“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” – Victor Frankenstein to Robert Walton, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818)
On the last night of our January-term trip “In Frankenstein’s Footsteps,” tracing the paths of Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Keats through England and Europe — only two weeks ago! — students and I gathered in our hotel common room in Rome and pondered the ironies of this statement. Mary Shelley obviously didn’t fully believe this, coming as it does out of the mouth of the delirious “scientist” who has run himself and his suffering creature to the ends of the earth, having failed to consider that actions have consequences. But there is a keen edge of pain to it, given not just Victor’s but her own life, that makes it impossible to dismiss. Running away with a sexy married man at age sixteen to join what would become a community of inadvertent exiles, battling the feelings of “monstrosity” that would probably have shadowed her entire life – haunted by her famous mother’s death in childbirth; by her own birth of a baby who died at seven weeks old, offspring of a liason condemned by even her own politically radical father, who had written confidently of marriage as “that most odious of all monopolies;” by her own desire to write (for what woman wandering away from home to seek something larger than what “home” offers and to write about it has ever not felt at least a little monstrous?) to a sense of imaginative exile – and watching the man she adored flirt with the stepsister who’d followed them into elopement (and pretty much any other woman who crossed his path), Mary Shelley let slip into this statement the same ambiguity that has made Frankenstein the novel by a woman most likely still to be read in three hundred years.
A bold statement, one that raised my students’ eyebrows when I blurted it out, but I’ll stand behind it. It’s one of the small handful of novels – To the Lighthouse, Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, Moll Flanders, Middlemarch – without which literature as we know it would not be the same, which broke open the mystery of consciousness and creatureliness in all its baffling and glorious hurt and rage. Its rawness and unresolved (unresolvable) quality of self-conflict, of the writer’s own mysterious but total investment in what she’s making – not to mention the fantastical scenario of a being made from jumbled body parts – will keep it vibrating and alive, humming at a compelling pitch even after the well-crafted but lower intensities of Jane Austen – sorry, but it’s true – have faded down if not out. And throughout it hovers the same question the Creature himself ponders, following his reading of Paradise Lost, the same creation story my students and I pondered as we gazed at the outstretched hand of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: why was I made, if that within me which shall tire / Torture and time, and breathe when I expire (Byron’s words float irresistibly into this sentence) drives me to do things (and write things) that cause me and others pain? Isn’t the knowledge gained by pain and suffering – which would cause Keats memorably to describe the world as a “vale of soul-making” – also a tremendous burden, which Adam and Eve were only the first to know? Don’t we sometimes envy those whose “homebound” lives look so much simpler than ours, giving statements like Victor’s their ironic bite? Wouldn’t it, after all, be easier – emotionally, financially, intellectually – to stay home and never reach for more, never try to be anything more than (for instance) a bright girl born to a pair of intellectuals, living out a life as a performing pet-radical child in her father’s increasingly gray and poverty-stricken house?
It would be, at least on the surface. But we know that this life drove Mary’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, to suicide. A succession of long gray days pinched smaller and smaller by poverty and stepmothers’ naggings and an utter absence of marriage prospects is horrible to think of – especially if you are the daughter of a woman who urged you, in her own book of wild and beautiful travel letters, “I would then, with fond anxiety, lead you very early in life to form your grand principle of action, to save you from the vain regret of having, through irresolution, let the spring-tide of existence pass away, unimproved, unenjoyed. Gain experience—ah! gain it—while experience is worth having, and acquire sufficient fortitude to pursue your own happiness; it includes your utility by a direct path. What is wisdom too often but the owl of the goddess, who sits moping in a desolated heart…” Especially if you know your more beautiful sister, favorite of the only father you have ever known (who is not your real father), has been chosen by an irresistible nobleman, spirited away to the Continent for what despite its hardships will be a life so much more exciting than your own round of washing and cooking and irritable calls from the study: Fanny, where’s my tea?
The sister who ran away from home saw the deaths of her husband and three of her four children with him and many of the friends who were part of their circle for years (lending heft to her forlorn later novel, The Last Man, narrated by the only survivor of a plague that’s wiped out the human race.) But she lived. The sister who stayed home fled to a remote inn in Wales, lay down on a bed, and took an overdose of laudanum, still encased in the corsets that had belonged to their mother. Wasn’t it Faulkner who wrote, much later, “Between grief and nothing I will take grief?”
At the Colosseum, I had bought a little copy of Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life” that I opened and read from: “It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. Life is long enough and our allotted portion generous enough for our most ambitious projects if we invest it all carefully. But when it is squandered through luxury and indifference, and spent for no good end, we realize it has gone, under the pressure of the ultimate necessity, before we were aware it was going. So it is: the life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully. Kingly riches are dissipated in an instant if they fall into the hands of a bad master, but even moderate wealth increases with use in the hands of a careful steward; just so does our life provide ample scope if it is well managed.“ What does this say to us now? As we consider what we’ve seen and felt of the lives of these writers who were not much older than we are, but who seized their times and wrote on and into them, indelibly? Byron stood in the Coliseum – an unattended ruin in his time – and on the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, drawn irresistibly in both places to meditate on the fate of another overextended empire,struggling to hold on militarily to what it believed was its natural right; if Venice and Rome can decline so far, Childe Harold implies again and again, anyone can. England, this means you. And students were not slow to consider – as other writers have also done – what this means for our own homeland. And for ourselves. What temporary circumstances, what momentary distractions, do we confuse with reality — with all that is possible for us, all that we can or should be, as individuals and as societies?
Over and over, like Byron, students and I stood in spots where he and Keats and the Shelleys had been and felt time telescope around us. It’s only a little unearthly, then comforting, and soon irresistible to feel yourself taken up into what once was, only just slightly sideways from the present moment. In what is now the subtle and fascinating Keats-Shelley House in Rome, we went one by one into the narrow room overlooking the Spanish Steps where John Keats died, worn out by tuberculosis that turned his lungs black, watched over by his tireless and loyal friend and portraitist Joseph Severn. Outside a light rain fell, even as the morning sun still shone. “Smiles one moment and tears the next,” Keats’ friends said of him, the livery stable owner’s son and former medical student who was more known for fistfighting than for poetry until he decided to “o’erwhelm myself in poesy, that I may do the deed / my soul has to itself decreed.” Keats diagnosed himself, accurately, with the disease that had killed his mother and brother. Falling in love with Fanny Brawne only heightened his sense of running out of time. “Write on my tablets all that was permitted,” he begs Poetry itself, “all that was for our human senses fitted.” This compact, dynamic man — five feet high, as you can still see from the bust of him in his former house in Hampstead, set to his height — loved the world with all his senses and never stopped. Even in Rome — when he woke some mornings, near the end, crying in frustration because he was still alive — he asked Severn to go to the Protestant Cemetery, where he would be buried, and tell him what it was like. There are daisies there, Severn reported, all through the grass, even in winter. I think, Keats replied with a small smile, that I can feel them growing over my head even now. And he looked up at the ceiling, painted with the carved green and white daisies that are still there. In that cemetery, at Keats’ grave, I read “Ode on a Grecian Urn” aloud, and then the students and I kept a long silence, broken only when we moved slowly, at last, one by one, away into the grass, tiny white daisies starring the green at our feet. It was a brilliant, bright morning. Each of us picked a daisy for our journal when we thought no one else was looking.
How much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world. Do we believe this, really? I asked students. Do we think Mary Shelley really believed it, or wanted us to? Would we be happier if we never left Decorah, or suburban Minneapolis, or Milwaukee, or Phenix City, Alabama? They thought about it, that evening, there at the end of a trip that had been thrilling and demanding and thought-provoking, with intellectual and physical challenges but also with very great delights, and friendships, and discoveries. And they shook their heads no.
Traveling expands the self as a potter’s hands do clay, stretching it gently upward and outward at the same time in the whirl of ongoing, constant motion, increasing its shape and its capacity. Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote that “the mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimension.” Traveling makes you see that more personal and social and national delusions than you can ever know come from the myopia imposed by too much focus on home, by an unwillingness to be curious in mind or spirit. If you never travel – physically or imaginatively — it’s fatally easy to get confident that other places and times and people, to borrow a line from Wade Davis, are only failed versions of yourself, that the way it is for you now, here, is the way it has always been and should be for everyone. It’s easy to get historically and politically arrogant in a way that bleeds back and forth into personal arrogance. This is why it is so important to take students abroad. This is why, even if you can’t travel (and so many can’t, for good reasons), it’s so important to read, and ponder, and ask questions. For our own social and spiritual and personal health, we can never afford to believe that the way it is for us now is the way it has always been, and should be, for people everywhere. And we can never lose our focus on the fact that is inescapable for us, as for Keats and the Shelleys and Byron, and Seneca: life is short, and — particularly if we live it to the full — unbelievably precious. Our own home town, much as we may love it, is not the world. And as much pain or confusion or other kinds of growth as the journey of our life may cause, it is worth it, in the end. Always.