In perhaps his most successful piece of extended prose work, the Defence of poetry, Percy Shelley writes that:‘the poetry of England has arisen as it were from a new birth…we live among such philosophers and poets as surpass beyond comparison any who have appeared since the last national struggle for civil and religious liberty.’
It is easy to dismiss Shelley as indulging in a somewhat typical piece of bombast but to do so would ignore the philosophical, theological and political shifts that brought the Enlightenment into being. The Romantic era saw some striking parallels in thought, aim, ideals and values between the poets and philosophers of the time. This correlative pattern helped to establish a broadly heterogeneous but ultimately cohesive set of religious and philosophical values we might term, ‘The Protestant Imagination.’ The aim here will be to begin sketching the delineations of the Protestant Imagination, its theoretical and theological aims and ultimately explore how Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” exposes the problems inherent within it.
The Romantic writers existed in the wake of the “great events of the age” to quote Shelley, all of which had deep implications for the work they produced. The historical age shifted epistemologically across politics and philosophy, and the shift can be examined through the textual works of the time. In terms of Romanticism as a movement, key writers of the time used introductions and essays to explore not just poetry, but also a new kind of poetics. Coleridge, Shelley and in particular Wordsworth were not, much as they might have argued, creating out of an intellectual void. Rather their works exhibit a close awareness and dialogue with the theo-philosophical discourses of the day. Key to these discussions were one; the French revolution, and two; the shift of philosophy into a post Kantian era. This combination of political radicalism and a new philosophical focus on the autonomous, independent and rational self clearly influenced the practise and beliefs of the Romantic poets, and served as crucial to their overall to their overall aesthetics.
Of all the Romantics who formalized their new poetics, the most high-profile is arguably Wordsworth, who saw the new age of Romanticism as an opportunity to cement his place as a leading poet, not just among his contemporaries but also against the very greatest poets of the age. In his attempt to be considered one of the very greatest poets in English Wordsworth deliberately places himself as the heir to the work of Milton, taking on Milton’s theological and aesthetic concerns and placing them within the new philosophical frameworks of the moment. His most extensive out working of this is in ‘The Prospectus,’ a 107-line verse passage added to the Preface to ‘The Excursion.’ The purpose of ‘the Prospectus’ was to illuminate the design and scope of Wordsworth’s poetic output but it proves particularly useful in highlighting the degree of influence Milton and his theology had on Romanticism more generally and the extent to which Miltonic ideas were re-worked and re-interpreted. As with Milton, Wordsworth is explicitly aiming at writing the great Protestant poetic epic but the shifts in intent and motivation offer the clearest indications as what the Protestant Imagination looks like at the start of the 1800s. Wordsworth opines that he is ‘intent to weigh/the good and evil of our mortal state’ (lines 8-9) echoing Milton’s aim to ‘justify the ways of God to Man.’
Quickly however, differences emerge. Milton’s poetic scheme is designed as a narrative with a specific aim – that of explicating creation, the fall of Man, the coming of “One greater man” to restore humanity ‘and regain the blissful Seat.’ Milton see’s history as well as humanities relationship to Earth as finite and heading towards a transcendent and eschatological end. Wordsworth, whilst picking up the Miltonic challenge of achieving things ‘unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme’ deigns to explore a very different terrain – one that goes in MH Abrams term ‘must descend deeper and rise higher than Milton’s flight.’ To quote from his work ‘the Recluse;’
Urania, I shall need
Thy guidance, or a greater Muse, if such
Descend to Earth or dwell in highest heaven!
For I must tread on shadowy ground, must sink
Deep – and, aloft ascending, breathe in worlds
To which the heaven of heavens is but a veil…
The darkest pit of lowest Erebus,
Nor aught of blinder vacancy, scooped out
By help of dreams – can breed such fear and awe
As fall upon us often when we look
Into our minds, into the Mind of Man –
My haunt, and the main region of my song.
A few noticeable difference emerge, useful for the idea of establishing a working understanding of the Protestant imagination. Milton saw his poetic scheme as a fundamentally exegetical one, a means of explaining the world within a specific theological and ideological set of boundaries. Wordsworth aims are different but equally ambitious and met with some opposition, notable William Blake’s half exasperated, half whimsical aside to Henry Crabb Robinson that Wordsworth’s excursion has ‘caused him a bowel complaint that nearly killed him…Does Mr Wordsworth think his mind can surpass Jehovah?’
Blake is, deliberately or not, missing the point here – Wordsworth is arguing that the mind of man, the internal realities of the subject surpass the sublimity and poetic challenge of Milton’s Christian epic. The modern Protestant Imagination had moved from the exegesis of Milton, which focused on detailing the history, incarnation, resurrection and oncoming eschaton of divinely revealed logos to a new kind of poetic expression. Wordsworth saw himself as bearer of an original kind of divine word – a prophetic/poetic spirit that enabled him to explore a fresh inward world, rather than articulate and explain the outward one. Whereas Milton saw himself as the preacher, Wordsworth is the prophet. Wordsworth skirts over the externalized Deity, (‘the heaven of heavens’) and instead draws into the internal world of humanity whilst keeping the theological themes and language of Milton. Not only is an outward God not the most challenging and rewarding height of poetic skill and aspiration, the idea seems to assume increasing irrelevance. The mind of man exceeds the delights of an external heaven or the potential terrors of an external hell. This is not to acquiesce to a universe without the theological but rather it is in the mind of man that there can be staged a creation (of this, or multiple other worlds) and in the height of human possibility Wordsworth articulates his own spiritual correlate of the resurrection. Man’s own creative power can bring forth a revival from the sleep of death. This, Wordsworth grandly declares in “The Excursion”, is ‘our high argument.’
This idea of a new kind of poetics that placed the gaze of the poet onto the subject and the intricacies of subjectivity as the height of poetic skill was not something Wordsworth alone aspired to. The exploration of the internal world, with all of the symbolic, philosophical and theological implications carried over from Milton was not just a poetic responsibility but one with political overtones too. Emerging from the “great events” of the French Revolution, poets had to rework their understanding of the self – the radical political subject had emerged as a force of previously unheralded power. Thus, the poetic role of exploring and mapping the internal realities of this subject become ever more vital. Not for nothing did Shelley claim that poets functioned as the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ The ontological status of man was one that the Romantic Poets now considered to be among their primary questions – an exploration of subjectivity replacing the exploration of the external universe.
The new Protestant Imagination did not just merely function on the political or philosophical level either – the primacy of the subject has an important aesthetic dimension. Without the subject as the Romantic poets understood it, there could be no Romantic sublime. The poetic role was a mediation between the subject and the natural world, and thus without a post-Kantian understanding of the self as a self-contained and autonomous unit the idea of an encounter with the sublime is a rhetorical impossibility. Placing the subject within the place of prime observer of the world, disinterested, rational and cohesive allows for an encounter with the sublime exterior to the self. Milton’s poetic epic was an exploration of the external wonder of the heavens but one which never allowed humanity (whether individually or collectively) to go beyond the limits of the divine. The focus in Paradise Lost is thus never removed from the overall historiography Milton wanted to explore. All action occurs within a distinctly Christian conceptual framework that incorporates man as a small part in a larger whole – remaining present and connected to the broader vision of creation that Milton espoused.
Post Kant, and post Hegel the focus of these writers shifted from an external to internal world. The Protestant Imagination could easily be dismissed as solipsistic and narcissistic, yet it maintained a belief in the potential for humankind’s consciousness and ultimate transcendence through the twin engines of reason and poetic imagination. Despite a tendency towards hyperbole the Romantics are well-known for a radical political agenda of a new kind of world, yet there were few who perceived the potential dangers of this radical re-orientation of the world. One of the most trenchant criticisms of this Copernican revolution in philosophy came from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The novel functions as an exploration of the ideology prevalent at the time and an exploration of the ontological implications of the primacy of the individual subject. The character of Victor Frankenstein, the surprisingly eloquent scientist, serving as the example par excellence of the new birth referred to by Shelley in stark contrast to that of his family. At the novel’s opening, Victor is placed in direct comparison with Elizabeth. Elizabeth finds ‘admiration and delight’ in the “magnificent appearance of things” – a classic position that draws heavily from the Miltonic idea of a poetic exploration of creation whilst Victor’s character is formed by much more modern concerns:
‘While my companion contemplated…the magnificent appearance of things, I delighted in investigating their causes. The world was a secret that I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember”
In Frankenstein then we see this combination of exploration of the physical world, representative of the new rise of science and discovery, coupled with a semi religious and imaginative fervour or ‘rapture.’ Where Elizabeth continues that Miltonic tradition of the exegesis and description of the world, Victor is established as a character that seeks mastery over it. Thus, in the Romantic Protestant Imagination man is the centre and dominant force in a larger universe.
Placing man at the core of the vision of the universe grants not just exploratory or descriptive powers but also, and perhaps most importantly, creative powers. Frankenstein’s discovery of metaphysics – the “physical secrets of the world”, as the novel puts it leads him to the creation of life. Here in the novel once more religious language and imaginative reason combine;
“Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source…no father could claim the gratitude of his child as completely as I should deserve”
The new man of Romanticism does not just describe and explore creation now, but actively participates in the process of bringing new elements of creation into being. The vaguely theologically gnostic language of ‘a torrent of light’ adding credence to the notion that the Romantic reorientation of the universe as centred around the subject had dispensed with the traditional theological view of creation as something which humanity was a participant within without partaking of it. Coupled with the typically gnostic subordination of ethics to cognition and the position of man, rather than God at the centre of the universe seems assured. This is not to claim Romanticism or Shelley more specifically as atheistic, but Shelley was certainly one writer more aware of both the potential ability of man’s agency and the limits of describing the transcendental experience of creation.
Frankenstein himself at various points in the retelling of his narrative deliberately screens the knowledge of what brings life. The notion of some knowledge being beyond or above the majority of humanity is reinforced, yet access is permitted not to the transcendent deity but to the man who embodies the Romantic virtues of passion, intellect and imagination. The protestant imagination within the novel is limited by its own ability to achieve a kind of transcendence. What Frankenstein achieves goes beyond what is considered possible for science yet the process by which he manages to actually endue life cannot be described except in the vaguest possible terms. In short, transcendental subjectivity lacks any kind of systemic coherence. Frankenstein’s transcendental knowledge of the body and the creation of life places him outside of the corpus of humanity – certainly elevated but excluded by his knowledge from the associated mass of humanity:
I see by your eagerness and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be…I will not lead you on…to your destruction and infallible misery
In a Heideggerian sense, Frankenstein’s knowledge effectively alters his ontological status as a Being. Unable to relate meaningfully to others he is no longer a “Being-in-the-world” ontologically speaking but above it and outside of human existence, unable to connect with his fellow-man. Knowledge it seems, is not just an object to be obtained but also a force, which alters and affects the subjectivity of the individual. Wordsworth’s poetic journey quoted above does not just allow access to a new kind of knowing, but runs the risk of changing the status of the poetic explorer who makes said journey. It seems therefore that what the protestant Imagination fails to acknowledge is the ontological consequences of their interests in subjectivity.
This is perhaps best exemplified by the figure of the monster within Frankenstein. As a novel, it is a text that could only have been produced by a deeply committed political liberal, heavily influenced by both her mother’s writing and the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Shockingly, the monster is fully subjectivized into the narrative – not just allowed to speak but given primacy and narrative authority. The Romantic’s may have seen the exploration of the human subject as a poetical quest that went beyond the scope of Milton but their understanding of the subject, emerging as it did from the rational autonomy of Kant and the totalizing sublation of Hegel posits the radical other as exterior and distanced from the self.
In terms of ontology, the Protestant Imagination of the Romantics had a strict and non-materialist understanding of what the subject was. Frankenstein’s monster manages to problematize this anti-materialist ontological understanding of the subject whilst maintaining and using many of the means by which Romantic subjectivity was defined. The monster is articulate and literate, read in the classics of Romantic humanism – Milton, Goethe and Plutarch. His attitude and morality when first created are morally benign (see particularly his reactions to the De lacy family) yet the reactions of those who encounter him are violent and malicious. As the monster expresses it, “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.”
It is tempting, yet reductionist to label the reactions of others as impelled by a kind of moral aesthetics. The argument that it is the monster’s appearance that is responsible for the reaction he provokes is intuitively attractive yet depends upon a basic materialism that a philosophically sophisticated writer such as Shelley would not seem to utilize. The reaction of people to encountering the monster is littered with theological and non-materialist language. He is the ‘abhorred devil’, a ‘fiend’ and ‘vile insect.’ The vociferousness of these responses are again not based on appearance but on an understanding that the monster does not share in a common human ontology. As a product of knowledge which rendered Victor outside of ‘being-in-the-world’ Frankenstein’s monster’s ontological status is equally suspect. The reaction of those he comes into contact with is not from a materialist position but from that traumatic encounter of the human with the radical other. The Protestant Imagination of the Romantics placed the transcendent outside of the subject, but accessible to it. Frankenstein’s monster, the product of such transcendent knowledge is placed within the frame of humanity, and as such represents, a massive destabilization of the commonly held idea of what the human can be. The monster is made monstrous, not by what he is, but by the closeness of that being to the notion of our humanity. The fear provoked by encountering Frankenstein’s monster is not the fear of the unknown or some radical otherness, but rather a fear of the monstrousness that is all too close to actual human being.
Despite possession of various aspects and characteristics that would seem to prove his humanity, there is a profound ontological lack at the core of the monster’s being. Isolated from the assorted corpus of humanity, and deprived of the ontological gifts that comes from the divine vision of creation, Frankenstein’s monster is rendered monstrous through his pursuit of lesser goods – in the classic Augustinian argument for evil as privation. Lacking a name, community and even a coherent psychical whole the monster as being, is one fractured, quite literally stitched together in the shape of humanity, but lacking the ontological content. As such, his pursuits fail at the high-minded explorations that Wordsworth offers as the great argument for Romantic existence, falling instead into a banal and rather simple desire for revenge. However, caution must be extended in the application of such an Augustinian argument. Claiming that the monster is formed through his ontological lack or an absence of being quickly discounts what we might claim to be key aspects of our own humanity. Speech, rationality and a reasoned morality perhaps should not be easily cast off as markers of human status. To conclude then there is possibly a new line of argument that can be drawn from the novel. Rather than define monstrosity in a primarily Augustinian way, it is arguable that an apophatic understanding of monstrous ontology may well be more useful.
The monster as created, does not suffer from just a lack of being – as this lack is something that the monster comes close to being able to overcome. Through the socialization of with the De Lacy family, and through his readings of the past there are signs that the monster could potentially take his place within an expanded vision of humanity. Rather than lacking being, Frankenstein’s monster fails to be. The question then becomes how far can this idea of apophatic ontology be extended, and just what can be salvaged from the post-Kant, post Hegelian understanding of the subject and how it relates to the wider world.