As long as men and women have dwelt on this earth, they have been surrounded by non-human beings; by gods, of course, but also by angels and demons and a lot of hybrid creatures that were, at least by a certain account, human. But whatever the case, they were not regarded as supernatural. They could be coped with – with the one exemption of Gods. Men and other beings were not allowed to exceed or cheat them. Tantalos, Niobe, Marsyas and the like were severely punished for their arrogations and questioning the gods. And this is the one and only sin: to challenge the gods and be like them or even better. Similarly, Adam and Eve were tempted by the devilish serpent to disobey and be like God. Again, the image of the original sin.
But all the other creatures could be outwitted, like the Sirenes by Odysseus, or beaten, like the Hydra by Heracles. Sometimes they were friends to man, sometimes not, like the Centaurs, for example. In some cases, these creatures were descendants of beings of different kinds: they were the offspring of liaisons between humans and animals, humans and gods, gods and elder, non-Olympic gods. In other cases, they were of opaque, enigmatic origin, born in times before the Olympic gods had adjusted the world to its currently known order. Publius Ovidius Naso tells, amidst other stories of “Metamorphoses”, of the origins and former fates of some of those creatures. Of course, Homer is an abundant source of the classic mythologies.
Similarly, we find in the Bible stories of kings and angels who fell from God’s grace and became demons, or of angels who fell in love with mortal women. They in turn gave birth to a new race, the giants. Giants are also told of in the Germanic myths, and here again, they appear as old creatures, slain or banned, but sometimes also married to the new Æsir gods. Dragons and dwarfs are also mentioned, often in connection to treasures and hoards, guarded by them and conquered by men, who slew the guardians.
All those creatures paradoxically seem to be regarded as not supernatural, which mustn’t surprise us. In bygone times of antiquity, where kings and rulers boasted about godly descent, where forefathers and foremothers were akin to divinity, it was kind of normal to be confronted with, say, a cyclops, at least in the tales, or an angel, at least in the scriptures. In other words, the appearance of these beings is considered as normal and natural and men have to cope with their existence. An aftermath of this can be found in folk legends and fairy tales. But let’s have a closer look.
Publius Cornelius Tacitus left behind a small essay on the Germanic peoples and tribes, “De Origine et Situ Germanorum Liber”. Towards the end he digresses to more remote populations, of whom he takes only short notice, noting their poverty, their uncivilised wildness, their uncertain descent. Regarding the Fenns, he declares: “fennis mira feritas, foeda paupertas: non arma, non equi, non penates; victui herba, vestitui pelles, cubile humus.” (The Fenns are of extraordinary ferocity and abhorrent poverty. They feed on herbs, their garb is pelt, their lair the naked earth.) Another of these lesser tribes, the Peucines, is thus characterised: “sordes omnium ac torpor procerum, conubiis mixtis nonnihil in sarmatarum habitum foedantur.” (Filth is with all of them, and inactivity with the noble. By intermarriage they are blemished to some degree like the appearance of the Sarmates.) And after having mentioned Peucines, Fenns, and Sarmates, he closes: “cetera iam fabulosa: hellusios et oxionas ora hominum vultusque, corpora atque artus ferarum gerere: quod ego ut incompertum in medio relinquam.” (For the rest, it becomes fabulous. The Hellusians and the Oxions are said to have the faces and eyes of men, but the body and members of beasts, which I shall leave undecided since it is unexplored.)
In these short final remarks, we find many of the above mentioned features. That there are hybrid creatures is not questioned. On the contrary, the misshapen semblance is not only due to remote barbarism, but also to sexual contact. And as for Hellusians and Oxions, those tales are rejected not simply as false, but only as not properly explored. The possible existence of such creatures can still be taken into account, since there is nothing remarkable about them.
The world puts forth manifold animals, demons and humans, and there is no limit to fantasy or expectation. For another instance, let me quote Gaius Plinius Secundus Major who wrote in “Naturalis Historia”: “eadem et basilisci serpentis est vis. cyrenaica hunc generat provincia, duodecim non amplius digitorum magnitudine, candida in capite macula ut quodam diademate insignem. sibilo omnes fugat serpentes nec flexu multiplici, ut reliquae, corpus inpellit, sed celsus et erectus in medio incedens. necat frutices, non contactos modo, verum et adflatos, exurit herbas, rumpit saxa: talis vis malo est. creditum quondam ex equo occisum hasta et per eam subeunte vi non equitem modo, sed equum quoque absumptum. Atque huic tali monstro saepe enim enectum concupivere reges videre mustellarum virus exitio est: adeo naturae nihil placuit esse sine pare. inferciunt has cavernis facile cognitis soli tabe. necant illae simul odore moriunturque, et naturae pugna conficitur.” (Of equal power is the basilisk serpent. It is born in the province of Cyrenaica, not taller than the breadth of twelve fingers, and has a blaze on its head somehow in the form of diadem. Hissing, it shoos off the other serpents and doesn’t writhe its way like the others but moves erect and upright from the middle of its body. It destroys the plants, not even touching them, only by its breath, burns the herbs, and breaks the stones. Evil has such power at its disposal. It is believed that one was once killed by a lance wielded from a horse, and the power that ascended through it destroyed both horse and rider. But for such a monster, as rulers often want to see it dead, the smell of weasels is lethal. They shove them into the dens that can easily be found out merely by their stench, kill them and at the same time they (the basilisks) die of their odour. Thus nature’s battle comes to an end.)
What Pliny tells us, he wants to be taken for granted. Probably the reports which he used had been exaggerated and embellished by the time they reached the Roman polyhistor, but the story was carried on with. In a popular Viennese folk tale the basilisk reappears, not in a cave, but in a domestic well. Now it has no white spot on its head, but a crown, it has hatched from an egg laid by a cock, and is not killed by a similar stench but by viewing its image in a mirror. Here too the core of being destroyed by equal means remains. And of course there is a remedy at hand against the venomous beast. Men are not always terrified and at the mercy of something unnatural. It is well known how those beasts, creatures, and monsters live, why they act as they do, and how they can be dealt with.
In our modern, enlightened times, there is no room for such spawns. They are regarded as figments of the imagination, as swindles to keep the uneducated population in fear; not only of the supernatural but also of their superiors. But nevertheless, they have not vanished, albeit they have changed substantially in provenance and fate.
The development of a scientific world view led to at first a mechanistic conception of life which was only slightly modified by the further deployment of individual sciences. And it was natural sciences, natural history, and biology, designed by scholars like Georges Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon or Carl von Linné, and later Charles Darwin, that drew a new picture of life and its origin. And long before genetic engineering had come to its present state and to attempts to restrain it morally and legally, these issues were already discussed in the literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Let’s look at three pieces that deal with the creation of life and the subsequent reaction of its creators.
In 1816, E. T. A. Hoffmann published the short story “Der Sandmann”(The Sandman). It is a paradigm of romantic, gothic story-telling, merging several motifs. The main traits of the novella’s plot are the psychological aberrations of the modern soul, in this case of a student who never overcame the horrors of his childhood, including the death of his father, for which he blamed his father’s friend and colleague in alchemistic studies, and the creepy tale of the sandman, by which he was scared to sleep by his mother and his nurse. The second element of the narrative is the student’s crazy love for Olimpia, his professor’s alleged daughter, who in reality is a mere automaton, constructed by the scholar who nevertheless allowed for his pupil’s courting, just to make sure of the perfection of his work.
There is third strand in the plot, that is the figure of his friend and his fiancée, who stand for a balanced mind, and, contrastingly, a mysterious retailer who is a symbol of all the perils the student encounters until his death, a mixture of the sandman and his father’s colleague and a furnisher of optical instruments and artificial eyes for the teacher and his pupil. Although the story seems to be about a hyper-nervous young man and his unfortunate relationship with a plain and sincere young woman, whose efforts to help him out of his insane entanglements are not recognised but ill rewarded, there is a narrative centre in the figure of the puppet, the idea of artificial life. One may argue that Olimpia is but a reflection of the nervous illness of the student, but in my opinion we are confronted with the idea of artificially created life, and that on a new level.
Of course we know of automata that were mere machines disguised as men like trumpet players and other musical apparatuses, or simple frauds like the famous automaton chess player, a device operated by a hidden person. But Hoffmann tells us about a living doll, an instrument on the verge of being perfect and undistinguishable from human beings. And of course Hoffmann poses the question of social criticism, cynically comparing the living doll with her stupendous beauty but limited faculty of speech with the expectations of his male contemporaries towards women.
Thus the conundrum arises: which life and what kind of life is created by human action and influence? In the case of the student Nathanael it is a ruined life, of course. Ruined by his childish fears. The mechanical doll, with which the professor betrayed mankind and therefore had to leave the university, is ruined, too, in a fight, and eventually vanishes, perhaps with her constructor. But may we say that not only the sandman and the doll are monsters, created by tradition of legends and come to life in a disturbed imagination in the one case and created by scientific efforts in the other? May we say that Nathanael, with his disrupted condition, is a monstrous creature of mankind too, brought into being not by science but by social distraction?
Two years after Hoffman, Mary Shelley published her bestseller “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus”. Again life is created, again a distortion of the human shape, now not because of lack of speech but because of Frankenstein’s megalomaniac plans to create a being much taller, bigger, and stronger than the model of man. Though this wretch, as he is called in the novel, is endowed with a sense of high morality and the ability of abstract reasoning, which allows him to learn to speak and read, he experiences only social rebuff and physical injuries because of his ghastly appearance. That makes him turn bitterly not on mankind but on his creator and his family, not least because Frankenstein denies responsibility for his creation and furthermore refuses him a female companion.
Here again the question arises whether the creation is monstrous or its creator. Mary Shelley depicts an overambitious man who wants to become world-famous with his discovery, the making of life. We, of course, learn nothing about how Frankenstein accomplished that, as we do not know either how, or if at all, Spalanzani, Hoffmann’s professor, gave life to Olimpia. Mary Shelley denies us that knowledge by having Frankenstein do the same to a fellow researcher who wanted to find a northwest passage at any cost and rescues Frankenstein in the polar regions, where he has come in pursuit of his creature, wishing to kill him. But his sinews are exhausted and when found trapped in the pack ice by the crew of the ship, he tells his story to the captain, knowing he won’t survive the hunt, but warning his newly found comrade of the same ambitions he sees in him, which had made him the most desperate man on earth. Shelley lets the story end with the death of creator and creature.
The main question of her novel is that of the responsibility of scientific research and whether or not what can be done should be done, a topic often discussed in literature after World War II with its detonation of atomic bombs. Look for example at the pessimistic play “Die Physiker” (The Physicists) by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. About 100 years after Mary Shelley and 50 years before Dürrenmatt, in 1912, George Bernard Shaw wrote his famous play “Pygmalion”. There the science applied to produce a new being is not medicine, physics, or biology (natural philosophy, in the words of Mary Shelley), but phonetics. Professor Higgins bets with his friend and colleague Colonel Pickering that he will teach a Cockney flower girl to speak properly, enabling her to pass as a duchess. No trace of monstrous or abnormal apparitions, but what still remains is the unsuccessful relationship between the creator and his creation.
While the romantic authors remonstrated the possibilities of science, Shaw shows no such delicate feelings. He is an upright optimist, a dedicated adherent of progress, but we can detect the same traits as in the above mentioned works. As Shelley’s creature confronts Frankenstein with his responsibility, so does Eliza Doolittle when she, at the end of the play, reproaches Professor Higgins for not caring about her and her fate, but only about the bet she has won for him. Shaw, the optimistic believer in social progress, the socialist author, allows for an emancipation of the flower girl and makes much ado about her future fate in an epilogue after the fifth act, just as he makes much ado about the science of phonetics in a foreword to the play, where he cannot help speaking of himself, though he doesn’t mention his attempts of giving the English language a phonetic orthography.
Particularly in the epilogue, where he characterises the dramatis personae, he depicts Higgins as a product not only of the scientific community but also of a dominant mother. He indulges in painting the portraits of the heroes of his play formed by society and social constraints, showing Higgins as a completely unsympathetic monster, but an ingenious scientist, thus justifying and exculpating him. The modern Pygmalion is a less bloody (that much progress must be) version of the modern Prometheus.
Let’s have a last look at two monsters that don’t fit the scheme: the Golem and Count Dracula. The Golem is an old Jewish legend, rather belonging to ancient myths with their religious foundation than to scientifically reproduced forms of life. Equally the Transylvanian revenant, against all historical odds, is connected with tales of insurrection against God and of high esteem for heroism and valour, which he wants to pass on in his own way. The features of count Dracula, however, which Bram Stoker made up, are only parts of popular amusement, embroidered by angstlust, and the sciences applied in the undead’s destruction are a mere gimmick in the story. The romantic discussion of mankind's dark side has degenerated into a simple piece of entertainment, and the vampire is nothing brought forth by vain human ambition and nothing worth a warning discourse.
There’s a certain nightmare so prevalent and extreme that it might be hardwired into our brains
There’s a certain nightmare so prevalent and extreme that it might be hardwired into our brains
On how to raise wise and realistic citizens. But not.
On how to raise wise and realistic citizens. But not.