Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/23/2010

Melancholia, Frankenstein, and the Ways of Knowing the “Good”

Albrecht Dürer, “Melancholia”

Albrecht Dürer, “Melancholia”

In King Lear, the old Duke Gloucester is a buffeted about trying to make sense of tragedy. He thinks his good son Edgar is evil and his evil son Edmund is good. He helps the king, and for his trouble Lear’s ego-maniacal daughter Regan tears out his eyes.  Gloucester dies for his kindness. But in a modicum of redress, his good son takes down the bad son. As his brother is dying, Edgar says,

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.

––King Lear, Act V, scene 3

In her uncanny (how did an 18-year-old write such a work, regardless of her being the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft) novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley quotes Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Like one who, on a lonely road,

Doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having once turned round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

Most high school and college English students, if they know any poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge other than the Rime, know his 1825 sonnet, “Work without hope” which ends

And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without hope draws a nectar in a sieve,
And hope without an object cannot live.

In their divine justice, the gods determine that what pleases us will harm us. We walk in fear and dread because we know the frightful fiend Death walks close behind.  And we cannot have hope unless we have in mind a fulfillment of that hope.

Today is a melancholy day for me. Melancholia. The day is melancholy for many reasons, personal, familial, political, social.

. . . . melancholia. . . named a wide range of medical disorders, including epilepsy and apoplexy. . . [it] had come to be known in the eighteenth century as a partial insanity, characterized by delusional thinking about some limited subject matter. Less than fully disabling and less severe than complete madness. . . . melancholy meant a gloomy, pensive “temper”. . . .(3)

How to explain my Melancholia? Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is in one sense a melancholy exploration of the futility of the most scientifically and culturally advanced activities—discoveries—inventions— our pleasant vices. We all know the story. Frankenstein’s Monster has no hope of happiness, and Frankenstein’s hope in the promise of his discovery is utterly destroyed. He says,

When I [reflect] on the work I had completed. . .  my speculations and hopes are as nothing . . . I am chained in an eternal hell. . . I trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers, now burning with the idea of their effects. . . . but how am I sunk. . . If I were engaged in any high undertaking or design, fraught with extensive utility to my fellow-creatures, then could I live to fulfill it. (4)

Sometimes on a Friday evening, I give up all thought of high undertaking and slouch in front of the TV, a pleasant vice. Last night, reruns. I tried to make myself useful.  I couldn’t read. I couldn’t play the organ. I couldn’t grade papers. So I slept through some mindless TV and woke up in the nick of time to watch a 90-minute Sherlock Holmes beginning at 10. Way past my bedtime.

Perhaps today’s melancholia is lack of sleep. Melancholia.  A Partial insanity. Delusional thinking about some limited subject matter. Last night I could not work, could not engage in any undertaking because I was delusional about the chances that anything I do, say, or write can ever have any effect for the “good,” “good” for some cause, some truth, some one. My delusions are not grand. The subject matter of my “good” is limited.

I’m not certain I know what “good” is. Perhaps Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell and Rand Paul running the US Senate will be “good.” Perhaps Bill O’Reilly’s influence over some of my friends (especially the ones who call themselves christians) is a “good” thing. Perhaps the HR administrator at the university is right that health care reform is going to cost the university $750,000 more per year to administer, so repeal would be “good.” Perhaps marriage equality is not “good” because it is against the will of God. Perhaps it is “good” that the Scalia Court has given Karl Rove permission to buy elections and save the nation from the Islamic/Communist/Socialist conspiracy.

My melancholia is “less than fully disabling and less severe than complete madness. . .  a gloomy, pensive ‘temper.’” My melancholia is, I fear, somewhat undifferentiated.

And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing else but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, “Let the king live for ever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city. . . lies waste. . . –Nehemiah 2:2-3 (RSV)

Why should not my face be sad when the city lies waste? This is nothing but a sadness of the heart. A sadness of a heart—to intuit that our pleasant vices do make “instruments to plague us”—to sense that hope without an object cannot live—to  understand that I walk a lonely road and the “frightful fiend” treads close behind.

In my incipient understanding that things are not as I hope they might be, I might say with Viktor Frankenstein, “If I were engaged in any high undertaking or design, fraught with extensive utility to my fellow-creatures, then could I live to fulfill it.”

I am not being morose. Reflective. Robert Walton, ostensibly Frankenstein’s double, narrator of the novel, says, “Do I not deserve to accomplish some great purpose?” The answer in the novel is, of course, “No.” Like Walton—like Frankenstein, whose grand accomplishment is a horror—I simply have to admit that the chances are slim that anything I do, say, or write can ever have any effect for the “good.”

The source of my melancholia is that I do not know what the “good” is. I may know my “good,” but that may not be universally “good.”

Ancient Mariner

Ancient Mariner

Philip Kitcher, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, says not knowing how to know what the “good” comprises is intolerable.


Liberal democratic theory is largely dedicated to exploring how people with very different conceptions of what is valuable—divergent attitudes towards the ways in which worthwhile human lives should be structured—can find ways to agree on common policies and institutions. . . the current state of American democracy is one in which the differences in values are [coupled with different conceptions of knowledge and evidence]. That yields a serious problem.


[If] a democratic society consists of two groups, diverging not only in their values but also in their conceptions of knowledge and evidence. . . [and if issues] arise for this society in which each group makes its decision according to what it takes as the facts, and if the differing epistemic standards yield incompatible factual determinations, how will the policy dispute be resolved? Whoever loses will be committed to seeing the outcome as based in a faulty conception of the facts. . . . That might be tolerable if the consequences of the rival policies were not at odds on any fundamental moral matter, but it is quite intolerable when human issues of the greatest seriousness are at stake. (5)

Ecclesiastes 7:3-4
[Melancholy] is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad. . . The heart of the wise is in the house of [melancholy]; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
(1) Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Intr. Diane Johnson. New York: Bantam Books, 2003. Chapter 5, p.45.
(2) Quiller-Couch, Arthur Thomas, Sir. The Oxford Book of English Verse. Oxford: Clarendon, 1919,, 1999. Web. 17 Oct. 2010.
(3) Radden, Jennifer. The Nature of Melancholy: from Aristotle to Kristeva. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. p. 5.
(4) Shelley, p. 202.
(5) Kitcher, Philip. “Darwin and Democracy.” Cross Currents 57.1 (2007): 18-37.



  1. […] Frankenstein, the movie (1974) or the musical (2007) have read Frankenstein (1818), the novel by Mary Shelley. My friend who can quote nearly the entirety of Young Frankenstein (movie or musical) with whom I […]



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