The event on which this fiction is founded, has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not impossible of occurrence. -Percy Shelley, from his 'Preface' to the original 1818 edition of Frankenstein
I'm moving into the final chapters of The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, caught up in that wonderful tension between not being able to put the book down, and not wanting it to end.
One thing I really enjoy about Holmes' narrative is his constant attention to the interplay between literature, poetry, and science during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While Joseph Banks, William Herschel, Caroline Herschel, Humphry Davy, and their many companions redefined our world through science, the great Romantic authors such as John Keats, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron explored the meaning of poetry in an age of increasing rationalism.
I was fascinated to learn that Mary Shelley's character Frankenstein may have had his roots in real-life contemporary scientists. There was, for example, in 1803 a certain Giovanni Aldini who tried to revive the body of a convicted murderer with electrical charges, six hours after he had been hanged in London. Aldini's experiments were met with eager publicity on the one hand; and public outcry on the other. By 1805, he was forced to leave the country.
At the heart of these gruesome attempts at reviving the dead was a heated debate over a concept called 'Vitalism'. This was the belief in the existence of a life force, or 'Vitality', vigorously attacked by some and staunchly defended by others.
'Vitality' was thought of as a substance super-added to the mechanical structures of animals and plants. A liquid, perhaps, or something akin to electricity. A number of scientists claimed to have isolated it, though these claims were eventually refuted. 'Vitality' was considered by many a scientific conception of the soul; and since it was super-added, some power outside of humans (God?) must have added it.
Holmes does a wonderful job of showing how this debate was infused into the works of authors and poets of the time, most notably with John Keats narrative poem 'Lamia' and of course, Mary Shelley's immortal Frankenstein.
|Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog,|
by Casper David Friedrich
Shelley's novel takes on renewed significance when one considers the historical context, for she is taking the most controversial experiments of her time to their most terrible conclusion, in an even grander experiment of the mind. In the process, she considers the debate of Vitalism. After all, Frankenstein succeeded in giving organic life to his 'monster', but could that monster also be given a soul?
Those who have read Frankenstein know that the doctor and his 'monster' are actually co-protagonists, each given the chance to tell his own story. The eloquent and introspective nature of the 'monster' is lost in most film renditions; Shelley painted him as a sort of anti-hero, a creature driven to wreak havoc and destruction by the unbearable circumstances of his creation.
I have said elsewhere (see The Landscape of My Imagination) that I would have felt very much at home among the Romantic authors. Now in reading Richard Holmes' work, I like to imagine I would have felt even more at home among the scientists who were their contemporaries. Not so much Aldini, of course. But I would have liked to have met Joseph Banks, Caroline and William Herschel, and Humphry Davy, among others.
Certainly I would have loved to experience something of that time, when the tension between enduring mystery and revolutionary knowledge produced a sort of 'vital force' of its own.
Not that this tension has faded, though sometimes we may think it has. Our scientific knowledge has grown exponentially since the start of the 19th century. Yet somehow the universe has kept pace with our capacity to unravel its mysteries. The more we know, the more it seems there is left to discover.
That makes for a friendly universe, in my mind. One that is most accommodating to our insatiable sense of curiosity.
I should mention that the "Dr. Darwin" to which Percy Shelley refers in the quote at the beginning of this post is not Charles Darwin (who was only 9 years old when Frankenstein was first published), but his grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a well-known natural philosopher and physiologist.