Tag Archive: destruction

The Guilt of Mass Destruction

For the first time in six years, I walked through my father’s front door. It was early, the sun had not yet risen, and everyone evidently still asleep. I sat at the kitchen counter, my head in my hands, waiting for my father to enter, and for Elizabeth, good neighbor and dear friend that she is, to walk through the front door to share his morning coffee. What would I tell them? Pictures of my mother hung on the walls, and a new shrine to Will was in the corner of the living room, which I could see from where I sat. What would I, could I, say? Dread settled in my stomach.

When my other brother, Ernest, walked into the kitchen, his head was down, his shoulders stooped. He jumped when he looked up and saw me watching him, but quickly recovered and hugged me tighter than I ever remember. “We were so proud,” he said, “when Will got a job at the Pentagon. Father was over the moon! We were so –“ here his voice broke.

“Where are dad and Elizabeth?” I inquired. “Aren’t they usually up by now? I have something I need to tell you all. It’s important.”

“They should be up soon, but you need to be prepared, they’re absolutely beside themselves. They can’t watch the TV without crying every time the terrorists are mentioned. The names of the hijackers were just released.”

I started. “What do you mean? Hijackers? That can’t be true!”

“What else could it be? The passengers who lived all claim that the planes were taken over by foreign men, and though it seemed inconceivable at first, it is the only thing that makes sense,” he ventured, puzzled at my vehement denial.

“No, no, no…that isn’t…that can’t be” I mumbled, brow furrowed, as I paced. “It has to be the planes.” Here, my father stepped into the room. Like Ernest, he wore a shocked expression, but quickly stilled my pacing with an embrace as I continued to mumble. My father inquired as to what was the matter with me, and my brother, bewildered, replied hesitantly that I just kept saying, “It has to be the planes.” My father touched my arm, thinking my denial of the involvement of terrorists was just grief, and said, “Son, it’s hard on all of us. But the men who caused this are dead. Denying their fault doesn’t help anyone.”

“You don’t understand!” I exclaimed. “No one hijacked those planes!”

The three of them led me to the couch, and thinking to console me, told me that the men who caused our my little brother’s death, along with the deaths of almost 3000 other people, were punished in their own deaths, and that there is nothing our anger can do. Their speech calmed me, for reasons other than what they intended; maybe no one would ever know that I was to blame, that I had engineered planes that would fly themselves, and, weighed down by the responsibility, had sold the technology. Maybe they would never know that my work had killed Will.

A knock sounded at the door, and Elizabeth entered. When she saw me, she threw herself into my arms, exclaiming, “Victor, I’m so glad you’re home! It didn’t feel right that you were grieving for Will on your own. All together, we can console each other, and lessen the weight of our individual grief.”

“But it was the planes,” I breathed, in one last half-hearted attempt to divest the truth from myself, to give it away, but it was too quiet for even her too hear.

Author’s Note

One of the most charged moments in Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein is when Justine’s life is hanging in the balance. Victor is carrying this guilt, for not only the death of William, but also possibly the death of Justine, and, he comes to see, a potentially endless number of other lives. This guilt of the fallout of our actions on other people is particularly applicable to the 21st century, as everyone is increasingly connected by technology. Now, more than any time in history, the consequences of one person’s actions cannot be isolated to only themselves. I chose to keep the tone of the passage (starting with the last paragraph on page 76, and running to the end of the chapter), as well as the relative plotline, and to change the creation and the fallout action.

Instead of creating a scientific, parodic creature, Victor has created intelligent technology capable of incredible harm. The crime the creature commits, homicide, was one of the worst, if not the worst, crimes a person could commit in the 19th century. Now, terrorism has taken the top spot on the Worst Crimes list, with the terrorism of 9/11 taking the top spot of that list for American citizens. I wanted Victor’s action to have the monumental destruction, the same relative magnitude, in my piece as in the original.

Where the plotline diverges in my piece is in Victor wanting desperately to tell the truth, rather than just prove the innocence of the accused. This is not an explicit purpose of Victor’s in the originally scene, but rather a feeling from the whole novel that Victor is trying to push his responsibility outward from himself.

I wanted this piece to carry the message that we are accountable to the world for our actions, as well as that as humans, we still choose the explanation that seems believable. Even when someone tells what they know to be the truth, if a simpler explanation exists, society will choose the simple, the cut-and-dry. That is a main point in the original passage, and I wanted that to come through in this modern re-telling.

Longing for Humanity

In Frankenstein, the creature represents all of us and embodies our ultimate longing for humanity and acceptance. Because the creature can’t truly be depicted and his existence is shrouded in mystery through filtered narratives and descriptions, we come to sympathize with him. This sympathy, which is truly indicative of the sublime, thus makes sense when we confer our sense of awe and heap all our passions onto this creature. The creature was not originally bent on exacting revenge but only became a monster because of the dehumanization that he was subjected to by his creator Victor Frankenstein. The monster lies within us as the alienation and isolation that he experiences causes him to revolt and wreak havoc, so that others can understand his pain and misery. A simple creator-creation dynamic and capitalist-marxist dialectic fails to imbibe the essence of Frankenstein because it ignores the crucial betrayal of Justine, who represents justice and moral precision. While Justine typified neither capitalism nor Marxism, her betrayal by both Victor and the creature signifies the death of humanity. The monster becomes a caveat of what can happen to us when we lose our humanity, attempt to overpower nature, and fail to understand “the other” in our midst, whatever that may connote. The monstrosity that lurks within humanity is always there, but only becomes dangerous and revolutionary when we feel that humanity is incapable of understanding our thoughts, whims, and desires. Only when we become “the other” and are deemed to be abhorrent does the revolutionary aspect of this monster unleash itself. It attempts to undo the wrongs that have been perpetrated on it but ultimately induces terror and fear, sublime emotions. If the creature could be solidified or depicted, if its every thought could be ascertained and its role completely clarified, it would lose the universal sympathy aroused by our humanity. The logic of Marxism thus fails to explicate the meaning of the text, as the inversion of power between the proletariat and the capitalist, man and nature, and knowledge and ignorance doesn’t result in liberation of humanity, but utter destruction. Even though Warren Montag’s argument was perhaps presumptive in applying Marxist criticism, it was correct in stating that it would be foolish to assume that the novel had no contextual significance. The Romantic and Gothic genres both evoke the large landscapes, sense of vastness, and powerful mysticism inherent in Frankenstein. The Romantic and Gothic genres fuse with Shelley’s sociopolitical circumstances of the day to produce a work of art, which has a sense of organic unity that synthesizes elements of both the beautiful and the sublime. Hollywood’s greatest injustice then, may have been to transform such a complex and meaningful novel into a rather sensational science fiction thriller.

The Dangers of Knowledge

Burke believed that “sympathy must be considered as a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected; so that this passion may either partake of the nature of those which regard self-preservation, and turning upon pain may be a source of the sublime; or it may turn upon ideas of pleasure; and then, whatever has been said of the social affections, whether they regard society in general, or only some particular modes of it, may be applicable here” (41). Burke’s theory of sympathy hinges on us putting ourselves in the shoes of someone else to be similarly affected. Only then can we truly understand this passion, which he refers to as sympathy.

The passage I chose from the novel was:

“I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be: listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject. I will not lead you on, unguarded and ardent as I then was, to your destruction and infallible misery. Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (Shelley 57).

From this passage, it is easy to see Victor’s attempt to warn of the dangers and misery associated with science. The juxtaposition of eagerness, wonder, and hope – emotional states that are normally indicative of optimism – with destruction and misery highlights an important paradox that is central to Victor’s caveat. Greater knowledge and understanding of the world will not lead to happiness; au contraire, it will only lead to one’s demise. This complete inversion of the benefits that we associate enlightenment with is similar to Rousseau’s conception of the “noble savage”, a natural man who remains completely untouched by the corrupting influences of civilization. The tragic irony of all of this is that happiness is associated with ignorance, while misery is associated with education and science.

The “secret” that Victor claims to know is not some arbitrary mathematical equation but instead a discovery of the truth in his lifetime. Victor’s pursuance of this knowledge causes his own undoing. His discovery that nature, an ambiguous term yet possibly denoting an all-powerful force which shapes the world, shall not be reckoned with is indicative or a larger conflict between man and nature. Victor’s desire to become greater than nature would allow not only shows that nature is a self-actualizing, active force in the world, but also that any attempts to interfere with its hegemony could very well be fatal.

Victor does have sympathy in this warning, as he doesn’t want others to have to learn this lesson the difficult way. His ability to put himself in the shoes of another lends an air of affection to his request. Even nature can be said to be sympathetic to Victor, for it regards the self-preservation of humanity an important matter and has decided to have this secret known to prevent any further misery among man. A central theme of this passage is Victor’s message, namely that ignorance is bliss. The intrusion of civilization into the realm of nature, the interference of human cognition with the ambiguous, synchronous ways of nature may result not in erudition and happiness, but inevitable misery. Victor’s dire message, in which he implores others not to err just as he did, is based on a sympathetic and affectionate notion of self-preservation for the rest of mankind.