history, the real world today

Frankenstein’s children

In 1815 Mount Tambora, on the northern coast of the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, erupted in the largest volcanic explosion in recorded history. The vast amount of ash and gas thrown into the atmosphere led to strange weather being recorded across the world – in China, in India, in America and Europe. In central Europe, this faraway volcano led, together with random climatic fluctuation, to 1816 being known as the “Year without Summer.”

In the shadow of that dark summer, some English literary friends huddled in the gloom of their holiday house on the shores of Lake Geneva. To entertain themselves without boats, sun and frivolity, they told each other horror stories. Mary Godwin, later known as Mary Shelley, married to Percy Bysshe Shelley, told and later wrote the story of Frankenstein.

Frankenstein is a story of human powers escaping our control, and our own cultural, social or scientific creations finding drives we cannot easily satisfy. Victor Frankenstein, the archetypal mad scientist, creates a Creature through the reanimation of corpses. The Creature pleads with Victor to make him a female companion of his own kind, a reanimated corpse, who the Creature may love. Victor agrees reluctantly, only with the Creature’s pledge to disappear with his companion into the South American forests. But Victor reneges on his agreement, convinced the Creature is evil and will not do as he says.

Enraged Frankenstein’s child, the Creature pursues his Creator in anger. The Creature threatens Victor’s bride to be. He murders an innocent, and Victor is tried for the murder. Victor pursues the Creature, determined to destroy him. The Creature strangles Victor’s promised bride, and provokes his father’s death. In grief and rage, Victor pursues the monster of his own creation to the North Pole. There the powerful scientist is caught in pack ice, and causes the deaths of his crew, who are led by Captain Walton. Victor lectures his wavering men that great undertakings demand hardship, but when the boat is freed from its ice trap, Victor is too weakened by cold and hypothermia to go on. Captain Walton decides to return South, and Victor dies, with a last minute recantation of his ambition: he tells Captain Walton to “seek happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition.” Then Walton finds the Creature, deprived of love in his existence, on his ship, grieving for his destroyed creator. His revenge, spite and crimes have not brought him relief or happiness or peace. He is now completely alone, and Walton watches him drift off on an ice raft “lost in darkness and distance.”

Such a powerful story. It has fuelled the modern horror movie, if in bastardised form. It has worked as a prescient omen for climate change. It has served as a metaphor for science and technology escaping our control. It has served as a metaphor for artificial intelligence. It has served as a metaphor for the revolt of the emotions against a life too governed by reason and ambition, and for the impact of childhood without a loving mother or parent.

And I am going to turn the story to a different use again, and make it a metaphor for the modern political professional and the rolling crisis of Australian politics – perhaps we might say more global politics, but this is the case I know – since 2007, that perhaps only came to a conclusion in 2019. In other words the story of Prime Ministers Rudd, Gillard, Rudd, Abbott (Credlin), Turnbull is a story of a peculiar kind of loveless monster, the party political mercenary, created by the modern political party machine, in the full blush of its over-confident ambition and its belief, based on some successes in the 1980s and 1990s, that it can control human events and the institutions its mercenaries have seized control of. These are Frankenstein’s children, and, as the story will show, they will turn, in the shadow created by climate change, against their creator, and destroy both the government institutions they inherited and themselves.

To be continued….

Image credit: Still from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

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