"When falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness? I feel as if I were walking on the edge of a precipice, towards which thousands are crowding and endeavouring to plunge me into the abyss.” —English novelist Mary Shelley (1797-1851), Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818)
A Wall Street Journal article by Ed Finn and David H. Guston reminded me that 200 years ago this month, Frankenstein made an inauspicious beginning—released anonymously by a little-known British publishing house that, when sales languished, discounted the title.
That wasn’t the only indignity faced by 21-year-old author Mary Shelley, who, when sales finally began to climb and gossip soon spread about its possible author, had to endure sexist speculation that a mere woman couldn’t have produced such an original work without high-powered help—either husband Percy Bysshe Shelley.
In their provocative essay, Finn and Guston observe that, only now, through genetic engineering, has the central premise of the novel—the unintended, horrifying consequences of scientific creation of life—finally come to the fore.
For all its vast, often take-for-granted, influence on science-fiction and horror literature (and, after the 1931 big-screen adaptation starring Boris Karloff, cinema), Frankenstein still has the capacity to jolt and shock, much like Victor’s obsessive electromagnetic experimentation.
Today’s “Quote” is one example. It’s placed in the middle of dialogue by Elizabeth, Victor’s fiancée, a character, in her sweet innocence, often regarded as a drip.
But her statement, shot through with irony (she has no idea that Victor is responsible for creating the monster now marauding through the countryside), made me sit up and take notice when I first encountered the words.
In the petri dish of politics, American voters conducted their own mad experiment: electing to the Oval Office—heck, entrusting responsibility for the fate of mankind—not only someone neither political nor national-security experience, but a man who, throughout his adult life, has never evinced the slightest regard for the truth.
After walking away, for an extended period, from observing politics, commentator Andrew Sullivan emerged to gasp at Donald Trump’s emergence as a Presidential candidate. “I was happy doing that and was hoping to continue, when this Grendel started stirring in the forest,” he explained in an interview with The New York Times. “You could almost see the coffee vibrate on the table, as this creature came out of the swamp.”
That analogy is close, but not quite comparable to what we see now. Grendel, you see, implies the existence of a Beowulf, a solitary hero who will slay him. No such personage appears remotely on the horizon for us.
In the first third of the last century, most of Europe fell under the sway of a liar of staggering proportions who did indeed lead the continent into an abyss of violence and shame. Nobody ever dreamed that such a monster could emerge on our shores. But why should we think we are so different from everyone else?