Thursday, November 13, 2008

Books: Mad science, 18th Century style.

ABC Radio's show The Philosopher's Zone has a transcript up regarding the scientific and philosophical contexts of the Romantic Era and how these influences made their way into the classic horror novel Frankenstein.

Sadly the audio has been taken down, but interested Screamers and Screamette's can read through host Alan Saunder's Q&A with Joan Kirkby and Jane Goodall (not THAT Jane Goodall), two contributors to the new essay collection Frankenstein's Science: Experimentation and Discovery in Romantic Culture, 1780-1850, and film historian Rudi Belmer.

Here's some highlights:

Jane Goodall: . . . The novel was kind of known in this rather one-dimensional way as 'a Monster novel' and an 'early horror novel'. Then it went through a phase where it was really the property of feminist criticism, and the dominant theme out of that was that it was a novel written as a cautionary tale against the scientific over-reacher, and the masculine ego in science.

And I think what happened was critical views of the novel got stuck on this, and people became unable to read it as other than a cautionary tale against science. And that's an interesting thing to happen, because people weren't reading the novel at all. They were reading an idea of the novel. And if you actually any attention to these vast, rich passages in the novel, it's not that at all. It's a novel written absolutely out of the Romantic movement, which was in love with inquiry of all kinds, free inquiry, and particularly scientific inquiry because people really thought it could save the world, and that was not a naïve notion at that time.

On the creation of the creature:

Alan Saunders: But what role did electricity play in the creation of the Creature?

Rudi Belmer – "Frankenstein" reading: '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.'

Then she goes on. She left it deliberately vague, but you're not quite sure whether there was some Black Magic involved, or whether there was some vague elixir or something; certainly not by thunder, lightning, electrical impulses and so forth and so on. There was none of that. There's certainly many dimensions to this story, and we can talk about Faust, we can talk about the over-achiever, we can talk about man trying to emulate God, there are so many aspects, which I think is the keynote as to why this particular idea has transcended time.

Interestingly, you talk about the electrical science of the time, and one of the great students of electrical science at the time was Joseph Priestly, the great 18th century chemist, one of the discoverers of oxygen, and he himself had been brought up a Calvinist, had had a terrible time in childhood because of uncertainty as to whether he was saved. And he, like Godwin, broke free from the Calvinist shackles and among other things, wrote about and experimented on electricity."

Jane Goodall: Well electricity I suppose helped to liberate people from that psychology, because it was a form of visible and palpable power that you could operate. If you made sparks fly, that was the most exhilarating experience, and you get from Priestly's generation, sort of 1730 through to the end of that century, this new mood of incredible sense of possibility and hype surrounding science and experiment. And electricity I suppose was the visualisation of that, because you saw the spark.


Sasquatchan said...

Thanks for the clarification.. I sure as heck didn't remember any apes or chimps hanging out in Frankenstein, nor any body parts coming from primates..

Though, what did my roommate say when THAT Jane came to talk at our alma mater (did you go listen to her ?)... "If I studied rocks as long as she's studied apes, I'd think they were intelligent too!"

ps. is Frankenstein the new zombie ?

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

I got in fight with Stephen Jay Gould when he came to speak to the school. Not over evolution or anything. I accused him of not flushing the toilet after doing his business, he denied it, words got heated.

I "accidentally missed" the Goodall speech under orders.

No, I don't think Frank is the new zombie. I was hoping that werewolves were the new zombies (they've been warming the bench for too long), but now I'm thinking that Twilight-mania is going to make us suffer a vampire re-lapse.

sexy said...
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