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Frankenstein, Bad?

Anyone think I should send this to the Guardian in protest? Anyone see any significant holes in it?

Germaine Greer recently wrote:

The latest sensation to galvanise the torpid lit-hist-crit establishment is the “discovery” by market research analyst John Lauritsen that Mary Shelley did not write Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (to give the novel its full title).

Who is Lauritsen? Apparently, some market-research-analyst gay-rights activist who’s mostly known for arguing that the kaposy’s sarcoma common among AIDS patients is caused not by AIDS itself, by a certain drug in vogue among gay clubbers, and that HIV doesn’t really lead to AIDS at all. (Which hardly even deserves responding to.) In other words, he’s a literary theorist.

I’ve begun working on a book — yes, a book — about the subject of science illiteracy in the halls of the literary-criticism academe. It’s probably going to be slow going, especially since I have more pressing projects to attend to first, but I think it’s an important issue, and one that I am even more encouraged to addressed when I see trash like this kind of argument. I frankly feel embarrassed by the science-illiteracy of the literary establishment, in that claims like this could even be made in public — it ought to be too obviously ridiculous for anyone to even consider suggesting. (On the order of, “Our world is actually secretly run by pink elephants with a special liking for elven blood!”)

Anyway, Lautisen is apparently now claiming that Frankenstein was obviously written by a man. Germaine Greer has taken it upon herself to correct him, and summarizes the argument — and her rebuttal — thus:

The logic goes something like this: Frankenstein is a masterpiece; masterpieces are not written by self-educated girls and therefore Frankenstein cannot have been written by Mary Shelley.

Greer is right to recognize this conclusion as moronic, of course, and anyone who looks at the syllogism can immediately see where it goes wrong.

  1. Frankenstein is a masterpiece.
  2. Masterpieces are not written by self-educated girls.
  3. Therefore, Frankenstein could not have been written by Mary Shelley (a self-educated girl).

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but for my money, it’s the second line of that trio that raises my eyebrows. Masterpieces cannot be written by self-educated girls is plain sexist. It’s also wrongheaded since plenty of self-educated people have written all kinds of things. Schooling, after all, isn’t a hothouse of learning and enlightenment. Nobody ever learned how to produce a masterpiece in school, or from a tutor: as John Taylor Gatto and others very astutely argue, what we in North America call schools are factories wherein obedient factory workers and secretaries are cranked out. Yes, education can be — and in Shelley’s time more often was — more than that, but it still stands that no creative writer has ever been educated so as to create a masterpiece. It’s one thing any professor in Creative Writing or Literature can tell you.

But Greer’s response to Lauritsen’s claim is, of course, the most radical-sounding she could come up with. I’m not all that familiar with Greer’s writings, mind, but from the (perhaps misrepresented) discussions I’ve read, she’s someone who preaches that men secretly (or not-so-secretly) hate women, and that women, unbeknownst to themselves, hate themselves, too… so I’m hardly surprised that she’s now advancing the most radical-sounding response possible to silly Mr. Lauritsen’s claim. It’s the counter-intuitive one, the one that people will scratch their heads over, the one that looks crazy the more you look at it but will get more press and sell more books and make her look like she’s saying things nobody else is saying:

If Frankenstein is not a masterpiece, the thesis collapses. Though millions of people educated in the US have been made to study and write essays about Frankenstein, it is not a good, let alone a great novel and hardly merits the attention it has been given, notwithstanding the historic fact that its theme has inspired more than 50 (mostly bad) films.

Yeah, she’s arguing that Frankenstein is a bad novel. Frankenstein is bad, she claims, apparently because:

She says, actually, that one line is “Pure Milton”. I don’t see how this is bad, in and of itself. I think it’s interesting. I sure wish more SF authors were aware of Milton, of Byron, of all kinds of other great literature. What is this, a random criticism thrown in to bolster a weak argument? Yeah, I think so. For the record, when my class read Frankenstein, we discussed Milton in connection with the book, though since it was the equivalent of an English 101 course, nobody (including me) had read any Milton at the time.

Would that I could write a first novel of that stature. Would that I could read more first novels of that stature! How often is a book indicted as being not a masterpiece simply because it is a first novel? All of this, and all of her other criticisms, constitute a dodging of the most important thing about Frankenstein, which is that it is a novel of ideas, brilliantly explored and imaginatively fleshed out, and then sent in to assault how we feel about the world. The ideas at the core of the book — scientific ones, yes, but also social and psychological ones — are explored with such frightening passion, for the first time ever, that it can be credited with inventing the whole genre of science fiction, indeed. Perhaps, though, Greer would dismiss this achievement with some incoherent mumbling about the genre as being basically bad, too.

As for some of the points below, which Greer claims mark the book as clearly by an inexperienced author, these traits are common enough in novels of the time. Such as:

I am no expert in the period, but this seems to me not unusual in terms of the “realism” of Mary Shelley’s day. Greer, with a thesis on Byron behind her, should be such an expert, so I wonder how much credit to give her here. I remember observing this about a lot of novels from the 19th century that I read during my University days, especially Gothic-genre novels.

So, while, yes, it’s unnatural to our ears and eyes, but it doesn’t seem to me so unusual for 19th-century writing. Besides, as I recall, at least one of those narrators is working in epistolary form. These dudes were writing, and yeah, people did write this way. It’s like criticizing someone who writes an epistolary novel in the form of email for not capitalizing properly when, if you know anything, you know that plenty of people were writing in lowercase exclusively.

And, yeah, I’m not crazy about this particular feature of novel-writing at the time, but if we throw that out, we have to throw out a lot of 19th-century novels. My impression is we’d have to throw out the vast majority of them, in fact. Is Greer willing to do that? Wait, maybe she is. I wouldn’t be surprised. But if so, should we really be taking her seriously as a critic of literature? Maybe she just wishes we’d read poetry instead. (Where I wish we’d read poetry in addition.)

Greer criticizes English programs, rightly, for not including enough poetry in their reading lists. One wonders how much gothic literature she has read (or bothered to remember). This is a very common technique in Gothic literature, and in some ways, it’s a design feature, not a weakness. It’s a technique used when telling stories of the supernatural or of horrendous things, and it survives in most clearly to our time in Poe and Lovecraft, though it’s gotten a bad rap in recent years. Doubtless Greer would also have us think Poe trash. (I will not argue about Lovecraft, much as I enjoy his work. Some is good, and some really is, well, less than recommendable.) Nowadays, especially in creative writing programs, we always hear, “Show, don’t tell!” and that climactic events should occur onstage, but this was not always what people desire(d) or expect(ed) in novels. This really is a feature of the genre and time period, I think. Then again, I can also imagine Greer calling out to cast out all of the Gothic canon, too… it sounds radical enough to be her style, after all. But to call something not-a-masterpiece for being a product of its time, and because it operates within a genre, is ridiculous. Down this road lies genre-dismissing snobbery.

Greer seems to have forgotten that this was a different era in which different understandings of science existed. The idea of spontaneous generation of life wasn’t even fully stamped out by the time Frankenstein was published. The monster, Adam, was created using body parts, and, one would presume, a brain or brains from harvested from the dead, as well. That said, it’s quite understandable, from the logic of the story, in which electricity is used to reanimate dead tissues, that some residual knowledge would remain, just as muscles react to electrical charges by moving in ways that even people in Shelley’s day knew were “hardwired.”

The monster’s education, then, would be much more like the Platonic form of learning — of remembering already transcendently known things — that it is the learning of a child in a modern (and, as science has been showing in recent years, misinformed) tabula rasa-style understanding of education. (Popular among all kinds of social-science radicals, and, as I understand her views, an assumption of the kind of feminism which Greer advocates, in claims like that women learn to hate themselves, and men learn to hate women, as a result of socialization.)

Greer seems to be reading Frankenstein with distinctly modern prejudices in terms of how the author imagined knowledge and learning to occur for a dead body reanimated. The history of science is full of blind alleys and dead ends explored and believed in throughout the past. It’s a fascinating mess, and one cannot understand Frankenstein without considering it — which is why Shelley cites Cornelius Agrippa and other esoteric texts explicitly. If you are looking for answers to how Adam’s education could have seemed not-ridiculous at the time, it would be wise to look to the “science” texts mentioned, and to remember that, after all, this is a work of science fiction. Is she critiquing it for having not hard-enough science? Is Greer arguing against fantasy and for hard-sf? I doubt it: I think this is more institutional resistance to genre fiction in general, including anything that looks a little ridiculously fantastical to modern eyes.

Not that anyone would have called it that, then, but it is a work of speculation, a fantasy asking a question about what would happen if life could, in fact, be reassembled and reanimated. Who’s to say memories of language and other knowledge wouldn’t remain in the brain, according to what they then knew about the brain? Shelley’s speculation in this area is no more stupid or laughable for the time than H.G. Wells’ that life could exist on Mars… it’s dated, now, but in context, it was not so laughable: even less so since it’s a fascinating part of the book, and brings into play all kinds of contemporary discussions about education in Rousseau and among the English public, as well as in her mother’s own writings.

Wow, such misogyny, as well as such misandry! So… a male scientist would be willing to scrap and rebuild his creation if it were a monstrosity, but a female character — motherlike — would probably run run away and wander, and put off the task of killing her monstrous child? I see: men are cold, rational, and responsible, while women are wimpy, emotional, and irresponsible. That’s a really interesting formulation of gender for Greer to advance.

(By interesting I mean biased, backwards, and puzzling.)

So let me get this straight: a male wouldn’t, perhaps, be unwilling to destroy his creation. That, because he is male, he should be willing to kill the fruit of long, hard, and dangerous labour. A woman would never do that, would she? And a man would never be so obsessed, so driven to succeed, that he would overlook obvious flaws in his children, his creations?

No, never.

As for me, I think that if the ridiculousness of Lauritsen’s claim doesn’t deflate itself in the same way covertly elitist arguments about Shakespeare’s “real” identity have done time and time again, the theme of the motherless child itself is enough to safeguard the belief that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Having read her father Tom Godwin’s biography of Mary Shelley’s mother — published and available when Shelley herself was around — I cannot help but read some element of biography there, in the way Adam lives without a mother, without a bride, so unremittingly bereft and alone. It seems to me something young Mary Shelley would have understood well, and when purposefully setting out to write a Gothic novel, it seems like something she would have drawn upon quite naturally.

Greer’s argument deserves to be exposed for what it is: elitist, press-mongering dismissal of a profoundly important work of genre literature. But then, that’s what people do when they cannot write profoundly important novels themselves.

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