6 (Lists) of 12 (Novels)

6 (Lists) of 12 (Novels)

6 (Lists) of 12 (Novels) 

 

The six lists of novels presented here are contributions to Electra Street’s “Twelve Things Project,” which collects suggestions for works, ideas, and events that should be included in a future dictionary of global cultural literacy. [Click here for more information about the project.]

We suggested that respondents might think of their lists as the basis for the syllabus of a course that they’d like to take or teach. (We arrived at the number twelve by taking the number of weeks in an NYUAD term — 14 — and subtracting two for introductory and concluding sessions and exams.) We weren’t asking for “desert island” lists of what our readers considered to be the 12 greatest novels of all time, merely a set of 12 books that they’d suggest every global citizen would profit from reading.

The lists below come from different segments of the NYUAD community: students, past and present faculty, and visitors. But any Electra Street reader is welcome to submit a list. If you’re inspired to contribute by what you read below, scroll down to the bottom of the page for a link to our submission form.

Aathma Niramala Dious
Junior, Literature and Creative Writing, NYUAD

Aadujeevitham [Goat Days] by Benyamin
Alif the Unseen  by G. Willow Wilson
The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Heroes of Olympus: Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Immortals of Meluha by Amish Tripati
The Krishna Key by Ashwin Sanghi
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Mahashewta by Sudha Murty
Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

Read More about this List

 

BURNING BOOKS: MAGIC, MYTH AND REBELLION

Aadujeevitham [Goat Days] by Benyamin

Based on real-life situations for migrants in the Gulf, Aadujeevitham (originally written in Malayalam) is the story of Najeeb who gets trapped by his employer in the middle of desert to take care of Goats. The book struck me hard, both from Benyamin’s sensitive yet honest writing of Najeeb’s situation and my place in the Gulf too.

Alif the Unseen  by G. Willow Wilson

Wilson mashes the modern world of computers with folklore in an intricate manner that made me finished the book in a day. It’s strong plot keeps you reading till the end

The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak

The book was momentous for me in two ways: the first being that Zuzak knew the voices of his characters so well I heard them in my head. While there are many books that deal with multiple perspectives of the Holocaust and Nazi regime of World War II, Zuzak uses the microcosm of Liesel’s life to really delve into questions of death, justice and knowledge. I read the book at high school when I wondered why learning and reading were so important. The Book Thief captures what I think of literature in the contemporary times: it’s magical, introspective about what we are, a constant throughout time—and absolutely necessary, especially in times of dissent.

After all, there is a reason they burn libraries first in wars.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I clearly have a fascination with books burning (the story behind, not the action itself). The book, titled after the temperature at which the book burns, follows Guy, a fireman, who doesn’t put out fires, but instead makes fires out of books, which are illegal in this speculative world. Interestingly, screen-based media seem to be okay.

Heroes of Olympus: Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan

Rick Riordan’s expansive Greek Mythology series is also a blast from my high school days. Mark of Athena is my favorite from the Heroes of Olympus series, which mediates between Greek and Roman Mythology. It focuses on my all-time favorite female main character Annabeth, who is the demigod daughter of Greek Goddess Athena as she is tasked with finding the statue of her mother. This book highlights a kind of warrior that is often ignored in adventure books: the scholar. The highlight of the book is that Annabeth uses her intelligence to get past her obstacles in the journey.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie 

I have a soft sport for Antigone, and Shamsie really elevates the Greek tragedy to meet the complicated structures of modern politics and how it seeps even to the family level. I really enjoy reworking of mythologies and old stories and Shamsie does justice to Antigone

Immortals of Meluha by Amish Tripati

The first in the Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripati, this novel reworks the mythology of the Hindu god of destruction, Shiva, into the human world of the city of Meluha, with the idea that the gods were first human. I admire well done reinterpretations of mythologies and this book has done exactly that, building up the nuances present in the folklore to the different hierarchies within the people of the city.

The Krishna Key by Ashwin Sanghi

Like Immortals of Meluha, Shanghi incorporates the mythology of Lord Krishna from The Mahabharata into a anthropological thriller where the main character Ravi has to solve the murder of his childhood. With placing the biography of Krishna alongside Ravi, the story is extended beyond the epic and goes into questions of history, lineage and how far do our myths follow us.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

Roy’s second book captures the tremors in the current landscape of contemporary India by combining characters from multiple parts of life with the most violent moments of Indian history. She is masterful in dealing with all the different politics of body, community, nation and world. 

Mahashewta by Sudha Murty 

Along with the Indian social hierarchies within families that woman face daily, the protagonist Anupama also deals with vitiligo creeping onto her skin and her life. Sudha Murthy’s strength is simplicity and this book, in its simple writing captures the characters and hierarchies they are a part off, with a bittersweet ending to match. Originally written in Kannada.

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

I have yet to find a book that matches up to Brandon Sanderson’s skill with world-building. The Mistborn series reworks old concepts of metal alchemy in a brand-new manner, while exploring autocratic governments, hidden evils and class structures.

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

 In this novella meant for children, a boy’s trip to his local library turns dark when he gets imprisoned by the old librarian of the library and has to navigate a maze with a sheep man. The absurdity of the story gripped me till the end.

Ria Golovakova
Senior, Literature and Creative Writing, NYUAD

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Read More about this List

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical novel, creating a poignant portrait of depression and the subtle changes in perception that accompany mood disorders. It is a tale of personal struggle from within and without, as Esther Greenwood is catalyzed into mental illness with work pressure at her internship and gender-based oppression from young men and others in her environment.

His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman

His Dark Materials is a British fantasy trilogy, vastly underrated and often dismissed as just children’s fantasy. This series was written, however, as an inverted retelling of Paradise Lost, reclaiming the Christian myth and presenting the original sin as humanity’s biggest accomplishment, not failing. These three books trace the adventures of the 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry across multiple parallel worlds as they wrestle with religious authorities and attempt to figure out the nature of mysterious Dust which seems to connect all the worlds together.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Bronte’s novel is one of the strongest examples of women’s literature in the Western tradition, centered on the unconventional romantic heroine Jane and the various stages of her life from childhood to becoming a governess at Thornfield Hall and meeting the mysterious Mr. Rochester. This book is filled with discussion on gender and class and the constraint that these categories impose, as well as the quiet anger that Jane feels as the victim of both classifications.

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje’s fictionalized memoir is to me the ultimate tropical book. It depicts heat as an important aspect of daily reality, and the backdrop to generations of family drama in colonial and post-colonial Colombo. The political and personal histories mix together to create a compelling portrait of collective trauma and the difficulties in attempting to heal from it as a prodigal son returning to native land.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

If nothing else, Lolita is an absolutely breathtaking portrait of a pathological mind. Nabokov takes his readers to the inner world of Humbert Humbert, a pedophile obsessed with his young adoptive daughter. This novel is a psychological masterpiece, portraying Humbert’s thinking empathetically yet not excusing or glorifying him. How can one rationalize clearly immoral behavior? What is a pedophile’s perception of himself and his desire? Nabokov provides a way into thought processes that most would never even attempt to conceptualize, and guides his readers out through the disarray that inevitably follows.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was a cultural phenomenon, defining the high fantasy genre and opening up multiple generations of readers to an epic tale of magic and good vs. evil. The original books continue to be masterpieces in their own right, despite having very successful movie adaptations.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Considered to be the best novel ever written by most Russian speakers (and many others) around the world, The Master and Margarita is a masterpiece of dark humor, political satire, and creativity in face of repression. Its main cast includes the devil, a talking black cat, a witch, and an author locked in a mental hospital, roaming around Stalin’s 1930s Moscow and causing disarray throughout many layers of its cultural elite. This narrative is interspersed with the story of Pontius Pilate conducting the trial and subsequent execution of Yeshua Ha-Nostri (known to us as Jesus of Nazareth). Religious and mythical allusions paint the portrait of political repression and uncertainty under the Stalinist regime, but revel in the freedom of the human mind.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood may be considered one of Murakami’s most conventional works, but it is also one of the most beautiful. It is a sincere story of nostalgia and loss, a coming of age in Tokyo in the 1960s and a tragic portrait of modern alienation and depression. How can we deal with losing loved ones to suicide, and how can we keep growing up if the dead never will? How much can others be helped and when does responsibility for them no longer lie with us? Where can we locate reasons for living on?

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

This 19th-century romance is a masterpiece of quick wit, entertaining banter, and brilliant characterization. Elizabeth Bennet remains one of fictions most intelligent and interesting heroines, and she is surrounded by a cast of strong personalities who play out the dramas of class and daily existence in 1813 England.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Shantaram is a fictionalized memoir about an Australian bank robber who escapes from a high security prison and flees to Bombay, where he lives in the slums, sets up a free health clinic, works in the Mumbai underworld, serves in the Arthur Road Prison, gets freed by the Afghan mafia, works in the black market currency exchange, and leaves to Afghanistan in the middle of Soviet-Afghan war to smuggle weapons. The nearly 1000 pages are a love letter to the chaos of Mumbai and the many, many people who inhabit it and the unconventional paths that many of them take.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s novel is one of the most successful explorations of beauty and how often it gets confounded with goodness, when in reality beautiful people can easily be immoral and evil. Philosophical themes get embellished with Wilde’s clever humor and beautiful writing, creating an overall very satisfying read. 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

“If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross”, the first chapter opens, introducing Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return. History is shown to be terrifying both if it is only experienced once and if it re-experienced infinitely. Yet, this grand setting is for a story about four simple people: the surgeon Tomas, his wife Tereza, his lover Sabina, and Sabina’s lover Franz. Through the dramas and infidelities of their lives Kundera manages to express the political instability of 1960-1970 Czechoslovakia and the uncertainty of living in the modern world. If every decision is to be relived in eternal return, how much responsibility does it bring with it?

Judith Graves Miller
Professor of French, NYU; former Dean of Arts and Humanities, NYUAD

Algerian Cavalcade by Assia Djebar
Beloved
by Toni Morrison
Combray (from In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevski
Dangerous Liaisons
by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
David Copperfield
by Charles Dickens
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee
Don Quijote
by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Home by Marilynne Robinson
Madame Bovary
by Gustave Flaubert
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Texaco
by Patrick Chamoiseau

Read More about this List

 

I have chosen novels that are, in almost all cases, beautifully written, where craft is apparent, where every sentence is a joy.  I think this is a list for people who also like to write, or at least to think about what writing can do.

Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes

This novel does a great parodic gloss on chivalric literature, makes wonderful fun of various pretensions, sets up the kind of partnership between a loopy master and a calculating servant (both, however, more complex than this) that we will see over and over in Western literature; and can be read in a myriad of ways that still make sense in the 21st. century.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García-Márquez

This novel offers wonder and imaginative leaps as  antidotes to the harshness of real world politics and  narrow emotional constructions.  It also offers a sharp critique of US imperialism.  And, like Quijote, it makes us laugh at characters and love them at the same time.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

It is more than a good idea to confront the most awful ghosts of history, here US history, and learn about resilience and compassion as well as about how vile human beings can be.  And all of this in the most beguiling prose style.

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee,

This novel is a reckoning, as is Beloved, of crimes based on the notion of race and how that has played out, in this case, in post-apartheid South Africa, but it is also about shaming and confused repentance.  It is not an easy novel to live with and it is good to live with that.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

This French classic, with its ironic sub-text and  telling metonymies, captures the transformation of French society (and hence European society) at the end of the 19th century.

Combray (from In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust

This novel, like Madame Bovary, also deals with transformative society, but stresses the remarkably varied subject positions of the narrator-main character, as he comes to grips with what it means to create a life through remembering it.

Home by Marilynne Robinson

This is an intimate novel, of small scope but very deep emotional valence.  It grapples with belief, with ethics, and with building community in a profoundly American setting.

Algerian Cavalcade by Assia Djebar

This is a complex, mosaic portrayal of the intersection of colonialism and erotic desire, combining with great resonance a coming-of-age story, documents from the French take-over of Algeria (1830), and personal narratives of women resistance fighters during the Algerian war for independence in the 1950s.

Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau

This is a charming weaving together of archives with stories from the post-colonial  French Antilles, communicating very successfully  people’s connection to the landscape and to oral and storytelling traditions.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

The more one reads Dickens, the more wonderful his novels become, melodrama slipping into irony, characterization becoming allegory.  The fantastical nature of the adventures, in light of our contemporary melodramatic imagination, tells us something about our own celebrity culture.

Crime and Punishment by Feodor Dostoeivsky

How do we slip into the mind of a killer?  How do we understand the slide into something resembling insanity?  How can we capture the contagious alienation of the modern subject?  Maybe this novel helps to move us to a place of understanding.

Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos

To have a taste of what epistolary writing can be ….   to plunge into a closed world coded very differently from our current times and, yet, capable of speaking to manipulation and power through desire.

Carlo Pizzati
Novelist and Journalist, Author of Mappillai: An Italian Son-in-Law in India (2018)

Candide by François-Marie Arouet known as Voltaire
The Castle by Franz Kafka
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Hunger by Knut Hamsun
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Old Masters: A Comedy by Thomas Bernhard
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Open City by Teju Cole
Pierre; or, The Ambiguities by Herman Melville
Rudin by Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Read More about this List

A CIRCULAR HISTORY OF GLOBAL CITIZENSHIP

This journey through the novels for the global citizen attempts to create a link, through 200 years of literature, between what seems local and is universal. It begins in the heart of Europe with some classics or lesser known classics of the canon and moves into a wider world, ending in an extremely timely topic, and into more specific and contemporary themes. It’s a list hooked in history but trying to prove its circularity.

[Editors’ Note: In contrast to the other lists, we present this one in chronological order of publication.]

Candide (1759) by François-Marie Arouet known as Voltaire

This novel is a marvelous satire of often unfounded optimism, a satirical work poking constant fun at Leibniz’s philosophy, which has become contemporary again as it provides a very enlightening view on the need to approach the evils of reality, not ignoring them. It seems like something a Gen-Z author could write about Millennials.

Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852) by Herman Melville

This is a pioneering novel of the psychological genre. The underlying themes of sexual confusion and transgression make it fresh and contemporary. It’s been argued that it anticipates Freud’s assertion that the sexual behavior of each human being transgresses “the standard of normality.” It is also a very early exploration of gender-fluid roles, exploring incest and open relationships. A romance satirizing romances, a philosophical work satirizing philosophers and philosophizing. Its exploration on moral relativism is an important subject of reflection for the global citizen.

Rudin (1856) by Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev

This work is an important reflection on the conflicting archetypes of Hamlet, the excessively introspective character, and Don Quixote, the impulsive, enthusiastic, and carefree personality ready for action even if meaningless and pointless. It’s a strong lesson in the necessity to find the right balance between these two drives in order to get a hold of yourself in life.

Hunger (1890) by Knut Hamsun

This is the dire story of a starving young man whose sense of reality is slipping into a delusional existence, with mental and physical decay described in detail. It is also an investigation on a character’s inability to pursue a career, to fit in, a very contemporary conundrum. The human mind is the main object of the novel, mixed with the challenges of urban civilization, symbolized by the complexity of metropolitan life.

The Castle (1926) by Franz Kafka

This masterpiece describes our modern relationship with unresponsive and irrational bureaucracy, the interaction of the individual with an obscure and arbitrary controlling system. It seems like an indispensable eye-opener on a very universal evil—an organization keeping you from attaining your goal, although its main purpose is to help you attain it. A useful lesson valid worldwide. 

One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez

The multi-generational story of the Buendía family is both about the inescapable repetition of history and the weight of the ghosts of the past, intertwined with the complexity of the present. An exploration of fatalism juxtaposed to idealism, which is often characterized as representative of Latin America but which, as the novel’s global success proves, is very universal.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) by Milan Kundera

This is an intriguing and refined love story but also a political tale describing not only marital intrigue and a reflection on belonging, on the Heimat (the homeland), and on nostalgia. The characters escape Soviet controlled Czechoslovakia to exile themselves in Zurich, but then are brought back by their own feelings to the Czech countryside. It’s an investigation of differences in cultures, in the contrast of an era, that of the Cold War, which is now surpassed, but which represents in a historical context, differences that are still alive in a wider global context.

Old Masters: A Comedy (1985) by Thomas Bernhard

These ruminations on the meaning of art, centering on an 82-year-old music critic who for 30 years sits on the same bench every other day in front of the same painting in a museum in Vienna for four hours at time, is an analysis of family ties, society, our relationship with the State, the importance and limits in our existence of arts and culture. It appears as a very Austrian-specific context, but it is a very global novel, with universal topics who all global citizens can and should relate to.

Kitchen (1988) by Banana Yoshimoto

This novel is way ahead of its time. Its most interesting character is a transgender woman, Eriko Tanabe, seen through the eyes of her son’s girlfriend, Mikage Sakurai, who is struggling with the loss of her grandmother, who was her last surviving relative. It is a tender story, exploring delicately the nuances of affection and of sentimental bonds. It reveals a particular Japanese sensitivity, but it reaches so deep that it touches a global nerve, which explains its international success.

Open City (2011) by Teju Cole

This walk through New York with a contemporary flaneur, Julius, a man completing his last year of psychiatry fellowship, has no plot. It doesn’t need it. The strength of this book is the investigation of our relationship to culture, music and art, through the capital of 20th century cosmopolitan identity.

The Vegetarian (English translation 2015) by Han Kang

This is the story of a generational conflict which is however ensconced in a very current setting, dealing with our relationship with vegetarianism, but also in a much wider conflict between sensibilities. It could be a simple plot of a homemaker who upsets family life by simply refusing to eat meat, but it’s a much more important work, digging deep into violent masculinity, traditional stubbornness, resistance to change, the normal versus the alternative, attempting to cohabit. It’s a powerful message from Korea.

Home Fire (2017) by Kamila Shamsie

A perfect novel for today’s global citizen, Home Fire re-imagines Sophocles’ Antigone unfolding among British Muslims in contemporary London, the Pasha family. In the end, it’s a masterful demonstration of the eternal recurrence of archetype. Instead of ancient Greece, we are in today’s London and our heroes and villains are British Pakistanis, a boy who joins the jihad in Syria and wants to come back, the attempt by his twin sister to safe him, the failure, the tragedy, the hypocrisy of power.

Jonathan Shannon
Professor of Anthropology, CUNY; Visiting Professor of Anthropology, NYUAD

1984 by George Orwell
Another Country by James Baldwin
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar
Zoli by Colm McCann

Read More about this List

Unbalancing Acts: Or, Our Messed Up World

It seems as if the common thread here would be stories of oppression, whether colonial, racial, sexual, ethnic, national, or combinations of these. Literature is not sociology (thank god!) but usually can offer readers deeper insights into the human condition, including our confrontation with evil and the corrupting influence of power and money. At the same time, fiction indicates points of resistance to these malevolent forces. Most of these works also struck me as beautiful in their craft, and especially in an era of banal 140 or 280 character missives, everyone should read beautiful, powerful writing. I tried to eschew classics and the list is dominated by male authors — a regrettable product of my own unbalanced reading lists. For example, I might have added Hanan al-Shaylh’s “Zahra’s Story” to the list to include a Middle Eastern woman’s voice about women’s oppression, war, and sexual violence (perhaps at risk of perpetuating stereotypes of the region?), or Ahdaf Soueif’s “The Map of Love.” But as much as I like them, I didn’t feel as if they merited the top 12 list…. I have no excuse for avoiding Virginia Woolf, or Patricia Highsmith (everyone should read crime fiction!). But there we have it.

Finally, an honorable mention to Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. As we confront climate change, who better than Barbara Kingsolver to guide us through the complex territory of a changing world with her close observations of nature — human nature included — and how the domestic and global collide in times of crisis. Kingsolver is an excellent observer of nature (as in her “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”), and her perspicacity has the potential to bring currency to the kind of urgency about climate change that scientists, for all their data and screaming, cannot seem to manage.

1984 by George Orwell

A useful guide to contemporary living. Add to Atwood’s “Handmaid” and you have an accurate understanding of what motivates the Trump and Pence era…

Another Country by James Baldwin

I had to stop reading Baldwin in 1992 because his work was so powerful a critique of racist American society it had me depressed. But it’s essential reading not only for (white) Americans but for anyone who wants to understand the contradictions of America concerning race, class, gender, sexuality, and all those other analytical “lenses” that are more powerfully understood through literature than through, say, literary criticism (just sayin’).

Beloved by Toni Morrison

This is an amazing work on many levels: beautiful language, at times searingly painful narrative. While it treats the enduring legacy of slavery in American society, it speaks to universal truths about the power of love and family. Heartbreaking but global citizens need their hearts broken. Often.

Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa

This is a powerful account of the atrocities and absurdities of the Syrian revolution. Among the greatest humanitarian tragedies if recent memory the Syrian revolution is at once the most documented and the least understood. Khalifa, who remains in Damascus, writes in a way that beings us “near” to Syrians — not in their shoes but with them as they experience the cruelties and banalities  of oppression — much like Djebar’s goal in her work. Like Rushdie, he shows how fiction can be very dangerous.

There are some excellent Syrian women writers who are braver than Khalifa, but they tend to produce memoirs (Samer Yazbek, The Crossing; A Woman in the Crossfire) that makes me wonder about genre and gender constraints.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

I wanted a war story on this list — global citizens need to think about war and its consequences — but I also think global citizens should be exposed to beauty. Ondaatje’s prose is gorgeous and he evokes through the interrelated stories of the principle characters whole worlds and histories. Don’t see the movie. Read the novel. 

I almost chose Romain Gary’s “La promesse de l’aube” but a) it’s mainly memoire, b) it would seem pretentious to suggest something in French, and c) there are likely better works on WWII (and I think it’s translated into English).

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

 From dystopian fiction to current events… this work more than many is prescient, frightening, and provocative. It was curious in 1985, a bit too close for comfort as a film in 1990, and thorough depressing today in an era of rampant Trumpian misogyny coupled in an unholy alliance with theocracy and populism.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

A delightfully imaginative take on partition to be read along with Habibi’s “Pessoptimist.” Rushie’s powers of evocation are genius, and like Habibi he addresses themes of colonial legacies and the dangers of nationalist zeal through a whimsical tale, this time based loosely on the Arabian Nights. Rushdie also, through his (infamous) work “Satanic Verses” (also whimsical, like “Midnight’s Children”) shows how literature can be a dangerous affair. Art matters.

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

Yes, another classic by a European male, but I recall this work as important to me as I struggled with conventions and the existential angst while attempting to create a meaningful life in a meaningless world. OK, I was 22 and living in Paris, so it went with the location. But the novel endures in my imagination. Some might choose Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” but this is a more compact treatment. So at a minimum more portable …

The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi

I might have chosen a novel that treats the human side of the tragedy of Palestine that is rarely aired, such as Ghasan Kanafani’s “Return to Haifa,” but this work is an equally intense though whimsical and satirical response to occupation and longing in Palestine. Habibi’s “pessoptimism” – a mix of pessimism and optimism — speaks to broader themes of displacement and memory, and is also one of the first science fictions works in Arabic since it deals with aliens as well. It also helps readers unfamiliar with the contradictions of the conflict and the history of white settler colonialism at once see why Palestinians will not forget (or be quiet; Lan Nasmat! ) and how these stories might illuminate others on the world stage today. There are many such stories, often far more overtly political, but this one offers a more nuanced entry into engagement with the loss of occupation.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

This well-known work reveals how European colonialism affected indigenous communities in Africa. It’s of course a staple in world lit and even cultural anthropology classes, and for good reason: well-written, engaging, and critical while not entirely succumbing to a naive embrace of nativism. It speaks back to empire with nuance.

Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar

This is not strictly a novel but a collection of short stories, but given the experimental nature of the work, we can and should consider it a novel. Djebar confronts orientalist stereotypes of Muslim women as exemplified, for example, in the eponymous painting by Delacroix (Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement, 1834), but set in Algeria of the 1990s during a time of civil unrest. Global citizens need to know more about Eurocentric imaginings about Muslim women, and this work allows readers to walk, not in the footsteps of Algerian women, but – as Djebar stated – “near them.” The proximity afforded by close reading “near” or along side protagonists might be more affective than any (spurious) claim that imagining oneself in the shoes of the Other produces empathy.

Zoli by Colm McCann

Following the theme of civilization and its discontents, here we have another great example of European hypocrisy: the treatment of Romani peoples. This superbly written tale — based like many of McCann’s work on historical research — is an excellent foray into the the byways of Otherness in WWII-era Europe. Equally relevant for today’s world of rampant bigotry.

James Traub
Sheikh Mohammed Scholars Program Principal Instructor, NYUAD

Journalist and Author of What Was Liberalism? (2019)

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Atonement by Ian McEwen
Beloved by Toni Morrison
A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul
Bleak House By Charles Dickens
A Harlot High and Low by Honoré de Balzac
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov

 

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Trust, Society, and Manipulated Video

Trust, Society, and Manipulated Video

FILM AND NEW MEDIA

Trust, Society, and Manipulated Video

Karno Dasgupta

September 2019

“A total and complete dipshit.” That’s what Barack Obama seemingly called President Trump when he appeared in a short clip for BuzzFeed Video’s YouTube channel in April 2018. Here was a sharp gibe, uncharacteristic of the ex-President. Except, as Jordan Peele’s appearance soon revealed, it wasn’t Obama who was speaking. Instead, a vocal impersonation had been layered over a computer-generated image of his face – one which moved to eerily mimic the words being said. Here was a new genre of fabricated video, where pre-existing visuals of a targeted face are inputted into a create a realistic reproduction that can be manipulated for the creator’s ends. A deepfake.

While some people noticed that something was off about the way Obama looked and sounded, many others were initially fooled or at least confused by the clip. The incident demonstrates how good the generative algorithmic subset of the artificial intelligence used to create a deepfake is. And, scarily, the machine learning processes that help synthesize them are just getting better and more accessible, progressively requiring fewer source materials and extending to manufactured voices too. Every day, it becomes easier to forge people. And these forgeries can damage individual lives (as in cases of targeted pornography), but can also pose risks on the global-scale by undermining public trust in information sources generally considered to be reliable. 

Jordan Peele’s Obama deepfake on BuzzFeed Video.

Today, we’re at a point where experts are playing catch-up to identify what’s real and what’s not. When the Gabonese President appeared to the public in a video-address to quell reports about his ill-health on New Year’s Day 2019, for example, many citizens and critics questioned its authenticity. A definitive answer on whether or not it is a deepfake remains elusive. And yet, its uncertain origins spurred a failed coup a week later. In any other time in history, a recording would be undeniable proof of something, just as the photograph had promised at its inception. But human innovation has transformed yet another medium of communication for the worse. What Photoshop did to photography, deepfakes do to film. And suddenly, a source and sphere of information is heavily compromised.

No doubt, deepfakes are a tremendous feat of human intelligence, showing how much of what we perceive can be influenced by others. Their rapid proliferation also represents the wonders of a democratized digital world. However, in developers’ quest to enhance our ability to control older audio-visual technologies with more sophisticated tools, they create dangerous, false information that threatens society. This is because people either believe a fabricated product and are influenced negatively by it, or they don’t and turn skeptical towards all products, losing their trust in the institution of production itself. Essentially, this maps onto the idea that people make decisions based on some collection of information, but deepfakes delegitimize a fundamental mode of information-collection.

 There is a strong connection between this and the value of trust in our lives. In Trust in Society, Karen S. Cook notes that “trust plays a significant role in the functioning of social groups and societies,” and also links trust to order and stability. Trust is foundational to relationships within and with an organized collective. In a sense, we need to trust people and institutions to both preserve ourselves, and the democratic society we inhabit. If lost, instability and a loss of connections ensue. For example, in a simplified hypothetical, if you called the police while your house was getting burgled and they did not show up you would suddenly doubt the institution that promises you safety in a city. Repeated failures would make you lose faith in the promise of security implicit in many societies today. You might move to a different location, and definitely buy yourself a weapon for protection. In short, you would try disentangling from one area of your interaction with society.

Now, as people who turn to the media to locate ourselves in a social space, we are strongly influenced by the books we read, the songs we hear, and the news we view. A newspaper is a good source of information about a politician’s opinions, a voice recording of her is better, but a live feed of her saying something is closest to the best basis for trusting that she actually said it. Why? Because our eyes and ears combine to form the primary points of input for our experiences, and short of actually interacting with people face-to-face, videos are the best simulations of “being there.” That is not to say that skepticism and critical thinking are not important to being educated consumers – we should question the truth and implications of a politician’s position. But, historically, we could distrust an equivocator without qualms about the way we heard her hedging. Our faith in the medium remained.

The moment we reach manipulation technologies like deepfakes, however, a gateway into a world where no one can ever know if someone said something or not opens up. Suddenly, our trust in social institutions of communication begins to evaporate.

Hence, lawmakers in America are scrambling to regulate deepfake technologies. Why, inductively, notable figures across science and programming are worrying about the numerous ways artificial intelligence could harm society. Because they have the potential to fundamentally alter our experience of reality on an unprecedented scale, with unbelievable speed – in fact, the term “deepfake” is only a few years old and the technology has only existed for five years. And the fear everyone has of progress pursued without conscience or broader consideration is amplified in the interconnected present, where rapid, mass consequences arise from limited, specialist development. It is the same fear that made Plato distrust the memory-weakening potential for writing in Phaedrus or the Luddites destroy the job-stealing industrial machines – that of the price of progress. For technology to change lives, it must bury the way life was once lived.

 Deepfakes, on a philosophical level, destabilize the trust in truth essential for us to know things or even believe in our ability to know things. They give people the power to make anyone say anything. And if anyone can say anything, then we might as well say nothing at all – or stop listening, at the least. Because a functioning society needs people to trust people. It needs some truth. And that is getting harder to find with each passing day. In this sadder sense, deepfakes are a natural extension of the post-truth world of alternative facts, a rabbit-hole that goes all the way down to artificially intelligent robots that can look like your favorite pop star or a notorious demagogue, spewing hate or inciting violence in-person. A sorry sight indeed. Regardless, it is unlikely technology will slow down. Between progress and the past, we only look back, never turn.

In such tumultuous times, the only way to resist a breakdown of social order is to build defenses. Governments should incentivize the development of programs that identify deepfakes, the masses must be educated about the existing misinformation threat, and corporations must invest in checks that filter potential fake content before it goes live. The end goal is a practicable ethical framework that preserves people’s faith in the institutions of communication. We must fight the good fight, or risk losing it all.

 

Karno Dasgupta is a student at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing.

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What Kind of Work Is Live Streaming?

What Kind of Work Is Live Streaming?

FILM AND NEW MEDIA

What Kind of Work Is Live Streaming?

Ria Golovakova

September 2019

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt distinguishes between the categories of “work” and “labor.” She differentiates between two types of human worker: the “homo faber who makes and literally ‘works upon’” and the “animal laborans which labors and ‘mixes with.’” In this conception, work is the creation of some product “which outlasts its own activity and forms a durable addition to the human artifice,” while labor “needs to be reproduced again and again in order to remain within the human world at all.” Arendt concludes this meditation on the nature of work by arguing that art, in her opinion, is the most durable creation that humans can make, and thus the best form of work

How then, might Arendt classify work done by someone like Jing Zi, a young Chinese woman whose job is to live stream herself for 7 hours a day? In a 5-minute documentary video about her done by Noah Sheldon, Jing Zi goes through the motions of her typical content. She puts on makeup, plays with cute video filters, sings karaoke, and eats lunch that one of her fans ordered in for her. The woman is an employee of a media company in Beijing, that hosts other live streamers like her, and provides them with individualized filming sets and promotions in exchange for a percentage of the profit. Jing Zi regularly makes more than 10,000RMB ($1454) a day.

In fact, Chinese live streaming is one of the world’s fastest growing industries: in 2018 the number of users reached 456 million people and Deloitte valued market at $4.4 billion. The Chinese are dedicating their time, love, and money to their favorite streamers in extents that are unfathomable within the Western framework of internet celebrity.

Hannah Arendt in the classroom

Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University

In the West, internet concept creators often follow the “influencer” model of internet celebrity. They post some content on a variety of internet platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, and attract a large following of people who engage with their content through comments, likes, and shares. None of these interactions, however, directly earn money for the content creator. Instead, their stream of income is usually a combination of merchandise sales, paid subscriptions on platforms like Patreon, and sponsored advertisements, in which companies reach out to them and provide a flat rate per post based on the number of followers.

Chinese live-streamers, while also trying to amass a large following and often working with advertisers, are in a very different position. Their main source of income is directly built into the platform: viewers during a live stream can buy “gifts” for the streamer, which appear as little animations on the screen in real time, and are purchased with actual currency deposited onto the app account. The streamers tend to respond to the gifts in real time, engaging with the users who pay larger sums and thanking them directly. In some platforms, there are added benefits, such as gaining the host’s contact information after reaching a certain monetary threshold in gifts.

“Live Streamer” is a short documentary by Noah Sheldon, exploring the industry through the example of live streamer Jing Zi.

Incomes of the most popular streamers can reach over $100,000 dollars a month, and even the less successful hosts earn many times the average salaries of college graduates in China. Many of these internet celebrities originally come from the working class, but through their popularity are able to obtain rich and lavish lifestyles. Their situation is in stark contrast to the rest of China’s population, as there is very little social mobility in terms of wealth, as the working class do not have the same educational and professional opportunities as the wealthy, who have stayed rich for generations. In fact, many of these working class viewers even impede their financial prospects, as they donate significant portions or even the entirety of their salaries to their favorite live streamers.

This seemingly irrational behavior is caused by the desire to keep one of their own rich, since the working class audiences are well aware that they could never reach those levels of financial success themselves. Furthermore, they are drawn to the live streams to feel less lonely: the changing economic and geo-social makeup of China, especially through increasing urbanization, has left many young people disconnected from their families and communities, and isolated in large but lonesome cities.

The live streams are an attractive form of escapism: hosts mostly stream boring content, like eating on camera, chatting, or simply going about their daily commute. Nonetheless, in some cases viewers tune in for up to 8 hours at a time, spending their entire day in virtual company with likeable hosts.

This particular medium, however, is very unique compared to other popular forms of internet content. Live streams are transient: the video is not recorded or uploaded for potential later viewing, all that exists is the here and now. In Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online, Crystal Abidin writes that such “always-transient content” is “largely motivated by the followers’ cultivations of perpetual ‘FOMO,’ or the ‘fear of missing out.’” The immediacy creates a sense of exclusivity, and heightens the effect of virtual connection between the audience and the hosts.

Can Arendt’s conception of work and labor be applied to this occupation? Live streams do not have inherent market value or practical use. Instead, they are an evolution of other kinds of internet visual content (pictures and videos), which can be viewed as art and are often judged to aesthetic standards that resemble the approach to artistic products. In this case, lack of usability can also be viewed as proof of artistic status. However, the transience of live streams complicates this category. While the hosts technically create something new, the durability lies not in the content itself but in the audience that the content generates. The direct product, the stream, gets consumed in its very process of creation. There is no “true reification,” so this supposedly artistic project becomes a labor process of toiling every day on the clock, the live stream both becoming the means to an end and an end itself that must be repeated ad infinitum.

In this vein, the categories of “labor” and “work” appear insufficient. Perhaps, we should take the new types of vocations that the internet has brought about, such as live streamers, seriously. A different conception of work may be in order.

Ria Golovakova is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. She is interested in exploring and writing about the many manifestations of modern culture and how the forces that shape society today may differ from those of the past.

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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.

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