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A Psychoaesthetic Reading of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Paul Sherwin

CUNY English Forum, 1 (1985), 199-210

[In revised form, portions of this essay appeared in PMLA, 96 (October, 1981) -- Author]

{199} Although the human center of Frankenstein is the story of the Creature's emergence into (intersubjective) consciousness, the creative self that inaugurates the drama to be played out is a "self-closed, all-repelling . . . Demon" such as Blake, supreme alienist, describes at the opening of The Book Of Urizen. The novel's monstrous heart of darkness is not the Creature but the creation, Frankenstein's primal scene of self-definition. His initial, hyperbolic gesture is a stepping-aside. Severing all contact with his family, other beings, and familiar nature, Frankenstein is not so much entering his dream as hollowing out a zone in reality where he can be utterly alone. This ingressive movement is attended by self-loss, a terrible shrinkage of his empirical self, and self-aggrandizement, a heightening of his isolate selfhood to daemonic status; he becomes a force rather than a person as his entire being concentrates on his grand project: "my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose" (p. 48); "a resistless, and almost frantic, impulse urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit" (p. 54). The animation project, like the object intended by the Freudian libido, is a secondary affair; what matters is that it enkindles in the projector an antithetical ferocity, a lust for self-presence, so intense that it would drive out of consciousness everything except itself. The {200} daemonic self is agonistic, aggressively excluding otherness, and hence agonized, defensively immuring itself in resistance to any foreign body that would encroach upon its sublime solitude. Driving out and driven in, Frankenstein is energized by the same anxiety that cramps his spirit and condemns him to a paralyzing consciousness of self-division.

The dizzying upward fall that founds the creative self is a catastrophe that coincides with a rupture between daemonic mind and all that is not mind. Consciousness and unconsciousness are twin-born, factoring out as discrete loci that mark the decisiveness of Frankenstein's psychic dislocation. The catastrophic nature of this mythic birth is its only significant point of contact with the repressive process that institutes ego and id as opposing agencies within the Freudian economy. According to the traditional psychoanalytic critic, Frankenstein's unconscious is already present as an a priori with a (pre)determined constitution, emerging, in however disguised a form, as the Creature at a traumatic moment in his case history. The Creature is viewed as a figure that redoubles Frankenstein's literal unconscious, whereas in fact the Creature is a literal, autonomous agent and Frankenstein's supposed unconscious is a figurative device, an overhasty recourse of the critic intended to mediate or neutralize a puzzling discontinuity.

What name shall one invoke to designate a discontinuity? For Milton in Paradise Lost it is Hell, a space carved out in the universe to receive the daemonic selfhood of Satan, for whom everything is a Universe of Death. The depth of one's particular hell is an index of how far one has fallen away from what might be perceived or known. The unconscious, in other words, means estrangement. Instead of a substratum, it is the receding or approaching horizon of subjectivity, and any mode of being conscious (or alive) is also a mode of being unconscious (or unalive). What Frankenstein creates, in order to create, is distance between his daemonized self and reality, and it scarcely matters whether one conceives this space as interior or exterior, since these are doubtless falsifying categories here. Within this void, between two created "nothings," self-consciousness appears. It is the place, somewhere in the corner of Frankenstein's mind, in which the baffled residue of his ordinary self takes notes, watching with horrified fascination the career of his dangerous extravagance. It is, in addition, the space {201} out of which the Creature emerges, just as, in Blake, Enitharmon emanates from Los once he "closes" with the death image of Urizen and so embraces the deathly perspective engendered by the solipsistic withdrawal of the creating mind. The ungraspable Enitharmon, Los's loss, objectifies the (only now exterior, objectified) space that has opened up between Los and Eternity, or his alienated potential.

The Creature, whom Frankenstein calls his Daemon, is similarly a token of loss, an impersonation of the estranged universe the daemonized Frankenstein has summoned into being by pushing reality away from himself. Yet does the Creature, strictly speaking, represent Frankenstein's alienated potential? I suppose he can be read as the responsive, sympathetic imagination Frankenstein represses in order to create. This would be, from the psychoanalytic perspective, a very odd sort of repression: imagine the id repressing the sublimated ego. The repression hypothesis must be rejected in any case because Frankenstein is no Los; the Creature is intrinsically superior to, at least sublimely other than, the creator, and no one can repress what he never had or never was.

The unsettled and unsettling relationship between Frankenstein and his Creature raises fundamental aesthetic questions. In what sense does a literary text represent its author? Re-presentation implies both continuity and discontinuity. Undoubtedly traces of the writer's biography and psychobiography will be inscribed in the text, though neither of these is entirely accessible to anyone and anyone's "true" autobiography is an absolutely unwritable text. Mary Shelley, as mother and mourning mother, was ideally suited to preside over the account of Frankenstein's fearful literal creation; however, even if it is agreed that the novel is informed by her personal experience or that the novel, if it had been anonymously published, would be recognizably a woman's book, it does not follow that Frankenstein is a creation of Mary Shelley's empirical self or that its meaning is coextensive with its point of departure in private experience.

The creation of a literary work, or a critical work, may be an energizing experience, but it also necessitates a withdrawal or sacrifice of a large portion of the writer's identity, so much so that the work is likely to be more estranged from the writer than his readers. In order to become an author one must pass through the {202} defile of language, literary language, and the authorial self or persona that emerges from this encounter will be a drastically reconstituted version of the ephebe who set out. The empirical self, transformed for good or ill, is merely along for the ride. What solicits our response in a literary text is the Real Man or Woman, the Blakean Imagination, and what that constitutive subject utters is, again in Blake's phrase, Allegory Addressed to the Intellectual Powers. One needs to be careful not to be carried away by Blake's sublime idealizations or capital letters. The authorial self I am positing must not be vaporized into an impersonal transcendental consciousness. It has its own deep subjectivity and complex psychology, determined by the writer's consciousness of himself as a writer, which involves his relationships to the reservoir of images, forms, and desires that comprise the field of literature. The Word becomes Word only in becoming flesh, entering into the dense, highly mediated mythic worlds of such texts as Paradise Lost, Jerusalem, The Prelude, Prometheus Unbound, and The Interpretation of Dreams.

The enigma of Frankenstein's rich text, the Creature, remains. I shall consider in greater detail the manner in which the Creature, as trope, re-presents Frankenstein's dislocated psyche, but for now the larger issue of representation presents itself. Why are all readings of the novel scandalized by the Creature? If he is the unconscious for the traditional Freudian critic, for the Jungian he is the shadow, for the Lacanian an objet a, for one Romanticist the spectre, for another an emanation or epipsyche; he also has been or can be read as Rousseau's natural man, a victimized child, society's victim, the misunderstood revolutionary impulse, or as a hypostasis of godless presumption, the monstrosity of a godless nature, analytical reasoning, or the alienating technological double. Like the Creature's own mythic version of himself, a freakish hybrid of Milton's Adam and Satan, all of these allegorizations are exploded, in various ways, by the text. The alert reader, at a given moment of interpretive breakdown, will resort to another signifying chain, and thence to another; for the idea of monstrosity, especially when coupled with the Creature's singular existential situation, is endlessly suggestive.

What is the meaning of a representation so explosively contradictory in its ramifications, so mad with meaning that it compels us {203} to contemplate the monstrosity of a force lacking a coherent center or ascertainable limit? The idealist's response to such excess, the threat of unmeaning, is to trace the competing metonymic derivatives of meaning back to their inexhaustible source, some avatar of the apocalyptic central deep wherein all things are identified. The metaphor of a metaphor, replies the Idiot Questioner, the cipher as zero meaning whatever the interpreter, or his unacknowledged desire, requires it to mean. Is it, then, to be the imageless deep truth, the intense inane, or -- the more bafflingly Shelleyan -- both? Interpretation, the inveterately rhetorical science of rhetoric, can perhaps only formulate such questions. The Creature as a figure of figuration is a limit concept, and it may be that if critical discourse is to proceed one can do no better than to cast about for analogous instances of the fertile deep that is also a fault into which meaning is poured: Nietzsche's Dionysian Oneness, Freud's unconscious, Wordsworth's "fixed, abysmal . . . breathing-place," or the "deep romantic chasm" of Kubla Khan.

However, the problematic of meaning in all of these cases may derive, at least in part, from an untenable conception of meaning as terminal (the slumber of a determinate signification) rather than as liminal (a living, energetic process). For example, in Coleridge's poem meaning, a constantly shifting relational event, is inseparable from context. The Abyssinian maid, conceived as a thing apart, a "thing itself," is an impenetrable obscurity -- that is to say, inconceivable. But take a stand in relation to her, whether from inside or outside the magic circle of the conclusion, and she will emerge as the muse of paradise or the voice of the abyss. Of course, like Coleridge in his vacillation, one may find oneself neither in nor out but instead cast into the between, a situation whose implications are not exhausted by the pathos of a character in a poem or the character of a "life." For the fate of the reader who, so far as this is possible, would not immobilize the energies of the text is to wander with the writer in the no-place of re-presentation, a marginal ontological zone where, by virtue of their secret interplay, form and force, shadow and substance, spirit and letter forge a meaning that can never be anything more than a perpetually renewed dreaming to signify (but isn't this promise, the infinite reserve of dreaming to, what we, as interpreters, really want from literature? and isn't the essence of what we call literature the power to persuade {204} us that the dream has come to signify, if nothing else the unlimited resources of the dream of signification itself?).

In an effort to account for what and how the Creature means in relation to his creator, I want to turn to Frankenstein's origins before circling back to the creation scene. His narrative begins with an idyll of domestic bliss: in the protected enclave of the Frankenstein household there is little differentiation among individuals of the same sex, affections go deep, and yet everyone lives on the surface. Of course, it is all a lie, as fantastic as any "in the beginning." I am, however, willing to suspend my disbelief. The past is always a fiction anyway, an absence or virtual presence we intentionalize in accordance with our present needs; besides, the past of a fictional character is nonexistent to begin with, and Frankenstein grows up in the prereflective world of pastoral convention. Just as anyone, if he is so minded, can discover the source of an individual's troubles in the past, since so much happened "there," any reader who wishes to find the cause of Frankenstein's aberration in the narrative of his youth will see what he expects to see. For the traditional psychoanalytic critic, the fall is occasioned by Elizabeth's arrival, William's birth, a repressed primal scene trauma, or the sinister "silken cord" (p. 34) of parental constriction that traumatizes Frankenstein the child. It doesn't matter: any psychotrauma is as true or false as any other. Frankenstein, like all of us, begins fallen -- or, better, falling. The brief idyll of his youth is required because he needs something to violate, something to fall away from. He simply announces that at a certain point, as far back as memory can take him, "the world was to me a secret which I desired to divine" (p. 36). That is, the fall from the wholeness of origins is rooted in his dualistic temperament, his consciousness of a hidden presence, or tantalizing absence, behind appearances that disturbs his contact with things. Can we improve upon his version or upon Coleridge's characterization of Iago as "a motiveless malignity"? The aptly named Iago is the ego-principle, the sublimely arbitrary human will that originates everything, including original sin, and his willfulness is no more explained by motive-hunting than Desdemona's love for Othello.

Motivation, like sequential logic, is a falsification the mind cannot do without. The reanimation project is apparently a deferred reaction to the death of Frankenstein's mother. The supposition is {205} encouraged by the signal importance Frankenstein ascribes to the event; he terms this first death in the family "the first misfortune of my life . . . an omen . . . of my future misery" (p. 42), dwelling on the rending of ties as an "irreparable evil" and on the "void" that death, raised to quasisupernatural status as "the spoiler" (p. 43), represents. It may be surmised that her death reactivates an original anxiety of deprivation associated with the departure of the maternal body and that the irrevocable loss of the mother, the primary focus of the child's reality-bondings, is a privileged incident that would help to explain the intensification of Frankenstein's temperamental dualism. If anything, then, this assault from reality revives a repressed anxiety, not a repressed wish, and what matters, clearly, is the fact that the mother lacks life, not the phallus (the psychoanalytic desire of the M/Other).

While psychoanalytic theory is instructive here, it is nevertheless too restrictively bound to a particular mythic version of the past. For what ought to claim our attention is departure as such, the evanescence of an irreplaceable presence from things Frankenstein senses all about him. However, if loss or death is a better, less reductive answer than the mother's departure to the question of what inaugurates Frankenstein's quest, the real antagonist is a still more inclusive and irreducible force: life, human life, in relation to which death is not an external agency but an internal component. Seeking to undo the consequences of sexuality, the sin of being born of woman, Frankenstein engages in a pursuit that is at once regressive and projective, mobilizing old energies in an attempt to discover a new meaning for himself. After his mother's death he is adrift for a time, and once he leaves home for the university he is anxious to cast off his childhood dependence and put his talents to work. All that remains is for Waldman's panegyric on the modern scientist, perhaps more the sheer power of his voice than his overt message, to render an occasion for his restless drive for autonomy: "Such were the professor's words -- rather let me say such the words of fate . . . As he went on, I felt as if my soul were grappling with a palpable enemy; one by one the various keys were touched which formed the mechanism of my being . . . So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein -- more, far more, will I achieve . . . I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation" (p. 48). {206} This powerfully charged moment of conversion, or reconversion to his youthful enthusiasm, founds Frankenstein as an artist. He emerges from the struggle of his second birth as a force of destiny, genius in a human form, first pronouncing his fateful name: franken Stein, the free rock, the modern Prometheus, the free-unfree man.

In order to assert or insert his independent will, Frankenstein rends a unity, a continuum according to whose subtle rhythm of recurrence we live and die every moment and within which it is not surprising that the lost mother is reborn as an Elizabeth or a Justine. His laboratory is located "in a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments" (p. 55). This is a masterful image of the mind that is its own place, the self as, or trying to be, a free-standing unit. The windows of the workshop are barred, at least for Frankenstein, whose eyes remain "insensible to the charms of nature" (p. 55). Those "charms" are an interpolation of Frankenstein the notetaker or narrator; Frankenstein the creator is an innerness -- pure, unconditioned spirit -- seeking innerness -- the life or light in, but not of, things. Things themselves do not exist for him except as "lifeless matter" (p. 52) to be animated, and the more things are leveled to a deadening continuity the more discontinuous is the fiery spirit that would stamp its image on a world rendered pliable to its projects and projections.

The problem is that if the sublime artist is to "pour a torrent of light," his own uncontained power, "into our dark world" (p. 54) of mortal life, he must take a detour through reality, going out of himself to get more deeply inside. To wrest the spirit from things he must penetrate into the center of the earth, and to prepare a frame for the reception of life he must see and know and touch the body of death. Undertaking a shamanistic descent into a chaotic medial zone where life and death conspire to breed monstrous shapes, Frankenstein is flooded with nausea: "Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?" (p. 54). Is Frankenstein speaking of vivisection, or is the tortured living body his own? His aggression, whether directed outward or against himself, discloses the underside of his lust for power, the desperation born of an exaggerated distance from {207} things that has transformed an evacuated reality into a grotesque naturalization and the denied natural passions into a perversely eroticized shadow life. Entrapped by his own phantasmagoria, the sublime artist turned graveyard poet has discovered, or invented, an inchoate version of the Freudian unconscious.

Frankenstein's aggression and perverse perception are inscribed in the Creature's appearance. He had envisioned something quite different: "How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful" (p. 57). What had Frankenstein intended? The Creature is to be a grateful servant whose adoration will please the divinized creator; it is to be an instrument of mastery, a means for the creator to display his power and thus to secure his identity as distinct from "the herd of common projectors" (p. 211); it is, as well, to be a revisionary creation of man, an immortal and grandiose representation of the magically transformed creative self. What went wrong then?

This transcendent form, designed to mend an intolerable dualism and invested with so much narcissistic energy, mirrors Frankenstein more truly than he is capable of knowing. The beautiful Creature of his imaginings is akin to Milton's Sin, Satan's false narcissistic image, who explodes from his brain when Heaven rolls away from him and with whom he proceeds to copulate; the hideous phantom corresponds to Sin's unrecognized "nether shape," but even more closely to Death, that chaotic "darkness visible," who is the ultimate issue of Satan's deranged spirit, his love of his own thought. Neither Sin nor Death is any more a "double" or part of Satan than the Creature is of Frankenstein; as figurations they reveal, with more startling accuracy and profundity than discursive reason can command, the existential condition of their progenitor: his relationship/disrelationship to his world, his thoughts, and himself. Surprised by his Creature, Frankenstein confronts a sign of his inability to organize his own chaos. For him putting together and dismemberment are one. The parts he chooses are beautiful, but they are monstrous in conjunction -- or, rather, since the Creature lacks a phenomenological center, in their absolute disjunction. The motherless, nameless, incomplete, unmated {208} and unmatable Creature, an inconceivably lonely free-standing unit whose inside is hopelessly divided from his outside, is indeed a "filthy type" (p. 130) of the modern Prometheus.

Frankenstein's split mind is the correlate of a split reality, his interior void the counterpart of an evacuated world. At first it is a generative void, the abyss out of which the unfathered spirit rises to recognize its glory: "I trod heaven in my thoughts . . . exulting in my powers" (p. 211). I and the Abyss: the Emersonian definition of the sublime artist needs to be altered to "I am all; I see nothing (except my own splendor)." This is, however, an insupportable afflatus, and it is not long before the exuberant selfhood that would fill the void is itself emptied: "I am nothing; I see nothing (except my own abyss)." Frankenstein is filled all right, but with desire, the rising vector of a parabolic leap of spirit that inevitably declines into anxiety. Yet what of his dazzling discovery: is that too a derivative of loss, a re-presented absence? It may be that the light or life Frankenstein thinks he captures is not simply another trick of spirit, but certainly it is never his. The power source he taps is a constituent element in an ongoing process, and all he can do is transmit the power to a body capable of sustaining life.

As the time for the Creature's inspiration approaches, Frankenstein's anxiety mounts. The dream of the sublime artist's overflowing fullness is grotesquely parodied as Frankenstein sickens into creation. What possible act or object could represent the aspirations of the uncreated soul? No height would be high enough, no excess excessive enough to satisfy its feverish intensity. The creation itself is a mindless reflex, an indication that the creator is falling away from his desire into a void that nothing can fill but that somehow must be limited, as in The Book of Urizen, by a barrier of "solid obstruction." The Creature, though he does not quite set a limit to Frankenstein's nightmare, is Hell's bottom. Landing there, Frankenstein wakens from one nightmare into another, seeing the Creature for the first time when its eyes open, a negative epiphany revealing to him that he is not alone. It can be argued that Frankenstein does achieve the sublime, but the Creature's appearance, as unapproachable as light, overwhelms him. He shrinks before his artifact, petrifying it into an otherness that cannot be introjected or restituted by mind. Like Sin, the Creature becomes a blocking {209} agent standing between the creator and his creative potential, and, again like Satan's grand trope, the Creature is a self-balking representation that attests to the creator's own creatureliness, the fearful truth that sets the creative process in motion. Hence the Creature's uncanniness: beholding it, Frankenstein is back at his original impasse, fatally subject to the recurrence of his anxious dread of time, space, and the body of death.

Frankenstein's terror of the void he is or has engendered -- an unmeaning chaos, the space of absolute freedom -- is a universal human trauma, but it is peculiarly modern in its intensity, just as man's separateness from nature is an abiding anguish that is aggravated by post-Enlightenment dualism. At the heights of the sublime the modern Prometheus is not open to the intimations of a transcendent order, and this lack of a circumference or center that is not himself abandons him to an instability that can be withstood only by the most audaciously persistent of artists. Perverse as he is, Frankenstein lacks this saving perversity, or grace, of spirit. Sublime power lapses into manipulative control, "I am" into "I have," the autonomous hero of consciousness dwindling into a quasispiritual but in fact merely physical force that longs to expend itself and achieve death, the cessation of desire. In Blakean terms, Frankenstein is Orc, that outwardly pulsating energy of desire that inevitably spills out to the rim of being where it is bound by Urizen, Orc's unrecognized and unrecognizing counterpart. Frankenstein as Urizen seeks to destroy the recalcitrant reality he can neither merge with nor contain. This assault daemonizes the Creature, whose counterassault irremediably locks Frankenstein into his own fearful void.

Ironically, Frankenstein's solitude is confirmed. He achieves his own separate consciousness of self as the most wretched of mortals, though his egotism is such that he glories in this doom as the token of a special destiny. Emerging as the man who cannot emerge, or tell his secret, Frankenstein is a passenger or thresholder arrested at the moment of his fall. True, he tells his tale to Walton, but this rehearsal of his past is no catharsis. Something, some monstrous residue of the undeclared or undeclarable, is missing. The burden of his anxiety devolves upon Walton, who would pass it on to his sister, the drama's hidden witness, the reader whose response the novel solicits. That ideal reader can no {210} more settle all the turmoil than Frankenstein can. The vulnerable interpreter must choose to abide in his own purgatory, remaining open to possibilities that he can only hope are transcendent intimations.

This essay is a version of one part of a larger study of the novel, a series of widening speculations, that explores various reading strategies -- literalistic, new critical/ironic, deconstructive, and psychoanalytical -- before presenting what, following Geoffrey Hartman, I call a "psychoaesthetic" approach.

I have used the Oxford English Novels edition of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, ed. M. K. Joseph (London: Oxford University Press, 1969); all references to the text are cited in parentheses by page number.