What’s Overlooked in Frankenstein

I first read Frankenstein as a college freshman, and I was excited to read it again for the discussion series I’m hosting with David McDougall. The novel has permeated pop culture such that the themes (hubris, scientific advancement gone awry, those funny tweets) are well-known; on second reading, though, very different things jumped out at me.

A problem I’ve always had with the cautionary-tale reading of Frankenstein is that it’s the classic case of putting forward a problem but not a solution. It seems obvious that technological advancement has the potential for harm as well as for good, but I’ve yet to read any treatment of Frankenstein (or the theme) that suggests how we might consider any given technology: how should we think about this new thing? In what ways could we create technology that has no negative effects? Is “no negative effects” the standard? (Maybe, but I’m reminded of the stories of lamplighters who were out of a job when electric street lamps were invented.)

Pessimists Archive is one of my favorite Twitter accounts, highlighting newspaper reports of the deleterious effects of, among other things, the radio, the wireless telephone, and the pastime of reading. I don’t mean to unduly criticize people of the past, but rather to point out how difficult it is to predict the future, and especially to predict the downstream effects of what happens in the future.

Clearly, we should be thoughtful about how society advances, and recognize that we have responsibilities to other people, but Frankenstein seems to provide little in the way of a blueprint for responsible technological progress. As others have pointed out, the novel’s immense staying power has more to do with our ever-present anxieties about new technology than providing any answers or heuristics.

(Incidentally, one of the biggest shocks in rereading the book was that Victor Frankenstein’s ultimate goal was prolonging life (and perhaps achieving immortality) moreso than creating it.)


The main theme in Frankenstein, the one that gets so overlooked, is communal living, and specifically how a lot of the creature’s problems stem not from innate programming but from social ostracism. All of the problems stem from Victor Frankenstein’s reaction to his creation — his lack of care, development, and even affection for the creature. Note the contrast between Victor calling the creature a “catastrophe” and how God reacts to humanity in the first section of the Bible, perhaps the most famous creation story of all time (“And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good.”)

If we read the novel through the lens of “people are fundamentally blank slates and are shaped by society,” it seems clear that being in a community, having strong interpersonal ties — these are the things that create life, rather than whatever Victor Frankenstein does. The real villain of the story, then, is isolation, and not the creature. As a footnote in my edition points out, Mary Shelley intuited in the 19th century what science has since borne out: that social ties and personal health are related.

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Why They’ll Read Dante in Space

(Previous thoughts on Dante here and here.)

“Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.”
—T.S. Eliot.

“At one point midway on our path in life, I came around and found myself now searching through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost.” So begins one of the most famous poems in all of literature, Inferno, in which Dante travels through hell, with Virgil by his side. Our narrator takes us through the various levels of hell, stopping to talk awhile with the inhabitants and to record their testimonies, whether they be heretics, swindlers, or traitors.

I had another Interintellect discussion series with the “Reading the Greats” group the other week, and it’s lodged the poem so firmly in my head that I’ve come around to thinking that above almost all the other works on my great books list, this is the one that will –and ought– to be most strongly preserved going forward. (And I say that without having read Purgatory and Paradise).

The best books work on two levels: being good stories and being good encapsulations of a time and place: you can read Dante as a tale of a man who travels through Hell, or you can learn about the political struggles of Italy during the Middle Ages. It isn’t even an “or,” it’s an “and.” You can still “get” Dante even if — like me — you know very little Italian history.

A quick note: I agree with Joseph Luzzi in his approach to Inferno: read it section by section, without feeling pressure to get through it quickly or remember every single detail. “In other words: treat the poem as Dante the character treated his journey, something to be undertaken step by step.” This was the first book that I let myself slow down for — one of the downsides of doing the Great Books Project in public is a certain pressure to constantly have smart opinions on these books. By letting myself read them for myself, first and foremost, I found myself enjoying the story and the language much more.

So, why is Dante such rewarding reading so long after the fact?

First, there’s the parochial nature of the work — Dante’s obsession with the individual. We get some ideas of the geography of Hell, but it’s its inhabitants who are front and center in the book. Dante is bearing witness, mostly but not entirely without judgment, on those sinners who have been damned to the inferno. They are the people who can’t — or won’t — divorce themselves from their sins. At each stage, Dante inquires as to the provenance of each sinner and takes particular interest in those he either knew (or knew of) when they lived, and pays almost obsessive attention to Italian residents of Hell.

The second is the writing itself. Inferno reminds me, maybe incongruously, of A Gentleman in Moscow — a book has an aesthetic intellectualism that takes for a given that the reader is coming along for the ride. Dante does something similar here, assuming that his readers have a broad understanding of history, religion, and Italian politics that is both deeply rewarding and not wholly necessary to enjoy (see above) the cast of characters that the poem introduces.

Third, I was struck by how close in proximity Hell is to earth — both geographically and metaphorically. “In me, then, counter-suffering can be seen,” Bertran de Born tells Dante, referencing the fact that the punishments in Hell reflect the earthly sin. Prophets, those who looked too far ahead, are punished by having their heads turned 180º on their bodies. Francesca and Paolo are caught in a whirlwind since they were unable to control their own lust. Bertran de Born, for his troubles, is bodily decapitated after trying to ‘decapitate’ the state by undermining its ruler.

Inferno is a mighty work, one that brings together politics, literature, religion, and poetry (although we may not get the benefit of the poetry in translation). It’s a work of an unusually broad scale: few 21st-century authors seem to attempt a work that’s either as long, as detailed, or as grand in scope. I hope we take Inferno with us to Mars; it’ll be well worth including.

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Assorted Links, 7/18/21

Excited to be back after the summer break! It’s getting closer to the Fall semester at St. John’s, and I’m enjoying rereading Frankenstein. Let’s catch up with the world of great books, and I’ll share more of what I’ve been thinking about Inferno and Frankenstein.

  1. How to keep track of new releases. All of the suggestions here are better than what I currently do, which is keep track of Twitter and hope that cool new books show up in my weekly what-are-you-reading threads.
  2. Antigone on Antigone.
  3. Good piece on the Philip Roth biography shenanigans: “I don’t know if it’s unprecedented, but certainly there aren’t a lot of other examples I can think of of a publisher doing that.” On a related note, the New York Times reports that a new publishing company “welcomes conservative writers rejected elsewhere.” On another related note, Elin Hilderbrand will remove a line from one of her books after comments that it was antisemitic. (I am in two minds about removing the line, but think it’s likely bad that digital editions of books can be unilaterally changed. Another point for print books.)
  4. Vogue has a list of 31 books to read before you’re 30. (I’ve read 4, but it’s a decent list.)
  5. Kelsey McKinney (author of the quite-good God Spare The Girls, which I read on a break from 500-year-old literature) gives us her summer 2021 beach reads.
  6. Good piece on Virginia Woolf and her implicit critiques of the Mortimer Adler school of reading well.
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Inchoate thoughts on Descartes’ Meditations

Back when I read Euclid’s Elements*, I wrote (or maybe just thought) that some of these books were best read in person. Some of the Great Books (the novels, I think?) are easy to digest, while others require more grappling. In fact, it isn’t just more grappling, it’s the fact that these are big ideas that reward sitting with and discussing them. You can read The Aeneid for plot (and for Shadi Bartsch’s commentary on the uses and misuses of the epic tale as it relates to Italian history up to the 20th century), but you don’t read Meditations the same way.

Meditations on First Philosophy feels in a lot of ways like a classic philosophical text. As John Cunningham points out in the introduction, we join Descartes in “[leaving] behind the comfortable world of inherited prejudice and preconceived opinion,” starting right from our most basic, foundational beliefs. Only by jettisoning all my beliefs and rebuilding them from scratch, Descartes says, can we actually know things. He uses the example of a piece of wax (which is hard and cold at times, but soft and hot when heated, thus proving how incorrect our senses can be) to talk about how it’s only by understanding the essence of wax (and not relying on our senses) that we can say for sure that wax is what this object is. This is (and here I’m indebted to Nigel Warburton’s explanations) Cartesian rationalism.

Descartes’ main preoccupation is with epistemology: how do we know the things we know? I’ve had some astonishingly detailed dreams, he says: how can I tell when I’m dreaming and when I’m not? How do I know that I’m not always dreaming? He comes up with a handful of arguments as to why he isn’t dreaming, or how to tell when one is, but it’s his proofs of the existence of God that are the bulk of the Meditations — the trademark and ontological arguments.

(Skimming the Wikipedia page on the Ontological Argument, I notice that Kant has one of the main refutations in Critique of Pure Reason, which I think I’m due to read in the third year — I’ll have to come back to Descartes then!)

Another thing about the Great Books is that you get to read the original source material that gets referenced so much in everyday life. You can imagine my excitement when I got to the “Cogito, ergo sum” part of Meditations, and people just don’t write intellectual autobiographies like they used to any more. From this, I’m excited both for the pair of InterIntellect discussions that are coming up in the next few months (email me if you’d like a ticket) and more generally to move through the world having read Meditations. I suspect that I’ll especially enjoy the St. John’s class discussion, whenever that happens, and I’ve also picked up a Cambridge-guide-to-Descartes that came recommended.

In all, I’m sure I’ll revisit Meditations again, but this was a fulfilling first visit with Descartes.

Up next: Reflections on the Revolution in France!

*The correct way to read Elements is, I think, with pencil in hand.

Posted in Meditations on First Philosophy, The Great Books | 1 Comment

Assorted Links, 6/28/21

Hello! Sorry for the break in programming: we’ll blame the summer.

I’m just about to finish Meditations on First Philosophy for the InterIntellect. It’s good, but I’m putting it in the same box as Euclid’s Elements: one that’s best read in a group. I don’t know when I’ll get to it at SJC, but be on the lookout. 🙂

Onto those good links…

  1. A call for a new renaissance post-COVID.
  2. Nine books about being un- or under-employed.
  3. Maiden, Mother, Crone: Everything You Need To Know About Hecate.
  4. Piece that reimagines Daphne.
  5. Remembering Janet Malcolm.
  6. 100 days of Antigone. (The journal — the play is somewhat older.)

ATTN: People that like books: we have a few tickets available for individual meetings of our InterIntellect discussion series. If you’re interested in one, please get in touch.

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Assorted Links, 6/18/21

  1. The founder of Trader Joe’s, the grocery chain, wrote a memoir that’s “a lot of fun.” I’d believe it!
  2. Incredible saga of a gay ex-priest Latin translator employed by… The Vatican.
  3. Chicago Tribune review of Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought, which highlights my favorite part of the book, that intellectual fulfillment shouldn’t –and doesn’t have to be– solely the purview of Ivory Tower-types.
  4. “What Greek epics taught me about the special relationship between fathers and sons.”
  5. New scholarship for El Paso students to attend St. John’s. Speaking of SJC, their Annapolis campus is looking for their next president.
  6. Jump-starting your pandemic writing habit.
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What I’ve Been Reading, June 2021

When I started the solo Great Books Project, I laid out the first year and set a goal to read that first list by December 31, 2021. It’s looking less likely that I’ll hit it — I left the ancient world halfway through The Aeneid to get ahead of the books we were reading in the Interintellect discussion series. One of the reasons I’m enjoying that discussion series is that it moves comparatively quicker: seven meetings later, we’ve gone from The Iliad (roughly 1200 BCE) all the way through to Inferno (1320 CE).

  • Donna Zuckerberg, Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age. Zuckerberg’s book on the modern anti-feminist movement is excellent, particularly the last chapter on the potential futures of the Classics. Zuckerberg reminds me a bit of Glenn Greenwald in books like How Would a Patriot Act? or No Place to Hide, in that he has this sort of methodological rebutting of the strongest, most central points of the opposing argument. It’s also striking (and encouraging) how much the author obviously loves the Classics: this feels different from the proponents of the dismantle-Classics-and-start-over argument. “The idea of a vibrant, radical, intersectional feminist Classics,” Zuckerberg writes, “one that uses the ancient world to enrich conversations about race, gender, and social justice[,] is anathema to [anti-feminist men]. And that is why feminist Classics today is more exciting and necessary than ever.” Zuckerberg is a feminist and a bigger fan of the Classics than even the Stoic-quoting inhabitants of far-right forums, which is precisely why she’s so compelling. You should read the book, but here’s a good interview with Zuckerberg on Vox.
  • Dante’s Inferno. I read the following quote on the Divine Comedy recently: “Intellectuals say that Paradiso is for pious theologians, Purgatorio is for brilliant, exacting scholars of Medieval cosmology, but Inferno, Inferno is for filthy casuals.” Yr correspondent loved everything about Inferno: the lovingly-crafted depictions of Hell, the parochialism, the strict proportionality (treachery from least bad to worst: against kin, against country, against guests, and against God), how the staunch Christian writes his own enemies, living and dead, into Hell. I say all that in the full knowledge that I probably only enjoyed 20% of the book overall, since I missed most of the references (despite Robin Kirkpatrick’s excellent footnotes). Almost by definition, the great books are ones that reward rereading, but Inferno is one that I’d love to come back to when I have more time, and use it to really get into 14th-century Italy.
  • René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy. I started Meditations last night, finishing the introductory material and the first meditation, and was struck by how readable it was. Maybe I got lucky with my translation (Cottingham/Cambridge edition), or maybe I’m just enjoying the easiest part of the material, but it’s been really enjoyable to dig into one of the meatiest philosophers.
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Assorted Links, 6/14/21

  1. Rebecca Futo Kennedy has an open letter to the Society for Classical Studies, which helped me think about “classics programs that prepares students for graduate work & academia” as opposed to “classics programs that feed an interest in the ancient world, the Great Books, and the liberal arts more generally.” (The latter, of course, is what I’m doing with my own project.)
  2. Opinion piece on the Classics from The Eagle, American University’s undergrad student paper. Per my earlier post, I’m starting to get suspicious of people who talk about “cancelling” Classics, since I think it limits legitimate discussion of how best to teach the subject. As usual, reasonable people can disagree!
  3. And just to complete the Classics-watch, Calvin University is cutting their classical studies major and minor (among others).
  4. Interesting bit on reading The Chronicles of Narnia as an adult. If memory serves, I only read the first two (Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). I should probably include the series in the Great Books Project.
  5. A rundown of the words Chaucer introduced to the English language.
  6. Alex Tabarrok, quoting Voltaire, on how focussing on business smoothed over the rougher edges of religious difference in the London Stock Exchange: “Here Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt.”

Ed. Note: Now that summer’s truly begun, it’s only a few weeks ’til the Fall semester at St. John’s begins!

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Assorted Links, 6/8/21

  1. Review of “The Book Smugglers.”
  2. The war on the Classics: a counterpunch, literally, to the recent Princeton news.
  3. “I suspect that Classics is a subject that over more than a millennium, or maybe over two, has actually thrived on the fear of its own demise (a lot of that self-confidence is a very thin veneer). Indeed, that’s partly what makes Classics feel so urgent, and new.” Thing I missed from when Antigone’s history: Mary Beard replied to Stephen Fry’s original post, “Ghost of Classics Yet To Come.”
  4. …and speaking of AntigoneLearning from the Master: Socrates’ examined life.
  5. A Literary Critic Criticizes Criticism and, Of Course, Amateur Reviews.”
  6. New, to me: The New York Review of Books has a Classics club.

Attn, Irish readers: New Seamus Heaney-themed walking tour in Ireland.

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Princeton Classics in The Atlantic

I recently added “amateur Classicist” to my Twitter bio, in the sense that I take a lot of interest in the classics and the Great Books, but have zero formal training. One of the big differentiators between me and an academic (apart from, well, actual academic training) is that I don’t speak Latin or Ancient Greek.

That tension (studying Classics but not knowing the languages) seems to be a flashpoint these days, since Princeton changed its requirements to no longer require intermediate proficiency in Greek or Latin as a prerequisite.

Here’s John McWhorter, writing for The Atlantic, that “Classics at Princeton Will Suffer Without Latin or Greek“:

When I asked [Josh Billings, a classics professor who is the department’s head of undergraduate studies] what that meant, he wrote back, “A student who has not studied Latin or Greek but is proficient in, say, Danish literature would, I think, both pose interesting questions to classical texts and be able to do interesting research on the ways that classical texts have been read and discussed in Denmark.” This is not entirely a stretch; I recently taught a class on African languages in which one student, as it happened, made useful contributions from his knowledge of ancient Greek. Yet there are reasons to suppose that something more specific is motivating the new direction at Princeton.

I continue to be somewhat slow to stake my claim too strongly on one side or the other. (I’m reminded of Montaigne, quoting Sextus, “I cannot say which of the things proposed I should find convincing and which I should not find convincing.”) A couple of things strike me:

  • It doesn’t sit right with me that we hear more from the likes of McWhorter than from the likes of Josh Billings, who is both closer to the changes and more impacted by them. There is things that don’t always translate from the university campus to the outside world, and “look what the college kids are doing!” is easy fodder that can sometimes miss important context. (I saw this first-hand with something that happened during my time as a student at NYU.)
  • As is often the case here, I think anyone predicting the overall impact one way or the other is likely to be overstating things. The downstream effects of the change aren’t going to be obvious at such an early stage.
  • It doesn’t strike me as outlandish, on its face, that one could be considered “classically educated” or “educated in the classics” without having studied ancient languages. It strikes me as a different education, or a different major, but not definitionally worse. Studying Italian is undoubtably different to reading the works of Elena Ferrante or Umberto Eco in translation, but not definitionally worse, to me.
  • The amount of change and experimentation in the Classics should not be zero.
  • I’m not saying that this is the case with McWhorter, but I’m starting to realize (in part thanks to the work of Donna Zuckerberg) that there is a class of writer who has an interest in the Classics less as pedagogy and more as a part of a larger argument.
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