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Busy Work

In response to:

Coffee Break for Sisyphus from the October 2, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

In much contemporary criticism, accuracy is sacrificed in order to make a thesis work, or a comment particularly striking. A case in point is Michael Wood’s article “Coffee Break for Sisyphus” in The New York Review [October 2]. I will not take issue here with his general response to science fiction, but examine one important bit of evidence he uses. In attempting to categorize the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the embodiment of science fiction, he makes the surprising statement that “Frankenstein is not Faust, he is not driven by an all-consuming desire, not even the desire to blaspheme. The triviality of his motives is an important feature of the myth.” Mr. Wood should tell us what his motives were; Frankenstein himself does not consider them trivial. We learn, on page 48 of the Oxford edition, that he wishes to “pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” If this isn’t blasphemous enough, he later imagines, “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me” (p. 54). As for not being driven by an all-consuming desire, we need only turn to Frankenstein’s recollections of the months spent working on his experiment: “Sometimes I grew alarmed at the wreck I perceived that I had become; the energy of my purpose alone sustained me” (p. 56); “The summer months passed while I was thus engaged, heart and soul, in one pursuit…. I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed.” (p. 55). I don’t wish to belabor this point further. Although it might be argued that this particular statement is not essential to Mr. Wood’s thesis, if he is inaccurate for the sake of effect in this instance, I find it hard to trust the assertions he makes about literature I have not read.

Martin Tropp

Malden, Massachusetts

Michael Wood replies:

Either my point was more elusive than I thought it was, or Mr. Tropp is unduly worried about poachers on his preserve. I didn’t say Victor Frankenstein thought his motives were trivial. Very few of us ever do. I said that compared with the motives of Faust, they were trivial; and Mr. Tropp’s own quotations make this perfectly clear. What could be more trivial than wanting to create a new species because you would enjoy basking in their gratitude?

We have only to listen to Frankenstein, instead of merely quoting him, to get things straight. “Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question….” It is a bold question, but it is hardly a passionate or a despairing one. It is an expression of curiosity, which is the word Frankenstein himself uses. He speaks constantly of pursuing “secrets” while his friend Henry Clerval is interested in “the moral relations of things”; Frankenstein is so indifferent to the moral relations of things that he abandons his creature the moment it starts to show signs of life. As for the “all-consuming desire,” no one would wish to deny the intensity of Frankenstein’s labors in his “workshop of filthy creation,” as he calls it. But the quality of a man’s motivation, as I understand it, is not determined by the amount of work he puts in.

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