Frankenstein, Frankly

The classics.  No matter how much I read more contemporary fiction, the classics keep me coming back.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a classic in more than a single sense.  It was a novel that had tremendous influence in the nineteenth century and has continued its impact to the present.  Chris Baldick’s In Frankenstein’s Shadow can be considered a classic in its own right.  Although it only dates from the 1980s, it contains exhilarating analysis of Frankenstein in a number of authors and genres of the nineteenth century.  And I’m a fan of literary scholars who write accessibly.  I’ve read modern literary studies that I simply don’t understand and they leave me feeling alienated and cold, as if they were written for a private audience.  One that didn’t include me.  Baldick’s treatment is wide-ranging and full of moments of blinding insight and is open to all.

Often I put the book down thinking that I’d had my world changed.  Baldick’s no hero-worshipper.  He notes the weaknesses in Shelley’s writing (and they are admittedly there), but he does so respectfully.  The astonishing part of this study is the sheer breadth of the influence Baldick finds for Frankenstein.  A word or phrase, a theme here or there, and yet he makes an excellent case that these can be traced back to their monstrous forebear.  His section on Melville made me want to stand up and cheer.  (I have to admit to being more of a hero-worshipper than the author.)  This is literary criticism done right.  It makes you want to read the books you haven’t.

Since the book deals with literature, it doesn’t really address how the creature morphed into something completely different in the twentieth century.  I know I grew up thinking Frankenstein’s monster was part robot.  I suppose it was the bolts in his neck, according to the Universal script, that convinced me.  That, and his stiff-jointed lumbering about.  Shelley’s story is, however, very much a human one.  In many respects the monster is more humane than his creator.  Various aspects of this tale, including that one, are taken up in other classics and turned over, examined, and reapplied.  Suddenly quite a bit of what I’d read elsewhere made immediate sense.  Interestingly, although I grew up not so much a fan of this particular monster, books on him have become among my favorites as an adult, if I am such.  I think Baldick may have had his fingers on that revivified wrist when he wrote this book.  It certainly did for me what literary criticism always should.  At least for the classics.

Families in Trees

Genealogy is one of those things that’s fascinating as long as it’s yours.  It’s not hard to lose a few (or many) hours, trying to find ancestral connections.  When someone you don’t know begins to tell you, however, about other people you’ve never heard of, your eyes begin to glaze over.  My wife kindly gave me a gift of a local genealogy class that we attended the other day.  Along with some dozen others we gathered to learn some tricks of the trade.  The presenter began by having us introduce ourselves, “briefly.”  It’s a dangerous move in a genealogical crowd.  A few of our fellow students went into great detail about their ancestors, forgetting, for the moment, that we were there to learn how to do the research, not to find out about their families.  It’s a natural enough mistake.

None of us ask to be born, and we spend our lives wondering why we are here.  How did our parents meet?  Where were they from?  What did they do?  And the generation before that?  Some time ago I figured out that, due to the exponential nature of ancestors, that by the time you get back to just eight “greats” before for your grandparents, it took over a thousand people to make you.  It boggles the mind.  Suddenly it seems as if there would never be enough chance encounters or arranged marriages or tumbles in the hay for you to ever get here.  So many ancestors!  By the time I was in college I’d managed to trace it back to almost sixteen family names.  I was able to break through a barrier on this just over a year ago when talking to some family members about a lost ancestor at the turn of the twentieth century.  Genealogy is a search for meaning.

Both my wife and I share this interest.  Of the dozen or so others at the session, four others were married couples.  Almost all of us had done the voluntary DNA test to find our nations of origins—to confirm or deny family stories.  And that’s what it’s really about: stories.  Although we may be squeamish about some aspects, we want to know where we came from, the story of how we arrived here.  As if there’s some cosmic clue in it that gives us information on why we’re here.  It brought several of us out on a February afternoon.  We didn’t know each other.  If we traced back far enough, however, we would have found we were all related.  We are all family.

Icelandic Gods

There’s a lot to like about Iceland.  It has geothermal heat.  The people are literate and proud of it.  They don’t have an army.  Viking heritage and northern lights—what an interesting place!  A friend recently sent me a satirical piece on Patheos titled “Iceland Declares All Religions Are Mental Disorders,” by Andrew Hall.  I may not be as naive as I once was, but I have to admit I was nearly taken in on the fly.  Maybe because the idea seems so much better than what we have over here in our warmer, but less educated world.  Clearly, however, religion is extremely important to people, and if it is a mental disorder it’s an essential one.  Hall mades the astute point that Iceland didn’t want to become like the United States.  Who would, at this point?

Although this is a satirical piece, like most satire it works because it has chunks of truth in it.  Countries run by religions do seem to get into quite a lot of trouble.  I often think this is primarily a monotheistic problem.  If a nation accepts many gods, then adding those of other peoples is hardly an issue.  With a single deity, however, there is a single truth.  Anyone different is, by default, wrong.  When entire nations self-identify with a religion, it is only too easy to begin seeing those who believe differently just across the border as a threat.  Faith becomes fight.  As if a deity who always claims to value peace is only satisfied when we’re killing those who don’t share our same peaceful outlook.  Irony and satire have met together, it seems.

I’ve never been to Iceland.  It’s on my bucket list.  As a rockhound, the volcanic nature of the place calls to me.  I do wonder, however, how a vegan might fare on a far northern island.  My times in Orkney are among my mental treasures.  Those northern Scottish isles were places of wonder.  Not the most options regarding comestibles, however.  What they lacked in food they made up for in magic.  Iceland, despite the satire’s bite, has a considerable population that believes in the little people.  Anyone who’s too quick to dismiss such things ought to spend some time in the far north.  Driving to the ancient sites of Orkney certainly shifted my perspective a bit.  There’s great value in listening to the wisdom of those relatively isolated from the rest of the world.  You might, however, have to bring your own beans.

A Stiff Salute

From the way he writes, Charles F. French was a Marine.  I don’t know that for certain, but those of us who venture into fiction put ourselves into our stories.  Those who blithely reject something into which you’ve poured yourself are either boorish or unfeeling.  Yes, even literary types can be so.  This year’s reading challenge includes a book from a local author.  Since I live within a (long) commuting distance of the city, I suppose I could count New York as local.  That felt like cheating, though.  To find local authors you have to haunt independent bookstores.  I do that anyway, and a few weeks ago I found a copy of French’s Maledicus.  It fit the bill.

Although the story is about the titular demon, the ensemble protagonists are mostly military men.  There’s a strong sense of combat-readiness among them, and a good deal about military honor.  I have to admit this made me a little sad.  Don’t get me wrong, I have respect for those who are willing to fight to protect their country.  I’m sad because we need military forces at all.  I’m also a born pacifist.  My father was a veteran of the Korean War.  The military was present at his otherwise sparsely attended funeral.  I grew up reading the Bible and committed to the peaceful resolution of disagreements.  In my idealized world, we really wouldn’t need weaponry at all.  There are bad people, yes.  But like Eli Lapp, I wonder how humans can judge such things.  There are good people too.  More of them than there are bad.  More often than not, they are the victims of weaponry.

Given my work on demons, I’m always interested in their origin stories.  Maledicus gives us an evil Roman lieutenant to emperor Caligula (ahem), who is a climber and a sadist.  After his nasty and brutish life, he’s approached by a demon in the next world and joins it.  This even worse Maledicus is then taken on by the Investigative Paranormal Society, which consists of three old men, two of them retired Marines.  So you see how the military comes into it.  I won’t give any spoilers, although to my knowledge I have no local followers here in eastern Pennsylvania.  It’s a nice area for peace, actually.  The same could be said for the rest of the world.  If we put our fears aside and pooled our resources to help the vast majority of good and innocent a good number of our demons would be banished naturally.

Caesar Salary

Juxtapositions interest me.  Washington’s Birthday and taxes have become connected in my mind.  Until the present administration I had no serious concerns about taxes; if people are going to live together they need to pool their resources.  If I had a choice now no Republican would be able to lay a dirty finger on my hard-earned contributions, but I know we all use the roads and bridges.  Some of the money actually goes to useful things.  I wonder what George would’ve thought of it all, though.  His birthday is a holiday, but employers have sent out their tax forms and so it’s become a kind of day of reckoning for me.  I used to be able to calculate roughly the right amount to be withheld so that I’d get a small return each year.  Tax laws being what they are, however, that has changed rather drastically.  I leave February feeling poor and cold.  And I don’t approve of how they spend most of our money.  Still, a day off work is a fine time to visit my accountant.

The mind of the Human Resources denizen is an odd place of rules devised by no god.  I never know from year to year whether “Presidents’ Day” will be a day off or not.  I remember standing on a wintery street corner waiting for the 114X into New York because the 117 didn’t run on federal holidays.  HR had decided that year that we wouldn’t have this day off.  Like the government, Human Resources has the ability to implement laws that make no sense.  I do appreciate the fact, however, that someone understands how medical insurance works.  For that you need a specialist.  Another strange juxtaposition.  In any case I’ll visit my accountant today and it may be the only time I’ll be sweating in February.

Adulting, some of the young say, isn’t much fun.  It has certainly become a lot harder to understand.  Our government complicates things to the point that you daren’t do your own taxes.  A visit to the doctor may or may not cost you.  And don’t even bother to try and find out where all that money you send to Washington’s going.  I just hope that when I get on the interstate that it’s maintained.  And that they keep an eye on the bridges.  If they don’t I won’t be able to get to the accountant’s office to be able to pay more taxes.  On Washington’s Birthday it’s in the best interest of the powers that be to keep the roads open so that we can send them our unholy tithes.  Strange juxtaposition, it is, between Washington and Lincoln.

Render unto Caesar

In the Cult

The word “cult” has fallen out of favor with religionists.  The reason for this is the problematic claim that any one religion makes to being the “only true” religion.  If that religion then sets about to study other religions there is a built-in bias that the study is being done from the perspective of those who know the truth looking somewhat bemusedly toward other religions.  A cult was defined as a relatively new religion with a fairly small number of adherents.  The more correct term is a “New Religious Movement.”  The idea of brainwashing is controversial, but it is clear that people can be made to follow the leader against their better judgment.  We’ve seen this time and time again and not just in places like Jonestown or Waco.  The word “cult” seems to fit.

Branch Davidian compound in Waco; photo credit: FBI, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A friend recently pointed me to the work of the psychologist Jeremy E. Sherman.  Sherman has been studying the behavior of Trump followers and has illustrated quite well how it is a cult.  This is one place where the use of the term becomes essential.  I’ll lay aside my objections to the word to point out that a cult denotes a group that follows a leader without critical assessment of that leader.  You’ll have noticed that Democrats are quite critical of one another.  They think about and assess what each other say and do.  When someone like Trump, who is well known as a Pez-dispenser of lies, becomes a saintly paragon of his party, capable of no wrong, we’re in the land of cults.  What Sherman does that I can’t, is suggest how to deal with such thinking.

Most of us try to reason with our interlocutors.  If reason is turned off, as in blind following, it simply falls on deaf ears.  The public record of Trump’s doings speaks for itself.  Those who refuse to see it or engage it will never be reasoned out of it.  The parallels with Hitler’s Germany are extremely frightening.  Not even a decade after his death Hitler was understood to have been clearly unstable and driven by evil impulses.  Many of those alive today overlapped with the lifetime of this dictator.  There’s no doubt that Nazism behaved like a classic cult.  Presented with credible evidence of breaking the law while within office, Trump’s followers blithely acquitted him.  Those who study cults would expect no less.  We need to arm ourselves with knowledge of how religious thinking works.  To do otherwise is dangerous, despite what our economically driven bastions of higher education may say.  (See?  I’m critical of those on my side!)  Or we can lay down reason and simply follow.

The Tube

I’m sitting in a medical facility waiting room.  I’m not afraid of dying, but medical stuff terrifies me.  To calm me down, inane daytime television is on.  I may be one of the very few who brings a book to such places, but I can’t read with the insipid chatter going on.  This time, since I’m waiting for someone else, I brought my laptop.  Nevertheless, I can’t help but think of Ray Bradbury at times like this.  Many people think Fahrenheit 451 is about burning books.  Bradbury did write about burning books in his short stories, and it does happen in Fahrenheit 451, but that’s not what the book is about.  In interviews he said that he intended, as is pretty obvious from a straightforward reading of the text, to warn about the invasive nature of television.  It was, metaphorically, burning books.

Waiting rooms always bring that to mind.  Not only that, but it’s Valentine’s Day and all the talk shows are going on about how it’s “the day of love” (every day should be).  It’s not a day off work; I had to cash in a sick day to be here.  The word “holiday” keeps cropping up on the television, to which I have my back. Ever since leaving Nashotah House I haven’t watched television.  On our recent move to Pennsylvania our cable company didn’t offer a non-television option.  It was unthinkable.  We pay for something we don’t use.  Burning books.  I don’t have time for television.  I see shows that have proven their worth via DVD well after they’re off the air.  And that only when I can read or write no more in a day.  I guess I’m a Bradbury disciple.

Like any disciple, I have changed certain teachings of my leader.  Bradburyism is a religion objecting to ubiquitous television.  At the same time, I grew up watching the tube, and to this day I’ll stop just about anything to watch DVDs of The Twilight Zone.  Rod Serling, however, selected stories and teleplays that were well written.  This was a literate show.  Besides, my daily life often feels like the Twilight Zone.  Like Valentine’s Day in a waiting room.  The book beside me remains unopened.  It’s the same when I take the car to the garage, or go in for an oil change.  You can’t escape it, even though everyone else is paying attention to their phones.  How long until we learn to switch off?  Of course, medical waiting rooms are the places where I may need brainless distraction the most.

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution