The Sublime & Aspirations of Grandeur

During the late eighteenth century, there emerged an interest in the theory of the sublime, its nature and manifestation, and its role in the lives of modern man. The concept of sublimity transcends a concrete definition, but the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a good summary:

'sublime' refers to a mostly aesthetic value in which the primary factor is the presence or suggestion of transcendent vastness or greatness, of power or heroism...while apprehended and comprehended as a whole, it is felt as transcending our normal standards of measurement or achievement. In his Essay on the Sublime (1756), contemporary romanticist Edmund Burke related the cause of the sublime as 'a mode of terror or pain,' contrasting with the beautiful [another Romantic idea, but more earthly than the sublime].

Certain aspects of the sublime can be accessed by human means, these being the scientific and the natural realms of the sublime. Once such a thing has been experienced (and the sublime is also described as terrible, awful and rapturous, and similar to a spiritual ecstasy), the sublime can become a genuine source of understanding. Or this taste of power will fuel aspirations of glory, and a lust to rule the sublime. Written during the Era of Romanticism, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein expresses the notion of the sublime very well. In the novel, the sublime is represented in many forms: wonderful and terrible, natural and unnatural, recognized and undiscovered. Yearning to be in the midst of it all is Victor Frankenstein. Victor is a complicated, receptive, impressionable individual; one for whom experiences directly shape his being. His attitude concerning the sublime is what ultimately directs his future. As Victor's obsession with the magnificent permeates his mind, his lust to command the unknown claims his body, and in creating that being of perfect sublimity, Victor requisitions his soul. It is not meant for humans to control the sublime, but simply to experience it. A close encounter usually proves tragic. Victor’s aspires to possess some aspect of the sublime, yet once he gains it he can’t control it; his demise is the final result.

The seed for Victor’s growing ambition had been planted very early on, especially within the relaxed atmosphere provided by his home- schooling. From his youth Victor was been greatly impressed by the glorious. At the age of thirteen he studied the ideas of Agrippa, Magnus and Paracelsus. Although he was eventually corrected of the ancient philosophers' theories, he retained their ideals. He exclaims, "What glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!"(22) This early on, he dreams of the acclaim he would gain by subverting nature, achieving the impossible. After this he mentions how "the raising of ghosts or devils was a promise liberally accorded to me by my favorite authors, the fulfillment of which I most eagerly sought"(22). Here, it is ironic how Victor expresses such hope in someday being able to raise ghosts, only to react just the opposite some years later. Indeed, his reaction came too late, for it was during his childhood, the most formative years, that Victor admired the glory that came from gaining control of the sublime.

Furthering his desire to control the magnificent, Victor recalls his motions at witnessing lightning strike a tree. At the age of fifteen, he was awed: "I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed; the catastrophe of this tree exited my extreme astonishment"(23). This event caused a minor change, namely Victor's disownment of the ancient philosophies for electricity and modern science. Yet more importantly, his primary concentration upon the completeness of the incident reveals a strong interest in destruction and its causes (foreshadowing his later obsessions with death and decay). As Victor explains it, "The world was to me a secret, which I desired to discover"(20). As he had gained only a little knowledge of natural science as a child, he went on to a university. Faced with modern scientific lectures, however, Victor's enthusiasm declines. For a moment he has reverted back to being Agrippa's backward disciple, asserting,

I had contempt for the uses of modern natural philosophy. It was very different, when the masters of the science sought immortality and power; such views, although futile, were grand: but now the scene has changed. The ambition of the inquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded. I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth. (27)

Victor has basically described all modern science as pointless, as it doesn't focus on the wild ideas "on which [his] interest in science was chiefly founded." Victor is not cheered by the prospect of learning "real" science, simply because it offers none of the grandeur he has come to expect. Victor remains dissatisfied until he hears Waldman's lecture,

...These philosophers have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places...They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows. (28)

For Victor this speech is the equivalent of a battle call to arms. 'Yes, man has a godlike status, he is able to control the heavens and the earth!' Professor Waldman's strong use of language, metaphors written in the registers of force and invasion, they are as convincing as a warlord's propaganda campaign. His description of how "they penetrate into the dark recesses of nature," deliberately gives science a masculine entity, an image further reflected in other telling of forcefully intruding to revealing something. (The last line, "even mock the invisible world with its own shadows..." is especially significant. It foretells Victor’s future situation: he will have desecrated graves, and in making a being from the dead he will create the shadow that mocks the invisible [dead] world.) It is not very much later after Waldman's lecture that Victor begins chasing his chimera.

Once Victor has gained the secret of life, he doesn’t realize how ignorant he is of its power. Life is sublime, and cannot be measured by scales or tables. Yet he is completely absorbed in his resurrected corpse, ironically a product of death. Victor's ambition is no longer rational; it is more a possession by a stronger power:

No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and Death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. (32)

Blinded to all but impeding acclaim, he too quick to assume the role of God:

A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs. (32)

Victor cannot make ethical judgements on where to bestow life. If taking another's life is a sin, then perhaps might giving life might be a sin as well? Finally, he selfishly decides to create a being by himself (in comparison to saving people from death, an action he mentioned as a more innocent child). Believing he has completed the work of the ancient philosophers, and his enthusiasm has clouded his morals. Victor does retain some humanity; it resurfaces later in the novel. He does not give the being a mate; he tries to avenge the dead by hunting the creature. But during the whole process of creation, the terrible and all encompassing hold him; his final creation also represents the sublime. Born of death, terror and pain, the being is not normal in terms of stature or appearance. While Victor strove to understand the secrets of the scientific world; to penetrate nature's recesses, his creature represents neither a natural nor a scientific sublime. Victor's creature, bred by bending nature's will to the modifications of science, is terribly unnatural. Completely isolated from human experience, the creature’s form and content as a whole represent an absolute sublime. Gone are Victor's dreams of glory with the "birth" of his "son," Victor will now have to survive the terror he created out of pride. As he is chasing (or eluding) the creature, one final side of Victor Frankenstein is revealed, one with tremendous understanding, vast willpower, and an almost transcendental will to live. In this light, Victor’s fall is especially tragic.

During Victor’s last days, he reviews his experiences, and with the clarity of hindsight, he explains where he went wrong:

If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections…Cesar would have spared his country...(33)

His obsession with science (signified by the metaphor "no alloy…"), in reaching the point where he remembered no one, was becoming a morbid addiction. His project, in causing so many religious objections, was not lawful. His reference to Cesar is a reflection of himself, a fallen hero. And "domestic affections" seems to mean more than simply "family life" as opposed to "adventure;" there’s an implication that it is better to live a mundane life than to pursue the sublime. In obtaining the sublime, Victor has experienced an expansive, terrible force. He dies a better man for it. Victor may not be victorious, but his spirit and soul have become so vast and all encompassing that he could possibly be considered sublime.