Colliding values in Frankenstein

That the monster represents some projected aspect of the good Dr. Frankenstein is clear enough. (And Victor is indeed a good and noble man at bottom, his fall that of a tragic hero.) But what projected aspect? What exactly is it that the doctor sublimates into monstrosity? I’m sure many illuminating answers are possible, but I have one that relates to three value systems operable in the culture and literature of Shelley’s day.

I am grateful to Shelley for giving Victor a pathological work ethic, evidenced by the time he spends in his lab, because I call on the doctor here to perform a double duty. Among the value systems of the day, Victor represents both the Enlightenment faith in science and the Romantic passion to strive beyond all accepted limits. A third value system – let’s call it the Sentimental — was anchored in the kinder, simpler domestic bonding of friendship and companionate marriage as the locus of value, and it would reach from the 18th century Cult of Sensibility (Laurence Sterne, Henry Mackenzie, et al) toward the novels Dickens would write in the decades after Frankenstein. Even as a teenager, Mary Shelley would be quite aware of these cultural formations, since her parents were famous Enlightenment radicals, her young husband already a famous Romantic poet, and the sentimental novel had been all the craze for some decades.

While Victor epitomizes both the Enlightenment faith in science and the Romantic excess of passion in his pursuits, Elizabeth (and to a lesser extent, Henry) represents the Sentimental, pulling Victor away from strife and excess toward the more domesticated bliss, the sweet contentment of conjugal love and home life. Elizabeth fails, of course, and Victor hurtles to the outer reaches of the earth, following his extravagant aspirations to his own self-destruction. Elizabeth fails to turn the plot, that is. In terms of the moral of the tale, she wins hands down. What did Victor’s relentless Romantic passion to do great things beyond measure, what did his faith in human science get him? How much more fulfilled might he have been if he had settled down with Elizabeth in domestic bliss and spent out his years peacefully “tending his own garden,” as Voltaire had recommended we do? Despite the wild and stormy romanticism of the novel’s setting and plot, despite the fact that Shelley was at the time of writing traveling with two of the greatest Romantic poets of the day – it seems that the novel’s resolution, after all the crash-and-burn of colliding value systems, favors the Sentimental anchor of fulfillment – at least for us mere mortals.

Transhumanism

For Thomas Z., to whom I owe a philosophical entry

First thing in Mainz was to join my philosopher friend, Michael, over a bottle of Spätburgunder, the delicious red wine you can only find in southwestern Germany, and hear about his recent forays into transhumanism. The concept echoed some recurring themes of my blog, so let’s have another go at it.

Here’s a quote from the mover and shaker of transhumanism, Max More.

“Mother Nature, truly we are grateful for what you have made us. No doubt you did the best you could. However, with all due respect, we must say that you have in many ways done a poor job with the human constitution. You have made us vulnerable to disease and damage. You compel us to age and die – just as we’re beginning to attain wisdom. And, you forgot to give us the operating manual for ourselves! … What you have made is glorious, yet deeply flawed … We have decided that it is time to amend the human constitution … We do not do this lightly, carelessly, or disrespectfully, but cautiously, intelligently, and in pursuit of excellence … Over the coming decades we will pursue a series of changes to our own constitution … We will no longer tolerate the tyranny of aging and death … We will expand our perceptual range … improve on our neural organization and capacity … reshape our motivational patterns and emotional responses … take charge over our genetic programming and achieve mastery over our biological and neurological processes.”

An enticing mission statement, no doubt, but which side carries more weight — the passionate, techno-idealism or the Faustian arrogance? What if we expand and magnify all the quantifiable aspects of human identity only to discover that the things of true value in the human experience are precisely the non-quantifiable ones? To paraphrase a fine blog entry by your present correspondent, what if we increase our knowledge a hundredfold, a milllionfold, about neurological indicators of “being in love,” place all our bets for a better future there, and then discover, like J. Alfred Prufrock, that “this is not it at all,” that an infinite and complete set of data about the neurological (objective) facts of being in love turns out to be a mere child’s game, an insignificant correlative to the real thing, the subjective experience of love, love in its non-quantifiable aspect. What if we place all our bets on the objectively measurable and manipulable, and then find that the objective abstraction of reality is just the husk, the crust, empty shell of lived experience? As Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says, we cling tightly to the banana skin and throw away the banana. The objective aspect of reality may be nothing more than a map whose coordinates correspond to the subjective conditions that make up the real meat and matter of life. Knowing every infinitely granular datum on a map of New York is not the same thing as being alive and in New York.

And the transhumanist’s desire for improvement may seem intuitively good and true, but is it really that intuitive? I would say that the obsession with continual improvement is a modern, or at least post-Renaissance, obsession. As late as the eighteenth century (at least in England, whose cultural history I’m most familiar with), there was widespread and vocal resistance to the apostles of “improvement.” If the ancient Greeks were right that meaning and value for us is to be located in “happiness” (Aristotle) or in living “the good life” (Plato), is the frenetic quest for continual improvement really conducive to those ends? Couldn’t the Greeks be right that a life of tranquility and acceptance and reflection is more apropos?

Or, to take the most persuasive case for the transhumanist, the ethical case, why not modify human beings to be more altruistic? Surely there’s no harm there. Maybe. But what if moral variation turns out to have the same crucial value in our spiritual journey, our collective quest for the good life, as genetic variation has in the biological furtherance of the species? Absent moral variation, is there then no way forward, no dynamic built into the system, no adaptability without a spread of traits across individuals?

Finally, there’s the sense that you can’t beat Mother Nature. In the 1950s, the “improvement” team was telling us that factory-made formula was better than mother’s milk. The most conventional of modern medical practice holds that a lifelong battery of pharmaceuticals and surgeries is better than the body’s natural healing processes. DDT to kill pests sounds great until you realize there’s reason Mother Nature did not carpet bomb her own fields and rivers with DDT. Science is enormously instructive within its scope, but when it goes beyond scope with easy claims of how it can outsmart nature’s millions of years of accumulated intelligence, I would like to keep at least one foot on the brakes.

And even if you could beat Mother Nature, at least temporarily, postponing death, is that really so great? If we don’t grow old and die, children’s voices will no longer fill playgrounds, as the cycle of death and replenishent of the species will have been broken. Is the trade-off really worth it? Extend your old age further and further in a world with fewer and fewer kids at play. This specific point is negotiable, but in general, the “obvious” good might sometimes have a collateral damage that our scientist, or a particular community of scientists, limited by their historical vantage and their own egocentrism, may not see.

Despite all this, I remain intrigued by transhumanism and hope to read up on it. (Full disclosure: I have not studied the actual literature on transhumanism at all; I am merely use my discussion in Mainz as the occasion to develop these thoughts.) I am not against all efforts to improve the human condition. I myself have a hippie idealism about where to go from here that my more faithful readers will know. But when we’re going to improve the moral and social condition of humans, and rewrite our collective idealism, based on the mechanical technologies of the day, I would at least like to know that the transhumanist has fully considered all the counterpoints.

Frankenstein is a tired comparison but apt. The good doctor was motivated by pure idealism, with a passion to use technology to better the human condition. In our narrative, the narrative of living humanity, can we be sure that the transhumanist will really be able to rewrite the ending this time?

P.S. Thanks, Dr. M., for pointing out that the confederacy of dunces has my back (New York Times, 07/26/16).

Von Trier’s Melancholia

A friend with whom I’ve had long and beautiful talks about romantic versus classical ideals led me into a discussion recently of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which reminded me of a third pole that in my mind is equidistant from the other two: the existentialist pole. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is clearly not classical in sensibility, as there is nothing rational or tranquil about her relationship to the world. But nor does she represent a romantic world view. Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, for example, represents a romantic world view. Dracula has an all-devouring passion that transgresses all limits – religious, rational, moral – all boundaries shatter before his excessive passion. This is romanticism in its Byronic/Blakean form but with additional attention to the moral dangers that Byron and especially Blake downplayed. The existentialist is in a way the opposite. The world seems drained of meaning, of passion, of emotion, of any kind of authentic sentimental connection to others. Justine’s existentialist mindset (not that she chose this mindset but she expresses it) would find Coppola’s Dracula a bit ridiculous for putting so much frenzied importance on an emotional bond to a woman. Dracula’s attitude implies that there can be enormous meaning in the world, that enormous passion is justified. Justine’s problem is the opposite.

Justine’s foil in Von Trier’s film, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), shows that even our new tripolar model – classical, romantic, existentialist – falls short. Claire indeed represents a value system that stands in primary conflict to Justine’s, but Claire’s world view is neither classical, romantic, nor existentialist; it is a fourth pole, best labeled as the “sentimental world view” – where all human values hover back to the sensible, sentimental, domestic forms of bonding that hold families together.

So Justine and Claire force me into this final sweep on the broad strokes of Western cultural history. If we generally think of the classical ideal as symmetrical, rational, stoical, poised, and the romantic ideal as passionate, excessive, overwrought, suprarational, one can hypothesize a pendulum swing through periods of European cultural history, from classical Greece and Rome to the romantic tendencies of the Medieval era, to the classical Renaissance, romantic Baroque, then neo-classical/Enlightenment, then Romanticism-proper in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With 19th-century realism, something changes. The ideal that centers the symbolic economy of great Victorian novels by Dickens and others is neither classical nor romantic but sentimental, and it traces back to an underrepresented moment in cultural history, the “Cult of Sensibility” that emerged in 1760s England and Scotland. The Cult of Sensibility sprouted up alongside Romanticism as a reaction against the rational symmetries of the neoclassical aesthetic. But whereas Romanticism-proper favored excessive passion and a power of imagination that stretched beyond all rational boundaries, the Cult of Sensibility favored the tender emotions that could bond people together in the domesticated bliss of their own little gardens. So although Romantics and Sensibility writers shared a rejection of stoical reason as a touchstone of human values, they produced quite different kinds of heroes. Romanticism would produce powerfully ambiguous heroes from Byron’s own Manfred and Childe Harold to Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights and Coppola’s Dracula (and one might even reclaim Milton’s Satan as Romantic hero, as Blake and Percy Shelley did quite explicitly). Sensibility would produce the tender domestic heroes of 18th-century writers like Sarah Fielding and Henry Mackenzie, who were laying the groundwork for the sentimental novels of Dickens and others.

With those four poles, we at least have a more complete heuristic model for cultural analysis. E.g., in Coppola’s Dracula, Mina struggles between romantic (Dracula) and sentimental (Jonathan) options. The symbolic economy of Von Trier’s Melancholia is energized by the conflict between existentialist (Justine) and sentimental (Claire) world views. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shakes the model in its own way, with Victor Frankenstein representing a compound of romantic and classical, evincing not only the excess passion and overwrought idealism of the romantic but also a more classical trust in reason and science as his methodology; Elizabeth in that novel, on the other hand, represents the sentimental ideal of tender domestic emotions (and the arc of the plot would seem to validate Elizabeth’s point of view).

But I believe I’ve exceeded the reasonable limits of the blog entry format, so I’ll end with a simple solicitation. If anyone has read this far without becoming overly resentful, please remind me to write a sequel on the following topic: Romantic and Existentialist — Two Forms of Melancholia and Two Forms of Darkness. (Sequel is here.)