Making Frankenstein

Some days ago I mentioned reading a book about Frankenstein.  This was Making the Monster: The Science behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup.  I’ve read several books like this, many of them written about on this blog (search “Frankenstein”—there is a search box out there!), about the context of Frankenstein.  The base story is all the more compelling for having been written by a teenager who’d eloped with a married man who would eclipse her literarily.  Mary Shelley never got rich off Frankenstein, but it is one of the best known novels of the nineteenth century.  It had an impact during the author’s lifetime and has continued to have one these centuries later.  Harkup, however, is a scientist.  Her specific interest, apart from being a female writer herself, is in the science of the story.

Arranged thematically, Making the Monster covers several of the developments which would’ve been “in the air” at the time.  Mary and Percy Shelley both read science also, and knew many of these things.  There was the question of reanimating the dead that coincided with the early dissections of humans that made the modern study of anatomy possible.  There were medical breakthroughs—some of the more difficult parts of this book to read—and there were experiments with electricity.  There were cases of children raised in the wild that had been found and their subsequent stories documented.  There was evolution (in the form known to Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus), there was revolution.  It was a time with so much happening that Frankenstein became a cathartic outpouring of the human soul amid the science that both Shelleys atheistically accepted.

Much of this book is fascinating, even after reading other similar accounts to the background of the novel.  What really brought it all together for me, however, was reading through the chronology at the end.  It takes me several days to read books.  What with the monster of daily work I often forget some of what I’ve read along the way from introduction to conclusion.  Having a chronology at the end reminded me of just how much information is packed in between these covers.  The narrative covers about a century (longer, if you include the alchemists), and shows how Mary was using fiction to address some very real science.  Harkup never loses track of Mary Shelley’s personal experience, however.  Estranged from her father, constantly on the move, widowed fairly young, losing several children, treated poorly by aristocratic in-laws, hers was a story of perseverance and ultimately influencing the western canon.  It shows that science and art can assist one another to make us all more human.  And the monsters left behind endure.

Half of Us

Today is International Women’s Day.  We need to pause a moment and think.  We can’t change the past, but we can improve on it.  I think it’s fair to say that historically—before the Enlightenment anyway—domestic arrangements were the product of evolution rather than intention.  Like religion, however, domestic arrangements have a difficult time keeping up with change in real time.  By the time healthcare improved and women’s chances of surviving childbearing grew, men had become set in their ways.  Even now we still have trouble getting a female on a presidential ballot in “the most advanced” country in the world.  The week before International Women’s Day Elizabeth Warren stepped out of the race.  The rational world is so desperate to get the anomaly out of the White House that it hasn’t really dawned what a lost opportunity this was.

Although for most of history their roles have been hidden, half the advances of the human race belong fairly to women.  Males often have difficulty admitting that they require help, or had any assistance getting to where they are.  In fact, though, we know they had mothers and those mothers helped make them who they were.  Many of them had spouses who kept the situation stable enough that they could go on and follow their preoccupations.  History, unfortunately, would record only the names of the men.  In the western world this was often reflected in the changing of names during marriage.  Domesticity comes with a price, but it can be balanced out.

Capitalism, it seems to me, rewards the greedy.  Instead of evening things out so that those who don’t have the same opportunities can be cared for, our economic system rewards selfishness.  I often wonder if women would’ve been so suppressed had a more humane measure of human worth been adopted.  When I think of billionaires whose names I’ve never heard of before, I always mentally add, “they wouldn’t be billionaires if the rest of us refused to play the game.”  It’s only because we agree to an arbitrary and artificial valuing system that we allow the obscure to “own” far more than the rest of us.  Women, it seems to me, would know the realities of this way better than most men do.  What if the value system we shared measured worth in having had a mother?  It’s something we all share.  Yet in this nation we still haven’t passed the Equal Rights Amendment.  The time has come to ask ourselves what’s really important.  Today should be the answer.

Ash + Hera

I’ve obviously been reading about the Greek gods.  Apart from being borrowed and renamed by the Romans they’ve remained pretty much unchanged through the millennia.  Those who read a blog like this will recognize the names of many Olympians and would recognize the name of the head honcho as Zeus.  The name of Zeus is Indo-European—this is a linguistic group, and not necessarily an ethnic one.  That is to say, the languages of ancient India and ancient Europe are related.  Zeus, it has been postulated, is related to the word Deus, familiar to many Catholics as a Latin word for God.  In antiquity most gods had personal names as well as titles, but this is something we see a little more clearly in the Semitic linguistic realm.  The texts of the Bible and its surrounding cultures often preserve titles as well as names.

Photo credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen, via WikiMedia Commons

Hera is widely recognized as the consort of Zeus.  It’s a bit of a misnomer to refer to divine couples as “spouses” since they really don’t comport themselves according to human-style conventions.  In any case, Hera in Greek mythology is an underdeveloped character.  She’s jealous of Zeus’ many affairs, and she sometimes punishes his children by other women or goddesses.  Her name is a bit of a mystery, and the other day I was trying to remember where I’d read that she may be a shortened form of Asherah.  My research on Asherah is now nearly old enough to fit in with the classics, but much of it still remains fresh in my mind.  In any case, the reasoning went like this: Asherah always appears as the consort of the high god.  The Greek Zeus was clearly influenced by Semitic ideas associated with Hadad, or Baal.  And while Asherah was not Baal’s consort, Zeus is clearly the high god so his main squeeze should be that of the highest order.

Greek, as a language, had trouble beginning words with a vowel followed by the “sh” sound, like Asherah.  The argument went that if you knock the “as” off the front of that divine name you’re left with Herah, and the final h isn’t pronounced anyway.  This line of reasoning always made sense to me.  Deities in antiquity were defined more by what they did than by what their names were.  In a patriarchal world, being the consort of the highest male was about the most a goddess could aspire to.  Still, we all know of the more colorful individuals who take a more forward position: Athena and Artemis—both powerful virgins—and the somewhat more naughty Aphrodite.  All those names beginning with alpha!  They could teach us something today, I suspect, if we read our classics.

Human HU

In these times of extreme xenophobia, we desperately need to understand those who are different.  When my brother recently shared his discovery of The HU’s album The Gereg, I was at first a little concerned.  That deep-seated childhood evangelicalism suggests anything that unfamiliar is bound to be satanic.  How unfamiliar?  Mongolian throat-singing unfamiliar.  Songs sung in Mongolian, unfamiliar.  Album art that could be heavy metal.  I’d never come across anything like it.  I suppose it’s a natural, knee-jerk reaction to say anything so unfamiliar is potentially demonic, and it shows just how paranoid a culture can be.  We think of 1950’s America as “the norm.”  I wasn’t alive then, but I’ve seen pictures.  Buzz cuts still give me the willies.  I trust Mongolians more.

I don’t know if The HU is a deliberate play on The Who or not, but the word roughly translates to “human.”  Like many ancient practices, nobody thought to write down the origins of throat singing.  Traditionally it was what Inuit women did when men were out on the hunt.  Like many aspects of hunter-gatherer society, it fascinates.  Some cultures reported that when Christian missionaries came, with their cultural imperialism in tow, they suppressed throat singing.  It looks like I wasn’t the only one raised to be suspicious of that which is different.  I learned, however, of my own cultural biases.  I learned that ones’ own assumptions must be interrogated.  If humanity is to survive, we must learn to try to understand one another.

Although the actual roots of throat singing are lost in unwritten times, I strongly suspect it has a religious, or if you prefer, spiritual, origin.  When women gather it isn’t the same as when men consolidate power and institutionalize violence.  I’ve read that when women rule there is a strong impulse to cooperate, to suppress aggression.  Men can learn this.  Indeed, as those white, male missionaries took up their positions in far-flung parts of the globe they spread the idea that men alone held the divine right of, if not kings, priests.  Conversion, you see, is seldom gentle.  Making the world in your own image, if you’re a man, runs into certain obvious problems right away.  HU means human.  When I feel the cold paranoia of my own government creeping up on me, I cue-up the soundtrack of my life.  I’m no longer a young man, and I don’t fear the different as much as I used to.  I need to hear something different, something human.

Shifting Perspectives

Perspective.  The ability to change it is vital to understanding.  I’ve been working with the idea of demons for a few years now.  My perspective, however, has been aided by Nancy Caciola’s Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages.  Noting something that has long been a puzzle—behaviors attributed to saints were also recognized among the demonically possessed—Caciola suggests a solution.  In the Middle Ages very few female saints were canonized.  Delving into records from the period Caciola noticed that when saintly behaviors exhibited by men were experienced by women those behaviors were deemed demonic.  In other words, from a perspective that saw masculine experience as normative, when supernatural events were encountered in women they were seen as diabolical.  Using Hildegard of Bingen’s frame of an “effeminate age,” Discerning Spirits explores the idea of how the Medievals told good from evil.

 My own experience of “discerning spirits” came about through a United Methodist curricular study on spiritual gifts.  I was in either junior or senior high school, and deeply involved in the church.  An adult study (I was close enough) on spiritual gifts explained the laundry list compiled by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12.  The apostle from Tarsus notes that discerning spirits is a divine gift.  I trembled as a teen, wondering if I might possibly have it (that was the point of the study).  It seemed like an immense responsibility.  The issue, it turns out, was nothing new.  Since codified in the Bible it had to be true, but what was it all about?  Smarter people than me were struggling with it.

There’s plenty of provocative and explanatory information in Discerning Spirits.  From ancient times it was understood that gods could possess people.  By the New Testament demons clearly could too.  We hear less and less about divine possession as time goes on.  In fact, it becomes a kind of heresy in itself.  Demonic possession was never really in doubt.  It fell out of favor with the Enlightenment, but it didn’t really disappear.  This book shows a clear trajectory from women’s possession as being demonic straight toward the witch craze that erupted in Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages.  It was no coincidence that the majority of accused witches were female.  The perspective had shifted with the fortunes of the church during the Medieval period.  Fear of schism and fear of unsupervised spirituality in a world where only men could be priests led to results that, in hindsight, look inevitable.  Caciola’s book is an important source for not only ages past, but also a mindset all too prevalent in our present world.

Memories of Scotland

I admire those who follow their dreams.  I have been writing fiction for over forty years now, and although I’ve had some success placing short pieces my novels haven’t found much interest.  So when I see the published work of someone who obviously loves writing as much as Ailish Sinclair does, it warms my heart.  Her debut novel, The Mermaid and the Bear, is the kind of historical fiction tinged with a little fantasy, all set in Scotland.  Having spent three happy years in Scotland myself, I like to read native writers.  One of the categories in this year’s Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge is a debut novel, so all these things came together in this one little book.  There may be a little spoiler info below, so proceed with caution!

Sometimes I read a novel without knowing much about it in advance.  That was the case with this one.  I read Sinclair’s blog posts and appreciate the fact that she doesn’t compose long, rambling essays.  Her posts often make me stop and think.  Her novel follows a love story that turns into a witch-hunt.  Unlike that claimed by those who have the whole world watching them, this was a real one.  The historical notes tell a bit about the characters based on women actually tried in Scotland during those dark times.  In fact, when one of my doctoral advisors gave my wife and me a walking tour of Edinburgh early on in our time there, he pointed out where the witch trials had taken place.  Sinclair captures the rage and frustration of women who had no recourse once such accusations flew.  A religion only too ready to believe the worst about people, women in particular, showed no mercy based on what was only hearsay and jealousy.

It’s difficult to imagine what life would have been like in such times.  Castles and lairds make us think of fairy tales, but reality must’ve been somewhat harsher.  It’s fun to pretend about witches around Halloween, but there’s a sadness that’s difficult to escape as an adult.  That sadness is all the more profound for finding claims of witch-hunts on the lips of abusers and others who do their best to perpetuate inequality.  They dishonor those who actually did die so that men like them could feel smug self-satisfaction in the past.  The Mermaid and the Bear brought a number of these thoughts to mind.  Our society has made some strides towards treating all people as human beings but we’re yet a long way from where we need to be.  Books that remind us of that are always to be welcomed; dreams are worth pursuing.

Space Farce

Okay, so “Space Force” sounds like a gimmick that you’d see in a 1950’s ad geared to dungaree-wearing boys.  These boys, who’d be named “Dick” would show the girls, named “Jane,” just how it was done.  So as I read about the furor of dedicating a King James Bible from the Bible Museum as the official Bible for military branches aimed at the stars, I had to think how very small we actually are.  So 45 thinks, like Reagan thought, that we need outer-space defenses.  These guys need to read more science fiction.  Actually, some plain old science would help.  If there are most advanced civilizations out there—and such seems increasingly likely, given that our understanding of science is subject to change—we are nothing more than cosmic mosquitoes buzzing close to our own planet where we can wail on each other in the name of lucre.  And we call it “Space Force.”

An article on NPR points out the hypocrisy of swearing in the military on a Bible.  One guy in there, I’ve heard tell, was called “the prince of peace.”  He’s somewhere near the back.  The public loves a good warmonger, though.  We can send our tentative rockets into orbit where bug-eyed aliens laugh with bemusement, and say “Just you try something.”  Or we can make business deals with Russia with one hand while pointing our missiles in their direction with the other.  Is that a missile or am I misreading something, Dick?  I can’t ask Jane, because she just follows along.  Maybe we’re inheriting the consequences of those who grew up reading Dick and Jane.  Boys with their rockets, girls with their dolls.

Bringing religion into the military is nothing new.  German soldiers marched out into a couple of World Wars with “Gott mit uns” inscribed on their waists.  Millions died.  No lessons were learned.  So now we want to take conflict so far over our heads that we can’t even see.  Ancient people knew the gods were fighting far above.  That’s how they made sense of the world.  Some, like Erich von Däniken took those stories literally and thought our alien observers were the reason.  Now that we’ve got drones we have no need of UFOs anymore.  All that sci-fi I watched as a kid wasn’t wasted after all.  Only I grew up reading that Bible instead of swearing on it.  I was pretty sure that war wasn’t a good thing, as he rode on a red horse with his sword pointing upward.  Time to dust off William S. Gray and get back to watching Space Force. 

From NASA’s photo library