Thursday, August 30, 2012

Happy Frankenstein Day!

Otherwise known as the birthday of Mary Wollenstone Shelly, author of the perennial classic "Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus."

I always have mixed feelings regarding her masterpiece. While she's the first major female science-fiction writer, I often feel she's a forerunner of Michael Chricton, postulating that disaster happens when you have  mix of science, ambition and greed. It's hard to describe this as pro-science. But there's no doubt about the influence she's had on so many art forms, literary and otherwise. I've happily wrestled with many a question regarding Frankenstein and his creation over the years. And that's a mark of great art that you can constantly return to it with new things to ponder.

Without Frankenstein, the questions of Blade Runner or even the X-men might be very different indeed. The iconography and ambitions of steampunk would also undergo many changes. The work of H.P. Lovecraft is somewhat indebted to Frankenstein as well, although his approach to the cosmic and the alien would have made for some difficult conversations between him and Shelly.

I've often wrestled with how we categorize Frankenstein's Monster. He's not a cyborg or conventional automaton, and he's not strictly a member of the undead. He's extraordinarily intelligent and strong, and in many ways seems like a reanimated conception of Hobbes' Leviathan or Nietzsche's Ubermensch, even as he could not be accepted by the world at large.

But this year, I'm pondering how do Lao values and our sense of horror intersect with the themes Mary Wollenstone Shelly was addressing. What I'm curious about is what is the root of the terror our community would see in such a reanimated figure who is otherwise articulate and significantly powerful.

We would probably want to look at how does Frankenstein and his creation violate the 5 precepts of Buddhism, which often deeply inform many of our cultural traditions. Violations of the precepts regarding drinking and sexual misconduct do not seem obvious. Violations of the prohibitions not to kill, steal or to lie seem obvious, and lead to karmic retribution.

Does Frankenstein's Monster have Buddha Nature, the zen koan might ask, and it would certainly be a very interesting question considering his nature as a combination of many individuals of bad karma whose remains were stolen.

In the Lao buddhist tradition, suffering arises when a person clings to one of the skhandas or an aggregate. Nibban is attained by relinquishing attachments to the skhandas. Those skhandas are form, feeling, consciousness, impulses, and perceptions. As an amalgam, Frankenstein's Monster is a very interesting entity with which to explore Buddhist metaphysics.

Lao aren't likely to respond with revulsion at the idea of human arrogance and 'playing god.'  But I think an interesting question would be how different elements of our culture might read the themes of the servant becoming more powerful than his creator and revolting against him, to disastrous consequences. One could also see Lao horrified at the ruling class (epitomized by Baron Frankenstein) being abusive of the other social classes and see it as an indictment of Lao feudalism.There could be some interesting re-imaginings of Frankenstein as more of a trickster figure along the lines of Xieng Mieng than a physical powerhouse.

This isn't the authoritative or complete list of how the Lao might read Frankenstein, but just some ideas of how we might re-frame his legacy and story in a way that's fresh and interesting. What interests you in the Frankenstein story?

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