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On Scholars, Hubris, and the Inescapable Gravity of Nature

This article is the first in a new column, The Student’s Stylus, highlighting outstanding student essays.

What are the costs of conquering nature? What happens when the consequences of such a feat rebound to its agent? Skalds, writers, and storytellers of every era have shown through their tales the gravity of these undertakings. Consider the extraordinary cases of Doctor Faustus and Victor Frankenstein. Although separated across the gulf of fictitious centuries, the two already have much in common, both as inhabitants of Germany and gifted scientists who strove to overcome the insurmountable designs of nature and bend the limits of what was thought possible. They unleash unstoppable forces of distorted nature, they sow chaos in their wakes, and at their ends, their lives are eclipsed and exhausted by what they have wrought. However, they share more similarities than initially apparent, and as one delves deeper in their characters, it becomes evident that their kinship in disaster runs right down into their marrow. Faustus and Frankenstein’s greatest parallels are seen in their worldly ambition, their subsequent divorce from humanity through the effects of their actions, and their refusal to confront the breadth of their actions, which leads to everything dearest to them being taken away by the fruits of their labors.

The attitude that lays the groundwork for their destruction is unstriated ambition. Both men, though through different avenues, pursue the unnatural sciences in order to exalt their own names. Faustus seeks to master demonic spirits with his goetic arts so that he might obtain for himself that “world of profit and delight, of power, of honour, and omnipotence” (Marlowe, 7). Frankenstein, though his ambition is not so naked and leering, is nonetheless led by the same impulse for glory. Shelley details the exultation of the doctor, having invented a process by which dead flesh could be reanimated (Shelley, 38), and his dreams of conquering death and being exalted as the creator of a new race of men (Shelley, 40). Both protagonists pervert nature and flout any idea of a normative distinction in their headlong rush towards their goals. The means by which the two kindle their desire diverge quite differently, with Faustus compiling the works of those magicians and augurs of the forbidden before him, while Frankenstein pioneers the unmapped spans of scientific knowledge, but they share a singular goal: honor and recognition. They seek fame by means of their works, fame accompanied by the adulation of the masses. Furthermore, the grisly endeavors they undertook could only have required the most ardent ambition to accomplish, with black magic of the lowest order and the loss of one’s soul on one hand, and on the other hand, the desecration of the dead in service to the creation of a corpse-flesh chimera, a slope-backed and staggering parody of man, son of many, brother of none. To their personal ends, they make evident their willingness to commit such acts of great hubris and greater consequence, albeit to their own eventual detriment.

The ambition that they possess fuels their disintegration and as a consequence, they receive enmity instead of the honor of which they dreamed. The acts performed under their name dismay the masses and cause them to esteem our subjects yet lower, rather than higher. Faustus grows to be hated and feared by the people of Wittenberg. Instead of fulfilling his wishes of power and fame, he swindles and torments those around him, with such petty acts as bedeviling the Pope (Marlowe, 40), assaulting the knights of the Emperor’s court (Marlowe, 53), and cheating the townspeople of their wares (Marlowe, 58). In each instance of these, the wronged parties express their loathing of their adversary, with the knights having met their injury in their attempt to avenge one of their number after his humiliation at Faustus’ hands. Near his end, Faustus has only the company of a few fellow scholars to take comfort in. In a similar vein, Frankenstein is implicated in the Monster’s murder of his dear friend Clerval and is persecuted by the authorities, being met with scorn by the townspeople of the Irish hamlet on whose shores he seeks refuge (Shelley, 181). After he is cleared of the charges and the Monster takes the life of his bride, he, like what his creation had promised to do earlier, “[quits] for ever the neighborhood of man” (Shelley, 149) and follows the Monster to the ends of the Earth, even unto death (Shelley, 214). While Faustus commands Mephistopheles with intent and malice, Frankenstein never wishes for harm to befall any of those around him, and one might argue that the blame lies entirely with the Monster, ever athwart the wishes of his creator. Nonetheless, although the Monster is no agent of his creator’s will, he is inextricably a product of it, and had Frankenstein not given rise to such a one in the pursuit of his ambitions, Clerval would still be alive. Through their dark strivings, the protagonists exchange kinship with their fellows for squandered magicks and stillborn marvels.

Ultimately, both characters are the silent authors of their respective demises. Before his final hour, Faustus curses Mephistopheles and blames him for his temptation to ruin, and Mephistopheles gleefully concurs, but it should not be assumed that the demon was the agent of Faustus’ destruction. It was Faustus who summoned Mephistopheles, and though the demon came under his own authority and not Faustus’, he was drawn to the scholar’s uttered blasphemies in the act of demonic evocation (Marlowe, 13). Furthermore, throughout all twenty-four years of Mephistopheles’ service to him, Faustus had the chance to revoke his pledge and dismiss the infernal servant he invoked, and to submit himself to God’s mercy. The Good Angel frequently appears in order to counsel him and turn him from his path, and the Old Man offers the Angel’s vial of graces even as Mephistopheles approaches to collect his due. However, even to the end, Faustus is absorbed by his despair and his desperate fantasies of escape from punishment, and thus departs with Lucifer to Hell. Frankenstein, like Faustus, dedicates most of his life at that point to his project, only for him to turn on it at its inception, having realized his folly, and thus invoking its wrath. When Justine faces execution, he has every chance to confess to having created the Monster who killed the boy William; it would not undo the wrong already done, but he has the chance to take responsibility and mitigate further damage. His fellows might have thought him mad, indeed, they might have given him the sentence meant for Justine, but he still had the opportunity to make it right as best he could and save an innocent life. He refuses to confess out of cowardice, under the fear that “if any other had communicated such a relation to me, I should have looked upon it as the ravings of insanity” (Shelley, 68), to his later and more bitter sorrow. Even after the death of Clerval, he stays silent, and only when the Monster’s grip is left cooling on his bride’s throat does he think to confess, but by then it is far too late. It has destroyed his loved ones and inspired untold agony in his life, and eventually he spends the rest of his life on a futile quest to track down the Monster, only to succumb to the vicissitudes of the unforgiving Arctic. Both men could have prevented their own ruin, even after having transgressed against nature, had they taken responsibility for their actions.

At this end, one can more starkly understand the similarities between the two subjects in their ambition, isolation from man, and their fatal inaction when confronted with the consequences of their works. Their ambition is evident in their base actions and motives, as they violate the rules of nature to fulfill their dreams of fame. Their actions and the evil effects of their works drive them further from the company of their fellow man. At their ends, the two doctors strive too late to amend the wrongs done and are thus driven to destruction by the fruits of their labors, whether in infernal flames or biting cold. Faustus’ actions are more blatantly deliberate than his transliterary foil, but while one may approach Frankenstein’s own quandary with sympathy, there is an ineffaceable parallel between the two in both motive and deed, and it is sobering to see the vices and traits of the protagonists reflected so completely through each other.

They were not the first to sacrifice their humanity in their pursuit of miracles, and they will not be the last. Even today, when it seems as if science and human knowledge have been so utterly territorialized, when we divine the courses of Heaven through magic scrying glasses instead of entrails under the haruspex’s knife, we are not happy in our knowledge, for we no longer feel a need to hold onto it, and instead outsource it to the very oracles from which it issued. We asked for the power to conjure our own Helens of Troy, ghosts brought to life in tiny cathode cosmoses, and now we can no longer tell the difference between the phantom and who it signifies. Eighty years ago, we invented a weapon to turn cities into glass, but war itself was its greatest casualty, and now conflict is only permissible to quell more conflict. Men have achieved in real life what the doctors accomplished in fiction. How different is our fate from theirs?

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