I’m working on two lectures I’ll give next week on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein. Much to offer. I could focus upon the sublime views of nature such as Victor Frankenstein contemplates just before he meets his creation high in the Alps.
I resolved to go alone to the summit of Montanvert. I remembered the effect that the view of the tremendous and ever-moving glacier had produced upon my mind when I first saw it. It had then filled me with a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul, and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy. The sight of the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always the effect of solemnizing my mind, and causing me to forget the passing cares of life. I determined to go alone, for I was well acquainted with the path, and the presence of another would destroy the solitary grandeur of the scene. (74-75)
Much to consider here in Shelley’s use of Immanuel Kant’s idea of the sublime, where he gives less power to the sublime in nature, and more to the sublime in human creation. The creature for instance is quite moved by reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost, but over and over again the characters voice a deeper awe out in nature. A nice tension here in the novel. I could focus on the importance of friendship first voiced by Captain Robert Walton in letters to his sister.
I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans. How could such a friend repair the faults of your poor brother! (9)
The creature, as well, knows the importance of companionship.
But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses; or if they had, all my past life was now a blot, a bland vacancy in which I distinguished nothing. From my earliest remembrance I had been as I then was in height and proportion. I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I? The question again recurred, to be answered only with groans. (97)
This theme echoes Aristotle’s claim about friendship in Book 8 of his Nicomachean Ethics as rendered in the translation of Bartlett and Collins.
For friendship is a certain virtue or is accompanied by virtue; and, further, it is most necessary with a view to life: without friends, no one would choose to live, even if he possessed all other goods . . . . (163)
Excellent, but there’s more I could focus on. Certainly there is something to be said about the body parts. Victor Frankenstein muses on anatomy as he slowly approaches the creation of his Prometheus.
Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries. I resolved these circumstances in my mind, and determined thenceforth to apply myself more particularly to those branches of natural philosophy which relate to physiology. Unless I had been animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm, my application to this study would have been irksome, and almost intolerable. To examine the causes of life, we first must have recourse to death. I became acquainted with the science of anatomy: but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body. (33)
What does it mean to be human according to anatomy? Please watch this fascinating and provocative talk by Alice Dreger concerning how human anatomy and what it means is less natural and more cultural than we may think, and how it is essential to how we define democracy.
Well, here is The Anatomical Theater, and here is also a connection Victor Frankenstein did not consider, but certainly is part of how we understand our division from animals (even though we share all that DNA) and yet a connection we must respect in how we treat their anatomy when we eat. Watch and listen as the king of butchers, Dario Cecchini takes us into life through the insides of an animal. Very primal, very immediate–a clear connection between death and life, one that demands a responsibility, a respect.
The sacred as we approach our own bodies and define them; the sacred as we create life; the sacred as we take life; the sacred as we feed on life and death. How and why we cut into a human body and how and why we cut into an animal body (much like our own) says everything about us, everything we need to know in answering questions about our own humanity. Plenty of food for thought, and I need to return to my Frankenstein lecture. Bon Appétit!