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The Modern Prometheus

In the summer of 1816, five young people vacationed together on the shores of Lac Léman in Switzerland. In one cottage were the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary Shelley, and Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont. In a grander house nearby, the Villa Diodati, were George Gordon, better known as Lord Byron, and his personal physician and friend, John William Polidori. It was an unusually rainy summer, spoiling all of the friends’ outdoor plans. One rainy night, however, as the five were gathered at the Villa Diodati reading German ghost stories in French translation, Byron was seized with an idea: “We will each write a ghost story.”

It proved to be a momentous choice of pastimes, though only two complete ghost stories resulted from the challenge. One of them, Polidori’s The Vampyre, was published in 1819. The other was written by Mary Shelley, a gothic tale called Frankenstein, which would become, after its publication in 1818, one of the best-known novels ever written and one of the founding myths of the modern world.

A myth is a story that addresses the deepest hopes and anxieties of a people. Because of its profundity, a mythic narrative tends to be told again and again, in variation after variation, yet with its essential meaning always remaining intact. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, remarkably for a novel begun when its author was only eighteen, vividly strikes at one of modern man’s darkest fears: the fear of his own power to manipulate nature according to his wish.

Mary Shelley, of course, did not invent the myth of Prometheus, the Titan who defied the gods. But she did concoct a decidedly modern variation of that myth, one making thematic the prodigious capabilities of modern technology combined with the terrible desire to create human life out of nothing.

Mary Shelley, in fact, subtitled Frankenstein, “The Modern Prometheus.” [1] But as Maurice Hindle points out in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, in Frankenstein Mary Shelley actually fuses two versions of the Prometheus myth. On the one hand, there is the ancient Greek version of the story, in which the rebellious and cunning Prometheus steals fire from Olympus in order to help mankind. On the other hand, there is the later version of the story found in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this version, Prometheus is not so much concerned with saving human beings as with creating them.

As Hindle argues, both Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley were much taken with the Greek version of Prometheus as defier of the gods and savior of humanity. Each wrote a work focusing on this aspect of the myth. “But Shelley,” writes Hindle, “took the story to heart in a monumental way, developing to a fine pitch the Romantic notion of himself and his heroes as suffering champions of humanity. In Prometheus Bound and other poems [Shelley] was to elaborate this essentially religious feeling of election to saviourhood into his own version of socialist aspiration.”

But while her husband was styling himself as Promethean savior, Mary Shelley was more absorbed with the Roman version of the Prometheus myth, with Prometheus as creator, and the dangers that come from this aspiration.

In fact, as Hindle and others have shown, Frankenstein can be read as a critique of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Romantic and very progressive idealism. Victor Frankenstein brings to life his Creature because he sees himself, as Shelley did, as a kind of minor divinity driven by a sense of destiny.

The Frankenstein myth continues to resonate with us because we are daily threatened by the counterblasts from our own attempts to dominate nature. Hindle writes: “is it not the modern experience of feeling manipulated by forces larger than ourselves (which are nevertheless humanly managed) – Big Science, technology, the ‘machinery’ of State, globalization, the mass media, and so on – that links the lay person’s predicament with that of Frankenstein’s Creature, he who has been put together from dead human parts and then infused with ‘a spark of being,’ without having any say in the form or purpose of his own genius?”

Two of this summer’s biggest-selling movies, The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World, are clear reworkings of the Frankenstein myth. But the clearest resonance of the myth at this moment is not in the world of cinema or fiction, but in the very real killing rooms of Planned Parenthood.

It is a chilling experience to read Frankenstein in light of the recent revelations regarding Planned Parenthood’s harvesting of human organs from crushed babies in order to sell them to “researchers.” What’s especially horrifying is the way in which Planned Parenthood has pursued Victor Frankenstein’s ambition to the point of a gruesome inversion.

Frankenstein wanted to infuse “dead human parts” with a “spark of being.” But the modern Prometheus at Planned Parenthood takes a young life with a spark of divine being, kills it, and then takes the parts, “dead” in the sense of being separated from their organic unity, and sells them so that further research can increase our ability to wreak havoc upon nature.

In Frankenstein, the Creature ultimately finds the voice to rebuke his creator. That rebuke is well encapsulated by the lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem well known to the Creature, which Mary Shelley chose as the epigraph to her novel:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?

The child being so abused by Planned Parenthood may not, in a literal sense, have the voice to rebuke his destroyers. But through the destruction and selling of his mortal remains this child is crying out to all who will hear. His cry revises Milton. It demands to know, “Why anyone would presume a right to tear apart my clay? Did I solicit thee from the darkness of the womb to destroy me?”

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at danielmcinerny.com.