Sunday 31 October 2010

Gods and Monsters

Happy Hallowe'en.

I was watching The Bride of Frankenstein yesterday; appreciating the fact that James Whale invented the self-analysing comic horror film decades before Wes Craven thought it would be tremendously cute to have characters in a slasher film talk about the narrative rules of slasher films.

At one point, the insane, camp, gin-swigging Dr Pretorius (played by the ridiculously watchable Ernest Thesiger) shows Frankenstein (Colin Clive) his collection of creations: tiny people that Pretorius grew from cultures and... well, it's pretty much indescribable.  Watch it for yourself.  If you've never seen it, you need to.

It isn't explicitly said, but clearly both Pretorius and Frankenstein anticipate (the former with relish and the latter with fear) the breeding of a new race.  Pretorius, for all his campness and his disdain for every human female he meets, seems interested in the breeding potential of these creations of science.

Meanwhile, Frankenstein's monster turns out to have survived the first film and, having learned to talk, expresses his demand for a "friend"... by which he is taken to mean a woman with whom he can mate, though he doesn't express this desire himself. What the children of Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester would have looked like is odd enough to contemplate by itself, without imagining babies with cuboid heads and electrified, badger-striped hairdos.

It got me thinking about the origins of the novel Frankenstein.  I don't mean all that stuff that's supposed to have gone down at the Villa Diodati, which is depicted at the opening of Bride of Frankenstein as an arch costume drama, rather than the hazy blur of bullshitting and indolence and copping off that it probably was.  I mean the work and influence of Luigi Galvani, who suggested in 1791 that electricity was an innate property of animal life, and that it might even be the "vital force"... supposedly after noticing the legs of a dead frog kicking when he touched the nerves with his scapel during a lightning storm.  (I'm told he was searching for the testicles, having formed the theory that frogs kept them in their legs.)  Galvani's conclusions about animal electricity were flawed and were superceded by Volta, but 'galvanism' caught on as an idea.  And as morbid, gothic entertainment.  Galvani's nephew Giovanni Aldini became something of a hit, giving demonstrations of how dead bodies could be made to react to electrical charges.

In one famous incident in 1803, Aldini had the corpse of a just-hanged murderer, George Foster, brought from Newgate to the Royal College of Surgeons, where he electocuted the body, causing its jaw to twitch and one of its eyes to open.  When Aldini probed its rectum, the body is said to have arched and kicked and raised its fist as though in fury.  Well, you would, wouldn't you?  This was one of many such experiments carried out by many scientists at the time.  There was another guy who claimed to have briefly reanimated some decapitated kittens.  Awwwww.

According to Mary (writing well afterwards) these experiments were one topic of discussion amongst the bright young things - Byron, Shelley, Mary herself, et al - at the Villa Diodati, alongside the experiments of Dr Erasmus Darwin.  Erasmus Darwin - the grandfather of Charles - was supposed to have bestowed life on pasta, much to the fascination of many people.  Mary claimed that this story, combined with the experiments in galvanism, inspired her to think that a creature might be constructed from parts and then be brought to life.

Erasmus Darwin - who had known Mary's father, the radical philosopher William Godwin - was, interestingly enough, a proto-evolutionary thinker.  In Zoonomia and some of his poems, Erasmus put forward (sometimes obliquely) notions of life developing and changing.  His last poem traces life from primordial soup (presumably minestrone with sentient noodles in it) to modern society.  It was a hit with Romantics like Wordsworth.

The later Darwin would agonise over publishing his findings, knowing that he would be subject to fierce attacks by those who saw natural selection as dethroning God.  Which is what Mary's story is supposed by many to be about: a scientist who challenges God.  The idea that Frankenstein has 'played God' has far more life outside of the novel than inside.  It isn't a central concern of the book.  By contrast, the first theatrical adaptation was called Presumption! or The Fate of Frankenstein, and in James Whale's films people harp on at length about how Frankenstein has meddled in things that man should leave to God.  Of course, in Whale's movies, this is surface patter, lying on top of the deeper concerns.

Whale himself was both irreligious and openly gay.

Many film critics have suggested that the films, especially Bride, can be subject to a gay reading.  They point to the way the camp Pretorius separates Frankenstein from his future wife (his bride, you might say) and propositions him, suggesting that they collaborate in creating new life from seed, as though Pretorius is attempting some kind of gay biological procreation.  Meanwhile, the Monster (who is a despised and hunted outsider) uses one word for all prospective relationships, be they with men or women: "friend".  His friendship with a blind pauper is interpreted as a potential marriage, interrupted by ignorant and intolerant yokels.  Ultimately, he is incompatible with the "bride" that Frankenstein and Pretorius create for him.

The other way that this film is often read is as a Christian allegory.  The Monster is put into Christlike poses several times, especially when captured, tied to a pole and raised in the air, his hands tied above his head.  Crosses abound (though most of these are in the film because several scenes take place in a graveyard).  And so on.

I can't pretend to be sufficiently familiar with the critical literature to evaluate these claims.  Apparently, a lot of people who knew James Whale consider them bullshit - but then they don't need to have been intentional in order to be present in the texts.

There's an interesting (if flowery) article about this stuff here.

Anyway, it's impossible to deny that a story about a creator who makes a man, gives him free will, turns him out into the world and then comes into conflict with him has to be, in some way, a reiteration of 'Genesis'.

In light of this, it's interesting to look at the first ever depiction of the Monster, an engraving created for the 1831 publication by the truly great and shamefully undervalued artist Theodor von Holst.

And to compare it to another famous image of a newly created man...

There's more than a slight resemblance.  Adam, of course, doesn't have to take in the sight of his creator's eyes wide with horror as they look upon him... not just yet anyways.

There's no reason to think von Holst didn't take direct inspiration from Michaelangelo.  Holst was a Romantic with a love of the gothic and the supernatural, but it would be a mistake to think of Romanticism and the gothic as a repudiation of the classical, just as it would be wrong to think of Modernism as a repudiation of Expressionism (which horror films like The Bride of Frankenstein illustrate well enough). 

Holst studied under Fuseli, who painted Mary Shelley's mother Mary Wollstonecraft, the great feminist and author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman, who died a little more than a week after giving birth to the future author of Frankenstein.  

Holst was also the great uncle of the composer Gustav Holst, who wrote The Planets suite, which includes a movement entitled 'Mars, the Bringer of War', routinely used directly in sci-fi (Quatermass) or as inspiration for sci-fi music, including Peter Howell's music for 'The Leisure Hive'.  This is perfectly fitting because The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells is (like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) one of the foundational texts of science-fiction, thus trading on the percieved connection between Mars and war and translating this into the context of the nascent 'alien invasion' sub-genre.  (As everyone knows, War of the Worlds was dramatised for the radio by Howard Koch and performed by Orson Welles' and John Houseman's Mercury Theatre of the Air, causing widespread panic in America upon the eve of Hallowe'en in 1938.)  It's also fitting because The Planets is a synthesis of astrological notions and musical modernism, which strikes me as pleasingly analagous to my idea that sci-fi is a reiteration of myth and legend in the idioms of the technological age.

The Mercury Theatre broadcast (which featured George Colouris, who would later be cast by Welles as Mr Thatcher in Citizen Kane... and would later go on to even greater achievements, playing Arbitan in 'The Keys of Marinus') is supposed to have had such an amazing effect partly because the American people were skittishly aware that they were on the brink of entering World War II.  Holst's 'Mars, The Bringer of War' takes something of its terrific and stentorian power from the fact that it was written during World War I, during the period when people gradually became aware that the 'Great War' was a horrifying scrabble for muddy and blood-soaked land, with bodies ploughed under barbed wire by great, rolling, implacable, metal monsters called tanks.

Tanks looked like the machines of the future.  They were.  They were the final death knell of the pre-capitalist society.  Bayonets gave way to steel behemoths.  Industry and technology could now make things like that: inhuman, unstoppable, alien, seemingly out of human control.  The trauma of them still echoes through Western culture, with the Daleks themselves partly confected from the memory of these utterly inhuman, bolted, riveted, armour plated, gun-sprouting war monsters. 

Of course, part of the peculiar power of Frankenstein lies in the fact that the Monster is something man made.  He is a product.  An artifact of human creativity and labour.  The Universal version even has dirty great bolts sticking out of his neck, just to emphasize his status as a cyborg (like a Cyberman or a Dalek), as a thing made of bits and pieces, like a car made from parts on a production line.  Frankenstein's monster is the first great monster of Western culture that is made, that is something that humans have fabricated and constructed ourselves.  Instead of encountering it as a hostile part of the landscape, like a predator, we place it in the landscape, and our treatment of it makes it our enemy.  The book expresses a moment in Europe when science was on the rise, when Enlightenment and Reason had become both causes and dogmas.  It was all to do with the slow, lingering death of feudalism and the slow, inexorable rise of capitalism.  It's a big topic, but thinkers from Rousseau to Mary's own father had confronted the old order (Things as They Are, to use the alternative title of Godwin's novel Caleb Williams, a bitter and radical condemnation of the power of aristocracy) with what they conceived of as Reason.  Mary's book is also partly a rebuke to this.  The child of Reason, the product of the new and scientific and sacriligious man, the product of the age of bourgeois production, is a monster that becomes the victim of the flaws in the creator's project and then comes back for revenge.  And breeds.  Tanks breed.  Bombs breed.  Cars breed.  Toys breed.  We have to make them, but they hardly seem like ours at all.  We don't control them.  Or our control becomes more and more remote.  The product of the new age ultimately gives the lie to the ideals of liberty and justice.  Like the tank that is created by capitalism to fight wars for freedom and peace... by bulldozing the bullet-riddled corpses of kids into the mud.

(The solution to this riddle is to be found in the work of Mary's husband Percy, who - in his unsure and unreliable way - was a radical who understood that the people are the ones who have to enforce change, and that that change can be a monster itself rather than a graceful victory for Reason.  In Prometheus Unbound - those Romantics loved Prometheus... Frankenstein's alt title was The Modern Prometheus - Shelley writes of Demogorgon, the monster that can be invoked to destroy tyranny.  Demogorgon.  The Peoplemonster.)

But back to the problem, as identified.  The products that turn.  Marx called capital (the product of human labour appropriated and confronting us as hostile and alien) a vampire.  Mary Shelley had the product of the work of the scientist become a murderous reproach to him.  We still routinely invoke the word "monster" when talking about such products.  We need the language of monsters.

And this just may be a central concern of sci-fi, including Doctor Who.  Voc Robots are created things that turn against us, products that kill.  Xoanon.  The Oracle.  B.O.S.S.  The Peking Homunculus.  WOTAN and his War Machines.  Autons.  Daleks and Cybermen are created things too, half organism and half machine.  Killing machines with people trapped inside somewhere.  Many Doctor Who monsters (more than you'd think) turn out to be created things, or partly created things.  The Ice Warriors have visors and guns integrated in their shells; the Sontarans are clones; the Zygons live on the milk of a cyborg monster.  They're all, partly, the deformed and disowned children of Frankenstein.

Of course, there's a more direct child.  Morbius.  Solon is the mad scientist, living in the castle with the deformed servant, listening to the thunder as he plots to reanimate a criminal (by probing the rectum?), scheming to make a monster from scavanged bits and pieces, ultimately turned upon by his creation, hunted down by torch-weilding locals, etc.  But that's got much more to do with the movies - Universal and Hammer - than it has to do with Mary Shelley.  Even the Sisterhood come from Rider Haggard via Hammer.   

Doctor Who is itself Frankenstein's monster, made of scavanged and second-hand bits and pieces.

That's why its amusing to think of the Character Options toys that so many of us Who fans collect (no doubt made with oil that has to be controlled through invasions of which many of us disapprove).  We're like Dr Pretorius, playing with his little people in jars.  Gods playing with our monsters.  Just make sure you keep the lid on the jar with Cpt. Harkness in it... unless you want your little people to breed.

Anyway, I'm tired of all this brainstorming.  Hallowe'en is over.

Good night.  If you can.

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