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The idea of voluntary creation, of giving birth to something utterly original from some established foundation, instantly attracts unanswerable inquiries of morality and the nature of novelty and life. However, when invention is attempted on a massive scale, and entire social structures and ideologies are threatened by the newborn, the issue of responsibility takes precedence. In Mary W. Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”, Whitman and Frankenstein create anomalies, ‘monsters’ of overwhelming magnitude (a brutishly realistic American identity, and a physical daemon, respectively), and face the consequences of the ensuing relationships. Eventually, from differing perspectives on similar God-like positions, these ‘mad scientists’ veer in opposite directions from their paternal obligations, one merging with his adored creation, the other reacting violently in revulsion and seething hate.
Both ‘children’ occur as experiments. Frankenstein, unlike morally-inclined Clerval, obsessively studies the most ambitious sciences, “the secrets of heaven and earth…the mysterious soul of man…” (Shelley, Ch 2) His aim, ironically, is to test the most fundamental (and formless) of powers with the dispassionate, methodical precision of his cold technological ‘art’. His personal distance from the sinister ethical ramifications of his research is surprising. He does not “ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition …Now I was led to…analyzing all the minutia of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life…” (Shelley, Ch 4) Fixating on his quest, he disregards the human sentiment and social norms necessary to conceive an emotionally aware child. He creates life simply because he can, never weighing the repercussions.
Whitman, however, experiments as a poet. His science is that of the present, emotive human experience, and his malleable tools are blazing compassion and tolerance. His entire study is based on an intense survey of emotion, knowing that “a kelson of the creation is love” (Whitman, Part 5). The antithesis to Frankenstein, Whitman is fully aware of what social purpose his model should accomplish. Once finished, he will “…play not marches for accepted victors only, [he will] play marches for conquer’d and slain persons” (Whitman, Part 18). Thus, although the birth of both sublimely new beings shakes the foundations of the current social order by exposing cracks in its solidity, only Whitman’s child, born out of an understanding of the very society it will exist in, will be prepared to assimilate smoothly into the chaos it caused. Eventually, the creators’ differing attitudes about their experiments will strongly affect the welfare of the resulting relationships.
Despite varying degrees of emotional investment, both Whitman and Frankenstein eagerly step into God-like positions. Shelley connects Frankenstein’s tale to some kind of deified plight with the subtitle “the Modern Prometheus”. The god’s insolence in bringing fire is a fusion of munificent intentions and condescension towards the divine. Frankenstein characterizes the same blend; in fact, his egomania is more evident in his self-sycophantic praises: “…Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world” (Shelley, Ch 4). He sees himself as a reserved authority, deigning to improve humanity by making superior beings in its image. Ironically, the ruined result eventually explains that the creation of power is not an appropriate end in itself. However, infatuated with the concept of playing God fashioning his Adam, Frankenstein ignores complications and muses, savoring the gratitude of entire populations, “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me” (Shelley, Ch 4). By promoting himself to such exalted, saintly levels, he is blinded by fantasies of superior intelligence and magnanimous (though patronizing) ability, forgetting that fire, however warm and luminous, often scorches and ravages. Like the Greek god, Frankenstein ultimately finds punishment through his ‘gift to man’: his monster. One might speculate that his self-absorption caused, in part, the creature’s overwhelming hideousness. Regardless, some unseen justice apparently rewarded his selfish intentions with misery for him and his loved ones.
Whitman’s self-aggrandizement unfolds quite differently. He, like Frankenstein, takes himself to be omniscient and ever-present, professing with sacred imagery and even Biblical rhythmic phrasing, “the pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me… / …each part and tag of me is a miracle. / Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from” (Whitman, Parts 21, 24). However, although he constructs a mythological, prophetic image as “Walt Whitman, a kosmos….” (Whitman, Part 24), he is constantly aware of his claim of unity and similarity with his subject. He achieves his godly status through the people, who will not tolerate a “voice” that degrades them with pomposity, and thus, he is extremely sensitive to his role as not merely ‘the poet’, but “the poet of the woman the same as the man…/through me many long dumb voices” (Whitman, Parts 21, 24). Whitman as deity holds a collision of the souls of all humankind in his soul, and is ubiquitously present and servile. This divinity gives impossible birth from his own male flesh, producing a child inexorably connected to him in an indestructible bond of blood.
Once the creations come into existence, however, both holy aspirations are compromised, to the detriment of one and the joy of the other. Whitman fully engages in his conception of the nation, ironically enamored with the same grotesque sublimity that repels Frankenstein. To him, beautiful America is constructed from a multitude of brutal, raw forces, as opposed to the monster’s revolting entirety, overpowering the sum of several perfect parts. He desires to become America’s objective, yet involved voice, to be “both in and out of the game” (Whitman, Part 4).
To achieve this, he enters into a paradoxical existence: a dedicated father, he shares each experience, yet is concurrently removed, hovering disconnected over America’s daily activities like an eager scientist, a responsible parent. This precarious balance between character and narrator, a result of the communal quality of his godliness, allows Whitman to nurture his creation successfully by intermingling with it, although he “…[has] no mockings or arguments, [and he will] witness and wait” (Whitman, Part 4). He is a god that walks among his people, the 29th invisible bather, and yet he identifies himself as one of their number, claiming “…every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…/[I am] no sentimentalist, no stander above men and women…”. (Whitman, Part 24) He supports this assertion with language, refusing the high-brow elegance of traditional European writing, and instead employing the folk diction of his subjects, stating, “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable/ I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”(Whitman, Part 52) In this way, he upholds his parental duties through equilibrium, carefully reining in his child’s potential unruliness, while still encouraging its exuberance. In contrast to his fellow creator, who falls into a furious, vengeful spite, Whitman allows his creation to thrive on a healthy stability between a host of binary oppositions, allowing just enough conflict for vitality, just enough pacification for objectivity.
Whitman further fulfills his duty by interacting constructively with America. He expresses fatherly sentiments towards his child, writing protectively that “whoever degrades another degrades me / and whatever is done or said returns at last to me” (Whitman, Part 24), as if detractors must deal with him. However, the undercurrent of helpless adoration runs much stronger. There is an ongoing relationship between the “I” of Whitman and the “you” of America, which powerfully underscores their intimate, infinitely continual union. The familiarity of the I/you bond gives the poem a private air, like a personal lullaby or hymn rife with confidential significance. He also expresses this tender affection in snapshots, recalling when, figuratively or literally, “the little one sleeps in its cradle/ I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently brush away flies with my hand.” (Whitman, Part 8) Yet his love is also passionate; the words “touch” and “contact” appear constantly with descriptions of physically suggestive activities, like “a few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms” (Whitman, Part 2), which encourage everyone to feel, and thus accept Whitman’s creation.
This acceptance is unfortunately something Frankenstein’s creation never experiences. The monster’s story is a wretched, tragic one, completely devoid of the enthusiasm and geniality of Whitman’s creation; he is created unnecessarily, and then abandoned because he was (helplessly) ugly. Unlike Whitman, who chose to interlace his name with his child, Frankenstein gave his no name at all. Without any guidance, intellectual or otherwise, the daemon cultivates his mind single-handedly, reaching out naively for human camaraderie, only to be rejected with unwarranted loathing. Rebuffed, he “declared everlasting war against the species” and then commits his string of murders, only to then be cursed with staggering regret. He reflects “once I falsely hoped to meet with beings, who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities . . . but now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal. No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine . . .. [T]he fallen angel becomes a malignant devil.” (Shelley, Ch 24) The source of the child’s despair can be traced to his creator’s selfish prejudice. When a god’s angel, created from nothing, is found to be flawed, its very existence becomes a rebellion against the deity’s seamless image. He is metaphorically flung from the peace and perfection of Heaven, sinking even lower than Satan, exclaiming, “Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred!” (Shelley, Ch 15). All obligations were ignored; unable to nurture such a gross being after being raised in a beautiful environment with beautiful people and beautiful minds, Frankenstein flees his natural duties. Once the “dull yellow eye of the creature” (Shelley, Ch 5) opens and it shudders to life, Frankenstein shudders in horror, immediately reacting to it as a “catastrophe”, a “daemon”, “devil” or “wretch”. Unprepared for a complex being with blemishes as well as blessings, Frankenstein recoils from the ogre and seeks to abort it, launching a chain in which his negligence leads to greater pain with the deaths of his family. Yet, he is not ignorant of proper parental etiquette, for he recalls, “I was…the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on [my parents] by Heaven, whom to bring up good, and whose future lot it was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery, according as they fulfilled their duties towards me” (Shelley, Ch 1). Thus, his hypocritical nature is highlighted when he shirks these acknowledged duties.
Even more disturbing is Frankenstein’s irresponsibility and remorselessness towards his wayward son. He bucks his parental contract by seeking retribution, not appreciating that the monster’s ‘God-given’ intrinsic, inflexible constitution naturally suggested crime. In his quest to “avenge” himself of what is actually his own burden, his own moral failure, Frankenstein not only denies culpability, but whines perpetually in self-pity about being an extraordinarily “miserable, desperate wretch”, oblivious that his chronic introspection has caused his child and his family endless distress. This unceasing state of corrupt egocentricity is blatantly apparent; to preserve his freedom, he never mentions William’s true killer, and watches Justine hang. Even when faced by the monster (who then seems better morally educated), and directly cautioned about the hazards of manipulating science without responsibility and sensitivity, Frankenstein, ever arrogant and ignorant, still rebukes his now-rational creation, “”Abhorred monster! Fiend that thou art!….There can be no community between you and me; we are enemies” (Shelley, Ch 10). In essence, his duplicity and self-interest made him an unfit God; his habitual neglect led his deserted, victimized child to destroy him in a power reversal, where “you [Frankenstein] are my creator, but I am your master” (Shelley, Ch 20).
Essentially, the success of creation is entirely dependent on the attitude of the creator, and not on environmental factors or the creation’s own strength. In the comparison between Whitman’s balanced symbiosis and the mutual destructiveness of Frankenstein and his monster, it is evident that the production of such new and momentous abnormalities requires substantial personal investment beyond the calculating figures of science.
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