Rationale

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Chapter 2, Volume 1

Chapter 3, Volume 1

What is Knowledge?

What is Self-Knowledge?

Music of Frankenstein

"Relatives" of Frankenstein

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Works Cited

        “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge. . . ”  The dying Frankenstein thus proclaims to posterity (Frankenstein 33).

        To many, the accumulation of knowledge is still the optimal form of education, through which the younger generation propels our civilization forward, giving promise to a better and brighter future.  But powerful tools come with tremendous responsibilities.  The peril of epistemic gluttony without the counterbalance of self-knowledge proves to bear heavier consequences than imagined, as the early life of Victor Frankenstein shows.  Fast forward to the 21st century, the moral consequence of knowledge looms larger in our lives; nuclear bombs and stem cell research are just two among thousands of new inventions that give rise to extremely complicated ethical concerns.  As Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein presages almost two hundred years ago, the abundance of knowledge today requires even more solid self-knowledge from the knowledge seekers in order to prevent the abominable abuse of knowledge.  This website looks at knowledge and self-knowledge in Chapter 2, 3, Volume I from Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein, and the surrounding  issues.  There may be no right answer, but at least there will be introspection, both intellectually and emotionally, which is more than what the obsessive- compulsive, tunnel-visioned, knowledge-devouring Frankenstein ever tries to do.

        With the advent of the first Industrial Revolution in 1750, knowledge suddenly alights from the realm of abstract theology and philosophy, and gallops into the world of practical applications in science and technology.  While human comfort has been greatly improved by technological inventions like gas lighting, steam power, railway and large-scale production of chemicals, knowledge, once purely conceptual, now entails unprecedented and complex consequences, both realistically and morally.  The anxiety about the new role of knowledge manifests itself most strongly in the literary response of the Romantic writers who, like William Blake who calls the Industrial Revolution the “dark Satanic Mills” (Blake, “Preface to Milton” line 8), deeply mistrusts the intractability of new science and technology.  Instead, they advocate for a return to “nature” - an unspoiled state of civilization as well as the physical natural world.  A representative of high Romanticism, Mary Shelley captures this Romantic concern in her Gothic novel Frankenstein in which the misuse of knowledge instigates an avalanche of evil beyond nature and human nature.  She expands the concern in her later novel The Last Man - an apocalyptic vision of the world as she knows it – where a conscious omission of technology in a futuristic setting, and a partial recourse to the Golden Age of Greek and Roman civilizations, echo the Romantic longing for a primitivistic society.  Nonetheless, the knowledge of men utterly fails in the hand of Nature, who, in “assert[ing] her indefeasible and sacred powers” (Shelley, The Last Man 427), obliterates and invalidates every human creation. 

        Ironically, the failure of material knowledge makes way for self-knowledge.  According to Shelley's messages in Frankenstein and The Last Man, one often belatedly becomes aware of the true position and the virtuous course of human lives on earth when the pursuit of knowledge destroys humanity.  The 19th century notion of self-knowledge is a hybrid of Classical and Christian philosophies, thanks to 6th century Roman philosopher Boethius.  In his pivotal work The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius illustrates the importance of self-knowledge in terms of discerning the “right” path of one’s life within God’s design (“God” in the Boethian precept simultaneously denotes the monotheistic God, the Prime Mover or the Whole in Classical philosophy, and Nature).  The ongoing struggle to juxtapose Classical philosophy and Christian theology does not stop with Boethius; in fact, 19th-century intellectuals like S.T. Coleridge continue to grapple with the two seemingly conflicting schools of thinking.  In his poem “Self-Knowledge,” Coleridge affirms the importance of self-knowledge; yet he remains frustrated in bringing together Classical and Christian ideologies.

        Chapters 2 and 3 from Volume 1 of Frankenstein illustrate Victor Frankenstein’s unvirtuous path to knowledge, which results in a monstrous piece of technology.  One also sees the decline of his self-knowledge as he gathers more material knowledge.  Contemporary critical reaction to Frankenstein will be incorporated to demonstrate the opinion of the age; Theodore Cook’s 1829 short story, as well as Shelley’s manuscript The Frankenstein Notebooks, will also be linked to Frankenstein by theme and by the creative process.  In addition, Frankensteinian motif in Classical music before and after 1818 will be presented to show the universality of Shelley's anxiety.  Looking beyond the world of Frankenstein, The Last Man, Shelley's 1824 novel that expands on what she starts in Frankenstein: the anxiety towards knowledge, the fear of industrialization, the lack of self-knowledge that ultimately leads to the destruction of all mankind save one, will be introduced; the PowerPoint slides will focus on Shelley's particular blend of Romanticism and Classicism, and how the use of music in the novel further brings together the two seemingly opposite movements.  Finally, a modern operatic adaptation of Frankensteinian theme is chosen to express the boundless concern for knowledge and self-knowledge across artistic medium and time. 

        The color palette of the website intends to highlight the clash between knowledge and self-knowledge: yellow/orange evokes a passionate response akin to the hotheaded pursuit of knowledge; and blue conjures a calm and reasonable emotion that speaks to the restraint of self-knowledge.  The visual collision further illuminates the other conflicts between Classicism and Romanticism, and between Classical and Christian interpretations of self-knowledge.  But the biggest battle of all is between good and evil, sometimes demarcated by a very fine line on which humanity teeters even to this day.  Besides the annotated Chapters 2 and 3, two pages are dedicated to the explanation of what is knowledge and what is self-knowledge.  The overall design aims for an easy navigation through the complex issues of knowledge and self-knowledge.  The navigation bar on the left provides an anchor accessible from anywhere on the site; images and quotes are kept to a minimum; and large-font categories are designated for clear guidance.  To promote easy reading, brief summaries are given under every category with links to more detailed presentations; other hidden pages like “The University of Ingolstadt,” “Rationale,” “Dr. Atomic and Frankenstein” can be accessed through in-text and standalone links.

        True to the equalitarian spirit of the internet age, the creation of a web page is always a collaborative effort.  This project owes much to the machinery of “TechnoRomanticism” at San Jose Sate University, with Dr. Katherine Harris at the helm and excellent peers fanning the fire in the steam chamber.  The creative process takes its parts from numerous in-class discussions, reading and writing assignments, after-class (and sometimes aptly online) sharing; and assembles all bits and pieces into a new entity, much like the creation of the Creature in Frankenstein.  But unlike Dr. Frankenstein, none of the knowledge presented by this website is exclusive; the creator is this case does not envision that “a new species would bless me as its creator and source” (Frankenstein 34).  Moreover, a digital presentation of a 19th century text gives immediacy to an otherwise distant voice; Google Page Creator enables a side-by-side, multi-media survey of words on paper.  However, the virulent power of the internet again reminds us of the far-reaching consequence of knowledge, forcing us to stop and think about potential Frankensteinian scenarios in our time.  In computer-related advancements alone, we already have robot pets, robots that vacuum and robots that talk back to our children; before long, we’ll have simulated humanity that can take over all extant civilizatons.  Shall we not heed Frankenstein’s dying words and ask ourselves: what is the price of knowledge and who should pay for it? 

Work Cited:

Blake, William. “Preface to Milton.” Sparcatus Educational. Ed. Simkin, John. <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/PRblake.htm>. 16 May, 2008. 

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. The Last Man. Ed. Morton D. Paley. World's classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.