Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Blog 1: Frankenstein and The Human

Prompt 3: Frankenstein and The Human

     In this case, the input to answer such a profound question is decidedly lacking. With the exception of the last thirty pages or so, we have only gotten a glimpse into the nature of Frankenstein's monster. To answer such a complex question as "is it human?" with so little input is ludicrous but the questions this prompt brings up are more than intriguing and worthy of contemplation. After all, we now have more information about the creature's nature than we probably have about our classmates or our professor and yet we have judged them, surely, as human. What makes someone human is a profound and complex question and yet we seem to answer it without much trepidation every time we meet someone new. The biology, consciousness, empathy, morality, complex emotion and sheer intelligence of the creature surely point to his humanity,
      Let's begin with what is arguably the easiest way to define what a human is: simple biology. Biologically speaking, the creature is indeed human. He was created using human remains so, in the most simple fashion, he is human. He, somewhat, feels the extremes of the weather, experiences hunger and thirst, and displays all outward signs that he is human other than his large size and exceptional agility. Though he was not created in the traditional act of birth, we have seen how the normal acts of sexual reproduction can be averted through science and we do not consider these offspring any less human than those born of sexual intercourse. It is also implied that animal parts from a slaughter house were used in Frankenstein's fashioning, but we never learn, explicitly, what parts of what animals are used. Even so, animal and synthetic parts are used in life saving surgeries all over the world and these operations are not generally considered, except by some religions, to rob the patients of their humanity. However, simple biology will not satisfy as an argument to define what we know to be a complex term. "Human," as it is used to describe homo sapiens, has never been simply about biology and cell structure as it is with other creatures.
      So what defines humanity beyond simple biology? Is it that ever elusive concept of consciousness or sentience? If it is, then Frankenstein's creation also seems to possess this trait. He is aware of his own individuality and that he is a creature apart from the "protectors" next door in the cottage. This concept of consciousness is hard to prove though and, much like Descartes before us, we can feel no certainty of anything's consciousness beyond our own. How then can it be an accurate measure of what it is to be human? Or is it merely knowledge of the concept of consciousness that makes one human? Without a way to prove the consciousness of other beings, I am left with the same conclusion I have drawn about every person I have encountered thus far: The perception of consciousness denotes its existence. From the experiences, thoughts, and emotions the creature has expressed to this point of the novel, I believe he is in fact, conscious.
      The peculiarity of our actions beyond simple emotion, to those extending to other beings, such as morality, empathy, and even vengeance can be called uniquely human. If that is to be our measuring stick, then the creature also exhibits evidence of his possession of these traits. He observes the situation of the poor family, with whom he is an unknown roommate, and tries to ease their strife by collecting firewood for them and performing other remedial tasks. When the creature realizes that the food he is taking from the family is causing part of their misery, he stops and takes to finding his own food, recognizing that he can live on less than they can. He recognizes the love, happiness, and despair that the family experiences and is moved to help even knowing that he can never be a part of their family.
      While listening to the instruction of Safie in Ruins of Empires, he is bewildered by the vast roles that men can play in their lifetime. He perceives that they can be great heroes, explorers, and benevolent leaders and that they can be cruel soldiers and evil tyrants. This perception of good and evil, right and wrong is further evidence of humanity.
      At this point in the novel, we are to believe that the creature has killed Victor's youngest brother and framed an innocent girl with whom the family is close to. Although we do not know whether this is true or not, vengeance is idiomatic to our species. Other animals may mourn, show love and anger, but vengeance such as this is unique to humans. Animals may react and kill an enemy that has attacked a companion, but they will never pursue an act intended to wreak emotional turmoil on their offender. Furthermore, they lack the faculties to connect the complexities of human interaction and emotion to complete an act such as the murder of an enemy's brother and the framing of another. Therefore, I offer vengeance and the understanding of these complex emotions as proof of the creature's humanity, however dark it may be.
      And what about sheer intelligence? Surely a human can be, at least in part, defined by his ability to learn and reason. In a relatively short period of time, and mostly from simple observations, the creature has not only learned how to speak, but also to read and recognize the difference in the language of the original cottage dwellers and the "Arabian."
      The very definition of "human" is both complex and simple depending on how it is approached. Does simple biology define what it is to be human or is it more about consciousness, morality, and level of intelligence? Frankenstein's creation asks us these questions beyond our normal understanding of humanity and may even leave us wondering the answers without a clear way of finding them. I believe that Frankenstein's creation is human.


Adam said...

Your introduction is both vague and intriguing at once. I guess that's how you see the prompt, maybe. In any case, it could have been a little shorter.

Note that no part of your discussion of biology involves an actual definition. Nor does it engage directly within any details of the text (except Frankenstein's work with animals) - I don't see what you're really accomplishing here, especially since Victor Frankenstein does not, in fact, just assemble the monster out of human remains (you're letting the movies do your reading for you here).

Surely we all agree that the monster seems to be conscious, and that's fine. Is that how you define humanity, then? Would a conscious computer, for instance, necessarily qualify as human? I'm not saying that I disagree - I'm saying that this is why you should pick and stick to a coherent definition - so you can engage with its difficulties and complexities, rather than just ignoring them.

Similarly, focusing on vengeance (or other complex emotions) as definitive of humanity is a good idea, but it needs detailed attention. For instance, how confident are you that vengeance is uniquely human (read up on the other great apes, for instance, before you're confident of making these claims!). Again, it's a good idea, not a bad one, but you're dealing with it speculatively and hastily.

The hasty, overly speculative discussion of potentially good ideas, in fact, defines this whole essay. Settling on a single coherent definition would have helped tremendous here - if you'd done that, you could have analyzed an idea in relationship with the novel at length, including attending to its problems.

Adam Lewis said...

Thank you for the candid comments, I will certainly use them to post better blogs as this class goes on!