Monday, December 05, 2005

Creation Ex Mater Matrix: The Feminine Sublime in Frankenstein

Seated in the third of our prenatal classes, my wife and I, were watching a video showing the stages of labour. Throughout the video, the group expressed a combination of fascination at the amazing process by which birth would take place, and revulsion over the painful and gory reality of what can be felt and seen within the process. There is definitely an element of the sublime to human birth, and by extension, to life itself. In a body wherein “the circulatory system…is 60,000 miles long” (McCutcheon, 135), the more than 600 bones of which “can withstand stresses of 24,000 pounds per square inch or about 4 times that of steel or reinforced concrete” (127) all wrapped within skin that holds the predominantly liquid form together in what is essentially one piece (141), there are certainly “the features of…obscurity, immense power and vastness in dimension and quality” which Edmund Burke claimed as “the features of objects which evoke sublime horror” (Abrams, 317). It is this aspect of the sublime as it is found (or not found) within Mary Shelley’s “birth myth” (Mishra, 197) of Frankenstein I will discuss in this paper, primarily relating to the absence of creator, both in reference to God and mother.

In The Gothic Flame, Devendra Varma states that “the Gothic novels out of a quest for the numinous” (211). Rudolf Otto speaks of the numinous as the “mysterium tremendum” which is “awe or dread…so overwhelmingly great that it seems to penetrate to the very marrow…” (109). The language of the numinous has a transcendent quality to it, as though the Gothic novel were intended to be a quest to experience the Western Creator God, the very God whom Victor Frankenstein plays at being in constructing his monster. Yet this cannot be the portal for the sublime in Frankenstein, since Shelley’s protagonist sees himself as equal to “a power mighty as Omnipotence,” whom he will not “fear, or…bend before any being less almighty than that which had created and ruled the elements...” (341). It is within the absence, not the presence of numinous that Frankenstein derives its sublime moments, differing from “earlier myths about the human creation of life…in that for the first time life is created by the scientist’s effort alone, without the invocation of God or some super-natural agency” (Padley, 205). Frankenstein utilizes the Gothic sublime, which Vijay Mishra describes as “not a simple aesthetic category arising out of a delight with terror, but as the fundamental faculty of the imagination, which grasps the essence of the Gothic before reason supervenes and effectively silences it.

This act of censorship is precisely what the Gothic refuses to accept, and it is at this point that the Gothic sublime is effectively the subject’s entry into the abyss as it faces the full consequences of the failure to transcend. Where the Romantic sublime, finally, has the triumphant subject, the Gothic sublime is a version of the Lacanian Real as the “embodiment of pure negativity” into which the subject inscribes itself as an absence, a lack in the structure itself (17).

It is Victor’s negation of God as creator which is the first aspect of Mishra’s definition of the sublime as “an absence” in Frankenstein, when he states that “a new species would bless me as its creator” (Shelley, 82). Phrases such as “given life” (104), “infuse a spark of being” (84), and the prominence of the verb “form” all have a mystical quality to them, the last alluding to Adam being formed from clay by God in Genesis. Victor’s monster is sublime because of its progenitor’s “desecration of the processes of creation itself” (Mishra, 220). Yet God is not the only creator whom Victor Frankenstein attempts to displace. Shelley’s text is also about “an ambiguous usurpation of women’s right to reproduce” (206) describing “the monstrosity of unnatural birth, through the exclusion of the mother” (Deleyto, 41).

Before ever setting to work upon the monster, Victor engages in a perverse form of ‘planned parenthood’ where he hesitates “a long time”, weighing the implications of preparing “a frame…with all its intricacies of fibres, muscles and veins,” an endeavour he envisions as a “work of inconceivable difficulty and labour” (Shelley, 82), a work naturally reserved for women. Unlike a woman though, Victor does not bear his progeny within his body, but rather builds the creation “in a solitary chamber, or rather cell…separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase” (83). Unlike a woman, who bears the signs of her condition within her body, Victor’s ‘pregnancy’ is secret, taking place in a “workshop” (83) rather than a womb. Herein is another aspect of the sublime in Frankenstein, again characterized by Mishra’s “absence”, in this case of the mother as creative force.

In her article “Coveting the Feminine”, Diane Negra states that Victor Frankenstein possesses a “profoundly ambivalent view of femininity based on attraction/repulsion” (194). Quoting Hannibal Lecter in the film Silence of the Lambs, Negra connects the horror of Frankenstein not to “anger, social acceptance, sexual frustration” but to the simple statement that “He covets” (193). When Victor states that he “began the creation of a human being” (Shelley, 82), he “invents himself as a literal (and twisted) model of single parenthood, a condition for which there is but one prototype to whose tale he can refer, i.e. Mary, mother of Christ” (Padley, 205). It is within this great breach of the natural order that Shelley is given ultimate permission to “condemn Frankenstein for daring to ‘usurp the power of women’” (Mishra, 200).

This feminine power is the most explicit aspect of the sublime in Frankenstein, since it is also the most “absent”. It is this absence which produces the horror, since Victor’s reaction to his patchwork offspring could hardly be deemed maternal; “…now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart” (86). As Padley comments:
Everything about the monster’s demeanour – its attentive eyes, its incoherent noises, its uncertain smile, its reaching hand—likens it to a helpless human baby, yet Frankenstein, when forced to engage with such a potent and distorted image of his own creativity, turns on his heel and runs away. (204)
Later on, the creature will ponder, “where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses” (Shelley, 149).

While it is useless to ponder whether a female Victor (Victoria?) would have “blessed” the monster with “smiles and caresses”, it is impossible to overlook “the relationship between art and childbirth” in the life of Mary Shelley, since she “was pregnant much of the time while Frankenstein was being written…and had already experienced the death of a premature child in 1815 and the birth of another, though not premature, in January 1816” (Mishra, 192). In a patriarchal society, wherein Shelley would have been “bereft of power” condemned to “the role of the passive ‘transcriber’”, Frankenstein acts to communicate “the female sublime that cannot be divorced from a woman’s body itself, blood, tissues, childbirth and all” (201) by bringing attention to its absence through the loud desecration Victor Frankenstein’s progeny represents.

This absence is made all the more stark when one considers Padley’s assessment of Victor as creator, comparing the fictional scientist to Professor Gunther von Hagens, whose controversial Body World exhibition displayed “26 complete human corpses and 180 separate body parts…preserved by ‘Plastination’” a procedure whereby “the assorted carcasses were rendered sufficiently rigid to be free standing, yet flexible enough to be manipulated into almost any position.” (196). Padley states that “neither of these men deserve the title of ‘Creator’ (they have not created Something from Nothing)” (198). And while a woman does not create a child ex nihilo either, “that humans and other species have been created and continued to exist is, from its scientific sense, conceptually sublime” (200). The absence which creates the Gothic sublime in Frankenstein rests within the human body, be it created by God or birthed by woman; “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (New International Version, Psalm 139:13-14).

Works Cited
Abrams, M.H. and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. “Sublime.” A Glossary of Literary Terms Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005. 316-319.
Deleyto, Celestino. “Women and Other Monsters: Frankenstein and the Role of the Mother in El espĂ­riu de la colmena.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies. 76 (1999): 39-51.
McCutcheon, Marc. The Compass in Your Nose and Other Astonishing Facts about Humans. Los Angeles, Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1989.
Mishra, Vijay. The Gothic Sublime. Albany : State University of New York Press, 1994.
Negra, Diane. “Coveting the Feminine: Victor Frankenstein, Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill.” Literature Film Quarterly, 24 (1996): 193-200.
Otto, Rudolf. “The Idea of the Holy.” Theory and Method in the Study of Religion: A Selection of Critical Readings. Ed. Carl Olson. Toronto, Ontario: Thomson Wadsworth, 2003. 107-119.
Padley, Jonathan. “Frankenstein and (sublime) creation.” 9 Romanticism. (2003): 196-212.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: the original 1818 text. Ed. D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1996.
Varma, Devendra P. The Gothic flame : being a history of the Gothic novel in England : its origins, efflorescence, disintegration, and residuary influences. London : A. Barker, 1957.