Facing the Darkness II: The Gaps in the System

frankenstein, gothic, people, literature

In my previous post, I introduced the epistemic shifts occurring across the theological, political and philosophical landscape of the early 1800s which gave rise to a new kind of theological expression, or, theo-literature. Writers from Schiller to Wordsworth to Coleridge all attempted to incorporate classical Christian theology into a philosophical system that sought to unite reason and experience into a cohesive whole. As a result, the overwhelming emphasis was upon progress: for the first time, the autonomy of human reason seemed sufficient to redeem humankind.

Such a totalizing approach to humanity and its salvation held immediate implications for how evil was conceived: rather than accepted as a fundamental aspect of reality it became something to be isolated and ultimately discarded. ‘One of the effects of civilization,’ John Stuart Mill writes, ‘is, that the spectacle…of pain is kept more and more out of the sight of those classes who enjoy in their fullness the benefits of civilization.’[1] Evil, just like pain, thus becomes increasingly marginalized as poets and philosophers contemplate their transcendent systems.

Perhaps it should be of no surprise that this marginalization results in the emergence of a creative form that highlights evil and the underside of humanist or enlightenment values. That form, of course, is the Gothic. Emerging from the same literary ground as Romanticism the Gothic genre quickly became a repository for the dark, transgressive and shocking content that Romanticism’s more high-minded sensibility had little patience for.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the first sustained treatments of evil to emerge in this new intellectual climate and so serves as a dramatic indictment of the primacy placed upon human subjectivity then taking hold both culturally and theologically.

As the indefatigable rationalist desperate to ‘penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places,’ Victor Frankenstein serves as literary example par excellence of the kind of intellectual emerging at the time.[2] His philosophy and work are based upon the seemingly limitless capability for self-improvement and progress before devolving into a nightmare of rationalism run amok.

Frankenstein aims to be the creator of a new species that would owe him boundless gratitude but his creature responds by threatening to ‘glut the maw of death’ with his foolhardy maker.[3]

Yet it would be a mistake to assume that Frankenstein failed to create a being that was like himself; in fact, is it not the case that the exact opposite is true?

Throughout the novel Frankenstein is depicted as obsessive, consumed by a desire to not only stretch the limits of human knowledge but ultimately destroy them—aiming to defeat death itself.[4] Far from a rational scientist who has an occasional penchant for excess, Frankenstein is a disturbed individual whose family and friends spend long periods attempting to get him to act within the bounds of civilized or proper behaviour. The novel thus offers a dark counterpoint to the prevailing ideal of an autonomous, rational subject governed by sound moral sense. For here we are finally given over to the evil repressed by a systematic elevation of reason and thus abandoned amidst a humanity that “appear as monsters, thirsting for each other’s blood.’[4]

It seems then that the aesthetic perspective could not fully reconcile the dark, unpleasant realities of the self with the grandiose formal systematics it’s philosophical and theological counterparts aspired to. In Victor Frankenstein’s monster we finally see the Enlightenment subject decentred from his privileged position and the myth of absolute autonomy and rationality sundered.

Yet from the devolution of man into monster there emerges something new—something mutant, to be sure—but from within which we might glimpse a renewed and more theologically astute understanding of ourselves. It is this new expression of man within the monster that remains to be explored in my upcoming post for this series.

 

[1] Cited in David Morris, The Culture of Pain, California: University of California Press, 1993.
[2] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, London, Penguin Popular Classics, 1994, 46.
[3] Ibid., 51.
[4] Ibid., 52.
[5] Ibid., 88.

 

Jon Greenaway is a PhD Candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University where he is working on Gothic theology.

 

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