Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is all the rage, with the new book, the new movie about the author, an exhibit at the Morgan Library, and growing controversies about the personal and political ethos that a generation of radicals meant to their times and bequeathed to ours.
The occasion is the 200th anniversary of the publication of the book that never stops giving, but there is more going on. Shelley was a mighty intellectual force who foresaw the grave dangers of intellectual pretense (thus anticipating F.A. Hayek) and the unanticipated social consequences of what Thomas Sowell would later called the unconstrained vision.
The monster created in the fictional laboratory — readers are always surprised that he is a sympathetic character, only lacking in all moral sense — anticipates the unfolding of politico-technological history as it developed from the late 19th century through the 20th. Today we wonder whether innovations we rely on (social media, big data, personal tracking) will come back to destroy other features of life we value, like liberty and privacy.
This fascination with her work is also related to her intellectual pedigree. She was, after all, the daughter of one of two of the mightiest minds of the 19th century, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, thinkers who took the Enlightenment project into new frontiers of human liberation. Mary herself ran off with and eventually married the troubled but erudite Percy Shelley, found herself embroiled in an awkward relationship with Lord Byron, and experienced the terrible tragedy of losing three children while experiencing both cruel shunning and great acclaim.
Her thinking and her life were the product of late Enlightenment thought, infused by both its best (Humean) aspects and its worst (Rousseauian) excesses. Her lasting contribution was as a corrective, affirming the freedom to create as the driving force of progress, while warning against the wrong means and the wrong motivations that could turn that freedom to despotism. Indeed, some scholars observe that her politics late in life were more Burkean than Godwinian.
Her enduring contribution is her 1818 book, which created two enduring archetypes, the mad scientist and the monster he creates, and still taps into cultural anxiety concerning the intentions vs. the reality of scientific creation. There is a good reason for this anxiety, which we continue to experience.
She wrote during a period — it was a glorious one — when the intellectual class had a justified expectation that dramatic changes were coming to civilization. Medical science was improving. Disease would be controlled. Populations were on the move from the country to the city. The steamship was vastly increasing the pace of travel and making international trade more resource-efficient.
She was surrounded by the early evidence of invention. The beautiful movie about her life that just came out recreates the ethos, the confidence in the future of freedom, the sense that something marvelous was coming. She attends a kind of magic show with with Percy at which a showman and scientist uses electricity to cause a dead frog to move its legs, which suggests to her the possibility of giving life to the dead. Thus did her first work explore the enternal human fascination with the possibility of immortality via science, controlling our world in ways that had never previously been possible.
The point here is not that science is bad or inherently dangerous but rather than it can result in unanticipated horrors when its deployment is tainted by the aspirations of power. As Paul Cantor puts it in his introduction to a new edition of Frankenstein:
“Mary Shelley gives a gnostic twist to her creation myth: in her version the creation becomes identified with the fall. Frankenstein does God's work, creating a man, but he has the devil's motives: pride and the will to power. He is himself a rebel, rejecting divine prohibitions and, like Satan, aspiring to become a god himself. But Victor's act of rebellion is to create a man, and what he seeks out of creation is the glory of ruling over a new race of beings. Mary Shelley thus achieves a daring compression of Milton's story. Frankenstein retells Paradise Lost as if the being who fell from heaven and the being who created the world of man were one and the same.”
What much of the modern scholarship about Mary Shelley is revealing concerns how much her work was informed by her own experiences. She married for love but found herself in a relationship defined by betrayal, neglect, anxiety, and instability. She bore children but was emotionally torn apart by their early deaths. The irrevocability of morality (dust to dust) consumed her thoughts. Her social circle was filled with people who loved humanity but couldn’t manage even the modicum of decency with respect to their personal relationships.
All of these themes figure into the creation of her great work. It was as original as a horror novel can be, the story of a new human created in the laboratory barren of a moral sense who is nonetheless sympathetic even though he is responsible for ghastly death and destruction.
And so we look for later analogies to the monsters created by intellectuals later in history.
While consuming all this amazing content about her great work, I’m thinking this through. What were the monster’s analogies that came later? My top candidates include terrible experiences that were hatched by academic elites who were sure they were doing the right thing. The Communist Manifesto appeared in print half a century later – a blueprint for a new laboratory creation of as a human being detached from any affection for property, family, or faith. Two decades later, eugenics became all the rane, and hatched decades of experimentation with sterilization, regulation, segregation, and state control. The ambition to bring democracy to the world by force resulted in this new thing called total war in which the civilian population was drafted to be killers and fodder to be killed. The interwar period launched nationalism and fascism as political experiments in making mad scientists into dictators who treated subject populations as lab rats, corralling, quarantining, and finally killing them.
Even following the Second World War, elite intellectuals were still busy concocting schemes for perfect social and economic functioning that produced results very different from what they imagined. Consider the Bretton Woods conference of 1994. The hope was for perfect mastery of the global monetary system, with a world bank, a new world currency, a clearing system managed by industrial and academic elites, and a lending facility that would enable the world to want for nothing. The actual results took decades to arrive but resulted in enormous bureaucracies that do nothing, vast expenses of resources that might have gone to building prosperity that instead tightened ruling class control, and hyperinflation that destabilized economic and political life. It couldn’t last.
And even today, the headlines are filled with proposals for new creations that we know from experience will turn out very different from how they are envisioned. There is socialized medicine, the job guarantee, a universal income, a revival of mercantilism, the reemergence of nationalism and pretentious and coercive plans for controlling global climate through regulatory force. We keep doing this, gathering the raw material, going back to the lab, hooking up the idea to the power source, throwing the switch, and experiencing shock and regret at the results.
Two hundred years later, Mary Shelley’s horrifying tale of the unconstrained vision continues to speak to us. It should also serve as a permanent warning.