secrets of heaven and earth

Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Frankenstein (in Context) | Author: Mary Shelley | Ch: Chapter 2

Is Frankenstein doing something wrong in addition to something revolting? Is he violating some taboo that deepens our revulsion?

For many he may be. In just the prior sentence he denies any interest in "the structure of languages" but immediately after speaks of penetrating the secrets of heaven and earth. Some readers will associate the two and recall the Tower of Babel and the consequences for those who sought to acquire knowledge expressly forbidden them. That disastrous assault upon heaven returns us to mankind's primal transgression, eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the chief punishment for which is death. Shelley makes readers of her time shudder at the prospect of Victor's venturing into hallowed terrain (his Christian name in this signals his arrogance) by his determination to reverse death and restore immortality to mankind. 

One of Shelley's accomplishments is to link Victor's scientific mission as benefactor of humanity with her audience's fear and disapproval of science's determination to penetrate into the mysteries of matter and being. Frankenstein becomes the progenitor in English fiction of the obsessed scientist, some of whom will hold civilization hostage to their sociopathic schemes for domination. Of all science's cherished objectives, none could be more overweening than the attempt to create life without sexual reproduction. That, as the Bible's opening verses make clear, is reserved for God: "And God said...." Shelley herself sides with science but knows that many of readers will be horrified by Victor’s attempt to claim God-like power.

At the time Shelley is writing, London especially but any place in England or Scotland where the scientifically informed gather is fascinated by speculations regarding the "life-giving principle" and what was called Vitalism (see introductory annotation), the belief that the origin and phenomena of life originate in a vitalizing force not traceable to biochemical or any other material causes (more on this later). What, for instance, they asked to make the point, explained the rhythmic pumping of the heart? 

The debate has theological ramifications beyond those of transgression, for the application of electricity or some other force to dead organic matter resulting in its reanimation may suggest the absence of a soul or of any divine element as the unique source of life and that in turn can resolve itself as an entirely materialist view, which might exclude God. As Richard Holmes observes, "Thus Vitalism was the first great scientific issue that widely seized the public imagination in Britain, a premonition of the debate over Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection..." (Wonder 313). Contributing to the debate was Erasmus Darwin's experiments with worms. 

Galvani's claim to have proven Vitalism by the spasming of the dead frog (se the Introduction and see below in this chapter "galvanism") perpetuates interest in the reanimation of the dead. Analogously, Mesmer's claims that the hypnotist is able to transfer his “animal spirits” to his subject,  to be a conductor for magnetically charged vital fluids seems to reinforce Vitalism. John Thelwall, a political radical shortly to be brought up on charges of sedition (it is likely that Godwin's testimony saved him from being hanged), in 1793 delivered what can only be described as a galvanizing lecture at Guy's Hospital, London, titled "Animal Vitality," in which he challenged Vitalism. Ten years to the month later, another Italian, a professor of anatomy from Bologna, Giovanni Aldini, in a London anatomy theater attached electrified wires to the rectum and ear of a just-hanged murderer. Various muscles contracted, giving the appearance of the body's "re-animation"; when he attached the wires to the ear and mouth, the jaw quivered, "the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened," that last a memorably grisly detail Mary Shelley may have recalled. 

With respect to Frankenstein the debate reached its most heated when William Lawrence, an iconoclastic young physician at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London, delivered a series of public lectures at the Royal College of Medicine in 1816. This was less than a year after he saw for the first time a new patient, the neurasthenic Percy Shelley. Lawrence, a materialist, viewed the Vitalist position as composed of nothing more than wishful thinking suspended from an unscientific, unsupportable theological scaffold. What so far remained enigmatic about organic life would surrender eventually to scientific explanation that rendered all talk of vital fluids, souls, animal spirits, and principles or forces of life anachronistic if not phantasmagoric. Lawrence's lectures were pointed, unapologetic, and took a severe delight in expounding the position of the man of science. In a brilliant image that, like Darwin's ape, fixed the debate in the minds of all who heard of it, Lawrence maintained that every organism depended on the same physiological principles, "from an oyster to a man."   

Frankenstein initially sold only some 500 copies. The novel gained notoriety through a stage adaptation made five years later and titled PresumptionThe playwright recast the novel as punishing Frankenstein's hubris in challenging God's exclusive power.  Mary Shelley saw Presumption in London in 1823 and enjoyed it immensely: "I found myself famous! appears to excite a breathless eagerness in the audience...." She's pleased by the numbers of ladies who faint. Presumption reduces the novel to a single idea, which focuses upon the obsessed if not mad scientist who traffics in decomposing matter. 


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