Descartes and Shelley and Screwing with Nature

So, I wrote an essay recently for my Humanities and Western Civilization course that I thoroughly enjoyed. Because I have one of the coolest T.A.'s ever, she let us do our papers creatively, in whatever way would still convey the message. I wrote mine on Rene Descartes and Mary Shelley

For those of you who don't know, Rene Descartes was the man who coined the phrase "I think, therefore I am." Using a method of doubt and radical skepticism, he went ahead and doubted the hell out of everything he could think of, until he came up with one truth he could rely on--he thought, therefore he was.
However, another big aspect of his philosophy was that he believed man had a right to invade and strip Nature of all it had to offer, for the advancement of mankind. I'm not terribly fond of him, but you can't deny that he is an interesting if only in his extreme arrogance. Also, he didn't understand how sentence fluidity worked--he ended a sentence only when FORCED.

Mary Shelley, on the other hand, is one of my favorite historical people. She wrote "Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus" when she was about 20, having gotten the idea from a laudanum-induced dream. Furthermore, she wrote "Frankenstein" as part of a competition to write the best horror story with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. She stomped their asses. Therefore, she is awesome.

And, I think that's about all the intro you really need for this paper. I thoroughly enjoyed writing it, and I, at least, thought it was funny.

Master or Monster?

As I’d been reanimating their corpses, all I could think of was how much more fun my Humanities and Western Civilization class would be if I could actually talk to some of the authors involved. However, I hadn’t actually read Frankenstein at the time, so it hadn’t occurred to me that Mary Shelley might be a bit appalled at me reenacting the horror of her story, with herself as the monster. So, I told her she was just having another laudanum-induced dream. She totally believed me.

I told René the same thing, being pressed for time and creativity, but it took a while for him to stop mumbling, “I think, therefore I am…,” (Descartes, 18) in a corner and look again at the cars whizzing by past the ground-level window. I suppose he had to hold onto something he could take as definite truth.

They also seemed to take comfort in each other. They both had a great deal to say, though Mary sometimes had a hard time getting a word in edgewise. René was a master of the compound sentence. As I came into the basement, they were debating yet again.

“…‘and thus render ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature’!” (Descartes, 35) René was saying, his eyes full of zealous ambition.

“Have you perchance taken time to read my book yet, René?” said Mary patiently.

“Erm…no.”

“Then I shall overlook your complete disregard for the maxims I enumerated therein. I see by the shine of your eye that you want not but to better the world for mankind by learning, through one experiment at a time, of its marvelous mysteries.”

“I—“

“However, I must protest,” said Mary, a little more forcibly. “For you see, in Frankenstein, just such a man as you thought he had mastered Nature, and bent Her to his will. It came to be, however, that all that he loved was lost, due to his overwhelming hubris and foolhardy experimentation. He gained great knowledge, but at too great an expense.”

“But Mary, what if, through such earnest study, we could learn to heal all the frailties that plague mankind?” exclaimed René.

“‘Even perhaps also the frailty of old age, if one had a sufficient knowledge of their causes and of all the remedies that nature has provided us’?” (Descartes, 35).

“It would not be enough to outweigh the horrifying consequences that might ensue. You can never be infinitely sure that some boundary will not be crossed, some evil advantage not taken. If no one died of old age, is it not possible that we might fill the world too full? The reaches to which knowledge could extend are so vast, as you yourself claimed. ‘...what little I have learned up until now is almost nothing in comparison to what I do not know…’, you wrote (Descartes, 37). How then could you ever be certain of the consequences of your actions, when you do not comprehend the full extent of possible outcomes?”

René was nonplussed, and I took the silence as an opportunity to weigh in.

“I’m with Mary on this one,” I said, as firmly as I felt was respectful. “I mean, have you looked around lately?” They glanced at me quizzically. “Well, no, I guess you haven’t. But let me tell you something. We went with René’s train of thinking for a long time. Thought we could control nature, or at least take everything it had to offer. Now, our forests are shrinking, and our coral reefs are dying out. Our ocean is heating up, and our sky is polluted. We’ve possessed it, sure, or at least most of it, but we may very well have ruined it.”

“But, look out past that window! Those machines passing by, they are truly marvelous!” exclaimed René. “Could you have created such things without invading Nature, without delving into Her deepest places in search of materials? And though I have not experienced this dream-world to its fullest extent, I can only suppose that other such innovations have proven immensely crucial to the betterment of humankind.”

“You’re right,” I conceded. “We’ve done things with medicine, transportation, and other areas of science that would devastate the human population if they were lost.”

“Then how can you say that such experimentation with nature is not our duty? Are your lives not immeasurably better now?”

“Yes, for now! But this won’t last forever! People are already out in space, searching for new planets that we can live on, once we finally wear out the resources of this one. What if we don’t find one in time? What if we can’t undo the damage we’ve done? How much better will human life be then?”

“This is exactly the general message portrayed by my story,” broke in Mary. “Indeed, my protagonist Frankenstein gains what he calls the knowledge that ‘…had been the study and desire of the wisest men since the creation of the world…’ (Shelley, 31). He becomes ‘…capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter…,’which, as you can imagine, would be an achievement valued by all of humanity (Shelley, 31). Who would not wish to see loved ones return from the grave, to defy the nature of death? But the outcome is never certain, of such dangerous and arrogant endeavors.”

“What happens?” asked René, beginning to take her words seriously.

“You really ought to peruse the work for yourself. However, as I told you before, the outcome is not at all what Frankenstein expected. He animated a man-shaped creature, intending to foster ‘a new species [that] would bless [him] as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being’ to Frankenstein (Shelley, 32). Unfortunately, though the fault lay not at the monster’s feet, he was created hideous and with a character easily turned to murderous rampage. He destroyed Frankenstein’s life, because Frankenstein could not be in full control of the power that his knowledge and egotism had unleashed. And, because man is fallible, such an occurrence is always a possibility. We cannot be trusted with the weight of complete knowledge of the universe, for we are not gods, though Frankenstein tried to be.”

“Yes, but your story is entirely fictional, Mary!” protested René. “How can you apply a theoretical situation to everyday life, claiming to understand how it would affect reality? How can you—“

“Have you not been listening to Kaitlin, René?” said Mary. “Her people are Frankenstein, and progress is the monster! My story is but a metaphor for what has already occurred here!”

At this point, Mary stopped in shock, as her nose fell off of her face. I had worried that that might happen. Bills had been heavy this month, so I’d had to go with a cheap brand of superglue to put her body together. It appeared I couldn’t hold back the secret any longer.

“Oh, jeez, Mary, I’m so sorry. You aren’t dreaming, either of you. I just thought the whole idea of Frankenstein’s monster was cool, but I hadn’t read the book yet, so I didn’t know that it wasn’t actually something one ought to experiment with, so I decided to try a little resurrection of my own, and—“

Both sat petrified for a moment, before Mary jumped to her feet.
“What have you done?” she hissed. Frantically, she began to feel her face, tracing scar lines that she hadn’t noticed before. Then, she began searching the room, for I knew not what.

When she found it, I wished she hadn’t. How could I have forgotten to take that down?

Mary looked into the mirror hanging on the wall, and I will never forget the horror on her face. How could I have been so stupid, to try something so arrogant, something I couldn’t control? “Alas! I did not yet entirely know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity” (Shelley, 80) that I had inflicted on Mary and René both. Now, I would never be able to forget.

However, I would be damned if I’d go the way of Frankenstein.

“I am hideous,” Mary whispered, staring at her reflection. “I shall be reviled by all of humankind, because you could not just leave me dead. You gambled with Nature, and you have lost. Now, you need to run. I cannot control myself much longer.”

As Mary started to shake, eyes filled with fury and pain, I grabbed René and made a break for the basement door. I slammed it shut just as Mary crashed against it, cracking the frame with her enormous strength. I had, of course, gotten prime parts for her.

I needed to get to my gun before she busted through, but I took the time to turn and look at René. I couldn’t tell if the shock on his face was from the realization that he wasn’t dreaming, or from the enormity of this real-life example of Mary’s dogma. He stared at me, as if asking for some sort of direction. I had none to give, other than the truth of our folly.

“Do you understand now? Do you see what I have mastered, and what it will cost?!?” He jerked at the harshness of my words, and I left him at the bottom of the stairs, sprinting up for salvation.

Works Cited

Descartes, René. Discourse on Method. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1998. Print.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994. Print.

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