Friday, May 13, 2011

Frankenstein, rise of the Gothic

I first read Frankenstein the Halloween I was fifteen. My interest piqued by the 1930s Universal films, and in no small part by Young Frankenstein as well, it seemed appropriately seasonal reading. The range of settings and the monster’s eloquent humanity were a surprising departure from the movies. No grunting Karloff or Peter Boyle wheezing his way through “Putting on the Ritz,” Mary Shelley’s monster was given a voice with which to deliver an impassioned statement of the pain he has caused and misery he feels.

Frankenstein was also my first encounter with the Gothic novel. A moody atmosphere, romance entwined with death, formed my conception of the genre. But I was provided another perspective by Philip Pynchon’s essay “Is it OK to be a Luddite?,” in which he identifies an additional element:
If there were such a genre as the Luddite novel, this one, warning of what can happen when technology, and those who practice it, get out of hand, would be the first and among the best…
Look, for example, at Victor's account of how he assembles and animates his creature. He must, of course, be a little vague about the details, but we're left with a procedure that seems to include surgery, electricity (though nothing like Whale's galvanic extravaganzas), chemistry, even, from dark hints about Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus, the still recently discredited form of magic known as alchemy. What is clear, though, despite the commonly depicted Bolt Through the Neck, is that neither the method nor the creature that results is mechanical.
Pynchon latches onto this natural focus as a key component of the Gothic: a re-emergence of the wilds among the geometric order of industrialization. Tom Stoppard draws an analogy to this tension in Arcadia: an estate’s gardens become a moor overtaking the former boxed hedges. Order is subsumed by nature. Atmosphere and mood were only the tools of an essentially resistant movement.
Pynchon again:
The craze for Gothic fiction after The Castle of Otranto was grounded, I suspect, in deep and religious yearnings for that earlier mythic time which had come to be known as the Age of Miracles. In ways more and less literal, folks in the 18th century believed that once upon a time all kinds of things had been possible which were no longer so. Giants, dragons, spells. The laws of nature had not been so strictly formulated back then. What had once been true working magic had, by the Age of Reason, degenerated into mere machinery… 
To insist on the miraculous is to deny to the machine at least some of its claims on us, to assert the limited wish that living things, earthly and otherwise, may on occasion become Bad and Big enough to take part in transcendent doings.
At the time I first read Frankenstein cell phones were just beginning to become widespread at my high school. During the subsequent years not only have cell phones and laptops become increasingly constant companions, but they have flourished in finding new ways to occupy our attention and provide constant stimulation. Yet an iPhone can do little to transport you from a subway car to the icy North Pole on its own, the power comes from words. Just as Shelley’s monster provided a natural wonder in an era of increasing mechanization, her novel stands as a testament to the simple power of a an author’s words to entrance even as technology’s entertainments become ever-present.

(And don't forget to check out the GLW book fair!)

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