Today we live amidst new creations that we know from experience turned very different from how they are envisioned: lockdowns, closures, masks, distancing, capacity limits, vaccines, vaccine mandates, and a host of other preposterous things and practices (plexiglass anyone?) that came to mark our time, all promoted as the approved science by major media.
Two years before lockdowns, the world celebrated the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein, about which a wonderful movie was released on the author’s life and thought. At the same time, there was a book and an exhibit at the Morgan Library, and growing controversies about the personal and political ethos that a generation of radicals meant to their times and bequeathed to ours.
This is the book that never stops giving, but there is more going on. The anniversary two years ago seems now like a foreshadowing of what happens when science goes wrong. She knew it back then: the grave dangers of intellectual pretense (thus anticipating F.A. Hayek) and the unanticipated social consequences of what Thomas Sowell would later call the unconstrained vision.
The monster created in the fictional laboratory — readers are always surprised that he is a sympathetic character, only lacking in all moral sense, like perhaps many we know too well now — anticipates the unfolding of politico-technological history as it developed from the late 19th century through the 20th. This came to be perfected in 2020 when the innovations we rely on – social media, Big Data, personal tracking, wide availability of medical services, even vaccines – came back to destroy other features of life we value, like liberty, privacy, property, and even faith.
The long fascination with Shelley’s work is related to her intellectual pedigree. She was, after all, the daughter of one of two of the mightiest minds of the 18th century, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, thinkers who took the Enlightenment project into new frontiers of human liberation. Mary herself ran off with and eventually married the troubled but erudite Percy Shelley, found herself embroiled in an awkward relationship with Lord Byron, and experienced the terrible tragedy of losing three children while experiencing both cruel shunning and great acclaim.
Her thinking and her life were the product of late Enlightenment thought, infused by both its best (Humean) aspects and its worst (Rousseauian) excesses. Her lasting contribution was as a corrective, affirming the freedom to create as the driving force of progress, while warning against the wrong means and the wrong motivations that could turn that freedom to despotism. Indeed, some scholars observe that her politics late in life were more Burkean than Godwinian.
Her enduring contribution is her 1818 book, which created two enduring archetypes, the mad scientist and the monster he creates, and still taps into cultural anxiety concerning the intentions vs. the reality of scientific creation. There is a good reason for this anxiety, as our times show us.
She wrote during a period — it was a glorious one — when the intellectual class had a justified expectation that dramatic changes were coming to civilization. Medical science was improving. Disease would be controlled. Populations were on the move from the country to the city. The steamship was vastly increasing the pace of travel and making international trade more resource-efficient.
She was surrounded by the early evidence of invention. The beautiful movie about her life recreates the ethos, the confidence in the future of freedom, the sense that something marvelous was coming. She attends a kind of magic show with Percy at which a showman and scientist uses electricity to cause a dead frog to move its legs, which suggests to her the possibility of giving life to the dead.