Monday, January 13, 2014

The Monster Is Not A Warning About What Science Could Do Wrong.

The pop movie figure of Frankenstein's monster, the creature made of disparate parts, has been with me since I was a monster-movie loving child. When fishing around in my head for an urban fantasy idea, he often popped up. I like the Urban Fantasy genre in the same overly literal way I like Frankenstein’s monster. As an anthro major and keen player of several home brew fantasy role playing game campaigns, I like the idea of an entire world inhabited by monsters. Of entire cultures formed by monsters. We played games in which monsters lived side by side with human beings: Gatecrasher, in humnad lived alongside elves and angels in a half magic solar systeymand d20 Modern, which was Dungeons and Dragons' answer to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And pop culture has always flirted with a world in which monsters lived alongside humans: Dark Shadows and Wild, Wild West 

But when Urban Fantasy took off for the masses, became a household phenomenon with vampire, werewolf, and eventually zombie, demon and faerie people punching a clock next to homo sapiens peoples, Frankenstein's monster was no-where to be found. This is partially because the monster is a character, not a specie or culture. You can have lots of vampire clans or werewolf tribes duking out with each other. But the monster is pretty much a guest star. 

My Grandmother gave me a copy of Frankenstein for my birthday, one year. I had asked for it. But I couldn't actually read it. Like the Lord of the Rings, it was to dry for my adolescent brain. I still loved the idea of the monster, the Karlofiann creature with bolts in its neck and thick sutures holding it together. I loved the idea of artificial mankind. Of manufactured mankind. 

When I was thinking about doing a pulp pastoral about weird monsters, I wanted to use the monster. So I finally read Frankenstein, to get the background. 

And the monster is a great character. The book itself is difficult to read. It's driven largely by a monolog-ing Victor, who is whiny and irritating, alternately self-aggrandizing and self-flagellating. It moves fitfully, with too much backstory on the front end, takes forever to get to the conflict between monster and creator. It’s definitelnot one of my favorite reads. But I became really charmed by the character of the monster. 

First of all, he is not dumb, nor clumsy, as he is in the common media depiction of him. There is a scene where he first speaks to his father in the mountains, and he is described as moving with the grace of an ape, almost swinging over the crags and precipices like an ape brachiates, swinging from tree to tree. And he's fucking brilliant. He teaches himself language, and to read, by listening to a young girl reading to her blind grandfather. He speaks as eloquently as any Shakespearian character, and with less fumbling and mumble mouthed vacillation than his father.  
Frankenstein is often read as a warning against misusing science. We must sepulchrally intone "beware what man was not meant to know." Maybe that was even the intent. I am not a Shelley scholar. I don't really care. See how blithe I can be when misusing literature for my personal artistic gain? But frankly, I found the scientific themes entirely secondary to a modern reading. 

The monster is not a warning about what science could do wrong. The monster's worst characteristic throughout the novel is that he is ugly. Victor made this magnificent, brilliant, capable creature and abandoned him because he was ugly. Would any modern human being give life and then pass it up because it wasn't aesthetic enough? Not pretty? 

Some might say that the monster is monstrous because of the violence he perpetrates. I will be accused of being a fuzzy thinking liberal here, but he is a product of his environment and his time in that his murders are the result of his profound emotion at being unique and rejected, and his attempts to make his peace with that through negotiating with the only human being who can alleviate his suffering, his absentee father. He did not live in an age when cognitive behavioral therapy, Buddhist mindfulness, and omnipresent social connections allow us to deal with our harsh emotions in a civil fashion. 

I think rightfully, a modern reader will see the monster is a warning against what happens when you abandon your children and your responsibilities to them. He kills Victor's brother by accident and frames the nanny for the crime out of fear that he will be punished, and then murders Victor's friend and fianc√© in revenge for his father's refusal to create a mate. None of the murders are excusable by civilized standards, but none are baseless, and all of them are motivated by a desire for justice. It's reasonable to think that if Victor had shown the monster even as much care as his 1940's film doppelganger does, or as much as  Gene Wilder's Frankensteen does his own monster, with the abby normal brain and all, that none of the mayhem that followed the monster's awakening to consciousness would have occurred. 

The end of Frankenstein sealed my love for the monster, showing him a nuanced creation, a tragic hero in the mold that I enjoy characters: at his father's death, he expresses remorse and regret. 

"But it is true that I am a wretch. I have murdered the lovely and the helpless; I have strangled the innocent as they slept, and grasped to death his throat who never injured me or any other living thing. I have devoted my creator, the select specimen of all that is worthy of love and admiration among men, to misery; I have pursued him even to that irremediable ruin. There he lies, white and cold in death. You hate me; but your abhorrence cannot equal that with which I regard myself. "

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