Sunday, December 31, 2017

The History of Frankenstein Part I: Lies, Damned Lies, and Mary Shelley's Preface to Frankenstein

Most of us are familiar with the tale of how Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein -- how she and her husband Percy were on vacation in Switzerland and happened to be staying near Lord Byron, and on a dark and stormy night, after reading some German horror stories, they decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest story. It all sounds so genteel. Something you'd see on Masterpiece Theater.

It's also pure BS.

Mary and her step-sister Claire were the Kardashians of the early 19th Century. And I don't mean they were wild by the standards of their day. They did things that would still make the front page of TMZ. If they were alive today, they'd be feuding with Beyonce and Taylor Swift, I guarantee it.

So where did the sanitized version of the story come from?

Why Mary Shelley herself.

In 1831 she was faced with the prospect of her only surviving child, Percy Florence, starting school the following year, and she didn't want him to be dogged by nasty rumors about his parents and grandparents. So when the opportunity to put out a new edition of Frankenstein came up, Shelley decided to heavily revise it, watering down the more controversial elements, and to append a new preface telling how the book came to be written. This being the period before modern mass media, scandals were kept alive by memory and world of mouth. More than a dozen years had passed since Mary's infamous stay at Lake Geneva, so by putting out a sanitized version of events, she was able to influence the narrative.

The preface to the 1831 edition is filled with lies and misleading statements. They begin in the third paragraph when she says, "I lived principally in the country as a girl, and passed a considerable time in Scotland." In truth she spent most of her childhood in her father's London bookshop, leaving the city only rarely. The "considerable time" spent in Scotland was really a couple summer vacations intended to get her out of her step-mother's hair.

In the next paragraph she claims, "My husband, however, was from the first, very anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage, and enroll myself on the page of fame." This isn't a lie per se, but it's worded in a way to leave the impression that Mary and Percy were already married when they went to Lake Geneva, when the truth is Percy had a wife back in England, whom he'd dumped to run around Europe with a couple of teenage girl. When Mary describes the writing contest, she says "There were four of us," which is, again, technically correct in that only four of them appear to have participated, but it leaves the impression that only four of them were hanging out together in Geneva, when in fact there was a fifth person present. But the identity of that fifth person and the reason for her presence--and indeed the whole reason for the Shelleys meeting Byron--was scandalous and something Mary wanted to hide.

But to discuss how Mary came to be at Lake Geneva in 1816, we have to take a step back and look at not just her life story, but those of her parents, the radical philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin.
You've undoubtedly seen editions of Frankenstein that credit the author by her full name, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. I've encountered a number of people who assume "Wollstonecraft" was her maiden name, but that's not the case at all. Rather, in keeping with the style of the time, it was her middle name taken from her mother's family. Mary Wollstonecraft had been one of the major political thinkers of the 1790s. After laboring as a reviewer for a radical magazine for several years, she burst to fame with a takedown of Edmund Burke entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), which she followed up with a sequel, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which laid the foundations for feminist philosophy. She argued that the only differences between men and women are those imposed upon them by societal pressures, and women would be every bit as capable as men if they were given the same opportunities in education and career.

As Virginia Woolf observed, Wollstonecraft was "no pedant, no cold-blooded theorist"  -- she lived what she preached, and she "thrust aside her theories and modeled them afresh" as she gained experience in life.

Her grandfather had been a wealthy textile manufacturer, and her father had every intention of raising himself to the level of landed gentry. Unfortunately grandpa's head for business was not hereditary, and Papa Wolstonecraft's various schemes pushed the family down the social ladder rather than up, until they were barely clinging to the pretension of being middle class. Papa Wollstonecraft did not handle failure well, and he transformed into a vicious despot. He was abusive enough to cause comment even in the 18th Century, and the family moved every few years due to a combination of rumors and financial failures. Only Mary and her older brother Ned escaped his abuse -- the former because she dared to stand up to him and he was too much of a coward to go after someone who might fight back, and the latter because he sided with his father.

Wollstonecraft skipped out on her family as soon as it was practicable, even though doing so meant moving in with her friend Fanny Blood's family, who were even closer to penury than the Wollstonecrafts. Fanny was a remarkable woman. Somehow, probably thanks to an eccentric clergyman who took both her and Wollstonecraft under his wing, Fanny had received an exceptionally good education for someone so poor. She spoke French fluently and drew illustrations for a botanical encyclopedia. According to Wollstonecraft, Fanny was a better writer than herself, though sadly none of Fanny's letters have survived.

Wollstonecraft's younger sister Eliza also moved out while still young, though she did so through the more traditional method of marriage. At first everything seemed to be going fine for her, but then she gave birth to a daughter and suffered a severe bout of post-partum depression. Her husband wanted to follow a popular bit of folklore that held copious sex to be the best cure for melancholia. It's not clear whether he actually forced himself on Eliza or merely pressured her, but in any event Mary was appalled by what was going on and decided to abscond with her sister. Notably, though, she did not decide to abscond with the baby, who was left in the father's care.

Eliza's husband did plea for her return, but he never took legal action, most likely because the whole situation was embarrassing -- it's one thing for a wife to run off with another man, but to be stolen away by her sister ... he didn't want to put himself up to public ridicule. Unfortunately Eliza's daughter died a year later. While infant mortality was still common at the time, one can't help but wonder if things would've turned out differently if Wollstonecraft had brought the baby along.

In the meantime, Wollstonecraft had to find a way to support herself and Eliza. She couldn't very well impose her sister on the Bloods, so that was out. Governessing and companioning (basically being a personal assistant for a wealthy spinster or widow) were horrible jobs that women avoided whenever possible. Mary had friends who would lend her money to start a shop, but her bourgeois pretensions made her see shopkeeping as beneath her.

Which left school teaching.

Mary invited her other sister, Everina, to join them, along with Fanny Blood, who knew French, a subject that any decent school had to offer. With the backing of friends, Mary set up a small school and boarding house that was never quite prosperous, but did keep the four women afloat for a while. More importantly, it brought Mary into contact with the educational reform movement of the period. Recognizing her keen mind, her fellow reformers urged her to write a treatise on educational theory. The book she produced was nothing original, but it was well argued and gave her a (very small) public profile, along with a connection to the liberal publisher Joseph Johnson.

But the situation with the school couldn't last. Fanny suffered from consumption, and she was affianced to a British merchant in Lisbon in the hope that a warmer climate would improve her health. Perhaps it did, but whatever effect it had was negated when she became pregnant. Mary scrounged up what money she could and sailed to Portugal, arriving just in time to comfort Fanny on her deathbed.

With the two best teachers gone, the Wollstonecraft school entered a terminal decline and collapsed soon after Mary returned to England. Wollstonecraft made arrangements for her sisters, then deigned to take a job as governess to the children of Robert King, the Viscount of Kingsborough. Between her hardheadedness and middle class pride, Wollstonecraft could not get along with her mistress, the Lady Caroline, who treated her perfectly kindly but with an attitude of noblesse oblige that got under Wollstonecraft's skin.

The Kings let Wollstonecraft go after a year, though a single year was enough for Mary to infect her star pupil, Margaret King, with a revolutionary mindset. Margaret later sided with the Republicans during the Rebellion of 1798, and then dumped the husband her parents had arranged for her and ran off to Italy with her true love. And that's not even mentioning the time she disguised herself as a man so she could attend medical school ....

The newly unemployed Wollstonecraft got in touch with Johnson, who was in the process of starting a new magazine and had an opening for a book reviewer, which she snatched up.

Not long after this, the Revolution in France began. At first it received broad support from British intellectuals, who hoped the French might move away from absolutist monarchy towards a more constrained constitutional system like their own. But as radical ideas spread in France, some intellectuals began having doubts. Edmund Burke, who had up until this point been a fairly liberal man, gave voice to these doubts in his book Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke took the view that reform was all well and good, but it had to be approached carefully and slowly, without disrupting the existing social order. Sure, France could stand a dose of democracy, but let's not get carried away by giving the peasants the vote or abolishing aristocracy! (This is still considered a foundational work of modern conservatism.)

Reflections proved to be the first salvo in a long-running pamphlet war between pro- and anti-revolutionary thinkers in Britain. The first major response to reach bookshops came from Wollstonecraft in her long essay A Vindication of the Rights of Men, published less than a month after Burke's book hit shelves. Subsequent writers like Tom Paine would offer more detailed and logical rebuttals, but Wollstonecraft hit him where it hurt most, by attacking his rhetoric and turning it against him to show how shallow his arguments were.

Wollstonecraft followed this up with a sequel, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which attacked the French -- namely Talleyrand -- for clinging to patriarchal notions about the place of women in society and not advocating for the equality of everyone regardless of gender.

During this time, Johnson regularly threw dinners for his friends, many of them leading thinkers of the day, and through these Wollstonecraft made her entrée into the intelligentsia. At one dinner she had her first encounter with William Godwin, though it was a less than auspicious beginning for a relationship -- Godwin had come specifically to meet Tom Paine, but Paine turned out to be shy and reserved in social settings, whereas Wollstonecraft was outspoken and dominated the conversation. It would be years before the two met again. In the meantime, Wollstonecraft became attracted to another of Johnson's friends, the Swiss painter Henry Fuseli (whose painting The Nightmare would inspire a pivotal scene in Frankenstein and serve as the cover art for numerous editions).

 Wollstonecraft had attracted several suitors over the years, but either because of her own paternally induced antipathy towards men, or because her intellect and outspokenness intimidated the men of the time, none of her relationships had gone anywhere. Fuseli, who was already married to one of his models, was different. He took Wollstonecraft seriously as thinker, but more importantly, he turned her on. Up until this point, Wollstonecraft had exhibited little sign of a sex drive, approaching relationships with men as rational affairs. Fuseli, however, managed to activate her libido. They probably didn't consummate their relationship, but he did shift her views on sex. The philosophy she'd been developing up to this point was what would be termed today "sex-negative feminism" that expected everyone in society to remain in the bounds of strict sexual propriety, but after her relationship she started wondering -- what if women could have the same sexual freedom that men already have.

Unfortunately she would soon learn the hard way that without social and economic equality, sexual liberation was impossible.

NEXT WEEK: That Time the First Feminist and the First Libertarian Got Married

The Unnamed Monster at Two Hundred

On the first of January 1818, the London publishing firm of Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor and Jones released a three volume Gothic novel with the title Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus. The first edition was published anonymously, though it contained a preface by the up-and-coming Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Percy had previously published two novels in the Gothic mode, the highly derivative and edge-lordy Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, which Lovecraft quite rightly dismissed as "schoolboy effusions". But Percy's history with the genre and his preface led many people to assume that Frankenstein must be his work too (a theory that several later critics have, against all reason, tried to keep alive). It was only with the second edition in 1822 that the author was revealed to be Percy's wife, Mary Shelley.

To honor the book's bicentennial, I'm going to spend the next few months blogging about the novel's origins and its place in literary history. My plan is to spend January discussing Mary Shelley's family background, how she came to know Percy Shelley, and how she ended up at Lake Geneva with him and Lord Byron, and how these elements are reflected in the novel. After that I'll move on to the development of the Gothic genre in the decades leading up to Frankenstein, how the genre relates to the Age of Enlightenment and British reaction to the French Revolution, how Frankenstein relates to that, and how the Gothic eventually diffused into the modern genres of mystery, horror, romance and fantasy. Then finally I'll look to the question of whether Frankenstein fits into the history of science fiction.

I don't plan on making detailed citations for this blog series, but these are the main works I've consulted in my research:

Death and the Maidens by Janet Todd
The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana by Jess Nevins
Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, 1st Edition by William Godwin
Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, 3rd Edition by William Godwin
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, annotated by Leslie S. Klinger
The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction by Nick Groom
Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature by Pamela Bedore
History of the Gothic, Volume 1 (1764-1824) by Carol Margaret Davison
History of the Gothic, Volume 2 (1824-1914) by Jarlath Killeen
In Defense of Harriet Shelley by Mark Twain
Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life by Janet Todd
Shelley: The Pursuit by Richard Holmes
Supernatural Horror in Literature by H. P. Lovecraft, annotated by S. T. Joshi
Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction by S. T. Joshi
Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft by Lyndall Gordon
Young Romantics by Daisy Hay

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

No, Dinesh, the Nazis Weren't Socialist

As white supremacists have taken on ever more prominent roles in the Republican party over the last couple years, conservative commentators have had an increasingly difficult time distancing themselves from accusations of racism and even Nazism. Whereas they once distanced themselves from a candidate who was caught doing Nazi cosplay, today they barely show concern over an outright racist like Steve King. Instead they've resorted to increasingly ridiculous arguments that it's liberals who are the real racists. One particularly popular variant on social media, which recently got turned into a book by faux-academic and ex-con Dinesh D'souza, is that Nazis were actually socialists, and therefore anyone who supports leftwing policies like universal healthcare is really a Nazi too.

"Nazi," the argument goes, is short for the National Socialist German Worker's Party. Sounds pretty left wing, right? QED. Nevermind that Hitler's actual polices weren't remotely socialist, or that he had commissars summarily executed during Operation Barbarossa.

Sadly, most of the people who try to argue against this point aren't much better informed, and will usually just assert, "That's stupid and wrong. Nazis were right wing" and leave it at that. But because Nazism was such an incoherent pseudophilosophy, the actual answer is much more complex.

While the party had "socialist" in the name, the "national" part is the key word. Just as "virtual reality" isn't reality and a "tofu burger" isn't a hamburger, the modifier "national" changes the meaning of "socialist" completely. Traditional socialism claims that resources and the means of production should be controlled by the people, where "people" is understood to be the workers. But despite the inclusion of "Worker" in the full title of the party, the Nazis limited their concept of the people (the volk) to those of German blood. Jews, Roma, foreign nationals -- they didn't count. They were either intended to be excluded from the commonweal, or enslaved. "National Socialist" thus meant that the nation would be controlled by ethnic Germans for the good of ethnic Germans.

Now, this is how National Socialism was understood in the first years of the party, before Hitler became its driving force. Once Hitler took over, he introduced a further concept, the Fuehrerprinzip, the idea that there's no need for consulting the volk, because the Leader becomes the embodiment of the General Will. Through some never-explained magic, the Leader isn't really a person acting on his own whims and desires, but is an almost divine incarnation of the volk.

And Hitler's idea of how to run the country wasn't remotely socialist. He did demand strong state control over industry, but he did so by colluding with business owners, not by nationalizing factories or mines -- quite the opposite, in fact; industries already under state control were privatized. The Fuehrerprinzip was applied to industry, with factory owners operating as mini-Fuehrers who would look out for the well-being of their workers in the same way Hitler looked out for the well-being of all Germans.

That being said, the early Nazi movement wasn't monolithic. Hitlerism was the strain that gained control of the party, but there were other factions, including a genuinely socialist wing. (At least socialist as far as the volk were concerned; everyone else was still left hanging.) This wing of the party was led by Gregor Strasser and Ernst Roehm, and centered on the SA (the Stormtroopers or Brown Shirts). Prior to Hitler taking power, the Nazis relied on the SA for street fighting and other bits of political violence, and as such Hitler couldn't purge them from the party. However, once Hitler became Chancellor and he had control of the military and police, he no longer needed Roehm or Strasser. In June of 1934, Hitler ordered their murder, along with the murder of hundreds of other SA leaders in what became known as the Night of Long Knives. (Note: This isn't to say that Roehm and Strasser were good guys. They were just as antisemitic as any other Nazis, though they couched it in terms of evil Jewish bankers controlling the world and keeping the working man down.)

So the next time you here a right winger saying the Nazis were socialists, don't just say, "No they weren't," point out that Hitler murdered all the actual socialists in the party.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Apropos of Absolutely Nothing

One of the most annoying things about growing up on military bases overseas is the lack of access to mass media. When I was a kid, living on base meant you only had one English-language TV station, though I understand nowadays that's increased to a whopping eight thanks to cable and satellite. Being run by the military, these stations didn't run commercials, but to keep the schedule regular they needed something to fill breaks, so they ran PSAs instead. Many of them were the standard Ad Council stuff -- "This is your brain on drugs," "I sort glass," etc. -- but a lot of it was produced by the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service on crappy camcorders with a budget equal to a high school play.

There were many subjects for these PSAs -- don't waste electricity, don't litter, don't take government issued pens home from work, don't incinerate yourself by using too much lighter fluid on the grill. And of course the ever popular OpSec -- don't say anything related to military operations where people can hear. These weren't just aimed at soldiers. Dependents were expected to keep their mouths shut too, and these PSAs ran during Sesame Street and Scooby-Doo just as much as Cheers and Falcon Crest.

Sadly(?) only a few of the ads from the '80s, when I was growing up, are on YouTube, but there are plenty of modern versions available. They're highly informative and should be viewed by anyone who comes out of the civilian world with no knowledge of basic information security.

Not that I have anyone in mind.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Grey Isn't White, But Neither Is It Black

Trump may finally have waded into shit so deep even his toupee is going to disappear. In an interview with Bill O'Reilly set to air during the Super Bowl pregame, he's going to draw a moral equivalency between the United States and Russia
O'Reilly pressed on, declaring to the president that “Putin is a killer.”

Unfazed, Trump didn't back away, but rather compared Putin's reputation for extrajudicial killings with the United States'.

“There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers,” Trump said. “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
Some people are  seeing this as an almost Chomsky like argument--America is a corrupt country that has no business criticizing others. However, this misses a couple points.

First of all, the pure Chomskyite argument is one of moral outrage--throughout its history, the US has committed a number of atrocities (slavery, genocide and ethnic cleansing against natives, wars of imperialism, supporting dictators over democracy whenever it benefits American business interests), and we have to do better, and until we do, our criticisms of foreign governments are hypocritical. That's the exact opposite of Trump's argument here. He's shrugging off our evils and saying, "Hey, let's embrace this. If we've done bad shit, why shouldn't we pal around with dictatorships? Let's be badasses together. Fuck yeah!"

But that's the second key difference. The more nuanced argument isn't that America is evil, but rather that we're not good.

Look at WWII, the classic example where America likes to pretend we were the White Hats striding in to kick Nazi ass and make the world safe for democracy. Sure, we had to align ourselves with the Soviets, but that was an alliance of convenience that we repudiated almost immediately after the war. And yes, the British Empire wasn't the most noble enterprise in history, but we used Lend-Lease, the Atlantic Charter, Bretton Woods and the Marshall Plan to push the Brits towards dissolving the empire. So, go us.

Critics, however, point out that the truth is more complicated. The United States forced racial minorities to live in ghettos, and we put the Japanese into concentration camps. The Nazi eugenics program was an industrialized version of programs at work in the United States -- programs that lasted all the way to 1980 in some cases. There were individual US bombing raids that killed more civilians than the entire Blitz. And that's not even touching on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

 Conservatives often take umbrage at such comparisons. They tend to have a binary worldview--everything must be black or white, and if you're arguing that America wasn't wearing a white hat, you must think we were bad guys no different than Nazis. But that's ridiculous. Morality exists in shades of grey. No one is pure white or pure black (though the Nazis were about as close as you can get). Out of all the powers in WWII, the US was the lightest grey, but to deny that we were grey is to rewrite history.

But when you look at Trump's comment, he's not making an argument about shades of grey. He's adopting the conservative binary view of morality and saying, "Well, we're not white hats, so we might as well embrace villainy."

And in doing so he's papering over the major differences between the US and Russia. No, we aren't morally pure here. Some of our Eastern European allies are less than democratic. Pushing NATO right onto Russia's doorstep is provocative and we should've found a better way to secure Eastern Europe's security. But our excesses these days (at least until a couple weeks ago) are in foreign policy. Domestically, there's no comparison. No American president within living memory has ordered the murder of a domestic political opponent or critic--the fact that Daniel Ellsberg and Seymour Hersh are alive is proof of that; if Nixon didn't do it, no one did. The US hasn't locked up homosexuals in decades. Political dissent is not punished. Is America perfect? No, far from it. Our foreign policy in particular could use some serious revision. But less than perfect is a far cry from being wicked. We get things wrong, but we strive to become better; Putin embraces what he is, and now Trump wants America to do the same.

Anyone who takes pride in all that the US has accomplished, flawed though it might be, should be aghast at what Trump is suggesting about us.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Let Americans Become the Devils Who Torture Mike Pence's Soul

Mike Pence and Paul Ryan both claim to be good Christians and patriotic Americans. Both have stated in the past that they oppose Trump's Muslim ban, and yet today they stand behind the administration in it's offensive action. Perhaps America should remind them that they once had a conscience.

Print out these two tweets, write across the top of each, "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me," and mail them to Pence and Ryan.


Vice President Mike Pence
The White House.
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW.
Washington, DC 20500

Congressman Paul Ryan
1233 Longworth HOB
Washington, D.C. 20515

 And make sure you tell your friends to do the same. The goal here is to recreate that scene at the end of Miracle on 34th Street when the mail carriers come in with sack-loads of letters addressed to Santa, but every one full of these tweets to remind Ryan and Pence of what they claim they stand for.

Will it make a difference? Outwardly, probably not. But if these men are the Christians they claim to be, the rebuke will sting their conscience. It will trouble them in the small hours of the night as they try to sleep, knowing that they have sold their souls for a little bit of power on Earth. If they will not stand up for what is right, Americans must become their devils and torture their souls.