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With her circle of Romantic, ‘free’ spirited friends, Mary Shelley perceived the dark side of the ascendancy of scientific, materialist rationalism over nature, poetry and feelings. She was less aware of the dangers to humanity of her own set’s elevation of emotional passion and nature worship into the vacuum left by the Enlightenment’s dismissal of God. Their reactionary pull to the opposite extreme placed the demi-gods Artist and Lover on the throne that Science had usurped.
There are traces, in Frankenstein, of the author’s emerging awareness that her own position was somewhat shaky. The mad overreach of the scientist makes Victor Frankenstein the story’s villain, but the possibility that the monster is culpable makes him also a candidate for this role. The monster’s failure to be perfectly humanized by his amazing self-education, time spent in nature, and appreciation of beauty and human goodness may be the most human thing about him. If ever a ‘Noble Savage’ (the Romantic conception of a purely natural man) was shown to have an irreparable wound, and a bent toward evil despite his initial ‘innocence,’ and his humanistic education, it is this creature.
If Victor aspires to be God, the monster surely aspires (like Enlightenment Man) to be godless, to bring his creator down to his level, and to have vengeance upon God for the pain and suffering of his life. We wondered, as we read, whether Shelly recognized herself as her lover’s self-reflecting creature, who became less valuable to him as she was tarnished by grief at the deaths of her babies. How many modern lovers lose that romantic feeling if a baby threatens to displace them in a woman’s affections, or if her longing for a child reflects back their own infantilism instead of their perfections? Were these babies just ‘her problem’?
Was Mary awakened to her own blind adoration of Percy as she wrote Frankenstein, and described the worshipful and ridiculously uncritical regard that Victor’s father, teacher, fiancé and friend had for him despite his most erratic and selfish behavior? Perhaps she had already begun to long for the stability of some of the staid, boring conventionality they represent. Maybe she had intimations of danger, or inability to love, in “the one who rises above and flaunts moral norms and limitations.”
Might Mary have seen in herself a monstrous and unnatural creature, brought to ‘life’ by the spark of romantic love by a demi-god who then could not bear the actuality of her womanly being, her pain and depression, her grasping need of him? Surely she did experience being made unfit for and outcast from society. It must have hurt her deeply to look in upon hearth and home, family love, simple human goodness with yearning, but to be shunned as something like an abomination. Did Mary fantasize just a little about loosing rage upon those who rejected her – of being a monster with no culpability for its actions?
Notice that Victor was not so much horrified by the idea of meeting the monster’s demand for a female creature, but by the possibility they might procreate and their offspring wreak havoc in the land. How surprising to a congenial, conversational, romantic couple must be the reality of an impending child. And oh, how the babes do wound you as a woman – open up depths far below the surfaces you might have lived on, otherwise; ruin you for ‘Love Lite’ by eliciting a new and sacrificial and imploring love that is a constant prayer – whether God exists or not – from a mother’s heart for the life of her child. Can a creature be human who has not sprung from a womb, affected a mother in this way, but only is a combination of man’s mind with inert matter?
Could a woman living as an abstraction of a man’s self expect him to comprehend, to share, even to sympathize with the piercing actuality of her grief at the loss of her baby? I think not. Mary wrapped her story in a story, with another layer of (Walton’s) narration. Our study group thought it still peeked through. Ultimately, Mary’s humanity found no correspondence in the being of her ‘creator,’ just like the monster that emerged from her imagination. How different their lives might be in a world where God still reigned supreme.
Note: I chose Frankenstein for a Moms and Sons literature group and a Moms and Daughters lit group. Then I found it in the lineup for this year’s Well Read Mom readings. Great minds…same ruts! Do pull a lit group of some kind together for fun like this, or join WRM.
During National Poetry Month, I’m on the lookout for Catholic poets who might want a bit of promoting. It’s easy for the dead poets – they are safely in the canon, and people can recommend the best of them knowing others have vetted their work (and that they didn’t do anything too embarassing before they died). Then there are the Poets Who Have Made It – the Dana Gioias, Denise Levertovs, Paul Marianis, Christian Wimans and other truly fine poets who really don’t need publicity. I’m looking for those in the middle, whose poetry I have admired, or who have been highly recommended as up-and-comers.
I don’t have any academic credentials to back up my taste in poetry – just my own response to this or that poem I’ve seen. I do have an aversion to poetry that seems to be mere prose chopped into ‘poetic’ looking lines. I dislike super sappy sweetness and sing-song verse. I prefer poets who seem to be conveying a personal experience – even if of some doctrinal truth, or eternal verity – over those who seem to be looking at experience from the outside and using it as material for a class in poetry. I like to be surprised, blessed, challenged to read it again, or to feel a universal ‘yes’ on entering a poet’s particularity of lived encounter with realities – even small ones. I dislike propaganda intensely – using poetry as a vehicle to preach at me sends your poem right to the bottom of the stack.
I discovered some amateur Catholic poets on CatholicPlanet. From this loooong list, I read at least one poem by every poet – whew! I picked a few I’d like to share, and am investigating whether the poets have books out they’d like to have me buy and give away to my readers. I liked:
A Prayer for Humilty, by Diane Allen who has written some books of stories about Padre Pio, but doesn’t seem to have a book of her poetry out just yet.
Exodus Revisited, by W.H. Smaw who hasn’t a book out.
Annunciation, by Stephen Wentworth Arndt, who has translated Dante and put lots of lovely poetry out for free on Catholic Planet, but doesn’t seem to have a volume of his own work out yet.
So, I’ve ordered some other books by Catholic poets, and the following ones are ready to give away to the first person who asks (simply comment here, or email me: Speaker@CharlotteOstermann.com).
Just ask for your free copy of:
Pavel Chichikov’s So Tell Us, Christ (I link here to the books on Amazon just so you can see them, but I will mail you the free copy myself).
Kathryn Mulderink’s To Sing You Must Exhale
Ruth Asch’s Reflections
I like a number of poems already in each of these books. Particularly Chichikov’s Bring Us Up, It Is Near, and As From My Emptiness; Mulderink’s Signals and Didymus; and Asch’s Baptism by Fire and End of a Day. I hope you’ll enjoy these poems and have the poets’ names in your hearts as you pray for artists now and then.
I’m still looking. Do you have favorites? I found Mark Shea recommending Bruce Newman and discovered Philip Kolin somewhere in all my searching. I’ve ordered books of poetry by Christopher Kelder, Sarah de Nordwall and Kevin Casey to give you. I should note that I’ve ordered my own copy, too, of each of these!
Is anyone out there teaching poetry? I have two copies of Place of Passage: Contemporary Catholic Poetry to give away that would be lovely for a survey. They include some deads (Merton, Wojtyla), some stars (Mariani, Gioia), and some up-and-comers, for which I thank the editors, David Craig (who once, in an online poetry workshop, said he’d like to have written a couple of the lines in my poem John’s Song…just sayin’) and Janet McCann.
Naturally, my offer still stands to send up to ten copies of my own A Destiny to Burn to anyone who asks. Bless you for reading one and giving away the others with a word about how critically important poetry is for human being!
One final word: This giveaway will appear in an upcoming update of my 25 Ways to Help an Artist: The Art of Low-Cost Philanthropy. The total cost to me will be less than $200, and that counts as “low-cost” in the world of art promotions. I hope you’ll do it too, plus at least 24 other things, to help along the Catholic artists who are giving themselves back to the Church, through the Church to the world, and to other artists and students of art by doing what they do.
For Groundhog Day, I imagine Catholic bloggers everywhere are weighing in about the movie by that name. It’s so Catholic! How can we resist?
I love this movie, and only regret that it’s not quite appropriate for young kids. It’s an extended metaphor for coming to grips with life’s terrible daily-ness. The main character – a jaded, worldly bachelor doing the obligatory annual report on the groundhog for his TV station – finds himself inexplicably trapped in one day – living it over and over with, apparently, no way out. As the horror of it dawns on him, he tries suicide. When even that doesn’t effect his escape, he turns to despair’s other alternative, hedonistic abandon. When it seems nothing can ever enter his alternate me-verse to lighten its burden, something does.
The human beings around him – formerly mere objects – begin to awaken him to the possibility of finding himself in the unending day by stepping outside himself for their benefit. As he purposes to fill that day with responsiveness to them, the day becomes more bearable. The one thing that can change from day to day, is the self. He gets to retain experience in memory, learn to play the piano, memorize poetry. Whatever else happens in the cramped limits of that day, he is becoming and cohering in increasing dimensionality outside the reach of the trap that holds him in time.
Love for the station’s beautiful producer awakens his desire not merely to serve, but to know and love another person. To plumb her mystery, to be worthy of her, to love her for her sake and not to manipulate or use her, become the goals that lift his unending day into something that approaches transcendence. Alas, though their time together partakes of eternity, it always ends with the day and is lost to the one who has no memory. Two kinds of ‘newness of life’ are in contrast: a horrible, memory-less, ever-new-ness which traps a person in an endless, impotent, fruitless childhood, and a marvelous freshness which by the power of memory coheres within a person, as person.
Into the now moment of chronos he seems fated to endure, kairos bubbles in through this person, in this person. The actuality of a love from beyond enters time, raises itself up within the very being of a man, and in his willingness to detach from all but love (all expectation of reward, fulfillment, future, pleasure) becomes the power that breaks through an awful magic that sought to unmake that man by tempting him to despair. Self is seen and followed to its destiny in the gaze of an Other. Life is acknowledged to be a gift, however hard it is to bear. Mystery breaks in through personhood to trump a lower and limited reality with its super-reality.
Sounds Catholic to me!
I had a blast discussing this with Fr. Guy de Gaynesford, rector, School of the Annunciation, Buckfast Abbey…
Your Worst Nightmares
Might it be that some dark trends in popular culture are the manifestations of the inherent human need to grapple with the Four Last Things? Where the Church squarely faces up to the realities of death, judgment, heaven and hell, post-modern man faces a vacuum of unbelief in the very realities that most demand his attention. The rational, materialist mind – reduced as it is in power to bear the tension this produces – has one escape route left to him.
Art has a kind of power to resolve seemingly impossible tensions – at its best resulting in a newly realized response to encounter with reality, and at its worst coughing up some deformed attempt to avoid it. Perhaps the recurring, disturbing, themes in popular books and movies are the last gasps of creative responsiveness in humanity increasingly untethered to reality.
Take a look at the nightmares expressed in pop culture, from this perspective:
Death is a formidable reality that, surely, is hard for those without faith in God to bear. Perhaps if we could make the undead hideously repulsive, our mortality would be more attractive. A rollicking fight to the death against beings who are unequivocally ‘bad’ is as good as it gets…all guts and no glory of the human person to worry about as you whack ‘em. In zombie warfare we get a chance to vent all the pent up adrenaline caused by the unacknowledged fear of death we’ve been carrying around. We can actually embrace the possibility of death as a sort of counterpoint to the ugly, mindless, boring lives we perceive everyone around us living. ‘They’ are all walking dead, and ‘we’ are the ones ‘really living it up’ with zest and fearlessness.
For you, zombie straw men. For me full personhood as I die to self in Christ.
Death is threatening, but you’d think the prospect of eternal life shouldn’t frighten anyone. Think again. Eternity looms as an abyss for those whose life is already fairly empty, boring, pointless, lonely, painful or depressing. Heaven is a fantasy, and besides that, wouldn’t be very entertaining as it’s merely endless choral music, thumb twiddling and prudery. What shall we do to resolve the fear that we may have immortal souls?
At all costs, if we must live forever, we must stay young, attractive, sexually fulfilled and rich to make it tenable. Enter the vampire: our alter-ego if we identify with his suave erudition and smouldering power; our super-ego if we prefer to be the one he seduces. Whether you’re the vampire, or his ravished lover, all pre-requisites for a bearable eternity are met in this inversion of new life in Christ, whose own blood restores life to and purifies the soul who rests in Him.
For you, the same night life forever. For me, the endless newness of life in the Son’s light.
Memo to unbelievers: demons and evil people exist, and you know it. But nothing in your philosophy helps you deal with those awful realities from the pit of hell. Reject them with a smirk, and still you’ll feel the dread of them oozing up from time to time. Keep pushing your fear down and your subconscious becomes a fertile ground for some vivid imaginations you can’t quite control. What to do?
Make a movie of them. Your compatriots, who want help explaining where their own horrible imaginings originate, will come watch it. That little thrill you get when the psycho-sexual, demonic violence plays on the screen (of your mind, or your theater) helps you believe you’re actually in control. You’re choosing to be a spectator and this is all make-believe. Right? There’s nothing evil threatening you, or influencing you, or drawing you to crave more and more horrific, explicit violence in exchange for the pleasure. More important, there’s nothing in you that corresponds to evil, that resonates with perversion and demonic rage…no bloodlust…no vulnerability to oppression or possession…nothing hellish is real. Right?
For you the thrill of make-believe evil. For me, a Savior to vanquish all-too-real evil.
Magic Gone Awry
Here I include technology as a form of magic – manipulation of the material universe with a view to obtaining amazing power over it. Many plots turn magic, technology, man’s creations and his own karma against him. Thus does he face judgement for his pride and his deeds – in this-worldly terms that carefully balance the scale of retribution for him through his own efforts. Somewhere in the depths of man is the awareness that he’s going to get what he deserves. Since there is no God to make that call, he fends off that possibility by gently judging and forgiving himself.
His own creations – clones, robots, computers, dinosaurs – might turn on him. (He will need to realize he’s created the problem, but will be suitably chastened by the challenge of dealing with it.) Or, he might get a high-tech revenge on someone who deserves it. (Revenge – justified violence – is like a backfire that puts out a wildfire. There’s no worry about being judged while you’re indulging in self-righteous mayhem.) The natural world he has exploited, ignored, accidentally radiated, or destroyed might rise up against him. (Of course, he’ll win the battle to subdue it, and be absolved by the harrowing ordeal.)
Movies like these can be cautionary tales, I suppose, but perhaps numb the soul a bit to the reality of a judgment that can’t be paid off with effort, or pain, or victim status.
For you, only natural consequences and high-tech restoration of your control over reality. For me, personal judgement and supernatural means – the atoning death on the Cross – to provide reconciliation with the Creator.
Well, that’s the end of these reflections on modern art and the work of the imagination…I wonder what you think of it all….