Is the monster a monster? In other words, according to the novel, what’s monstrous, what’s a monster?
I have suggested that one way to think about close reading, and to begin to think about the complications of langauge, is to use the OED. Here is an entry for “organic” that I looked up today (some cross-fertilization; for my course on Environmental Writing). Notice one of the uses is taken from Coleridge (the author of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) from 1817, the year before the novel is first published.
1817 S. T. COLERIDGE Biographia Literaria I. xii. 237 The fairest part of the most beautiful body will appear deformed and monstrous, if dissevered from its place in the organic whole
What catches my eye here is that the organic becomes monstrous–in effect, inorganic–when it is cut off from a larger whole, system; when there is a loss of relationship, connection. In this sense, the monstrous is not the opposite of human, it is when the human is separated from the larger context of humanity, or when humanity is dissevered from its place in the organic whole of life. Monsters, in this sense (it seems to me) are neither made nor born as such; they are neglected into being. Consider also the OED entry for monster.
This view that the monster is or begins as organic and beautful, but becomes inorganic (or ugly or inhuman, etc), shows up in some recent retellings (or extensions) of Frankenstein in film. One version in particular we will explore: Blade Runner. The lesson there is that the monsters seem more human than their human creators. Its an extension of the novel, by way of science fiction and visions of cyborg replication. But it is something that Shelley also has in mind. As we have seen through some close reading of the novel, Victor is giving birth to his creation–something parodied in this recent New Yorker cartoon (with thanks to Jeremy for the link). However, as usually is the case with such parody, the joke seems less on Victor or the novel, and more on the contemporary reference to parenting–what to expect when you’re expecting.
Based on your reading of the novel, particularly with the implications you see raised (answered and unanswered) by the end, how would you forward Shelley’s Frankenstein into a contemporary reproduction? What would your text (film or multimedia or print) emphasize? How would it illustrate, borrow, authorize and extend Shelley’s version?
By the end, I pay particular attention to Victor’s use of the word species (as on 184: my duties towards the being of my own species) and the use of the word being. Is the creature a human being? What does that mean for the novel? When thinking about such keywords, I find it helpful to track the places where the word appears–something that I do more and more these days using Google Books (sorry Birkerts–it’s a research tool). I find that there are 66 appearances of the word “being.”
We have seen that the complications–the layerings–of meaning in Frankenstein begin even before you finish the title: the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus.” This is where the intertextuality of the novel begins. (And it continues, as you know, with the epigraph taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Intertextuality can be defined as the presence in a literary text (in our case, the novel Frankenstein) of elements from other texts. That presence can be a direct or indirect quotation, an allusion, an implication, an echo–in some way, a previous text or story is forwarded into the text you are reading. In contemporary music terms–intertextuality is sampling. In digital parlance: it might be viewed as the mashup.
As I have mentioned in class, I invite and encourage you to browse through the projects from past classes. You can do so at this point as part of your composting, to get a feel for how some other writers have read Frankenstein from an intertextual perspective. Should you use anything specific from one of these essays–that is, specific language or an idea that is part of someone else’s reading, you will need to cite the source and credit the author. My suggestion would be to browse for some models and examples, not to use these as research (since this is not a research project) but for composting.
You might consider these examples:
For further reading on Prometheus:
“Hesiod and Plato on Prometheus.” An overview of the myth of Prometheus as evident in the classical sources of Hesiod and Plato, by the writer/blogger Neal Burton. Note that this extends the myth of Prometheus to the invention of the arts, most particularly the arts of discourse and reason, in Greek known by the word “logos.”
Plato’s Prometheus. Summary of Promethus myth, with links to Plato’s use of the myth in dialogues, including Plato’s “Protagoras.”
Other possible places to go with the idea of intertextuality (that is, dealing with the amalgam-like quality of the novel, the recognition that there are multiple layers in the novel): Dante, the author’s introduction, Paradise Lost, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” medieval science. Lots of places.
In the second project, you are pursuing a close (slow) reading of key parts of the novel; but you will still be making an argument–there is a problem of some sort that you are exploring and (in your thesis) attempt to respond to and resolve. You can think of the problem/response in this way:
Many people tend to think of Frankenstein in simple terms, as a story about ______; however, there is a more complex story suggested by the intertext–a complexity that I read as important in the larger significance of Frankenstein as a novel about _______.
Some ‘machines’ you might find useful in your intertextual reading of Frankenstein:
Electronic Paradise Lost (Milton, 1667).
Electronic Bible (from UVA’s Electronic Text Center)
And a final reminder, a resource useful for close reading, and for thinking more critically about keywords and terms in the reading–as well as in our writing–is the OED. It focuses on the inherent intertextuality in our language by highlighting the etymology and evolution of our words.
Our focal point in the first project was developing ethos through reflection. There are two places you can see this critical reflection emerge in an essay and think about, going into the next project, how you can continue to develop it: a strong set up of your argument (a statement in brief form of your argument as a response to a problem, a focused and arguable thesis); strong development in your body paragraphs (the elaboration of the problem/response–in other words, how you support, complicate, and reiterate the argument through critical and personal reflection ).
Some examples to consider from some of your peers (current and past); these are not the only way to do it, but they offer some good models for practice.
Argument Set-Up [Critical Thinking/Logic]
- Keita: Note how the title initiates the “problem” that the first sentence also wraps into the given. By the end of the first paragraph, the key term “conversation” identifies the essay’s response to the problem.
- Valerie: Example of a two paragraph set up, beginning with a narrative (placing the reader in a detail from the story), then pulling back for the statement of the problem and response.
- Kassie: Note the development of reflection in the second paragraph (first body paragraph), spending time (not racing through nostalgically) a particular experience, then using a critical quotation to reiterate her key terms.
- Jacob: a good example of using a critical quotation (first Birkerts, then Graff) in a body paragraph to elaborate and complicate the argument. Take a look at the second body paragraph where he uses Birkerts as part of his conversation–both to agree initially with him, but then to take his argument toward a different view of intellectual reading. This is a good example of what we will work on in the next project–forwarding someone else’s text.
- Alicia offers a good example of developing the critical reflection to elaborate an example within a body paragraph that also supports/reiterates/complicates the argument and thesis. Paragraphs 3-5 are particularly strong–and notice the ways she uses the critics (Harris and Birkerts) to develop the personal reflection.
- Strong example from Jillian–notice how she moves out from her argument with a new image/scene, but in doing so reiterates the argument. This helps send the reader from her particular argument with thoughts of other places/implications for the argument.
- We are talking about complicating our critical and rhetoric–developing the layers of our argument. That sort of complication is a good thing in our writing. In terms of grammar and style, we also want to give some attention to clarifying aspects of our sentences that might be confusing. This is something for you to consider when editing. For some useful guidance on confusion in writing and grammar, in addition to Professor Harvey’s book, see this section of the Guide to Grammar and Writing on Eliminating Confusion.
Even if you have never read Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, you know the name. The image of the monster (perhaps of the scene when it comes to life, lightning crashing, the mad scientist screaming, “It’s alive!”). Those of you who have read the novel know–and for first time readers, it won’t take long to see–that such images from film don’t match up with the original novel. [more on the history of Frankenstein in film]
We don’t get to the famous creation scene until 5 or 6 chapters in. And, of course, by then we know that Frankenstein is not the monster; it is, rather, the name of its creator. And a bit later in the reading, we wonder how the monster ever became the green hulking, inarticulate thing from the movies. Hint: the monster reads Paradise Lost.
A keyword I will be using as we discuss the novel and explore it with our second writing project in mind (we focus on intertextuality and close reading of text): complication. We will work on complicating our reading of this novel. That doesn’t mean we will make it difficult or harder than it needs to be. It means recognizing that the novel, as a text, is already a layer of complications–stories and images and other texts woven and folded in to its narrative.
There are two marks of those complications (of text as woven materials) even before we begin the story. The first comes in the author’s introduction–where we learn of the complex origins of the story. And more to the point, it seems to me, we learn of the complication that our author, Mary Shelley, views her creation of the novel in very similar terms as those used by Frankenstein concerning his. She concludes the introduction bidding her “hideous progeny go forth and prosper.” The novel, apparently, is also a monster.
A second location of complication: the title page. Look at the intertextuality–the presence of one or more other texts within a text–we are confronted with before we even get past the title. As we will see, this is only the beginnings of a text that is woven by numerous connections, links, echoes, allusions to other texts.
The point I will be making in the face of this complication–of this multiplicity of texts and voices and narrators and stories–is that we need to do close reading not to find some sort of hidden meaning. I know that is what it often felt like in high school English. The problem of this novel–the problem that makes it compelling and engaging, it seems to me–is that there is too much meaning. It is hard to know what to do with it all.
By the way, speaking of this multiplicity, I wonder what you think of the Electronic Frankenstein site. It strikes me that it could help with the of kind layering of text that we start to get as early as the title page. One way to think of things–perhaps Shelley’s novel is a hypertext of sorts. Is it better to read the novel in digital form? At the same time, we can think about various “remediations” (remakes in other media, other versions) of the novel that are basic to this story–well before we get to the digital age. In particular, there is the incredibly rich film history (and before that even, theater history) in which Shelley’s story is, in a word, mashed up and retold. The first film is 1931, directed by James Whale, starring Boris Karloff as the ‘monster’. In addition to film, there are also variations on the story in print, such as The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein and The Case Book of Victor Frankenstein. Another retelling and reimagining of the novel, from other perspectives, is the well-known hypertext novel (more on this later in the term) called Patchwork Girl.
Here is a recent article that notes some of these intertextual implications (the novel as creation myth), locating the complications as early as the author’s introduction and in her biography: “Was ‘Frankenstein’ Really About Childbirth?” And finally, an article about “frankenwords,” our tendency to create words out of hyrbrids, including words with “franken” as a prefix, such as reference to a “frankenstorm.”
All of these retellings and remediations, from print to film to digital, I would argue, in fact build upon, and are inspired by, an original story that is already, and at heart, about the idea of remediation and the power and influence of telling (which is to say, retelling) a story. Like I say, it’s complicated. And that’s a good thing.
- Screenwriter Max Landis Talks About ‘Frankenstein’ (slashfilm.com)
- An astronomer who claims that the night Mary Shelley conceived of her story (as discussed in her introduction) really did have the shining moon she describes.
- Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature. NIH site that explores Frankenstein and science.
Revision focuses on getting a handle on what your writing is about, where you want it to go. Generally speaking, revision is when you are still dealing with changes that could be as large as entire paragraphs, how your argument is organized, developed. It means asking questions such as: What else? What’s next? As we discussed with reference to Joseph Harris: you revise arguments, ideas, paragraphs, essays; you edit sentences. Revision is rethinking, rereading, expanding, developing; editing is tweaking. This is what we will be doing through Wednesday or Thursday of this week.
Revision and editing can sometimes blend. But for the sake of our efforts in this course, I suggest that editing is what you do toward the end of a project. Editing concerns how your essay communicates to a different set of eyes and ears than the ones which wrote it. How it reads to a reader who is not in your head. This is what you will be focusing on Friday.
Therefore, a good strategy for editing is to become more self-conscious about the sound and shape of your writing–something we take for granted. In order not to take it for granted (since you have been working on this essay and it probably makes sense to you), we need to defamiliarize it.
- Read it aloud–hear the writing. Have a peer read it aloud or read it aloud yourself. Read it backwards, paragraph by paragraph or sentence by sentence: listening for places where the expression/communication (the how of the writing, the mechanics, the style) is not matching up with the idea. Usage errors would be one way expression and ideas get crossed.
- Workshop: in your writing group, select a paragraph you want to focus on for editing–want to improve. Have someone else read your paragraph aloud. Then discuss for a few minutes what you hear and see–suggestions for what you might need to do or want to do with the paragraph.
- More active than passive. Richard Lanham’s Paramedic Method (from Revising Prose, 5th edition, Pearson 2007): one strategy to pay better attention to the way your “voice” is informed by the machinery of sentence length, verb (active vs passive), prepositions. These are not ‘errors’ but choices you make in presentation. We will be returning to this in later editing workshops. For today, let’s focus on the issue of crafting and clarifying the action of our sentences.
1]Circle the prepositions
2]Circle the “is” forms.
3]Find the action
4]Put this action in a simple (not compound) active verb.
5]Start fast–no slow windups. [the passive construction is often connected with too-conversational kinds of beginnings: 'One of the things that I think about reading is that reading is engaging for the mind.' in contrast: "Reading engages the mind."
focus today on 1-5: the issue of using active verbs and active voice [also discussed effectively in Hacker, p. 140]
- Some formal/presentational features to consider and not neglect at the end:
- Title? I will be crushed to see an essay titled ‘paper #1′
- introduction/conclusion: how do you bring the reader into your story? where do you leave the reader? A strategy to consider: start in with the narrative, or in the middle of an experience, before pulling back to more general set-up. And conclude by circling back to your beginning. [these are tricky--will continue to work on this in later workshops]
- Transitions: are there effective signals through the essay, toward the beginning of each paragraph (usually first sentence), to lead the reader and identify the focus at each point?
- Go back through the draft to recall/find sections you might have left unfinished, intending to get back to. [for example: a section that has something like "add quotation here"]
- Have in mind a few of the mechanical/surface errorsyou tend to make and will need to clean up–punctuation, spelling, wrong words.
- You can use this list of the 20 most common formal errors that can be edited–list provided by the Writing Center.
- Become active in getting a better handle on the grammar/mechanics/sentence-level issues you need to work on. I will focus on a few in workshops; but the point is for you to get used to using a resource like the Guide to Grammar and Writing to practice and correct on your own.
As an example of the set up of an argument that we have begun to discuss in class, consider the following example, an Op-Ed from the NY Times by Lawrence Summers. While an Op-Ed has features that differ from essays and academic research (namely, much shorter, with less quotation of text, no citations), we can see that Summers focuses his “opinion” as an argument in setting up a given issue; a problem with that given; his response to that problem.
A PARADOX of American higher education is this: The expectations of leading universities do much to define what secondary schools teach, and much to establish a template for what it means to be an educated man or woman. College campuses are seen as the source for the newest thinking and for the generation of new ideas, as society’s cutting edge.
And the world is changing very rapidly. Think social networking, gay marriage, stem cells or the rise of China. Most companies look nothing like they did 50 years ago. Think General Motors, AT&T or Goldman Sachs.
Yet undergraduate education changes remarkably little over time. My predecessor as Harvard president, Derek Bok, famously compared the difficulty of reforming a curriculum with the difficulty of moving a cemetery. With few exceptions, just as in the middle of the 20th century, students take four courses a term, each meeting for about three hours a week, usually with a teacher standing in front of the room. Students are evaluated on the basis of examination essays handwritten in blue books and relatively short research papers. Instructors are organized into departments, most of which bear the same names they did when the grandparents of today’s students were undergraduates. A vast majority of students still major in one or two disciplines centered on a particular department.
It may be that inertia is appropriate. Part of universities’ function is to keep alive man’s greatest creations, passing them from generation to generation. Certainly anyone urging reform does well to remember that in higher education the United States remains an example to the world, and that American universities compete for foreign students more successfully than almost any other American industry competes for foreign customers.
Nonetheless, it is interesting to speculate: Suppose the educational system is drastically altered to reflect the structure of society and what we now understand about how people learn. How will what universities teach be different? Here are some guesses and hopes.
Summers provides a useful example for us in the signals he uses to establish his argument: the given is the understanding that the world is changing; and the  problem is the “paradox” that (“and yet”) undergraduate education has changed little; his  argument in response is to “speculate” and “suppose” (recall I suggested a thesis is a sort of “What if? we find in film) that the educational system could/should be different.
You will note that in this example, Summers doesn’t offer a thesis statement ahead of his “guesses and hopes” (the supporting examples or body of his argument). It is, in effect, half of his thesis, guided by his rhetorical question, with the second half of the thesis (his answer to his question) to come at the end. That’s one model for a thesis statement. The model more familiar to you is the one where the last sentence would answer the question, identify the key elements of his argument that will be explored in the body (we see Sven Birkerts doing this in his introduction to The Gutenberg Elegies). Though I invite you to try some alternative approaches to stating your thesis, since there is more than one way to state one, I will be emphasizing the importance of providing a map of your argument to your reader, giving the reader some keywords for your argument, language that will reappear in your body paragraphs and in transition sentences. In this case, given the brevity of an Op-Ed, Summers has more flexibility in not indicating specifically where he’s going. He does, however, clearly tell us what he is responding to–that he is arguing for change.
In other words, a key to establishing the “thesis” (however it may be stated) is to engage the reader’s focus on a problem and response. This example shows us how one does that very basically and simply–even in the pages of the NY Times by the former president of Harvard. In fact, one of my favorite examples of the set up of the problem/conflict needed for an academic argument comes from Summers. I read once that he set up an economics paper that argues against the convention of the “efficient market hypothesis” (the prevailing view that markets are rational because people are rational) with the following two sentences: “There are idiots. Look around.”
Here is another example, a case where the author forwards two contrasting conversations, one as the conventional view, one as the problem, and then proposes the less conventional view as his thesis. It is the introduction to Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
- Argument Set-Up: you got a problem with that? (comppost.wordpress.com)
I am not writing this in private.
A note on process: This posting represents an alternative approach for using the Blog in response to reading. In my first Glog on Gutenberg Elegies (focusing mainly on the introduction and first chapter), I used the blog while reading, taking notes, then spending more time with an issue I noticed and wanted to delve into. In effect, I finished the blog when I finished reading. Those of you who like to read and take notes might try this. Remember that you needn’t write the entry live; you can if you prefer write in a notebook (I assume it would be digital in some form, ie a word document) and copy at a later point into your wordpress blog. Another option would be to read an entire assignment, take some notes along the way in the book or a notebook, then sit down to reflect on the reading by writing your blog. Experiment with the best way for you to blog. The purpose is for you to find the mediation of your reading (in effect, that is what we are doing; Birkerts would likely cringe hearing that word in connection to reading) that will best prepare you for class discussion and for your future writing. Overall, whether you write while reading or soon after, I do suggest that you never leave too much distance between your reading and your writing.
Why would Birkerts cringe? Because reading should be, as he sees it, a solitary act. The picture of reading I get thus far, particularly from the autobiographical perspective he provides in chapter 2, emphaszies what he calls his “hidden reading life” (38). Due to family dynamics that he explores, he learns to associate reading with “feminine” principles shaped by his mother and in some tension with his father. His father emphasizes the activity of doing and associates reading with passivity. I don’t want to psychoanalyze too much–though the way SB presents this, he does seem to invite this kind of analysis of psychodynamics. Is SB’s strong love of books (bibliomania) tied to feelings for his mother? I am not thinking Oedipus here so much as the way he associates reading so strongly with privacy, with the hidden, almost with an illicit activity (daydreaming in the middle of the day, inside, presumably was illicit from his father’s perspective).
Mediation–in the form of digital reading, the screen–of this private and secluded activity thus violates not the object (the text, the book) but the subject of reading: the reading experience that Birkerts has with books. It makes the experience public; it pulls the books out of the boxes: recall his assertion that books are most alluriing when being packed up in a box (53). Digital mediation of reading and writing is lots of things; one of which is greater connection with a reading/writing audience. That is of interest to me. I wonder if others agree, are equally interested in the social aspects of digital writing (even something like Facebook). Birkerts is concerned about reading becoming too social. My concern is that his definition of reading and its significance is too narrowly viewed as private, as requiring privacy.
A strong assertion/speculation at this point: the struggles he details in this same chapter with becoming a writer, the difficulty in writing as he had planned–these stem from his overly anti-social view of reading. A key term that emerges for me by the end of chapter 2, then, is social: and all the variations he offers for his vision of reading that is not socially focused–privacy, hidden, individual, etc. As I think further about the focus of the first writing project, thinking about drafting my own vision definition of the reading/writing life from my perspective, I can use my conversation with Birkerts on the social as a guide for thinking about my own emerging argument. Where have I had experiences with reading/writing that would help me elaborate my view in response to SB, my sense that reading should not be viewed as anti-social? Where does that come from in my experience? I am not yet sure what my precise thesis would be at this point. And so, a way to get more specific in my own terms and argument is to dig further into some reflection on my own experience, then work my way back to a stronger and more specific statement of the problem/response of my argument.