Posted by: Harold Knight | 02/20/2011

A Spiritual Monster or a Christ-Haunted Freak?

Frankenstein.

Students in my classes read and write about Frankenstein as part of the semester’s project. They write about Flannery O’Connor’s work (both fiction and non-fiction), and the Hitchcock film Rope. They write about the murder case Leopold and Loeb murder case. All of this to think about—and perhaps to define for themselves—what the “grotesque” comprises.

We begin with O’Connor’s deceptively charming essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” The most important aspect of the grotesque for O’Connor is mystery grounded in hard-nosed reality. If a writer, she says, understands that our life is at its core mysterious

then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery. . . (1).

At the same time she insists

. . . that this kind of writer, because his interest is predominantly in mystery, is [not] able in any sense to slight the concrete. Fiction begins where human knowledge begins–with the senses–and every fiction writer is bound by this fundamental aspect of his medium (2).

O’Connor insists Southern writers are especially adept at writing grotesque literature because they are able to recognize a “freak” when they see one, and because the South is “Christ-haunted.” O’Connor was an important Roman Catholic writer on the arts; her stories, she said, are most often about characters either accepting or rejecting “grace.” Christ-haunted freaks?

For all of her writing on “spiritual” matters, it is interesting to note that not once does she use the word “spirituality” in her essays. I suppose that’s to be expected because she was one of those benighted persons for whom organized religion—Roman Catholicism, no less—never became an obstacle to the life of her spirit because it was based in reality. She was not merely “Christ-haunted.”

Victor Frankenstein.

Hubris or presumption, in the sense of comparing one’s own capacities with those of the divine creator, is an issue deeply rooted in the peculiarities of Christian theology. If the divine creator creates humans in his own image, as Genesis 1:27 says, then human imitation of the creator’s creation, including the comparison of divine and human capacities, is the natural consequence (3).

I challenge my students to determine how much of Victor Frankenstein’s work in creating his Monster is hubris and how much is a genuine interest in the progress of humankind’s knowledge of the world in which we live. I assign Shummer’s article because he makes clear the Medieval debate between two interpretations of the mad scientist—the alchemist, Frankenstein’s first scientific love. Some writers

. . . argued in favour of a spiritual alchemy based on morality or religion, or they even reformulated alchemy in pure terms of the Christian doctrine. . . In this context. . . the cheating alchemist only helps point out the distinction between true and wrong alchemy. . .  Whereas the true alchemy is the Christian belief system or the search for God, the wrong alchemy is modern science or the search for scientific knowledge (4).

As part of our class discussion, I incorporate snippets of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty as summarized by Louis Groarke who says that Mills’ philosophy of freedom as it is understood today

. . . has come down to this: you are free to do as you will as long as you don’t impose your values on anyone else. This remains a hopeless, contradictory and ambiguous aspiration, but it has been repeated so often that it now has the familiar ring of truth. On this account, freedom means unfettered individual choice (5).

The question I try to raise is whether or not (and if so, how?) Frankenstein’s “freedom” imposes his values on anyone else, and what is the (painfully obvious) result of that imposition. I realize that bringing Mill into a discussion of Frankenstein is problematic. However, I’m interested as much in challenging my students to think about the consequences of Victor Frankenstein’s actions (hubris?)—and whether or not his actions are grotesque—as about the implications for Western science of Mary Shelley’s writing.

I suppose my organization of materials for my classes verges on the moralistic. However, I want the students to look at Victor Frankenstein in light of Groarke’s (conservative Roman Catholic) view that

To insist on negative liberty is, in effect, to demand that society leave me alone, so that I may pursue my own self-chosen purposes. To insist on amoral autonomy is to hold up as an ideal people who possess the wherewithal to realize their own ends.  . . I insist that society remove obstacles to the realization of my goals. . . [and] I myself remove obstacles to the achievement of such goals. . . freedom is understood as a non-interference that facilitates the successful exercise of personal choice (6).

And so back to Schummer’s “hubris.” Is to insist that “society leave me alone, so that I may pursue my own self-chosen purposes” freedom or hubris?

I move quickly and easily to my own struggle to find freedom. I imagine a kind of freedom for myself that

begins, not with any individual left to their own devices, not with someone who experiences unqualified self-satisfaction. . . [but] with a flourishing, fully-functioning, moral human being. This is the individual who is, in the fullest, the best, the most primary sense, free (7).

This kind of freedom would not be primarily, for me, the freedom to reject—to reject such ideas as organized religion (which in most respects I have). I don’t think of religion as

. . .  simply as a degraded form of “spirituality” . . . [that] on the individual level results in totally privatized religion. . . supermodel Cindy Crawford has given [a] succinct statement of religious privatism: “I’m religious but in my own personal way. I always say that I have a Cindy Crawford religion — it’s my own” (Redbook, September 1992) (8).

With Flannery O’Connor (I’m not equating myself with O’Connor), I see what is on the surface only as it leads me through it into an experience of mystery. I know about mystery. But I want to avoid “hubris or presumption, in the sense of comparing one’s own capacities with those of the divine creator,” if the creator is.

I’m not simply looking for a replacement for religion. I want to know how to live with mystery. With O’Connor, and the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing and Brother Lawrence and St. John of the Cross I avoid using the term “spirituality” because it means nothing, except in the Cindy Crawford sense. I know about mystery, but spirituality is too vague. It seems to be a cop out to me—an avoidance of the hard questions. Or perhaps “. . . an unconscious example of hubris:  those who are ‘spiritual’ are somehow intellectually and morally superior to the stupid, naïve, and sinful fools populating the pews” (9).

Victor Frankenstein is intellectually and morally superior to the stupid, the naïve and the sinful. He certainly is not free, and the great mystery of his life is his refusal to let go his hubris.  Perhaps he is a freak.
__________________________
(1) O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” In her Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Schummer, Joachim. “Historical Roots of the “Mad Scientist”: Chemists in Nineteenth-century Literature.” AMBIX 53.2 (2006): 99-127.
(4) ibid.
(5) Groarke, Louis. “What Is Freedom? Why Christianity and Theoretical Liberalism Cannot Be Reconciled.” Heythrop Journal 47.2 (2006): 257-274.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Yamane, David. “Secularization on Trial: In Defense of a Neosecularization Paradigm.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36.1 (1997): 109-122.
(9) A private email from a university colleague yesterday who has not yet given me permission publically to use her name. I will edit this when she does.

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Responses

  1. […] is the creature’s name. Even people who have read the novel (at least first-year call the creature the “monster” even though Frankenstein himself refers to his creation as the “creature.” I think this is […]

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  2. […] name. Even people who have read the novel (at least first-year English students) call the creature the “monster” even though Frankenstein himself refers to his creation as the “creature.” I think this is […]

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