Rousseau, Robespierre, and English Romanticism

By Gregory Dart | Go to book overview

Introduction

Unless I had been animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm, my application to this study would have been irksome, and almost intolerable. 1


I

Surprisingly, perhaps, given the mythic status he now enjoys as the archetype of the modern scientist, the protagonist of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) has an approach to science that is decidedly anti-modern. In the early part of his confessional narrative Victor describes how his project to re-animate the dead was initially inspired by the study of writers such as Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus, a group of mystics and alchemists considered by his tutor the 'progressive' Professor Krempe to be 'as musty as they are ancient'. For Frankenstein, however, they display a holism that is noticeably lacking in the disciples of modern natural philosophy:

It was very different, when the masters of the science sought immortality and power; such views, although futile, were grand: but now the scene was changed. The ambition of the inquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded. I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth. (27)

Even after having been persuaded of the value of modern experimental techniques by the sympathetic Mr Waldman, Victor does not abandon his pursuit of the ancient ideal. Instead he chooses to put the former in the service of the latter, employing the latest analytical methods for his own overwhelmingly animistic ends, attempting to discover the vital unity that binds together the world of matter by synthesising a living human being from a collection of dead and disparate body parts. When seen in this light, Frankenstein's 'almost supernatural enthusiasm' — the quasi religious fervour with which he approaches his

-1-

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