Saturday, February 16, 2013

Revision I: Frankenstein's Monster

Jackson Crowder
Narrative and Technology

Revision 1:
The Monster’s Humanity

            After reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I discussed that nature of the Monster’s humanity, particularly as it related to his biological makeup and capacity for emotion. While I continue to support the validity of such arguments, there exists still a powerful case for the Monster as a human. Specifically, this refers to his own self-identification as a human
            For purposes of this essay, it is important to remember that the definition of humanity or the condition of being human is not cut and dry. There is a difference between being human and being “truly human.” For example, someone like Adam Lanza who can walk into a school and willingly murder innocent children meets all of the qualifications to be human. He has human flesh, human organs, a human brain, and relies on the same biological processes to live that all other humans do. However, many would argue that his humanity ends there as he lacks empathy, compassion, and the other mental/emotional qualities that humanity deems necessary to be truly human. While this is largely a separate argument, it is pertinent to mine in one significant way. Where I previously focused primarily on the Monster’s biological humanity in my writings on the subject, I will now examine that which makes him human beyond just flesh and blood.
            In Meditations II, French philosopher Renee Descartes said, “I too undoubtedly exist, if [God] deceives me… he will never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I think that I am something…I must finally conclude that the proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.” While he has his critics, Descartes makes an important point about humanity, not so much in terms of biological or medical science – but in spirit. One can argue that Frankenstein’s monster is human based upon his flesh and functioning brain but an important question would still remain: beyond the most basic requirements, does the monster posses any qualities that would make society accept him as a human? The answer is yes. The Monster is possessed of one of the most important qualities that anyone can have – the desire to be truly human.
            Above all things, the Monster wants to be accepted as a human. He feels that he is such and is therefore frustrated and hurt by society’s inability to see eye to eye. After reading Paradise Lost in chapter fifteen, the Monster laments:
Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from, beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.
(Shelley, 105)

One can conclude from this passage that the Monster is becoming bitter towards the world for not accepting him as what he feels he is: a human being. His desire is evident and yet, so is his resignation toward being considered less than in the eyes of humanity. In likening himself to Satan, he shows the depth of his torment. Satan, the sympathetic figure in Paradise Lost has moments of simply wanting to be like the rest of the angles in Heaven but is ultimately different and, due to his attempted rebellion, is deemed unfit to be amongst them. His character is largely defined by the tension of envy and hatred. Based on the textual evidence, one can conclude that the Monster has come to the same emotional fork in the road. He desires to be considered human but has been beaten into a misanthropic nature that ironically drives him further from his goal.
            This sort of existential yearning is nothing else if not a uniquely human trait. The Monster engages in the same pointless internal meditations concerning the desire for that which is unattainable that we all do. This is particularly important as it shows both that he is capable of the same high reasoning skills that mentally qualify him as being human but also that he is not so mired in reason that he is robotic. He is just willing enough to be a little bit unreasonable, which sounds pretty human to me.
            Additionally, the push-pull reaction that he is developing in this passage is representative of another human trait: self-destruction. New Yorker columnist, Malcolm Gladwell writes, “The fact is that we can be law-abiding, peace-loving, tolerant, inventive, committed to freedom and true to our own values and still behave in ways that are biologically suicidal.” Grim though it may be, Gladwell has a point. Humans, more so than any other creature on earth have a tendency to willingly harm themselves. We eat unhealthy food, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, deplete our resources, and engage in mass slaughter of one another on a seemingly regular basis. Though it is not physically harmful, we also become desirous of things that we cannot have, driving us, on occasion, to madness. The Monster is not acting particularly “biologically suicidal,” as Gladwell puts it, but rather is acting emotionally suicidal or self-destructive.
            Shortly after the Monster reads Paradise Lost, he makes a request of Victor. "You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being. This you alone can do; and I demand it of you as a right which you must not refuse to concede” (Shelley, 118). This passage is critically important for two reasons. Though his view toward humanity is becoming increasingly negative, it shows that he still wants to be around and interact with other people (remember that he considers himself a human and thus another creation by Victor would likely be equally human in his eyes.) Humans, above many qualities, are social. We desire to be with and interact with other members of our species. Forming communities is one of the most essential aspects of the human experience and, as it seems, the Monster still wishes to partake, at least to a certain degree. Secondly, this passage also illustrates that the Monster is capable of feeling isolation and loneliness, two emotions that are unique to the human thought process.
            Further highlighting the Monster’s capacity for loneliness and, in a more macrocosmic sense, existential thought is his observation on page 110. Shelley writes, When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me. Was I, the, a monster, a blot upon the earth from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?” (Shelley, 110). His reasoning skills are advanced enough to see the superficial differences between himself and other humans and yet he is enlightened enough to see beyond them. In this way, he not only reinforces his own human self-identity but shows how he is of a more open mind than the society around him. Perhaps the Monster has a more profound idea of what it means to be human than the people who do not consider him their equal.
            An examination of the Monster’s mind will reveal beyond any doubt that he his human. He is not simply made up of human parts but is a human in his heart, both literally and figuratively. The importance of his desire to be considered human cannot be overstated. It shows that he considers himself human, wishes to partake in human society, and feels very profound human pain at not being able to. Like all other humans, the Monster also shows himself to be a social animal. So, in conclusion, he is of human flesh and blood, reasons like a human, emotes like a human, wants to be a part of human institutions, and, above all else, is flawed like a human.

Works Cited
1.     Descartes, Renee. "Meditation II of the Nature of the Human Mind;" Oregon State University. Web. 15 Feb 2013. 
2.     Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. London: Random House, 1999. 105, 110, 118. 

1 comment:

Adam said...

In the first couple paragraphs there's a danger of spending too much effort on the obvious (that definitions of humanity vary) and too little on the significant (articulating and defending a particular definition of humanity.

I'm certainly fine with you using Descartes' understanding of humanity. Really, to nitpick, I'd argue that Descartes is interested in personhood rather than humanity, because he is *thoroughly* divorced from biology here (by nature of his initial premise that the world is an illusion generated by a malevolent demon). As such, he's an interesting figure to bring into dialogue especially with Philip K. Dick. But it's worth reminding ourselves of ways in which Descartes' definition is exclusive as well as inclusive. For instance, Descartes' understanding of humanity/personhood almost undoubtedly excludes, e.g., the senile, the very young, etc. He cares about consciousness, not biology, and that has its consequences. But regardless of the details/consequences of Descartes, is Descartes really concerned with *desire* for humanity? I'd need to reread the Meditations to really answer that question, but it sure doesn't feel right - in his world (in which the self is loosely connected with the world) does desire for humanity (a rather worldly concept) even make much sense?

You are correct, of course, that the monster is tightly related to Milton's Satan. But what does that have to do with Descartes?

Note that when you discuss the monster's need for companionship, you are thoroughly severed from Descartes, who is not at all concerned with consciousness itself as inherently social (incidentally, *Heidegger* thinks of the structure of consciousness as being social rather than isolated).

By the end of the essay, you are using a very big, very ill-defined understanding of what humanity is. You are moving in interesting directions, but it's all very unfinished. Here's one example of what bothers me.

You argue, to put it briefly, that desire to be human makes the monster human. But is our humanity defined, for instance, by social reality (how we live our lives among and in relationshiop with others), or by the desire to be social? You don't really distinguish between the two, which is problematic. In a way, that's reminiscent of the way in which you slip all too easily from Descartes' interest in what I'll call the universal structure of consciousness, and then easily assert that consciousness and humanity are the same thing, without really unpacking that idea at all.

Approaching Frankenstein through Descartes is a fine idea. So is approaching it through Milton. So is approaching it through humanity-as-the-desire-to-be-human. So is approaching it through man-the-social-animal. But you do all of these things, in rapid succession, without really working through the details, let alone the problems, of any of these approaches.