Posted by: Harold Knight | 05/17/2011

Frankenstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Breast Cancer




Not many people who love Frankenstein (1974) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the movies, and Young 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 saw the musical a few months ago has never read the novel.

Well, never mind. I use it (as I have written here before) as the centerpiece of my first-year Written English course. Everyone knows the story: mad scientist creates living being from scraps of dead people, and creature wreaks mayhem. Misconceptions abound about the story. My students think “Frankenstein” is the creature’s 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 important in Shelley’s story-telling.

In the novel, Victor Frankenstein tells Robert Walton (another scientist, perhaps not quite so mad) the story of his discovery as a moment of personal triumph when

. . . a sudden light broke in upon me. . . I was surprised, that among so many men of genius who had directed their inquiries towards the same science, that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret.

Remember, I am not recording the vision of a madman. . .  I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.

The astonishment which I had at first experienced on this discovery soon gave place to delight and rapture. . . What had been the study and desires of the wisest men since the creation of the world was now within my grasp.

In my presentation of the novel to my classes, I spend an entire class period on the words, “I alone.”

In the summer of 1968 I was in New York and spent several days going to the theater. One of the plays I saw was Heinar Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It had been 14 years since the despicable hearings which resulted in the revocation of Oppenheimer’s “security clearance.” I was only nine when that happened and was unaware of the Red Scare. It’s more bizarre than bizarre that the country for whom Oppenheimer led the development of the weapon that makes it think even today it is master of the universe, a scant nine years after that development, accused him of treason. Fortunately the scared-of-the-Reds people were not able to silence him.

I heard mention of Oppenheimer on the radio not too long ago; the wag was who said his name prompted me to look him up again. I found a portion of his speech to his fellow scientists at the end of the mission to develop the atomic bomb.  He said, in part, that scientists

. . . have no hope at all if we yield in our belief in the value of science, in the good it can be to the world to know about reality, about nature. . . if we lose our faith in this we stop being scientists. . . But there is another thing; we are not only scientists; we are men, too. We cannot forget our dependence on our fellow men. I mean not only our material dependence, without which no science is possible, and without which we could not work; I mean also our deep moral dependence, in that the value of science must lie in the world of men, that all our roots lie there (1).

No wonder Oppenheimer was pilloried by the far-right establishment. The very idea. We have a “dependence on humankind. . . a deep moral dependence.”

That any scientist who devotes her life to searching for a cure for breast cancer is fully aware of her “deep moral dependence” on humanity seems so obvious one ought not even say so. However, I must remind myself of that because I am so skeptical about the ulterior motives of both medical science and medical care in this country. I believe that “health care industry” is an oxymoron.

My sister pays over $800 per month for health insurance.

The point is to make a difference in the world, to cast our lot for some ways of life and not others. To do that, one must be in the action, be finite and dirty, not transcendent and clean (2).

My sister has breast cancer. She is in the interim between her mastectomy and the beginning of her chemotherapy.

My anger at the universe—yes, at God, if such an entity exists—for the reality of my sister’s breast cancer—the breast cancer of every woman who suffers—has made me even more skeptical than I have been for many years that the “health care industry” understands its “deep moral dependence” not only on mankind but on the “finite and dirty” universe from which it makes its trillions. One can imagine a medical insurance executive thinking that

. . . the astonishment which I had at first experienced on this discovery soon gave place to delight and rapture. . . What had been the study and desires of the wisest men since the creation of the world was now within my grasp. . .

because he understands that, while he cannot create life, he can become fabulously wealthy controlling the science that sustains life.

“I alone.”

The American “health care industry” is, of course, part of “our culture [that] tends to view bodies as parts rather than a whole” (3). This view is most apparent in the sexualization of women. Women are the subjects of

advertisements sexualizing every part of ourselves. This sexualization and commercialization surely influences the world of health care. The way breast cancer is evaluated, experienced, and treated mirrors our cultural values (4).

Our cultural values, simply put, demean women who suffer from breast cancer. That is hardly news or a radical statement. But I—probably like nearly everyone—had “transcendent and clean” anger about it until I saw my sister’s treatment.

American medicine takes essentially an instrumental view of the body: the body as a car. . . Doctors are mechanics whose primary goal is to ensure that the functions are performed properly. The primary function of the body is reproduction—hence the ease with which a woman’s reproductive organs are discarded once the function has been performed (5).

“The point is to make a difference in the world,” to understand the “deep moral dependence” of medical science.
(1) Quoted in Hart, Curtis W. Hart. “J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Faith Development Portrait.” Journal of Religion and Health 47 (2008):118–128.
(2) Haraway, Donna. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. Female Man_Meets_Oncomouse. New York and London: Routledge, 1997. Quoted in Eide, Megan and Ann Milliken Pederson. “God, Disease, and Spiritual Dilemmas: Reading the Lives of Women with Breast Cancer.” Zygon 44.1 (March 2009).
(3) Eide and Pederson, ibid.
(4) Eide and Pederson, ibid.
(5) Gessen, Masha. Blood Matters: From Inherited Illness to Designer Babies, How the World and I Found Ourselves in the Future of the Gene. Orlando, Fl.: Harcourt, 2008; quoted in Eide and Pederson.


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