Critical Words: Frankenstein

A recent TLS has a knockout review by Frances Wilson of three new books about Frankenstein, a text now at its 200th birthday.  Whole thing behind a paywall, but here’s the lead

Frankenstein’s metaphor

The world’s most rewarding metaphor is now 200 years old. Since his dull yellow eye first opened on January 1, 1818 Victor Frankenstein’s creature has been compared to the Irish mob, the lumpen proletariat, the wandering Jew, and the UK Independence Party. Today he is spokesman for minority rights – including gay and lesbian and those born with disabilities and disfigurements – while his creator is patron saint of Artificial Intelligence, nanotechnology, robotics, bio-hackers, body-shaming and bad parenting. In English departments, where Mary Shelley has a dual identity as the celebrated author of a canonical novel and a woman writer excluded from the canon, Frankenstein is one of the five most commonly assigned texts. Linguistically, we talk about (genetically modified) Frankenfoods, Frankenstorms (stitched together from different weather systems), Frankenbikes (built from different parts) and Frankenbabies (born of three-parent IVF). The books under review here – in which the various Frankensteins are discussed in terms of cultural and textual history, political philosophy, and the life of the author – form a motley crew we might call Frankentexts.


Our celebration of the birth of Frankenstein follows the baby shower held in June 2016 to commemorate the wet weekend two centuries earlier when Mary Shelley first conceived of her story. Another flurry of publications will doubtless appear five years hence, to cash in on the creature’s first stage appearance at the Lyceum Theatre on July 28, 1823, in a dramatization by Richard Brinsley Peake called Presumption; Or, The Fate of Frankenstein which ran for thirty-seven nights and inspired, over the next three years, fourteen further English or French plagiarisms (with names like Frank-in-steam; Or, The Modern Promise To Pay, and Humpgumption; Or, Dr Frankenstein and the Hobgoblin of Hoxton). The tone was set for Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Robocop, Blade Runner and The Fly. Frankenstein’s capacity to reproduce is seemingly endless; like aphids, he was born pregnant.

Project Gutenberg has the whole thing, but unclear which version (the original 1818, or the one, in Wilson’s words, the author ratted out on…)

Thought-Provoking Words

From a fascinating review by Gregory Radick of Piers J. Hale’s
Malthus, mutualism, and the politics of evolution in Victorian England in the TLS.

Sheds light on the ideological uses made of Darwin, and many connections across realms that were surprising to me at least.

Near the end he has a side comment about eugenics, from the “future is already here and encoding inequality” beat that is truly eye-opening.

Eugenics, another luxury bauble of late capitalism?

As a scientific-political programme, the deliberate breeding of better humans or, as it came to be known, “eugenics” – another period neologism, introduced by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in 1883 – never recovered from its association with the Nazi death camps. Until then, however, it had enjoyed broad appeal across the political spectrum. In Britain, members of the Malthusian Left who gathered in the Fabian Society, including Shaw, Wells, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, were among the earliest supporters. Their preferred means for bringing about a eugenic future was education. The historical lesson many have drawn is that eugenics, however well intentioned, is inevitably coercive and ultimately murderous. But that is not the only possible lesson, and maybe not the best one. In 1996, after a year spent with the Human Genome Project at the behest of the US Library of Congress, the philosopher Philip Kitcher published a remarkable book, The Lives To Come, arguing that, whether we like it or not, the genetic technologies now available make eugenics inescapable, so the choice we face is about the kind of eugenics we have. In Kitcher’s view, the Nazis showed in extremis what not to do, while the Fabians offer more positive inspiration. Better, Kitcher suggests, to teach young people how to think through the social consequences of their reproductive choices, in a society committed to realizing human potential to the full, than to collude with the present regime of “laissez-faire eugenics”, in which those with enough money can buy whatever genetic improvements they can afford, and the rest can fend for themselves.

“Those with enough money can buy whatever [ …] improvements they can afford, and the rest can fend for themselves.” A well-put statement of a widespread state of affairs.

Entire review is fascinating.

Poetic Word: Robert Herrick

The Times Literary Supplement has had a run on good pieces lately but Paul Davis’ review of a new collection of the poetry of Robert Herrick was a particular pleasure. Here’s the lead:

Lyric poetry written in the first half of the seventeenth century is full of little things – Richard Lovelace has his snail and his grasshopper, Andrew Marvell his drop of dew and his glow-worms, Edmund Waller his garters, gloves and ribbons – but Robert Herrick’s appetite for the miniature was uniquely gargantuan. A brief selection of the nano-phenomena, animal, vegetable and mineral, in Hesperides (1648), his only collection of verse, might include: amber beads, ants, apple cores, beans, bees (or just their honey sacs), beetles, beets, crickets, cherries (often just their stones), cowslips, earlobes, earwigs, flies, gnats, mice, newts, nipples (usually reduced to “niplets”, one of several diminutives Herrick coined), nuts, pansies, pearls, peas, robins (Herrick liked shortening his own name to “Robin”), seeds, smallage (his herb of choice for his gravestone), spiders, tears (always singly, never in floods), violets, worms and worts. Then there are the poems themselves. Hesperides contains a massive 1,402 lyrics – 1,130 in the main body of the collection, and 272 in a second religious corpus, His Noble Numbers or Pious Pieces – but only three dozen or so are longer than fifty lines, and a mere eighty-five even get beyond twenty, while more than 1,000 come in at two quatrains or under, including 465 distichs. Poems in pentameter are hugely outnumbered by those in tetrameter or trimeter, and Herrick was not above writing whole poems in dimeter and monometer.

This extent of miniaturism can make reading through Hesperides a strange experience, at once gruelling and unsatisfying, like surfeiting on canapés or climbing an Everest of molehills. For a long time, readers ducked the challenge. …

I certainly did, at least beyond the anthologized greatest hit or two of his.

But TLS sent me back to the poems and here are a few that caught my eye.

Delight in Disorder
By Robert Herrick
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthralls the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribands to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.

The Present Time Best Pleaseth
by Robert Herrick

Praise they that will times past; I joy to see
Myself now live: this age best pleaseth me.

Matins, or Morning Prayer
by Robert Herrick

When with the virgin morning thou dost rise,
Crossing thyself come thus to sacrifice;
First wash thy heart in innocence; then bring
Pure hands, pure habits, pure, pure every thing.
Next to the altar humbly kneel, and thence
Give up thy soul in clouds of frankincense.
Thy golden censers fill’d with odours sweet
Shall make thy actions with their ends to meet.

Cabinet of Curiosities
“The Cabinet of Curiosities” a glass sculpture by Steffen Dam in the collection of the Chazen Museum of Art at UW-Madison. Like Herrick, full of tiny wonders, and bigger on the inside.





Quotable Words: On Jack London

Great lead to a TLS review of a new bio of Jack London.

White Fang, First EditionWhat he sought was an impassioned realism”, Jack London wrote of his alter ego, the striving novelist Martin Eden. “What he wanted was life as it was, with all its spirit-groping and soulreaching left in.” One often wishes that London himself had left out the groping and reaching. For all the wide-eyed breathlessness of his characters and the hurtling momentum of his prose – “To live! To live! To live!”, says Wolf Larsen in The Sea-Wolf (1904) – he was a better writer when he slowed down and even stood still, overcoming his fear that inertia meant creative death. Only then could he abstain from the romantic posturing and philosophical maundering of “London the amateur Great Thinker” (as H. L. Mencken called him) and register the undramatic, minor-key world around him – everything that other writers of the Strenuous Age were too exhausted to notice. He might declare, at the height of liquor-fuelled self-regard, “I have ten thousand august connotations” (as he does in his memoir John Barleycorn [1913]), but he is more convincing when he sharpens his observational skills against the one irreducible fact of life named in White Fang (1906): “They were meat”, London writes of two Klondike travellers monitored by a hiding wolf, “and it was hungry”.

Nice work by Marc Robinson. (Full review behind pay wall, sorry). I particularly love that “amateur Great Thinker” jibe by Mencken. A widely applicable term, methinks.)

Reasonable Words: “Oh, you publishing scoundrels!”

For the commonplace book, to file under “nothing new under the sun.” Here’s the opening paragraph of a review from a recent TLS,

“To write and have something published is less and less something special,” complained Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beauve in 1839. “At least once in his life, everyone will have his page, his discourse, his publisher’s brochure, his toast, everyone will be an author once…’Why not me too?’ everyone asks.” One of the recurrent motifs of this latest installment of the “monumental” Cambridge History of Literary Criticism (as it rather immodestly describes itself on its dust jacket) is the challenge posed to traditional notions of literary and cultural value by what Sainte-Beuve, perhaps the most influential critic of the nineteenth century, called “industrial literature.” The period covered by this volume is characterized by rapid changes in the technology of literary production, the emergence of new audiences for literature, and deepening anxieties about the best way of distributing the “golden treasury” of high literary culture to the masses without debasing the currency.

Too many people publishing, new technical platforms disrupting once-sacrosanct cultural values, new audiences doing new (sometimes messy and inconvenient) things. 1839? 1997? 2013? Sounds like blogging to me…

Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, dean of the 19th-century literary critics. A face that says: “No, I’m not on twitter, and I don’t ‘follow’ anyone!”

Reasonable Words: “Not exactly a Lothario,” TLS on Alan Turing

The centenary of the mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turning is over (he was born in 1912). But I’m still catching up on TLS’s and encountered a nice review article in the 12/28 issue by Michael Saler, a UC Davis History prof. Synthesizes the story through comments on three books.

Well done lead:

Before the Second World War, computers wore clothes and did their work with ink-stained fingers. The term referred to human beings engaged in mathematical calculations, who were slow and at times erroneous. It was the war that introduced the first modern electronic computing machines. They were immensely faster and more accurate than their soon-to-be-redundant human counterparts, and facilitated the invention of nuclear weapons. The decades following the war have been dominated by these two technologies. It is tempting to think of them in apocalyptic terms: the bomb threatens to end human existence, and the artificial intelligence of computers threatens to challenge or even change human nature. Recent histories charting the intertwined origins of the nuclear age and the “digital universe” provoke the queasy feeling that our species is positioned precariously between atomic night and transhuman dawn. Ironically – and reassuringly – the principal instigators of this new era, such as Alan Turing and John von Neumann, showed themselves to be human, all too human, their fallibilities and resiliencies restoring a more grounded perspective about our future. The triumph of a Dr Strangelove or a Hal 9000 remains a possibility, but either scenario pales before the lived reality of their flesh-and-blood progenitors. As the following histories suggest, truth is often stranger than science fiction.

That’s so elegant, I’ll overlook the letdown in that last sentence.

One of the themes that spirals through the review is the primacy (or not) of the gay aspect of Turing’s life in his technical work. Hard to measure the strength of that influence (anything that was suppressed for so long risks getting over emphasized). Thinking of the Turing test in some way caught up in “passing” is suggestive, if not totally convincing. Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 8.55.17 PM

Also interesting to me is the parallel Saler makes between the world of computing and nuclear weapons, in specific, von Neumann’s embrace of the Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine. Not a part of his story that gets much mention. Hard to argue with the thesis that computing and nuclear weapons are the two dominant technologies of the 20th century, though.

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