"More Human than Human", "What knockers!", Alchemy, Ego, Engineer, Epistolary Novel, ethics, Fall Out 4, fear, fear of death, Film, film review, frame narrative, Frankenstein, George Gordon Lord Byron, Harry Potter, horror, isolation, Literature, Margot Robbie, Mary Shelley, Novel, Parents, Percy Shelley, Peter Weyland, Philosopher's Stone/Sorcerer's Stone, Prometheus, Ridley Scott, Robert Walton, Robot, Science, Science Ethics, science fiction, The Institute, Victor Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To Mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?—
—Paradise Lost, Milton
For the record the best Frankenstein film to date remains Young Frankenstein. The line, “Wow, what knockers!” will be carved on the edifice of time even if I have to fight to my last breath. Then again Wishbone was my first introduction to Frankenstein and he was, and probably still is, the best Victor Frankenstein in cinema history. I remember watching the film for the first time with my dad, and true to form he would often whisper the line before the actor or actress would. This habit, which I happened to pick up from the old man, may be annoying to some but I enjoyed it and still depend on it for it’s one of the traits that makes my father the man he is. Saying the lines early always impressed me as a kid, because it seemed like dad possessed some kind of special knowledge about the world that I didn’t, and while that may sound corny I truly attest to the fact that it impressed the shit out of me. One of the reasons I wanted to become an intellectual was because of Mom and Dad and Papa (my grandfather); because all three of them spoke with such knowledge about books, films, politics, history, and that knowledge was something I desired for myself. I wanted to be the guy who knew and understood things. I looked to my parents for guidance about what it meant to be a human being.
Every parent fucks up in some form or fashion, and this is partly the reason why I am avoiding becoming a parent as long as I can. My wife has just signed on to become a high school teacher, and while I search for jobs and do everything in my power to avoid working in retail, she’s begun to talk about babies more and more as a concrete reality rather than abstract concept. I don’t mind children for the most part, in fact most of the ones I’ve met are actually pretty fascinating, but I just can’t stand babies. I also live in mortal terror of fucking my children up, because to be honest, I think there are more level headed men out there more qualified to be fathers than me.
The idea of parental responsibility reminds me that around three weeks ago I wrote a review of the movie Prometheus. By the end of that essay I felt like I had mostly bounced around the real meat of the film rather than actually digging into a real analysis, but this is a familiar sensation whenever I write, and looking at it in hindsight I’m a little more forgiving of my work. What gnawed at me while I was arranging the pictures was the idea that I had missed the chance to develop on more idea in the story which is the idea of parental responsibility, or more accurately creative responsibility. This also reminded me of the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
It also reminds me my wife told me to stop posting pictures of Margot Robbie lest I suffer her immortal wrath, but she never reads any of my work anyway so I might as well indulge where I can.
If my reader is unfamiliar with the plot of Frankenstein it would not be terribly surprising for no director to date has managed to film an accurate retelling of the novel, and since most people watch television or movies rather than reading books it’s most likely that few if any actually know the real plot. The history behind the book should be told first for it’s actually rather fascinating, or at least it’s fascinating to me. The book itself came about because Mary, and her soon-to-be husband Percy Shelly, were visiting Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati in Geneva (this was shortly after Byron was “exiled” from Britain for having an affair with his step-sister). During a particularly stormy night they decided to tell ghost stories, and after going to sleep, so the story goes, Mary Shelley was tormented by a nightmare of an inhuman eye opening at staring at her. She began a draft of a story and Byron so loved it that he insisted she write the rest of it while he went with Percy off to the mountains, most likely so that the two of them could bang.
As a professor of mine once explained this is why the 1818 version is considered the more “accurate” version because in the re-writes in 1831 the character of Victor, who’s largely believed to be inspired by Percy, is presented as not so much of a douchebag.
The novel is told through three narrators and is presented through what’s known as frame narrative. This is a framing technique used by some writers and probably was best used in the movie The Princess Bride. The entire novel is actually written within a letter, making it an epistolary novel in case you forgot what your English Lit professor told you would be on the exam, written by a man named Robert Walton, an explorer who seeks fame and fortune by finding a new trading route through the Northwest passage. His intentions possess some purity however, for while the glory would be nice, Walton’s desire is to help humanity and this intention will be seen again and not just in Frankenstein.
Walton writes to his sister:
I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man. These are my enticements, and they are sufficient to conquer ask fear of danger or death, and to induce me to commence this laborious voyage with the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday mates, on an expedition of discovery up his native river. But, supposing all these conjectures to be false, you cannot contest the inestimable benefit which I shall confer upon all mankind to the last generation, by discovering a passage near the pole to those countries, to reach which at present so many mortals are requisite; or by ascertaining the secret of the magnet, which, it at all possible, can only be effected by an undertaking such as mine. (6).
Walton’s ego is as apparent as his eventual failure, for men of passion have often dreamed of finding a passage through the north and failed miserably. What’s important in this passage however is how Walton’s ego speaks before his intentions. He speaks a great deal about his passions for discovery first before then recognizing and recording the larger benefit it will have on humanity. This arrangement is revealing but also a recurring theme throughout the novel Frankenstein for almost every character possesses some kind of selfishness that drives their actions before their contemplation. In a previous essay I spoke about the term metacognition, thinking about thinking, and looking over the novel it becomes clear that none of the characters take the chance to observe their behavior to determine its quality. Looking at the protagonist Victor Frankenstein, his motivations are just as troublesome as Walter’s.
Victor is the son of a rich Genevan family, and from a young age the man is possessed by a fierce intelligence and a desire for knowledge. During a family vacation Victor discovers the works of the medieval Alchemists, and because he wishes to become a scientist, he embraces many of the old masters. Alchemists are something one usually only encounters in Final Fantasy games or else at a Wiccan convention, but if the reader doesn’t know what one is an Alchemist was something akin to a wizard or soothsayer. Most of the “philosophy,” and I use that word lightly, has to deal with transmutation: the transforming of minerals and objects into other materials. If the reader has ever read the Harry Potter Series the Sorcerer’s Stone, or to my British readers Philosopher’s stone (Americans generally distrust Philosopher’s yet not Sorcerers for some reason), the stone that is referenced and eventually found beneath Fluffy’s trapdoor is rooted in an ancient Alchemical concept. Victor becomes absorbed in these medieval lessons reading voraciously until his mother dies of scarlet fever just a few weeks before he’s about to leave for the University in Ingolstadt. While there he learns that all of his learning is outdated and new ideas such as physics and chemistry are replacing these old concepts, but Victor holds to his early learning eventually deciding to make a name for himself in defeating death.
Victor describes to Walton his motivations, after Walton finds him out on the ice during his ship’s travel north:
Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve their’s. Persuing these reflections, I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption. (34).
Most people just take up Ultimate Frisbee during Grad School, though to be fair the people that do so are only moderately less of a douchebag that Victor. Jokes aside this passage precedes Victor’s description of his life as he assembled the ill-fated and iconic “Creature” by robbing slaughterhouses, charnel houses, and even graves for body parts which he assembles in an apartment he rents out before eventually bringing said “Creature” to life.
At this point my reader may be wondering what’s the point? So what if the characters in Frankenstein are ego driven jerks who wind up failing miserably? What does that have to do with being a parent?
Before I can really answer that I have to look at the film Prometheus again. I wrote and published an essay about the film recently and in that article my concern was to examine two themes in the film. The first was how the film explored the origins of life, and the second was the notion of entitlement. Looking back then to Frankenstein, these ideas are not only similar they’re almost exact replicas.
In a deleted opening scene to the film Peter Weyland is giving a stadium sized TED Talk about his company’s developments into cybernetics, and if the reader pays attention they’ll note a few similarities between his speech and Victor’s:
Peter Weyland: [from TED Talks viral video] 100,000 BC: stone tools. 4,000 BC: the wheel. 900 AD: gunpowder – bit of a game changer, that one. 19th century: eureka, the lightbulb! 20th century: the automobile, television, nuclear weapons, spacecrafts, Internet. 21st century: biotech, nanotech, fusion and fission and M theory – and THAT, was just the first decade! We are now three months into the year of our Lord, 2023. At this moment of our civilization, we can create cybernetic individuals, who in just a few short years will be completely indistinguishable from us. Which leads to an obvious conclusion: WE are the gods now.
Pater Weyland doesn’t play a significant role in the plot, in fact he only has a few moments in the actual film. His character serves the important function however of mirroring Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, the scientists who were looking for the Engineers hoping to discover the origin of life and determine where human beings actually come from. Weyland’s desire is ultimately to overcome death, and while it’s never said out loud, Shaw’s motivation isn’t that different, but looking at Weyland in relation to Victor, both the novel and the film demonstrate a fundamental weakness of human beings: the fear of death.
Victor Frankenstein lost his mother just a few days before he left for the university and once he finds himself in a new environment, away from his family and friends, and is informed everything he has learned has been rejected as rubbish, the man retreats into himself. Human beings are by nature a narcissistic species and it’s through interaction that we are able to overcome our sense of isolation and ego and develop a personality in relation to others. Victor doesn’t develop any real connections outside of himself and so he decides to attempt to overcome death. Likewise, with Peter Weyland, while he leads a massive intergalactic corporation his position isolates himself and so rather than finding some kind of solace in his relation to the rest of humanity he retreats into himself. This isolation is what eventually leads to these men’s downfall, because rather than creating relationships that would provide a healthy outlet for their egos, they eventually are driven to perpetuate their existence through their creations.
By creating life however Victor becomes a parent, and in that title is an inevitability that I listed out before: every parent fucks up in some form or fashion. Looking at Prometheus there’s two exchanges that reveal this. Weyland has spearheaded the Cybernetic movement creating synthetic human beings like David. Charlie, drunk and frustrated at the seeming failure of the mission, speaks to David:
Charlie Holloway: What we hoped to achieve was to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they even made us in the first place.
David: Why do you think your people made me?
Charlie Holloway: We made you because we could.
David: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?
Charlie Holloway: I guess it’s good you can’t be disappointed.
Later in the film, after Charlie has died and Shaw has removed the squid from her stomach, she talks with David:
Elizabeth Shaw: What happens when Weyland is not around to program you anymore?
David: I suppose I’ll be free.
Elizabeth Shaw: You want that?
David: “Want”? Not a concept I’m familiar with. That being said, doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?
Elizabeth Shaw: I didn’t.
Looking at Weyland and David there is no intimacy between the two men, and before my reader objects and says “He’s a flippin robot” I object that that is immaterial.
Over the last few months I’ve been playing Fallout 4, the latest science fiction game from Bethesda and in the game is an organization called The Institute. Without starting a controversy, I have never found the Institute to be a sympathetic figure at all principally for the fact that, like Weyland Corp, the organization creates synthetic human beings and treats them like property rather than human beings. Again my reader objects “They’re flippin robots” but once again I object. There’s a difference between a drone and a synthetic human being made of meat and independent consciousness and the difference is the fact that we label the latter a “human being.” Without resorting to too many clichés (specifically the old “more human than human”) humans imprint and replicate themselves upon the space and place they operate in, and as robotics has progressed two camps have emerged. Boston Dynamics has developed humanoid robots designed for combat, and in Asia robotics is principally being channeled into the sex industry. It’s clear that regardless of the purpose human beings will continue to follow the root etymology of the word robot which means slaves. This is all just a way of saying that human beings are driven to create more realistic robots, but to that I ask the question:
To what purpose? If creating robots is simply to improve our lives, what benefit can come about by having them “synthetic” human beings? I don’t have an answer to this question other than what Charlie offered, “Because we can.”
Both Weyland and Victor end up attempting to overcome death out of mortal terror, and while doing so they end up creating monsters that wreak havoc upon humanity. Rather than recognize the power they have created, and rather than recognize the humanity of their “children” they wind up Othering them and fleeing from their responsibility as creators.
Looking at the “children” in Prometheus and Frankenstein there is a remarkable similarity. When the Creature speaks to Victor on the Glacier he wails:
Oh! My creator, make me happy; let me feel gratitude towards you for one benefit! Let me see that I excite sympathy of some existing thing; do not deny me my request! (112).
And likewise when Weyland, David, and Shaw meet the Engineer she asks it:
Elizabeth Shaw: [to the Engineer] Why do you hate us?
Hopefully by now I have addressed my contester’s points. The dynamics taking place in Prometheus and Frankenstein are those between creators and creations, parents and children. Each tries to understand the nature of the other but in both stories there is too much of a power dynamic in place. Rather than nurture or assume responsibility Weyland and Victor (and in some way the Engineers) pursue their egos hoping desperately that their creations will help them overcome the grim reality of death.
Weyland and Victor are ultimately just two scared men afraid of death and their “children” suffer for it. Whenever I would read Frankenstein for school I was always taught that the key to Victor’s downfall was his lack of “domestic affection.” I can’t honestly say that being affectionate to a robot would have kept Elizabeth Shaw from losing Charlie, or Victor being affectionate to his “Creature” would have spared Elizabeth, but the reader can be sure in the knowledge that loving their own children will pay off in the end.
It’s the time and self-sacrifice that matters, and, to be real here, changing diapers and singing along to Barnie CDs does wonders for reducing the ego to manageable levels.
The Sorcerer’s stone/Philosopher’s stone, as mentioned above, was an object of fascination for many people, including Issac Newton. While the man was rigidly held, almost dogmatically so, to the principles of Enlightenment reason between his discoveries and writings of mathematics he indulged frequently in alchemy trying to find the Philosopher’s stone. The stone was supposed to hold the ability to transmute any known object into pure gold.
Now as to why American publishing companies wanted to change Philosopher’s stone to Sorcerer’s stone, the only explanation I can guess at is what I suggested in the essay. Americans distrust Philosophers, because on the whole philosophers don’t get jobs. Sorcerers on the other hand make people think about C.S. Lewis and Angela Lansbury which is sweet harmless fun…or at least it is until Preachers from the south believe the books are about witchcraft.