Some of the best fun I have ever had occurred when I was teaching Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein as adjunct English lit faculty in 1988. Despite the first edition having been published in 1818 -- about 50 years before Darwin's Origin of Species -- the novel somehow becomes ever more relevant and ever less dated as time goes on, especially during times like these when belief in science and reason seems to be diminishing in some quarters, even as a kind of free-floating and endemic fear of the Other increases, usually more markedly the more conservative people are, and when xenophobia and fundamentalist / conservative religion seem to be more and more ascendant. So I got more than I bargained for in 1988: we are seeing Frankenstein come to life – as it were – in the political discourse of the Nation.
Shelley’s Frankenstein can be read as a cautionary tale about the hazards of hubris, overweening pride, in seeking to usurp prerogatives that rightfully pertain only to God or to the gods, in any case, shmoozing around in areas where humans are not competent, and of the punishments inflicted on those brave enough – or foolhardy enough – to transgress these limits. Hence the full title of Shelley’s novel: Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, an allusion to the Titan Prometheus, who created human beings at the behest of the King of the Gods, Zeus, and then, in an excess of devotion toward his creations, proceeded to violate Zeus’s prohibition by giving to humans the secrets of making fire. Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock, and then sending a bird to repeatedly pluck out and eat his liver … which would promptly regenerate so that it could be eaten again and again. (Without too much of a stretch, this could be considered an eerily prescient archaic Greek anticipation of the fate of those of us who were excessively faithful in watching the Republican candidates’ debates … except that getting one’s liver repeatedly eaten might be much less painful. You pick your hubris, I’ll pick mine.) So Frankenstein is exceptionally deft at playing on the persistent Gothic and romantic themes of excessive pride leading to lines of inquiry and of action vis a vis matters Divinely concealed from human meddling which precipitate the protagonist’s tragic downfall. Or, as old grade-B science fiction stories and movies were wont to express it, “There are some things Man was never meant to know”.
This is all well and good as long as those consequences are confined between the covers of a book. But matters become much more serious when the Furies evoked by the novelist escape the book and begin to play themselves out on the stage of politics and policy. At that point, one is forced to consider at least the possibility that, just as Dr. Victor Frankenstein (and Prometheus) suffered the consequences of trifling with forbidden forces, the American political culture has, for the last going-on-15 years – basically at least ever since 9/11/2001 -- been equally unwise in trifling with the dark gods that inhabit the human psyche: the dark gods of xenophobia, racial prejudice, religious triumphalism, unreasoning fear of the Unfamiliar, jingoistic tribalism, and free-floating anger, whose natural habitat is the tenebrous reaches of the id – and which can provide great creative energy, but only as long as they are subject to the tutelage of the superego and Reason. In order to exist at all, shadows need light. But balance is all.
Individual exceptions notwithstanding, we as a political community began our illicit flirtation with the dark gods at approximately 8:46 a.m., Eastern Time, on 11 Sep 2001, when the first airplane, American Airlines flight 11, hit World Trade Center 1, followed roughly 15 minutes later by United Airlines flight 175, which hit World Trade Center 2. Then came the attack on the Pentagon (American Airlines flight 77) and the abortive crash of United Airlines flight 93 in the vicinity of Shanksville, PA. Sometime between the first impact and the last, the id escaped the boundaries of the superego and we as a Nation began to act – and to vote – accordingly. Nuance became a dirty word, and vengeance became the Holy Grail of national policy. “If you’re not for us, you’re against us” – so sprinkle a generous helping of that on your damn “freedom fries”! The political class was only too glad to pander to the snowballing bloodlust – and, to be scrupulously fair, we as citizens were only too glad to be pandered to. The Tea Party, which began as a passionate and long-overdue critique of casino capitalism, was co-opted by a kind of militant, unreflecting, regimented conservatism not seen since Leni Riefenstahl’s fascist propaganda film Triumph of the Will in 1935. The economic terrorism that brought us the Great Recession of 2008 eventuated in the election of Barack Obama – whereupon the id-ridden Valkyries of the right discovered … that he was black. A black President with a black wife and two black daughters -- with one, then two, black dogs -- in the White House could not have been deliberately calculated to jangle the cacophonous chimes of whang-doodle paranoia more loudly … hence, e.g., the “birther movement” and its attendant drivelings, unprecedented in the history of the American Presidency, and the mindless opposition, to the point of multiple government shutdowns and the trashing of the national credit rating, all for the sake of at-all-cost opposition to everything Obama. The monster had been born from the diseased womb of Victor Frankenstein’s hubristic intellect. Prometheus had brought fire to human beings. The former still walks among us – not at the North Pole – and the latter remains unchained.
But – again, to be scrupulously fair – the epic un-reality show that American politics has become is a joint production of the political class in concert with the commentariat, a.k.a. the “chattering class”. The media are at least as much to blame as the politicians. And we, as citizens, are arguably even more to blame for supporting and reciprocally pandering to both. This is OJ’s trial on an inter-continental, even planetary, scale. Nor is this a recent phenomenon. Back in 1985, Neil Postman predicted the dissolution of the line between news and entertainment in a prescient book tellingly entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. The subtitle says it all. Nor is the show-biz paradigm confined to the plush offices on Big Media's mahogany row. Anyone can amuse her- or himself to death, now that the internet and social-media technologies have basically democratized communication and made us all members -- perhaps junior members, but still members -- of the aforementioned "chattering class" ... because ... well ... everyone chatters. Myself included. And if we cannot find something of enduring substance to chatter about, we are amazingly adept at making up insubstantial chatter. Don't believe me? Look at the "comments" section of the internet version of the major, and most minor, newspapers. Or the bewildering proliferation of diabetes-inducing cutesy-poo kitten-and-puppy videos on Facebook -- almost enough to make one cancel one's membership in PETA. On Christmas Eve -- ah! the irony! -- Matt Bai wrote a remarkably candid and revelatory column for Vox that was reprinted by Yahoo, the point of which was basically borrowed from Pogo Possum: "We have met the enemy and he is us!" The media did not create Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Megyn Kelly, Donald Trump, or, indeed, any of the more florid characters currently infesting the GOP Klown Kar. We did. (Several times over the years, in fact, Limbaugh -- I have to respect his candor -- explicitly acknowledged that he is an entertainer, not a journalist.) In the above process of vindicating Postman and Bai, whose debt to Postman he acknowledges in his column, we have made the very unsurprising discovery that anger, rage ... psychopathology generally ... are immensely entertaining, in fact, an electronic analog of the gladiatorial games of late Rome -- except that anyone can be a gladiator. In a trifle more than 150 years, we as a political community have gone from Lincoln-Douglas and debates about slavery / popular sovereignty to Jerry Springer and faux riots about whether a guest fathered his cousin's Labra-doodle's puppies. And we did it because, basically ... well ... basically because we wanted to.
This is where the story of American-political-culture-as-Frankenstein departs from Mary Shelley's novel: in the latter, the last we see of Dr. Victor Frankenstein's monster is a vague figure tracking through a blizzard at the North Pole. But in the former, the monster returns, acquires a controlling interest in all the media outlets, and treats us to the professional wrestling match that has become American political discourse. And we scarf it up like Chris Christie at an In-and-Out burger franchise.
So ... speaking of Frankenstein's monster ... please tell me which of us has the more severely cracked head.
James R. Cowles
Frankenstein ... public domain
Prometheus ... public domain
"Triumph of the Will" poster ... Universum Film AG, 1935
Donald Trump ... Gage Skidmore ... 2015 ... CC BY-SA 3.0
GOP Klown Kar ... "DonkeyHotey" ... 2015 ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0