Libertarian Writer Says We Get "Frankenstein" Wrong, Should Celebrate Triumph of Science Over Limits of Nature
Every week I receive messages asking why I bother to cover topics the writer considers too discredited or ridiculous to have anything to do with the reality of daily life. And then we hear stories like yesterday’s revelation that British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and at least half a dozen other high-ranking party members were participants in a private Facebook group where they shared Holocaust denial claims, Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the Rothschilds (the timely subject of my forthcoming British history magazine article), and conspiracy theories from David Icke, the British personality who folded the Protocols of the Elders of Zion into a ridiculous tale of space aliens and lizard-people. The Labour Party confirmed the story to Britain’s Telegraph, but Corbyn said he made only a few posts and condemns the group’s Anti-Semitism.
Meanwhile, Britain’s Sun newspaper made unwelcome headlines this week when it attacked so-called “snowflake” Millennials and their liberal college professors for claiming at the Frankenstein Monster was a misunderstood victim who deserves sympathy. When the rest of the world laughed at the Sun’s attempt to attack what is widely seen as the most basic reading of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, the paper posted an official statement to social media, somewhat unbelievably attempting to rationalize a headline that read “FLAKENSTEINS: Snowflake students claim Frankenstein’s monster was ‘misunderstood’ — and is in fact a VICTIM” as a serious attempt to explain that “more people have begun to see the character not as a terror to be feared but find his actions to be a result of the unimaginable horror from which he has been created.” The story itself contains virtually no content, being a very brief summary of a story from the Times of London a few days ago marking the novel’s bicentennial by claiming that modern students view the monster sympathetically. Basically, the headline writer went a little crazy with the rightwing propaganda. Both papers are divisions of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
What makes this interesting, I suppose, is that the 24-hour tempest arose over a question of literary interpretation. The assumption of those who supported or opposed the Sun article is that there is an “official” reading of Frankenstein that is inherently “correct,” and many of the critics of the piece tried to tie their advocacy to Shelley’s original intentions. The interesting thing about art is that it isn’t something that can be placed into a box that easily. Shelley’s intentions need not govern readers’ experiences, and it is entirely possible to react differently, and yet justifiably, to a piece of art.
That said, if there is a way to be wrong, trust Murdoch’s slipshod half-assed news-like products to find it. The Frankenstein Monster literally describes being a victim of societal oppression, and laments being misunderstood.
However, I am more interested in a similarly contrarian article about Frankenstein that is running in the current edition of Reason, the libertarian magazine. Libertarian science writer Ronald Bailey offers what I would consider a quite wrongheaded reassessment of Frankenstein as a triumph of individualism and science. Skeptic magazine’s Michael Shermer praised the article on Twitter as a powerful defense of science against the mad scientist theme in literature and cinema.
Part of the reason that Bailey get his argument wrong is that he is no literary scholar, and he understand neither how Frankenstein emerged in 1818 nor how it was received at the time of its creation:
… everywhere that Frankenstein’s creature goes, he and his creator are misunderstood. Almost without exception, his cinematic doubles are embedded in narratives that depict science and scientists as dangerously bent on an unethical pursuit of forbidden knowledge. That trend was established in the first Frankenstein talkie, in which Colin Clive hysterically repeats "It's alive! It's alive!" at the moment of creation.
At a strictly factual level, Bailey is wrong. Early readers of Frankenstein seized upon the theme of forbidden knowledge from the first. Condensed plagiarisms of the book, marketed to working class readers as cheap “blue books,” emphasized the transgression of the mad scientist as the key theme of the story. R. B. Peake’s highly influential stage adaptation of the book, Presumption: Or, the Fate of Frankenstein, has Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz (later made famous in the Universal movie) state the theme of forbidden knowledge quite plainly: “like Doctor Faustus, my master is raising the Devil.” On the other hand, some reviewers of the book took a very different lesson. For example, Sir Walter Scott, in reviewing the volume for Blackwood’s magazine, expressed nothing but enthusiasm for the “wonderful” possibility of creating life from dead tissue, though he did note that Frankenstein was too “rash” in his pursuit of science.
Now here is where things get interesting. Shelley herself found the stage version to be, well, presumptuous. She complained that Peake had done too much to emphasize the role of presumption and forbidden knowledge. But by then the genie was out of the bottle. Of the thirteen different Frankenstein plays that were performed between 1820 and 1910, I believe something like 10 or 11 revolved around the idea that Frankenstein was wrong to play God with his mad science. This did not go unnoticed by Shelley. When she revised Frankenstein in 1831 into the text most commonly used in standard editions of the novel, she added themes and imagery from Presumption, notably the word “presumption” itself to describe Victor Frankenstein’s work.
Here we have a bit of a dilemma: It is true that the 1818 text of the novel is lighter on the forbidden knowledge theme, but the 1831 text reflects Shelley’s revised (and darker) view of life. In the 1818 text, Frankenstein possesses moral agency and is clearly intended to be seen as having sinned for abandoning his creation, but in the 1831 text, Frankenstein’s fate seems guided by supernatural forces, and he is condemned by the sinful decision to engage in what are now called “unhallowed arts”—that is to say, because he trespassed on forbidden knowledge. Bailey doesn’t engage with these radically different interpretations of the story by its own author, nor the mutual influence between novel and stage play. Instead, he places blame on Peake for having somehow corrupted a pro-science novel. He also complains that in horror movies, there are an awful lot of villains. He cites a study of twentieth century British horror films: “Mad scientists or their creations were the villains in 31 percent; scientific research constituted 39 percent of the threats. Scientists were heroes in only 11 percent of the movies.”
This, he wrongly argues, is a result of misunderstanding Frankenstein.
There is nothing immoral in Frankenstein's aspiration to "banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death." The people who will choose to use safe enhancements to bestow upon themselves and their progeny stronger bodies, more robust immune systems, nimbler minds, and longer lives will not be monsters, nor will they create monsters. Instead, those who seek to hinder the rest of us from availing ourselves of these technological gifts will rightly be judged moral troglodytes.
In his myopia, Bailey feels that Frankenstein’s only sin was failing to nurture the Creator’s “moral capacity.” But this is wrong. Bailey, being a libertarian, has difficulty recognizing the difference between is and ought, or in this case, the difference between what science can do and what science should do. His broader point is to suggest that genetic engineering is safe and the Frankenstein story can be used to support it rather than caution against it. But the problem is that Bailey exhibits the sins of many who place the focus on the wrong actor. Like others who identify with the comfortable, Bailey doesn’t consider the Creature’s point of view. The product of a flawed creation, the Creature is born into a society that will never accept him, and to a life that Frankenstein knew, or should have known, would be one of suffering and pain. Did he deserve that fate so that Frankenstein’s wealthy friends or their offspring might be able to live more comfortable lives in some utopian future? Even if Frankenstein had only the noblest of intentions, there is still a difference between what science can do and what it should do.
Ultimately, however, there is an even more basic point to consider: The story of “Frankenstein” isn’t just Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. It is also her 1831 revision, and the stage adaptations, and, yes, even the movie adaptations. All of these are equally the story of Frankenstein. The mad science theme grew more pronounced in later stories modeled on Frankenstein, like H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, and it grew not because it was a corruption of a platonic ideal but because it developed in reaction to the perceived efforts of scientists to transgress the bounds of propriety and nature. This might seem like an extreme reaction in light of today’s science, but this theme grew up in the era of vivisection, scientific racism, eugenics, and nuclear terror—when life and death seemed malleable and subject to the whims of unelected servants of imperial and colonial powers.
Bailey paints a rosy picture of science because the cautionary tales of the past had an impact, the horrors of unethical, unrestricted science were reined in during the twentieth century, and we now have the luxury to fantasize that is and ought, can and should will always be the same.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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