Frankenstein & Image Culture

Jens Hesse_sat02_9_portraits_2010

Jens Hesse, 9 portraits, 2010. Paintings influenced by digitally distorted satellite signals.

One reason why art images are important is that they can referee other images, lending insight into the domineering and covertly ideological media environment which we have no choice but to inhabit. The art that is urgently useful to us is the kind that reflects back to us how we look at it, so that we can take that wisdom and more carefully choose what our senses want to receive when we’re peering out of car windows or navigating city streets. Why we so desparately need this help is because the way in which the ordinary, non-art image beckons us promises an impossible union: no matter how much money I have, I can never buy that dress in the picture, or be that woman, or have her love me. Once the object of my desire is exposed to the air of present reality, the studio-quality luster is gone and what I’m left with is the disappointing, stubborn resistance of physical stuff—the hard thing, the other body—and I can’t get at what I want. All images promise union. What does the art-image promise?

I recently re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The story was riveting in a cinematic way, but other than the simple pleasure of being entertained, I felt I just could’nt get into it. I’d like to think about why that is.

Shelley’s narration is structured in such a way that the events are not told to us but to other characters in the book—there is no exchange between narrator and reader, only between characters, in the form of letters sent or testimonies spoken. The primary narrative, Doctor Frankenstein’s story, is delivered to the reader via the doctor’s words to the sea captain Walton. In choosing her particular medium, Shelley has already, in a sense, situated herself in opposition with reality. Novels always narrate a life which unfolds adjacent to the reader’s, but the life of the character is sealed off from that of the real person who witnesses it. Twenty years can happen over twenty pages and as we flip from one chapter to the next, the progress of the life we watch happens without a hitch. The novel offers a precise representation of a life that announces itself as such and thus is never mistakable for the real thing. Just as Peter can’t feel the real-time flow of Paul’s consciousness, taking it for his own, the hard fact of the book and the completeness of the story it tells keep me assured that what I read is not the unfolding of my own existence but happens opposite my lived reality. Shelley emphasizes this hermeticism by denying us the illusion of being spoken to: without the narrator’s address, the reader is just a mute witness.

I think that the unique power of the novel as form is in its capacities with regard to social reality. It can span centuries and encompass nations and, as pure linguistic material, its meanings can be chewed up, ruminated on, and swallowed at the behest of the reader. Novels are the closest we can get to seeing all sides of a life other than the one we are living. In choosing to write a book devoid of any direct narrator-to-reader description, Shelley strongly announces a request that we stand outside the plot she writes and take a good look at what is really transpiring between the people we see. And what we see is the devastating picture of a living being consigned to unbearable outsiderdom. More than anything else, Shelley wants us to feel what it’s like to be hopelessly barred from the world we watch happen. Looking back over the text, I now think I’ve never seen anything more tragic than the 8-foot child, eagerly bounding through the forest, still alive and smiling to the pleasure of the sun despite the fact that the light falling on his face reveals a grotesquely transparent skin stretched into inscrutable expressions. Grotesque to me, that is, and pitiful, because he can’t feel what he looks like. The creature stops at a cottage and hides in the adjacent barn to watch what goes on in the house through a crack in the siding. He sits for months, made giddy by the affection he sees pass between the father, daughter and son inside. He leaves gifts at their door each night and they think they’re protected by a guardian angel. He senses their appreciation and thinks to himself “at last, I’ve found someone who is sure to understand me!” He ardently believes that once he shows himself, they will tend to his misery and make him whole. But alas, when he finally enters the cottage they shriek and recoil with disgust, and his much longed-for compatriates brutally beat him with a stick, cursing his life and fleeing in terror.

Emerson writes in his 1844 essay, “Experience”: “Fox and woodchuck, hawk and snipe, and bittern, when nearly seen, have no more root in the deep world than man, and are just such superficial tenants of the globe. Then the new molecular philosophy shows astronomical interspaces betwixt atom and atom, shows that the world is all outside: it has no inside.”

The creature’s desperate wish to become a real tenant of the globe is fated to fail. On top of the logic Emerson offers for the diffuse outwardness of the universe, we have our image culture fixing an infinite network of windows before our eyes, with no relief from the torturous unfullfillment of always “wanting in.” It’s no big stretch to see the condition of “wanting in” as one of erotic frustration.

As a writer in the Romantic period, Shelley saw the emergence of the aesthetic archetype of the tortured melancholic longing for the impossible. The weighty truth that Shelley leaves us with is the fact that her creature has come to represent a perhaps universally inescapable condition of being, now that lived life is all the more rapidly overtaken by the fantastical commercial images that render the real thing unsatisfying. Critics have applauded the author for her ability to evoke sympathy for such a malicious character. Perhaps the reason for it is less in Shelley’s craft and more in the ubiquity of this brand of malice. If we are raging, creeping around in the margins of a sealed-off world that promises to be the only good world, there is good reason for it.

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