Frankenstein and Counter-Enlightenment

Image result for frankenstein angry villagers

I’m sure many will have seen the furore stirred up in social media, particularly among Gothicists, by the Sun’s article on Frankenstein, which screams, ‘SNOWFLAKE students claim Frankenstein’s monster was a misunderstood victim with feelings’. I don’t think it’s altogether true to reply, as some (understandably) have done, that the sympathy with the creature is the whole point of the novel (see here). Mary Shelley’s greatness lies in setting up a cluster of questions and arguments, not in didactically pushing one viewpoint.

Frankenstein itself is ambivalent. The sympathy for the monster is crucial. The claims for recognition and human rights (something the Sun clearly wants to undermine) are central. Yet the monster is a cruel and cold-blooded killer; his crime all the worse because he is sentient, cultivated to an extent, and shares the potential for nobility of human beings. But he has been unjustly exiled from all community and social life and his rebellion is justified. (The Sun isn’t notably a fan of just revolt.)

I haven’t read all of Prof. Groom’s new introduction (which is quoted from in the article). It’s almost certainly quoted in a way that distorts its meaning. He seems to be saying that students may be one-sided in their ‘sentimental’ response and to have missed the crucial ambivalence. That’s what academia is for—to restore the complexities that either/or thinking wants to efface. Yet the students’ sympathy is not untrue to the book either and their concern for rights—rights which the Sun isn’t noted for endorsing—is not to be dismissed lightly. David Barnett in the Guardian defends the need for such empathy in our atomised, asocial world.

Sun journalists probably know that the novel shows sympathy to the creature—they’re well-educated, just cynical and manipulative and contemptuous of their readers. They have had a privileged education and earn high salaries. They serve and often belong to the very elite that they are so fond of casting as monsters—that is, the real elite, those who have wealth and power, not those deemed elite just because they have had the opportunity to cultivate knowledge. The article is based on an article in The Times which is slightly more subtle, though still announcing its contempt for young people (or ‘millennials’). The Times, of course, has always been the voice of the ruling classes; they can’t even aim at the fake demotic credentials of the Sun.

The Sun article is in a wider context of right-wing attacks on students, on academics, on expertise itself. But, as quite a few social media commentators have pointed out, it takes on extra significance at this moment when university staff are striking—a strike motivated in part by a resistance to those forces which seek to degrade academic life.

There are those who read Frankenstein as a counter-Enlightenment tract, warning against the hubris of science and progress. I would say that it’s more a novel that explores the consequences of an Enlightenment project that (as the philosopher Jürgen Habermas claims) had halted. I argue here that ‘the Modern Prometheus’ of Shelley’s subtitle is a Prometheus whose pursuit of knowledge has become distorted by capitalism and who no longer serves human ends. That project is in urgent need of defence from the new counter-Enlightenment which scorns critical thinking and progressive politics, hurls insults at academia and ‘experts’, and lies behind the destruction of universities that strikers are fighting against at this very moment.

About William the Bloody

Cat lover. 18C scholar on the dialogue and novel. Co-convenor OGOM Project
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2 Responses to Frankenstein and Counter-Enlightenment

  1. Daryl says:

    Yikes! I’m glad I read this but it sounds like others around me are enduring the stress I was going through in 2016. A fellow craft-woman and I were chatting yesterday about how so many now blame the youth for so much, or millennials or snowflakes without quite addressing the understanding of, “Well, who raised these kids and how were they raised?”

    I picked up on “Frankenstein” fairly well through various versions. Sometimes the created-man was a dim-witted monster, other times he was cognizant of what he was which propelled him into spells of lunacy. We, ourselves, might get a little lost in the same way trying to go through our genealogical records.

    I’ve often been stunned I turned out as well as I did with how I was raised (or not raised as the case may be). The more time goes on the more grateful I am for how I was raised in comparison to the confusion I’m seeing these days in those younger than I am. (Or with my elders trying to follow a scrambled lead.)

    Much social media is quite dastardly for not promoting good social skills. I’ve found the less time I spend on it the better I feel. I noticed a lot of lovely plants, trees, and wildlife today I almost completely forgot about due to social media. And I have pen friends again now. Perhaps the lesson here is quite “Frankenstein” in scope: Remember to be human, be in physical space, smell the flowers, marvel at tranquil spots. Use technology gently and sparingly. Perhaps, that’s it. I like the sound of it anyway! 🙂

  2. Excellent post. You are completely right about journalists often knowing that they are writing provocative nonsense, but simply not caring because they are a service – an echo-chamber for their self-selecting audiences. Many more don’t know AND don’t care. Depends on the paper and the individual. Not sure which is worse, frankly.

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