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Modernity is in trouble. From the menace of migrant crime in Europe to the sexual transgressions rife in modern-day Hollywood, the moral argument for modernity is quickly waning. How did things go so wrong? And how do we fix it? Perhaps a return to traditional values and ideals are in order.
The modern world developed over hundreds of years. The post-medieval period has seen the advent of tolerance as a social and political virtue, the rise of the nation-state, the increased role of science and technology in daily life, the development of representative democracy, the creation of property rights, urbanisation, mass literacy, print media, industrialisation, mercantilism, colonisation, the social sciences, modern psychology, emancipation, romanticism, naturalist approaches to art and culture, and the development of existential philosophy. From the computer to the mobile phone, the motor car to the aeroplane, the marvels of the modern world are all around us.
The modern world has replaced the Aristotelean and faith-based concept of human life that was popular in the Middle Ages with a worldview based on science and reason. Modern intellectualism, therefore, follows the example set forth by Cartesian and Kantian philosophy: mistrusting tradition and finding its roots in science and rationality.
Culturally and intellectually, the 21st century represents the postmodern era. Postmodernism can be difficult to define accurately because the various cultural and social movements that use it as their central philosophy define it for their own purposes. Jean-Franҫois Lyotard (1924 – 1998), who introduced the term in his 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition, defined postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” Similarly, Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as a philosophical movement in opposition to the philosophical assumptions and values of modern Western philosophy.
Postmodernism came about as a reaction, indeed a rejection, to modernity. With its roots in the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976), Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939), and Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), the postmodernist rejects the philosophical theory of Foundationalism – the idea that knowledge is built upon a solid foundation – in favour of large-scale scepticism, subjectivism, and relativism.
The postmodernist likes to see himself as Beowulf fighting Grendel. That is, he likes to see himself as the mythical hero fighting the historical-critical monster. Inspired by doctrines of white privilege and toxic masculinity, and driven by an anti-capitalist (except when it comes to their I-phones), anti-racist (provided the person isn’t white), anti-imperialist (but only European imperialism), and anti-transphobic (because gender is a “social construct”) rhetoric, the post-modernist inspired neo-Marxists and social justice warriors have invaded the modern university and college campus.
Modernity and post-modernism have produced a swathe of existential and moral problems that the Western world has, as of yet, proved unable (or perhaps even unwilling) to solve. To begin, the modern world has abolished the central role that God, nature, and tradition has played in providing life with purpose. In spite of all its cruelty, the German sociologist, Max Weber (1864 – 1920) saw the Middle Ages as a highly humanistic period. Everything was considered to have a divine purpose. Even someone as lowly as a Medieval serf, for example, could feel that he had a role in God’s greater scheme. There was a sense of, as Martin Buber (1878 – 1965) puts it, “I-thou.” Modernity swapped “I-thou” for “I-it”. The human will replaced God as the ultimate arbiter of meaning.
This problem has been further exacerbated by the alienation of the human spirit to nature. Science, for all of its positive qualities, has had the effect of rendering nature meaningless. No longer is a thunderclap the voice of an angry God, nor does a cave contain a goblin or a mountain harbour a giant. Science may be an excellent means for understanding facts, but it is not a substitute for wisdom or tradition when it comes to determining human purpose. No longer does the natural world command the sense of reverential majesty that it once did.
The answer to the problems of the modern, and, by extension, post-modern, world is a revitalisation of the traditional beliefs, values, ideas, customs, and practices that have made the Western world great in the first place. We must reject the destructive ideas espoused by the postmodernists and work to revitalise our traditions. It is high time we started taking some pride in the traditions that have made our civilisation so great.
This week for our culture article we will be looking at Mary Shelley’s (1797 – 1851) 1818 Gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. The story that gave rise to countless plays, radio-shows, TV shows, movies, video games, and created one of the most iconic characters in horror.
Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein whilst touring Europe with her future-husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822), in 1814. On the Rhine, they visited Castle Frankenstein where they were told a ghoulish story about a mad alchemist who had attempted to resurrect corpses two centuries prior.
Two years later, in the summer of 1816, the Shelleys travelled to the Swiss Alps but were forced to stay in their lodgings due to bad weather. (1816, for anyone who is interested, was known as ‘the Year Without Summer’ – an event caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815).
There, joined by Lord Byron (1788 – 1824), they amused by reading Fantasmagoriana, a book of German ghost stories that had been translated into French. Byron suggested they all put pen to paper and see who could write the best ghost story. Shelley, much to her dismay, was unable to think of a story. Then one night, after they had all gone to bed, Shelley had a waking dream:
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”
Initially, Shelley only thought her dream only gave her enough material for a short story. However, she was encouraged by Percy Bysshe Shelley to turn it into a fully fledged book. Setting herself to this task, Shelley finished writing her story in April/May 1817. It was picked up by publishers Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, and Jones and published in January of 1818.
In one sense, Frankenstein is a cautionary tale. By using Victor Frankenstein and his creation as an example, Shelley’s classic tale warns us of the dangers of interfering with the world’s natural order. There are things in this world, Frankenstein tells us, that are beyond our ability to understand, and which are better left alone.
Both Victor Frankenstein and his creation are tragic figures. For Victor, it is ultimately his obsession with Natural Philosophy (that’s the archaic name for the sciences), his passion, and his unchecked ambition that lead to his downfall. In trying to play God, Victor creates the catalyst for his own doom. In the end, it is his remorse, shame, and burning hatred that destroy him.
Similarly, Victor’s creation is also destroyed by his hatred. This hatred, however, is not borne of remorse or shame, but of rejection. Victor’s creation is intelligent and articulate. He desires human companionship, but, due to his hideous appearance and massive size, finds people to be cruel and unwelcoming. Even Victor himself fails to see his creation as adequately human, not even bothering to give him a name (Victor’s creation is referred to as ‘wretch’, ‘monster’, ‘creature’, daemon’, ‘devil’, ‘fiend’, and ‘it.’) Ultimately, it is this rejection that leads Victor’s creation to destroy not only Victor Frankenstein, but also himself.
Frankenstein is ultimately a tale of what happens when we fail to see others as human. It reminds us of the limitations of human endeavour, and what may happen when we surpass those limitations. But, more importantly, it reminds us of the importance of love and compassion.