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VVG

Young Vincent

I finally saw the beautifully animated film, Loving Vincent.  It is an Academy Award and Golden Globe Nominee for Best Animated Motion Picture. It tells a part of the life and also investigates the controversial death of Vincent Van Gogh.

It is told by his paintings and by the characters that inhabit them. It takes place one year after Vincent van Gogh’s death. A postman who knew Vincent asks his son Armand to deliver Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Armand goes to the town not even knowing that Vincent is dead and interviews people who knew Vincent in an attempt to deliver that letter.

He finds the circumstances of the death suspicious. Only weeks before, Vincent had said in letters he was in a good mood, calm and working and in need of new canvasses.

What makes the film unique is that each of the film’s 65,000 frames is essentially an oil painting on canvas. A team of 125 painters using the same technique as Van Gogh created the images which often flow one into another as the paint swirls.

I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?

Vincent Van Gogh wrote hundreds of letters. Most of them were to his brother Theo who often supported him and his painting and served as his “art dealer” – not a very good one, since only one of his paintings sold in Vincent’s lifetime. He signed many of the letters “Your Loving Vincent.”  He also wrote to other family members and fellow artists including Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard.

His prose is very detailed, especially about his work. Some are illustrated with sketches and some of the collections put the letters beside the paintings he is describing.


Everyone who works with love and with intelligence finds in the very sincerity
of his love for nature and art a kind of armor against the opinions of other people.

The film was inspiring. It inspired me to borrow a few books to read more about Vincent and particularly to read his letters:  Letters of VincentVan Gogh’s Letters: The Mind of the Artist in Paintings, Drawings, and Words, 1875-1890, Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh and Van Gogh: The Life

The film and books also inspired me to take out my paints and brushes. I am the most-amateur of painters, but I have been setting things down in watercolors since I was in college, though very sporadically.

You have to let your creativity out. Usually, I do that with poetry. Visually, I am far more likely to take a photograph than paint. That is also a creative outlet but, for me, one done more from laziness.

self-portrait

Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat

What am I in the eyes of most people?
A good-for-nothing, an eccentric and disagreeable man,
somebody who has no position in society and never will have.
Very well, even if that were true, I should want to show by my work
what there is in the heart of such an eccentric man, of such a nobody.

Vincent was educated mainly in what he called “the free course at the great university of poverty.” He wanted to find purpose in his life after what knew was a long period of searching without purpose.

One who has been rolling along for ages as if tossed on a stormy sea
arrives at his destination at last; one who has seemed good for nothing,
incapable of filling any position, any role,
finds one in the end, and, active and capable of action,
shows himself entirely differently from what he had seemed at first sight.

self portrait

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

Vincent suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions. He often neglected his physical health, not eating and drinking too much wine.

His friendship with Gauguin ended after a confrontation with a razor, which resulted in him severing part of his own left ear. He spent time in psychiatric hospitals, including a period at Saint-Rémy.

In the film, they cover some of the time he spent after he discharged himself from a hospital. He moved to the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris. There he befriended a homoeopathic doctor, Paul Gachet.

There are two versions of his death. One is that as his depression deepened, on 27 July 1890, he shot himself in the chest with a revolver. That is a very odd way to commit suicide.

Another version is that he was shot, probably by a man from the village who had harassed Vincent during his time there. The position of the wound suggests this version makes more sense.

In either version, he dies in the seemingly non-existent care from Gauchet two days later.

 

Van Gogh was unsuccessful during his lifetime. He is considered to be a genius, a madman and a failure. His fame came after his death. I doubt that he would be happy that he is often seen as a misunderstood genius or that it took until the early 20th century for him to be recognized as a great painter.

Van Gogh gave his 1889 Portrait of Doctor Félix Rey to Dr Rey. The physician was not fond of the painting and used it to repair a chicken coop, and later gave it away. In 2016, the portrait was housed at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and estimated to be worth over $50 million.

Vincent and Theo's graves at Auvers-sur-Oise

Vincent and Theo’s graves at Auvers-sur-Oise

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I was digging through some boxes in storage and open a box of children’s books. Most of them are ones that I bought for my sons in the 1980s-90s, but there are a stack of ones that were mine in the 1950s and even a few that were given to me as a kid that were from the 1930s and 40s.

Right on top of the stack was The Poky Little Puppy. It is a book that might have been purchased for a child from 1942 through now. This children’s book was written by Janette Sebring Lowrey and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren and is one of the first twelve books in the Simon & Schuster series Little Golden Books.

This simple story about beagle pups was at one time and might still be the all-time best-selling hardcover children’s book in the U.S. Since 1942, it has remained in print and there have been other sequels and extensions of those beagle pup stories.

I remember reading the book as a child and had a copy for many years. Too bad I didn’t save pristine first edition as it would be worth quite a bit more now than their original price of 25 cents. I read at the Mental Floss site that before Little Golden Books, children’s books weren’t a big thing. Most were large volumes made more for parents to read and fairly expensive – $2 to $3 each, which is about $28 – $42 in today’s money.

A man named George Duplaix of the Artist’s and Writer’s Guild, partnered with Simon & Schuster Publications and Western Printing to publish small, sturdy, inexpensive books with fewer pages, simpler stories, and more illustrations so kids would be the actual owners and readers.  A series already existed called Golden Books, so the new line was dubbed Little Golden Books.

Another title from those early days that has survived is Tootle from 1945 about a young locomotive who loves to chase butterflies through the meadow. Since most of the Little Golden Book stories carried a lesson for their readers, Tootle has to learn to stay on the tracks if he really wants to achieve his dream of being a Flyer between New York and Chicago. Play by the rules kids!

I’m not sure all parents today would like that Tootle lesson and might instead encourage some butterfly chasing. But in The Saggy Baggy Elephant, we have a theme that might even resonate better now than in the 1940s and 50s.  A mean parrot makes fun of Sooki’s big ears, long nose, and wrinkled skin. This young “saggy baggy” elephant certainly lacks confidence. But in his travels, he finds some beautiful creatures who look just like him, and so discovers his own beauty and acceptance. This book was illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, who also did The Poky Little Puppy.

The odds that you read these books to yourself or have read them to kids are pretty good. I have an immediate connection with these books because of the shiny golden spine they all have that made them stand out on a shelf. The Poky Little Puppy is the top-selling children’s book but others in the series became bestsellers, including Tootle, Scuffy the Tugboat, and The Little Red Hen. And some of the illustrators, like Richard Scarry, have become quite famous for their artwork and better know for their own books.

The Little Golden Books series wasn’t just fiction. It included books on nature and science, Bible stories, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales. I have several Christmas titles, and I bought a number of books for my sons that featured  crossover characters from other media, like Sesame Street, The Muppets, Disney, and some TV and movie tie-ins. In my own collection are older crossover titles from Hopalong Cassidy, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin and Captain Kangaroo.

From the time that the original 12 titles were released in 1942,  1.5 million copies had been sold within five months. One reason they sold so well is that they were available more readily in department stores, drug stores, and supermarkets rather than just in bookstores. My mother often bought me books when I was home sick from school or on vacation or when I accompanied her shopping downtown.

 

I found that more than two billion Little Golden Books have been sold. They seem to be priced around $3-4 these days – still a bargain for a book.

My own kids may have read Pokemon, and Thomas the Tank Engine books, and now Dora the Explorer, Dinosaur Train and SpongeBob SquarePants might be more popular titles. I know my boys got a few Little Golden Books with McDonald’s Happy Meals.

If there are copies hiding in boxes in your attic and you are thinking that they might be worth big bucks, here are some facts to consider. It is difficult to determine if you have some original editions if you base that on the copyright date. That rarely changes from the original printing.

For a first edition, a blue spine means it was published between 1942 and 1947 (the edition number will be on the first or second page). Original books in great condition often sell for $100 or more.

A letter near the spine on the lower-right corner of the last page will tell you it was published between 1947 and 1970 and an “A” means first edition, “B” is second edition. They had to start over, so an “AA” is the 27th edition.

The third period of books have a series of letters on the first few pages of the book. These books are from 1971 to 1991 and the first letter is that same letter system – “A” is a first edition from that period.

Between 1991 and 2001 the publisher went to years written in Roman numerals on the title page. An “A” in front of the year means it’s a first edition, and an “R” means it’s a revised edition – and no letter means who-knows-what-edition you own. , there’s no definitive way to know what edition it is.

Since 2001, the copyright page has a series of numbers and the last one is the edition.

 

 

When I first encountered the word “soma,” it was in fiction. Soma is used to shape and control the future society in Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World. and again in his novel, Island.  But soma is more real than I, and probably many other readers, had assumed.

“Was and will make me ill,  I take a gram and only am.”


Brave New World is a 1932 dystopian novel by English author Aldous Huxley. It has been a popular novel in high school and college literature classes for more than 50 years. The story is set in London in the year AD 2540 (632 A.F.—”After Ford”—in the book). Huxley anticipates more than predicts a number of developments in areas such as reproductive technology, sleep-learning, and psychological manipulation.

The novel is usually seen as a prediction of “what was to come” and often lumped in with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. My own thoughts about the novel have changed since I read it in high school and taught it. Huxley also had a kind of reassessment of his book in an essay, Brave New World Revisited (1958), and in Island (1962), which is his final novel.

The “deep, resonant voice” of Mustapha Mond in the novel describes soma as “Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant.” As part of the government, he knows soma is a very effective way of controlling its population. It sedates and calms them. It also distracts them from realizing what is happening in their society – a society where even the privileged members of the World State are enslaved.


“A gramme is better than a damn,” said Lenina mechanically from behind her hands. “I wish I had my soma!”

Of course, via soma, the citizens are enslaved by happiness. John, the savage from outside society who serves as the naïve 20th-century character in the novel, realizes this when he is taken into the society and given soma. He throws the soma he is given out a window at one point, but lapses into using it later.

“All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” That is what Mustapha says of soma. It is “Christianity without the tears,” he says. There are no bad side effects, no guilt, no sin.

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” That often-quoted idea came from Karl Marx, and Mustapha seems to have read Marx. Soma, like religion, offers comfort, but at the expense of individuality.

Psilocybe cubensis

There has been speculation about what soma really might be pharmacologically. In Food of the Gods, ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believes that the most likely candidate for soma is the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis. This rather ordinary looking hallucinogenic mushroom (which grows naturally in cow dung in certain climates) is a species of psychedelic mushroom whose principal active compounds are psilocybin and psilocin.

In the vernacular, it can be known as shrooms, magic mushrooms, golden tops, cubes, or gold caps. It was previously known as Stropharia cubensis. It is the most well-known psilocybin mushroom due to its wide distribution and ease of cultivation. In most of the world, it is an illegal substance to possess.

Soma is a real Sanskrit word that Huxley had encountered in his own experimentation with hallucinogen. It is usually described as a Vedic ritual drink that was important in the culture of ancient India. In both Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, the name of the drink and the plant are the same. In ancient texts, it is described as being prepared by extracting the juice from a plant (not mushrooms). The identity of that plant is now unknown and debated among scholars.

Some accounts by Ayurveda and Siddha medicine practitioners and Somayajna ritualists indicate  “Somalata” (Sarcostemma acidum), but there are also other candidates.

As was often the case in Indian tradition, the plant and its juice were personified as a god, Soma.

Huxley’s soma is never described in detail and there is no mention of mushrooms. The soma pill is more like a hangoverless tranquilizer or with the effects of an opiate.

In researching this article, I also found that “Soma” is the most common brand name of the muscle-relaxant carisoprodol, and is marketed by Royce Laboratories, Inc. It was FDA-licensed in 1996. It is a Schedule IV sedative-hypnotic, an anticonvulsant and anxiolytic muscle relaxant, and was first marketed in the United States in 1955 under the brand name Miltown as an anti-anxiety agent. Sometimes called a “miracle drug” in that time, it is supposedly the drug immortalised by the Rolling Stones as “Mother’s Little Helper.”

One sensationalized 1950s pulp paperback cover

My current view on Huxley’s novel is less science-fiction prophecy about totalitarian government and more about a warning on our pursuit of happiness at all costs.

On www.huxley.net some might disagree. One article says Brave New World  has come “to serve as the false symbol for any regime of universal happiness… any blueprint for chemically-driven happiness has delayed research into paradise-engineering for all sentient life.”

In his Brave New World Revisited  (non-fiction published in 1958), after almost thirty years Huxley considered whether the world had moved toward or away from his vision. He concluded that the world was becoming like his novel’s world much faster than he originally thought.

Why was that? Huxley points to overpopulation as one reason. He was also interested in the effects of drugs and subliminal suggestion on the population.

Interestingly, in those 30 years since the novel Huxley converted to Hindu Vedanta.

The book concludes with some action which could be taken to prevent a democracy from turning into the totalitarian world, and in his last novel, Island, he fictionalizes those ideas to describe a utopian, rather than dystopian, nation.

Poor savage John who falls into a “brave new world” (deep nod to Shakespeare’s The Tempest for all that) tries to escape that soma-ed society and return to his savage “island.”  We wish him, and all of us, well.

“Benighted fool!” shouted the man from The Fordian Science Monitor, “why don’t you take soma?”

Get away!” The Savage shook his fist.

The other retreated a few steps then turned round again. “Evil’s an unreality if you take a couple of grammes.”

“Kohakwa iyathtokyai!” The tone was menacingly derisive.

“Pain’s a delusion.”

“Oh, is it?” said the Savage and, picking up a thick hazel switch, strode forward.The man from The Fordian Science Monitor made a dash for his helicopter.”

*  *  *

It was after midnight when the last of the helicopters took its flight. Stupefied by soma, and exhausted by a long-drawn frenzy of sensuality, the Savage lay sleeping in the heather.

The sun was already high when he awoke. He lay for a moment, blinking in owlish incomprehension at the light; then suddenly remembered-everything.“Oh, my God, my God!” He covered his eyes with his hand.”

 

Cross-posted at my One-Page Schoolhouse site

archie married
There was a meme online back five years or so about making your  Facebook profile picture a comic or cartoon character that you identified with for some reason. Lots of superheroes and princesses appeared. While I was surfing around for images, I discovered something pretty shocking about my old friend Archie Andrews of Riverdale. He got married. More than once.

It is even more complicated than that because the comic book universes on paper, TV or in the movies have lots of alternatives these days. I did some browsing at a local comic book shop and found a few Archie collections including Archie: The Married Life Book 1, part of the “Married Life Series.” In this series Archie marries blonde Betty and in another version marries vixen Veronica.

I binged through this 320 page opus in two nights like I zipped through the 12-cent comics I was buying back in the early 1960s.

archie romeo.jpg

I haven’t checked in on Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica in a lot of years and a lot has changed. One of the articles I read was titled Archie Gets Married and Goes to Hell.

The Archie I grew up on bounced back and forth between Betty and Veronica with occasional flirtation with anew girl at school.  Hie never-ending high school career of innocent foreplay lasted  68 years. He married Veronica.  When I first read about this I was a little sad, because I had been rooting for Betty all along.

Did marrying off Archie work for the publisher or was it a bad move?  The resulting comic, The Married Life: Archie Loves Veronica, sold 24 times their usual 2,500-odd copies per issue.

If you grew up with Archie, as I did, you will find it disorienting to see Archie and Veronica married and to see their marriage falter. Reading the comics as a pre-teen, I identified with these teenagers in a constant state of sexual tension and unrequited lust.

I grew up with the 1950s Archie classics. I can’t say whether or not Betty and Veronica actually acted as a guide to dating for a generation, but they certainly had an impact on the 1950s and early 60s generation.

The original Archie made his debut in 1941 and has been known ever since for his all-American wholesomeness. He also had a split passion for rich, brunette, glamorous Veronica and sporty, blonde girl-next-door Betty. A new management team at the publisher decided to bring him into the 21st century. The Veronica marriage hit me first, then I find out there is the alternate universe marriage to Betty, and Archie has a career as a musician in New York City and…

riverdale-tv

Part of that 21st century plan allowed for the creation of Riverdale, an updated TV version of Archie and his crew on the CW network. The first season premiered January 2017 to positive reviews, and was renewed for a second season.

Sabrina

The original Sabrina, 1962 || (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Link)

At the end of 2017, Netflix ordered a two-season spin-off series based on the comic book Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

Sabrina Spellman is the title character of the Archie Comics spinoff comic book Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Sabrina first appeared in Archie’s Mad House #22 in October 1962. (Too bad I didn’t save my copy of that issue in good condition as it goes for over $400 these days.)

Sabrina of 1962 was fun and light. This was a time when TV had another nice witch, Samantha, was very popular on Bewitched.

And Sabrina the Teenage Witch also had a 7 -season TV run with the light, safe and funny version of witchcraft.

In this much darker re-imagining of a new Sabrina, she is still 16 and having to choose between an unearthly destiny and her mortal life which, of course, includes a boyfriend.

This series is recommended for “Teen+.” In the third book in the series (I can read them free via  KindleUnlimited), “it’s the night before Halloween, the night before Sabrina’s sixteenth birthday, the night of the blood-moon and the lunar eclipse, and she has made her decision: She will go into the woods of Greendale as a half-witch and emerge… on the other side of a frightful ritual… as a fully baptized member of the Church of Night.”

There isn’t much innocent sharing of a burger and fries at the malt shop here.


Things get even darker in the regular Archie universe. Book 6 in the Married Life series says on the cover “The Death of Archie.”

Oh, they are really messing with my childhood. I may have to dig in my old comic book collection and reread some of the old classic Archie comics of many decades past.

When I was in college, I wrote a short story, “The Book,” that was about a book that revealed the date of death for everyone who was living at the time it was opened. The questions the story asked were whether or not you would want to know that date, and if you did know, how would it shape your remaining life.

The story (which I overly-optimistically sent out to The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other out-of-reach magazines) no longer exists. It was part of a literary funeral pyre a few years ago when I returned a stack of fiction and poetry back into the universe. But those two questions have stayed with me, and I imagine with others, my entire life. The story and questions came back to me when I started reading The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin.

The novel is similar to my old story because the mystical knowledge is not so much what the stories are about. Like my story, the novel is about what people do with the knowledge. (In my story, one of the three main characters chooses not to open the book.)

The novel starts in 1969 in New York City when four adolescent siblings go to psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die.

The prophecies do change their life paths, though not in always obvious ways.

In an interview, Chloe Benjamin was asked if she was given a date for her own death, would she be living her life in a different way? Her answer is the kind of cheating answer many of us would give.

“I have thought about whether I would want to know my date of death, and I always say only if it were good. It’s a paradox! But would I live it a different way? I think yes. I think it would be impossible not to, depending on what it was. Maybe I wouldn’t live it differently if it was very far in the future, because that’s sort of the supposition that we all go on, and hope for, but certainly if it were soon, I think that that would impact the decisions that I made.”

The novel’s adolescents who learn their fate go in different directions. Simon heads to San Francisco for a new liberating gay life. Klara becomes a magician where reality and fantasy can be toyed with as a career. Daniel, the oldest, becomes a doctor, perhaps hoping to  put some human control on Fate. Varya becomes a researcher specializing in longevity and comes the closest to actually testing the space between science and immortality. I won’t include any spoilers here about whether or not the prophecies hold true, but religion, free will, fate and magic do enter all their lives in some way.

It is ironic that the book is called The Immortalists because knowing their fate means they all know they are not immortal. (The title comes from the name of Klara’s magic act.)

Of course, no one reading this really believes in immortality through this life. But we do think about the possibilities of life after death. I won’t go into religious territory here, but there is lots of research into near-death experiences (NDE).

One large study I found concluded that consciousness can be preserved for a few minutes after clinical death. Dr. Sam Parnia of the State University of New York spent six years examining 2060 cases of cardiac arrest patients in Europe and the USA. Only 330 of those survived as a result of a resuscitation procedure, and 40% of those reported that they had some kind of conscious awareness while being considered clinically dead.

When I was 10, my father had to have brain surgery for a tumor. This was the 1960s and a procedure like that was probably quite crude compared to today. His surgeon was writing a book about NDEs and questioned him after the surgery where he was clinically dead for a short time. My father did not have any extraordinary NDE story, but I became quite fascinated with the idea of these experiences. I read things that will well beyond my years and grasp, but the fascination remains with me.

What happens after we die? What do those who “die” and come back to life report?

Many of those people recall their resuscitation and recount details about sounds in the room or the actions of the staff. The most common reported experiences and feelings include: feeling calm and peaceful, a sense of no time passing, the now clichéd “going into a light,” and sensing or seeing yourself separated from your body. Some report seeing a person, sometimes a person they know who has died, sometimes an unknown “guide.” I found it interesting that the smell of bread baking was often noted as a smell they recalled.

What did all this mean to a ten-year old who was thinking about his father’s death and his own, and who was grappling with the things he had been taught as a Catholic by the church?

I took comfort in it at the time. All of it seemed to indicate that there was something after death – and it didn’t seem like something to fear.

Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another. That is the law of conservation of energy. I was not the only person to consider that in relationship to the human soul. If that soul, or human consciousness, is energy – and we all have seen EEG and EKG tests that measure the electrical energy in our heart and brain – that means it cannot just die or disappear.

Then, what happens to that energy after physical death? What form does it change into?

Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to that or to whether or not there is some “life” after death.

I love science, but it treats consciousness as just a product of the human brain. Near-death experiences seem to point in another direction.

Robert Lanza, known for his Biocentrism theory, believes that consciousness moves to another universe after death. He claims that consciousness exists outside the time and space and the physical body. And that would mean that it survives physical death.

The biocentrism theory isn’t a rejection of science. Biocentrism challenges us to fully accept the implications of the latest scientific findings in fields ranging from plant biology and cosmology to quantum entanglement and consciousness. By listening to what the science is telling us, it becomes increasingly clear that life and consciousness are fundamental to any true understanding of the universe. This forces a fundamental rethinking of everything we thought we knew about life, death, and our place in the universe.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” says Hamlet to Horatio. I think Hamlet is correct.

I think next I will read Chloe Benjamin’s earlier novel, The Anatomy of Dreams.  Dreams and particularly lucid dreams are also things that I have had a lifelong interest in studying.

The creation of man by Prometheus. Marble relief, Italy, 3rd century CE.

“A man is a god in ruins.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?” ― John Milton, Paradise Lost

 

The story of Dr. Frankenstein and the “monster” he created is now 200 years old. Most people think of it as a horror story, but it was intended to be much more.

If you ever read the book, rather than just seeing any of the almost 100 movie incarnations of the monster, you would know that it has a lot to do with man’s consideration of mortality.

You may heard about the story’s origin. In 1818, Mary Shelley published the first edition of Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus, but it began on a stay near Lake Geneva with her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, and fellow poet Lord Byron. Trapped indoors by storms and bored, they decided to have a little ghost story writing competition. The story that Mary created wasn’t so much a ghost story, but her story idea led to the novel.

Mary

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

I only learned recently in reading a new edition of the novel that Mary Shelley had lost a premature baby daughter when she was only 17. She was haunted by thoughts and visions of the dead baby. She wrote in her journal that in a dream she saw her dead daughter brought back to life after being robbed vigorously in front of a fire.  It was only two years later, when she was 19, that she wrote the novel.

In movie versions of the novel, electricity sent through a human body brings the dead body to life. There were experiments done in her time, such as those by Alessandro Volta, to find the connection between electricity and the way our muscles move. But Shelley never described the details of the reanimation process. She describes the scientist finding an “elemental principle of life” which allows him to give life to inanimate matter. He realizes the God-like power this offers him and hesitates to use it. But finally, after two years of constructing a body using materials supplied by “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house,” he finishes his creature and brings him to life.

Dr. Frankenstein never gives the creature a name. (“Frankenstein” is the doctor, not the creature, but the movies have made that distinction unclear.) Shelley intended the result of the experiment to be considered a monster to be pitied. Certainly, one theme of the novel is the dangers of man “playing God” – a theme that is very relevant today as we experiment with genetics and artificial intelligence.

Mary Shelley subtitled her novel “The Modern Prometheus” and she expected her readers to know the story from Greek mythology of the Titan Prometheus. His name means “forethought” and he is a troublemaker for the other gods. He is credited with the creation of man from clay, done at Zeus’ bidding. But he defies the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity. A hero to mankind, his theft and gift enabled progress and civilization. But Prometheus is punished by Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, and sentenced to eternal torment bound to a rock. Every day for eternity an eagle (emblem of Zeus) would feed on his liver. The organ (which the ancient Greeks considered to be the seat of human emotions) would then grow back only to be eaten again the next day.Prometheus is freed from his torment by the hero Heracles (Hercules).

Shelley’s scientist is a strange combination of ideas. He is heroic, tragic, genius, madman. Lord Byron was a fan of the play Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, and Mary’s husband Percy wrote his own Prometheus Unbound a few years later, so perhaps this topic was part of the Lake Geneva conversations.  Prometheus came to be viewed as a symbol of human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge. But he also represents the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences. The Romantics viewed him as someone whose best efforts to improve human existence resulted in tragedy.

“Modern Prometheus” was a term coined by philosopher Immanuel Kant in reference to Benjamin Franklin and his experiments with electricity. (Mary’s father was the political philosopher and novelist William Godwin, so it is likely she was aware of this reference. Dr. Frankenstein comes to see his creation as a monster and regrets giving it life. He decides that death must be viewed as a final thing.

The movie versions of her story, as with many other movie versions of novels and of real life, have made deeper impressions on audiences. The serious themes that Mary wanted to address are made less important in the films, while the horror of the “monster” and the “madness” of the scientist are brought to the front.

Frankenstein is a Gothic novel and clearly a part of the Romantic movement, but is also a very early example of science fiction. It can be argued that it is the first true science fiction story when compared to earlier stories that are more fantasy. This scientist and his modern experiments in the laboratory that echo some of the science of today does what most modern sci-fi still does. It looks at where we are and imagines where that might lead in the future. Like much sci-fi, her story is a cautionary tale, a warning.

 

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld my man completed …” (Draft for Frankenstein)

The first edition of the novel was published in 1818 in three volumes (the “triple-decker” format was typical for 19th-century first editions) with only 500 copies and without Mary’s name on the book.  A second edition in 1822 had two volumes with her name on the title page. By then a successful play, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake, had driven some demand for the novel.

It wasn’t until 1831 that a one-volume edition appeared. Mary heavily revised the novel to make it “less radical” and this is the version that is generally read today. But there are versions of the original “uncensored” edition and some nice annotated versions that I would recommend as they give the reader background on elements of the story. There is even a version called Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. I have read all of them and the story continues to interest me as I read more about Mary Shelley and think about how her story applies to our modern times.

 

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