Friday, May 01, 2009

caveat mutant

Franco Moretti has an ideosyncratic take on "modern monsters": Frankenstein and Dracula. This is from Signs taken for Wonders:

"The fear of bourgeois civilization is summed up in two names: Frankenstein and Dracula. The monster and the vampire are born together one night in 1816 in the drawing room of the Villa Chapuis near Geneva, out of a society game among friends to while away a rainy summer. Born in the full spate of the industrial revolution, they rise again together in the critical years at the end of the nineteenth century under the names of Hyde and Dracula. In the twentieth century they conquer the cinema: after the First World War, in German Expressionism; after the 1929 crisis, with the big rko productions in America; then in 1956–57, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, directed by Terence Fisher, again, triumphantly, incarnate this twin-faced nightmare. Frankenstein and Dracula lead parallel lives. They are indivisible, because complementary, figures; the two horrible faces of a single society, its extremes: the disfigured wretch and the ruthless proprietor. The worker and capital: ‘the whole of society must split into the two classes of property owners and propertyless workers.’ That ‘must’, which for Marx is a scientific prediction of the future (and the guarantee of a future reordering of society), is a forewarning of the end for nineteenth-century bourgeois culture."

"They are indivisible, because complementary"? Strangely enough, when I was at school the class was split between two rival gangs. The leaders of the gangs were called Elephant and Dracula. I never learnt their real names!

The main point of my criticism of this piece is, it's all very clever but is Mary Shelley really anticipating Marx's theory of the decomposition of Nineteenth Century class society, which actually didn't pan out exactly as Marx anticipated? Isn't the operative political faultline in 1816 still Radical against Conservative rather than proletariat against bourgeoisie? Why is there only one monster who hardly interferes in society at all, but rather remotely terrorises it? Why doesn't this terrorism relate to the social relations made possible by capitalism, and that made possible the assassination of Spencer Percival, for example?

There might be something in the correspondence between the monster in Frankenstein and a certain way of looking at the destitute, but it surely requires the complete abstraction of the "disfigured wretch" from economic, social and familial relations.

The personal history of the author of Frankenstein ought to be asserted here.

Mary Shelley's mother was involved in a famous controversy of the period whose theme coincides with the theme of the book. More or less, Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense arguing for a rational society. The French Revolution took place, offstage. Edmund Burke came up with a very strange argument against the ideas of Paine and the actions of the revolutionaries. Certain institutions in society should be accepted as being unfathomably efficacious. Acting against these institutions, apparently rationally, would be either futile or disasterous. Reality is a mousetrap; Enlightenment a piece of cheese. Mary Wollstonecraft responded to Burke's pamphlet with Vindication of the Rights of Men. Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein appropriates Burke's theme of the horrific aspect of the new: in modern language, the "mutant".

This is a fairly conventional analysis of Frankenstein. It might appear, from this, that Moretti has failed to understand the significance of the "Burkean" theme. In fact he goes over just this theme later on in his book, in a chapter on Sherlock Holmes.

Having established certain similarities between the treatment of the same theme by Burke and Mary Shelley, it's relevant to stress their differences. The same theme that served as the basis for a polemic by Burke serves as the basis for an imaginitive work by Mary Shelley. It has ceased to be a doctrine to be argued for or against and become somewhat naturalised itself. It has become possible for it to be contemplated with a kind of excited indifference.

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