Reimagining a Classic

Reimagining a Classic

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What I found most interesting about Organs, Tissues, and Candy Games, the recent NYUAD student production created in collaboration with the Zoukak Theater Company from Lebanon, was its exploration of the ways in which the human body can be appropriated for purposes beyond its initial, native intent.

The play was structured as a kind of collage of ideas, or like a wheel with the idea of Frankenstein as the hub and all of the other ideas that interested the students becoming spokes for that wheel. So, for example, there was a meditation on the Frankenstein idea of re-appropriating organs and tissues and cells for the purpose of creating life where there was not life before. And then there was a lot of text around the idea of cloning. The played explored contemporary ideas about stem cell research and cloning, and then tied that to the idea of the creation of a monster. There was a lot of material about the intent, initially, to use human organs and cells to save people from disease, to elongate and perpetuate life, and the way that resulted in the creation of something monstrous.

So the Frankenstein monster in the play was not physically deformed. It didn’t start out monstrous, but became monstrous in its humanity. It was played by two actors who were dressed identically and very innocently: completely in white with white knee socks and little sneakers and little white shorts and little white polo shirts. They were these seemingly innocent children, a pair of cloned humans, who very cheerfully moved throughout the play while speaking of the most horribly monstrous ideas and taking delight in methods of violence toward other people, including their maker-father.

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The play as whole was framed by the idea of a corporation whose aim was to collect the organs and tissues and cells of young children in order to create an army of soldier children who could not be destroyed and who would take over and dominate the Earth. So there was a lot of language, both words and images, about innocence and the monstrosity of what happens to an innocent body or an innocent mind—when science intervenes in natural, biological processes. And there was also a lot of conversation in the play about the idea of science leading to progress versus the idea of science bringing about destruction, and how blurry the line between those two ideas can become.

There was a section in which Victor Frankenstein asks, “Why is it always the mad scientist?” Why is it that so many portrayals of the scientist in fiction show us this crazy guy who’s doing something terrible and evil, as opposed to doing research in an effort to better humanity and society and perpetuate life in some way? And then this Victor goes on and creates his monstrous child clone.

In addition to cloning, the play also made use of imagery related to cancer, especially the idea of the tumor, a growth in the body that is diseased, and our attempts to dispel it or at least perpetuate life despite it – and constantly failing. This idea was framed by the fact of Mary Shelley’s dying of a brain tumor. Ultimately, the entire of idea of the monstrosity of Frankenstein that we were watching play out onstage in various ways was presented as a product of the monstrosity in the author’s own brain, a deformity of thought that’s related to the tumor that she has.

There were other instances in which cancer is spoken about or plays a role in the characters’ lives. So the entire play was pervaded by this sense of being eaten alive from the inside: both in terms of the sense of the monstrosity and propensity for violence that lies buried within humanity and also organically, physically, this idea of cells kind of running amok and eating the body from the inside.

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One of the more important things to me in watching the piece was something that Rubén Polendo pointed out right before the final dress rehearsal, was that if you come into it looking for the narrative line of the story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, you are going to be confused and frustrated and disappointed.

That’s not what Organs, Tissues, and Candy Games was going to be. Instead, it was using Frankenstein as a lens through which to talk about a number of troubling things. And I think the play was really successful in reimagining a classic story and thinking about how a story like Frankenstein be brought into a contemporary conversations about science and body, about violence, and about the psychological monstrosity that so easily develops in children.

 

[Photos from Organs, Tissues, and Candy Games courtesy of the NYUAD Theater Program.]

Frankenstein in Baghdad

Frankenstein in Baghdad

frankenstein-in-baghdad-coverI’m speaking about Frankenstein in Baghdad, a novel by Ahmed Saadawi, an Iraqi novelist who was born in Baghdad in 1973. This novel won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction earlier this year.

As its title suggests, the novel was inspired by Frankenstein, although it has a very different storyline and, of course, a regional twist. The Frankenstein-character in the novel is, appropriately enough, an antiques dealer, named Hadi al-Attag. When his assistant dies in a car bombing in Baghdad, Hadi goes to retrieve the body from the morgue. But he can’t find the complete corpse; none of the corpses there are whole. A morgue employee tells him casually, “Just pick any body parts you want and make your own corpse.” So . . . that’s what he does.

He picks some body parts, goes back to his house, and assembles them. A nose is missing. He goes out and looks for another nose, from another car bombing site, and he sews it to the face. But he’s not sure what to do with the body he has reconstructed. He wants to give his friend a decent burial, so he waits for an opportunity to bury that body that he has just put together.

Meanwhile, he goes out to buy his lunch and is wounded in yet another car bombing. By the time he gets back to his house from the hospital, the corpse, which he refers to as Ashisma (the “What’s-its-name”), has disappeared. What has happened is that the corpse has become inhabited by the soul of the guard at the hotel where the most recent explosion took place, and it has gone off.

Where has it gone in this neighborhood of old decrepit houses? Next door, to another old, dilapidated house, in which an old Christian lady is living. She has failing eyesight, and her two daughters have emigrated from Iraq, one to the United States, the other to Australia. Her only son had died, a fact that she cannot bring herself to accept. So when Ashisma wanders into the house, she believes that that’s her son who has come back. She takes care of him. She feeds him. She puts him to sleep in her son’s old room.

And now Ashisma is on a mission. He wants to take revenge on everybody that killed a person whose body parts have now been incorporated into him. It starts out as a sort of mission to see that justice is done, but something strange begins to happen: every time Ashisma kills somebody who murdered a part of him, that part falls off and begins to rot. So for example, he after one revenge killing, his left hand falls off, and he needs to replace that left hand in order to be able to continue with his mission. He has to find a left hand from a guilty person, another terrorist or murderer. As he goes on killing, he loses other parts: a right eye or left eye or a leg.

You can see where this is going: eventually, he runs out of criminals to supply him with the fresh body parts that he needs in order to go on. So then he begins to target innocent people on the street.

Ashisma thus becomes a metaphor for a cycle of revenge that keeps perpetuating itself without any end in sight. What begins with a righteous desire to win justice for victims in the lawlessness of post-2003 Iraq soon degenerates into criminality as innocence and guilt become indistinguishable from one another, like patched and continuously repatched body of Ashisma, who goes on spreading terror in the city. In Saadawi’s novel, the Frankenstein myth is transformed into a powerful indictment of a cycle of violence that has taken a life of its own.

Click here to read a profile of Saadawi in The National.

[Image source: arabicfiction.org]

Form, Deformity, and Frankenstein‘s Predecessors

Form, Deformity, and Frankenstein‘s Predecessors

My brief talk today comes out of some of the thinking that I’ve been doing about monsters — and bodies described as monstrous — in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature. Some of the most intriguing material from this period takes the form of broadsides or pamphlets that are printed with stories of what the texts call “monstrous births.” These accounts are often accompanied by woodcuts, printed images that represent the features of the “strange” body the text describes.

For example, in the 1617 pamphlet, A Wonder Woorth the Reading, the narrator describes “a Female child, with a halfe forehead,” whose mouth and eyes are “miraculously placed in the sayd halfe forhead neere vpon the breast,” the eyes “being very bigg staring and very firy red.” The result, the narrator explains, is that the sight of this “monstrous” body “greatly terrifyed the midwife and all that were present” and everyone was repelled by the “hideous and fearefull forme” (sig. A3v).

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Other texts similarly describe a deformed body and the fear it inspires in spectators as they discuss how to interpret the features of this body—as you can see in this image from a broadside printed in 1568, entitled “The forme and shape of a Monstrous Child.”

 

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This image, from a pamphlet entitled Strange Newes out of Kent published in 1609, appears on both the title page and within the body of the text. The subtitle proclaims that this “Newes” is “of a Monstrous and misshapen Child,” and along with details of the date and place of birth, the title page proclaims: “the like (for strangeness) hath never beene seene.”

These texts describe a deformed and monstrous body as a singularity, a rare event that, in the Renaissance, compels wonder and interpretation as a divine portent. Later, in the 18th century, and into the 19th century (and, perhaps, persisting today), will follow ideas of bodily anomalies as physical differences that can be classified and even “corrected.”

The idea of deformity — that the body departs from the form of a normal human body — depends upon perception. If something (a body, an object, a painting) is described as deformed, it is different from the form that you expect, even if you couldn’t specify in advance exactly what you expected to encounter.

At its most conceptual level, the critic Henry Turner writes, “‘Form’ marks a point of convergence between three distinct moments, the act of recognizing the mere being of a thing, as defined by its form, the act of judging the significance of a thing, as again defined by its form; and the act of coming to some kind of knowledge about that same thing—because one can only know what one can recognize and endow with significance” (582-3).

This judgment furthers the logic of perception: the monster is simultaneously seen, judged, and presumably known by departure from a human form. (Recall, for example, about that language from the pamphlet in which the body is described as “that hideous and fearful form.”) The woodcut, a visual representation, is a way of extending the spectatorship of deformity to a wider group of readers. A reader may not have seen this monster for herself at the moment of birth, but the printed version means she gets to encounter the body on her own terms.

What might these early modern examples of “strange” forms and visual representation suggest about Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein, written about two hundred years later, described as a “detested form” (67)? Or, as the creature himself puts it to his creator, Victor Frankenstein: “Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring after his own image. But my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid from its very resemblance” (88). This deformed creature is not born but made, and the creature’s deformity is a problem of comparison: resemblance to his creator’s humanity only increases the ugliness of his appearance.

The act of judging that deformity implies is why it matters, I think, in Shelley’s novel, that the creature can speak. His repeated cries, “but hear me,” “listen to me,” and “hear my tale” (67), are his attempts to impose another interpretation upon his form, so that he can ask for a “companion” who is “of the same species,” with the “same defects” (97). The novel’s insistence on the monster’s speech thus refuses the fantasy of the spectator’s gaze as safely one-sided, suggesting briefly that looking at the monster means the monster might be looking back at you.

Yet we get the monster’s story only after he temporarily blinkers Victor with his enormous hands. The only other conversation the creature can carry on at length is with De Lacy, who is blind and encounters him outside of a visual frame. When Walton, the novel’s narrator, sees the creature hovering over Frankenstein’s corpse, he looks at the monster and then can’t look directly at it again because “there was something so scaring and unearthly in its ugliness” (153).

The body identified as monstrous, therefore, pushes at the novel’s limit: the limit of sight. The novel foregrounds the tussle between horrified seeing and appalled refusing-to-see in the form of the narrative itself. Let us recall that Victor corrects Walton’s account, especially “giving the life and spirit to the conversations he held with his enemy,” so that the novel is not a “mutilated one” (146), a deformed story.

I would like to conclude by suggesting that when the novel insists on the importance of visual perception to judge the creature’s form—even when characters repeatedly look away from the monstrous shape that Victor Frankenstein animates—the narrative prompts and gestures to the range of representations beyond the literary, from films to theatrical productions. These representations, in the centuries that follow Shelley’s novel, continue to confront the questions: What does the creature look like? What do you see when you are seeing the monster, and what do you want to see?

Citations / Further Reading

Crawford, Julie. Marvelous Protestantism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Cohen, Jeffrey J., ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Daston,Lorraine, and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature. New York: Zone Books, 2001.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Staring: How We Look. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein (1818), ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.

Turner, Henry S. “Lessons from Literature for the Historian of Science (and Vice Versa): Reflections on ‘Form'” ISIS (2010) 101: 578-589.

 

Katherine Schaap Williams is Assistant Professor of Literature at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Monstrosity and Feminism in Frankenstein

Monstrosity and Feminism in Frankenstein

I teach Frankenstein in a course that’s called Our Monsters, Ourselves and one of the perspectives that informs my teaching is feminism, which for some students is surprising – a student once said to me, “You’re a feminist? But you’re so calm,” as if somehow, those two things are mutually exclusive.

Over the years I’ve noticed that when talk about feminist politics or gender roles in literature classes, students often assume that discussions of gender are always only about women. It’s as if by default “gender” must refer only to women because it’s only for women that “gender” is a problem.

When I want to talk about a text from a feminist perspectives, however, frequently students will say that this or that text can’t be feminist, because they’re looking at the text for role models. For example, they’re looking for the female characters in a novel to be strong and noble and good and successful and so forth. But “role models” don’t necessarily make a text feminist, and that’s one of the ways that I use Frankenstein in class: to show that the absence of something can nonetheless be something.


 

NPG 1235; Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Richard Rothwell

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
by Richard Rothwell
oil on canvas, exhibited 1840
29 in. x 24 in. (737 mm x 610 mm)
Bequeathed by the sitter’s daughter-in-law, Jane, Lady Shelley, 1899
Primary Collection, 
NPG 1235. Used by permission.


My teaching of Frankenstein is indebted to the work of the literary scholar Anne Mellor, who argues that Frankenstein is, in fact, a feminist novel. Students, however, often seem to be perplexed by this idea. They say: “But there are no major women characters. Elizabeth, the fiancée of Victor Frankenstein is a marginal character. She’s not very important. So how can it be feminist? Because there are no women in the novel, really.” The students are correct: women are, in some ways, peripheral to the novel’s main plot lines. And yet at the same time, of course, women are central to the text precisely because they’re not there.

As an example of this absence/presence idea, we look at the passage when Frankenstein, in response to the creature’s request, has begun to make the creature a female companion. The creature, you’ll remember, has come to Victor and said, “You need to make me a companion in my image– like me. And then we’ll go off to South America and live in the wilderness and eat nuts and berries. And we’ll be happy forever,” which is an interesting picture of a marriage. (But that’s not my point here today.)

As Frankenstein begins the process of creating the female monster, he imagines what will happen when this female comes into being:

She who, in all probability, was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might h he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation by being deserted by one of his own species.

What Victor fears is that the female monster, were she to be created, would have autonomy, that she would decide, “I don’t want to be part of this bargain. I don’t like this other creature I’m supposed to be a companion with. I hate him.” In other words, he’s afraid that she might have her own way of thinking. Female autonomy, in Victor’s eyes, becomes a terrible threat.

The second thing he’s afraid of, of course, is that “one of the first results of those sympathies for which the dæmon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.” So the second problem with the female monster is that the female monster and the male monster might breed and create more monsters.

And, of course, Frankenstein has been interested in creating things all by himself, with no women involved whatsoever. So it’s either that the woman monster will reject the creature’s plan for her and think on her own or that she will decide to breed. Both of those prospects are terrifying. And so he destroys this almost-finished female creature, much to the dismay of the original creature, who vows vengeance on Victor because Victor has doomed him to a life of loneliness and despair.

The absence of the female monster, and the chain of events triggered by her absence, helps me to talk with my students about how that absence matters. And then we talk about the function of this absence –and the absence of the other women in the novel (for instance, the mothers in this novel are all dead; Elizabeth, Victor’s long-suffering fiancée has very little influence on Victor, or on the plot). What happens as a result of trying to sidestep the female part of creation or propagation? What happens when you marginalize women, when you attempt to keep women on the sidelines?

When we think about it that way, the novel helps students to start to think about the fact that to be “feminist,” doesn’t necessarily have to be about the creation of . . . say, Wonder Woman. Feminist politics can exist in the absence of any kind of “role model.” The feminist politics of Shelley’s novel exists in the critique of Frankenstein’s decisions to create a masculine mode of reproduction: he creates the male creature, he creates and then uncreates the female creature. It’s that absence that creates the monstrosity that ultimately undoes Frankenstein.

Thinking about the absence of women in this fashion helps us to see that the novel is not necessarily about finding answers but is about asking different sorts of questions: about the nature of society, about the nature of creation, about the power of the environment to shape character, about the relationships between men and women, individuals and society.

[Quotations in the text refer to the 1818 version of the novel. Image source: National Portrait Gallery, London.]

Deborah Williams is Clinical Professor of Literature at NYU Abu Dhabi and a member of the Liberal Studies faculty at NYU in New York.

Frankenstein and Technophobia

Frankenstein and Technophobia

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Let’s begin with a word that isn’t in either the 1818 or the 1831 texts of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: robot. In fact, the word robot wasn’t coined until 1921, when it first appeared in the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by the Czech playwright, Karel Čapek. The word was actually coined by Čapek’s brother, Josef., and it comes from the Czech word robota, which means “servitude” or “forced labor.” R.U.R. is an allegorical play that depicts a company whose founder is named Rossum, from the Czech, rosum, which means “reason.” He’s discovered how to make artificial persons. His nephew realizes, afterwards, that by simplifying his uncle’s process and stripping the artificial persons of feelings and other unnecessary attributes, he can create the perfect worker, the robot.

Rossum’s robots are much in demand, but eventually, predictably, they are used as mercenaries with devastating results. When the wife of the company’s director secretly has one of its scientists enable the robots to transcend some of their limitations and to develop emotions, because she feels sorry for them, disaster ensues. The robots revolt.

At the conclusion of the play, all the human beings but one, a worker, are killed. The play ends when two robots, one male and one female, develop fully-fledged emotions. And it’s they who will repopulate the Earth with a new race of super beings.

The term robot is thus linked, from its very inception, to the idea that technology will destroy its creators if it isn’t used properly and responsibly. The play was a big success in Prague in 1921, and it opened opened the following year in London, where it sparked debates and commentary from prominent intellectuals including George Bernard Shaw.

Critics quickly recognized that one of Čapek’s key sources was Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, which has the subtitle, “The Modern Prometheus,” recognizing that the Prometheus myth is all about technological progress. Prometheus, we might remember, essentially creates human civilization by bringing technology from heaven to earth. That technology is called fire.

Shelley made a connection between the Prometheus myth and her era’s increasing faith in scientific and technological progress. Her novel is actually very steeped in some of the latest debates about what constitutes life. It’s fascinated by the new science of animism and by experiments with electricity. Her modern Prometheus is deluded by his mastery of technology into thinking he’s a god.

I must confess that it wasn’t Shelley’s image of the monster that I grew up with. I grew up with this one:

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It’s the monster created by Boris Karloff and make-up artist Jack Pierce in the 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein directed by James Whale. It’s this image of Frankenstein’s monster — with the flattop head and the prominent forehead scar — that has become an icon of global popular culture, rather than the creature that Shelley describes.

Actually, if I’m being honest, it was exactly Karloff’s monster that I grew up with, but rather this one:

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That’s right: Herman Munster, played by Fred Gwynne, in the 1960s sitcom about American suburban life called The Munsters. By the time the show premiered on television in 1964, Karloff’s Frankenstein was firmly established in American popular culture.

What makes Karloff’s monster so horrifying, I believe, isn’t the flat head, or the scar, or the monstrous stature, but rather the implantation of metal bolts into his neck as a result of the creation process. It’s the bolts that make him seem inhuman. Karloff’s monster is an early version of that ubiquitous what science fiction character, the cyborg.

Let’s step back and remember how Mary Shelley describes the scientific breakthrough that her scientist, Victor Frankenstein, makes:

After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter. … What had been the study and desire of the wisest men since the creation of the world, was now within my grasp.

What you won’t find in Shelley’s novel is a description of how the animation of lifeless matter is actually achieved. Victor Frankenstein tells the novel’s narrator, Walton, who is also a seeker after forbidden knowledge:

I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be: listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject. I will not lead you on, unguarded and ardent as I then was, to your destruction and infallible misery.

In short, Victor tells Walton and us, he doesn’t want anybody else to make the same mistakes that he’s made. So he deliberately won’t tell us how he’s done it. In fact, the description of the creation of the monster is simply this:

It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

The 1931 film adaptation isn’t so reticent about the process of bringing the monster to life. It takes some words that constitute a metaphor in Shelley’s novel — the “spark of being” — spark, and makes it literal. The dramatization of what occurs in Frankenstein’s laboratory retains not only the “spark” but the rain from Shelley’s description, but it calls attention to the role that’s played by machines, Tesla coils, lightning, and electricity.

 

The film makes it quite clear that it’s science and technology that enables this Victor Frankenstein to become God. So if R.U.R. was influenced by Shelley’s novel, I think this film was, in turn, influenced by R.U.R. In fact, in the sequel to this film, which was called The Bride of Frankenstein, we have Victor Frankenstein saying, “I created a man. And who knows? In time, I could’ve trained him to do my will. I could have bred a race.” In other words, that Victor becomes interested in precisely the things that interest the scientists in R.U.R.

Kids who pretend to be Frankenstein’s monster during Halloween tend to walk stiff-legged, with arms held out. It wasn’t Boris Karloff who gave the monster this robotic gait, however: somewhat ironically, it was Bela Lugosi. After originating the role of Dracula in Universal’s 1931 film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, Lugosi had assumed that he would have the starring role in the studio’s next horror picture, but he ultimately decided that the role of the monster in Whale’s film adaptation was too limited to make sufficient use of his talents. Twelve years later, he would finally play the role in the fourth Frankenstein sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. Blinded by a botched brain transfusion in the previous film, Lugosi’s monster walks with arms outstretched, with the same kind of stiffness seen in early film and television representations of robots (see for example Robby the Robot in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet).

Universal made lots of movies about monsters: in addition to Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, the studio gave us the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, and the Phantom of the Opera. But that one that really took hold in American popular culture and then global popular culture was the monster with the bolts in his neck, the technological monstrosity. This image of the monster links Mary Shelley’s novel to a post-industrial-age fear of technology, to the fear of what happens when the tools that we create get out of our control.

All of this leads me to a final question. If Frankenstein has been popular because of its dramatization of technophobia, why have we all recently become so obsessed with vampires and zombies? What are we afraid of now?

 

Cyrus R. K. Patell is Associate Professor of Literature at NYU Abu Dhabi and Associate Professor of English at NYU.

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