Tag Archive: sublime


Setting the Scene

cropped-mountain1.jpgIn the scene that pages 89-92 cover, Frankenstein is traversing the mountain scape on his way back home. As he returns, a rather disproportionate amount of time is spent describing the sheer grandness and majesty of the mountains. This is a direct reference to Shelley’s poem Mont Blanc, where the sentimental detail of the mountain  makes up the majority of the poem. Frankenstein essentially gives us the novel version of the poem, rewriting the same themes that appear in the poem, such as the audio/ visual contrast and the man versus nature motif. Frankenstein also incorporates the poem “Mutability” into the passage, where he uses its main theme of the insignificance of man to add to his image of the sublime and awe-inspiring mountains.

In describing the mountain in all its magnificence to the reader, Frankenstein basically expands on Shelley’s work. A parallel theme that runs through the poem and that Frankenstein incorporates is the audio/ visual component of the scene. In Mont Blanc, a line that captures this audio component is “A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame”. This is then recast by Frankenstein as a array of formidable noises such as the “thunder sound of the avalanche” or “the fall of some vast fragment”. Additionally, the man versus nature motif ties in with the poem “Mutability” to add to the growing sense of the insignificance of man in the natural world. Frankenstein not only quotes the last two sections of the poem but adds to his sense of helplessness. “Why does man boast of sensibilities those apparent in brute, it only renders them more necessary beings.” The poem “Mutability” focuses on the ever changing world and how nothing can last forever. Change is always bound to destroy any attempt to remain stagnant and permanent. This is something the Frankenstein recognises, as he laments the petty ways of man in the grand scheme of the world. The poem is inserted right after this monologue, a direct support to the statement and the tone of inconsequentiality Frankenstein is aiming for.

These powerful images of huge mountains and booming sounds serves to evoke a sense of insignificance in the audience. The use of Shelley’s poems and the revised paraphrasing of these texts serve to set the sublime scene that Frankenstein is inhabiting. His focus on detail (mirroring that of the poems) really drives home the impressive and terrifying nature of the landscape.

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In class today students worked in groups of three to draw the landscape scene on pages 92-93 of Frankenstein (see pics below).  Team 3 won the competition because they were better able to represent the way the creature defied Burke’s aesthetic categories of the beautiful, the sublime, and the ugly that are deployed in this literary passage.

Nonetheless, all these pictures are masterpieces in their own right and clearly testify to my students’ imaginative powers!

Team 1

Team 1

 

Team 2

Team 2

 

Team 3

Team 3

Edmund Burke’s idea of sympathy is very applicable to Frankenstein as one of the driving forces of the novel is the creature’s desire for sympathy and understanding from someone. I chose the last passage on page 121 starting with “When night came..” and ending with “…insupportable misery” to expand on this point.

There is a huge amount of tension in this passage between the concepts of animal and man, and the ambiguity over which category the creature falls into. Words like “howling”, “wild beast” and “stand-like” make the image of him as an animal stronger. Burke says that the difference between animals and humans is that the passions of animals “are more unmixed”, and they only require a mate to be of their species and the opposite sex, whereas humans love, and search for socially pleasing qualities as well. In this the creature is like an animal as he pleads Victor to create for him a female, and gives no regard for her beauty or nature. But unlike the animals, he doesn’t feel like he belongs in the woods, which is seen in the images of “cold stars [shining] in mockery”, “bare branches” and the tension between the “hell” inside him and the “universal stillness” outside. He is “unsympathised with” even by nature, and has very human thoughts. For instance, as his pain is so close and real, it is not at all the sublime and so to alleviate some of it he wants to “spread havoc and ruin around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin”, as in watching from a distance the terror and distress that this would cause, he would touch upon the sublime, and also feel the “degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others”(Burke, Pg 42), that Burke discusses. These are entirely human tendencies.

The phrase “luxury of sensation” struck me as very interesting and odd. The “sensation” seemed to have been keeping at bay his despair, and when he had to stop it all hit him. I think this is because, as Burke says, Sense is universal and “is in all men the same, or with little difference” (Burke, Pg 13). Thus “sensation” was a luxury to the creature as it allowed him to feel as if he belonged and was the same as man, which was his deepest wish.

In the ending of this passage however, the Creature renounces this wish and declares war on all mankind. Where before he felt sympathy for humans, such as Felix, he now says that he will cease. This is because where before he wanted to be one with men, and so felt the bond of sympathy which unites all humans, here is when he declares himself separate and different. Humans didn’t think of him as one of them and so did not feel a reciprocal sympathy, and in this light he relinquishes any desire to become human and the bond of sympathy along with it. The Creature asserts himself as not a man now, as he refers to humans as a “species” separate from his own, but he has learnt too much to go back to being an animal, as he is filled with human thoughts and emotions. Thus, he is trapped somewhere in the middle without belonging to either side, he is both and neither, and this unresolved tension is what torments him throughout the rest of the novel.

The fact that there have only been two posts since the most recent blog summary makes me review the semester in general and think of how much analysis we have dedicated towards the novel Frankenstein. We have explored different facets of literary criticism that have opened unique perspectives toward understanding the novel. For instance, earlier in the semester we learned of Edmund Burke and his theory on the concepts of beauty and sublimity and how the creature evokes the sublime out of the people it meets. This sublime, which represents “terror,” rugged,” “roughness,” and/or “massive” (C.P)– all terms that the creature embodies to or evokes from others– relates back to how society sees the creature and what that societal perception reveal about the era this novel was written in. Of course, early nineteenth century Europe was still reeling from the authoritarian Napoleon’s conquests, which stemmed from the failure of the early-1790s French Revolution, an event that shocked the higher classes of European society and renewed fears of lower-class uprisings everywhere. The author, Mary Shelley, herself was raised in the middle-class, and despite her parents being strong liberals Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin she was fairly conservative in her views toward the lower-class, but still generally conflicted. She conveyed these contrasting views partially through a rough, rugged, horrific, gruesome representation of the lower-class, embodied by the creature, and also partially through the creature’s humanity and emotions. It possesses this identity due to the era’s identification of the lower-class with strongly negative, almost subhuman, characteristics and terminologies, and this identification is reflected on the creature, but the creature’s identity also contains a sense of humanity that makes it relatable in a human level.

The dehumanization of the lower-class is mirrored through the dehumanization of the creature itself. Its interactions with fellow humans were never cordial because of what the creature’s horrifying appearance made people do: run off or attack it. The sublime is in effect here as sublime emotions are rooted in pain and not pleasure (C.P). People saw the creature and they saw something subhuman in looks and mannerisms, which made them act in such a strongly negative way towards the creature: their efforts to always either run off or attack it indicate their viewpoint that the creature is a problem and should be treated as such. Not only subhuman, but a problem too. The era during which the book was written was fairly agreeable to such lower-class subjugation as seen through the creature, because of what the lower-class had done to the hearts and minds of much of the European upper-classes. The French Revolution’s impact on their collective psyche was significant, what with the long-established monarchy getting overthrown and arrested, King Louis XVI getting beheaded, and the complete failure of  initial populist aspirations as indicated by the Reign of Terror and subsequent authoritarian dictatorship in the reign of Napoleon. Mary Shelley, the author of the novel, shares a lot of the upper-class apprehensions towards the lower-class, being fairly mixed in her support towards lower-class rights, which was surprising given how liberal her parents were regarding the French Revolution. Knowing this family legacy, the novel could not only be a reflection of the era but a reflection of her conflicted views concerning the lower-class. Even though the creature is a horrifying sight and an anathema to society at large (much like the lower-class’ perceived position in society), she still gives it a strong sense of humanity through its very self-aware reflections and confessions towards its creator Victor (Shelley 95); such reflections evoked a true sense of sympathy towards the creature and its struggles. Shelley, to me, incorporates into the creature the era’s perception of the lower-class as well as a sense of humanity that gives the reader a potential emotional connection (so one can feel its pain) to it.

Through critical Marxist techniques and theories of the sublime, the modern cultural duality of the Frankenstein myth may be explicated. This process is initiated by analysis of the main characters in Marxist terms. The creature in Frankenstein serves as the culmination of the bourgeoisie dream, long ago planted in the roots of society. Behind the façade of maintained societal sentiments such as “justice,” the elite have secretly plotted the overthrow of these same ideals. All of their silent manipulations have led up to this moment, in which they have planned to ascend to the helm of civilization as godlike beings, served by the created proletariat. As the manifestation of the bourgeoisie, Victor completes this process as planned, giving life to the monster.

However, something is deeply wrong with this entity. The proletariat and the monster were not naturally conceived in the womb, but in the mind; they have no ancestry, cobbled together from various decaying components, and forced into life by mysterious mechanistic means. Even Victor and the elite recognize the horror in such a filthy fabrication. They flee from their progeny, failing to use it as they intended. The ultimate result of this action is the suffering of all of society, expressed in the violence committed towards and by the creature. The true unnatural bourgeoisie construct is not just the proletariat class, but the hegemony of societal violence. Although they intended to rule their brave new world, all are enslaved instead by a different power, violence, expressed in the unending conflict of the creature and Victor as they hurtle towards their deaths.

The narrative inspires a great sympathetic response in the reader, as they conceive of the existential terror of the creature, and the horror of Victor in the consequences of his work. This sympathy leads to a more superficial level of the sublime, and also a realization of Montag’s “unrepresentability,” in the creature. By sympathizing with the Marxist metaphor presented, the reader perceives the invalidity of the proletariat construct, and the falseness of the capitalist symptom’s hegemony of violence, as it is unnatural and a source of terror and disgust. By understanding this invalidity, the reader also comprehends that the capitalist construct does not represent the societal ideal or even a natural creation process, and therefore leads to “unrepresentability.”

This significant realization of untruth leads to the formation of a fissure in the capitalist symptom. Behind the tattered edge, the deepest source of the sublime can almost be seen: the sublime object of ideology.  The reader begins to perceive that capitalist ideology does not reflect the “object,” which is the nature of reality. There is great awe and fear in realizing an incorrect way of viewing the real, and is therefore a great source of the sublime.

However, the capitalist symptom is not without power, even in the modern world. Like an oyster’s pearl, the ideological irritant is morphed by a smooth outer sheen. It cannot be completely removed because its sublime aspect is inherently attractive. This is the reason for the duality of the myth; it is too powerful to ignore, so it is sterilized into the common form as folk tale, which offers no threat to collapse capitalist ideology.

The novel Frankenstein is plagued by myth and fallacy. At one time, I myself believed Frankenstein to be the monster and not Victor Frankenstein, his creator. The story is an interesting one, to say the least, and if taken at face value and only read to discredit the common myths, one might miss the greater underlying message. After some thought and an analysis of my previous blogs, I have come to the conclusion that Frankenstein is much more than the story of a mad scientist, his creation, and the ruthless murders the monster commits. If Frankenstein is interpreted through the analytical lens of theorists and radicals such as Burke and Montag, I cautiously conclude that Mary Shelley was attempting to portray the human condition embodied in the monster.

Shelley uses the monster to depict what theorists find common throughout humanity. One commonality characteristic of the novel and our human condition is the exclusion of the working class, or in Montag’s terms, the proletariat. Montag says the monster represents the unrepresentability of the working class because of the lack of a tangible proletariat group in the novel, yet this is also analogous to the absence of this same working class in our cultural media and society. By excluding the working class from her piece, Shelley is depicting the humanly, natural desire for success without work or hardship. Secondly, Shelly illustrates another aspect of the human condition: the co-existence of the sublime and beautiful, also seen in the monster. One would say the monster’s physical appearance is of the sublime, supernatural and gigantic in stature, and that the monster commits horrendous crimes in his pursuit of vengeance. However, the monster’s beauty is exemplified in his pursuit of sympathy. The monster seeks acceptance and an understanding from Victor Frankenstein, sympathy that Burke would argue to be natural and logical. The dual nature of the monster mirrors that duality seen in humans. For instance, after hearing Frankenstein’s narration of the monster’s murders, Watson has feelings of indignation towards the monster, yet simultaneously expresses sympathy on behalf of Frankenstein and his loss. One might see the duality of his emotions by categorizing Watson’s indignation as a characteristic of the sublime, and attributing his sympathy to beauty. Here Shelley is proposing that the dual nature of humanity is not atypical, and most certainly that the co-existence of the sublime and beautiful within one entity is a part of the human condition.

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.

This week in class three groups of students collaboratively drew three landscape drawings of vol. 1, chapter 10 of Frankenstein, where Victor and the creature encounter each other for the first time (pp. 92-93).  Drawing #1 won the contest, because of their sublime depiction of mist and the surrounding shadowy mountains.  Nonetheless, drawing #3 did a better job of emphasizing the creature’s sublime obscurity and horror of the unknown.  All the groups struggled to capture the “unearthly ugliness” of the creature, without making him appear comical or too distinct and clear (a quality of beauty).  We concluded that the creature upsets the aesthetic categories of the sublime, the beautiful, and the ugly, as theorized by Edmund Burke.

I’ll be glad to get some comments from those who have any suggestions for how to visualize the creature in this novel.  Of course, film depictions of the creature try to do this, but they have not always been faithful to the novel.

                                                                                                                                                                       group drawing #2:

drawing #2 

                                                                                                                                                           group drawing #3:

208 photo[3]

                                                                                                                                         group drawing #1: (the winning picture)

208 photo[2]