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Frankenstein's (and other) monsters

I have been reading Frankenstein. As a novel, there is too much about it which irks me to not have a little rant. But I consign and constrain it to a short footnote.[1]

There. Moving on…

Hmm. It is rather devastating to come face-to-face with yourself in a fictional work. Particularly when that mirror throws back a hideously deformed, emotionally dysfunctional, morally destitute and violently destructive monster.

At first, I thought I was the scientist -- nodding sagely at Shelley's knowing observations on the dangers of falling victim to the obsessive thirst for knowledge and learning (and ready, moreover, to pass on such advice to my academic and would-be academic friends):
"A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind." (Chapter 4)

But then I met the monster, and I thought 'oh crap'. Being told not to work too hard -- could probably cope with such a remonstrance most every day of the week. But being rudely awakened, on a sunny May afternoon, to how destructively emotionally unbalanced I am is less welcome.

Chapters 11 to 17 relate the monster's own version of events from sudden living consciousness ("a strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt, at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses"), through wonderment and cultural awakening ("I found on the ground a leathern portmanteau, containing […] Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch's Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter. The possession of these treasures gave me extreme delight; I now continually studied and exercised my mind upon these histories…), to eventual, hate-filled violence by way of bitter disappointment ("how was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification").

For reasons too diverse and personal to bore you with, I grew up feeling achingly different and out of place. So this part of the book, for me, was rife with opportunity for self-pitying self-reflection and self-identification (basically lots of self-indulgence). "When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me. Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled, and whom all men disowned?" Oh! Too true, too true, woe is me indeed. *Sigh*. [Take a comforting gulp from the glass of red which I'm stubbornly persisting with in spite of the glorious sunshine].

It is hope dismayed, though, which is the final straw in his fall (and my own, on smaller scales) from aspirations of gentle goodness to resigned acts of vindictive violence. As he accustoms himself to the world he sets his sights on friendship, attracted by the love and generosity displayed within a poverty-stricken family who live in the cottage he has taken up covert residence near:
"The more I saw of them, the greater became my desire to claim their protection and kindness; my heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures: to see their sweet looks directed towards me with affection was the utmost limit of my ambition. I dared not think that they would turn them from me with disdain and horror. The poor that stopped at their door were never driven away. I asked, it is true, for greater treasures than a little food or rest: I required kindness and sympathy; but I did not believe myself utterly unworthy of it."
He takes to doing secret kindnesses for them, collecting firewood and clearing snow to ease their workload. He trains himself in speech from eavesdropping on their conversations, and learns to read from various discarded papers and books. He finds out about culture and politics and society, and prepares to present himself to them in hope of winning their pity. And…it all goes appallingly wrong; they recoil in horror and attack him verbally and physically and drive him away, then themselves flee the cottage, never to be seen by him again. (So, altogether, not all that unlike most of my friendship-making attempts over the years…)

For all his high-minded talk of his affection towards them, his response to rejection is pure animal rage and hatred. He resists, for the time being, physical personal attack, but he does burn the cottage down and rant and storm like an angst-ridden teenager, rather exposing the conditional, self-serving nature of his 'love' -- which isn't for their own sakes, but rather in anticipation of what they can do for him. The 'putting on a pedestal' of people, the corrupting neediness which creeps into any attempt to bless them, the tendency to lash out when spurned...sadly all things I can relate to.

I came across this Bonhoeffer quote the other day which made me rather miserable, simply because it so perfectly describes the way I usually love people. It also compares rather neatly with the affectionate longing of Frankenstein's monster for his treasured neighbours:
"Human love is directed to the other person for his own sake, spiritual love loves him for Christ’s sake. Therefore, human love seeks direct contact with the other person; it loves him not as a free person but as one whom it binds to itself. It wants to gain, to capture by every means; it uses force. It desires to be irresistible, to rule. Human love has little regard for truth. It makes the truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the beloved person. Human love desires the other person, his company, his answering love, but it does not serve him. On the contrary, it continues to desire even when it seems to be serving." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
A pretty sorry state of affairs if even love is little more than a power play. But Bonhoeffer offers some hope, in what he calls 'spiritual love'...What does it look like to love 'for Christ's sake'? It occurs to me that Jesus offers answers and examples and enabling resources…
  • An answer: "…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." (Matthew 5:44-45)
  • An example:  "…when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten…" (1 Peter 2:23)
  • An enabling resource: "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him." (1 John 4:15-16)
I am also reminded, as so often, of the prayer of St. Francis, which ends:
"Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted;
to understand, than to be understood;
to love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life."
Comfort, understanding, love...how subtly these basic human needs become a sort of currency, exchanged in the transactions of friendship. We expect a fair return on our demonstrations of affection. If not replenished by those of other people towards us, we quickly run out. To a certain extent, this is reasonable -- our need for those things is very real, and our own resources to meet the needs of others are finite. For St. Francis' prayer to be more than a mere idealistic notion -- for us to be able to pray it and mean it -- there has to be some other, inexhaustible, source of comfort, understanding and love:
  • The comfort: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
  • The understanding: "O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar." (Psalm 139:1-2)
  • The love: "For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39)
It is on this basis that I can pray along with St. Francis -- with a desire and hope that I might be so satisfied in relationship with God that I no longer look for my emotional needs to be met in other people. I have, from time-to-time, tasted something of the reality of this I think, and it is amazingly liberating: inspires the closest to genuine selfless love for others that I have ever experienced, and frees me up to give out of what He has given me and without any implicit or explicit demand on the other person. But this is not, by a very very long way, the 'norm' of my life -- and how quickly I take up again my own agenda and return to manipulation and social orchestration and people-pleasing and favouritism. And then how frustrated and embittered I get when misunderstood or dismissed. I think there is hope, even for me -- not of being perfected in this life, but that "He who began a good work [in me] will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus". (Philippians 1:6) I am grateful that, unlike Frankenstein, God does not turn from His creation in horror and disgust but continues to involve Himself in an ongoing work of transformation: "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." (2 Corinthians 5:17)

So as I "press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me" (Philippians 3:12, NIV) I pray and seek that each time it befalls me to engage with another would-be victim (i.e. fellow human being) I may that little bit more relinquish my own agenda, lay down my will to power, and love them for Christ's sake and not my own.



[1] The ability of Frankenstein's to oscillate between terrified abhorrence of his self-created predicament and disingenuous wonderment at the world around him is convenient enough for Shelley's poetic aspirations, permitting her to wax vicariously lyrical about forests and hills all her favourite holiday destinations in Europe. But it does not, I find, make for a very convincing or compelling character observation. Moreover, the whole thing reads as though she just sat down one day with a vague idea for a story and wrote it all in the order in which it occurred to her -- most particularly and infuriatingly demonstrated in the way that characters of poignant personal significance to the lead are introduced ad-hoc just before being killed off. But, *sigh*, in fairness it is pretty ahead of its time as science fiction goes and, oh, it seems to have been published when she was just 21, so, well, 'nough said from me I reckon.

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