Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus’ from 1818 is considered by many to be the first science-fiction novel, but it can also be regarded as the first novel about transhumanism.
Fear of the transhuman is portrayed in the novel as what I’ll term “erotic shock”
Comic adaptation can show us how erotic shock drives Frankenstein – we can look at the erotic nature of the creature, and how that reflects the transhuman aspects of the story
Hplus magazine, a leading resource for transhuman theory, describes transhumanism like this:
“a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.”
There are two terms involved:
Posthuman describes possible future humans who capabilities are so evolved from our own that they can no longer be unambiguously referred to as humans by our standards
Transhuman describes an intermediary form between humans and posthumans
Frankenstein’s creature would come into the category of transhuman – he’s a being who is recognisably human, but he’s also something that has evolved from our state – an artificial creature comprised of dead matter but animated with a personality that seems to be his own.
What is erotic shock
From “Eros”, erotic etymologically means “of love” – specifically passionate or romantic love.
In philosophy, it can relate to “life energy”. In common use, it is “relating to or tending to arouse sexual desire or excitement.”
Plato also argued that Platonic love was of Eros.
Transhumanism and Erotic Shock
Erotic shock is the distress encountered when Frankenstein both realises his creature’s urges and when he realises that he has created something beyond human.
He intended to create an equal to man, a Platonic equal but instead has created the first transhuman. He’s appalled that he’s created something with an intelligence that matches his own, but the way the creature outstrips him isn’t his intelligence, it’s in its sexual impulses and desires
This causes Victor to feel shame, regret and disgust, as he sees his own repressed sexual desires made flesh.
This erotic shock connotes the fear of transhumanism – the ultimate fear that we’ll be supplanted by a race of creatures that can procreate without our intervention, and eventually replace us.
One definition of transhumanism is that it is a “redefinition of the boundary between life and death and the revival of the dead; the production of beings that are hybrids of living and nonliving matter”
The book shows us a scientific method of creating living beings that supersede natural procreation – man creates new life by reviving the dead, in the form of a hybrid.
In the Classics Illustrated adaptation, we see Frankenstein at work over a Bunsen burner, holding some kind of serum. He talks about banishing disease and making Man invulnerable to all but violent death.
His goal here is one of the key aims of transhumanism, which is life extension.
Also note the use of flame and fire here, connoting the idea of Prometheus, fire from the gods. The spark of life.
Frankenstein is looking for a way to create a new kind of human, but when he does so, he feels revulsion. Why is this? Why would a scientist want to create a posthuman and then be so shocked at what he has done?
We’ll see later in the Classics Illustrated adaptation that he says “Sainted mother”and “What fool dreams?” at the point of creation – he has offended God.
But this was a long, calculated process – even grave robbing didn’t put Frankenstein off his work.
It is not death that he fears, but life. But why? Why should a scientist fear death?
Frankenstein “tarries so” over marriage, feeling he is unworthy of Elizabeth. This diminishes him, he gives himself over instead to the “urge of science”. The creature is a representation of Frankenstein’s repressed sexual urges, and Frankenstein is bifurcated erotically during the creation of the monster, becoming less masculine.
This isn’t to say that the pairing is homoerotic, although others have read a homoerotic subtext into the book. That may exist, but here, I’m talking about the eroticism between Frankenstein and his creature as both representative of his own battle with his sexual repression, and with his disgust that the creature he has created could have those urges.
It’s to say that Frankenstein is unable to fully respond to his own sexual urges, and creates the Monster in order to satisfy them by proxy. However, when the Monster is brought to life, Victor is reviled by what he has done, seeing his own shame made flesh, and plots to bring an end to it.
Frankenstein raises the sheet above the creature’s groin and cries out that the creature is a demon. It was the next panel that struck me, though, the way the creature’s arm is aloft in such a phallic position. It’s as if this is the moment Victor sees the creature as a sexual, libidinous being for the first time, and experiences erotic shock – the creature will supplant him. Next, we see him in repose on the bed, swooning, before the Creature enters his chamber.
In this panel we see Victor mourn over Justine’s death by hanging. However, he says he shall never know peace again, and the use of “poor innocent” is telling. Hanging may psychoanalytically represent castration, and the way Justine’s dress falls from her shoulder above the outline of her breast suggested sexuality. Is this recognition from Victor that he prefers death to life? Is this why he’ll never know peace?
Later he enters into a bargain with the creature, to create a wife for him. The creature says all men deserve happiness, happiness through sexual and romantic fulfilment, but Victor doesn’t expect this of himself.
In this climactic scene (no pun intended), the creature takes revenge on Víctor by killing Elizabeth on their wedding night.
The manifestation of Victor’s repressed sexual urges kills his wife before the marriage is consummated. We then see Victor lying in repose over Elizabeth’s corpse on the marital bed, as he shouts her name. He then shouts “Death!” Death!” but decides he is not worthy of it.
Having animated his own sexual urges from dead matter, Victor seeks death as his only source of fulfilment.
Bernie Wrightson captures the original text better – “Culminating with the erotic frenzy of research, Victor assembles his artificial creature, whose “limbs were in proportion” and “selected…features [were] beautiful” (Shelley 35). The creature’s attractive artifice embodies a figure functioning as Victor’s sexual identity and an object of sexual desire, but when the body becomes its own agent, the perceived beauty becomes ugly and deformed. Upon the recognition of his sexual self, Victor reacts to his Creature with disgust: “Beautiful!-Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes…his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips” – The Queer and the Creepy
Here was see the creature posed like a Greek marble. Although we can see the unfinished nose, pointed ears and arteries, he stands massive and proud, his robes flowing. In the book, he is described as being massive, a necessity of the experiment.
Victor cowers before him.
In this final panel, we see another representation of the Creature towering over Victor’s bed. Here we see a warped but beautiful manifestation of Victor’s masculinity towering over him as Victor lies prone and helpless on the bed. Victor fears the Creature, fears he will succumb to the Creature, to his own impulses. He fears the Creature will supplant him.