Sunday, May 20, 2018

How Are Nuclear Weapons Like the Frankenstein Monster?

Mary Shelley
There are many voices contributing, in many ways, to the effort to extract us from nuclear peril.

Some voices come from the past.

For the past several weeks, I have been reading the novel Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. It is marvelous and prescient. It was first published in 1818. I became interested in Frankenstein after it was singled out by Paul Johnson as a watershed cultural event in his book, The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830.

For me, as for most people, Frankenstein means the "monster" portrayed by Boris Karloff in the movies. But of course "Frankenstein" is the scientist, the one who imparts life to an assemblage of inanimate parts; indeed, the novel's full title is Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, and the story is really about this man.

Frankenstein is about a man who is so carried away with what he finds himself able to do that he is heedless of the consequences. It is, indeed, a fable for the modern era; as someone concerned particularly about nuclear weapons, I find over and over that the words of the novel bring to mind the dilemma that human civilization finds itself in because of the activities of some among us who are most brilliant and privileged.

This morning I read a portion in which Frankenstein sees in himself one

whose selfishness,
had not hesitated
to buy its own peace
at the price,
perhaps,
of the existence of the whole human race.
                 (Frankenstein, Chapter 20)

Can there be any more precise description of the nuclear weapons states?

Who is this Mary Shelley, who two hundred years ago could have so brilliantly summed up the predicament that we would face in 2018?

Just a few chapters of this wonderful book remain - I find myself rushing forward to the conclusion, while simultaneously jamming on the brakes so that I can relish every word.

How will I satisfy myself when I reach the end?

Two possibilities suggest themselves: The Last Man, another Shelley novel, about what happens when human society brings itself to the brink of extinction; and the great account of the Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer: American Prometheus.


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