Frankenstein certainly ranks up there among the most interpreted books of our time – it has been so tracked across by interpreters, so used for this or that thesis, that LI, whose meditations on happiness have intersected with Frankenstein lately, feels a bit like a thrift store irregular in talking about the book at all. It is a book that, more than most, projects its visionary schema upon the critic – after all, what critic of a book about creating a giant by stitching together the dead bodies of human beings doesn’t feel the eerie doubling effect of creating another Frankenstein by stitching together parts of Shelley’s biography adn passages from the book in the giant frame of one’s own favorite schema? Monster begets monster.
And of course, ever since Mary Poovey, long ago in the Derridean eighties, hung her feminist interpretation upon Mary Shelley’s words in her 1831 introduction to a new edition of the novel – Shelley called the book “my hideous progeny” – Frankenstein has served as a constant reference for a number of critical schools – for feminist analyses of science, for cultural studies, for a sort of lit crit trick Freudianism. It is no accident, either – the myth around the text seems built to invite larger ponderings. What other novel has ever resulted from a bet between a gathering of famous writers? In Byron’s case, perhaps the most famous writer of the epoch. Even the origin of the book seems hideously artificial – a work galvanized into existence, rather than organically formed in the womb of the author’s soul – to tease us all a bit with sexist metaphors.
For a feminist, Mary Shelley has to be one of the most irresistible figures in history. Here she is, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the world’s first true self conscious feminist – and here she is, the ur-Victorian, as Poovey puts it:
“Indeed, only by viewing Shelley’s public persona in the context of her private comments and actions can we fully appreciate the paradigmatic place this very unusual woman occupied in the final triumph of Victorian propriety. For in the tensions between the public Mary Shelley and the private one we can identify both some of the sacrifices a young woman had to make in order to conform to propriety and the stages by which unladylike feelings could be reformulated so as never to exceed a woman’s proper, altogether tractable, desires.”
Recall that these words were published in 1984. The Meese commission, which saw the strange alliance of certain feminist leaders and Ronald Reagan’s attorney general in a treatise that was all about tractable and intractable desires, comes out in 1986. The crossroads crowd in upon us – but LI is forgetting hisself. Crossroads are for vampires.
Still, having allotted myself the lonely and grisly task of digging through the past – or rather, imagining the undergrounds that have lead to the global disaster of the happiness culture – I am going down to the damps of the grave and have my fling with Mary Shelley’s novel in some posts to come.