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Frankenstein as guiding light
Add Mary Shelley's novel to the list of things that can help save the world.
After Mary Shelley published the novel Frankenstein in 1818, John Wilson Croker, reviewing it in the Quarterly Review, wrote, “Our taste and our judgment alike revolt at this kind of writing, and the greater the ability with which it may be executed the worse it is—it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners, or morality.”
This is what we in the writing business call a “negative review.” And it wasn’t the only one Shelley got. According to the literary scholar Michael Rossington of Newcastle University, “there was a strand of critical reviewing that was very hostile to the book for not having a clear moral.”
I just finished reading (or, actually, listening to) the novel, and I was thrilled to discover how wrong this strand of reviewing is.
I was thrilled partly because I’m always happy to discover a morally redeeming work of art—and this work of art, as a bonus, is redeeming in an Apocalypse-Aversion-Project-friendly way.
But I was also thrilled because I think it’s really good news—like, bodes well for the future of the world—that, two centuries ago, so many people had trouble finding moral lessons in a novel that, read today, seems so obviously to have them. That’s testament to the ability of human moral consciousness to evolve, and evolve in a direction I applaud. As you know if you’ve been following this AAP thing, I think this evolution has to continue, and even accelerate, if our planet is to flourish (as opposed to, say, getting sucked into a spiral of doom).
As of three weeks ago, I wasn’t at all familiar with the full-blown story of Frankenstein, and now that I am, I bring you one of my biggest takeaways:
Frankenstein is not a monster! I mean that in two senses:
1) The trivial pedantic sense. Though the creature brought into being by Victor Frankenstein is in some sense Frankenstein’s offspring, he isn’t called “Frankenstein” in the novel. He’s variously called a “being,” a “monster,” a “wretch,” and a “fiend.” (The novel is narrated mainly by Victor, who, as those monikers suggest, isn’t wholly satisfied with his creation.)
2) A more important non-pedantic sense. Though Victor’s creation does monstrous things, Shelley manages to humanize him. She depicts his inner life in a way that evokes sympathy for him—which is quite a feat, given his penchant for strangling innocent people to death.
Maybe, before I go further, a plot summary would be useful:
Victor Frankenstein, having stitched a creature together from cadaver parts and imparted the spark of life, is so freaked out by its hideous appearance that he runs away. So the monster is on his own. And he’s a good guy! Viewing people from afar, he admires what is beautiful in them and is inspired when they show tenderness and affection.
But whenever he tries to gratify his heartfelt desire to join human society, the humans he approaches get creeped out and treat him the way people treat things that creep them out. (By the way, this isn’t a Boris Karloff monster—a lumbering quasi-mechanical giant with rivets in his neck. Though eight feet tall, he’s lithe and agile—but that just makes him seem all the more menacing. Plus, you can see the blood vessels and muscles through his jaundiced skin—yecch!)
The monster keeps trying to befriend people, but to no avail, and eventually all the rejection, some of it violent, brings out a dark side. His antipathy toward Frankenstein—who, after all, brought him into this world only to abandon him—takes a quantum leap after Frankenstein first agrees, but then refuses, to create a monster wife for him. (Having given up on joining human society, he’s now willing to settle for a mate to live with in isolation.) This ill-advised reneging by Frankenstein triggers a retaliatory killing spree that targets those nearest and dearest to him.
What no doubt bothered the moralistic critics of Shelley in her day is how hard she makes it to unequivocally condemn a serial killer. Sure, I had my moments of revulsion at the monster’s crimes, and near the end of the novel, when Victor Frankenstein is tracking the monster across the Arctic landscape, hoping to exact final retribution, I found myself, by and large, rooting for Victor.
But whenever the monster does one of his soliloquys about his social alienation and misery, and you’re reminded of the purity of character he once displayed, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him. How would you behave if you’d been born a hideous monster whose creator vamoosed, abandoning you to a life of social torment, and then reneged on a deal that could have been your salvation? Speaking only for myself: I’d be pretty pissed. And I do crazy stuff when I’m pissed.
For my money, this is the beginning of a certain kind of enlightenment: to understand that we’re all in some sense victims of circumstance. We’re born with a given set of genes into a given environment, and these things draw us into a series of experiences that keep shaping us—experiences that we react to in ways that are shaped by our past flow of circumstance and that in turn shape the future flow. And that’s why we’re where we are and who we are.
I’m not saying there’s no such thing as free will—or that there is such thing as free will; I find that question too baffling to take a position on. But you can’t deny that (for example) being born in some neighborhoods makes you way, way more likely to wind up in prison than being born in other neighborhoods. That alone should make us question whether it ever makes sense to take the kind of pleasure people often take in the punishment of miscreants. (Shelley, as if to underscore the question, ends the novel with the quest for retribution by the two main characters having brought satisfaction to neither.)
Obviously, punishment is at times necessary—sometimes to keep dangerous people off the streets, sometimes to send a message to would-be criminals. Still, the suffering that the punishment inflicts, it seems to me, should always be viewed as a regrettable necessity; retribution isn’t a moral good in and of itself, independent of its consequences. (American jurisprudence does—archaically, if you ask me—continue to recognize retribution as a moral good.)
Last week I wrote about how the US wound up invading Iraq in 2003 and argued that the retributive impulse played a big role. Well, given how much American energy and attention that fiasco and its aftermath have sucked up—resources that could have been spent solving international problems rather than creating more of them—you can see why I consider an unreflectively obeyed retributive impulse a very AAP-unfriendly thing.
But that isn’t the end of the connection between Frankenstein and the Apocalypse Aversion Project. The way Shelley casts doubt on the inherent value of retribution—and the way she gets you to more broadly question the intuitive moral judgments that her critics would have you respect unreflectively—is by getting you to see the world through the eyes of the monster. That is: to exercise cognitive empathy. And, as regular readers know, cognitive empathy—perspective taking—is one of my go-to apocalypse elixirs.
As regular readers also know, I take pains to distinguish between cognitive empathy and the more familiar, feel-their-pain kind of empathy: emotional empathy. But Frankenstein is a reminder that there are deep connections between the two. To understand how someone views the world can help you sympathize with them—emotionally empathize with them—even if that view of the world led them to do bad things.
The virtues of this sympathy go beyond getting you to question your retributive instinct. Sympathy can get you to question the whole simplistically binary, good-guys-versus-bad-guys moral schema that frames our foreign policy and our domestic politics. This schema helps get us into wars, cold wars, and time-wasting spats abroad and keeps our politics paralyzed by tribalism. All of which reduces the chances that the nations of the world will do what needs to be done if we’re going to brighten the planet’s prospects.
Can emotional empathy go too far? Sure. In theory it could keep you from putting an incorrigible killer behind bars or from confronting some malign foreign force that needs confronting. (For other examples of counterproductive empathy see my friend Paul Bloom’s book Against Empathy.) So cognitive empathy, when it serves as a gateway to emotional empathy, can have bad effects as well as good effects.
Still, there are few things I’m surer of than this: On balance the world needs more, not less, cognitive empathy. We need to move further in the direction that Mary Shelley pointed to.
Meanwhile, let’s appreciate the progress we’ve made since, two centuries ago, she endured a barrage of moralistic condemnation:
What Croker meant when he said her book “inculcates no lesson of… morality” is that it inculcates no lesson he recognized as moral. Its message didn’t align with the moral intuitions that are natural in human beings; it didn’t tell us to identify a good guy and a bad guy and savor the suffering of the latter. Today virtually any sophisticated critic—including conservative critics who might reject the moral tenor of Frankenstein as insufficiently judgmental—would at least recognize that the novel does have a moral tenor. There would be no mistaking it for nihilistic. There are morally serious arguments in favor of treating the retributive instinct and other moral intuitions skeptically, and these arguments are now pretty familiar.
That more people make these arguments now than in Shelley’s day—and that more people accept them—isn’t enough to save the world. And that’s not just because lots of people still haven’t accepted them. It’s also because accepting those arguments in the abstract isn’t the same as critically assessing our morally charged reactions on a day-to-day basis, wisely distinguishing between the valid and the misleading, and doing the hard work of trying to live our lives in accordance with that assessment.
But it’s a step in that direction. Now we just need to pick up the pace.