of vengeance and hatred in his life.
The split in Victor Frankenstein’s personality between his “normal,” rational, introspective, rather miserable self-hating persona, and the hideous, murderous, frightening monster that he himself created echoes the split in the character of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde written by Robert Louis Stevenson much later in the 19th century (1886). I don’t know of any relationship between the two stories or if Stevenson was aware of Frankenstein. It also resonates with Melville’s story of Captain Ahab, who experienced an lifelong wound and physical deformity consequent to his encounter with the White Whale, which gave rise to an implacable appetite for vengeance that eventually destroys him and all his crew.
In the case of Frankenstein the monster, the obdurate wound that gives rise to the all consuming hatred is a deep sense of rejection and estrangement from all humanity that is derived from the deformity of his physical appearance that inspires fear and disgust in all who behold him. Despite his acts of kindness and even heroism, and his painful longing for connection, his repeated efforts to reach out to others are rebuffed to the point where a malignant despair is transformed into relentless rage. It is directed strictly against his own family and those closest to him, rather than toward strangers or outsiders. This suggests that the sense of rejection originated within his own family and not from a prejudiced and discriminating society, although the monster did experience social rejection which blocked any alternative solutions he might have entertained.
Another point worth noting is that Victor Frankenstein lost his mother at the age of seventeen. This death occurred at a crucial moment because Victor was about to depart from his home and family in Geneva to travel to Ingolstadt to attend the university. This upheaval was at the behest of his parents and was unwelcome to Victor. His departure on the heels of his mother’s death was an occasion of great melancholy. It was soon after this that he threw himself into the study of science and eventually resolved to create his own “Frankenstein.” Mary Godwin lost her mother shortly after her birth. At age four her father remarried a neighbor woman who became her step-mother and with whom Mary did not have a good relationship.
The physical circumstance of being a woman was the unalterable condition which Mary Shelley seems to have resented and despaired of. Mary Shelley’s sense of rejection as a female gave impetus to her identification with males, and it led her to reject the idea of a female companion for the Frankenstein monster. The monster comes to Victor Frankenstein and tries to make a deal. He urges Victor to create another “monster,” a female companion for him. The two of them would go off together and live unto themselves. Although despised and excluded from human society, they would trouble no one and go about their own lives in a kind of self imposed exile. Victor accedes to this wish and sets about to accomplish it. He gets quite far along in the process when the monster shows up to claim his prize, at which point Victor, having had second thoughts about the venture from the beginning, makes an abrupt turnabout and destroys the nearly completed female companion for his wayward monster. This seals the estrangement between Victor and the monster and renders them implacable enemies. From this point all possibility of reconciliation or resolution are abandoned and Victor Frankenstein’s renegade monster will be uncontrollable in his destructive rampage. This rejection of the “heterosexual solution” represents Mary Shelley’s rejection of feminine identity, and perhaps of the marital ideal. Her marriage to Percy Bysshe Shelley was difficult, and ended when she was 24 with Percy’s drowning in a boating accident.
The San Francisco Ballet performance of Frankenstein was very disappointing. It completely misunderstood the story and as a result the ballet failed utterly as a narrative depiction. The costumes, sets, lights and staging were excellent. There was a lot of pretty dancing. But it had nothing to do with Frankenstein. The San Francisco ballet is afraid of evil. They cannot depict anything that is genuinely sinister or disturbing. It would upset the vulnerable sensibilities of the San Francisco audience. Someone might complain.
The thing you have to remember about Frankenstein is that the monster and Victor are one. The monster is the evil element within Victor that he is struggling to get control over and which is getting the best of him, slowly destroying Victor and everyone close to him. The San Francisco Ballet performance makes the monster an external enemy, an alien being that appears essentially out of nowhere to wreak senseless havoc upon innocent victims. This construction of the story admittedly appeals to the mentality of the American audience much better than a searching inward exploration of a torn, conflicted heart attempting to cope with overpowering evil impulses. It also feeds very nicely into the current political climate in the United States that tends to blame the troubles of the nation on immigrants, outsiders, “terrorists,” aliens, foreign invaders, rather than looking to internal dynamics that are alienating people from one another and from society
Unfortunately, what has happened in the San Francisco Ballet performance is a missed opportunity to disturb the audience and make them realize that the sources of violence and evil are within themselves, and that ordinary people struggle with dark and sinister impulses on a daily basis — for very good reasons. Violence and evil do not come out of nowhere. They are not the offspring of “bad guys” who are rotten by nature and must be destroyed like vermin. Victor Frankenstein created the monster that eventually destroyed him after the death of his mother and after being sent away by his family to the university at Ingolstadt. He had a deep sense of alienation and rage against the people who were closest to him. His being dispatched to the university was experienced as a banishment. He was melancholy, brooding, and self absorbed. But the San Francisco Ballet’s Victor is none of that. He is a rather dynamic, dashing, heroic figure, completely missing the point. Why would such a person ever create an evil monster? Victor Frankenstein as a romantic, leading man renders the whole story absurd. There is a lot of gentle dancing, innocuous feel good music, and a rather ridiculous, incomprehensible outcome. Nothing prepares you for the way this story ends. The third act is a long, serene wedding party in a sumptuous garden, then the monster shows up and trashes it. It is like the monster is an irrational, inexplicable demon who strikes randomly like a lightning bolt. His victims just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s nonsense. Liam Scarlett had no idea what he was doing in this ballet. Lowell Liebermann’s music is well suited to the ballet that Liam Scarlett created, but it is not well suited to Frankenstein. This is a Disneyesque version of Frankenstein. I would expect audiences to walk away uncomprehending and bewildered.
It is important to keep in mind Mary Shelley’s original title, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Prometheus was a Titan, who sided with the Olympian gods in their war against the Titans. Having joined the winning side, he avoided being sent to the Underworld with the losing Titans by the victorious gods. Prometheus was the creator as well as the benefactor and protector of mankind. He is the one who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. Zeus punished him for this by chaining him to a rock and allowing an eagle to tear at his liver every day, which was then regenerated at night. Also in response to Prometheus’s action Zeus commissioned Hephaestus to create Pandora, the first woman, who was to be the source of all the troubles and afflictions of mankind in the world.
How is Frankenstein like Prometheus? Mary Shelley makes an identification between the two. By animating insensible matter and creating life, Frankenstein raises humans to the level of gods — akin to commanding the power of fire. But the consequences were unforeseen and unintended and wrought havoc and turmoil upon the world. The Prometheus myth also carries with it a very negative estimation of women and it is consistent with Mary Shelley’s rejection of the monster’s proposed solution of having a female companion, forming a couple, and living apart from the world in a duality of isolation. This, incidentally, is the myth of the modern nuclear family and the heterosexual couple, who create a monogamous, emotional and sexual island that keeps the outside world at bay. Mary Shelley apparently did not think much of that idea, and her rejection of the female companion for the monster as well as the outcome between Victor and Elizabeth bear this out.
In a modern context our promethean ability to manipulate DNA in plants, animals, and within ourselves gives us a godlike creative power over life itself. We can create designer plants, grains, mosquitoes, animals, designer babies, designer illnesses that can be used as weapons of war, etc. Frankenstein is a metaphor for the unforeseen consequences of these experiments. It is a very apt perspective on this modern capability. And incidentally, Captain Walton’s ship became dislodged from the ice and he was forced to sail south toward home and abandon his quest to sail across the Pole toward the Pacific by a near mutiny of his crew.
There are many angles and aspects to the story of Frankenstein that one could expound upon at considerable length. It is a very relevant modern myth that echoes the ancient myth of Prometheus, but with a very modern twist. It is unfortunate that the San Francisco Ballet performance did not capture the potency of this myth and ended up with something rather bland and mundane. Prometheus stole fire from the gods. But there is no fire in this performance, except at the very end when fire seems to come out of nowhere and burns everything to cinders like the end of the Ring of the Nibelung. Not a bad idea.