Frankenstein's Cinematic Dream
Marc Redfield, Claremont Graduate University
I am in my mother's room. It's I who live there now. I don't know how I got there. . . . The truth is I don't know much. For example my mother's death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury. I don't know. Perhaps they haven't buried her yet. In any case I have her room. I sleep in her bed. I piss and shit in her pot. I have taken her place. I must resemble her more and more. All I need now is a son. Perhaps I have one somewhere. . . .
Samuel Beckett, Molloy
|1||What novel has been negated and
preservedrecreated and reanimatedby twentieth-century cinema
more fantastically than Frankenstein? And what can be made of this
cultural event? Can a reading of Mary Shelley’s novel help us understand
its cinematic career; and can the Frankenstein film phenomenon help
us read the novel? I take up these questions without any intention of doing
them justice in a conventional sense. By one count more than two hundred
films have been inspired by Frankenstein over the last seventy years
(Heffernan 136, citing Forry, 127); my commentary will restrict itself to
James Whale’s important film of 1931, which I shall risk treating as an
exemplary act of cinematic appropriation. At stake in what follows is a
reading of a certain monstrousness of vision and figuration: a monstrousness
that both the novel and Whale’s film in different ways exploit, evade, and
allegorize. This allegory of monstrous vision, furthermore, can ultimately
be extended to the cinematic and pop culture Frankenstein phenomenon, which
can then be read as a small, symptomatic wrinkle in the techno-aesthetic
manifold of modern consumer culture: a trace, like the Dracula tradition
with which it overlaps, of technoculture’s profound inability to say for
sure what it means to be human, or what it is to be alive or dead. I wish
finally to suggest that this disturbance in and of media technology is already
legible in Shelley’s 1818 novel, and that the novel provides us with a powerful
critique of the illusions of transparency and self-mastery that technoculture
propagates about itself.
|2||Let me start with a few observations
about Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, a film that left such a profound
mark on popular culture as to drive Shelley’s novel into highbrow obscurity.
Unlike much of the literate population of the United States or elsewhere,
readers of an essay in Romantic Circles may be expected to know well
that practically nothing of Shelley’s text except the main conceitthe
frenzied scientist animating a body made out of corpsessurvived the
transition to screenplay. In Whale’s film, the frame narrative with Walton
disappears, as does the monster’s narrrative; the locale moves from Geneva
to a vaguely German setting (presumably Ingolstadt); and Victor’s father
becomes a "baron," which is to say a paterfamilias Hollywood style,
who rules over his small town and worries about his son’s postponed marriage.
Even the names of the main characters shift around, as though Whale and
his writers had so absorbed the Gothic principle of doubling and secret
sharing that they were driven to perform compulsive substitutions.
(Victor is now "Henry" Frankenstein; Henry Clerval becomes "Victor
Moritz"his patronymic borrowed from the servant Justine Moritz,
who has no role in the screenplay. Only Elizabeth remainsnominallyElizabeth.
Popular culture will, of course, take this substitutive principle one step
further in dubbing the monster "Frankenstein."). The film will
have a happy ending, insofar as Henry gets his Elizabeth, who has survived
the monster’s bedroom assault; the monster, for his part, perishes in flames
after a brief and rather undermotivated career in crime (trying clumsily,
it seems, to play a game, he throws a young girla substitute for the
novel’s Williaminto a lake; a little later, for reasons unexplained,
he invades Baron Frankenstein’s manor to attack Elizabeth, and then flees
to the hills, where a search party armed with torches and dogs eventually
traps and burns him in an abandoned windmill). In short, Shelley’s novel
and Whale’s film are so different that it would be of small interest to
compare them, were it not for the central, haunting figure of the monster
and his making: a textual site dense enough to make legible a certain entanglement
of novel and film, on a plane that has little to do with questions of a
film’s fidelity to a novel’s plot or atmosphere, or, conversely, of a nineteenth-century
novel’s ability to convey what we ordinarily call "cinematic"
|3||Of all the changes Whale and his writers made,
arguably the most significant was their reimagination of the creature as
seeable, and the making of the creature as a visual experience, though it
is also true that in giving Shelley’s novel this cinematic twist, they were
not simply contradicting it. In the novel, we recall, the creature is a
monster precisely and only to the extent that he is glimpsed. His
voice, though rough and discordant, acceptably simulates a human voiceindeed,
as critics have frequently observed, the creature is a master rhetorician
and storyteller, despite the foreignness of the language, or languages,
into which he is thrown.
As a visual experience, however, he is unbearable: he is a phobic object,
a dark sun at which the human eye cannot stand to look directly. In the
famous opening paragraph of the novel’s fourth chapter, Victor, like the
kid who hates kreplach in the old Jewish joke, flinches away when his fully
animated creation looks back at him, opening its "dull, yellow eye"
(34); William, Victor’s brother and the creature’s first victim, behaves
similarly ("As soon as he beheld my form," the monster tells us,
"he placed his hands before his eyes, and uttered a shrill scream"
), as does Walton ("I shut my eyes involuntarily. . . . I approached
this tremendous being; I dared not again raise my looks upon his face, there
was something so scaring and unearthly in his ugliness" ). The
monster himself, blasted Eve that he is, cannot bear the sight of himself
("how was I terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool!"
). James Heffernan claims that "film versions of Frankenstein prompt
us to rethink [the creature’s] monstrosity in terms of visualization"
(136); he is right, but the particular sense in which he is right can only
be seized if we keep in mind that the novel has already defined the creature’s
monstrousness precisely as visual.
|4||Some change of approach was no doubt
encouraged by the medium of film itself, to the extent that a cinematic
entity must usually meet the camera’s gaze in some fashion; but it is equally
clear that Whale, steeped as he was in expressionist technique, could have
done a great deal with shadow and indirection if he had wanted to suggest
the monster’s monstrous unseeability. He chose another and seeminglybut
I think only seeminglyopposite tack. Seeing, and the seeing of seeing,
is announced as the film’s main theme by images of eyes that drift behind
the opening creditsevocations, perhaps, of the novelistic monster’s
dull, yellow eye, but also the signs of a peculiarly cinematic appropriation
of what is now to be no more (and no less) that "the Frankenstein story."
In this story the monster is stripped of voice and rendered up to the camera
as the film’s most cherished visual experience. Whale furnishes the monster
with something like a visual equivalent to the eloquence he possesses in
Shelley’s novel: laced with shadows, emerging out of dark corners of the
expressionist set, all knobs and scars and clomping boots, the monster is
nonetheless by far the most human figure in this frequently shamelessly
B-grade film. His voicelessness shores up the silent-film theatricality
of his efforts to touch light when Frankenstein first exposes him to it
(more on that in a moment), and grants extra power and poignancy to Boris
Karloff’s angled, yearning, threatening, and at times (because of the angles
and the rolled-back eyes) seemingly blinded face. Yet having said that we
must also sayand it is here, I believe, that we begin to touch on
a kind of "rethinking of monstrosity in terms of visualization"
that cinema can providethat despite Karloff’s subtle, haunting performance,
despite the humanness, even at times the weird beauty of his monster, there
is something about this character, this expressive body, that suggests how
quickly it will be rendered iconic and self-parodic, and cartooned on breakfast
This monster’s visibility is a cinematic visibility: the hypervisibility
of an image in the age of mechanical reproduction.
|5||Before pursuing this line of thought
further I should note that if one claims that the monster embodies "the
cinematic" in Whale’s film, one is simply paying homage to the film’s
own interpretive emphases. "Quite a good scene, isn’t it?" snarls
Henry Frankenstein to the three onlookersElizabeth, Victor Moritz,
Dr Waldmanwho have barged into his lab at the critical moment, and
are now in their seats, ready like the rest of us to enjoy the show. In
Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein labors in sick solitude, but in Whale’s
film monster-making is a collective activity, involving a tyrannical director,
an assistant, an audience, and a grand spectacle, the ur-scene of monster-movie
tradition: the lab, the slab, the sheet-covered body rising heavenward amidst
chains and pulleys, switches and coils, and great bursts of life-giving
lightning. Hoisted up, the slab flickers with light exactly as if an old-fashioned
projection bulb were being trained on it. And now it moves down; the sheet
over the body is a teasing veil, for one of Karloff’s long, elegant hands
hangs loose and exposed, and, as the camera moves in, begins to curl its
fingers. Cinema has animated it, figuratively as well as literally. It is
thus hardly an exaggeration to say that Whale self-consciously stages here
a primal scene readable as cinema’s own.
Other carefully composed shots elsewhere in the film reinforce the lesson.
I mentioned earlier the monster’s first introduction to light, which occurs
a little after the animation scene, when Frankenstein, interested in viewing
the effects of light on a creature that he has thus far kept (literally)
in the dark, hauls on chains to open a skylight, so that a theatrically
precise spotlight falls on Karloff. And near the end of the film Whale stages
another almost coyly self-reflexive joke: Henry Frankenstein and his monster
face each other in an abandoned windmill, separated by the mill’s large,
wooden, slowly turning cogwheel; as the wheel turns, their faces flicker
through its square reticulationsa brilliant evocation of the moving
celluloid strip that allows cinema to animate bodies, which is to say, to
be cinema per se.
|6||If we then ask what such self-reflexivity
means in such a context, we soon see the usefulness, I think, of the conceptual
tools developed in Walter Benjamin’s classic essay on the "artwork
in the age of its mechanical reproducibility." It is no coincidence
that the idiom of this film’s self-reflexivity is indistinguishable from
that of its cultural impact, for the film’s central punits teasing
alignment of monster-making and movie-makinghas in the end little
to do with traditional aestheticism. No doubt Whale had his ambitions; but
his cunning attention to his medium tends rather to uncover that dimension
of cinema that drew Benjamin’s attention: its inherent reproducibility,
which is to say its deep, if ambivalent, hostility to the "aura"
of the artwork. Allegorizing itself, Frankenstein opens its offering
of kitsch: the castle; the hunchbacked assistant; the abnormal brain; the
slab, chains, vials, switches, and flickering electricityeverything
is in place "elsewhere," having been, as it were, "always
already" reproduced and parodied; all that Young Frankenstein
or The Rocky Horror Picture Show will really add are the pleasures
of knowing homage. Thus, though the act of seeing this endlessly, even comically
reproduced monster seems at the furthest remove from the trauma described
by Shelley’s novel, the monster’s hypervisibility bears the mark of a less
obvious sort of shock: the "shock effect" (Chockwirkung),
as Benjamin famously called it, of modernity as mechanical reproducibility.
Yet it is also necessary to understand these scenes in Whale’s film as fantasies: fantasies of seeing the mechanisms of seeingof mechanically reproducible seeingitself. Lab and slab trope the lighting, the cables, the stage set, in short, everything that you do not see when you see a film:
The shooting of a film, especially of a sound film, affords a spectacle unimaginable anywhere at any time before this. It presents a process in which it is impossible to assign to a spectator a viewpoint which would exclude from the actual scene such extraneous accessories as camera equipment, lighting machinery, staff assistants, etc.unless his eye were on a line parallel with the lens. . . . That is to say, in the studio the mechanical equipment [Apparatur] has penetrated so deeply into reality that its pure aspect freed from the foreign body of equipment is the result of a special procedure, namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted camera [Apparat] and the mounting of the shot together with other similar ones. The equipment-free [apparatfreie] aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become a blue flower in the land of technology. (Benjamin, German 495; English 232-33)
Yet though the "equipment-free" gaze of the camera is the height
of artifice, no self-reflexivity is adequate to this artifice. One can
film (portions of) one’s own equipment as one shoots, but the camera and
its supporting apparatus will never entirely be able to film itself filming.
Such, however, is the fantasy animating the monster’s animation in Frankenstein.
Even as it records its world as saturated with technology, the film dreams
of a monstrous moment in which it could expose itself to itself, capture
and possess itself for itself, and thus ward off the shock of its own
self-replication, its mechanical self-differentiation and disseminationin
a word, its mediation. The cinematic Frankenstein monster, from
Karloff’s version to the endless ranks of imitations, spinoffs and cartoons
that followed it, ambivalently incorporates, as living-dead body, the
"waning of the aura" refetishized as kitsch. As Jennifer Wicke
has suggested of another undead cultural icon, Dracula, the monster provides
"a stand-in for the uncanny procedures of modern life," which
is also to say "an articulation of, a figuration for . . . mass culture"
(Wicke, 473, 475). In the case of the Frankenstein monster, one could
even add that his theatrical scars and prostheses and his awkward mechanical
movements offer a displaced figure for the utter constructedness of cinematic
visionas though the record of angled shots, cutting, editing, etc.
could be inscribed on a visible body. And if the monster’s career in the
movies and in popular culture alerts us to the scope of the question concerning
technics that (as I shall now argue) his creation already raises in Shelley’s
novel, the novel, for its part, provides us with a powerful critique of
the fantasy of self-seeing that inhabits and in a sense makes possible
Unlike Whale’s film, of course, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein offers us little on which to feast our eyes as Victor amasses his forbidden knowledge and prepares for his grand experiment. The scenes leading up to the opening of the creature’s yellow eye are fast-paced but circumlocutory and abstract; even Victor’s graveyard experiences unfold in a somewhat distanced, formulaic idiom ("Now I was . . . forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel houses. . . . I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the brain" ). This Gothic mixture of luridness and obscurity has goaded critics into any number of painfully literal discussions of what Victor did and how. (Since his creature is both "about eight feet in height" and "proportionally large" , clearly he isn’t simply sewing together the limbs of five-foot-five-inch corpses. John Rieder proposes, sensibly enough, that we think of Victor’s monster-making as a kind of corporeal knitting or weaving). Eventually I want to circle back to consider more fully the visual metaphors by means of which Victor narrates his discovery of the secret of life ("I saw . . . I beheld . . . I saw"), but we may first jump-cut to the legendary opening of chapter four, which I think we may take as the novelistic equivalent to the primal scene of monster-making in Whale’s film:
I have quoted at length in order to recall as fully as possible a scene
so overfamiliar to Romanticists that at least one eminent professional
colleague seems to have confused it with the film it is not: when Marilyn
Butler, in a putatively historicist account of Frankenstein’s relation
to early nineteenth-century science, confidently tells us that Victor
"uses a machine, reminiscent of a battery, to impart the spark of
life" (307), we witness the enlivening of literature with props borrowed
from the warehouse of the cinematic imaginary. (Butler offers her proof
in a decisive though understandably unspecific footnote: "See the
opening sentences, Frankenstein (1818), ch. 4." She presumably
has in mind the phrase "instruments of life", possibly augmented
by a phrase in Shelley's 1831 preface, "some powerful engine."
Victor, unlike his Hollywood progeny, keeps his technological images carefully
vague.) Certainly there are various ways to think of those opening sentences
as cinematic. Heffernan, for instance, writes of Victor’s dream that the
"sudden dissolving of one image [Elizabeth] into another [Victor’s
dead mother] is ‘supremely cinematic,’ as [director Kenneth] Branagh has
said of Frankenstein as a whole." And he notes as an attendant
irony the fact that the nightmare scene has never, to his knowledge, been
included in any film version of Frankenstein (Heffernan, 141).
In part, one may speculate, this is because the film versions do not need
it; they have their own primal scene, as it were. In any event I would
suggest, somewhat following Heffernan’s lead, that we seek to discover
the "cinematic" character of Shelley’s novel not simply in its
visual cues, but in the relation between the narrative’s repetitive, even
strained invocations of visual metaphor ("I beheld"; "I
saw") and the proliferating acts of articulation and substitution
that compose the text of Frankenstein.
|9||What that last phrase suggests is
that the novel’s substitutive chains may be understood as its "technic":
technic here meaning not the instrumental usefulness with which rhetoric
has always been associated, but rather the globalized mobility of significance
in an era of mechanical reproduction. One of the things we imply when we
call a text Gothic is the hypercoded substitutability of its places, characters,
signs, and desires: everything, in such a world, can and must always mean
something else, with the result that everything is over- and under-legible,
and, visually speaking, is in motion toward a "dissolve into"
or "cut to" something else. Victor’s dream is in this respect
exemplary. His Elizabeth dissolves into his dead mother and then into the
waking dream of the animated monster, a chain of substitutions so overdetermined
that critics never tire of discussing it, as witnessed by this special issue.
And rightly so, for this scene has a claim to being the hallucinatory heart
of Frankenstein. Not only is its final transitionfrom sleep
to the sight of a seeing monsterthe vision, if one credits Mary Shelley’s
preface of 1831, out of which the novel grew; the specific transformations
enacted by the dream also summarize the novel’s question concerning technology
as one indissociable from matters of gender difference, desire, and maternity.
We need to pursue this thread briefly before returning to questions of vision and figuration, for the "seeing" of a body always at some point raises the specter of (the visibility of) sexual difference. Much of the last quarter-century’s writing about Frankenstein has explored in some fashion or other Victor’s usurpation of maternal power in the creation of his monster; less frequently noted is the paradox that a thoroughgoing unsettling of gender identities accompanies this insistent homology between the maternal and the technical. If Victor’s overreaching consists inis exemplified bythe transformation of maternal productivity into mechanical reproducibility, his individualistic Prometheanism nonetheless finds itself displaced into and consumed by the Gothic substitutive chains that make the novel a dream-like array of doublings and mirrorings. What is it to be male, or a mother, or even a monster in a novel in which everyone is a double for everyone else? One can start off with a transitive chain of seemingly male characters: Walton is Victor (the W doubling the V) and Victor is his creature; Victor is also Clerval (who like Walton "reanimates" Victorin Clerval’s case, right after Victor has animated his creature [37-38]). Victor sees in Clerval as in Walton "the image of [his] former self" ), and Percy Shelley, it has been hypothesized, might have seen in Victor the image of his former self, given Victor’s youthful interest in necromancy and raising the dead . Yet this chain of male characters also leads us toward the text’s nominally female roles: as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar noted many years ago, Victor must be read not just as a refiguration of Satan and Adam, but also of Eve (232), and of course the same holds for the creature (238-9). The creature discovers an ambivalent double in Safie, and a more lurid one in Justine (who calls herself a "monster" ) and Elizabeth (who, proleptically echoing Victor’s own self-condemnations, feels she has murdered William ). Upon the death of Victor’s mother, Elizabeth replaces her; and if Victor symbolically kills off his mother by usurping her reproductive powers, Elizabeth kills her off more directly by infecting her with scarlet feverwhile Justine, again like Victor, seems in some figurative way responsible for the death of her own entire family (40-41). Walton, meanwhile, in the feminized informality of his education ("my education was neglected, yet I was passionately fond of reading" ) resembles both his sister Margaret, the epistelory addressee of the frame-novel, and Mary Shelley; and Mary Shelley, in her famous account of the dream that gave birth to Frankenstein in her 1831 preface, imagines herself as Victor, awakened by the gaze of his doublean account that, given the amplitude of our present medium, the Internet, might as well be examined in full:
And thus the novel is her "hideous progeny" (173). Shelley’s
own anguished relation to and experience of mothering is inscribed in
the textual chain; if Frankenstein can always be read "as
the experience of writing Frankenstein," what this means,
as Barbara Johnson puts it, is that "Mary, paradoxically enough,
must [as the daughter of two famous writers] usurp the parental role and
succeed in giving birth to herself on paper. Her declaration of existence
as a writer must therefore figuratively repeat the matricide that her
physical birth all too literally entailed" (249). In the novel that
resulted from this predicament Johnson discerns an allegory of (female)
autobiography as monstrosity: an allegory that offers "the painful
message not of female monstrousness but of female contradictions"
|11||One must add, however, that Frankenstein
makes legibleindeed, underwrites to the point of making necessaryreadings
such as Johnson’s precisely by forcing us to understand gender and sexual
difference as effects of reading. The usurpation and technologization
of maternity may be an archaic male dream, but this is also to say, as Avital
Ronell remarks in another context, that "technology in some way is
always implicated in the feminine" (247), with the result that the
more technically saturated the world is, the more unstable becomes the difference
between the "male" and its feared and fantasized others. The challenge
is to follow out the techno-textual exchanges and economies that generate
yet also undermine the illusion of a stable binary opposition between a
(male) subject and its (feminized) object. Frankenstein pushes us
toward a double reading: on the one hand, in this textual universe of replications
and replicants, there is seemingly nothingnot life, not death, not
gender or sex or natural bodies, or by extension any natural process or
statethat cannot be (monstrously) reproduced.
On the other hand, the novel’s plot offers a recuperative recursus: Victor’s
refusal to make a female monster halts the technologization of the world
precisely at the figurative site of the world’s technological violationthe
mother’s body. Victor gives birth to his monster, but not to a monster who
could in turn give birth. The doubleness of the technotext sharpens here:
on the one hand, by choosing to interrupt his labor Victor nourishes
the illusion that technology is the tool of a masterful (and sinful, and
now repentent) subject; on the other hand, the sheer fact that he has a
choice to make suggests that no area or aspect of the natural world is safe
from technological penetration, and that Victor’s individual genius is finally
beside the point (as he says right before dying, near the end of the novel,
"I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed"
). The idea that Victor’s male ego can be held entirely responsible
for the plot is, appropriately, Victor’s own idea. Statements such as "I,
not in deed but in effect was the true murderer" (61) or "William,
Justine, Henrythey all died by my hands" (128) are ethically
valid only to the extent that they are legibly fantasmatic, narcissistic,
and compensatory. Victor’s is a Gothic enactment of the illusion that Heidegger
diagnoses as the self-concealment of modern technics: its fallacious mistaking
of itself as the will-to-power of a subject over objects.
|12||The Walpolean Gothic tradition,
as read by critics such as Jerrold Hogle, may be taken as a decisive early
manifestation of Western culture’s processing of itself as technoculture,
as an era of mechanical replication: it is the Gothic’s "ungrounded
fakery," Hogle writes, "its re-presentation of antiquated symbols
largely emptied of their older meanings, that opens up a peculiar cultural
space in which the horrors generated by early modern cultural changes .
. . can be ‘thrown off’ or ‘thrown down and under’‘abjected’ in the
senses emphasized by Julia Kristeva. . . ." (178). The more visibly
counterfeit the signsincluding, to be sure, the signs of gendered
identitythe more emphatic these gestures of abjection; and what is
abjected in Gothic narrative is always in the first place a mother (or,
better, a figure of the "maternal") who serves as a vehicle for
the expulsion of the "least acceptable, most heterogenous aspects of
human being in the early industrial era" (Hogle 179).
Or indeed, heterogenous aspects of modernity that shake the foundations
of "human being" as the subject of its self-fashioned universe.
Victor’s dream maps the terror of the dead and decomposing motherthe
mother who, as it were, cannot ever quite die enough, cannot stop reappearing
elsewhereonto the vision of a techno-creature looking back at him,
beyond his control as only another consciousness can be (the creature looks
with speculative eyes, Mary Shelley adds in her account of her own
dream-vision). And this loss of control inhabits the self, for the borders
of the self become impossible to establish. Under this monstrous gaze the
difference between dreaming and waking becomes as tenuous and vexed as that
between monster and maker: the entire novel might easily be read as "Frankenstein’s
dream," except for the fact that the identity of Frankenstein has become
impossible to pin down. Walton, after all, dreams Frankenstein into existence,
just as Frankenstein dreams up Clerval at an opportune moment (36); the
word "dream" appears repeatedly in the text, as it might well
given the uncanny repetitions forming its plot.
Everything becomes fungible when everything can be reproduced elsewhere;
and if, in a universe of counterfeiting, the maternal body provides a figurative
vehicle for the invocation and expulsion of anxieties about identity and
meaning, the creature’s bodyor rather, a certain aspect of the creature’s
body: its visual unbearabilityfunctions as a thematic focal point
for these anxieties. We must now return to the lab and the slab, and ask
why this should be so.
What is a monster? Peter Brooks, noting the contrast between the monster’s eloquence and his unseeable body, suggests that in Frankenstein a monster is that which, visually or corporeally, "exceeds the very basis of classification, language itself" (218). Yet that claim needs nuancing. The text makes clear that the act of seeing is bound up with language: in the first place, with language as representation:
The inability to see is an inability to "delineate": a persistent
equation in the novel ("Over him hung a form which I cannot find
words to describe," Walton says ). To see is to integrate visual
data into forms accessible to understanding. Seeing is reading: hence
the fundamental role of the aesthetic in epistemological philosophies
such as Kant’s, and hence the burdened role of the human body in phenomenological
or psychoanalytic discourses, where the body must provide fundamental
shapes and surfaces for the production of meaning, yet must also serve
as a screen or surface onto which the possibility of form is projected.
Elsewhere I have discussed the importance and volatility of the figure
of the body in aesthetic discourse (see Redfield, ch. 2); for present
purposes it will suffice to note the emphatically aesthetic vocabulary
with which Victor seeks to "delineate" his creature’s monstrosity.
The creature’s limbs are in proportion, Victor tells us (though Walton
will contradict this, claiming that the creature’s form is "distorted
in its proportions" ). The creature’s features were selected
as "beautiful" (though a couple of paragraphs later, as we saw
in the extended quote above, Victor will tell us that he was "ugly"
even before being animated). A Petrarchan, or even Byronic, catalogue
of male beauties jars as a "horrid contrast" with eyes that
match in yellowness their sockets and the body’s racially marked skin.
We are intended to understand by all this, I think, that Victor cannot
say why his creature is so terrible to see. The creature is monstrous
in Kant’s sense of an object that "by its magnitude nullifies the
purpose that constitutes its concept" (Kant, par. 26; 109; for an
intesting analysis of Frankenstein that pursues this definition of monstrosity,
see Freeman, 79-90). Something has gone wrong in the formation of form:
Victor can build and animate a body but cannot grasp it as a body
in an aesthetic perception.
This inability in turn has to do with the body’s being animate, or animated. Its animatedness is troped as the power to see, to look back; the eyes are the same color as the body framing the eyes. The creature’s body, in other words, is all eyeor his eye is all body: sheer materiality, as it were, looking back. Victor animated that eye; and though as we noted earlier the text offers us little concrete detail in its account of Victor’s discovery of the secret of "bestowing animation" (31), those paragraphs nonetheless bear close reading, since after its fashion the primal scene of monster-making turns out to be, in Shelley’s novel no less than in Whale’s film, an affair of illumination and lighting effects. Despite the dank and obscure surroundings in which Victor is forced to work, he "sees" processes and differences of life and death: "I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonder of the eye and brain....until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me . . . ." (30). Victor pauses here for an oath, an invocation of vision for the sake of vision: "Remember, I am not recording the vision of a madman. The sun does not more certainly shine in the heavens, than that which I now affirm is true" (30). And then a peculiar blindness strikes from within this solar light:
There is, avant la lettre, a touch of The Triumph of Life
about that second sentence: the light of discovery is "sudden"
to the point of obliterating the temporality of its own genesis. The secret
of life disrupts, to the point of destroying, the narrative of its appearanceeffacing,
one could say, the "seeing" of degradation and death that enabled
life’s lightning-bolt triumph. Victor may think he is protecting Walton,
but the truth is that he cannot share his "secret" (31), for
he does not really possess it. It possesses him. Victor can animate a
body that he cannot then conceptualize as a body because he is doing something
he does not understandor, better, his understanding and his act
never catch up with each other: he knows the secret of life but what he
does outstrips his knowing. The sign of this rupture between cognition
and act is speed. "As the minuteness of the parts formed a great
hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to
make the being of a gigantic stature" (31-32). The creature becomes,
specifically, a monster (Kant again: a monster is an object that "by
its magnitude nullifies the purpose that constitutes its concept")
because Victor is on speed, hooked on and keyed to the temporality of
|15||If the light that breaks upon Victor
animates himmonstrously, rendering him a zombie consumed by a hysterical
labor of animationthis coincidence of light and (monstrous) life reinforces
the interdependence between vision and language, seeing and sense-making.
Animation in Frankenstein is everywhere, suggestive of a textual
effect rather than of a single accomplishment of a mad scientist: Elizabeth
is "lively and animated" (19); Victor is "animated"
while animating his creature (30); the creature periodically receives supplemental
"animation" by a "fiendish rage" (98). At the end of
the novel, Victor is animated by his own rhetoric and little else: worn
out from a speech to Walton’s crew in which he repeats his old error ("You
were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species"), he
collapses, "sunk in languor, and almost deprived of life" (150).
That language should give (and exhaust) life is no trivial conceit in a
literary text; Walton writes, but Victor polishes the account to give it
"life and spirit," and to prevent Walton from producing a "mutilated"
narrative (146). Rhetorical animation, the text suggests, is the technical
effectivity of language. And the creature’s monstrosity is that of the figure
of personification that he literalizes. The catachresis of his animate body
animates in turn the frenzied, apocalyptic plot of the novel, which repeats
in the cadences of Gothic hysteria the monstrous process through which novels
come alive. Frankenstein’s cinematic heritage helps us recognize
that monstrosity as a dimension of technoshock, while the novel itself destroys
any illusion that we can see seeing, or read reading. Modernity is the name
we give to the ever-accelerating visibility and occlusion of this predicament.
The monster’s yellow eye opens as the shutter of a camera that has never
since stopped scanning our world, but with which we have long since developed
ways of living, if living is what we still do in a world where life and
death have become potential moments within an ongoing process of technological
manipulation that has no end in sight.
Romantic Circles - Home / Praxis Series / Frankenstein's Dream / Marc Redfield, "Frankenstein's Cinematic Dream "