The Frankenstein Prophecies: The Untold Tale in Mary Shelley’s Story Nine Questions and Replies
Robert D. Romanyshyn, Ph.D.
Table of Contents
Are the Conditions That Made Mary Shelley’s Story Possible, and Perhaps Even Inevitable, Created in Florence, Italy in the 15th century?
Is Mary Shelley’s Story a New Myth of Creation?
Resurrecting the Dead: Is Mary Shelley’s Story a Prophecy About Acting As If We Are Gods?
The Melting Polar Ice: Is Mary Shelley’s Story a Prophecy of the Dying of Nature?
Question 5: The Monster’s Body: Is Mary Shelley’s Story a Prophecy of the Monster’s Descendants?
Question 6 From Astronauts to Angels in Clouds: Is Mary Shelley’s Story a Prophecy of the Last Generations of Humankind?
Question 7: WWW. Adrift in the Digital World: Is Mary Shelly’s Story a Prophecy about Being Homeless in the Wired, Webbed world?
Question 8: Who is the Monster? : Is Mary Shelley’s Story a Prophecy of a Radical Ethics?
Question 9: Seeds of Hope: Is Mary Shelley’s Story a Prophecy of Another Type of Sensibility Toward Nature?
In Technology as Symptom and Dream (1989/2006) I explored the origins of the modern scientific mind within the context of the 15th c. development of linear perspective art. The genesis of that book began quite unexpectedly in an art museum with a comment from my young son, who, while looking at Giotto’s ‘Lamentation’, proclaimed with all the insouciance of
youth that that ‘guy,’ as he called him, did not know how to paint. When I asked why he said that, he replied that the figures looked like cartoon characters.
That seemingly innocent remark sent me on a path that took me to those events in Florence Italy, where in1435 Leon Battista Alberti published a text that described the conditions for constructing the appearance of three dimensional depth on a two dimensional plane. Those conditions paved the way for the transition from the closed word of the medieval mind to the infinite universe of the modern mind.
I begin this book, The Frankenstein Prophecies: The Untold Tale in Mary Shelley’s Story/Nine Questions and Replies with this comment to indicate that books develop a life of their own whose unfinished business is taken up again and again. I have often suspected that a writer is not so much the author of a work as he or she is the agent in service to a work. A writer does not merely choose a work as he or she is drawn into a work, much like we do not choose our dreams—nocturnal or otherwise—as much as we are the stuff that dreams are made on.
In the intervening years since that moment in the museum with my son, I have been increasingly drawn toward Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus to give it its full and proper title, and more recently have attempted to give some shape to this attraction, first in the form of a rather academic book and then in the form of a play. Both attempts went unfinished because, as I have come to realize, they did not fully appreciate how her novel personifies those very same cultural and historical events that I wrote about in my earlier book. They did not adequately respond to how her novel fleshes out those events and ideas, how it takes them up and animates them, while also portending ways in which her novel anticipates some key themes that mark contemporary technological crises. They did not reflect how her original story is and has been so pivotal.
A pivot is a point that turns round on itself and the pivotal character of Mary Shelley’s story turns round on itself toward those historical conditions that made her dream of Victor Frankenstein and his work possible and perhaps even necessary. The first two questions take up this issue. Questions 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 then pivot forward and take up the seeds on the margins of her story that linger today as prophetic implications of her work. These five questions explore various faces of our ecological crises and our god wars.
Quite near the end of her story the ‘Monster’ tells Captain Walton, who rescued Victor from the frozen Arctic waters as he was pursuing the ‘Monster’ in order to kill him, that Walton knows the story only from ‘Victor’s point of view. (Footnote quote p235)
The Frankenstein Prophecies takes up her story from the point of view of the ‘Monster,’ who, abandoned by his creator, has lived in exile on the margins. In this context, The Frankenstein Prophecies frames Mary Shelly’s story as a possible prophetic unveiling of a new kind of radical ethics. Question 8 explores this issue within the dynamics played out between Victor Frankenstein and the ‘Monster’ in terms of the question, ‘Who is the ‘Monster’?
The final question that germinates on the margins of Mary Shelley’s book concerns the possible prophetic dimension of her work regarding another kind of sensibility toward nature. Question 9, ‘Seeds of Hope’, explores some of the characteristics of that hope.
Before we move to the margins to hear the ‘Monster’s’ tale three final points are to be made.
First, to tell the story from the point of view of the ‘Monster’ is to wonder about the untold tale that lies on the margins of Mary Shelley’s work. Because that tale is untold it is unknown and requires that one lend an ear to what the ‘Monster’ has to say. Unlike statements, questions begin with listening, with being addressed, and as such further a dialogue. The format of this book, then, uses questions as a way of working on the margins. Its format, as it were, favors the ear that is addressed over the tongue that asserts or proclaims a position.
This format of questioning for working on the margins is one that I learned by lingering with the poets, especially the poet Rilke. His Duino Elegies are a meditation on what it means for us to be able to speak. They describe what I would call an acoustic consciousness. Listen, for example, to these words: "Earth, isn’t this what you want: an invisible/ re-arising in us? Is it not your dream/to be one day invisible?" Appearing in the ninth of his Duino Elegies like a wondrous, surprising, unexpected eruption from earlier questions that situate us as beings who, neither Angel nor Animal, are we, he wonders, "perhaps, here just for saying: House,/Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Olive tree, Window,-/possibly: pillar, Tower?" (1939, p.77)
Attend to the caution in the wonder!
Is the poet so careful about this obligation we have to listen, so patient we have to be to lend an ear and be responsive to what calls to us, so that having been impregnated by the world, we might be the pivot where world perhaps becomes word?
But there are questions and there are questions and so a distinction is made in the text between those kinds of questions that invite one to consider what is being said and those that have an ironic tone to them that attends to what is unsaid in what is being said. In the text, the former kind of questions are placed on separate lines to slow the pace of one’s reading to allow a bit of time for consideration. The latter type of questions are in italic font and are intended not to just slow one down but to stop one in one’s tracks and even turn one upside down so that one may start to wonder about the as yet hidden possibilities of Victor Frankenstein’s story that are carried by the ‘Monster.’
In exile on the margins, the ‘Monster’ is questioning us, and, like Socrates, the ‘Monster’s’ questions feign ignorance in order to uncover the collective ignorance of those who, like Captain Walton, have accepted Victor Frankenstein’s version of the story. The ‘Monster’s’ questions have an ironic tone, which take us to the edges of Victor Frankenstein’s dreams that have become our nightmares. And on these margins Rilke’s questions become our questions:
‘Monster, isn’t this what you want?
Are we perhaps here on the margins just for saying the Monster’s tale?
Is it the poet who guides us to the margins where we might be able to linger for a while with questions and with being questioned?
I am aware that this invitation to the margins to lend an ear to the ‘Monster’s’ tale is a difficult challenge because the story of Frankenstein has been retold so many times in books, plays and films that present the ‘Monster’ as monstrous, as the incarnation of evil. So familiar and unquestioned has this image become that it seems impossible to imagine him as one who deserves not only a hearing but also a measure of understanding. But that difficulty is precisely the prime reason for this book, because in exiling monsters to the margins we ignore and even disown our own responsibility for the monsters we make. Then the suffering earth, for example, becomes a monstrous problem.
The second point is to draw the reader’s attention to the single quotation marks used when I refer to the ‘Monster.’ My intention here is to alert the reader to the fact that Monster is what Victor Frankenstein calls him, as well as devil and demon. If we are to lend an ear to the ‘Monster’s’ tale, then we cannot use the name that belongs to his maker’s side of the story. ‘Monster’ qualifies that name and directs our attention to him who waits and has waited on the margins to tell his tale.
The third and last point concerns the maps that are present throughout the text. They are a record of my tracking of the ‘Monster’ from the Arctic where Mary Shelley’s story does not conclusively end to those regions where I encountered him. Drawing me back to the Arctic landscape and its cold starry nights, he led me from the dark chambers of some London studios, where with some drama friends he began to embody his tale, to Perugia, Italy, the southwest regions of France where so many untold stories about heretics and outsiders drench the soil, the wild and windy coasts of Cornwall, England and the burial site of Mary Shelley in a churchyard in Bournemouth, England, the southern landscapes of a hot and humid Louisiana, the swampy regions of Florida, the northern climes of Maryland, and the shores of the Pacific Ocean in California, whose waters at times seem to carry for me the chill of that far north Arctic ice. This book unfolded as I followed his tracks along the way. For me these maps, which were suggested to me one evening by a woman relative who was listening to this tale, have become essential to my story. They are a way of acknowledging that the ‘Monster’ lives on, a way of underscoring that the story is not finished. These maps compliment the style of the book, which emphasizes that historical and literary figures are living presences in the present moment. With these maps, The Frankenstein Prophecies might even be read as a memoir or diary of my travels with the ‘Monster.’ How appropriate this all seems to me as we approach the two hundredth anniversary of his birth in Mary Shelley’s dream of Frankenstein!
Epiphanies in Dark Light
The photographs on this website were all taken by me as part of a project, Epiphanies in Dark Light. The intention of this project is to explore the ways in which psyche as image reveals and conceals itself in and through the world of nature and at the boundaries where nature and culture meet.
I regard these images as the silent voice of the Anima Mundi, the whispering play of psychological life that now and then makes us pause at the wonder and beauty of the living world. Addressed by these epiphanies we come home to ourselves as responsive witnesses to these displays.
Some of the themes of psychological life on display that have caught my attention are:
Trees as visual haikus whose spiritual geometry shows the entangled character of psychological life!
The play of shadow and light that shows the rhythmical, non-linear and cyclical quality of psychological time!
Reflections which dissolve the hard, fixed edges of things
themselves and display the as if metaphorical quality of psychological life!
Roads that show the turnings and twists of psychological life!
Empty benches that reveal the play of absence and presence in psychological life, how absence is haunted by presence and presence is a kind of absence!
Boundary moments that revel and conceal the chiasm between nature and culture!