This essay is the first in a five-part series, in honor of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Part two can be found here.
Part I: Creature
Growing up is the metamorphosis we all know. Classical literature will tell you of the shape-shifting of gods, and nature will have you marveling at the radical nature of the chrysalis, in which a caterpillar is liquefied before it is transformed into a butterfly. But reserve some astonishment for being yourself a product of profound change.
To the extent that growing up has gone wrong, we know it all the more, in living out its failures, its deformities. Here I proffer an incomplete social appendage: please shake not this hand, but this nub, and excuse my early withdrawal, and recognize in my fate, a version of yours. Many of us belong to bodies that are visibly complete, in the sense that they do not shock us with some overt absence. But it is the incompletely rendered figure of a soul that constitutes the nooks and crannies of character.
Now consider the anxiety of being trapped in a certain kind of character: of being stuck with one’s quirks, one’s vices, one’s phobias, seemingly incapable of change. This seems to run against the rule of change that created you. If you grow up to be a child in the body of an adult, this is in some sense your mature form: you are homo infans—in need of more growth, but no longer growing. Growing up is the metamorphosis we all know, but carrying the baggage of our larval stage is one way we stay the same. We may be very proud of what seem to be our adult wings—our professions, our own larval productions, other badges of respectability—and yet actually be crawling, not flying.
Now, despite all this, really try to fly. Take off, and head if you like for whatever stars a winged creature of your caliber might hope to reach. If you’re unable to get off the ground, you might come to believe that you need to work on yourself. For this work, you’ll need a tool. One way to try to resolve the maturational drama is via the hammer of extreme ambition: on the one hand a blunt tool, but on the other a tool that is supposed to drive the chisel of intricate self-renovation. If only I were a great something—a scientist, perhaps? or for that matter, a great writer?—I might be less afflicted with being… a child.
I’m thinking now of the story of Victor Frankenstein, the man who wanted to be a great scientist, successor to Satan and Faust among the archetypes of overweening ambition. Pause here, because this is not our Frankenstein but Mary Shelley’s: this is young Frankenstein, as written by young Mary. She did not share a film-maker’s concern that Frankenstein be so ostentatiously maniacal and macabre (although, with less flare, he is indeed both). There is no white coat, elaborate machine, or triumphant “it’s alive!” Frankenstein’s laboratory is actually a shabby student apartment, and the scale of his ambitions are adolescent: which is to say unlimited in scope but limited in forethought. They carry with them the maturational desperation I have described above, and lack the element of realism that is the true scar tissue of maturity. They juxtapose a student’s impoverished reality—and I mean here both the material and spiritual disadvantages of being young and unemployed—with the idea of a future that is wholly complete, inhabited by a creature who has no more growing pains before it.
One’s “creatures,” loosely speaking, are one’s theories and technologies, paintings and poems. They are meant to be true, beautiful, or effective. But never literally alive.
This creature, as I have described it, is Frankenstein himself, or Frankenstein’s ideal self, the product of ambitious self-creation. But “creature” is the word that young Victor will frequently use—along with “fiend” and “wretch” and “monster” and “vile insect”—to describe the product of his work, to whom he gives no proper name. The word “creature” seems on the one hand like the natural endpoint of a naming process gone awry, a generic way of referring to something for which we have no name—whether for lack of effort or because the thing is unspeakable. But the word is not accidentally generic: “creature” is the perfect way to refer to the product of the prototypical creative process, and the monster’s created status is precisely the point. “Creature” is the word that captures Shelley’s promethean theme, the usurpation for human beings of some power that ought to belong only to the gods, in this case the power to create living things. Traditionally this is thought of as God’s art, and mediately that of women via a natural process thought to have its source in God. Frankenstein’s usurpation of this power is a fundamental transgression. After sexual reproduction, the proper domain of procreative sublimation consists principally of work, whether scientific, artistic, or technical. One’s “creatures,” loosely speaking, are one’s theories and technologies, paintings and poems. They are meant to be true, beautiful, or effective. But never literally alive.
Frankenstein’s interest in science might have put him squarely within the domain not of usurpation but of aspiration. It is not his interest in science per se that is his problem, but his aspiration to be a truly great man via science, a goal that requires him to do something truly extraordinary and perhaps transgressive. In his scientific aspirations, his desire faces outward: it runs toward, say, some problem that captures his curiosity, some work that absorbs him, or the work of others, when it fascinates and informs him. But in the idea of greatness, desire is self-directed, or what we might call “narcissistic.” We return here to the idea of a “creature” as the product of perfectionist self-creation, a self-fashioning meant to short-circuit the imperfect process of growing up, to produce a being that is truly complete. The imperfection of the process of growing up, beyond the ways in which it may go wrong, consists of the fact that even in the best of circumstances, growing up does not complete us in the sense of completing our desires. Far from giving us everything that we want, it teaches us to do without: we are left wanting. Focused on greatness, we might make the mistake of miscomprehending the maturational task, conflating objective and subjective completeness, and taking physiological maturation—the development of a complete body—too figuratively.
This is not to say that all ambition is malignant. Frankenstein tells us of his “soaring ambition,” and makes his tale an object lesson against it. But it can be difficult to tell when ambition is “soaring”—too high, we can infer, essentially grandiose—and when it is maintaining a safe-enough distance from the sun. The line between the two—between ambition and what the psychoanalyst Karen Horney called “neurotic ambition”—seems to have something to do with the economy of inward and outward-facing desires. The desire to be esteemed for one’s accomplishments can be motivating, and arguably the grandiose has its role in launching our creative endeavors. But at some point, self-concern becomes self-obsession, and the lines of force that once flowed toward the world can no longer escape the psyche’s gravitational field. Everything flows inward, and genuine contact with the world becomes more difficult. For Victor Frankenstein, the idea of greatness—of victory, or what Horney calls “vindictive triumph”—is too seductive, has too much pull.
The neat trick of Frankenstein is to make the protagonist’s journey of grandiose self-creation—the fashioning of himself as ideal creature, great scientist—rely on an ambition to create another living thing. The inner drama of overweening ambition is externalized and made visible. As we shall see, what the product of ambition looks like will be exceedingly important.