On a first reading of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein it's clear she portrays man's inhumanity to man. The "monster" created by Victor Frankenstein is hideous in appearance, but once he speaks (three-quarters of the way through her novel), you realize this "beast" is a sensitive philosopher with fragile feelings. He is rejected for his looks -- a superficial response, but one we're all familiar with, that plagues the world of men.
On a second, deeper, level, we find something else altogether, a moving observation about the nature of creation and art.
This "monster" represents Frankenstein's profound yearning to create. Who hasn't felt this?
A mother longs for a child, and when it is born, she marvels at its perfection.
We garden, planting seeds that by a miracle, grow into perfect flowers that never die, returning year after year and sowing more perfect blossoms throughout the world.
Then, there are the artists -- writers, poets, actors, musicians, singers, composers. We are obsessed, like Victor Frankenstein, with bringing life ... out of nothing.
Each time I sit before paper -- "the square white judge" I call it -- I butt into my own inadequacy. I try to create -- I put down a sentence, maybe a paragraph, even a short story.
I struggle until it seems my head will implode, driven by this yearning to create.
When it's complete, I review my work -- my sweat, my life's toil -- and what do I have? A mere gauze of what I dreamed of, the barest hint of the beauty I hoped to capture.
We hate what we create. I have been ashamed by first drafts, feeling so discouraged I can't even write a simple tale, with meaningful action and believable characters.
Any "artist" who aims to create something from nothing realizes it's impossible, nearly. Or, if you manage to create a masterpiece, the toll is usually paid with your life -- as was the case with Dr. Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley lived with two high-strung poets -- Percy Shelley and George Gordon, Lord Byron -- and was the daughter of a writer, and a writer herself.
She well understood how much we despise our own status as "lower than the angels" -- and how we mourn for our shabby ability to express our inner lofty feelings and ambitions. So much beauty in our minds! Somehow, the brain cannot deliver it to the mark on the page.
All artists create "monsters." It's only at the highest cost, and through the most dedicated, humble and ego-less efforts, that we manage to create a thing of beauty.
Dr. Zhivago, To Kill a Mockingbird, Notre Dame de Paris -- and yes, Frankenstein -- these books show us that we don't have to hate what we create, but we often must give up our lives for it.
TOMORROW: Figuratively Speaking