This is, perhaps, one of the most famous lines in cinematic history. Uttered by the actor Colin Clive in his role as Doctor Victor Frankenstein, this declaration is delivered with a combination of elation and fear that borders on crazy. The realization that his experiment has succeeded seems to almost unhinge the doctor as he stumbles around, staring off-screen. We can only imagine the dizzying power he must feel and as viewers, we’re slightly discomfited that this power has been given him, aren’t we? Although the film veers quite liberally from Mary Shelley’s novel, this scene rings true to the skepticism and outright rejection of scientific hubris inherent in her story. The lesson of Frankenstein: if you strive to surpass human limitations and/or uncover the secrets of creating life, it will not end well.
This idea, this notion, crops up fairly often in modern times, when discussing scientific advances—stem cell research, in vitro fertilization, and cloning, to name a few. Read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for an interesting take on scientific ethics regarding human life. But I’m more interested in the symbolic, for what it might mean to an artist. I’ve noticed this motif/theme/metaphor in a few places recently, and it’s got me pondering the role of the artist in creating life on the page or on the screen, and if that power, too, borders on crazy.
In Pedro Almodovar’s film, The Skin We Live In, Antonio Banderas plays surgeon Robert Ledgard, who may be a direct descendant of Frankenstein, at least artistically speaking. He is serious and unnerving and the depth of his insanity is revealed, bit by bit, throughout the movie. For some time, he’s been working on a new synthetic skin, which will be impervious to injury and could be used with great results on people with injuries, burns, things like that. He’s getting pushback from the research community, because who will he experiment on? The ethics are just too questionable, so they refuse to fund him. Oh, and in his spare time, he kidnaps people and performs plastic surgery and transgenetic experiments on them. Like the woman currently held captive in his home who bears a startling resemblance to his wife, who killed herself some years back. The film is creepy and dark, with an incredible twist I never saw coming. But it raises interesting questions too. Dr. Ledgard’s mother tells him it was a big mistake to model his current patient after his deceased wife and perhaps it’s this misstep that begins his undoing. Because Ledgard’s detached scientific focus becomes blurred where she’s concerned; she looks like his wife so he develops feelings for her. His personal and professional lives intersect and it thwarts his nefarious intentions. (It should be noted that this movie was inspired by a novel by Thierry Jonquet called Tarantula.)
Carson McCullers talks about the nature of love relationships between two people, and it’s a quote I return to frequently:
There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which had lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing.
When we love someone, she seems to be saying, we love the person we have created in our own minds. Because everyone who exists only exists, really, because of our impressions of them. So in this way, we create them.
In the novel The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope, young Evelyn Roe is put in charge of her great-aunt’s North Carolina farm. She’s the only one of her siblings who’s ever shown an interest in working the land so at seventeen, she finds herself living alone. During a turbulent storm, she finds what she believes to be an injured and disfigured soldier, almost completely buried in mud, his features unfocused and strange, his movements hesitant and slow. Over time, the stranger’s face clarifies; he actually begins to look like Evelyn herself, to move like she does, to speak as she does. And the two fall in love, or some sort of deep codependency, at least. What follows is the saga of their life and family. Evelyn never truly knows the nature of her partner or where he came from and although Adam seems to be alien to the rest of humanity in some ways, can’t we say the same, metaphorically, about everyone? These are the questions this insightful, touching book engenders: where do we all come from, how do we choose partners, what makes us love another—the ways they are like us or the ways they are not?
It could be said that Evelyn has passively created a partner for herself. Adam seems to have appeared, risen from the earth itself, in response to her unspoken wish. In Helene Wecker’s wonderful novel, The Golem and the Jinni, this purpose is overt and deliberate. A man named Otto Rotfeld visits a former rabbi, Yehudah Schaalman, who is known to have supernatural powers, and he asks him to create a golem which he intends to marry. Schaalman warns against this plan:
“’Do you know what a golem is?’
‘A person made of clay,’ Rotfield said, uncertain.
‘Wrong. It’s a beast of burden. A lumbering, unthinking slave. Golems are built for protection and brute force, not for the pleasures of the bed.’
Rotfield reddened. ‘Are you saying you can’t do it?’
‘I’m telling you the idea is ridiculous. To make a golem that can pass for human would be near impossible. For one thing, it would need some amount of self-awareness, if only enough to converse. Not to mention the body itself, with realistic joints, and musculature…’”
And then, Schaalman becomes intrigued with the challenge. He asks Rotfield questions about what traits he’d prefer. Rotfield says: obedient, attractive, curious, intelligent, proper. Schaalman feels a foreboding, especially regarding the “curious” and “intelligent” bits, but he moves forward. And as you can imagine, each of these traits comes to play at some point, as the golem exceeds every expectation either of the men had. It’s an interesting look at what can happen when you get what you ask for, when you are too prescriptive about other people, and of course, when you try to literally commission a spouse for yourself. Like Dr. Ledgard’s experiment, it doesn’t work out. Like Frankenstein’s creation, it can become more than you intended.
I can’t help but look at each of these examples from a writer’s perspective. When you step back, you see that they are stories about the creation of a life, written by someone who has created the entire world of the story. We writers can probably think of characters we’ve created who evolved to something we didn’t anticipate, characters who ended up with our own features and intents, characters who are amalgams of influences from here and there. Like scientific experiments, some came to life in unexpected ways. And there was a dizzying power when we created them, wasn’t there? That strange feeling when they took on a life of their own. It probably borders on crazy, and yet we keep doing it. Whether we’re considering scientific possibilities or the mystery of relationships, we keep probing the possibilities of creation, trying to find some small, subjective expression of the human condition. To explain, if only for the length of a story, what it means to be alive.
MARY VENSEL WHITE is an author and contributing editor of LitChat. Read her complete bio here.