Published: 3 January 2018 at 13:00
VIEWPOINT: Why this 200-year-old story is the perfect metaphor for the Anthropocene era
by Professor Patricia MacCormack, Anglia Ruskin University
According to popular understanding, it is now 68 years since the dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch – where human activity has so dramatically altered the Earth that natural phenomenon is now human phenomenon. Science fiction and fact, indeed all fiction and fact, are persistently mediated by humans. The effects of this blurring show that the role of fictional art (art that is fantasy) is as impactful as ever – perhaps more so, due to its ability to remind us that humans are capable of so much, but are less attentive to our culpability.
Humans now set the trajectory for the current epoch, yet we have little idea how that trajectory will look. We are active, able, creative agents in the world – the makers of the world. And we remain absolutely without a clue as to why we are, or what we are. Whether religious, secular or ecologically concerned, we are still chaotic accidents of organisms who ask the same questions as in other epochs and are responded to with the same resounding silence: why are we here? What are we? What is our purpose?
Increasingly, the value of humans is being questioned in the Anthropocene Epoch – an era which seems to threaten disaster as much it promises longer and better life. Two centuries ago one of the earliest examples of science fiction appeared on New Year’s Day that also asked these questions. Mary Shelley – a political radical, the daughter of the world’s most famous feminist and the wife of an infamous atheist – published Frankenstein: Or The Modern Prometheus.
Even in the title we see that Shelley understood the persistence of the above questions that each age jealously feels belongs only to their particular existential crisis.
In Shelley’s frontpiece quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Adam laments being created, Shelley immediately reminds us that there is a persistent tension in all tales of human existence between a creator who has the ability, but perhaps not the wisdom, to be accountable and responsible for their acts of creation – and a subject who knows not what to do with the life and knowledge they have been given without their consent or request.
Shelley invoked a monster filled with pathos, humble curiosity and ultimately despair – and a creator whose hubris elucidated him as lacking in empathy, megalomaniacal and whose pride was more important than its effect on other living beings.
While one could say the same of every age, the Anthropocene Epoch seems to be performing Shelley’s tale on a global scale – where a single monster is now many species of non-human, or minorities and oppressed humans. The creator, meanwhile, is governments, nation-driven patriots and multinational companies, much like Shelley’s overweening creator, Dr Frankenstein.
Shelley’s Frankenstein legacy has a surprisingly unique offshoot. It spawned, due to the creative genius of the famed make-up artist Jack Pierce, a reimagining of a literary character so different from the original that it has entirely replaced it to become a concrete icon of horror – the monster as incarnated by Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931) and the more faithful (to the book at least) adaptation, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
While the book had already inspired one of the earliest horror cinema adaptations (the 1910 Charles Ogle film), James Whale’s 1931 film for Universal Pictures was the point which reversed the monster with the creator as the most important locus of the story, so turning it from tale to myth. The shift from focus on the God complex of Frankenstein to the wretched existence of the unloved monster marks a moment of humble self-reflection for audiences who identify more with a pieced together, almost mute, bumbling mass of flesh who simply seeks a “friend”, than with the irresponsibly power-mad scientist.
Perhaps reflecting humans’ focus from their maker (whatever that may be) to themselves, the spectacle of Karloff – placed gnarled, deformed and doubtful of the relevance of his existence after the first world war and heralding the imminent concerns of Sartre’s existentialism – is life meaningful? Are we hear for a reason? Do these questions matter? – evoked the dread and ugliness of a meaningless existence at the intersection of biology and technology made flesh.
Cinematically we have not seen a return to the Gothic Shelley adaptation. Recent versions seem twee compared to Hammer’s 1950-70s viscerality – and the sci-fi robot or genetic creation has overtaken Victorian aesthetics. Sleeker, stronger creations of more metal and less flesh allay our horror at simply being a cluster of mortal cells.
While vampires, werewolves and even zombies are sparkly, sexy and utterly hygienic, it has been a while since we have had a truly corporeally flawed yet articulate monster whose body as a patchwork reminds us of the patchwork of identities and ideologies we are.
Empathy with the monster may be an ideal means of navigating this age. We must embrace difference and vulnerability and reflect on the Frankensteinian powers we exert at the expense of others. We should focus not on why we are here, but how we can be here more creatively, more accountably – as part of a world which, in a way, is its own kind of sewn-together organism of multiple different parts without reason or meaning.
The opinions expressed in VIEWPOINT articles are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Anglia Ruskin University.
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